Gaze and Affect: A Review of “The Man Who Appear**ed.”
By Anitta Santiago
“The Man Who Appear**ed.” a New Science Production now running at the Theater for the New City brings a remarkable innovation on meta-theatricality. The premise is a film adaptation of Clarice Lispector’s short story, “The Man Who Appeared.” Not exactly the Kaufman-esque meta-theatricality of adaptation that turns the camera on the filmmaker to tell a story, the play brings film into the theater to do what film cannot do for itself: it turns the camera on the viewer—literally (but more on that later) to probe how we access a story at all.
The first thing the audience encounters is a wall with three windows, a door, and a screen framed like the windows (set design: Gary Brackett). Throughout the play, actors appear at each opening while the screen shows images, mostly of the action at the center window, so that one is always looking through frames, through the wall, struggling through all the frames to get the whole picture. The screen images are further complicated with overlapping images of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and filmed scenes of the adaptation, putting on display how mediated our experience is.
The actors work through this meta-theatrical, hyper-mediated production seamlessly, each participating in the latticework to produce a crystalline performance. Sheila Dabney plays “the Woman,” Lispector’s main character. John Kohan appears as the “the Man” or Claudio Brito, an old friend and poet from the writer’s past, now a drunk. Martin Reckhaus, Jessica Slote, and Asoka Esuruosa complete the cast as the director, the writer, and the cinematographer, respectively.
There are these wonderful moments with Reckhaus and Esuruosa where the audience is unsure if the “mistakes”—such as a lost feed—belong to the play or are “really” happening, a way to make that meta-theatrical questioning of the “real” really present in the technological absence. One could go into a Zizekian contemplation here, but I won’t. The distinctions between the real and artificial, always complex in the meta-theatrical are, in any event, here more complicated.
On the one hand, the actors playing actors explore the artificiality of performance. In the most repeated scene, the Woman encourages the Man to cry. “Off camera,” we have seen the Writer give the Man tips on how to cry, delivering his line “And here I am, drinking coffee and crying.” We have heard these lines delivered and immediately recovered from after the Director shouts “Cut!” and while these are humorous, self-conscious meta-theatrical moments, they are made more bewildering by the fact that we feel the lines more and more as they are repeated.
In another scene, Dabney walks through the door delivering a monologue, with the cinematographer filming and repeating every line she says. The repetition of the words with Esuruosa’s subtle inflections gives them a new import, so that they do not seem to belong solely to the Woman. The words take on a life of their own, telling, as it were, their own story. Every time the Writer repeats the lines “it’s a terrible impotence not knowing how to help,” they ring of deeper sadness and impotence, as though the words themselves confess that confessing impotence does not alleviate the impotence.
Similarly, the “mania for offering people coffee and Coca-Cola” gets repeated in a meta-theatrical wink in a scene between the Man and the Woman “off camera.” The Woman offers and serves the Man Coca-Cola, not as Lispector’s character, but as herself, and says of herself “I’m very simple. There’s nothing complicated about me”—blurring the lines between actor and character, and winking to the audience that there is something indeed very complicated about her, about all the characters/actors, about the status of person in general.
It is the repetition and recycling of lines among characters that seems to move the story forward. Repetition becomes the greatest deliverer of the lines, a character unto itself, not as a single entity, but as the entire cast and action and scene combined.
Dabney’s stellar performance is the unquestionable centripetal force that holds the gamut together. In one of the most moving scenes of the play, the Woman sits at the center window and, as the Man moves about in the background repeating in variations “you’re beautiful,” her eyes gradually well with tears. The Director calls ‘Cut!’ The Woman wipes her tears and the scene is rearranged, but the heart-wrenching feeling they produce in the spectator, or at least in this spectator, remains, and is real.
We try throughout the play to get a look at the whole picture, through frames and winks and feigned crying and real tears. “Look” and “wink” and “tears” are all optical words, and there is a powerful description of a game the writer plays with a cashier at a store, looking in her eyes to discern the person. We are told that the effort is futile, that the eyes are blind, that people are statues.
One of the central questions this play makes us ponder is how do we access a person’s story, how do we access another person? There are moments when the actors at the windows are doing nothing but looking at the audience. Generally, we come to a play prepared to look. We do not come prepared to be looked at. In one scene, the cast gathers around the camera, turned on the audience, approaching the audience, with the audience, then, appearing on the screen. This turns the gaze, the familiar trope in film criticism, back on the audience. As with the Woman’s tears, the reality of affect is in the audience.
In a play where the story is delivered through repetition and recycling, one cannot locate a narrative progression. It is not how the plot moves that is the focus here, but how the audience is moved. Theater can turn the camera on the viewer because the viewer is present. It can look at the viewer as the viewer looks at it and, with the innovation of the camera in theater, the viewers can see themselves looking. In this mutual gaze made possible by the theater, we access the person, because the person is you. This play accesses you and you are moved. This viewer was certainly moved.
“The Man Who Appear**ed.” Playing at the Theater for the New City.
Produced by Gary Brackett
"...a complex, witty interplay of reality and illusion....The setup leading to this conclusion occurs in the first, breathtaking scene."
Sheila Dabney and John Kohan perform "with riveting power. It takes one’s breath away....staples you to your seat with the raw honesty of the emotion."
"The set is stunning."
"It's like being inside a poem."
FOUR MORE PERFORMANCES of "The Man Who Appear**ed." a new production from the creative team of Gary Brackett, Martin Reckhaus, and Jessica Slote
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave (between 9th and 10th Sts.) March 6 through March 9 Tickets $15 Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm
LIMITED SEATING. Make your reservations now. Call 212 254-1109 or buy your tickets