Jim Feast Review of Eureka, a play at the Living Theater, written by Hanon Reznikov and Judith Malina
Whatever the value in the Living Theater’s recent production, Eureka, of its literary allusions to Poe’s Romantic cosmology (from which the work draws its initial inspiration), its humanization of chemistry’s table of elements, its way of catching up the audience, at a breakneck pace, into the unfolding of the event, I think the most remarkable and significant factor in the evening is the position of “the actors,” using the term to refer to thespians of both genders.
This significance may seem to run against the avowed aim of the play, which by gradually inducting the viewers into the creative process, allows them to help make the play till, near the end, they are told explicitly, their participation is equivalent to their (usually unknown to themselves) role in energizing, informing and directing the universe, and so they are no different from the actors.
However, if the play went no further than this, it would be little more than a snazzy, populist version of an encounter group or communal therapy session, both of which, after all, preach empowerment and tell their participants to “realize you create your own reality” and, with that knowledge, “now take charge of yourself.” The only difference would be that in Eureka, you substitute “nebula” for “yourself.”
But what separates, separates with a chasm, Eureka from these more therapeutic programs is the role of the actor. Let me say it explicitly. While encounter group members can be divided between facilitators (that direct the sessions) and those participants looking for healing, the attendees of Eureka are divided between audience members and actors whose role (for viewer/participants) is radically indeterminate. (At one moment, they are reciting rococo speeches, at the next hanging like acrobats from the ceiling.) Indeed, it is this ambiguity that, for the length of the play, causes a disturbance in the basal texture of human relations, forcing the alert viewer/participant to fall to a level of social questioning more profound than any likely to be provoked by worries about how one has had a hand in the creation of the universe.
My discussion has been frightfully abstract so far, so let me move quickly into the tissue of the play for illustration. When one enters the performance area, which is a bare space, surrounded by monkey bars, with screens at two ends projecting jittery, colorful patterns, the actors are aloft in frozen postures. Then, one by one, they cast off their stances and bound to the floor where each engages in a different, graceful repetitive action, like bending over and standing up. Meanwhile, the two identifiable figures in the play, both Romantic poets and scientists, are involved in characteristic acts. Poe sits at a writing desk, and naturalist von Humboldt walks around taking notes and testing the soil. The obvious deduction would be that these higher pursuits, collecting geological samples or thinking (perhaps about writing a poem), are simply more complex forms of repetitive motions.
In any case, the actor engaged in all these actions are oblivious to the audience members, von Humboldt, for instance, stepping through them as if they didn’t exist. It might be said that the same sort of thing takes place in traditional theater. Nora in A Doll’s House pays no mind to spectators watching her. However, here things are different. It’s as if, for example, The Wild Duck were being acted in the stalls, the characters talking over the head of seated viewers. This is slightly disorienting.
But, then, there’s another change. The actors press a few of the audience-participants to huddle together, as if they were the first “particle” that Poe saw as at the origin of “the universe of stars.” Then the participants move apart, stepping on that first ignition pedal that signaled the big bang’s inauguration.
Now this is crucial. (And here I am talking about all the players except Poe and von Humboldt.) The way the versatile actors move the audience-participants into the inner circle where they will clump together is not by verbally instructing them, but by gently and steadily taking a person by the hand or shoulder, moving with her or him to the heap and gesturally indicating what to do. There may be whispered words of direction, but these are kept to the minimum. The whole edifice of this clump and then the other actions that audience-participants are coaxed to engage in throughout the evening are guided largely non-verbally through artful gestures. Moreover, at a key moment, when select audience members are each asked to present her or his view of a chemical element, such as lead or oxygen, they do so not with words but with pantomime. It’s as if the actors were modeling a different method of conducting social relations, one more rooted in the body than the throat.
But there’s a second, equally far-reaching change in how they conduct themselves. It is impossible to predict what they will do next: leap on the monkey bars, cluster, talk to Poe or guide audience-participants through some action. And, I believe, it’s hard to guess what they will do because they are not guided by the inner voice of a character, of a Nora or a Gregers Werle, but by an overriding system of energies that dictates varied responses as the universe mutates and grows.
Let’s step back a moment. An emphasis on physicality has been present in all the Living Theater’s recent productions. But this stress has usually been on an imposed set of actions. Most obviously, in The Brig, the rigorous, prescribed set of marching steps and salutes carried out by the detainees in the Marine prison were a form of discipline the inmates had to follow or suffer harsh punishment. In Mysteries, while there are times when the community worships and celebrates autonomously, I think that play’s most powerful moments come at the end when the group suffers a plague and their death throes are captured in a set of rhythmic forms, which, one can say, are imposed by Nature.
In sharp contrast, following Poe’s plan, which sees matter, driven by an internal impulse, reforming and complexifying into more and more beautiful, myriad and (potentially) benevolent forms, in Eureka, all the spontaneously generated new physical actions and contortions are born from the community.
The play is structured so that audience-participants take on larger and larger roles in the weaving together of the strands so that, in the end, they stand alone, away from the actors, ready to exfoliate on their own. That is the theme, as I’ve noted. But the chasm, between this Living Theater work and other works that feature audience participation, comes in the way the actors as a collective model how the audience-participants as a collective can fill in their place in a universe run more gesturally and intuitively than the one outside 19 Clinton Street. And as this happen, each audience member must run through a novel set of existential choices as she or he orients to living in concert with a set of beings (seemingly) from a transfigured plane.