by Jackie Sibblies Drury
With Rachel Cognata (Girlfriend), Kippy Goldfarb (Mother), Aleksandr Portenko (Calvin)
Calvin (Aleksandr Portenko) has died, seemingly by suicide, leaving his girlfriend (Rachel Cognata) and his mother (Kippy Goldfarb) to wrestle with the cruelty of his absence. The girlfriend and the mother don’t so much wrestle as inhabit a space together. The mother is loquacious and the girlfriend is almost wordless. The girlfriend is a photographer, as was Calvin, and much of the time the girlfriend and the mother spend is engaged in the girlfriend’s taking the mother’s photo, or showing the mother what’s entailed in taking a photo. Scenes with Calvin holding forth with the girlfriend or with the mother are interleaved with the scenes between the girlfriend and the mother.
A couple of seasons ago, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s extremely persuasive We Are Proud To Present A Presentation…, was produced by Company One in conjunction with ArtsEmerson. A daring theater piece, it was part narrative and part performance art, based in the narrative section on the genocidal actions of the Germans in South West Africa (now Namibia) at the turn of the twentieth century. The second part was more about how the audience reacted to the narrative. Though that second part was daring and off the grid in some way, it worked very well.
Really is an attempt to do something that melds narrative and performance art, but with the focus on art itself. The result is a self-consciously and deliberately attenuated piece that requires considerable audience attention and a good amount of willingness to go the theoretical distance that underlies it.
As the program notes, playwright Sibblies was strongly influenced by several philosophical sources: Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1973-1977) and Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy on Photography (1983). Though these tracts all figure strongly in the dramaturgy, they don’t figure at all in the narrative, though one expects that to understand what Sibblies is up to here one should have read the program notes beforehand.
At base, the play is concerned to deconstruct photographic art dramatically, giving pause and stage attenuation to the focused consideration of what is at hand. The implication is that the audience be moved, almost physically, so as to existentially readjust its expectations about this art form.
In short, it asks in its subtext all of the following: What is sincere, non-mechanical, inspired art? What makes photography artistic if it has a kind of mechanical basis? How does one develop an honesty about photographic expression and communicate that with its viewing public?
In this dramatic outing, the girlfriend represents the agonizing artist who ponders these questions quietly and intently, while the mother represents the kind of endlessly chattering public that cannot manage to hold its tongue long enough to attend to the foundations of the art in question. Meanwhile, Calvin signifies a kind of intense irrationality that indicates some approach to an aesthetic without words, but whose lack of self-possession and imperfect embodiment of this ideal cause him ultimately to self-destruct.
Numerous modern plays have attempted to deal with similar questions, notably, Art (1994) by Yazimna Reza, a humorous but pointed discussion among three friends about the virtues and vices of minimalism. Art is a wordy play and lots of fun, but, in the end, makes its poignant existential point out of the theatrical antics that build up to it.
More devoted to a late Beckett-esque or Pinter-esque aesthetic, Sibblies’s Really thrives on a diminution of its protagonist’s words, alllowing the frivolous mother and the self-destructive Calvin to do all the talking. But the girlfriend’s sensibilities are the ones really in question and the play leaves it entirely up to the existential imagination of the viewer to figure out what’s going on inside of her.
Sibbles has a nervy quality which served her tremendously well in We Are Proud To Present a Presentation… and somewhat less well here. Her willingness to break out of the traditional dramatic frame and to try to explore fundamental questions about art is most welcome. Finding a balance between offering enough from the stage to whet the audience’s appetite for dramatic engagement while trying to seduce it into cultivating more rarefied forms of aesthetic distillation is, however, a tall order and not entirely satisfied in this outing.
The play is presented in a small gallery, Matter & Light, in SoWa in the South End. One enters from above after gathering in Gallery Kayafas, a larger gallery, posing the context of photographic art directly and suggestively.