Lies That Help You Over the Hump
Chuck Klosterman, an inane and deeply self-involved pop-culture critic, once (once!) had a good point. That was in Chapter 13 of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, where he said that "the only relevant question available for contemporary filmmakers" is this: What is reality?
And what is reality? It's not a subject that New Times gets into with any regularity, even in the Stage column. It's almost impolite. Asking unanswerable questions makes you a smart-ass, and nobody likes one of those. Even when you do get into that special mood in which contemplating the cosmos seems like a good idea, really, what can you do about it? Throw out an opinion? Editorialize? Bad idea. Tossing out hypotheses about life's meaning or lack thereof gets right into the guts of all that bad stuff your mama told you not to discuss with strangers. Religion, mostly. Immortality. This is why existentialism had to come from the French. They are a rude, rude race.
Lee Blessing doesn't have any manners either, even though he's English (they've been going downhill for a while now). If he did, he wouldn't make people sit through the awesomely squirm-inducing existentialist exercise he calls Body of Water. Not that Body of Water is bad. Most likely, this is the best thing Mosaic Theatre has done since Thom Paine, and it's good for all the same reasons Thom Paine was good: It's inventive, human, heartfelt, and impossible to view as mere entertainment.
Body of Water is the story of a man and woman (husband and wife?) named Moss and Avis (Ken Clement and Elizabeth Dimon). Every morning, they wake up with no memory of who they are or what their relationship to each other might be. All they know is that their home is on the waterfront — maybe on a small peninsula or else on top of a hill on an island, because from their windows, they can see water in every direction. They also know they are within driving distance of a town; they are told so by a young woman named Wren (Kim Morgan Dean), who comes to visit them almost every day.
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She might be their lawyer. This is what she claims the first time we see her: She is there to help the couple (if they are a couple) prepare their defense for their upcoming murder trial. Apparently, they have been accused of murdering a little girl.
Or maybe Wren isn't their lawyer. Maybe she's their daughter, or maybe she's a psychotic nurse, like Annie Wilkes from Misery.
Every now and again, you'll get the sense that Wren is telling the truth about her relation to the couple. Oddly, this is almost always the case when she's explaining some happy iteration of their predicament. If she claims, say, that she's their loving daughter and that taking care of them is the greatest joy she's ever known, you think: At last! The truth! What a sweet girl! If, on some other day, she claims that they're murderers, very soon you'll find yourself thinking: Bitch! Scum! Why are you lying to these people?
This is why Body of Water cannot be viewed as entertainment: It is not especially fun. It's too disorienting. The moment you try to anchor yourself, the production spins around on you and you realize you've been taken for a fool. It's a stressful way to spend a Friday night. Watching it actually made my sphincter clench, which is not something about which I generally brag.
The motor and measure of Body of Water's success boils down to one thing: how much sheer horror can be distilled into the faces of Ken Clement and Elizabeth Dimon. And thank God we're talking about Ken Clement and Elizabeth Dimon instead of some other onstage pair. I've known for a couple of years that Clement can squeeze more raw feeling into an inch of his face than almost any dozen actors in South Florida, but Dimon, in the most tortured role she's tackled in a long while, is a happy surprise. On Avis' bad days, she's like a raw and open wound, crying, cringing, or screaming her way across the stage. On her good days, her face is a picture of fragile optimism. She so desperately wants to buy into the illusion that she and Moss are an ordinary couple enjoying an ordinary life that, even with all that's come before, we buy into it with her. It is in this way that the couple's forgetfulness becomes our own. We believe what we want to believe.
Thinking about Dimon and how stunningly she handles herself in Body of Water, I realized how similar this role is to her upcoming engagement at Palm Beach Dramaworks, where she's slated to play Florence Foster Jenkins. Jenkins was an infamous 20th-century debutante who fancied herself a great coloratura soprano, even though she had no voice whatsoever. She gave many performances at the Ritz Carlton Ballroom in the 1930s and before her death even managed a gig at Carnegie Hall. Audiences flocked to her shows, and for the most part, even critics indulged her fantasy.
You'll realize how remarkable this is if you ever get an earful of her recorded arias, most of which are collected on a disc called The Glory of the Human Voice. Her singing is an exercise in human ugliness — you will hate yourself for living in a world where such beastly noises can be made, even as you dissolve into giggles. The reactions Jenkins inspired were three parts humor and one part horror: humor, because it's all so ridiculous, and horror because, dear God, what if we're the same way? That's the secret fear of every high school student who ever walked the Earth: What if I'm ridiculous and everyone's just humoring me?
The true story of Florence Foster Jenkins makes one appreciate the fiction of Body of Water and how close to the bone it strikes. It also makes one a little more optimistic. The sea might have no memory or even common sense, but like they say in Ecclesiastes, "All rivers flow into the sea, and the sea does not fill up." Reality is out there, somewhere, and it's usually your best bet. But a little well-placed delusion is just a drop in the bucket. In life, as in theater, it can make all the difference.
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