A Response from Tessa Hulls and Eric Olson Jan 15, 2014
by Tessa Hulls
Tessa: It is usually difficult to figure out precisely what one thinks about an On the Boards performance. This confusion is exponentially magnified when you have to settle into a conclusion with another person. Particularly when that person, for all that they are one of your dearest friends, is someone whose creative ideas have almost no overlap with your own. Eric Olson and I have been attempting to make joint responses to the shows in the 2013-14 On the Boards season, and for the task of responding to There There, the inelegant mistranslation of somewhat incompatible realities actually seems rather fitting.
From the instant we walk into the OtB theater and our feet nose up against low-pile office carpeting, it is abundantly clear that we are going to have to respond to There There with something absurd. Portraits of Russian luminaries stare us down with just-a-tad-too-wide crazy eyes, their smirks throwing unspoken gauntlets of I challenge you to come up with a response to this one.
Double dog dare accepted, intense-eyed Russians. We meet your absurd with our absurd and have some skewed translations of our own.
There There is one long breath. Kosmas (or would it be better to say Kristen/Karen/Vassily/Christopher Walken? Is there any meaningful distinction between them? ) is an incongruously diminutive balloon that never runs out of air, a hamster at wheel whose moments of pause convey mania rather than rest. Her rapid-fire stream of ever-shifting consciousness outpaces our ability to digest her words, and we are left with a barrage of absurdist statements that might actually make a great deal of sense if we could just have a moment to think them over.
During the show, I scribble down some of my favorite one-liners, and afterwards Eric, Emily Jo Testa and I go for drinks to figure out how we are going to respond. We round up one more friend, Devon Midori Hale (who has not seen the show and is wrangled into the project without being given any measure of context), and head to our studio to play a game of Paper Telephone.
Paper Telephone is a version of Exquisite Corpse. Each participant starts with a phrase, and then the next person in line attempts to illustrate that phrase. The next person, who has not seen the original text, then writes a sentence describing that illustration, creating a series of mistranslations that shift from text>image>text>image>text. I write down the phrases from the show onto small pieces of paper and we, over slightly unripe Bartlett pears, each pluck a phrase from a teacup and begin to draw.
phrases and pears
Paper telephone in action, or: how we totally unintentionally surrounded Eric by mixed race Asian American females
This is what happened:
Eric: While I don't completely agree with Tessa’s account of our creative ideas lacking overlap, I have to admit that it usually takes me more time to get on board with an idea. With each show I can’t help but seek out some subtext within the performance. Some way that I can relate it to my past or present, meaning I can snuggle up with, or file away in a frenzied, yet highly organized, system for future reference. Doesn’t everyone? I guess not.
As I began to mull over my own feelings about There There, I instantly rejected Tessa's kneejerk idea about how to respond, and then was slowly talked into agreeing after a couple of beers and the application of my own personal processing. I won't deny I enjoyed our Paper Telephone game, but I do feel that it is only a surface response to the performance. I was delighted with how Kirsten Kosmas weaved a web of confusion, tension, comedy and tragedy into fragments of Anton Chekhov's play The Three Sisters. In between the absurd non sequiturs, Karen shows us a reimagined Chekhovian character, flawed, comedic, and fighting against the ones expectations of theatre. As Vassily struggles to find his place in comparison to the country's most famous poet, his life as a soldier, and a man who has the heart of the one he loves, Karen is battling her ambitions, the audiences' expectations, and the weight of the actual translated text (which is beautifully (and, at times, annoyingly) recited by Larissa Tokmakova). It seems that Karen has won a duel with Christopher Walken, just as Vassily won the dual against Baron, and they are both left with the existential crisis of finding meaning after you kill what you revere.
Tessa: I don’t deny that our round of Paper Telephone was a surface response, but I’m not sure I feel any obligation to offer more than that. Sure, there’s a lot we didn’t address— but I question whether it is really our role to try. Maybe it’s not that our creative ideas lack overlap, but that we have divergent notions of importance. We both wear rather silly glasses: maybe our eyes simply focus at different depths of field. I’m drawn to the act of echoing form, while you want to respond to content.
To use a visual analogy, it’s like a connect-the-dots puzzle. I like to form impulsive, reactionary responses because I think it’s my job to throw down a series of interesting dots and leave it up to the viewer to connect them in such a way that they form a sailboat. And you feel that it is your job to link the dots and present the already-drawn sailboat. I think we ultimately arrive at similar conclusions, but take very different routes to get there. And really, I never take anything seriously because