Thoughts on The Evening Feb 20, 2015

by Leah Erickson W...

An audience gathered to see Richard Maxwell's The Evening at On the Boards last night, made up of what seemed like mostly artists- people who kept greeting each other, surprised to be at the same show on the same night. Signs were posted at the entrance which warned of the use of a smog machine, and an unloaded gun. The lights come up on a simple set- with just enough to signify a crappy windowless bar. Bare bulbs, easily sanitizable plastic chairs, upside down glasses on a counter, and a woman, seated at a plastic table. When she begins to speak, it seems as though she is reading, but as she flips her papers it becomes clear that they are blank. She delivers the first 10 or so minutes of the play to us without so much as shifting her chair. Between each musing, she takes a moment to look up at the audience. These moments were as frustrating as they were exciting, as we seemed to collectively agree that at any moment the style would shift. 

As we strained a bit to hear her from the back row, laughter trickled through the audience, as did coughing, despite the tragic narrative emerging from her speech. It allowed me to believe that she wasn't pretending to speak to me at all. She, Camissa Beurhaus, wanted us to know she knew she was an actor. She is a conduit between the playwright and us, and there was no use pretending that she was really speaking her truth. She generously presented us with the text, leaving enough room to hear it, but not enough expression to understand exactly what they "meant".It was like a poet who was too shy to share his work had asked a friend to perform a reading of his text. Delightfully indulgent and not too long, this first moment set up a world where I knew that this production was not going to play by the rules, and it would not reward anticipation. The Evening did not disappoint!

I saw the play with my friend, who doesn't see a lot of theatre. As we discussed it on the walk home from the theatre, he called the next section of the production the "real play", although that broke down partway through. But for what felt like about 20 minutes, we were given a firm narrative to work with. Though the acting style deviated from non-naturalistic to intensely real, the characters were consistent, their behavior following psychologically understandable behavior that followed classic rules of cause and effect. Three archetypes were thrust together, a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold-who's-too-special-for-this-small-town, a capitol F Fighter, and his seedy, indulgent, drug dealing manager. All three want something, and none of the things could happen all at the same time, and none of them will give up. So they were placed in a stalemate- an impasse. 

Then the stakes are raised when the band shuffles in, and begins to play the kind of music I imagine I could hear at most folky-grungy-hipster venues on Capitol Hill here in Seattle. Trapped with each other, trapped behind a plastic table with nothing but beer and pizza, suddenly both the characters and the actors had an audience to contend with! Though Beatrice, with her heart of gold, is largely submissive (she gets the guys beers and shots, she does what they say, she's quiet when they tell her to be quiet) her moments of rebellion are so sudden and satisfying that it almost hurts. She says: "[I'm just a bartender and part-time stripper!] What I yearn for does not exist in what I am." She brings out a gun, and from there all hell breaks loose. She had gained immense power, and it was so threatening to the narrative (built from archetypes that usually deny the new power structure), that it shatters the sensical story we thought was the "real" play. But for me, that's when things got really good.

The shots fired broke whatever illusion of classic play structure I had imposed on the story of those three. We know the men were not dead- so what could happen next? When they spoke, it was like a dying man was saying what was most important in his last moments. Or like a lost friend giving us advice beyond the grave- the immortality of the actors, and by extension the characters, felt almost threatening, in all it's neo-Brechtian splendor. Some (possibly misremembered) choice lines that jumped out at me: "The city doesn't really let you go anywhere, so you have to go where you want to go when you just want to hang out." "You attend to my needs- you anticipate my mood. It's like you are a reflection of me that pleases me." "It's like we're caught between two worlds, unable to get to either." "Now you want comfort? Now you want protection?" I'm sure different lines are ringing in the minds of my fellow audience members. The consistency of the characters, and the lack of details about their lives, allowed me to fully identify with each of them at different moments. Perhaps the closest thing we got to a climax or catharsis was when the Fighter shouts over the music, desperately, in defense of his life, "What if I could stop time?"

And then the "play" ends. But something else begins. The actors freeze, the set is taken away, the half-dead men exit, And anonymous-looking stagehands enter and dismantle the set. As all the poetry and the lyrics of the plays accompaniment sank into my brain, and I watched this dismantlement. Beatrice stood frozen, carrying her suitcase, trying desperately to leave. She takes one or two tiny and agonizingly noncommittal steps toward freedom, but before we can learn what she decides (as if there was anything to decide) a new piece had begun. 

As a playwriting student, I see a lot of plays. Or rather, I should say, I hear a lot of plays. There is something delicious about listening to a play, especially one as carefully crafted and acted as The Evening. It gives you the room to invent a whole world of feelings and relationships and histories all on your own, like reading a novel. There is something equally delicious about seeing an abstract but beautiful image, seeing a blank human face, hearing music in the back round, or listening to music that encourages and allows the mind to create. The final stage picture was a figure, made genderless by what looked like a cloak made from shredded paper, shrouded in smoke and light. I couldn't help but think, as we filed out, that within that image were folded infinite different stories. The Evening felt like a collaboration between me and the playwright, while the actors were simply tools of his, and witnesses to the audience's collective creation. I looked around and saw engagement in the people around me, with clinking drinks, wide eyes and smiles.

Whether you are struggling to keep fighting a losing battle, searching for purpose, or terrified to escape, we have all experienced a moment where we reached into the dark recesses and cobwebbed corners of our minds, and found no answer there. No solution, no resolution, no catharsis. We were denied a problem solved- just as we are denied our problems solved each day. It felt validating to see that that story, that immobility, was invested in by Richard Maxwell, and by us. It reminded me that the moments of hesitation, the moments of meaningless anger, of failure, of longing, the moments of hollowness, guilt, regret, and shame- those are worth watching, too.

We navigated a murky path from absurdism to essay to slam poetry to musical theatre, from realism to radio play to performance art piece, from comedy to tragedy, farce to melodrama. And as a final cherry on top, a final deviation from the usual theatre-going experience, the massive quantities of thick, atmospheric, vapor in the theatre triggered a smoke detector, and we were ushered out of the theatre before the line for the ladies room had died down. Despite the potentially irresponsible use of tax-payer dollars (and several fire-fighters time,) the technical malfuction was the perfect way to end a story of Richard Maxwell and his company breaking unspoken rules, with alarm bells going off all night. 

So, the short review? Tl:dr? A great show- probably more fun if you've seen a lot of theatre, but satisfying for anyone interested in how we make stories, and what we think we deserve. The Evening forces it's audience to collaborate with the artist in building meaning. Only an hour, It's is more than worth a trip to Queen Anne and the low $15 ticket price for under-25 year olds! If I can get a ticket, I'll go again.

Hope to see you there!