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A CurtainUp Review

by Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

Why was it what was it's job to go and just be there anyhow?
What was it who's doing doing?
What was it not for have did?
What manner of having did was it what got down anyhow?

---Mac Wellman


The above serves as the only reasonable reaction one might have to the Flea Theater's production of Mac Wellman's Cellophane. It also serves as a convenient jumping-on point for contemplating it.

"Un-huh," you see, is really a pair of nonsense words, the meaning of which is conveyed by the tone in which the two syllables are delivered. Spoken flat, it may mean nothing more than "yes". In a rising pattern, it may be "you've got my attention" while, falling, the same words may convey tedium. I could go on listing further alternatives for a while, but I won't.

Wellman, who has exerted an enormous amount of energy over his writing career contemplating words-as-nonsense (see, e.g., Terminal Hip), may have outdone himself here. In this piece (it would be hard to call it a play), twenty-one members of The Bats (The Flea's resident acting company) variously recite (or in some cases sing) his nonsense poems. To be fair, enough occasionally make enough sense that we get the feel of a message -- a sort of frustrated dyspepsia underlying yet complicit in an unraveling cultural demise. It is, we are told by the press release, "a spiritual history (and spectral portrait) of America, through the medium of Bad Language". Director Jim Simpson, on the other hand, notes that its "broken familiar language in the American Idiom... captures emotional terrain unfamiliar to typical theatrical geography." To save me the trouble, he goes on to state, "It all means nothing. Yet it also means something."

I'm hesitant to overdescribe Cellophane. The audience sits all over the downstairs theater at The Flea on stools of varying heights with rotating seats. The cast appears randomly in front of, behind or amongst the audience, oftentimes verbally assaulting individual audience members with variously-styled rants. (One poem, "Ain't I Society", is recited, quite effectively, in a total blackout.)

There is a collection of Wellman plays published under the title Cellophane, which includes the title work. This presentation includes material from that as well as two other volumes, A Man Falling Downstairs and Mad Potatoes. What is the effect of all this? Perhaps it's like the man who sits besides you on the train and commences an uninvited one-way conversation freely associating words that don't fit together but that nonetheless leaves an impression of seemingly benign belligerence. Or maybe you find yourself in a club where a chemically-enhanced individual tries to explain something to you above the music; you don't catch all he is saying but it doesn't really seem to matter to either of you. It's possible you're just in a foreign country in which you only had time to master a few dozen words of the native tongue, so you make out expressions that strike you as familiar, but can't quite tie them together. Or have you survived an apocalypse and this is what you get as your reward?

How much of this you are willing to consider is directly proportional to how indulgent you are of Mr. Wellman's exercise. It's not a painful experience, and the cast of (mostly) fresh-faced, heavily committed actors keeps it pretty entertaining. In the finalé, a bubble-making machine is added to the mix, presumably to reïnforce the theme.


by Mac Wellman
Directed by Jim Simpson
with members of The Bats: Oberon K. A. Adjepong, Katie Apicella, Matt Dellapina, Paula Ehrenberg, Ayse Eldek, Fernando Gambaroni, Lindy Gomez, Sarah Hayon, Lanna Joffrey, Josh Mann, Holly McLean, Jace McLean, Carolinne Messihi, Jeffrey Nauman, John Peterson, Jonathan Kells Phillips, Monica Stith, Sakura Sugihara, Gilbert Vela, Aaron Yoo and Jerry Zellers
Set and Lighting Design: Kyle Chepulis
Composer: Adam Gwon
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street (Church/Broadway)
Telephone: (212) 226-2407
WED - SAT @8; $15 ($10 rush tickets 30 minutes prior to performance)
Opening September 17, 2003, closing October 18, 2003
. Beginning the week of October 1st, 2003, Cellophane will no longer perform on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Those performances have been moved to Friday and Saturday night of the same week making Cellophane's new schedule as follows: Friday and Saturday, October 3 & 4 at 7pm and 9pm Friday and Saturday, October 10 & 11 at 7pm and 9pm Friday and Saturday, October 17 & 18 at 7pm and 9pm This is also a change over the previously announced 8pm curtain for the show. Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 9/19/03 performance

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