Finally got to see The Paper Birds' performance of In a Thousand Pieces. Here's their website: http://thepaperbirds.com/home.php
This show is being touted as the number one show to see at the Fringe this year. I was expecting, based on all the press, to see some really fantastic physical theater, which I didn't get, so some initial disappointment.
That said - this show was fucking amazing. I wish you could see it right now.
Raises a lot of questions for me. I'll get to that.
The show is about sexual enslavement - mostly of Eastern European women who are looking to emigrate and are promised (by whomever) a modeling career, or an education, or something. There are three British women who do this performance - they wear identical blue dresses, identical jackets, and carry varying luggage, old school suitcases, many others of which are placed around the space. Sometimes they move in concert, then one breaks off for a new action while the other two maintain the chorus (if you will) - or harmony/melody? Here's the thing - it's not that their physicality itself was so brilliant, they're not in Jonno Katz's league for sheer plasticity. What was amazing was their understanding of HOW to develop a physical language particular to this show that made sense. Do an action. Do it again. Keep doing it. It doesn't make sense right now, but they keep doing it. Eat an ice cream cone. Keep eating ice cream cones. Eat it innocently, famished-ly. Nothing else in your mind. It'll come back.
In addition to their simple blue costumes, they've got very simple granny-panties on - on top of their normal "show" underwear. This is relevant for the first moment when their "everygirl" is raped. The sound system plays her screams over and over and over and it just doesn't end. If one woman were on the ground, writhing around and trying to defend herself from an invisible attacker with these white panties that have fallen down around her ankles - becoming as much shackles on her legs as they indicate the lack of defense she has - if that happened and went on and on, it might get, I suspect, all good intentions aside, a little laughable. I'm not sure why there's a difference, theoretically, in my head, but all three of them were on the ground, bumping into each other, and that made "everygirl" seem more like "every girl" and they just wouldn't stop. They pushed this bit of staging far longer than I would have, far past uncomfortable, right into disgust and horror.
There's more to the show. They break up the terror with bits of goofy stage business. They did a lot of research for this performance, including a stint with the Goat Song Theater in Poland (why does no one mention "tragedy" in the same breath when I see that in print? hello? goat song? tragedy? anybody? Bueller? Forget it). They seem to have carried out a number of interviews as well, asking people in the UK what they think of (il)legal immigrants. The answers are played over the sound system and while one woman (playing everygirl) is downstage, the two others are upstage, lip-sync acting (a la Creature Comforts) to the voices - and this is both heart-breaking and funny at the same time, much as you'd suspect, as they satirize the easy opinions that otherwise privileged people have. "They should just get a real job. It's not that hard." "I work with Amnesty, and I don't really know anything about it." It's a relief to have stuff like this, of course.
Toward the end, one of the actresses begins doing math on the side of a suitcase. Everygirl is raped on her first day she's brought to a house, where she thinks she's going to be an underwear model. Then she's raped five more times. Then the numbers go up for the following week. Then she's moved to another city, where she's raped on average 8 times a day for 7 weeks, so 7 times 7 times eight is five hundred some. She flips the suitcase over - that's about 1500 rapes. About as much as she was paid for. One euro a rape. One pound ten. A dollar fifty. About the price of an ice cream cone.
They don't bow. They hold a tableau until everyone leaves, and they smartly plant a shill in the audience to let us know that that's what we should do.
If you were here and you didn't see this, I don't think I'd think very much of you afterwards.
Okay, so obviously, it affected me. Deeply personal, the actresses are themselves when they're not Everygirl, and their responses to what they don't know about their subject and about what they've chosen to do onstage forms a part of their text. Artistically, this is stunning work, and on that level, its effect is clear - it's inspirational. I want to be that good. I want to be that smart and that affecting and that fucking brave.
BUT. And I don't know the answer to this, it's just gnawing at me. What now? What do I do now, with this show, besides tell you about it? Yes, I can Get Involved. And I don't even have to get involved with the subject of sexual enslavement, I could tackle mines, or child abuse, or I could save the whales. There's so much that's WRONG, it doesn't take a lot of effort to find a cause to suppport, to believe in, to act on.
Neil Simon is easy. The answer to Neil Simon is entertainment. He's just trying to tell a funny story and take you away for a little while. Brecht wanted to change the world, but he still wanted to be in charge, so you have to take him with more than a grain of salt. What do you do with a play that is essentially an open wound, when they tell you over and over that that wound is invisible? You don't know where this girl is, where these girls are. They don't know. They just know that they're there.
What do you do? And if you don't do anything, what is the point?
I'm already inclined to question and have been struggling with what theater DOES anyway, but this performance really brings it into high relief.
Which is another reason why it was so great.