“Static” is one of those words from which most artists recoil. It’s typically used for something felt to be listless, inert, and boring. In fact, physical stasis is an artistic tool, or at least it can be. In the right hands, it can release unexpected and explosive theatrical energies that can’t come from movement. This week, two marvelous examples of this phenomenon—call it reverberant rigidity—coincidentally arrived in New York at the same time: Samuel Beckett’s Not I starring Jess Thom (in the Under the Radar Festival), and Queens Row, written and directed by Richard Maxwell at The Kitchen. The pieces are very different, but it’s worthwhile considering what they share by relying on performers planted in one place.
Not I is Beckett’s famous 1972 monologue for a disembodied female mouth, named Mouth, suspended eight feet above the stage in the dark. This figure speaks at breakneck speed in brief, disconnected phrases that both performer and audience struggle to assemble into a coherent story. The backstory that can be discerned is of a woman who lived a lonely and largely silent life until age 70 when she blacked out and, upon awakening, erupted in a logorrheic torrent we presume we’re now witnessing. So alien is this experience to her that she denies it even applies to her. Hence the title; she pauses four times to declare, “what? . . who? . . no! . . she!”
Jess Thom has been performing the role of Mouth for several years, mostly to great acclaim. Her distinction is that she lives with Tourette syndrome, a neurological condition involving involuntary verbal expostulations and sudden physical gestures called “tics.” With heroic effort over a year, she managed to memorize Beckett’s notoriously difficult text, but she cannot perform it without tics, which in her case means unpredictable interruptions of “biscuit,” “sausage,” “hedgehog,” and more colorful phrases like “fuck a goat,” along with blows to her sternum with her fist. The Beckett Estate (to its credit) approved the project based on Thom’s observation that the play felt like it was really about people like her.
It’s easy to see why Thom believes this. The text is divided into short phrases similar in length and percussive emphasis to her everyday speech—which the audience hears during a preshow period when she welcomes them with sunny gregariousness. Moreover, Mouth describes an experience of feeling alienated from the source of her speech that clearly connects to Tourette (according to Thom), as do the character’s reference to her body as a “machine,” her perception of incessant “buzzing” in her skull, and her feeling of being inexplicably “punished.”
All of this understood, no objective observer would label Not I a realistic play. Its symbolism is glaring and complex, as is the theatricality that italicizes its actorly demands as meaningful content. Beckett once wrote to one of its directors: “I no more know where she is or why thus than she does. All I know is in the text. ‘She’ is purely a stage entity, part of a stage image and purveyor of a stage text. The rest is Ibsen.”
Thom’s insistence that Tourette syndrome was always the work’s true, heretofore neglected realistic underpinning—reported in numerous feature pieces and interviews over the past few years—had me worried. It made me expect a show rooted more in advocacy than art.
How wrong I was. Her performance may be exuberantly inclusive—she explicitly welcomes all manner of “neurodiverse” and differently abled spectators and carefully describes the main events and sensory stimuli in the piece. There is also an ASL interpreter beside her. If all this is advocacy, then so be it. It is in no sense at the cost of art. This production is one of the strongest and most resonant interpretations of Not I I’ve seen.
Thom’s performance is fleet, lucid and regularly rhythmic (including the tics) in a way that quickly becomes fascinating percussive music. The whole play lasts 12 minutes, about half the length of Jessica Tandy’s premiere performance, which Tandy thought too fast for intelligibility. Thom’s is more intelligible than most. And unlike the many Mouth performances in major theaters that could barely be seen because they were too far away, Thom’s is fully visible (and hence all the more moving in human terms) because the space at BRIC is intimate and the audience is up close.
This Not I doesn’t stress terror as many others do because Thom isn’t blindfolded and strapped into a head-brace (which she couldn’t tolerate) but rather hooded and spotlit around the lower face. It stresses instead the panic of perpetually misfired human intercourse. Interestingly, this production (directed by Matthew Pountney) makes more effective use of the play’s second character, called Auditor, than any other I’ve seen. Often cut (with Beckett’s blessing—he was never happy with it himself), Auditor was originally a silent hooded figure who stands to the side and periodically shrugs in “helpless compassion.” Here the figure is replaced by the ASL interpreter, who is not hooded and whose manifold, fluctuating facial expressions—along with her flying arms and hands—constantly convey the nervous strain involved in trying to follow Mouth’s word torrent. She becomes a surrogate for us.
Most significant of all is that Thom’s disability itself helps illuminate Beckett’s play, largely because it strengthens the resonance of Mouth’s physical fragmentariness and experience of disassociation. It’s often been observed that Beckett’s characters are frequently incomplete in some way—blind, lame, dumb, missing legs, shanks, torsos or the like. These conditions are metaphors for a general human condition of incompleteness. In our lost and fallen state, Beckett might say—caught between doubts in God’s existence and doubts in our own reason—we all are imperfectly abled. “That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth,” as Pozzo says.
How better to drive this ruthless vision home than to employ an actor for whom no sentence is ever stable or intact—who is furthermore a natural ham with a big vibrant voice—to conquer one of the most difficult fragmentary word-mountains in literature, as best she can? Thom’s tic-inflected performance is an ideal vehicle for Mouth’s hazy and bewildering un-story. It broadens our view of excellence in Beckett performance, and in the theater in general.
No one understands this view of theatrical excellence better than Richard Maxwell. “We are broken people, theater shows this,” he wrote, channeling Beckett in his 2015 book Theater for Beginners. He provides an example of an actor whose mother tongue was not English delivering the line “So we have each other” with an emphasis on “each.” Instead of correcting the emphasis, Maxwell kept the “broken line” in his show because it came from the actor’s “sincere and unapologetic” self and therefore felt more vivid and porous than any “correct” delivery. Queens Row, his latest play, offers sustained examples of this effect.
Queens Row consists of three monologues, each a little over 15 minutes long and delivered by a different woman standing on a small wooden disk raised slightly above the bare stage floor. These women—Nazira Hanna, Antonia Summer and Soraya Nabipour—are all nonprofessional actors Maxwell found in Britain where the work premiered. He built the characters around them, he says, even though their British accents are rather odd accompaniments to their distinctly American characters.
The monologues are set in a dystopian future following a new American civil war. In the first part, a resident of the fictional Massachusetts town of Queens Row (played by Hanna), sole survivor of a once-powerful local dynasty, describes the origins of the national conflict in tribalism and class resentment and explains how she lost her son after he moved to Odessa, Texas. He was killed in a police shootout after fighting with another man over his girlfriend. In the second part, an Odessa woman we presume is the girlfriend (played by Summer), speaks to the son’s spirit of their life together, how she misses him, her efforts to cope, her feeling of living at the end of an era, and her anxieties about raising the child they made together.
The third part is spoken by a woman we gather is that child, grown up years later (played by Nabipour). Written in a strange, only occasionally comprehensible idiom that cuts words into pieces and reconstructs them in eccentric new ways, often dividing them into peculiar segments and sometimes slipping into strings of numbers and punctuation marks, it is the most artfully “broken” section of all.
If there’s an overarching theme to the three gnomic, haunting monologues it’s in their common experiences of physical and spiritual deracination. They’re all fractional tales of absence and separation expressed in a language now abstract, now concrete, now lyrical, now practical, at all times rife with carefully crafted blanks.
The deeper subject of Queens Row, for me and I expect many others (unless they’ve read it), is the audience’s experience of listening and trying to understand the three actors, which reflects the social and personal disconnections in the stories. In the first two sections this process is relatively straightforward because, despite the language’s stylistic challenges, Hanna and Summer basically stand there speaking as clearly as they can in their natural cadences. The third section introduces a wholly new complication because Nabipour sometimes doesn’t appear to be speaking English at all.
She stands on the same small disk as the others but, unlike them, adds graceful, arcing arm movements and bends at the waist to her speech. One can’t tell whether this activity is expressive, nonsensical, stretching, or maybe even a form of involuntary tic. In any case, it is endlessly fascinating to wonder about as we struggle to decipher lines like “myfamouther thought shed foowuund luv” and “I herd the voyces. j g i 6 r h e7 e o] l clpp.”
The weird, understated choreography in the performance sends our minds racing, spurring us to ask how the strangely broken character might be remade, newly assembled, into a human whole.
That’s exactly what happens in Not I too.
Not I photos: James Lindsay
Queens Row photos: Paula Court
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Matthew Pountney
Under the Radar Festival at BRIC House, 647 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Written and directed by Richard Maxwell
The Kitchen, 512 W. 19th St., NYC