PRE-GAME: THE DEBATE SOCIETY’S JACUZZI

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This week I will be seeing Jacuzzi, a new play by The Debate Society that is being presented at Ars Nova. My proper review will post sometime after it opens on October 13.

I have a lot to say about The Debate Society company and their remarkable body of work – probably enough to fill a book at this point. It is always difficult for me to talk about them without hyperbole because they are just so good. For the purposes of this article, however, I’ll attempt to limit my focus to my experience with the company and some elements that recur in their work.

Way back in the winter of 2006, when I first started reviewing theater for OffOffOnline.com, the going was rough. To my dismay, I was not as instantly good at it as I had hoped to be; it turned out that being able to think critically and write critically were two different skills. This was coupled with the fact that I wasn’t really seeing anything that excited me. And now I had agreed to slog out to Williamsburg to see what I thought would be another of these low-budget plays that throbs with pretension or the artist’s opinions, but is utterly devoid of style.

The Charlie Pineapple Theater isn’t even on Bedford Street, it’s about a block over. It was just after a pretty bad blizzard, so on this side street I took to get to the theater there were parked cars encased within these enormous piles of snow from where the streets had been plowed. With a sense of dread, I made the icy trek. I made it TWICE. Somehow I confused the start time, so I actually missed the curtain on the first night I was scheduled to see The Debate Society’s Snow Hen, so I went again the night after.

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When I arrived for my second attempt to see the show, I was surprised to find that the audience was totally empty. Not a little light, mind you, but COMPLETELY EMPTY except for me and the guy sitting at the desk who gave me my press tickets. I figured maybe it was the blizzard or maybe I was early and folks would trickle in gradually. But nobody trickled. Finally, lets say about ten minutes before the curtain, the guy at the press desk came over to me. He said something to the effect of, “So obviously nobody else is here. If that matters to you we can schedule another night for you to come and review, but we’d love to do this show for you tonight.”

And now the situation was interesting. Would I really, for the first time in my life, see a play that was being performed just for me? Or was I going to have to come out to Williamsburg a THIRD time? Does the fact that nobody showed up mean it would be bad? How bad? Was it some kind of trap or prank? At this point I was all in. I stayed and actually two or three other folks did join me in the audience just before the show started. I’ve always thought these people might have just been friends; last minute favors called in to deflate the awkwardness a little.

I learned later on that press desk guy was actually Oliver Butler, the Society’s resident director and developer. Over the last eight years, I’ve stayed on friendly terms with him, saying hi before shows and occasionally bumping into him around. He and and I once sat next to each other for this pretty traditionally crazy show called Lewis Forever: Freak the Room at PS 122. The Society’s Cape Disappointment was playing in the other theater at PS 122 at the time. I say “traditionally crazy” because it was a text book deconstruction of the idea of a “performance,” full of random wild events that endlessly commented upon themselves. It wasn’t the worst ever by any means and had some fun bits, but it was exactly the sort of thing that I lost patience for after I found the Debate Society. This will surely seem overly digressive, but probably the most affecting part of that show Oliver and I saw together was a scene where one character ambushed another with a video camera and demanded that she make “the real noise.” That is to say, he wanted her to drop the pretenses and instead vocalize something true.

To borrow that peculiar phrase and use it somewhat anachronistically: after seeing The Snow Hen on that second night in Williamsburg in 2006, I felt that I had finally heard the real noise. Here was a show that aspired to more than just a funny concept or an indignant monologue; this was something substantial, something with a lush aesthetic born of an actual sense of style rather than limited by a financial necessity. And despite the fantasy setting, it actually had something to say about how real people behave towards one another. This was something mysterious, something that continued the tradition of Samuel Beckett, but in a more casual, less fussy way.

This was the Real. Goddamn. Noise.

Debate Society Jumpers - Paul Thureen, Hannah Bos and Oliver Butler by Jesse Untracht-Oakner

I’ve happily followed the Debate Society and their work for more than seven years now. Along the way, I’ve come to deeply admire their sensibility and choice for subject. Based on the press notes for Jacuzzi, this new play falls squarely into the Society’s penchant for technically ambitious, immersive environments. The play takes place in a Colorado ski chalet, with all the action taking place in or around a hot tub. Ars Nova commissioned the play and provided developmental support for it during the company’s three-year residency there. This New York production at Ars Nova will be Jacuzzi’s world premiere. The video below was used to promote a developmental workshop of the play at the Alemeida Theater in the UK:

In the video the company (made up of Butler and writer/performers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen) are a little flippant in explaining the goals and impetus for Jacuzzi. It is difficult for me to believe that all the lovely emotional ambiguity and crisp conceptual aesthetics I typically associate with a Debate Society show can emerge from such simple objectives, but the company has always been nonchalant in describing their process. This lack of pretense is one of the company’s more endearing qualities; you don’t get a sense from their plays or even the marketing for their plays that they are doing this for acclaim or glory, though they certainly had their share of both of those by now. Everything this group does feels genuine, refreshingly devoid of the detached irony that seems to be the factory setting for most other Brooklyn-based artists. Their plays are incredibly smart, but never talk down to the audience.

Because the Debate Society works in an elliptical style across a large swath of topics and periods, I wanted to talk a little about one recurring element in their work that I believe Jacuzzi will have to follow up on and which Butler himself addresses in that video clip: water. In each of the company’s plays that I’ve seen, water has proven to be an agent of great reckoning. Whether it’s the fate of a marriage or the financial future of a town, in the Society’s meticulously crafted stories the status quo can be both born in and destroyed by large amounts of water. Since water will inevitably be a central component of Jacuzzi as well, I’m going to go through each of the Society’s plays in reverse chronological order and attempt to unpack why water keeps turning up in such a critical capacity in the company’s work. It is not my intention to reduce these magnificent plays down to one common component, but rather to use this one component as a means to illuminate as many of the other qualities as possible.

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The company premiered Blood Play at the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn about two years ago and has since toured with it a couple of places, including the Williamstown Theater Festival. The play takes place in the finished basement of Bev and Morty; a nice Jewish couple living in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1950s. Over the course of an evening an impromptu cocktail party occurs with a few neighbors. As the guests play through a catalogue of bonkers party games, darker undercurrents of childhood violence and post-World War II Anti-Semitism seep into the revelry. The idea of this dark underbelly is reflected in some of the company’s most disturbing imagery:  eggs that crack open to reveal nothing but a bloody pulp, endless tangles of tree roots beneath the house. The latter is achieved with crucial support from Laura Jellinek’s impeccable and fully functional scenic design. To this day, I have no idea how they did that bloody egg thing.

The water comes quick in Blood Play. Before the lights even come up, we hear Bev (played by Bos) screaming and the sound of running water. We soon see – in a terrifically realized practical effect – that a pipe has burst in the basement and is spraying all over a painting of Japanese samurai, ruining it. It is a minor event right at the beginning, but it signifies a few crucial elements that will haunt the rest of the play. Bev is obsessed with appearances so this kind of thing just won’t do in her new basement. That it is a Japanese mural that gets ruined is also important, because the play frequently deals in cultural appropriation; most blatantly in the uneasy assimilation of a Jewish family into a non-Jewish suburb, but also in the Native American themed summer camp that the kids all attend. Finally, Bev and Morty discover that a fairly big root in the pipe caused the leak, foreshadowing the later reveal of the massive root system and underlining the concept that evil festers beneath the surface. So in Blood Play water acts as a deft expository device, telling the audience almost everything they will need to know about the play within the opening seconds.

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The company premiered Buddy Cop 2 at Incubator Arts in 2010 and went on to remount it at the Atlantic Theater. The play follows a couple of small town cops, who are in a very practical sense dislodged from both time and space. The action of the play leads up to Christmas, which in this particular year will occur in the heat of summer to accommodate a dying girl’s last wish. Bos and Thureen play the cops, who carry out their work from an ad hoc police headquarters that has been set up in the town’s rec center, just a few feet away from a regulation size racquetball court. It wasn’t surprising to me that this was the first of the company’s plays to get recognized by the New York Times; Buddy Cop 2 is the Debate Society’s “Sgt. Pepper.” While it certainly didn’t invalidate any of the wonderful stuff the company had put out before, Buddy Cop 2 represented the Society’s full arrival, where the group’s house style was operating at peak efficiency. In addition to its compelling narrative and superbly accomplished theatrics, Buddy Cop 2 continually offers smart critiques on the cop movie genre (hence the title) and, through the implementation of Jellinek’s stunning racquetball court set, kind of the very DNA of live theater. It’s as though Bos, Thureen, and Butler have given the whole idea of “play” a quick quarter-twist on its primary axis, resulting in an stage vernacular and buoyant sense of humor that are utterly strange and wonderful, but just a bit askew.

But where is the water you ask? That’s the best part. Water doesn’t appear in a big way within the context of the narrative onstage, but rather in the foreground of the story. We learn through casual dialogue that reason the cops have set up shop in the rec center is because the local police station was destroyed in a flood. This will get a little meta, but essentially water is the in-story cause for the most formally inventive component of the play: the police station within a rec center concept. Water in this case stands in for the Debate Society’s own creative force of will, which led them to turn a fictional world on its side because they thought it’d be pretty funny to play racquetball onstage. The water destroys the old to create something new, in the same way that the Society pulls apart old theatrical conventions to piece together new and better ones.

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The company’s 2008 play, Cape Disappointment, is all about nostalgia and decaying Americana. I am personally overwhelmed with nostalgia whenever I think of it, mostly because it premiered at PS 122, a terrific venue that I realize just now I haven’t been to in years for whatever reason. This kaleidoscopic play takes place around a dilapidated drive-in movie theater in a rural community. As such, the production incorporated a lot of elements of the movie-going experience, including popcorn that was given out at the door and drive-in movie speaker boxes in the audience. In my memory, the play has become about designer Mike Riggs’ exquisite use of lighting – the jittery flashlights, the car headlights that approach and fade into the distance, and a pedophile peeking up through an illuminated crack in the floorboards. The play uses a lot of elements from “road movies,” like hitchhikers and robbers and kidnappers, but it reframes these horror tropes in a more existential kind of dread. As a rule Cape Disappointment deconstructs nostalgia, showing that everything that is new and shiny today will wither and rot into the dark uncertainty of tomorrow – the key example being designer Karl Allen’s immense and adaptable drive-in theater set.

I was always fascinated by Auny Gracie’s rambling story of her hometown, Sisterville. As her niece and nephew drive her along a dark highway, sweet old Gracie fondly recalls a bygone era, when the local economy and morale of Sisterville were momentarily supercharged by the promise of a man-made lake. New aquatic-themed businesses sprang up all around town in preparation for the lakes arrival. Alas, there was a shortage of “3 way ball valves” at the last minute and the lake was never filled in Sisterville, leaving all of the scuba shops and lighthouses to fall into disrepair. Thus ended what Gracie recalls as the golden age Sisterville. I am trying to make a point about the role water plays in the Debate Society’s plays, and here it strikes me that it can even make an impact in it absence. As with Buddy Cop 2, the lake-that-never-was acts an accessory to the key theme of the play: that nostalgia is ultimately empty, because the thing you are nostalgic for only ever existed in a fleeting capacity before crumbling into ruin. Or in the case of dear old Aunt Gracie’s lake, it never even existed at all.

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I will be honest and say that of all the Debate Society plays I’ve seen, The Eaten Heart has faded the most in my memory, perhaps because it is the most fractured. The play follows the bizarre behavior of a host of characters in a 1970’s hotel. Like the lighting in Cape Disappointment, what I remember most at this point is director Butler’s ingenious staging and the crisp atmospherics. Amanda Rehbein’s set consisted of three adjacent hotel rooms with one complete room in the center and two half rooms on either side. I say “half” rooms, because half of the rooms were obscured and invisible while the other halves were totally visible. This allowed for Bos and Thureen, who played all the roles, to give the impression that they were part of a two person scene where the other party was simply in the obscured part of the room. This conceit was crucial for simultaneous action. The whole thing was underscored by delightful period radio commercials and music that helped create an authentic sense of time and place.

The key water scene in The Eaten Heart involves the hotel pool. A lonely preacher’s wife named Elise, whose husband we hear frequently on the radio, is staying in the hotel. Upon receiving a pizza delivery, she strikes up a flirtatious conversation with an amicable pizza delivery guy. She likes him so much that after he has gone she puts on makeup and orders a second pizza so he will have to come back. At one point, the pizza guy runs offstage and dives into the unseen pool in a moment of abandon. We hear a splash offstage and when the pizza guy returns later actor Thureen is soaking wet. An attempt at a more intimate encounter during a power outage doesn’t go well, but for Elise, the business with the pool is an exultant experience, perhaps the first happy moment she’s had in a long time. She realizes, as she gleefully watches this pizza guy swim and splash in the pool, that she can have her own inner life with her own private joys, beyond her sad existence with her neglectful husband. In this way, water brings about a moment of profound self-recognition.

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Which brings us back again to The Snow Hen. What first struck me about this quiet little play was its courageousness. Loosely based on an old Norwegian myth, the play occurs in near silence, with Bos playing a peculiar young woman who is hold up in an ice hut after the world has frozen over. After years of living on her own Bos’s character has sprouted a plum of feathers from her backside, in perfect accordance with the laws of evolutionary biology no doubt. Thureen plays a wanderer who shows up at the hut, clad in a massive assortment of pelts and furs. What’s gripping about the play is just how long we get to spend with Bos on her own, getting to know her routine and watching her futz around with all the hair dryers and other relics that she’s fished out of the ice. There is some suspense when Thureen first arrives, but the thrust of the narrative is watching these two people learn to live alongside each other. Again, most of this action and comedy is behavioral – the dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum.

After tracking the importance of water across the Debate Society’s work, it feels perfect to me that in their vision of the end of all things water would take on another form. It’s difficult to single out any one usage of ice as in the other plays; its importance is simply reflected in its omnipresence. Whether it’s the striking image of Bos wiping frost from a window or a light dusting of snowfall, everything in the play, in one way or another, is about ice. We’re given no hint as to how the ice overtook the world, whether it was global warming or whatever, but it is clear from the modern tchotchkes that Bos has fished out of the frigid water that the world froze in our time. The take away from this detail is unclear – is it meant to be critique of our current materialistic culture? A cautionary tale, perhaps? Or just an apocalypse via bad luck?

Though emphatically unanswered in the case of The Snow Hen, the way the Debate Society uses water in throughout their other plays might suggest an answer. Though it manifests in different ways and with different narrative functions, water – for good or ill – always strikes at random in the company’s work. Pipes just bust sometimes and police stations flood. That’s the way life is. Often we aren’t given a reason for why these things happen, nor do we care why. People jump into pools without warning. 3 way ball valves run scarce. The shape of our lives is defined in a series of reactions to random stimuli. Any biologist would tell you that this is how we evolve. When faced with the unexpected people have to grow or develop new skills. We have to improvise.

All of the worlds in the Debate Society’s plays feel rich and intricate because there is concrete evidence of this improvisation. We see, in the scenic design and in the behavior of the characters, the ways that they have learned to cope with bad situations. We see evidence of lives lived, like basement walls damaged shin-high by water long gone. It’s more than an easy narrative device. Water in the Debate Society’s work stands in for the flow of time through people and places.

Given all this, what could possibly happen in Jacuzzi, a play in which the characters will, in theory, willingly submerge themselves in a bubbling cauldron of this chaotic and unpredictable element? Will it bespeak a tacit acceptance of the utterly random course of events our lives are destined to follow? Or just a way to have fun in goofy 70’s swimwear?

Either way, it’s sure to be a comprehensive and multi-sensory theatrical experience. I can already smell the chlorine.

And I’m ready to hear the real noise again.

 

Jacuzzi runs from through November 1st at Ars Nova. Tickets are available at http://arsnovanyc.com/

For more information on The Debate Society visit http://thedebatesociety.org/

 

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