by Cheryl King · May 23, 2014
Halfway Through the Story of our Life is billed as a Spalding Gray-Inspired Comedy. A fan of the late Mr. Gray, I awaited references to him or his work. They never showed up. Nor did the comedy.
Happily, what did ensue in the cavernous space up four flights of stairs at Access Theater was a powerful performance. When we were granted admittance to the performing space, three actresses (Benedita Pereira, Emma Meltzer and Alexandra Zelman-Doring) and three musicians (Marc Uys, Naum Goldenstein and Mahir Cetiz) were already affecting the atmosphere with avant-garde musical stylings and experimental movement. A spare but interestingly rustic set was provided by Dan Spelman. A hand-crafted wooden version of a mic on a stand stood at the front of the playing space. Three tall weathered wooden columns marked points of the room where the actors stationed themselves.
The lovely Ms. Pereira took to the stage in a shockingly orange jumpsuit and offered some not very shocking truths – It’s hard to get work as an actor, LA kills your soul, love kills your willingness to take the abuse heaped upon actors – while gyrating and, confoundingly, speaking to the back wall. Perhaps she was speaking to the musicians who were set up there, in full free form style – offering squeaky bowings on the violin, random tootings on the clarinet, and irrhythmic bangings on the piano. “Oh, no,” I thought, “not an hour of dissonant experimental music and hysterical theatre – where’s the comedy? The musicians nearly drowned her out – and she was no slouch in the vocal department. A fine singer, and a good actor, when she wasn’t in a frenzy.
But then Benny (as she said she likes to be called) began enacting a story about doing a commercial for burritos, and she got me.
“I ate cold tortillas during the audition, unchewable, like rubber. Afterwards I had massive heart burn. At the call back they had little tortillas rolled with ham and cheese, then came the different burritos and enchiladas and the direction that I’m supposed to eat it like a man and spill it and have fun with my hands and the director tells me to play a guy and I become this truck driver cursing foda-se caralho puta que pariu esta merda toda cona da mae filhos da puta vao se foder caralho cona puta then he says, “a little less of the guy” and I got it, I got it.”
She concluded her third of the performance with a paragraph about “Que melodrama de merda…” and rejoined the other two women on the stage, at which point Ms. Meltzer came forward to tell a less “I-centric” tale. She started and ended her monologue with a reference to making a fire – “How am I supposed to make a fire, how do you expect me to make a fire?” that I never connected to the rest of what she was saying. I searched for a narrative thread. Dealing with people at the restaurant in her job as a restaurant hostess, visiting Vermont, giving a eulogy for her grandfather, seeing an old lover’s parents on the street – I missed the connection between topics, but her performance was so riveting I let that go. When she sang, a cappella, “Show me the way to go home” she had us all. She wove that disparate material together with simple, clean, grounded acting, punctuated with modern dance movements. The musicians played beautiful melodies that perfectly folded into the story. It was a balm after the hard jangle of the first musical selections.
The dramatist herself, Alexandra Zelman-Doring, was the third and final actor to present her story. More reflection on the art of the actor and more experimental stage movement and music. She opens with, “Don’t talk to me about my nose. Don’t ask how old I am. Where I’m from. Why I have a strange accent. Don’t ask me where I live. All I’ll tell you is—I’m clogged. Clogged like the drain in my shower full of bleak brown hair. Clogged like a swamp beneath a maze of tree roots. Wrapped in, layer after layer.”
She didn’t seem clogged. She was fluent in several languages, and offered us Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in German and a little John Patrick Shanley in Spanish. She told a tale about taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival (the bane of many actors’ existences). I had trouble finding the thread of the narrative. But once again the writer came up with a gem, a story of her father’s mother—and of her finding out, after her grandmother’s death, that she had written a book. She shares part of that book with us and it’s a powerful story, well-delivered. She concludes with this passage, “On the ferry ride back from Staten Island, this letter in hand, I was headed for a rehearsal. I was playing Hamlet. I thought of the “foul and most unnatural death” of Hamlet’s father. My whole skin came alive, all the cells in my body activated. And I thought: there are no coincidences. I had come to Staten Island as myself, and I left as Hamlet. Because who is Hamlet if not the person sitting on this ferry, bearing between two fingers the burden of this letter. Life always steps in to teach us our part.”
The three women begin to sing each other’s songs, each one beginning and ending with seeming disregard for where the others began or left off, and the expert musicians provide the backdrop as the strange but provoking show comes to a conclusion.
The audience is on their feet.