Thursday, April 6, 2017

Butler Theatre enters university's ArtsFest examining attention deficits and surpluses in 'Love and Information'

The first scene of "Love and Information" is a skirmish about secrets.
Recalling the parade of theatrical squibs and sketches in Butler Theatre's "Love and Information" as best I can, what leaps to  mind first is the show's only song.

I saw the student production of Caryl Churchill's 2012 play in a preview performance Wednesday evening in the Lilly Hall Studio Theatre. The British playwright's work is fleetingly satirical in its deadpan scrutiny of how we process, retain, and distort the flood of information we subject ourselves to.

Yet, as the title's first word makes clear, the contemporary difficulty of doing so reflects and amplifies the age-old woes of love — its manipulativeness, its self-protective strategizing, its withholding and sharing of information, and the emotional cost of all this, topped by inevitable misunderstandings.

About that song*: It seems to satirize the singer-songwriter phenomenon. A recorded piano accompaniment, ostensibly played onstage by a character who says he can't play the piano, meanders soulfully behind the singer's tracing of a melodic line's attempt to find a catchy tune. One of the lines runs: "Eternity stinks, my darling, and that's no joke."

How very singer-songwriter, I thought. Later, it occurred to me the line is an up-to-date gloss on a famous 17-century poem, Andrew Marvell's  "To His Coy Mistress." It's not a far-fetched comparison, in that the poem is a declaration of love chock full of information, ranging across time and geography as it attempts to close the deal, disarming the mistress' coyness. Eternity does indeed stink, when considered under the aspect of love: "...worms shall try / That long preserved virginity / And your quaint honour turn to dust / And into ashes all my lust."

Successful seduction involves capturing the attention of the desired person and holding it through rhetorical appeals. Seduction, like rhetoric as well, has come down in the world (viz., the "Access Hollywood" video and the rhetorical ADHD of its protagonist). Resisting distractions, deliberate and otherwise, would seem to be essential. Today, our connectivity — the multiple fruits of technology — makes distractions meat and drink to us.

Churchill's play thus moves distractions front and center. The segments contain no development. They comprise a stunning array of lengths and clarity: A seated, withdrawn woman resists interaction, and that's that. Another enters with a partial recitation of the "sevens" multiplication table. Those are on the short side. There are relatively lengthy episodes of conversational wheel-spinning, some trying to find solid ground beneath shifting perspectives on intimate relationships, a few addressing intellectual and political disputes.

The ability of the show's dozen student actors to invest fully in these sketches is remarkable. The audience's understandable curiosity about where a particular interaction is going is thwarted time and again. Eventually, being repeatedly blocked like this imparts a rhythm to the show that is oddly satisfying. If we keep at it, we become one with the intrepid Alice in "Through the Looking-Glass," parrying Humpty Dumpty's quibbles and holding on to common sense like a lifeline.

William Fisher directs the cast, giving each scene a spatial integrity and a firmness that's belied by the puzzles every one of them throws at the audience. The smoothly coordinated movement of the actors is complemented by Connor Avery's lighting. Projections on the backdrop reinforce some of the sketches. Video close-ups of varying intensity play games with our feeling of closeness to the dialogue. These shifts speak to the range of difficulty we may have interpreting what people mean, even when they are close to us emotionally as well as physically.

The changing role of memory in today's world is filtered through the Churchill prism impressively. One of the larger ensemble sketches has characters fascinated by the video of a wedding; one guest wonders what there would remain of that experience if not for the video. Another sketch draws upon a mnemonic device from ancient rhetoric: "the palace of memory" or "loci" (places), in which what one must recall is ordered through the imaginative placement of things in rooms of a building one is familiar with and revisits in order. When love interferes with that ordering of information, as a character suddenly sees her father in the bedroom in the disturbing emergence of a memory she didn't know she had, the usefulness of the device disintegrates.

"Love and Information" begs for interpretation through a Borgesian lens. Jorge Luis Borges is the literary icon of cultural and personal memory. Two things he wrote may assist in absorbing this adept production. One is an aphorism: "Love is a religion whose god is fallible." The other provokes an even more disturbing thought: What if our world of distractions, our shortened attention span, compromises both love and intellectual function? At the end of his short story "Funes the Memorious," Borges writes: "To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence."

 How much immediacy do we need? There's got to be a limit. Love also seems to require a level of abstraction and generalization, so we don't become bogged down in parsing every thought and action of those close to us, opening up countless paths of irrelevance, like the woman who receives a bouquet in "Love and Information" and falls into a long, arcane monologue about the meaning of color. The universe of digitized information may be an all-devouring trap, like the potential of the world's spiders (which I've recently learned about through various media) to consume all the world's people.

Enter this show to the original twittering (of birds) and watch your video reflection, dimly lighted across from you, before the show starts. Then get ready to sink into the mysteries of distraction and for a labyrinthine conversation with Humpty Dumpty.

[*I took the song to be Churchill's creation and a touch of satire relevant to her theme. Director William Fisher informed me on April 6 that the song is in fact Elvis Costello's "The Birds Will Still Be Singing." I can only plead my overall ignorance of pop music of the past 40 years. I decided to let the mistake stand rather than correct it in the text. Critics' mistakes are not rare, and are deplorable in various degrees, depending on one's view of critics. When preparing to review "My Fair Lady" recently, I listened to an old LP of the movie soundtrack. Inside was a program note by Brooks Atkinson, the dean of American theater critics of the past mid-century. He had attended and lauded the musical's premiere. In text presumably checked over by him and others before publication, he quotes a line in one of the most famous "My Fair Lady" songs as "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain." Even Homer nods.]