Sunday, January 19, 2020

Summit Performance's 'Be Here Now': An eerie comedy about how we shape identity and construct meaning

Carrie Ann Schlatter is one of several actors Indianapolis is fortunate to have who trigger our empathy the moment they appear onstage. In "Be Here Now," the Summit Performance production I saw Saturday night at the Phoenix's Basile Theater, it happened again. I thought: I don't know what is going on with this character, but I'm there.

Bemused co-workers Patty and Luanne listen to Bari's perspective.
That was in the first scene, when the voice of Georgeana Smith Wade as a yoga instructor booms the play's title, a phrase associated with a book by the late self-help guru Ram Dass, then proceeds with patiently intoned instructions. Schlatter's Bari, the troubled heroine of Deborah Zoe Laufer's play, is not having it. Two fellow practitioners, who we soon find out are her co-workers at a small-town "fulfillment center" (wrapping up various gewgaws, gimcrack and mass-produced talismans to be shipped out upon order), are fully invested in yoga.

My yoga skepticism may have played a role in my immediate sense of connection to Bari. Recently dealing with a bout of sciatica, I've resorted to exercises found online. One of them calls for you to face upward, lifting your upper body, while shoulders and feet are planted on the floor, then lower your back "one vertebra at a time."

I was perplexed. How can anyone do that? I asked my wife, who has had some yoga experience. It's just yoga-talk, she explained to me: for you it means to gradually lower your back onto the mat. Oh. No need to train my discs to march downward in single file, then. Good.

Well, there's quickly a lot more to learn about Bari, and she spills her guts at the shop to Patty and Luanne. One of the peculiarities of "Be Here Now" is that it violates our notions of "fulfillment centers" as soul-crushing factory outposts of the Amazon behemoth. I had no idea there are boutique-sized fulfillment centers in small towns. So as they carry out packing duties, involving such deceptions as removing "made in China" labels from items marketed as authentically Tibetan, the three women dish cozily about romance and the meaning of life.

Patty and Luanne, members of the same large family who gave their surname to the town Cooperville, find their faith in astrology and Christianity, respectively, shored up by mood-lifting medication. Bari rips the Coopers' manufactured happiness from a stance of militant atheism. She's an academic ABD (all but dissertation) in philosophy, her graduate-student teaching duties in suspension for the time being. We are asked to believe that her teaching specialty is nihilism, from which she keeps no scholarly distance whatsoever. It seems odd that an adjunct instructor would be given the narrow focus of nihilism rather than, say, Introduction to Philosophy.

The play gives me a few problems, but the production is top-drawer in all respects. Schlatter not only delivers on the spectacular impression she made in Summit Performance's 2018 maiden voyage, "Silent Sky," in a much different role; she also keeps us fascinated even as we're getting a bit tired of the role's longwindedness. The other three players sustain our attention and earn our trust as well: Cynthia Collins as the assertive shop manager Patty, Zariya Butler as the perky ingenue Luanne, and Ryan Ruckman as Mike, yet another Cooper, who's been set up by his relatives to meet Bari as a way to lift her spirits. Maybe she will find that life isn't pointless, after all.

Bari is dubious as she attempts to lend a hand to Mike's sanding of a discarded chair.
Mike comes on as a man used to non-attachment to humanity, but even in his laconic manner with Bari at first, not incapable of sympathy. He is blunt and terse in expression and mainly interested in keeping his eye peeled for discarded items that he can put to use building houses out of junk.

One of the puzzles of the script is that neither he nor Bari ever uses any other word for this raw material than "garbage," which of course covers what we also call junk or trash, but extends to food waste as well. I'm guessing that the playwright wanted the notion of the stuff we throw out to have the resonance of what quickly decays and attracts maggots and rats: the physical evanescence of life in spoilage. Of course, Mike's garbage has to be barely diodegradable, so that it can be the basis for his constructive visions, coveted examples of which have stunningly brought him today's pot of gold for creative types — a MacArthur fellowship.

One begins to wonder which of his interests, as well as this family-built town of the same name as a pioneering American author (whose father established the real Cooperstown), may have literary forebears? Is Mike the playwright's version of James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, the hero of several novels collectively called "Leather-Stocking Tales"? Mike's primitive lifestyle, his rejection of big-city ways, and other disciplined attributes come close to the Oxford Companion to American Literature's description of Natty: "Generous both to friends and to enemies, he possesses a simple staunch morality, and a cool nerve and never-failing resourcefulness."

Mike turns out to have guilt-steeped reasons for leaving New York City. That puts his search for life's meaning on a much different plane from the James Fenimore Cooper character.  Those reasons help explain chinks in Mike's "cool nerve" as he must decide how to deal with Bari's recurrent seizures, which present her with ecstatic visions of the peace and harmony she is incapable of realizing in her everyday life. These spells are beautifully manifested outside Bari's head in the sound and lighting design (Lindsey Lyddan and Laura E. Glover).

Directed astutely by Amy Lynn Budd with Lauren Briggeman's additional direction, there's a striving quality to "Be Here Now" that makes it endearing even as it puzzles. Its style may be derived, like so much modern drama, from  Chekhov's gentle comedies of ordinariness and its disappointments. It's a realism tweaked by visionary outbursts that draw upon the expressionism of Strindberg.

Coopersville is a modern town in many respects — everyone but Mike has an iPhone — but also resembles a timeless folk community. How come Mike and Bari plan to meet for lunch at a restaurant that's closed, and in a later scene, is confirmed as having been abandoned? Doesn't everyone nowadays check restaurant hours online beforehand? Word of mouth seems to be the major medium of communication, even though emergency calls and contemporary brain surgery play crucial roles in the plot of "Be Here Now."

It may be helpful, if not a further distraction, to evoke a book by an older counterculture contemporary of Ram Dass, Alan Watts, who 50-odd years ago wrote "The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are." Both Bari and Mike seem victims of this taboo, alienating them from their real identity. A long-undiagnosed illness and a horrible accident played their separate parts in erecting each individual taboo. At the end, their mutual need to come to grips with who they are makes this  a peculiarly fraught romantic comedy.

It also bears signs of wanting to be allegory, a form best known in the English-speaking world through John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." This pious dream fantasy had pride of place alongside the Bible in Protestant homes for over two centuries. Modern allegorical novels (though they are also serious literary parodies) include John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" (the Cain and Abel story) and Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres" ("King Lear").

The way the three women speak to each other in the shop makes them emblematic of contrasting views of life's significance; they are fully embodied in performance, yet seem rather two-dimensional. Then you have contemporary terms of art that could almost be Bunyanesque locations, symbolizing major way stations of pilgrimage that deserve capitalization. The unfulfilled Bari works grudgingly in a Fulfillment Center; Mike has had his big-city career in Mergers and Acquisitions destroyed, and must concoct mergers and acquisitions of his own. He has been forced to escape the metropolitan Vanity Fair just as decisively as Bari's pilgrimage has led her into the Slough of Despond, where guilt and self-hatred swamp her.

Allegorical language can be catching. So I will conclude by easing my Pain of Puzzlement down upon the Mat of Understanding. I've done it numbering one Interpretive Vertebra at a time here as the Belabored Back  laboriously descends. To everyone else who sees "Be Here Now," I wish a Gentle Lowering. I think you'll find it an exercise worth undertaking. There are laughs along the way, the enthrallment of mystery, and relief at the end.

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