‘Human Noise’: Music in Carver Land

Imago Theatre's choreographed take on Raymond Carver short stories may activate your interpretive juices

“Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple. But now and then they felt they alone among their circle had been passed by somehow.”

That’s how Raymond Carver’s 1970 story “Neighbors” begins, and that’s exactly how Imago’s version of the story in “Human Noise” begins, too, with the narration. Also with Nathan Wonder, Danielle Vermette, Michael Streeter and Carol Triffle on stage, the bare outlines of two apartments, and a percussive score (Kyle Delamarter is the sound designer) in the background.

Michael Streeter and Carol Triffle in “Human Noise” at Imago Theatre/Photo by Jerry Mouawad

Streeter and Triffle take over the narration and dialogue after their neighbors in the story, Wonder and Vermette, leave on vacation, reciting Carver’s words, punctuated by the odd fling of the arm when a sudden, loud percussion cue demands it. The story turns weird: Bill goes over to his neighbors’ apartment to feed their cat, and alone in that space, he starts to explore. “The air was already heavy and it was vaguely sweet.” He tends to kitty, then opens the liquor cabinet and takes a couple of pulls from a bottle of Chivas Regal (an imaginary bottle, actually). When he returns to Arlene, he finds himself in an amorous mood.

“What kept you?” Arlene said. She sat with her legs turned under her, watching television.

“Nothing. Playing with Kitty,” he said, and went over to her and touched her breasts.

*****

Carver (1938-1988) was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, grew up in Yakima, Washington, and kicked around California in a nomadic life organized around stints at various universities (where he frequently failed to achieve the degree requirements) and teaching jobs. His mentors included the novelist John Gardner and the editor Gordon Lish, among others, and a serious, ongoing bout with alcoholism limited his output to five published short story collections (and other books selected from these). Much of his best work came after he fell in love with writer Tess Gallagher and kicked his alcohol problem in the late 1970s.

For “Human Noise,” director Jerry Mouawad selected three of these stories to enact, along with a poem—Carver also was a poet. The evening starts with the obviously comic “Neighbors,” moves to the similarly comic (though with a darker subtext) “A Serious Talk,” and after intermission concludes with the more tragic “Gazebo” and the poem “Torture,” which acts as a madcap coda to the evening.

I think the general understanding of Carver is that he was a bleak existentialist, a language minimalist who pared his stories and his working class characters back to the bone and then maybe cracked those bones for the marrow inside (just to keep that metaphor going a bit). “Human Noise” is mostly funny, in a dark way, like the fiction of Richard Ford or Tobias Wolff, who were his contemporaries, and that was a little startling, at least to me. The actors had a lot to do with this—especially Triffle and Streeter in “Neighbors” and Nathan Wonder and Danielle Vermette in “A Serious Talk.” They found the humor in their stories and exploited it.

*****

Maybe just a quick run through the stories? You get the idea on “Neighbors,” right? Every time Streeter’s Bill goes back to feed the cat and water the plants he gets a little more familiar with its contents. He eats the food in the fridge, for example, spreads himself out on the bed, tries on Jim’s clothes and tries on Harriet’s, too, at least the lingerie—the shoes are too small. And when he gets back to the apartment, he’s, um, animated in a way that Arlene hasn’t seen before. After she takes a turn “feeding the kitty,” they become co-conspirators…and a comic conclusion awaits.

In this first act, the audience has to get used to the characters spilling the narration as well as their own few lines of dialog. It doesn’t take long, actually. And by the time Wonder and Vermette take the stage for “A Serious Talk,” we get the format completely from the beginning.

Nathan Wonder and Danielle Vermette in “Human Noise” at Imago Theatre/Photo by Jerry Mouawad

The marriage of Vera and Burt has broken up, and she seems to have moved on, though she also seems to leave the door cracked open a bit. Burt hasn’t moved on at all. He’s campaigning to get Vera and their kids back, but he can’t control himself long enough to make a reasonable case. No, that’s wrong. He can’t control himself long enough to keep from doing completely crazy stuff. Wonder is terrific at portraying a sort of Everyman who immediately migrates toward the most disastrous outcomes, and Vermette invites him in and then by the end can’t believe that she’s so stupid. That transition is delicious to watch.

By the end Burt is completely delusional:

“He was not certain, but he thought he had proved something. He hoped he had made something clear. The thing was, they had to have a serious talk soon.”

Uh, no, Burt. I’m afraid this short story is over.

*****

“That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.”

That’s how “Gazebo” starts. Duane (Bryan Smith) and Holly (Emily Elizabeth Welch) are a couple who manage a motel (free room included), and after years of apparent fidelity, Duane has fallen off the wagon, courtesy of Juanita (Sara Fay Goldman), a maid who cleans rooms for them. Duane is so conflicted—he loves Holly, but he’s mad for Juanita. Holly medicates herself with Scotch, but emerges into crying jags and dashes for the second story window.

Emily Elizabeth Welch in “Human Noise” at Imago Theatre/Photo by Jerry Mouawad

They talk, they remember, they fight, he begs.

“Holly goes, “You’ve gone outside the marriage. It’s trust that you killed.”

I get down on my knees and I start to beg. But I am thinking of Juanita. This is awful. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me or to anyone else in the world.”

Holly knows it’s over, though. And deep down so does Duane.

“Torture” involves everyone in a sort of poetic dream that Nathan Wonder has about falling in love with “a South American general’s daughter.” It’s choreographed—a dance, a dream, a poem. But then Imago is a theater that focuses on movement.

“Dance with me, you imagine hearing her say
as you reach for the empty beaker of water.
Dance with me, she says again and no mistake.”

And so you dance “across wide open spaces,” even though you know that this particular dalliance is particularly dangerous.

*****

So, yes, this is Carver land. Humans are humans, which means they aren’t angels—though maybe they aren’t devils, either, at least not all the time. They are confused, they confuse themselves and each other, they like the confusion of drink (alcohol figures in all three of these stories). Even in the darkness of confusion, they lurch toward the light, but sometimes it’s too late. They are weak, but they can endure a lot of pain. Sometimes, this all seems so tragic. Sometimes, it seems pretty funny—at least until your own confusion starts to befuddle your own senses.

Sara Fay Goldman, Danielle Vermette and Emily Elizabeth Welch in Imago’s “Human Noise”/Photo by Jerry Mouawad

Mouawad’s instinct to align with Carver pays off by giving us a texture that those bare words on the page don’t deliver. And though our imaginations can elaborate on them a lot, if we are so disposed, Mouawad makes it easier to enter that interpretive realm, even if you don’t quite see it the same way he and his actors do.

*****

“Human Noise” continues through September 30 at Imago Theatre, 17 SE Eighth Ave. On closing night, Tess Gallagher will read selections from her work prior to the show. Read her interview with Danielle Vermette about Carver.

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