Walking into Imago Theatre’s Southeast Portland performance space to see To Fly Again, Jerry Mouawad’s verbally nimble, visually wonderful and profoundly light-hearted new show, you enter a strange yet familiar landscape, a rolling plain of sand like a beach’s or a desert’s, a wilderness broken only by a single tree. Quite like that place where Didi and Gogo hang out, waiting and waiting for Godot.
This is no accident. “I cast four actors who had a ‘clown state’ somewhere inside them,” Mouawad told ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley a few days before the show opened. “I think I’ve flushed out their clowns.” He elaborated: “I thought, ‘Yes, clowns should do Beckett.’ However, I didn’t want to do Beckett. I like Beckett but I wanted something with less of a down quality.”
So, not Waiting for Godot, but a variant, an homage, an elaboration, a playful riff that is funny and oddly touching on its own, and funnier and more touching the more you know about Beckett and Godot. The action, such as it is, centers on a quartet of oddball characters, a sort of wandering family-by-default, known as Stink Bomb, Tater, Togo, and Bob (Mark Mullaney, the divinely hesitant Stephanie Woods, Nathaniel Holder and Jake Ottoson, respectively). They do and say the sorts of things that wandering families-by-default in Beckett plays tend to do and say, although Mouawad has given their terse dialogue his own knowing, tongue-in-cheek twists. Their snatches of conversation are proto-Beckettian, coming from nowhere, meaning nothing or everything, and delivered with a deadpan Sad Sack seriousness that, taken with the shambling baggy-pants quality of the whole affair, are frightfully funny:
“No thinking. I don’t think.”
“Film is a lie.”
“Film can hurt.”
Stink Bomb has memories; something about a Ramada Inn. Tater, who can giggle like a piccolo with the hiccups, also breaks into paroxysms of existential weeping. Bob thinks he might’ve been Arnold, back before. All four play an unending impromptu of The Dating Game, even though they know television is dead, Tater recurringly choosing and then un-choosing from among her three bachelors.
Ah, life. Ah, the patterns of existence. Ah, the unchanging variety of it all! And then, unexpectedly, they meet: the four clowns and a new, unspeaking quartet of dancers, accompanied and preceded by a diminutive drummer, a sort of John the Baptist of the chorus line, rolling her announcements smoothly from her snare. They are a remarkable lot, these dancers, fleshly apparitions who speak only in their movement, which is light and sturdy and altogether remarkable, and who seem to appear like terra-cotta figures uncovered from a buried tomb and sprung to life. Sprightly and alluring and just a little dangerous, they sweep through space in sand-like shades of white and brown and gray that shift with the light, seeming sometimes like adobe or wet clay and at others like fleeting shafts of silver.
And, do they dance! This counter-family-by-default is made up of dancers Emma Holland, Andrea Larreta, Kaician Kitcko and Nathan HG, and drummer Amy Katrina Bryan, and the fluidity of their movement is mime-like, musical (the show’s actual sound and music are impeccably chosen and never overplayed), lifting their performance into something like a dream-state. They challenge, and disappear, and arrive again, and challenge, and disappear again; who knows why or how or where? The ashen drummer fascinates Tater, who reaches out and longs to follow: Will she? Should she? Can she?
In truth, though one group is dancers and one group is talkers, they are all dancers, from the music-hall shuffles and bumps of Tater and her gang to the dreamier movements of their johnny-come-lately rivals in space. This entire performance is a dance, in the way that an early Fellini movie or a silent comedy is a dance: movement is life. To Fly Again is all of a piece, a nearly seamless coming-together of theatrical elements. Sumi Wu’s wondrous costumes blend beautifully with Mouawad’s overall vision and design, and Mouawad credits the cast in the program “for their contributions to choreography and the script.”
It’s easy to say what To Fly Again is like: a big dollop of Waiting for Godot; a splash of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author; a jigger of Mad Max; and, as ArtsWatch dance writer Martha Ullman West noted after the show, a few drops of Fellini’s dreamscape La Strada, with Tater in the role of the gamine Giulietta Masina. It’s harder to put into words what To Fly Again is, except to say that it’s playful and serious and gentle and harsh and fluid and prickly and utterly, dreamily theatrical. The play enters into Beckett’s existential territory, a territory where God either does not exist or does not care, and yet in the lighter atmosphere of To Fly Again this seems to matter less either way: the universe spins on.
Mouawad’s own description, from the show’s press release, perhaps explains the simple mystery of the thing as well as it can be explained: “A zany group of clown musicians and a clan of clay-tossed dancers roam a barren land … The clowns’ thoughts arise and pass like clouds, the dating game appears out of nowhere in clashes of absurdity, while joy and pathos skim their nonsensical wordplay as the clowns search for a suitable place to make camp. Psychedelic and existential humor pervades; the clowns are constantly interrupted by a clan of dusty dancers who live in a world beyond speech. Tater, the most vulnerable of the clowns, yearns to fly again. Questions open up to further questioning, and talk of sadness is eclipsed by looking at the stars.”
Perhaps most notably, To Fly Again is Mouawad at his most effortless, a grand and gentle, disarmingly assured coming-together of his considerable skills. And in any art form, making a thing seem effortless is the most difficult thing you can do. This premiere production has an all-too-brief run, closing on Saturday, and I heartily wish for every one of Imago’s seats to be filled for its two remaining performances, Friday and Saturday nights. I further heartily wish for a longer and well-attended run sometime in the future.
In the meantime, there is this: A morning and an evening. A meeting and a departing. A longing to go and a desire to stay. Over and over, like a ritual, like a compulsion. Something happens. Something always happens. Even if it’s nothing. That’s life.
The premiere production of To Fly Again played May 4-6 at Imago Theatre and has two final performances, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 11-12. Ticket information here.