Theater review: Words from home

In Imago's 'Title and Deed" Todd Van Voris is quizzical edging toward melancholy

At the start of Imago Theatre’s production of Title and Deed, a monologue by Will Eno, the actor Todd Van Voris enters — or not quite. He appears at the curtained doorway between the theater’s main hallway and auditorium, but before he crosses the threshold he hesitates, peering at the audience curiously though not unkindly. Eventually he steps into the stage space, adjusts the lighting with a control board placed downstage left, then after a spell tells us matter-of-factly, “I’m not from here.”

Not just the manner of that entrance but the manner of Van Voris’ entire performance underscores that notion: We’re watching and listening to a man who is with us but not of us. He is present and engaging, but engaged himself in musings and memories of somewhere else. He is familiar yet strange; his life has been unusual, and just like ours. He is away from home. And therefore he is — in a sense that’s not so much directional or aspirational as it is existential — homeward bound, tangled in the ties that bind, no matter where he hangs his hat.

Todd Van Voris gets into the ring with the powerful wordplay of Will Eno’s “Title and Deed” at Imago Theatre, and everyone wins. Photo: Sumi Wu

Home is the putative central theme of the piece, though it’s addressed with the discursive, philosophically comic pointillism that makes Eno’s work so distinctive and so hard to pin down. “Home, where the hat’s hanging and the placenta’s buried,” Van Voris’ nameless character says at one point. That’s just one of the many characteristic Enoisms sprinkled through these 90 minutes — curlicues of pithy observation, droll wordplay, jokey logic, curiously inverted cliches and so on, little windows in which we might glimpse something of the human condition, or at least catch our own reflections glinting off the glass at a new angle: “If you’re half a man — and I can say without bragging that I am…” “(S)tarting out in the world, one foot in the grave and the other in my mouth, and how’s anyone supposed to walk like that?” “I’m describing it (a funeral) from the perspective of the living — which is how we see everything.”

The character talks to the audience, but he doesn’t tell a story. He’s frequently hilarious, although never playing for laughs. And though part of what he talks about is the place he’s from (never specified, and described mostly in terms of its fanciful customs), we gradually gather that home, as Eno is considering it, isn’t a geographical matter. It’s cultural, surely, but more so relational, emotional, or — here’s that word again — existential. It’s even biological. One of the most resonant threads touches on the man’s connection to his mother.  “Prior to the flood, and the word flood, we all came from blood, and salt water, and a screaming mother begging us to leave.” There, in one bravura sentence that manages to nod toward Biblical origin myths, evolution, and the pain of childbirth, before ending as a joke, is the implication that everyone’s true home is mother.

This being an Eno play, what also gets talked about is language; that is, it’s talking about talking. And much of the magic is in how Eno’s fascination with language leads back to, weaves through and illuminates from within all his other thematic concerns. “We have a word, ‘somewhere.’ We have a word, ‘nowhere,’” the man reflects. “I guess there was a need. I guess we needed words for places, even if we didn’t have the places.”

Eno’s kaleidoscopic language is a marvel — albeit less so than in his earlier, more emotionally piercing monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing), which Van Voris plumbed last year in a production for Crave Theater. Its richly layered meanings are both opportunity and challenge to an actor, though, and this production surely benefits from Van Voris’ skill and scrupulous preparation. Writing about the original 2012 production of Title and Deed, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times described it as “a bit more whimsical” than Thom Pain, but the Imago version, directed by Jerry Mouawad doesn’t fit that bill.

Van Voris is justly lauded for the richness of his voice, but here he employs an unassumingly soft, sometimes questing, sometimes ruminative tone and delineates character more through subtle movements and gestures — tiny shakes of the head, blinks, little feints of facial expression, short steps in a tentative shuffle across the floor. He seems friendly, but a tad shy, unsure of the place he finds himself. As costumed by Sumi Wu, he’s a bit overdressed for a hot August night, in a suit of muted green tones suggestive of a quiet earth. Jon Farley’s lighting design buffers him with dim golden pools and noir-ish shadows or, alternately, sets him unabashedly in open fields of bright white. The overall effect is not whimsical so much as quizzical edging slowly toward melancholy. The abundant wry humor of his tales from home and his thoughts on the differences between here and there slowly give way to a recognition of a shared predicament.

“I sound so dour; and I’m not,” he declares.

And perhaps he really isn’t. It’s hard to tell. He’s not from here.

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