Mia Yoo remembers the first time she was baffled by a play: The man and the woman on the stage were completely silent and nearly immobile, an interaction so still yet so intense that her most vivid memory of the show was when an audience member farted; the rest of the audience laughed uproariously at that, but they did not do so right away; they waited until the show had ended. “Everybody understood not to laugh during the performance.”

 Yoo was seven years old at the time. The director was her father.

“I grew up in the theatre,” she says. “I had a lot of experiences of sitting and watching something that wasn’t coherent to me as a young person.”

Mia Yoo is now the artistic director of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, the downtown theatre founded by Yoo’s predecessor Ellen Stewart in 1961. She also recently performed at La MaMa in the first American production of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Pylade, one of several recent plays that I found difficult to follow. Two of the other plays, Fondly, Collette Richland and Lazarus, were both presented at New York Theatre Workshop. No one at NYTW was able to discuss these shows with me due to scheduling conflicts. By contrast, Yoo was generous with her time.

La MaMa and New York Theatre Workshop are across the street from one another in the East Village, an area full of theatres and companies that have been called avant-garde, experimental, and cutting-edge.

It is important to point out that complaints about a lack of clarity are not the sole domain of self-declared experimental work. The show in New York that got the most blatantly hostile reception last year was the Broadway production of David Mamet’s China Doll  starring Al Pacino—the negative reaction primarily because, as one critic wrote, it was “not easy to follow in terms of content, character or subtext,” or, as many theatregoers said, it was confusing.

Still, a discussion about clarity in the theatre is well timed for January, the month that abounds in theatre festivals in New York, coinciding with the annual convention of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. Most of these festivals promise not just new and innovative shows but, in the words of PSS122’s COIL festival, work that “attacks the very concept of boundaries and of limits.”

On January 5, Song, a piece by an Australian company called Ranters Theatre, was the first show in COIL this year, which is the earliest festival. We were ushered into the New Ohio Theatre, where the seats had been replaced by red felt mats, and we lay down for an hour, while the sun (or moon) before us turned from red to orange to silver to white and back again, and the sound track offered the sound of crickets, and waves, and the occasional folk song, and perhaps the distant yelps of a dingo. It was a lovely rest period, more pleasant and certainly longer than any I spent in kindergarten.

actors performing
Song. Photo by Jorge Lizalde.

The advantage for shows in these festivals, and in a place like La MaMa, is that the theatregoers drawn to them know what to expect—or more precisely, they expect not to know. “They are open to seeing something that is an experiment,” Yoo says, “as opposed to a polished ‘success.’”

actresses on stage
Kate Benson and Laurena Allan in Fondly, Collette Richland. Photo by Joan Marcus. 

On the other hand, Yoo notes, “we want everybody to feel like they can be here.”

This echoes something that playwright Sibyl Kempson told American Theatre Magazine at the time of her collaboration with the Elevator Repair Service (ERS) on Fondly, Collette Richland:

I do think my plays are for everyone. But if you’re coming to them with the need for a familiar structure, you might feel confused. If you come with the regular yardstick you use to measure plays, you’ll be disappointed. But with no yardstick there’s more openness. There’s a lot there to dig into. It’s a landscape.

For me, the key I eventually found to appreciating Fondly, Collette Richland was not to try to understand what was going on, but to let it wash over you—or to witness it the way one might a parade or a circus, just taking in the many funny moments, the vivid characters in colorful costumes, and the barrage of wild, loud, goofy, and frightening sounds. (For more details, read my review. Another comment that Kempson made—that her work is connected to her female awakening and female power—made me suddenly wonder, weeks after I wrote my review, whether she and ERS were executing a parody of traditional storytelling as a way of mocking and dismissing it as just another tool of the patriarchy.)

actor singing
Michael C. Hall in Lazarus. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

I had much the same approach to Lazarus, which was David Bowie’s first foray into writing for the theatre, featuring eighteen of his songs (four of them new), and is a sequel of sorts to the 1976 film in which he starred, The Man Who Fell to Earth. I enjoyed the musical numbers, and director Ivo van Hove’s aggressively inventive staging. The best thing I could say about Bowie and Enda Walsh’s script is that it was close to impossible to offer spoilers; it was not easy to describe what was going on, much less give it away. In other words, I enjoyed the theatrical spectacle of these shows, but I gave up on trying to figure out what they meant. This apparently made them a less frustrating experience for me than for those who walked out at intermission.

The experience of watching Pylade was similar, with a twist. The play, which we were told (in the marketing and the program) used the character in Greek mythology of Pylades to tell a story and frame a debate about power and democracy, featured abundant nudity, and a couple of sex scenes. Even if I could have parsed the language to follow the arguments, why would I have wanted to refocus in order to do so? Pylade was forceful, seductive, arousing—and I wasn’t the only one who found it incomprehensible.

people dancing
Marko Mandic, center, and the Pylade company.

Yoo’s own intern—somebody “who had never seen a man’s body before”—said to her: “what was that? What were you trying to do?” Yoo recounted:

I talked about Pasolini as a political writer who was exploring what makes power; what makes a leader; what is democracy. He was also an artist who used the human body and sexuality as representations of power and vulnerability. He wanted the audience to feel the human flesh right in front of them.

Pylade director Ivica Buljan also made an interesting distinction about his production, one I hear with more frequency. “The director said to us ‘I’m not thinking of this as theatre—I’m thinking of this as performance art,’” Yoo recalls. “In theatre, you use red dye or ketchup for blood. If we were to use blood here, it would have to be real.’” Luckily, they didn’t use blood, but “we do have bruises. People were putting their bodies out there.”

I can’t say I was doing the same with my mind. But my reaction to Pylade and the other shows did eventually get me thinking: Must theatre have clarity of purpose? Must it have meaning?

“The ability to move an audience to a different sphere of consciousness is what great art is about,” the violinist Itzhak Perlman said during Kennedy Center Honor for conductor Seiji Ozawa. He didn’t specify an art, but his world revolves around music. Does anybody feel frustrated for not being able to “understand” a work of music? Hasn’t Impressionism and 1950’s abstract painting gotten way past what art critic Robert Hughes called “The Shock of the New,” these works of art enjoyed now without a strained struggle to figure them out.

“Why can’t theatre be abstract?” Yoo asks. What, after all, is the definition of clarity? “There’s clarity of the body, there’s clarity of an image—something visual. There’s clarity of emotion. Clarity doesn’t just equal narrative storytelling.”

Playwright Sarah Ruhl, addressing dramaturges in one of the essays in her book 100 Essays, writes:

We need you to fight the mania for clarity, and help create a mania for beauty instead. We need you to ask: Is the play too clear?....We need you to remind audiences that plays are irreducible in meaning, the way that poetry is.

Even some of the hippest TV shows (Twin Peaks, Lost) have asked their viewers to rid themselves of the need for narrative coherence.

All this makes sense to me (or should I say I respond to it beautifully?) And yet, I rarely leave the theatre completely satisfied whenever some wonder-filled stagecraft has not been paired with a clear sense of lives unfolding, of a discernible story. I don’t feel similarly deprived when leaving museums or concert halls.

I can’t help being suspicious of works for the stage that feel deliberately unfathomable; I question whether this is the result of an honest artistic vision, of genuine artistic inquiry, or just a self-aggrandizing pose. I was struck by the claim made several years ago that Claude Monet painted the water lilies the way he did because that’s the way he saw them—he had cataracts that blurred his vision. I sometimes flatter myself into thinking I can tell which so-called cutting-edge theatre artists actually see the world the way they’re presenting it on stage.

I’ve found that the enduring works of theatre, no matter how experimental, do address the need for story one way or another. Rick Cluchey, who died this week, was a prison inmate with a life sentence, when he heard a production of Waiting for Godot (heard through the loudspeakers because he wasn’t allowed to sit in the auditorium, the warden fearing he was an escape risk.) The play struck him as a spot-on re-creation of prison life. The play turned his life around. Cluchey led a prison theatre troupe, was paroled early, became a leading interpreter of Beckett’s work, and, eventually a collaborator and friend of the dramatist himself.

My appreciation of Beckett was slower and less consequential. As a kid, I saw the experimental ensemble Mabou Mines perform several of his short plays. The company, founded in 1970 by Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech, offered a production full of strangely timed blackouts, odd dreamlike recitations, and bouts of nudity. What was going on was just outside my comprehension, the way a word can be on the tip of your tongue, but, yes, I thought it was beautiful.

picture of a Epidog
Rose from Mabou Mines’ An Epidog.

Years later, I was assigned to review an original show written by Mabou Mines’ Lee Breuer, entitled An Epidog. It was a story about an old dog named Rose, who was voiced by Maleczech, but portrayed by a puppet in the style of Japanese Bunraku puppet theatre, manipulated by men in black. (Weirdly, when my review was published, the newspaper ran an accompanying photograph of the puppet, identifying it as “Ruth Maleczech”) Mabou Mines seemed to throw everything into this show, from pointed political commentary to metaphysical meditations to dumb jokes. At one point or another, Rose was joined by frogs and snakes, pigs and ducks, in a Last Supper (actually a Last Brunch); by a geisha samurai on a Suzuki; and in an ashram attended by free-range chickens and other spirited animals, presided over by a cow named Sri Moo. “My sisters, I speak to you as a dog," Rose said on her hind legs. "And the animal in me tells the woman in me, I was not enslaved. I was domesticated."

The play was funny, it was pointed, and, then, it was sad: At the end, Rose died.

I walked home from the theatre, delighted with An Epidog—and was greeted by several urgent messages on my answering machine. They were from my editors: Why had I left An Epidog at intermission?

“What? The dog died!”

“In the second act,” they explained, “she’s in Heaven.”

Thanks to my faux pas, they had somebody announce at the end of Act I from then on that there would be a short intermission—just to be clear. Maybe their dedication to clarity has nothing to do with it, but Mabou Mines (despite the loss of one of its leaders, Ruth Maleczech, who died in 2013), is still going strong, with a new production running this month at La MaMa. 

Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of every month. Find his previous pieces here.