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Performing Age

Mallory Catlett’s This Was The End

Vanya runs around the stage in lapses for what seems like an eternity.

Vanya and Astrov fight to the ground.

Yelena rides on a swing.

Sonya wears braided pigtails and chases her own projected reflection.

Yelena and Astrov make out.

These are just some of the youthful images that stood out for me in early March when I saw New York based director Mallory Catlett’s acclaimed adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, titled This Was the End, which premiered at the experimental performance hotspot Chocolate Factory Theater. It featured four actors in their sixties and seventies playing the roles of Sonya, Vanya, Astrov, and Yelena: seasoned downtown theater veterans Black Eyed Susan, Paul Zimet, James Himelsbach, and Rae C Wright. For each performance, they attempted to try to get to the end of Uncle Vanya in order to alter its outcome, when Sonya utters her infamous closing lines to her uncle: “What can we do? We must live our lives… both now and when we are old… we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow…” Often associated with frustrated hopes, a longing for a better life, a nostalgia filled with regret, a wallowing in self-pity that characterizes many of Chekhov’s plays, it is a difficult scene to stage, one that Catlett had never seen work before. Somehow she envisioned it happening years later, with Vanya and Sonya much older, and Sonya still looking after Vanya.

an actor on stage
Scene from This Was The End by Mallory Catlett. Photo by Brian Rogers.

“I wanted to deal with issues that all arise when we get older—memory loss, dependence on medication, sleeping disorders,” she explained to me in an email exchange. “I see them now less as disorders than just the signs of a changing mind and body. Things we need less or more of as we age. Maybe in preparation for death or for a better appreciation of the present.”

We see aged performers running, dancing, making out, fighting, and also trying to remember lines, trying to remember what happens, trying to remember where they were when it all happened. The performers don’t pretend to forget: they deliberately never fully learned their lines.

So This is the End is Catlett’s answer to Vanya’s question “What if I live to be 60?” as well as a meditation on aging itself. It deals with aging as the universal condition of mortality, the inevitable truth that (if we are lucky) we will grow old. We see aged performers running, dancing, making out, fighting, and also trying to remember lines, trying to remember what happens, trying to remember where they were when it all happened. The performers don’t pretend to forget: they deliberately never fully learned their lines. As Catlett points out: “The piece required no memorization. Text was triggered or improvised. [The actors] had a working knowledge of the material, but actually needed to sort of forget it to play the scenes correctly.” The performers recorded the text over the course of the five-year time period it took to develop the piece (itself an aging process) and during the show spoke over their own pre-recorded voices, mixed live onstage by sound artist G. Lucas Crane. As such, the entire performance is a sort of re-forgetting, where the act of memory becomes the central through line for Catlett’s “visceral exploration of aging.”

Catlett uses this layering device throughout the whole piece. Not only do we hear past utterances and feats reenacted, we see past images of the set (designed by Peter Ksander)—an actual 16 X 7 foot wall taken from Mabou Mines’ studio, which was salvaged from PS122 before it closed for renovation, complete with sliding door—projected onto the same wall before us. More than just a trompe l'oeil, this results in a metaphysical device about life itself: the past is present in every moment lived. We witness the aging bodies on stage chase after their past lives, happening before them, in real time projections. The only fully memorized scene in the whole performance is the last one, where Black Eyed Susan, who plays Sonya, delivers Chekhov’s acclaimed final lines. We’ve heard the words before; seen the play; know what happens. It’s like the performers/characters in front of us are trapped in a time warp, a sort of time machine that’s gone mad, rewinding and fast-forwarding simultaneously.

an actor on stage
Scene from This Was The End. Photo by Brian Rogers.

When I asked Catlett whether they discussed “representing” age onstage and how much input the ensemble gave in terms of their portrayal of aging, she explained that they actually did not spend a lot of time on this, but rather, “talked about playing younger as in the time of the play… Vanya/Paul is just playing Vanya at 47. He is stuck in the past. Nothing has changed for him internally. But each character is constantly engaging with the younger self.” She added however, that the cast doesn’t “have to play older. They are their age. They have to be honest about that—be willing to reveal that. This piece was made for them and by them; with their abilities and proclivities. The structure of the piece was arrived at through the adoption of certain principles that features their gifts as performers.”

an actor on stage
Scene from This Was The End. Photo by Brian Rogers.

As with This Was The End, there have been a slew of contemporary pieces that incorporate older actors who don’t necessarily “play” age—pretend to be younger or older—but instead portray the experience of aging. Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof with Ladies and Gentlemen over ’65 in 2000, for example, was a restaging of the original 1978 version cast with 25 local “non-dancers” from Wuppertal, Germany chosen from 150 elderly amateurs who responded to a local newspaper ad. In 2010, Dutch artist Dries Ver Hoeven created Empty Hands with two generations who share the stage—five people under 10 and five over 70—and the audience sits in between them. Yo en el Futuro (Me in the Future) created in 2009 by Argentinean artist Federico Leon, was a performance where homemade videos from the 1950s are introduced by their makers (now in their 70s) who recruit children to act out the scenes they filmed so many years ago. Lola Arias’ most recent autobiographical work, Melancholy and Demonstrations, which tells the story of her mother and her battle with depression, has an ensemble of performers over 75 who accompany Arias on stage. As with Catlett, these artists are interested in creating live frameworks in which the construct of age is not only presented; it is brought to the forefront. The performers’ age is a real and authentic presence, as opposed to any portrayal of such characters by another, younger body.

Where This Was the End stood out was in playing with age in two ways. The first was with the presence of older bodies onstage, having an elder cast be their age and all the ages they have ever been. “Combined you got to watch over 100 years of experience,” as Catlett told me. The second was with the layering of media—images and sound triggered from the past—onto the present. In this sense, the entire performance was “aging” before us. It was a relic of earlier moments, endlessly repeated, time and time again.

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