New Times / Art
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 15
Get that guy a hearing aidJenny Schwartz's tragicomic play God's Ear creates poetry from clichés
BY ANNA WELTNER
God’s Ear is a beautiful and frustrating prose poem of a play.
It’s beautiful in its way of taking clichéd phrases and warping them past recognition (What does it truly mean, after all, to be more than happy?), yet purposefully frustrating in its relentless repetition, like a child tugging at a mother’s sleeve.
Written by Jenny Schwartz and staged by the Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department under the direction of Al Schnupp, God’s Ear centers on married couple Mel and Ted (Kathryn Whisler and Mitch Owens) following the death of their 10-year-old son. Ted, who is some kind of generic businessman, travels compulsively, having affairs and avoiding his wife. At home, Mel is morose and mistrustful. In the wake of her sadness, everyday domestic tasks seem to take a dark turn. The dog takes a bite out of the electrician. Mel buys a pet fish that kills the other fish before committing fish suicide.
Caught between Mel and Ted is their young daughter Lanie (Emily Chau), who, with her wide-eyed curiosity, seems to represent the way the innocent slowly become aware of life’s injustices. Chau plays a 7-year-old uncannily well, veering in mere seconds from self-pity to radiant exuberance and back again. Lanie’s eerie little song at the beginning of the play (You can’t go anywhere today/because all of the cars are buried) effectively establishes the play’s emotional environment: hopeless yet comical, simple yet haunting.
God’s Ear opens with a prologue in which Mel and Ted are suspended by harnesses several feet off the ground. “He’s in a coma,” Mel tells us. She launches into a monologue that is part regurgitated medical jargon and part anguished lament. Ted offers a few helpful words here and there, but mostly stays silent. Waiting for news of their son’s condition, the two hang limply in space.
The story that follows is rather nonlinear, filled with powerful and memorable scenes that, upon reflection, one recalls vividly but has trouble placing in chronological order. Lanie asks her mother questions about God, which she can’t answer. Mel erupts over her husband’s infidelities. The tooth fairy (Bryana Georgakas) watches, offering unsolicited advice like “hate is a form of love.”
Ted travels a lot, pouring out his sorrows to a tarty woman called Lenora (Ellen Jones), a guy credited simply as “guy” (Devin O’Brien), and a transvestite flight attendant (Torin Lusebrink). Playwright Schwartz uses the latter character to dichotomize deep sadness with superficial displays of order and cheery professionalism. Unanswerable human questions are given glib, right-this-way-sir responses. To the flight attendant’s question, “Is there anything you want?” Ted expresses a slew of mournfully poetic wishes, musing, “I just want my tears to roll up my face instead of down my face.”
Ted carries on, the flight attendant responding by listing the prices of alcoholic beverages in every currency.
Schwartz’s script contains a number of absurd, prolonged tirades, which I imagine must prove rather demanding on the play’s actors. Mel delivers, for example, a lengthy monologue entirely comprised of clichés.
“And the fog will lift, and we’ll see eye to eye, and the cows will come home, and we’ll dance cheek to cheek … ,” she says wistfully. (After carrying on like this for more than a minute or so, is it even possible to keep those lines sounding spontaneous and natural? Can one even recall what spontaneity and naturalness are supposed to sound like?)
In another scene, Ted repeats the question “How’s the dog?” and Mel spits back a different answer each time, and dialogue takes on a weird, singsong-y quality. In both instances, the line between natural conversation and the recitation of memorized lines is blurred beyond recognition. Repetition takes the life out of the conversations, but gives new life to the words being spoken, in much the same way that repeated words start to take on an alien quality.
I’m making God’s Ear sound overly portentous. It’s not. The play is brilliantly funny almost as often as it is heartbreaking. Lusebrink’s transvestite flight attendant is simply inspired, as is his portrayal of G.I. Joe. (Oh yeah, G.I. Joe is in this play, too.) Jones’ Lenora is by turns glamorous, ditzy, and chillingly surreal, as if she were a character from Twin Peaks. Through Lenora, Schwartz expertly satirizes plebeian interests and syntactical idiosyncrasies. (“You know what I could live on is nachos.”) A scene in which Ted meets “guy” in a bar and tries to sell him his wife is also unexpectedly comical.
The world of God’s Ear is a constantly shifting one, where time and location and logic slip around without warning. Conversations double back on themselves. In this world of in-betweens, Schwarz works some kind of black magic, reaching into a pile of discarded clichés and pulling out line after line of raw, pulsating poetry.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner is as happy as clam. Contact her at email@example.com.