I am, as a general rule, willing to meet concept art way more than halfway. There are abstract and minimalist paintings I will fiercely defend. I can sincerely enjoy a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, aka the easiest payday a professional musician ever sees.
But The State, a “one-act” “play” going on in Woolly Mammoth’s black box space for five “performances” only, doesn’t bring enough meat to the table for the amount of action it demands from its audience. It’s not the worst concept in the world, but it often feels more annoying than enlightening.
Programs and advance material tell us this the story of Plamen Goranov, a Bulgarian man who died in 2013 after setting himself on fire in a combination of despair and activism. Now, now, I know what you’re thinking: “Tristan, ANOTHER self-immolation Bulgarian protest piece?!” But stick with me.
Red flag: No cast is listed. No director, no music, only “Creator” Alexander Manuiloff.
Seating is an enormous circle, surrounding a table under a hanging microphone and a drop-spot — the only real lighting to speak of — with a small wooden box and a metal bucket. What’s in the box? Oh, you’ll see.
For a full 10 minutes on Wednesday, we sat there in silence, waiting. Nothing but coughs and shuffling as theatre and theatregoers had a staring contest (perhaps it was 4’33” after all?). Eventually, two of the bolder among us got up, walked over, and started opening some of the many sealed envelopes inside the box, reading the contents aloud before discarding each and returning to their seats. Sooner or later, someone else would rise to take a turn reading from the box.
And that’s the action.
Around half of the envelopes contained short, double entendre little missives about “the performance.” “The performance will begin in roughly three hours.” “The performance has been canceled due to the lack of a director.” The other half begin “I am Plamen…” and give the late man’s thoughts, memories, and social criticisms as he prepares for his suicide. Some are one or two sentences, some are monologues.
And some attendees never opened a single envelope, while others did several and most did one or two.
If taking turns reading these with a roomful of strangers doesn’t sound all that bad, you’re right — it really wasn’t. But the script (such as it was) (and yet, that’s all it really was…) didn’t have the emotional oomph to justify the hoops we had to jump through.
This isn’t a play, it’s an impromptu, amateur stage-reading. As such, the quality of each show (last one is on Sunday) will depend on its audience. No doubt the Creator would say the personality of how a particular group handles the situation and the words is what makes The State a piece of art. Opening night did have some fun people to watch. One woman in a medical boot briefly took charge, handing out several envelopes in a fell swoop. One young man seemed particularly in love with his own voice. The woman who read an “I am Plamen” in which the poor man repeatedly insists “I am not crying” stole the evening — why on Earth did she only read once?
But is a box on a table full of printed words really theatre? Is the audience coming together what makes it theatre, so we might as well all read it together? For about 70 minutes, the crowd paints the space with the materials we’re given. That’s not a horrible idea, and not a horrible experience.
After the last envelope’s contents had been read on Wednesday, a few in the house/on the stage decided to light one on fire in the metal pail. We all watched it burn. It was put out via bottled water soon enough, but no one objected to the spark. Perhaps because we were ready for something more lively, but perhaps because we wanted The State to take our mark.