The Short Version: Two plays from Plays Inverse, an inventive publisher of poetic theatricality or theatrical poetry (depending). In one, a strange dissolution of reality after a mother’s attempted suicide. The other provides a series of short scenes, meant to be interpreted as you will.
The Review: I’ve been sitting on these two plays for several months now (and ultimately decided to review them together) because I didn’t quite know how to talk about them. I revisited them a few times, trying to dive deeper – and sometimes that worked, but other times I found myself only more conflicted. You see, I work in theater and thus I am predisposed to consider a script as a script. This is all the more true over the last few months, when I was actively reading scripts for work alongside encountering these two texts.
But neither of these plays are a traditional script by any means – and one of them, I would argue, isn’t even what I’d consider a “play” at all. The other squeaks by into that category, but I’ll explain how and why in a moment. Let’s begin with the other text first: Bloodletting in Minor Scales: A Canvas in Arms.
Justin Limoli’s piece is poetry, period. It happens to manifest in a theatrical format – but Cormac McCarthy wrote a novel in dramatic form, Shakespeare wrote plays that were primarily poetry, and Building Stories is a book goddamnit. People use different forms for their writing all the time and whatever form their work ends up taking is their prerogative (Kevin Barry has a lot to say about this and he says it far better than I could at Electric Literature). The question arises when you consider potentially staging a piece that is pitched as theater but that doesn’t hew to any typical sense of what theater can be. Sometimes this works out – the plays of Richard Foreman are often nearly indecipherable, but they’re some of the strangest (in a good way) and most vividly remembered nights out that I’ve had in my theater-going life. But other times, the chosen form and the author’s intent seem at cross-purposes – and so it is with Bloodletting in Minor Scales. I couldn’t help but try to see it as a play and I don’t think it would work.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. On the contrary, it’s a remarkable depiction of a man grappling with a traumatic event – and it depicts the contradictory swirl of thoughts and emotions that occur at any given moment in our brains to surprising effect. I was viscerally affected by this piece when I first picked it up, especially in the moments where Justin (the character) was “onstage”. The urgency of this consideration, this attempt at understanding that which cannot be understood – it got to me. You could feel it bleeding through, horrible pun somewhat intended, and saturating each page.
But I struggled, ultimately, to follow things. I was frustrated at the attempts to simultaneously use and break the theatrical format – where the character list becomes a part of the text but maybe also staged but it’s also not the full list of characters, and so on. I wanted to see Justin (the author) wrangle this poetry into something that could genuinely land onstage, because there aren’t enough plays quite like the kernel at the center of this one – the play that this “play” could be.
Which brings me to the other play: The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theater. PlaysInverse published this a limited run of matchbook-sized cards that made up the text… and I have to say, that’s a perfect idea. It’s the sort of thing where you could use them at a (particularly nerdy) party to play a game of weird charades. I didn’t read it in that format, but once I saw that it existed, I also saw the true form of this piece.
Each scene – or play, or playlet, or thought – is centered on a single page, not more than a long paragraph. And each play (or is it a collection of these scenes/plays/playlets?) contains a goodly number of these smaller pieces. There are no throughlines, although you could imagine them. Instead, there are just scenes described… and I thought again of avant-garde theatermakers like Richard Foreman, like the New York Neo-Futurists, like some of the stranger work I’ve seen at La MaMa E.T.C., and realized that herein lies a fascinating theatrical challenge.
Although these pieces are not structured like plays – and, in this regard, they are more divergent from the theatrical norm than Bloodletting – they have an immediate sense of theatricality, even the ones that seem nearly impossible to stage. But the imagination is boundless and the interpretations possible seem like they’d be fun. You could do a night where you have maybe 15 of these scenes rehearsed but the audience picks 10 of them at random and the cast puts them together (again, like charades or something). The opportunity for performers and creatives to interpret these pieces feels vibrant to me and I appreciated C. Dylan Bassett’s selflessness: there does not seem to be the traditional playwright’s sense of ownership about these pieces (manifest as stage directions or notes or whatever) but instead an unspoken urge to put these together however you see fit. It makes for sometimes fitful reading – the lack of thru-line, the sheer number of them – but the promise outweighs the oddity.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 / 4 out of 5. Limoli’s piece, while it contains some exquisite language, ultimately left me cold. It was too avant-garde and veered too far from what I can compass as a play – and the theater-maker in me couldn’t not read these as anything but plays. In this same vein, Bassett’s piece provides a fun theatrical opportunity despite the comparatively similar weirdness of his prose. But his scenes spark the imagination of the stage artist and the potential for something beautiful on stage seems more possible there.
No matter what, though, PlaysInverse remains a fascinating small press – and as their authors continue to push the bounds of the form, I think the conversation I’m having with myself here (and maybe also with you, dear reader) is only going to continue. And we need that, especially in the theater.