Sunday, August 26, 2012

In the Cards: TITO's stunning 'Waste Land'

A beautiful fall day in the middle of summer at Maudslay State Park, making this August, however splendid, seem a bit sad, perhaps cruel. Not April cruel, with its false hope, coaxed from the dead land, from the forgetful snow, but cruel nonetheless. We’re walking along a damp, fragrant path to the performance site – on time for once, early, in fact, without a care, so it becomes a lovely, leisurely stroll, a point unto itself. We come across a small crowd where the path veers away, lazily, towards the river. Which is strange. Usually you walk right to the “stage” and pull up a bit of lawn. Something else is going on. Obviously. So we wait with the others. As the minutes pass, we debate whether this is part of the production, our wait a metaphor for the uneasy, potent concept of not knowing, about uncertainty, about the future, about life, about death, which lies at the heart of “The Waste Land,” the T.S. Elliott poem, perhaps the most celebrated poem in Western literature, one that has been re-imagined for the stage by Theater in the Open and directed by Stephen Haley, probably best known for his productions of all things Beckett, but whose edgy, vivid, stripped-down production of Sartre's “The Flies” last year set an impossible standard for the future. And this production, an adaptation of a dense, modern poem that is about everything, including nothingness, that, in itself, does not cry out for the stage, that is all wrong for the stage, would certainly pose the same sorts of challenges. Perhaps more, seeing how it's just 400-plus lines, including the Latin opening and the Sanskrit ending, one that takes maybe 20 minutes to read and a lifetime to understand, with no immediately obvious narrative.

Or maybe we were just in the wrong place, perhaps there were further flags to follow, just around the corner, a theory we investigated. Nope. And before we got too far afield, the director, looking remarkably calm, emerged from the woods, alone, saying something about “a snafu,” one that was being corrected even as we spoke. He admitted to being surprised to see people waiting. “We were expecting maybe four people,” he said. “I mean, c'mon, it's summer. It's “The Waste Land.” He said he had something to take care of, that he would be right back to explain how the thing would work, leading the more paranoid of the audience back to the original theory, that something was up with the wait.  But, no, true to his word, Haley was back moments later to let us know what was going on  — and, in the process, completely turned the tables on the usual theater-going experience. The director, instead of standing in the back of the performance space, unseen, would be our guide, leading the audience through the beautiful expanse of Maudslay, not to the play site, but through it, the spectacular park representing the unconscious, the interior life. The play would unfold all around us. It's a walking poem, a walking tour, yes, but one with a through the looking glass vibe — if you think Svankmajer's “Alice” rather than Disney's, because it's kind of odd and creepy at times, strange and disorienting and, ultimately, intoxicating.

It’s a hard work to know, hard to understand fully, a poem wrestled from the guilty conscious of a world waiting for a revival that will never come, a disillusionment born of the horrors of World War I that is so intense that a psychic in the text looks into the future and offers no prophesy, only a desire to leave it all behind. It's a difficult text to explain, narrative being too imprecise a tool for this cascading flow of what the author himself called broken images and shadows.  Even the director, who admits that he has struggled with the poem since he was a young man, when he, filled with youthful arrogance, thought he knew it all, to the present, when he knows he can “tell you nothing of this poem or what it means or why it means what it means. All I can do is make a play of it. “

It’s an intimate adventure, an outdoors production that portrays an inner space, which, while difficult to explain, is impossible to resist when you finally let go and let it wash over you. It’s not that this is an unknowable work, but it is one that refuses to sit still for exegesis. It’s a play whose meaning, emphasis, changes with each reading, perhaps with each reader, as more life crawls from the spaces between the words, where they haunt the rational. It will never have the mass acceptance of Elliot's most popular poem adapted for the stage, the one about those fatuous felines, which lasted longer than nine lives, or maybe it just feels like it, but "The Waste Lane" will be the most engaging, wonderful hours you have experienced.

The production features Missy Chabot, Aisha Chodat, Fontaine Dollas-Dubus, Raine Ericson, Stephanie Ericson, Stephen Haley, Calling McFarlin, Conor Miller, Beth Randall, Spencer Redgate, Claire Renales, Edward Speck, Maxwell Vye, Paul Wann and Bonnie Jean Wilbur.

The company helpfully includes the entire text of “The Waste Land” in the program notes and, giving each person a taste of the future, a tarot card.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Theater in the Open performs T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land” at 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 9 at Maudslay State Park in Newburyport. The performance is free. For directions or more informtion, call 978.465.2572 or log onto

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