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Beate Hein Bennett
“Thoughts are dive bombing around us...”
A Picaresque for the Time of Covid
By David Willinger
June 9 – 19, 2022
Presented by Theater for the New City (Johnson Theater)
155 First Ave. (bet. 9th& 10th Str.)
Performances: Thurs.-Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM
Gen. Admission: $18, Students and seniors $15
For tickets, call: 212-254-1109, or go to www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, June 12, 2022
Photo by Margaret Hollis Dean.
Pondering about “existence”—the what, the how, and the why—probably has been an intellectual and emotional quagmire of human questioning ever since we’ve evolved into a self-conscious species. At least for some who straddle the enormous space and time between Being and Non-Being. Descartes made a causative equation out of the quandary: “I think, therefore I am.” Jean Paul Sartre stated categorically: “Exister c’est etre la.” [To exist is to be here.] That is perhaps one of the more essentialist Existentialist reductions of 20th century existence. Should one be simply grateful for being here? Heidegger, the German philosopher made a distinction between Sein und Dasein [Being and Being Here]. Another 20th century essentialist/eExistentialist philosopher, E.M Cioran concocts his own personal reduction in the last sentence of his essay, “The Temptation to Exist” (1956): “Nothingness may well have been more convenient. How difficult it is to dissolve oneself in Being!” It’s a problem!
David Willinger’s foray into this vast universe of inquiry is indeed a picaresque, a quixotic stage discourse among a group of four young people, three graduate philosophy students, Liora, Enrique, Matthias, who vie for first place (with a purported $10K prize) in an essay competition about “Existence”, and one non-academic friend, Beatriz, a young New Yorker whose passion is knitting and crocheting (a nod to the ancient Greek Fates who spin/weave/cut human fate?). The play, also directed by David Willinger, delves full tilt into the group’s literal meanderings through New York City, as they experience Existence, never reaching their intended goal of writing a ten page essay about “Existence.” And that, I presume, is Mr. Willinger’s point. We can theorize all we want about the meaning of Existence—as academics are wont to do—but if we are not with all our fibers in the Here and Now, we miss out on our own unique existence.
The dramaturgical structure of the play is built around the interaction between the group of four live actors on stage and three video screens that present moving images of places in New York City and another set of multiple characters, such as the Organizer of the Conference on “EXISTENTIALISM TODAY” by the Institute for Philosophical Advancement, that is also the sponsor of the essay contest with funding from the Nietsche (sic?) Foundation. The Conference has invited as guest speakers the grandchildren of four renowned philosophers: the grandsons of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and the granddaughters of Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt. Each presents a snippet statement on screen. For comic relief the audience is also regaled by the founder of the Institute, the renowned professor emeritus, Dr. Fritz Temblor-Kertanius, played by Prof. Emeritus Marvin Carlson with impeccable parodic humor of academic long-winded discourse that the strict Conference Organizer, played by Aixa Kendrick with utmost seriousness, cuts short just as he is about to launch into his story of his personal acquaintance with Sartre.
After this initial set-up of the frame, Mr. Willinger takes the four young people on a nightmarish 24-hour journey through three boroughs (they had intended to cover all five)—Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx. The audience is treated on screen to mostly unfamiliar spots—wild areas in parks, abandoned ghostly buildings with entrances to below ground (Dante’s Inferno?), skies with rapidly moving cloud formations, but also the familiar city-scapes of streets, subways, bridges, and even scenes of BLM riots turned violent, bloody accidents, and howling sirens. In short, the live action on stage is swirled into virtual NYC. Mixed into all this are scenes that extend into magical realism with angels of the recently departed floating and rising among the clouds—we are reminded that Existence is predicated on Non-existence, i.e. physical death, but that this physical Life-Death relationship is modified in traditional religious imagery with the hope for an After-Life of some sort—an actual ascension to Heaven. How could a 20+ year-old possibly compress all of that “hurly-burly” into a ten page essay?
The young actors must be commended for their stamina to dance through a two-hour romp, replete with questions, confusions, frustrations, fluid love relationships, and their seemingly indomitable friend Enrique’s ultimate exit from Existence, played by a hyper lively Ervin Vazquez. Liora, his philosophy classmate, is played by Hanna Ventura with great seriousness—she brooks no fools. The third classmate, Matthias, the would-be intellectual in the group, is played with charming bravado by Espirito Domingo. The fourth existential musketeer is Beatriz played by Sharendelle Murga who knits and crochets her way through the entire journey with down-to-earth comments that deflate any of their pseudo-intellectual posturing in a good-natured way. Aside from the Organizer (Aixa Kendrick) and Dr. Temblor-Kertanius (Marvin Carlson), there are 16 more named characters listed in the program for the film cast plus another 31 walk-ons, all of whom are lively presences on the videos.
Minimal sets by Mark Marcante & Litza Colon and lighting by Alexander Bartenieff give plenty of space to the live action on stage. Music by James Yaiullo sets the atmosphere and Desiree Consten’s costume design supports each character’s personality. The video action on three screens in various forms of cinematography, animations & projections and editing is coordinated by the following media artists: Tony MacNally, Kimberly Flores, Kayla Lessard, Roy Chang, David Willinger, Christopher Bello. Carletta Joy Walker and Miranda McDermott are the designated Dramaturgs.
Mr. Willinger’s authorial and directorial effort of compressing Existence into a two-hour theatrical entertainment is an ambitious undertaking. The result presents in my mind a curious paradox: While COVID slowed down the city and life in general to a crawl, his theatrical picaresque is a somewhat maniacal but fun production.
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