Digging a Hole: Two short absurd one-act plays

“Absurdism” is one of those buzzwords that’s applied so widely by theatre artists that I no longer know what they mean when they use it — and I suspect that they don’t, either. I’ve heard it applied to any show that’s quirky, or expressionistic, or just about anything other than kitchen-sink naturalism.

Thing is, I like quirky and expressionistic shows, and all manner of formal experimentation — but for all that, I’m very much a content-over-form guy, and this is very much a form-over-content play. I had the impression — perhaps erroneously — that the writer was someone with a great deal of fascination for the structure of absurdist comedy, but not someone who’d developed much that he particularly wanted to say with it.

I found the opening act to be by far the weaker of the two, which wasn’t much more than two performers speaking to each other in a series of recurring cliches and platitudes at varying degrees of emotional intensity. (Note that this isn’t a reflection on the performers — in fact, I found the acting of the whole ensemble to be uniformly excellent.) I kept waiting for the unexpected turn of phrase, but it never arrived. Absurdist comedy at its best is about creating expectations and then subverting them — to an effect that’s sometimes amusing, but always startling. Here, there was nothing for me to hook into, and despite the fact that both of the performers were incredibly focused and controlled, my impression was one of total randomness.

In a well-done play of this nature — and I’ll use Godot as the example, since it’s probably the most visible one — I never really know who the hell Godot is, or why Vladimir and Estragon care so much about him — but I get that they care, and I care about them, and I share their frustration, and I laugh at their slapstick. I just couldn’t find that hook.

The second piece was considerably stronger, however, probably because the two key performers were much more animated and playful. In particular, the writing seemed to come to life at the introduction of a third character, who did introduce some of that clever dialogue and those startling turns of phrase I was longing for.

The third performer clearly has talent, but I think that he (or the director) made an unwise choice: the character was played over-the-top in a way that I simply found grating. When his Poet reads some of his poetry, he doesn’t do it with the agonizing vulnerability of a talentless man who truly believes that he is talented: he’s clearly an actor ridiculing the character he’s supposed to be playing. And I’m confident that I would have found it a lot funnier (and more affecting) if he’d elected to treat his clownish pomposity with some integrity.

As I mentioned, the ensemble is remarkably skilled — not to mention the fact that this is a new (and young) company — and I therefore want them to have the opportunity to play some decent houses. But I also have to be frank in stating that in their current form, I didn’t really find either play to be funny enough, or provocative enough, to be worth going out of the way to see.

I am, however, extremely curious to see what they come up with next.

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