Language is. Language is a. Language is a thing. Language is a thing about a thing. A thing about a thing is language? A thing is language? A language is? Is language?
On a particularly cold Minnesota winter night, I settled into a seat in the Playwrights’ Center’s blackbox auditorium, using my bulky winter coat as a seat cushion. The cozy room is warm, heated with the help of people who’ve come to see a staged reading of playwright Rachel Jandrzejewski’s script as part of the Ruth Easton New Play Series.
The simplistic staging includes four live performers–two actors and two musicians–who share equal space on the floor. This piece has had a staged reading before, in Los Angeles, and the idea of adding music to the sparse script at that moment was a last-minute thought that Rachel wanted to flesh out more thoroughly in this Minneapolis staging. Rachel imagines that the live music backing the play’s action would be different for each production, with some limited direction provided in the script. The sound score, she says, is an additional voice she couldn’t write into the play. Above the performers are projections of stage directions, a god-like narrator announcing the beginnings of new scenes and their settings, pronouncing unspoken actions onstage, some of them remarkably improbable.
The script is a poetic portrait of two women in a cycle of unnamed suffering and thoughtful care. Each of them have names that mean “Moon” in different languages, as it turns out. DAL means moon in Korean, and she is cared for by LUA, whose name means moon in Portuguese. In ENCYCLOPEDIA, each scene is marked with a new phase of the moon. Time passing is astrological time, emotional time, of rising action and denouement, which is cyclical rather than linear.
The entire script is fields of speech and musical language. Abstract words and abstract sounds in a loop, a broken record, list-making, speaking atop speaking atop music. Language invoking timeless mythological symbols–the moon, a rising sea–alongside the detritus of everyday life–a vacuum, stacks of books, a bucket. Entries from encyclopedias provide the most stable understanding of this invented world, reflecting what I understand to be Jandrzejewski’s ongoing interest in framing and re-framing borrowed text.
The improbable stage directions stand out as the line between mythological and everyday are blurred: she opens her mouth and letters fall out, a spilled bucket fills the kitchen until it is a sea and they are on a boat of broomsticks, a raft with a marching band, a flock of birds from her mouth. This world is a dream, a hallucination, a suspension of disbelief. As audience members we struggle to align our understanding of the invented world by comparing it to the rules of the world outside the play, the “real world.” Dal must have some hallucinatory disorder, I suddenly understand. That unnamed suffering is Dal’s interior disorder played out in improbable stage directions. That must be the answer, it’s the only way I could find some order in the chaos of this dream-like world. A magician had revealed her secret, and the magic of the play was gone.
But, as the scenes continue, as the moon becomes full with the most startling moments of surrealism, and then begins to wane, the two women switch roles. Lua cuts her hand, and Dal cares for her. The world inverts–the assumption of sanity in Lua, and the hallucination in Dal, becomes another blurred edge, as Lua dissolves into the chaos of of words and images we’ve come to associate with the internal world of Dal. The stable world of the play is again made absurd; the magic is rekindled.
The play is about the difficulty of language. Or maybe it’s not about that, but a demonstration of that difficulty. And it’s difficult to create critical language about the criticality of language, so I’m at a loss to describe its formal qualities with any degree of authority. To be honest, I’m not sure what I saw. I don’t know that the music did anything but fill in some of the quiet moments of an intentionally quiet script.
At the end of the night, as I put on my coat and walk back into the cold Minnesota winter, there’s still something of this abstract play, this jumble of the rational and irrational that language can invoke with such ease, that I carry with me. There’s something about the constellation of words I’ve just encountered, that’s brought into focus how, when you lean in close, and squint your eyes, a rational world requires its own kind of theatrical conceit: for the world to even start making sense, you have to suspend disbelief.
A note: I signed on to write about this performance many moons ago, and some intense distractions, both personal and professional, led me to forestall sitting down to write until almost a year later. My apologies, and thanks, to both Rachel and the editors of Critical Exchange for their patience as I let this piece marinate for eleven months.
ABOUT THE READING
Staged readings of Encyclopedia were held at the Playwrights’ Center (Minneapolis, Minnesota) on January 11-12, 2016. Playwright Rachel Jandrzejewski collaborated with director Emily Mendelsohn, musicians Crystal Myslajek and Chris Hepola, and actors Sun Mee Chomet and Megan Burns.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Rachel Jendrzejewski is a playwright and interdisciplinary artist who moved to Minneapolis as a Playwrights’ Center Jerome Fellow in 2011. She is interested in how expansive approaches to language, in full collaboration with the other elements of performance, can exercise the collective imagination and open up new ways of thinking, experiencing, and being in community. Her work has been developed and/or produced across the U.S. and internationally, including by the Walker Art Center, Red Eye Theater, Padua Playwrights, Wild Project, Playwrights Horizons, Trinity Rep, and Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Rachel is a 2015-17 Core Writer at The Playwrights’ Center and has been honored with grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Network of Ensemble Theaters, and Foundation for Contemporary Arts, among others. She holds an M.F.A. in Playwriting from Brown University. Learn more at rachelka.com and support her work at patreon.com/rachelka.