- Panic, and: Story of a Rabbit
The Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University hosted two theatre companies from the United Kingdom during the spring of 2009. London-based Improbable premiered the one-act Panic, created in residency at the Wexner Center in March, while Welsh company Hoipolloi shared Story of a Rabbit, an import from the previous year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In an age driven by constant, impersonal, and often chaotic communication exemplified by text messaging, wireless computer access, and social media, both companies explore how we achieve order in our lives and connect with other people. Improbable and Hoipolloi actively involved the audience as co-storytellers in their minimalist productions in order to celebrate the theatrical experience itself by demonstrating how live performance can bridge gaps between and among people. In both productions, the actors blurred the lines between their stories, their real lives, and the reality of the performance. Their shared goal, it seemed, was to force the audience to examine how we connect with fellow human beings amid the chaos of contemporary life.
Improbable’s Panic comprised a loose collection of stories and observations relating to sex, love, and panic. The play’s impetus grew from Improbable co-director Phelim McDermott’s bout with prostatitis; his research into the condition revealed that the root of the word “panic” is the Greek god Pan, god of flocks and forests, often represented as an agent of change and chaos. The company used Pan to infuse the storytelling with a sense of chaos, as Panic featured a montage of monologues, puppetry, and aerial acrobatics to explore the mythical and realistic dimensions of love and intimacy.
The performance area allowed the actors to connect easily with the audience. It consisted of a small proscenium frame, constructed within the performance space, that forced the cast closer to the audience; the actors frequently stepped outside of the frame to address the spectators or to climb, crawl, and hang scenery over it. At the beginning of the show, McDermott and three actresses, who apparently represented Pan and his nymphs, introduced themselves and described their residency at the Wexner Center. They stood outside the proscenium frame for the introductions, which morphed into the first scene of the play. Such was the formula for much of the show: an actor introduced the scene and began to tell a story, which then slowly departed from reality as it unfolded, often at a point the audience could not easily identify.
The company manifested Pan onstage at different times and in different forms, but whenever he appeared, he spread chaos. McDermott, who dressed in his underwear, wore a prosthetic nose, chin, and ears, and at one point donned a twelve-foot phallus that he rubbed against the scenery, offered the most memorable representation. Later, Pan emerged as a puppet controlled by all four performers, then as a shadow puppet that split into multiple smaller Pans, who engaged in a full-scale shadow-puppet orgy. The actors claimed to have encountered Pan in reality as well: McDermott related a story of their residence in Columbus, when one night at a bar in the city’s arts district they encountered a drunken man dressed like a cowboy who shouted insults [End Page 111] and obscenities at them. When he settled down, however, he joined the company for a drink. The drunken cowboy, McDermott explained, was like a twentieth-century Pan, spreading chaos wherever he went.
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One memorable scene featured McDermott as himself describing an attempt to control the chaos in his own life. He stood onstage before a large table and numerous paper bags filled with three- to four-hundred books. They were self-help books from his flat in London, he said, and they represented roughly one...