- The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays, and: Early Plays
The almost bare stages at the Kraine Theater and St. Ann’s Warehouse established from the start that these two productions based on Eugene O’Neill’s early plays were working against excessive materiality. Known for his excessively detailed descriptions of the places and characters in his plays, O’Neill was filtered through the aesthetic concepts of the New York Neo-Futurists in one instance, and the Wooster Group and New York City Players in another. Both productions set O’Neill’s words against their own theatrical excesses with fascinating material and immaterial results.
A small decorative ball of wooden fiber hit the floor and thus set the stage for The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays. This prop, lackadaisically dropped by Erica Livingston, instantly transformed into a piece of tumbleweed. The casual gesture functioned as a sort of ritual, as it was the first piece of action that established the new rules of this world. In this place, voices were cleaved from bodies and actions were explicitly dictated to performers and audience members simultaneously. An accordion might be an accordion, but a blue hanging curtain was the sea and red powder applied to the face was a slowly spreading blush. Comprised of several vignettes, the production reduced O’Neill plays to their stage directions, which were narrated aloud as the performers acted them out. Throughout the New York Neo-Futurists’ show, director Christopher Loar subjected the players’ bodies to the written/spoken texts, transforming their corporealities into the most complex material props in an aesthetically makeshift world.
While the Neo-Futurists took up O’Neill’s stage directions, the collaboration between the Wooster Group and New York City Players in Early Plays presented Richard Maxwell’s vision of a world that severed O’Neill’s descriptive, unspoken pieces of text from the play and replaced them with immaterial props. In a production that performed three of O’Neill’s four Glencairn plays—Moon of the Caribees, Bound East for Cardiff, and The Long Voyage Home—the Wooster Group’s characteristic excess of stage properties and technological aids were noticeably absent. Although scripturally true to O’Neill, there was no emotional resonance nor any attempt at realism here. Instead of referring to O’Neill’s stage directions or the aesthetic environment, additional material came in the form of aural or visual aids that significantly were not material, such as music, fog, and lighting effects.
From the onset, the talented performers of the Neo-Futurists accrued both objects and meanings, foregrounding the materiality of both bodies and props. As actors moved about the initially bare stage, the treatment of the props and set pieces was strikingly similar to their handling of the various aspects of their roles. Both actors and props demonstrated a detached, almost sarcastic affect, while there was a kind of mechanical stacking of each new direction on top of the last. In other words, as both physical and emotional instructions are read, they are executed—not a moment before. This caused each direction to add to the actor’s overall physicality onstage, which also served to equalize the weight of both types of instructions.
This aloof attitude toward the text, especially as Maxwell dealt with specifically racist language in [End Page 409] the Glencairn plays, flatly counteracted the meaning of the words in Early Plays as well. Although where the Neo-Futurists accrued affects and props, the Early Plays actors continually stripped paratextual elements from their performances, not even donning full accents to ease O’Neill’s stilted dialect.
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