Food:Soul #2, This Storm Is What We Call Progress

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one perceives the angel of history. His face is towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
-Walter Benjamin

Last Sunday, Flux had our second potluck play reading series, Food:Soul. The featured play was Jason Grote‘s This Storm Is What We Call Progress, directed by Kelly O’Donnell and featuring Flux Members Candice Holdorf (Rue, Sueno, upcoming Midsummer and 8 Little Antichrists) and Jake Alexander (Life is a Dream, Sueno, upcoming Midsummer and 8 Little Antichrists), as well as Jane Taylor (upcoming Rattlers), Will Ditterline (Rue, Riding the Bull, dir. Wake to Dream), and Ellen McLaughlin. It was a rare night of food, theatre and community.

I first encountered Jason’s work by reading his play 1001, which overwhelmed me, and is now deservedly being produced all over, including last year’s production at p73. Storm is the play he wrote before 1001, and carries some similarities, most notably in expanding the emotional life of a central relationship into wider social, political and religious power structures. In 1001, the attraction within the hate between East and West, the desire within the hegemony of Orientalism, the transformation of cultural narrative into actual history, the loss of self in
the consummation with the Other, the death in sex; all of these grand ideas are grounded in the relationship between Alan, a Jew from New Jersey, and Dahna, a Palestinian-American from Brooklyn. These themes all become linked to the choices of Alan and Dahna and their comic-mythic counterparts, Shahriyar and Scheherazade; so that when, at the end of the play, Alan is given the choice by a djinn to give up his relationship with Dahna in return for the thousands of lives just lost in a horrific terrorist attack; his personal choice cannot help but inexorably reverberate with meaning through those larger themes.

(And after a paragraph that heavy, it is important to note that all of the above is deftly kept alight by a vaudevillian delight in exposing every grand gesture as a theatrically comic trick.)

In Storm, the central relationship is between Adam (Jake Alexander), a half-Irish half-Jewish struggling New York actor in his 20’s; and Lily (Candice Holdorf), a 30 year old former pet photographer studying Kabbalah with the mysterious Woman With Silver Skin (Ellen McLaughlin). The vaudeville here is literally supplied by Valter and Channah, Yiddish ghosts who may or may not be standing in for Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt.

As with 1001, many larger themes regarding the culpability (and possibility) of individual freedom within larger totalitarian structures (in this case, messianic Judaism) and the impossibility of balancing the need for power against the cost of power, are incarnated in the human sweat, blood, and body odor of Adam and Lily’s romance.

On the one hand, when Adam bursts in on Lily’s Kabbalist training at the exact moment she is mentioning the messiah, Adam can be assumed to possibly be just that (as it turns out, he may just be the father of that. But that’s a Sephirot for another time). But on the other, he is also simply a half-rate actor stumbling early into a recording session.

When the Woman describes sensing the blood rushing into Adam’s penis when he sees Lily, she absolutely has divine powers of perception; and she also is a wise woman with her eyes open. When Adam and Lily have sex, his head becomes the sun and she unzips his chest and to reveal the sky; and, it is also the first time Adam’s had sex with someone he loves. When Lily fears where there relationship will go, she fears it they way anyone fears new love; and she also fears leading Adam to ritual sacrifice.

In other words, the mundane and the divine co-exist in the every moment of this play because they are the same thing. Upon our little rituals of accommadation hang the rituals of power, unseen because we do not want to see them.

When Adam moves on from Lily to become the Woman’s disciple, Lily’s death is both real and also the loss of that first flush of love when that other person is the only world. Her resurrection is both literal magic and also the moving on of the relationship even after that first flush is gone.

When Woman rips out Adam’s tongue to give him a new one, his gift to speak a new language is both raw divine power, and the shock any real teacher gives you when their ideas forever expand your world. His inability to communicate or function in the old world is both because he is separated by his new found power; and because he is simply a convert.

And finally, when Adam and Lily have the choice to slaughter each other; it is both a ritual act to bring about the messiah, and the lashing out of lovers falling out of love.

At the end of the play, Adam is given a lesson in power and love by Channah and Valter, who are both his grandparents, and also famous philosophers. Channah tells a story of her relationship with someone like Heidegger, the brilliant philosopher who fell under the Nazi spell. She says, although she never wanted to see him again, that he was redeemable. She refused to condemn him. She, who had been powerless, refused to use that power when it was finally hers. As Valter says, “Power is poison./But also not to have power is poison”.

With that contradiction, they send him back to the moment of choosing whether or not to slaughter Lily. He chooses differently this time. This time, he neither goes mad nor rules the world with a cruel omnipotence. The disappointed lovers just go their separate ways.

There are two more rituals in this plays of rituals. First, Adam and Lily meet years later, and play out the little ritual of having moved on from someone who once meant so much. Then, Valter and Channah are reunited to dance, and Channah says “Only let us continue thinking, hard, together, unto eternity. Let us follow truth into her lair and coax her out and not domesticate her but let her make us more wild. Let us dance”.

This Storm Is What We Call Progress is a play of truth that must be coaxed out, and once out, cannot be domesticated. It is a play where the renunciation of power means terrible disappointment, mediocrity, even death; it is also a play where the seizing of power means ecstasy, madness, and the murder of others. It is a play where the little rituals of life may be the way we survive the renunciation of power; and they may be the way true power is revealed to us; and they may also be the way we avoid taking responsibility for the power we have. It is a play about the terrible loss of a real teacher/parent; it is also a play about the danger of following a teacher/parent too closely. It is a play about the meaninglessness of thinking about life; it is also a play about how life is so powerfully shaped by thought.

It is a play where a boy who is also a book decides to kill the only woman he’s ever loved; and it is also a play where he doesn’t.

There is a fascinating quote by Susan Sontag regarding Walter Benjamin (thanks, wikipedia), one of the patron Yiddish ghosts of Storm. Writing on Benjamin’s style, she says it is as if each sentence “had to say everything, before the inward gaze of total concentration dissolved the subject before his eyes”, a style of writing Sontag called “freeze-frame baroque.” Sontag writes that “his major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destruct.” Somehow, that feels like apt praise for This Storm Is What We Call Progress (if, in fact, it is a fit form of praise to examine the work of so allusive a playwright by alluding to another writer talking about another writer’s work. Oh boy, that sentence just made my head tap dance like a Yiddish ghost…)

The performances were very exciting, especially given our limited rehearsal time. Ellen wore the power of the Woman with lightly, finding the humor and human tenderness in her almost facist grandeur. Jake nailed the particular rhythm of Adam (almost a vaudeville naturalism) and Candice found a guarded and vulnerable curiosity in Lily. Will and Jane gave the break-up scene between Valter and Channah a surprisingly resonant emotional punch. Michael Davis reading stage directions had a big a part as anyone (this was a very visual play) and brought a playful energy to the vivid imagery. Kelly’s direction emphasized the clarity of story telling and human connection.

What I will remember most of all:

Jake’s Beastie Boy answering message and American Shylock cowboy voice
Candice’s ‘no’ when asked out on a date
Jane’s relish of the text in her first monologue
Will’s farewell to Channah
Ellen’s “This time do it right!”
Gretchen’s amazing contributions to the food!

And much more. Thanks to EVERYONE who took the time to join us for this exciting night of theatre, including the theatre companies who sent a friend or two: New York Theatre Workshop, Stages on the Sound, Core Theatre, Impetuous Theater Group, Packawallop, Coffee Cup, Intentional Theatre, Ateh Group, Blue Box, New Mummers, Crosstown Playwrights, and Godlight. Food:Soul is not only an opportunity for Flux to work on a play we’re passionate about, but to share that work and break some bread with the wider New York theatre community.

Thanks to everyone for a wonderful night, and a special thanks to Jason for his play. For those in DC, be sure to check out Rorschach’s production in June of this year!

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