“Talk,” Sock & Buskin’s final production of the 2010-2011 performance season, is, as director Erik Ehn described it, “somewhere between a thesis panel, a ghost story and a murder mystery.”
The plot follows an academic panel discussion about the life and work of author Archer Ames — a fictional figure given an elaborate backstory by playwright Carl Hancock Rux. Ames’ only work, a single novel adapted into a silent film in the 1950s or 1960s, may have been about African-American identity, multiculturalism or surrealism.
Or maybe it was about none of these themes. Maybe Ames had no part in the film adaptation of his work. Maybe he never wrote the book attributed to him.
By the show’s end, the audience is not even certain that Ames ever existed.
Through three acts, a group of six academics, artists and philosophers discuss the implications of Ames’ work in the most esoteric terms. They name-drop ancient Greek philosophers, surrealists and beat poets in an attempt to give the author’s life meaning, but as a result they only alienate the audience.
The listener’s inability to follow what these speakers are saying is precisely the point. The show is about “how the best of our thinking can only get us so far in terms of artistic experience,” said Ehn, a professor of theater arts and performance studies.
The audience should understand that there are allusions being made, but “the play is deliberately impossible to keep up with,” he said.
This does not exactly make “Talk” sound like an enjoyable experience, but embracing the bewilderment is part of its appeal. Miraculously, the cast takes a script that consists mostly of long soliloquies and obscure references and turns it into a lively, humorous debate.
“It’s a monster for actors to take on,” Rux said, adding that he wrote it for another, very specific set of actors and “never expected anyone else could do this play.”
“I applaud anyone who tries,” he said.
“It’s a show that requires tremendous concentration,” Ehn said, so he looked for a cast that was “smart and brave, with athletic stamina.”
As Apollodoros, a mysterious late addition to the panel, Jamila Woods ’11 dances around the periphery of the discussion, serving alternately as a trickster stirring up conflict and a voice of truth and reason. She mocks the panel’s moderator (Kerry Hall ’13), a proxy for the audience, for trying to keep up with the discussion.
The moderator articulates the audience’s frustration with the highbrow tone on multiple occasions. He sees in the novel he loves, not comparisons to Jack Kerouac or the influence of Andre Breton, but a story about the relationship between a mother and her son. Ultimately, both he and the audience leave unsatisfied.
“Do you think you understand now?” Apollodoros asks the moderator near the end of the play.
“No,” he says. And he isn’t supposed to. Neither are we.
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(four out of five stars)
Bewilderment and frustration may be exactly what the audience needs to “Talk” about.