New York

Fiona Templeton

Fiona Templeton’s most recent performance, Recognition, is both an elegiac tribute to her longtime collaborator, Michael Ratomski, as well as a continuation of her interest in how “real life” is both amplified and obfuscated when re-presented as theater. The oddly cryptic text began as a collaborative examination by Templeton and Ratomski (who died of AIDS in 1994) “of how to understand or represent another’s experience.” Of course, “another’s experience” loses its casualness here, as the experience represented on stage is Ratomski’s own life. (We are also given videotaped glimpses into his illness, medical procedures, and waning days as a performer in the very piece we’re watching.) With fragments of the text uttered live by Templeton and, across Ratomski’s screen image, in subtitles (unbearably sad when used to explicate Ratomski’s fading and faltering voice), the two performers converse across a set of folding tables and bottled water that suggest a courtroom. Throughout the piece, Templeton, clumsily spilling water and laying pieces of paper on the floor to suggest the chalk outline of a body, repeatedly shows theater’s built-in inadequacies in retelling Ratomski’s life.

Templeton is best known in this country for the interactive YOU—The City, 1988, during which audience members were ushered by actors through various urban situations, from a co-op to a barroom to a Times Square peep show. While such a piece may suggest Fluxus-lite frivolity, Templeton clearly had in mind how meaning is constructed by spectators, and the way theatrical reality is grounded in the experience of individual members of the audience. In Recognition, the concern remains the same but is less blithely engaged: Templeton directly confronts the possibility of re-presenting Ratomski in the theater by placing a “jury” of twelve audience members onstage with her. Toward the end, a spectator/juror reads a letter Templeton wrote to her partner, and the pace, inflection—the whole retelling of Ratomski’s life—is in this individual’s hand. It is a potent reminder of the power of the audience: a literal, aural, and visual synecdoche—that is, Ratomski’s living on in the audience’s hands—for what’s at stake in Templeton’s continuation of this project after Ratomski’s death.

Recognition is, of course, part of a varied and plentiful Pirandellian tradition in theater in which a trope of presence/ absence allows for the examination of form (though Beckett’s Rough for Theater II, in which two characters discuss the modes and methods of narrativizing a newly deceased character’s life, may provide the most apposite comparison to Templeton’s piece). Yet AIDS has given a new life-and-death inflection to this canonical metatheatrical conceit, of which Recognition is a compelling example, part of an important subgenre of AIDS plays concerned chiefly with how we tell the stories of those felled by a microscopic retrovirus (e.g., Susan Sontag’s The Way We Live Now, 1991, Paula Vogel’s Baltimore Waltz, 1992, David Greenspan’s Jack, 1990). Templeton’s work is as fine as all of these, but we will all be happy to see the genre disappear into the real absence of history, becoming a corpus of work that will exist—like its ever-increasing number of real-life characters—only in memoriam.

Steven Drukman