New York

Improbable Theater

P.S. 122

Ghosts, poltergeists, sepulchral spirits—these things (which, of course, are not things) are usually treated with an unabashed seriousness in contemporary performance. Whether in the bloodcurdling incantations of Diamanda Galas or in the bloodless formalism of Robert Wilson, the “ghost” haunts the live body onstage without a smile or a wink. But every performative act is, in essence, a ghost story, a séance, haunted by the absence it labors to make present. In the age of mass-media entertainment, the concept of live-ness has become the raison d’être of theater; exposing it as a sham is treated somberly because, on a certain level, it’s verrry scarrry. So it’s no wonder that—since the Freud-struck Ghosts of Ibsen and Ghost Sonata of Strindberg—theater has mostly given up the ghost to the movies. (One brave exception is John Jesurun’s 1986 Deep Sleep, during which onstage actors argued with their spectral counter-parts on film about who was more alive.

Most enchanting, then, about 70 Hill Lane, 1997, the aptly named Improbable Theater’s deceptively simple look at haunting, is its lack of solemnity, especially as embodied by the central performer, Phelim McDermott. The title refers to McDermott’s actual boyhood residence, magically constructed before our eyes by a cast of three using only strategically placed poles and scads of Scotch tape. With two windows “just like eyes,” and a gloomy attic for a soul, McDermott (who may be the love child of Eric Idle and Dudley Moore) tells us that 70 Hill Lane “now lives in me.”

The ghost story revolves around a poltergeist who mischievously knocks on doors and makes McDermott see “impossible things happen.” This gives his parents “grave” concern about their son’s sanity, as Guy Dartnell and Steve Tiplady sing in a Monty Python–style burlesque. But the Goon Show humor conceals larger ideas housed in 70 Hill Lane: the fleetingness of mortal life, the collision of memory and truth, and the fuzziness of any narrative re-created in performance.

To an often-macabre accompaniment composed and played live by Ben Park, the Improbable makes visual choices of utmost simplicity. In one segment, McDermott uses another performer to play himself. He watches with incredulity, acting as his own disappointed superego, as the dizzy doppelganger runs through his quotidian habits in all their ridiculousness. Crumpled newspapers—what better emblems of evanescence?—are twisted into an anthropomorphic puppet to stand in for McDermott’s dying grandmother. After she coughs up her final catarrh, the puppet is caught up with wads of Scotch tape to become a heaven-bound cloud, suggesting that we are all stuck to earth but are easily peeled off and disposed.

A lovely yet unsettling moment concludes the performance. McDermott, wrapped in a membrane of Scotch tape, bursts through it as if from a pod. This gesture of birthing reminds the audience of the fable, told at the play’s beginning, about a woman whose baby has been stillborn. McDermott now relates this story to himself, suggesting that performing one’s biography is akin to entering the attic of 70 Hill Lane, the room of “unspoken things.” So is McDermott that child in the fable—did everything he has related really happen—or is the pretense of truth a joke on the audience? And isn’t that the question of every play, when actors-as-mediums re-create something that has already “happened”—something that isn’t a “thing” at all, but is itself a fiction? McDermott doesn’t wait around to answer these questions: he fashions the enormous torn womb of tape into a puppet of himself, a glowing, wraithlike De Chirico stick figure, and walks his sticky stand-in off the stage.

Steven Drukman