At the Western Front until February 6, 2016
Posted February 4, 2016
After an uninterrupted hour-and-a-half into the two-hour, intermission-free show, I was beginning to have a physical reaction to Eternal, part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. My fight-or-flight response had kicked in and I wanted out of there. I was checking my watch and doing the math: the same final scene from the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) was being performed on a continuous video loop by two actors. Over and over and over again. So let’s see: two hours equals one hundred and twenty minutes. At, say, an average of six minutes to perform the scene, that was going to be twenty repetitions and I had already almost memorized the script after the first hour. Rename it Eternity and wrap it up.
The New York Times reviewer, however, wrote, “Do yourself a favour and go to see Eternal … two extremely talented, receptive actors were committed to this theatrical experiment, and so was I.” And although there were a few walkouts or some who went out to the lobby for a beer or a glass of wine and returned, many of those that stayed, laughed and seemed to be entertained. Whatever lights your (eternal) fire.
The two actors – one man, one woman – appear head and shoulders on two side-by-side screens. The ‘colours’ they find in this bit of dialogue are amazing. The script remains the same but no two repetitions are alike. From replay to replay there are constant shifts: he badgers her, she goes on the offensive. She is coy and flirts with him; he grins. He sighs with weariness; she has her head in his hands. She apologizes; he apologizes. And so it goes.
As described by director/creator Daniel Fish, actors Christina Rouner and Thomas Jay Ryan, who have worked on a similar project before, learned their lines then went into the studio and recorded the scene multiple times in one continuous take, without rehearsal. The result, uncut, is Eternal.
Antsy as I was, several interesting considerations arose: the audience is put in the position of a casting director. How many ways can this conversation be executed? Limitless. And the actors are really up to the challenge. As a viewer, you begin to watch very, very carefully to see just what shifts they’re making. To catch them in an error or a really inventive transition. If she says the line this way, how will he respond? Or will they finally throw their hands up and refuse to do it anymore? It’s all about nuance.
The other really interesting but not surprising element is how hard I tried to create a context for the conversation. What is their story? Is she a hooker who has come to his apartment? Is she just a friend of his former girlfriend Clementine? Why does she unbutton the top button of her very red dress? What’s going on here? The free-floating dialogue drove me crazy and reminded me of how wired I am for context. Perhaps if you saw the movie, this wouldn’t be an exercise you’d get involved in but I was completely committed to (and frustrated by) my attempts to make a story out of the scene.
And finally, the thought occurs: in the age of text messaging, there’s no room for facial expression, body language, mood or tone. Emoticons just don’t do it and the room for misinterpretation is huge. Although we see these two characters on separate screens, we believe they are in the same room, looking at each other. Why they are being videotaped is never revealed but at least they are reading off each other, reacting in real time to each other.
Eternal is an interesting experiment but an endurance test. Forget the fire and brimstone; the seemingly endless repetition of someone else’s conversation must be what Hell is like. It’s enough to put me on my best behaviour.