Sunday, February 7, 2016

PuSh 2016: Eternal

For two hours yesterday afternoon, on Vancouver's first sunny day in quite a while, I huddled with a dozen or so other brave spectators in the darkness of the Western Front's upstairs great hall to watch two actors (the absolutely amazing Christina Rouner and Thomas Jay Ryan) perform the final scene from Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind over and over again. It was not a live event; the actors appeared to us on video, each framed in close-up on separate screens. Still, Daniel Fish's Eternal, which exists somewhere between the realms of theatre, film and installation, and which has been programmed as part of this year's PuSh Festival, retains the feeling of liveness, not least in its unedited durationality. The actors, sitting across from each other in a white rehearsal hall, are responding to each other, and to variations in line readings, in the moment, and they have to keep going no matter what. Additionally, we as spectators can't easily give ourselves over to passive absorption of their screen images. Yes, we might feel bored (and there was a steady attrition of audience members over the course of the two hours), maybe at times even alienated; but at least we're feeling something. And there are enough subtle nuances and new emotional discoveries in the various iterations of the looped scene to keep us surprised and on our toes and invested in how things will turn out this time around.

While on some levels a master class in acting, in terms of what I was experiencing bi-focally on each screen of the performers' face-to-face interactions, I was especially fascinated by the idea of control. In some senses Ryan, who plays the Jim Carrey character (and who, according to, actually appeared in the original movie as "Frank"), would seem always to be dictating the pace and tone of the scene, as he has the first spoken dialogue. On the other hand, Rouner, as Kate Winslet's Clementine, gets the last word, her final "okay" being the signal for Ryan to launch once again into the in medias res excerpt from the voiceover tape of Joel's erased memories with which the scene begins. Depending on how long she decides to take with that "okay" (sometimes it is uttered quickly, at other times its delivery is held back for what feels like forever), and depending in what manner she chooses to enunciate it (softly, bitterly, hopefully, resignedly), she is to a certain extent framing when and in what manner Ryan starts the next version of the loop.

By the fourth or fifth go-through of the roundelay I felt like I had internalized more or less all of the dialogue, and so it became a bit of a game to play with myself to anticipate where a different inflection would be given, a pause added, a reaction given more or less emotional emphasis. In this regard, one could say that Eternal, as a temporally mediated work of performance, actually deepens the experience of a cherished principle of the time-specificity of live performance: that it can never be repeated the same way twice. We accept this as a given in the theatre, but unless we go to a show multiple times over the course of its run, most of us as spectators retain a singular version of a particular staged event. However, with apologies to Walter Benjamin, in the case of Eternal technological reproduction somehow works in service of rather than against the auratic experience of the here and now--and precisely because we get to encounter them again and again.


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