Life and Times: Episodes Three and Four conclude (for now) a set of performances by Nature Theater of Oklahoma (actually from New York City) where they've recorded a phone call from a young woman telling her life story and then perform the verbatim script on stage. Altogether there are 16 hours of recordings, with every single 'like,' 'um'' and 'Oh my God!' included. (There are many of them.) The performers give each utterance equal weight, they don't reproduce conversational intonations, rather they treat the verbatim as a script that could be telling any story. The effect is that you're forced to listen, to pay attention to language in a way that's intense and weirdly compelling. What happens on stage is something else as the cast play to the text in the style of the final act of a melodramatic closed room murder mystery set in a hunting lodge or a country estate, much like a game of Cluedo come to life. A trench coated inspector makes notes, a maid comes in with a feather duster and overhears things she shouldn't and a mysterious well-dressed woman keeps her cards close to her chest. Very kitsch and Agatha Christie.
The production is comical yet at the same time careful and respectful of the text. The prolonged delivery, the enormous chunks of script, the stillness, the sense of presence from the actors and the extensiveness of it all combine to make this (fairly ordinary) life matter. The production doesn't satirise or lampoon which it could so easily have done; rather it reflects the dignity of the words back to the speaker.
Two and a half hours without an interval is a long time in the theatre. You get enough of a chunk of it to appreciate that the person whose life you're witnessing is quite inarticulate, mostly unreflective and not terribly interesting in terms of personality. She's young, admittedly, as yet unformed. There's just enough sensory detail in her narration for you to make images, create pictures in your own imagination while enjoying the bizarre responses to the words by the bodies on stage. This is one of the beguiling aspects to this odd style of theatre. A story is taken from the storyteller and given over to a performance completely divorced from the narrative. The language becomes its own form, its own character and an ordinary life becomes art. Personally I found her language and vocabulary so limited that it became annoying; it didn't stop me being engaged though, so something was going right. I wasn't bored.
Life is messy, random and full of small dramas, the last two episodes of Life and Times pays respect to this by offering each of this woman's emotional beats in its own words, in its own time. What someone chooses to remember says something about themselves. It's hard to describe how compelling these simple stories are. Once it became evident that 'nothing was going to happen' a fair number of people walked out. But to expect a tidy structure or resolution to a work like this is to miss the point. Having said that, at one stage the interviewee says something along the lines of “I'm rambling” which creates a laugh.
The performers keep up an intense engagement with the work, using choreography and original music to 'do' the words. Often they are assertively still, listening and 'being with' the text; you marvel at their stamina. Life and Times: Episodes Three and Four is not for everyone but those who left early missed the hilariously surreal ending, which references trite conventions from 70's alien invasion movies. Wonderful stuff. Nature Theater of Oklahoma are making original and deeply impressive work. It's refreshing to see something so honestly new and raw yet so strongly developed. Amazing work on the part of the cast and creators.
Melbourne Festival in association with Debbie Dadon and Naomi Milgrom AO present
Life and Times: Episodes 3-4
Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Venue: Playhouse | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 24 Oct, 2013
Tickets: $59 – $25