Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Discernment and Confusion in I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Son of a Bitch / Robert Quillen Camp, Department of Theatre, Lewis & Clark College

In Rodrigo García’s play I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Son of a Bitch, a father, in a last-ditch attempt to avoid emotional collapse, withdraws the five thousand euros he has saved in the bank, and plans to spend it on an evening with his sons, an evening that will center around breaking into the Prado and staying up all night looking at Goya’s black paintings. But he intends that they should do it in style – before they break into the museum they will drive around Madrid, drinking wine and snorting coke with the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, flown in for the occasion. He doesn’t want to spend the money on a trip to Disneyland Paris (the boys’ suggestion – they are aged six and eleven), nor does he want to blow through it in clubs, brothels, and bars. Instead, the father explains:

We’re going to spread [the money] around, with discernment; and thanks to this discernment, we’ll stand out from the crowd. It’s nothing to do with good sense: discernment, for us, includes confusion. One hundred percent. We owe that to our book collection.

This passage provides a nice opening into the Boom Arts production of the play, directed by Jude Christian, based on her earlier production at London’s Gate Theatre. This production not only highlights and develops the thematic material of the play (the claims of traditional European culture against the encroaching monolith of American consumer capitalism, the emotional and psychological effects of widespread economic instability, and especially the emotional challenges of parenting) but it also introduces new formal confusions: first, it is being staged in a space that is primarily devoted to the exhibition of visual art, and second, the actors playing the children in this production are piglets.
These two interventions work with one another to subtly disrupt our spectatorial experience – hemmed in by a small picket fence, the actor and the piglets are on exhibition like the Goya paintings at the center of the narrative, and the pleasure that we take in the display of an actor’s virtuosic theatrical skill (provided by the accomplished Ebbe Roe Smith) becomes confused with an altogether different kind of pleasure, the joy of watching piglets just being piglets—no skill involved—their utter lack of pretension to being anything else constantly threatening to overwhelm the world of the play. Traditional theatrical wisdom recommends against the casting of animals (with some notable exceptions – Annie’s Sandy comes to mind), because the fact that we know that the animal isn’t really obeying the laws of the fictional world puts too much pressure on our suspension of disbelief. Famously, the disastrous performance of the dog cast in the 1891 premiere of the symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s play The Blind sent its Parisian audience into hysterics at what was meant to be a moment of tragic recognition. But here, in this production, the confusion is productive. Not only because it generates the self-awareness often found in experimental theater (we all know this performance is a performance) but because, as the play’s protagonist argues, confusion is a necessary component of an authentic experience. Otherwise you might as well be at Disneyland. Here our experience is troubled, multiform, and radically incomplete.

Of course, García doesn’t present his protagonist in an entirely uncritical light. The father is pushing an agenda on his children that they do not seem to want—like the piglets, they don’t take direction easily—and the reference to Goya’s black paintings can’t help but call to mind the famous image of Saturn devouring his child, evoked in this production when the father eats a can of Vienna sausages while gazing at his porcine sons. But even if the father’s quest is quixotically misguided or worse, we empathize with his attempt to combat his sense of total powerlessness in the face of implacable images of global brands and his own limited purchasing power—“delving in the dregs for the cheapest of the crap: all we could buy with the money we had.” Strikingly, what’s billed as the most important element of the plan is the part that doesn’t cost any money – breaking into the Prado and looking at the paintings. It’s also this part of the story —the actual experience of the paintings—that is curiously elided as the play reaches its conclusion, perhaps because it can’t be adequately captured, or perhaps because it has necessarily failed to deliver on its promise. 

Under Christian’s direction, we get the sense that the father is driven by an irretrievable personal loss, a human story that echoes the cultural and economic themes of the play. This lacuna at the center of the tale possibly prompts his mad grab for some kind of meaningful relationship with his children and with the world. But what the Boom Arts production of the play drives home is the necessarily confusing disjoint between a father’s vision for his children and how they actually experience the world, because this relationship is echoed in the formal structure of the presentation – we, as audience members, are like the piglets more than we are like the man attempting to corral them. The implication of placing the work among the other works on display (currently large-scale geometric compositions that interrogate the architecture of the gallery space) is that we might ourselves wander into another part of Disjecta’s white spaces and achieve our own kind of aesthetic transcendence, or perhaps our own discerning confusion—but that the artist, like the father, can only arrange a set of possibilities, which we are free to take or leave.

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