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Enter the Night.

By Maria Irene Fornes. Theater Zero, New City Theater and Art Center, Seattle. 15 May 1993.

Enter the Night, written and directed by Maria Irene Fornes, received its world premiere 16 April 1993 at Seattle's New City Theater. Commissioned by the resident company, Theater Zero, the drama, originally entitled Dreams, began as a series of monologues that came to Fornes between sleep and waking. As she assembled these fragments, the shape of Enter the Night began to appear: a delicate triangle involving three friends--Tressa, a nurse who tends the dying; Jack, a gay man mourning the death of his lover from AIDS; and Paula, a woman threatened by bankruptcy and a potentially fatal heart disease. Still a rough draft when Fornes began to work with the three-member cast the play developed in keeping with what Fornes, once a painter, has called her collage technique: incorporating material from her subconscious; from the culture's collective memories of Hollywood, Shakespeare, and Christianity; and from chance discoveries. (Among these were a nurse's diary found at an auction; a newspaper account of an eighteenth-century Chinese scholar; and the sight of a light-man on a ladder which prompted Fornes to include a brief sample of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.) While the final structure remains dreamlike and open-ended, a succession of haunting moments rather than a progressive march, it possesses a considerable cumulative power. When, near the end of the play, Paula cries "into the night," her outburst is provoked by Jack's self-punishing plunge into a dark world where he may be beaten to death or fatally infected, but it also sums up and impels the audience's contemplation of pain and affection shadowed forth by the play.

As in The Conduct of Life and Fefu and Her Fnends, Fornes explores not simply the facts of suffering and mortality but the effort to comprehend these facts through action and imagination. Here again she creates what Susan Sontag has called her "theatre of heartbreak," but in a way that combines the playfulness of her earlier drama with the passion of her more recent work. Though the characters are granted moments in which they enter one another's experience in dream or play, the dominant note of the drama is desire: the unappeased longing of these three friends to ease one another's pain, or perhaps even to conceive it fully.

Fornes's playfulness and her exploration of the longing (by turns selfless and egotistical) stirred by suffering were most vivid in act 2. The first act established the three characters, the pace rather gentle and the mood expository. It was not until the second act that the play gripped me as Tressa, Jack, and Paula began to enact snippets from a repertoire of familiar cultural texts, among them Capra's Lost Horizons, and Griffith's Broken Blossoms. At this point, the setting took on its full significance: a bare loft space in a geographically unspecified Chinatown, with a stairwell in the middle leading to the invisible ground floor. The principal acting space seemed to hover above the level of ordinary existence as a sort of temporary refuge. Quotations from the two films, popular western fantasies of the Asiatic Other, emphasized the exotic setting and allowed Fornes to evoke more overtly the ways in which we imaginatively confront human mortality. At one extreme we deny it altogether, at the same time undoing our denial, by creating an unreachable Shangri-La; and this is the gently ironic note on which the play ends, with a reading from Lost Horizon. But the most powerful scene of the play was the reenactment by Jack and Tressa of the central gestures from Griffith's silent film. There was not a hint of laughter in the house as Jack, in the Lillian Gish role, was rescued by Tressa as Huang, the gentle Chinese scholar who tries to bring teachings of peace to the West but fails to save even the frail young girl from a brutal death. As Huang, barred by race from his broken blossom, Tressa's austere yet erotically charged pantomime played out a yearning passion unexpressed in her sober diary record of her patient's decline; and Jack, as Gish, is released from rage and grateful for succor, a beautiful victim rather than a guilty survivor. When Paula happens on their scene-playing, she learns that this is a customary game of theirs, and her pleasure in this discovery adds to the scene's curious note of joy in the strength and subtlety of the allegiances binding the three.

It is interesting to speculate how much of the power of this production was due to Fornes's direction. Certainly, a great deal would be missing without the stylized choreography of the mimed scenes from Broken Blossoms and, given the spareness of the dialogue, the direction of the play's allusive visual language seems crucial. Fornes elicited rich performances from Mary Ewald as Tressa, and Patricia Mattick as Paula; Mattick in particular brought small touches of gaiety to her role which seemed completely in tune with the play's complex tone. Brian Faker, playing Jack, was less moving, perhaps because the role was emotionally more extreme and less nuanced: the character's feelings of guilt at surviving his partner, and his consequent need to believe he too had AIDS, at one point found a visual equivalent in obvious evocations of the suffering Christ. But in the Lillian Gish role from Broken Blossoms, Jack was genuinely compelling; and I can,t help but think that Fornes writes and directs with a special insight into the roles of women.

In fact it might be appropriate to look at this play, in part, as a response to AIDS from a woman's point of view. From this perspective, the disease joins a continuum of suffering which women traditionally have tried to assuage. Thus, Fornes pairs the specter of Jack's possible infection with the certainty of Paula's failing heart and makes both afflictions of equal concern. It is notable that when Paula questions Tressa about the ways in which she eases the last hours of dying patients, Tressa remarks that this is what we do--the plural drawing attention to the function of all nurses, most of them women. To be sure, Tressa is also the masculine Huang; but that, perhaps, is the point: the role of the nurse, the one who attempts to comprehend another's pain, is always that of the unworthy Other, filled with longing and distanced from what can never be touched: the feminized position of the disfavored.
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Title Annotation:New City Theater and Art Center, Seattle, Washington
Author:Rabillard, Sheila
Publication:Theatre Journal
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:May 1, 1994
Words:1080
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