Mallory Cattlet’s This Was the End at The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City occupies a point along the continuum between theater and visual art. The emphasis is on the visual perception of the stage set and the video projections by Keith Skretch, which sometimes replicate both the set and actions of the live performers.
The concept of the show is to rework the last act of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. This Was the End clocks in at 75 minutes, hours shorter than Vanya. Though some information is given from Act I of Vanya, This Was the End skips quickly ahead to the final act, presuming that a theater-savvy audience is familiar with this canonical play.
Vanya ends with certain of the play’s characters left behind on a rural Russian estate, as they speculate about what to do with the rest of their lives, especially as old age takes its toll. The questions are existential and medical. Catlett’s venerable performers (Black-Eyed Susan, Paul Zimet, James Himelsbach, and Rae C. Wright) are in their sixties and seventies, old enough to be facing the ills that Chekhov’s characters discuss. No matter how talented, actors eventually reach an age where the memory necessary to play Chekhov can no longer be counted upon. Catlett plainly uses these actors as proxies for all of humanity, doomed to stumble through the degradations of mental and physical incapacity on the way to death.
The centerpiece of the production is a wall from the Mabou Mines studio in PS122. Mabou Mines is an experimental downtown New York theater company of long standing, founded by Lee Breuer and the late Ruth Maleczech. Catlett apparently workshopped her piece in Mabou Mines studio program. The wall, removed as part of the multi-year, $35 million-dollar renovation of PS122, is handsomely aged, with chipped white paint, a blackboard and a map of Europe in 1914, as well as various doors through which the performers race. The rest of the sparse set, a couple of folding tables and some random chairs, evokes a rehearsal room.
The idea of duplication, inherent in rehearsal and theatrical performance, permeates the production. A video of the wall is projected onto the wall itself at the start of the show, deliberately warping in and out to draw attention to the difference between the projection and the archival, physical structure. Much of the dialogue is duplicated, delivered via a recording, with the actors reciting the lines live as well, in and out of synch with the recording. The scenarios in many of the video projections involve repetition and are often looped to accentuate the repetitiveness: the actors chase video images of themselves chasing themselves. Likewise, the sound mix gets stuck repeating lines, and in general the narrative does not progress but dwells in the final moments of Chekhov’s play, out of sequence and circling. An onstage technician (G. Lucas Crane), mixing the sound live, personifies the repetition.
The test is whether this repetitiveness and the focus on the mistakes that aging induces can engender productive contemplation of the weighty questions that Catlett poses. In straight theater, it can be mortifying to watch an actor “go up” on his lines, i.e. forget. Nonetheless, such a moment is noticeably live, in the same way that a set malfunction or bringing an animal onstage can be.
Toward the end of This Was the End, the ending of the final act of Vanya is replayed again. Earlier in the show, the actors recited parts of the same dialogue along with the recording. At the end of Catlett’s production, this scene is played through relatively straight, but with the actors struggling to remember Chekhov’s text, looking each other in the eye as if to see who has the next line or if they are on course. It is unclear whether they are authentically misremembering the lines or if they had rehearsed precisely this fumbling and rewriting of the scene to be played by actors playing actors with bad memories, or some combination of these. In any case, in these moments, what makes the ending of Vanya moving, the anguishing struggle of these characters to find meaning in the remainder of their lives shines through, perhaps a bit more brightly, with the frailty of age baring itself to view.
Mallory Cattlet’s This Was the End continues at The Chocolate Factory (5-49 49th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through March 8.