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Christopher Domig recites T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” amid sawdust in ‘The Waste Land’ (2015). (photo by Thomas Weitzman, courtesy ‘The Waste Land’ project)

At this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, artist Daniel Domig and actor Christopher Domig (they are brothers) have collaborated on The Waste Land, an installation in which the latter quixotically plays with objects and rolls around in sawdust while reciting T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name.

Many of us first encountered — or avoided — “The Waste Land” (1922) as homework. This performance is an opportunity to reengage with the classic text, to discover something new in it that we might have missed as students. When he wrote what’s now widely regarded as the first modernist poem in English, Eliot was inspired by that motley crew of French Symbolist poets, who staked out more enigmatic territory than the twee, overly sentimental Victorians of the late 19th century. The poem’s structure is fragmentary, leaping from vignette to vignette, alternating between the lucid and the ludicrous. Early on, Eliot writes, “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images … ” Those broken images inspired the Domig brothers to create a sawdust-strewn environment for their performance, with only a few set pieces and an eerie puppet to give life to the poem.

Reading “The Waste Land” silently, its lines can become jumbled and different scenes can bleed into each other. It’s easy to gloss over parts and miss some of the details. While speed-reading served us well as students, we can sabotage our encounters with poetry as adults by keeping this habit as an inadvertent holdover. We gain more by leisurely devouring verse. And sometimes it takes a live performance to help slow us down.

Christopher and Daniel Domig, ‘The Waste Land’ (2015) (courtesy of ‘The Waste Land’ project) (click to enlarge)

In the Domigs’ piece, Christopher recites the poem while rearranging a table, chairs, and puppet to highlight different vignettes. He turns the table upside down to evoke a ship at sea; he turns it right side up to suggest an awkward dinner conversation with his puppet. He hides underneath the table during another section, intimidated by the puppet as an enthroned queen with glimmering jewels. Each set piece was designed by Daniel, a sculptor, and repurposed from his 2009 “I Hated All Things” installation in Vienna.

Part of the fun of this show is understanding how the ever-changing set reflects the ever-changing places of the poem. Aristotle would not be amused — unity of place was not T.S. Eliot’s style. The scene changes also help clarify the meanings of the phrases in foreign languages interspersed throughout the text. Scholars have fastidiously translated them and painstakingly identified their sources, only to discover no clear connection with the poem’s content. They often act as non sequiturs between scenes, and the set changes here reinforce that function.

The puppet, deftly created by Daniel, is a sculpture in its own right: its rough, worn white face and blank stare allow it to take on the many characters that come and go. In one of the strongest vignettes in the show, Christopher possesses the puppet. Wearing it like a mask, he becomes the fortune teller and “famous clairvoyante” Madame Sosostris. As he imitates a tarot card reading while reciting verses from the poem, the scene takes on a deliciously creepy surrealism. These interactions and oppositions between Christopher and the puppet are more evocative and suggestive than literal dramatizations would be.

T.S. Eliot ominously wrote in “The Waste Land”: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” The sawdust that sullies Christopher’s tuxedo as the show goes on cleverly echoes that line. Critics often connect the poem’s fear and melancholia with the sorrowful aftermath of World War I and the harsh rise of industrialization — all of which made fragmentation an apt metaphor for the tortured zeitgeist. At the same time, Freud’s ideas began circulating more widely in the 1920s, and the era saw an increased interest in interior experience, subjectivity, and the psychology of fear. This poem was responding to a new conception of the mind.

After all, aren’t most of us jumbling and sorting through numerous meaningful but disconnected mental fragments as we try to get through our days? “The Waste Land” remains a stunning poetic portrait of the life of the meandering mind. Spoken with gravitas by Christopher Domig and animated by the eerie objects of Daniel Domig, it comes to life in this intriguing FringeNYC show, allowing us all to confront our own inner wastelands.

The Waste Land is playing as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at the 64E4 Underground Theater (64 East 4th Street, East Village, Manhattan) on Monday, August 24, at 9:30pm; Wednesday, August 26, at 3pm, and Saturday, August 29, at 7pm. Tickets are available via FringeNYC.

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