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Flash Review 1, 2-8: Merce, Acting, in Cage's "Alphabet"
how to Judge
this hOmage
to Historic
moderNists
inCluding james joyce, marcel
duchAmp and erik satie
with a Grand performance by
mErce?

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2002 Christine Chen

BERKELEY -- On Tuesday, Cal Performances presented the Bay Area premiere of John Cage's "James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet" at Zellerbach Hall. "Alphabet," a work originally imagined and written by Cage as a radio play in 1982, is now adapted for the stage under the direction of Laura Kuhn (director and co-founder of the John Cage Trust). The integrated score, composed by Mikel Rouse from a manuscript Cage created before his death in 1992, consists of sounds, found environmental music and spoken text, all of which occur -- in typical Cage fashion -- sometimes by choice and sometimes by chance. Cage's carefully crafted text collages quotations (real and imagined) from the three title figures, along with witty quips and non-sequiturs in the form of "mesostics" (text that can be read vertically as well as horizontally -- see above). It is all put together through an elaborate system of chance, involving the different possibilities of each character being alone or with another character or characters, the 26 letters of the alphabet which correspond to each of these possibilities, and an unabridged dictionary (?!?!). The resulting effect is that the audience members, unless they are Cage fans, Joyce aficionados, Duchamp buffs, or all-around modern art fanatics, are made to feel like Forrest Gump in a highbrow modern art world -- bewildered, yet naively appreciative of the strange characters around them. There is the sense that the fifteen historical figures represented in the fantasy, including Joyce, Duchamp, Satie (played, in a casting coup, by Merce Cunningham), Mao Tse Tung (as a child), Brigham Young, Henry David Thoreau, and Buckminster Fuller, are speaking both to and above the spectators.

Throughout the play the characters (some alive, some ghosts) sit on piano benches which are neatly scattered atop Marco Steinberg's cleanly linear, raked bleacher set. They perch in a series of tableaus -- frozen in time and space until it is their turn to talk. The lighting is simple but elegant -- revealing only silhouettes at first, then gradually opening up into small pools of light which illuminate each character as the character is introduced. Joyce (Brian Collins) sits on the highest level upstage right, Duchamp (David Vaughan) sits on the middle level center center, and Satie (Cunningham) sits on the lowest level downstage left. This strong diagonal is most evident when the three overlap their dialogue and the light slices across the stage. The other characters, most of which were cast locally, filled in the remaining space on the bleachers and had bit speaking parts. Among these characters, there were some witty casting choices, including Lisa Cohen, an African American woman who plays the juvenile Mao Tse Tung. The role of the Narrator, originally played by (and ostensibly written specifically for) Cage himself, is in this production, played by the highly physical Puck-esque actor, John Kelly. Moving the action along as the master of ceremonies, he ambles around the stage, introduces the characters, cues them to speak, provides imagination, and gives stage directions (which only he follows) while speaking entirely in mesostics. Read vertically, his lines spell out alternately JAMES JOYCE, MARCEL DUCHAMP, and ERIK SATIE. For example, he opens:

what a Joy
to hAve
theM
on thE
Same stage same time
even though the subJect
Of
the plaY
is the Curtain
that sEparates them!

This dizzyingly intellectual text does not call attention to itself per se; rather, the rules and the process by which Cage exacted the dialogue are well hidden within the life of the play -- especially as it is physicalized so aptly in Kelly's body. Still, it is clear when listening that there is a deeper layer at work in the dialogue -- as if we sense subconsciously that there is a very specific content literally embedded in the text. The lay audience member (I include myself here), however, finds a point of entry and accessibility in Satie's character, played with a winsome wit and aplomb by Cunningham. Cage says, in the opening text, that "when it comes to Satie, I prefer Satie himself to all those who've written about him." This is obvious in the large chunks of text he takes from Satie's own writings. In fact, Satie's character gets the best lines, the most clever quips and the most relieved (ha! ha! I get it, it's funny) laughs from the audience. His long ramblings provide a much-needed reprieve from the incessant mesostic rhythm present in the rest of the play. Cunningham performs these orations layered over his own recorded voiceover of these same lines, most likely improvising his timing. The shifting echo effect this provides makes the absurd lines even more comical.

For instance, Cunningham deadpans: "You'll have to buy a metronome. Make sure it isn't too ripe, and above all it should have some flesh on it and a little fat." And with a slight smirk he gets off the following rant: "It's very beneficial for a student to get used to putting up with his teacher? He'll ask questions he knows and that you, you don't know. He takes unfair advantage, obviously. But you have the right to remain silent. It's even the best policy. Don't take it out on your instrument. Instruments often submit to very bad treatment. People beat them. I've known children who took pleasure in stepping on the feet of their piano. Others don't put their violins back in their cases. And then, poor thing, it gets a chill and catches a cold. That's not nice. Not at all. And some pour snuff into their trombones. This is very unpleasant for the instrument."

And he coolly delivers the advice: "You do your exercises in the morning, after breakfast. You should be very clean, and you should have blown your nose. You shouldn't start working with your fingers covered with jam." Cunningham's focused and dignified presence grounds Satie's character and the play as a whole. It is a delight to see this legendary dance artist flourish in this different context -- and having so much fun doing it.

Cage has created quite the multi-layered homage in "Alphabet." The in-joke-y elements in the play can make your head spin: Jasper Johns plays the recorded voice of Rose Selavy (eros c'est la vie), Duchamp's feminine alter ego; the Narrator, when he mentions Merce Cunningham (the character), sneaks a peak at Cunningham (the actor) who sits smugly on his bench (whew!); etc. Being able to catch a few of these tweaked allusions is essential in the enjoyment of Alphabet, as Cunningham's presence can only do so much to amuse.

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