Sat February 1, 2014
The [Unforgettable] White Fugue
The frustration in crafting this column is the long lag-time between deadline and publication date. Add to that the tradition of orienting December articles to holiday subjects, and my enthusiasm for the Southern Oregon University production last November of The White Fugue, devised and directed by James Donlon, becomes almost a why-bother-mention-it-now?
Given its mere eight performances in the intimate Center Square Theatre, only a few hundred spectators saw the show. And as a piece of devised theatre, its chances of being recreated in another venue are slim. There is something poignant about the brevity of its life, yet its subject—the power of memory to shape and sustain reality—invites us to remember it. For the act of memory, The White Fugue seems to suggest, takes us into a realm very like Jung’s collective unconscious, governed by its own logic and physics and blessed with a transcendent permanence.he frustration in crafting this column is the long lag-time between deadline and publication date. Add to that the tradition of orienting December articles to holiday subjects, and my enthusiasm for the Southern Oregon University production last November of The White Fugue, devised and directed by James Donlon, becomes almost a why-bother-mention-it-now?
Scenic designers Delaney Kentzell and Grace Wolcott crafted a wonderfully flexible symbolic terrain for this memory realm. Like an upheaval in the floor of the black box, a steep ramp led up into one corner of the surrounding catwalk. No one, I thought, could climb and descend that angle; the entire cast did. The wall of movable panels upstage similarly defied physics, morphing into smaller boxes, barriers, places to hide. Above it all hung a cock-eyed chandelier.
The play began with couples in white formal garb executing an orderly waltz. A woman in bright street clothes stumbled in, and the dance shifted to contemporary chaos. Voicing the only words of the scene, the woman identified the dancers as her memories. Suddenly a figure in black, his face concealed by a black hood, scattered the dancers. He managed to capture one before she could escape, strangled her, and disappeared with her body under the ramp. The mystery of this action shadowed the ensuing exploration of the memory landscape, scenes of childhood traumas, past loves. But the murderous, faceless apparition kept interrupting and making off with another of the ensemble. Determined to get to the bottom of this mysterious threat, the woman remembered her favorite filme noir and hired its detective.
The second act, entitled “Going Deeper,” actually continued in a sort of tongue-in-cheek revue mode. “The Birth Memory,” which one would think might have been the “deepest,” was tucked in between the representation of memory as a circus and the Memory Mall, home of J. C. Memories. Yet a lyrical thread had begun to insinuate itself into the story, epitomized perhaps by the koan-like murmur of the Lost Memory—“I am nothing but my absence.”
In the final scene, the woman removed her red jacket, and her sleuth divulged the solution to the mystery. He, whom she’d enlisted to end the murders, was the black-garbed murderer. And she, whose memories were vanishing, was approaching her own death, a new dimension she must enter with a clean slate. The ensemble clothed her in bridal white, as she herself became a memory. Her slow, sure march up the impossible ramp into white light carried that inarticulably magic charge of theatre at its best.
Devised theatre sparks controversy. About the same time I was riveted by The White Fugue, my playwrights’ listserv was hearing complaints from MFA students in playwriting who were finding few opportunities for workshop productions because all the directors and actors were captivated by devised theatre. Typically, devised theatre begins not with a script but with an idea or theme and an ensemble whose imaginative riffs on it will generate a performance that will be finalized by opening night. Movement and design are just as important as a verbal text. Naysayers see devised theatre as a cousin to reality TV. At its worst, it can devolve into formlessness. When all contributions are accepted as equal, stories get muddled, structure collapses.
But there are clear appeals in this truly collaborative sub-genre of theatre, as SOU’s The White Fugue splendidly demonstrates. A production can become exponentially richer when it blends the energy of multiple imaginations; when it acknowledges actors as creative sources, not just pawns carrying out orders; when it can incorporate spontaneous inspirations. Plays composed by collectives, like the OSF’s American Night and The Unfortunates, which land on one end of the devised theatre continuum, have been wildly popular.
The success of the sub-genre lies in maintaining dramatic structure. This probably requires a designated director, a single consciousness sorting and selecting from the plural voices, and the commitment to a story, however simple—a journey that goes somewhere. In the case of The White Fugue, Donlon served as both teacher and director. He began with several pages outlining a vision for dramatizing memory and asked the student-actors to flesh it out. It was a simple story that invited rich embroidery: a woman is losing her memory/memories; she embarks on a journey to discover the reason; when she does, the horrific becomes beautiful, transcendent.
Amazingly, the students had four weeks from first meeting to first dress. In one week they wrote personal responses to prompts about various memories. Then Donlon selected from these mini-stories those that would be enacted at appropriate stations on the play’s terrain. What emerged from the process was an ensemble of actors eminently suited to and invested in their different roles. I still smile when I remember a former student of mine, Jeremy Vik, a skilled juggler and acrobat, who absolutely nailed the opportunity to showcase these talents. His favorite moment in the play, he said, was his riff on Hamlet’s gravedigger: he rose through a trap balancing the disk of floor on his head while playing a ukulele.
Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com).