Serious Memories

O Where Are You Going?
Written and Directed by Daniel Rattner ’13
Remaining Shows: May 1st and 2nd, 8:00 PM
Matthews Acting Studio

where are you going

 

O Where Are You Going?, the new thesis piece from senior Classics major Daniel Rattner, might, on first glance, have the makings of a rather pedestrian piece of theater. Such a suspicion might be prompted by the fact that the piece centers around two sisters (rich, bourgeois, white girls) struggling to cope with the transition from adolescence to adulthood, against the not unexpected backdrop of an absent father and a trophy stepmother. Broken homes hardly make subject matter to be scoffed at, I acknowledge, but there is a certain way in which the typical pattern (and by now, I think it sadly is typical) of the story of the rich girl struggling with the malaise of suburbia can become shallow; the trope of a Lindsay Lohan Disney movie (or, dare I say it, Hillary Duff’s Cinderella Story). I don’t imagine it’s exceptionally snobbish to call the Gossip Girl stock pedestrian, or even downright tiring. What nobody needs is a stage version of that.

But as my track record might indicate, I generally don’t bother reviewing shoddy plays– I want to tell people about the good ones (unless an example needs to be made…). And this thought, that O Where Are You Going? might have been set up for disaster, really only occurred to me after watching the play, as I was marveling at the way this piece was exactly not a disaster, but a triumph. “Pedestrian”: that’s not what we have at all!

O Where Are You Going? is a very serious, very human play that does astoundingly well at mobilizing complicated symbolism and difficult themes in treating the lives of very serious, very real characters. It unifies immaterial elements of atmosphere, mood, and sound– elements often neglected in student theater pieces– with material ones like stage design, costume, and props, to produce a very finely calibrated mise-en-scène. But quite remarkably, the directing attempts to use this mise-en-scène to guide and develop the narrative of the acting; the characters are made more real by their involvement with the stage. The acting, although already skilled, comes alive in its context, and indeed becomes compelling in a way I have rarely seen.

Let me try to sketch out what I mean:

Mike (Savannah Hankinson ’13), the elder of our two sisters, a difficult, cerebral college student, is first found in her room, reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. She is alone, and the audience surrounds her, closely, with intimacy. It’s quite a well-furnished room: carpets, books, lamps, a record player, an armchair, a chaise longue. It’s a real room, with a real character and ambience. Mike’s sister, Kitty (Erin O’Brien ’16)– a neurotic but sweet girl– then walks in. The reception of their father’s wedding is happening downstairs (although this father himself is absent, both literally and metaphorically). They start talking, the plot starts moving– but as it evolves, and new characters come in and go out, the same room is used, with the same character. Its not just that the same stage is used throughout– that is of course a trivial point– or even the same props; it’s that we have the same character-type physically manifested as the backdrop to the sisters’ story. Action can be located outside of the room; on platforms to the side or even above the audience, but it is all in a sense playing back to this central place of intimacy with the sisters. Perhaps tellingly, I caught myself, during a moment of silence, glancing down at the books piled next to the chaise longue, thinking about who would read them, and why. I was left alone with the room, maybe in the room– left to perform an investigation, of sorts, on the personalities of the characters.

Another such moment of being left alone occurred when someone– Kitty, perhaps– left the record player on after leaving the room. A few seconds later, another character came in and turned off the record player. In the seconds between, I felt like a friend who had been brought to the room and left alone to look around. It was awkward, but also intimate—like taking up an invitation that was not spoken but intuited—to be curious in a strange place with a strange atmosphere, a strange milieu. An invitation to investigation, that is. But the music playing in the background was old– jazz from 60s, I think– and was coming from a vinyl record-player. The furniture was old-fashioned, even actually old. In fact, a sense of wariness of age and of the past itself pervades the play. But this had the effect that the investigation turned at times to a kind of archaeology, a getting familiar with artifacts, with a living past.

Strangely enough, I don’t think it was just the audience that engaged in this kind of archaeology. The three other main characters of the piece each, in a way, are access points to the sisters’ past, and at the same time, mirrors figures, with their own histories, both parallel and diverging. They remind us of Herodotus, whose Histories, we read, are a historias apodeixis, a display of his researches in narrative formperhaps an exercise of a kind of ceramic logic, where fragmentary artifacts come together to make intersecting stories. But these are not merely my abstractions: there are actual representations of these in the characters.

This is especially the case with Thomas (Cody O’Neil ’15), a waiter at the reception, who despite not having had much to do with them before it, comes to interact with the sisters in a strange way during the course of the evening. He’s first sent up to retrieve Mike to the party downstairs, but ends up having to wait on her, and Kitty, in a different way. We learn his story. He travelled a lot growing up; learned many languages, saw many places. He still remembers a little Greek from his time in Athens, so he shares a poem with Kitty. He tells of some old letters written in Greek by a girl he once knew: “but [he] couldn’t read them anymore. They’re really barely his anymore.” Yet they’re part of his story; and the physical pieces of his past are rich and potent sources of his current identity. Like the books next to the chaise longue…

Interestingly, however, we find embodiments of the same process running in a different direction in the characters of Cameron (Phi Rosen ’14)– an awkward high-school friend of Mike’s who has come to the reception with a old crush to work out– and Marlene (Sarah Paton ’13)– an old babysitter of the girls, who struggles with and even somewhat resents the boredom of adulthood. Unlike Thomas, both are part of the girls’ stories before the evening of the reception, and both come to reminisce with them about their collective pasts while also revealing more about their own lives. And they too carry tokens of these pasts, little objects of archaeology– songs and trinkets and other little things that are discreetly brought to our attention, discreetly made part of the narrative (Phil at one point starts singing The Smiths song “This Charming Man”; actually one of my favourite songs… I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear. This man said, it’s gruesome, that someone so handsome should care…).

There is a persistent problematization and bringing together of objects, memories, and stories in O Where Are You Going? that drives forward the plot but also involves the audience in making sense of the identities of the characters, and which makes this piece of theater so serious and so human.

Bottom line: I cannot recommend it highly enough. Be warned: it’s no light evening theater, but it’s certainly worth it if you’re looking for something a little less pedestrian… 

About Juan-Jacques Aupiais

Juan-Jacques Aupiais is a junior in the Department of German. Contact him, if you desire, at jaupiais@princeton.edu.
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