Fiona is a white, Jewish, dual-citizenship carrying feminist. Creator/performer/thinker. She is excited about the future.
I like coming to theater pieces with very little in my pocket; just a gal walking into a space ready to be entertained with no previous knowledge about the production beforehand. Sometimes that makes it harder to understand the work, but I like it when it doesn’t. In that vein, I came to Cellophane by Mac Wellman, produced by the company jenny&john with the following things in my pocket: the trailer and a hangover. Watching the trailer days before led me to believe that I was coming to watch a multimedia piece that oversaturated my senses. I was not incorrect. But upon the start of the show, I was surprised to find that there were actual actors in this piece. Wait, this is a play?
I understand now that Mac Wellman, the playwright, likes to intentionally blur language. So it’s not entirely surprising that I did not understand a word of Cellophane. It was all in English, but it was purely nonsensical. Despite this, there was a very clear narrative arc: a group of people gather in one of the coolest theatrical spaces I have ever seen for what appears to be a meeting. Tensions are high. It’s awkward. People start to get angry. They argue. They gesticulate. Someone leaves the room after yelling at the rest of the group.
The direction (Jenny Kessler) made the story so clear in this production. Character was revealed in the spaces between the dialogue, and these moments were sharp, hilarious, and a genuine pleasure to watch. I almost enjoyed them the most, because without the unintelligible text intervening in my narrative-creating brain, the silence felt like the clearest moments of storytelling.
Until. Eventually, technology entered the world of the play. The behavior between the characters and the manner of their arguments made me believe that there was an ethical question about technology being posited. One character’s entrance brought radio, television, and projections. And everyone was transfixed. All were either obsessed or panicked as an equally nonsensical voice emanated from the radio, or as patchworked images and clips of war blasted from televisions, or, eventually, as some pretty clearly anti-meme culture projections stopped the action of the play and took over the story entirely. These final projections were thrown up on a clear tarp that separated the audience from the characters in a climactic moment of reveal – I don’t know what the characters proved, but in the several minutes of projections, they became almost became ape like, completely overpowered by what the Cellophane blurb describes as “a 21st century media-saturated, YOLO here we go bonanza.”
With plays that are very intentional about the way they distort language, I am hesitant to decide what the play “means.” Or, what the playwright is “trying to say” (I think the operative word in that sentence to scrutinize is “say”). In a 2015 profile on Wellman by the New York Times, Alexis Solosky writes that his “only mantra is Oddity.” That’s why I’m not entirely sure if it is in Wellman’s script of Cellophane that these anti-consumerist, anti-media, anti-technology themes take shape, or if that was jenny&john’s addition to the project. To once again draw from the FringeArts blurb on the piece, Cellophane “dizzyingly rastles with the complexities of being American.” Whether that was Wellman’s intention or jenny&john’s artistic vision, that description is very accurate.
I am still confused, however, and here is why: it feels ironic to me that a piece condemning media and technology for devouring our lives and leaving us thoughtless could feature the most visually compelling and artistically stimulating projection design. All of the design in this play was super cool – major props are due to: John Bezark for projections, Katherine Barton for set, Alex Neumann and Ian Gold for sound, Alex Denevers for lighting, and Kristen Schuman Phaneuf for costumes. That’s all technology, isn’t it? Or thereby made possible?
Cellophane made me think about the anti-technology stance. I’m a big fan of laughing about it. I particularly liked the #HowToConfuseAMillennial trend that totally backfired on Baby Boomers, and I’m one of these artists who is super, super excited to see where the blend of multimedia video and projection work will take theater in the future. And to Cellophane’s credit, I understand that there’s a difference between technology and digital media, but (and maybe I’m just hashtag such a millennial), I like to think of these separate concepts as two bubbles of a venn diagram, with all negative and positive attributes coexisting. Yes, we are connected on a frequency that is much quicker than ever before in human history, and yes, that creates problems. Yet at the end of the day, I just think it’s such a shame that a play about the dangers of technological media also happened to pull off said media spectacularly.