Last weekend I watched a futuristic story in which the junk-scavenging relics of humanity -- left behind when humans abandoned trash-heaped Earth centuries before -- encountered the slick, advanced scout sent to see what had become of their homeworld.
No, I didn't go see WALL-E again. What I saw was the premiere production of Liz Duffy Adams's latest play, The Listener, and what I experienced was a rare moment of storytelling in a discipline often sadly bereft of it.
In fact, The Listener shared more with WALL-E than a premise and incentive moment. Both pieces bemoan the literal trashing of our geographical inheritance, while delighting in the beauty and functionality of the products of our commercial ingenuity. Both focus on Earth, the scene of the crime. Both film and play, consciously or not, present ritual as the anchor for healthy behaviors that may heal the world.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Crowded Fire's premiere production of The Listener is its use of materials for set and props. Shelters, doorways, clothing, furniture, decoration, restraints, and even weapons arise from some of our most common and eternal objects: grocery bags, bungee cords, compact discs, and, of course, plastic water containers. A square installation of half-liter bottles creates a window in one wall, and perhaps the production's most visually sublime moment.
This set represents Junk City, the only apparent surviving Earth settlement. Centuries ago, most of humanity fled to the terraformed Moon, re-named "New Earth," leaving behind only those "unfit" to join them. After a recent public controversy a "Nearth" faction has sent a scout to evaluate the remaining Earthlings' potential for repatriation amongst their fitter kin.
This scout, an enthusiastically arrogant bleeding heart named John, naturally gets more than he bargained for from the ignorant savages he has come to save. Captured immediately by a finder couple (people whose "function" in this society is to scavenge useful objects from the junkpile), John's cries for them to "Listen! Listen!" convinces them that he is calling for The Listener, one of their culture's two most honored functions.
The Listener's job is to stay permanently by a jerry-rigged radio, occasionally speaking into it and listening unremittingly for a response from other possible survivors on Earth. The Listener rejects John, an inhuman "it" to his captors because he does not have a recognized function in their society, and turns him over to the Namer, the other honored position, who identifies the names and functions of unknown objects, and who has his own secret agenda.
The Listener's initial refusal to listen to John's story has deeper reasons behind it than is immediately apparent. Through oral histories recited by the Namer, we learn that Junk City views "lunatics" -- humans who abandoned Earth for the Moon -- as the worst kind of sinner, no longer human. That each group has something to learn from the other is obviously going to be this play's moral, but Adams really has little interest in any lessons -- beyond minor technological wizardries that, say, boost the power of jerry-rigged radios -- the lunatics have to teach Junk Citizens. The fact that a projection of the moon over Junk City is withheld until the final scene underlines the point that the escapes offered by advanced technology do not overhang the struggle to make our world right again.
The heart of the play is the original sin of not listening, and the tragedy that befalls the Listener is the result of more than one failure to listen, or to engage. This central inquiry is set off beautifully by the language the Junk Citizens use, which has no articles, invents or compounds new nouns and verbs, and falls utterly silent when it does not wish to speak. The strange words and unfamiliar rhythms of this language force the audience to pay especial attention to the dialogue, so as to not miss or misunderstand anything, making Listeners of us all.
The production's clunkers are not minor, however. In the Listener character's Harajuku rice peasant costume and tai chi moves, The Listener parallels another famous sci-fi movie, Star Wars, in its shallow and inexplicable Asian fetishism. This stands out particularly starkly in a vague sea of self-explanatory western cultural references, and draws our attention to opportunities Adams or Crowded Fire may have missed to study the cultural syncretism survival necessitates. Junk City, evidently intended to be an Everycity, is resolutely American: the mythos created by its citizens melds US pop culture, Greco-roman mythology, and Christian structure and imagery...but then so does our real mythos. The junk shown here is American junk -- a visit to J-town's Ichiban Kan would give you an idea of how different plastic junk can look on another continent.
The performances, while functional, have none of the subtlety or seamlessness required to tease out all the possibilities of this flawed, but often exquisite, script. The difficult dialogue sonetimes sounds like the speakers have mouths full of marbles. The emotional climax fails its grip, owing both to a lack of bass in the performances and an abruptness in the narrative structure. And given Adams's skillful ability to convey backstory through daily ritual and use, it's remarkable that she spends so much first-act dialogue having her characters awkwardly TELL us history and premise.
Still -- in spite of info-dumps, actor heavy-breathing, and things that make you go "hunh?" -- The Listener flows, entertains, and makes you ponder. The piece is a very welcome palate cleanser between continuing seasons of navel-gazing "drama" and unrevealing revivals. It's more than just challenging: it's fun, and I'm glad to know that film is not the only medium able to offer a ripping tale.
Crowded Fire Theater Company's production of Liz Duffy Adams's The Listener runs Thursdays-Sundays through August 31, 2008 at The Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit crowdedfire.org or call 415-433-1235.