Pushing the Boundaries: (2) “Rain Maryam”

Lately, I’ve been present as two theatre companies stepped bravely past the boundaries of theatre as we know it.  Both shows have closed, but they’re worth taking a look at — in print now, on stage if you ever can. 

In mid-July,  I watched a Fringe Encore presentation of Into the Fog.
In late August, I took part in the final performance of Rain Maryam.

Both works employ the materials of theatre — artists on a stage, lights, sounds, costumes and an audience — to  explore what might lie beyond our accustomed uses of these elements.

Rain Maryam
Well before all the patrons have arrived,  a girl in black steps onto a brightly lit bare stage that occupies perhaps a quarter of a wide, black-draped area.

Long past curtain time, she stands silent, immobile.  We can see her, and the empty seats, from the balcony-like lobby.  Ushers keep us from entering.

Charlotte Plummer, Donzell Lewis, Quincy Cho, Marie Ponce-DeLeon, Francesca Chanel Fromang.

Charlotte Plummer, Donzell Lewis, Quincy Cho, Marie Ponce-DeLeon, Francesca Chanel Fromang.

After some time, four black-clad actors enter our space, shout “Yes!” in unison, and thread their way among us.  We watch, moving aside to let them through, until they regain the entrance and head down a ramp toward the seats.

An usher motions some of us to follow, at the actors’ funereal pace. At last, as they disappear behind the curtain wall, we arrive at the seats.  We sit.  Onstage, nothing happens.  The other half of the audience fails to arrive.

Then, behind the curtain wall, the actors start to speak.  But they’re muffled, not projecting.  The show’s tagline emerges in scraps:  A drought  … a village … a girl … a song.

They’re haranguing someone for singing — or for not singing.  The girl onstage?  Their blurred voices carry desolation, and rage.  Would  singing bring rain?

The girl rushes offstage.  The muffled litany goes on.  After a few moments, she returns and stands silent again.

The four actors drift onstage.  Circling her, they interrogate and accuse her.  Has she broken a taboo?  She seems to have done something they fear, don’t like, can’t comprehend.

An usher bursts onstage.  Behind him, the lost  audience members file in, then downstage, then to the empty seats.  He motions us who have been sitting to rise.  We file to the far end of the curtain wall, then into the space behind it.

Here, the scene we strained to overhear repeats.  Now, we hear drought-stricken villagers in a delirious lament.  They mourn the trees that shaded and fed them, the soil that’s been burned to dead powder by the sun.  We still don’t know who the girl is, or what about her singing (or not singing) disturbs them.

The girl rushes in, grabs a brush and mime-paints letters on a door:  “W-H-Y.”   She returns to the stage.  The usher leads us after  her.  We file onstage, across, and  back to our seats.

The audience is at last whole, and we’ve all seen both scenes. Now, as we watch, the villagers begin handling — then abusing — the girl.  A wooden frame is brought in, lifted up, and  slammed loudly down.  All exit.  Blackout.

One actor returns, smiling — No one’s smiled before — and seems to say she will sing.  But when the other villagers enter, she chants tunelessly.  They join her in what may be a litany of hope, then leave the stage, chanting, and file up the ramp.  The girl picks up the wood frame, sets it down, exits.  The chanting develops a harmony, moving toward song.  An usher says the show is over.

I don’t often describe a play in detail.  But I can think of no other way to convey the experience of Rain Maryam — calm yet disturbing, elusive, intriguing.  And incomplete.

I came expecting a story.  From the poster — the broken mud of a parched lake bed, the tagline — I felt I  knew its elements.  I expected that as an audience we’d watch and listen together, while the actors wove the elements into meaning.  I figured they’d lead us to feel  empathy for the people of a particular village, real or imagined.

The artists of Rain Maryam did far more — by doing far less.

They began by challenging our most basic expectations.

An actor on a lit stage, clearly visible seats, said “This is a theatre.”  But they kept us out.  Then actors intruded into our space, without even acknowledging us.  A neat, discomfiting role reversal.

Then we got separated.  Half of us sat watching nothing happen, trying to hear something we couldn’t see.  The other half were just gone.  We weren’t an audience — we were  people struggling to become an audience.  By the time we were reunited, we hadn’t shared the same experience.  And we never could, though we watched the rest of the play together.

The artists similarly confounded our expectations of story and meaning.  At first, we were too surprised to make sense of what was happening.  When we got used to the way things were going, we felt we could harvest some understanding.  But not very much.

Ironically, what we worked so hard to come away with was no more than what we’d had at the start, on the poster:  A drought … a village … a girl … a song.

But now, instead of a story of these things, we had an experience of them.  Our experience was fragmented, disturbing, difficult and unsettled — more like the experience of a natural disaster than a pleasant evening of theatre.

Much more like it than a coherent story, with a beginning and ending, a problem and a resolution, ever could be.

Very few of the half-billion people now living — and dying — in the Earth’s severe drought areas feel they’re going through a coherent experience, one that makes any kind of sense.  They all ask one question: WHY?  Their expectations were reasonable, as they planted their crops and bore their children. They paid for their tickets.

But nature isn’t reasonable.  It keeps you from getting where you think you’re going, even when it’s so close you can see it.  It sends things among you — plagues, crop failures — that you don’t expect.  It stops doing things — rain, flowers and fruits — that you do expect.

And your plants die.  And your children die.

And you turn to blaming, to magic, to prayer, any damn scheme that promises — and nothing works.  Nothing makes any sense at all.  Nothing can make you smile or sing or hope again.

The sudden collapse of life leaves us broken.  Separated from those we feel we belong with, from what we know, we come apart.  We have only shards of time, scraps of memory, and nothing holds together.  Even if we can cobble something back into order, we’re overwhelmed by the people and things we’ve lost.

Of course, no mere play can make us feel the crushing weight of a real  disaster.  But Rain Maryam did  sharply defeat my expectations and make me feel by turns confused, frustrated and lost.  At the same time, it kept me reaching out for the actors, for connection, and for meaning — and aching because it was all just out of reach.

I still find myself saying, like a chant — a drought, a village, a girl, a song — and feeling deep inside the grief that I’m never going to be able to put together, to fix.  Not by understanding, not by donating money.
I don’t think any story could have done that.

So I salute the young artists of the hereandnow theatre company.
In Rain Maryam, they have made a bold leap beyond storytelling, hoping to reach a far country of suffering we must not merely know about but feel.  I think they’ve arrived, and brought us with them.

Rain Maryam, written and directed by Ibrahim Chávez.
Presented by hereandnow theatre company (in association with Company of Angels and Mel Brian Patrón) at the Howard Hotel, 206 W. Sixth Street, LA.

Performers: Quincy Cho, Marie Ponce-DeLeon, Francesca Chanel Fromang, Donzell Lewis, Charlotte Plummer, Eileen Soong.