Impressions Upon Experiencing “There Is No Edge to Imaginary Things”: a response by Kathleen Rooney and Martin Seay

“There Is No Edge to Imaginary Things” written by Olivia Cronk and Phil Sorenson

Directed by Logan Berry

Performed by Chris Darnell, Dylan Fahoome, Ruth Forberg, and Sara Zalek

Lighting by Cassandra Kendall

with Art Direction by Michaela Heidemann

From the third and final Doing Drugs and Dying in Space Festival by the Runaways Lab Theater at the Otherworld Theater

November 15-17, 2019

image credit: Joe Goudreault

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Caveat lectorem: the emphasis in the above title should fall upon “impressions,” both because the account that we provide below is impressionistic, and because we cannot offer an impartial review, given our friendships with the director and two of the performers. That being said, “There Is No Edge to Imaginary Things”—a short play written by Olivia Cronk and Phil Sorenson, directed by Logan Berry, and performed by Chris Darnell, Dylan Fahoome, Ruth Forberg, and Sara Zalek—struck us as the show-stopping standout of the generally very solid Doing Drugs and Dying in Space Ritual, a festival of short plays staged by the Chicago-based Runaways Lab Theater in November 2019 at the Otherworld Theatre, a science fiction and fantasy venue on the city’s north side.

Influenced by punk, goth, and psychedelia, the Runaways characterize their work as “primo weirdo” (and sometimes “squalid maximalist”) theater. The 2019 Ritual was the company’s third and final; as in prior years, and as the name suggests, its call for submissions requested plays of under ten pages that include a) a character doing drugs and b) a character dying in space. The Facebook event write-up for the Ritual promised, “At the edge of the universe: a FLOODED GRAVEYARD:: a beadazzled cow skull, a broken synthesizer, + tens of thousands of pill bottles, glass pipes, and dirty needles litter a field of boiling limbs, skeletons, and putrid, viscid fluids:: A shadow:: an OBELISK: Nihil Et Amplius! DO DRUGS, DIE IN SPACE!” The festival delivered.

Impression 1: DDADIS III was the strongest festival to date. All three have been worth seeing, but this one felt the most thoughtfully curated and the most cohesively assembled, with the sequence serving the individual plays, as well as the arc of the whole show through their juxtapositions.

Impression 2: Prior to opening night, Zalek previewed her performance in “There Is No Edge to Imaginary Things” with this tweet: “I intend to tickle those hairs on the back of your neck, even amidst the comic and ridiculous.” Reader, she did.

Impression 3: On the second night of the Ritual, “There Is No Edge” co-playwright Cronk tweeted, “I know that I am an enthusiastic user of language to convey my adoration of pieces of art: BUT, OMG, @TheRunawaysLab show last night COMPLETELY blew my mind. I am still coming down from the trip. This is not hyperbole. It was just skin peeling piano on fire birds screeching good.” Reader, this was not hyperbole.

Impression 4: We saw the Ritual on its third and final night. As we entered, Berry asked one of us—Martin, who serves on the Runaways’ board—to hold a prop that would feature in some unspecified way in one of the plays: an animal-print handbag. Berry asked only that Martin have the bag in his lap throughout the Ritual’s second act. Berry suggested, but did not quite say, that the company wanted to be sure the bag would be held by someone who would be okay with a somewhat intense engagement with the performance. Martin took the bag, without looking inside. Berry seated us where we’d need to be in order for the bag to be accessible during the performance. (This prior coordination was not apparent to the rest of the audience.)

Impression 5: “There Is No Edge” was the thirteenth of fifteen plays in the festival, falling between two very brief but generally effective absurdist/slapstick pieces. Determining its placement must have been no small consideration for the Runaways, for reasons we would soon discover. The play opened with a domestic scene, Zalek sweeping testily while declaiming a dense and perplexing text:

 

a whole room of farting in a wet bathing suit

the poodle skirt with musical note applique

woman head cake

woman head cake art deco plate

a seat at dinner

pastel cotton briefs

the duplicating licorice I’ve already asked after five times,

almost like freckles on the reflection, that stiffness of the face up against the loose shimmer

 

Impression 5a: Zalek, it must be said, is an extraordinarily intense presence, with an incriminating gaze and precise, expressive movements. While we had seen many excellent performances that night, the sight of her clutching a broom as the lights came up on “There Is No Edge” dramatically shifted the vibe, elevating the stakes, introducing an element of legitimate danger. While shit had been weird, it was about to get very weird.

Impression 6: By way of certain objects—given voice by the other three performers, indistinct mounds hunched under fabric—Zalek’s increasingly unhinged woman-in-a-nightgown was directed toward an aperture, one that seems to lead not only out of the room but out of the world. The play’s atmosphere changed; Zalek’s motions became more expansive and insinuating, then licentious, sprawling atop audience members in the front row, and finally ecstatic and grasping.

Impression 7: At that point the woman began to advance on the animal-print handbag in Martin’s lap, tightly flanked by the three other hunched performers, who were chanting “Take Frinton’s jewels.” (Martin, it seems, was Frinton, although the play did not explain who Frinton was or how he came by his jewels.) Zalek’s outstretched hands hovered over the bag for what seemed to Martin like a very long time while the performers shouted and shined bright lights into his face. It was hilarious and quite upsetting, and in retrospect it was a good move for the Runaways to recruit a board member as their unwitting Frinton; a random audience member might well have reacted negatively to the experience.

Impression 8: The woman eventually took the bag and returned to center stage and sure enough, it contained jewels, with which she adorned herself. The show went pretty rapidly nuts after that, with terrifying noise building over the PA system, disorienting lights, and eventually Zalek carried offstage through the aperture, into darkness, her retreating face aglow in a blacklight, its expression ambiguous and extreme.

Impression 9: Increasing noise, strobelights, the stage occupied by the three other performers, no longer draped, now revealed as non-human, multi-limbed, insectoid but soft, larval, their skins marred with wounds and stained with excrescence, like sordid tardigrades at the tail end of an apocalyptic binge. The costumes put Kathleen in mind of Rei Kawakubo’s work at Commes des Garçons, with all their grotesque protuberances and polyps. The performers continued to recite texts, which immediately dissipated in the cacophony. Frenzied, abject, concupiscent, the three beings danced the show to death.

Impression 10: To a greater extent than the other plays in the Ritual, the show aimed toward the boundaries of what’s easily intelligible as drama, into areas that might be more comfortably classified as performance art or a staged poem. (Playwrights Cronk and Sorenson are both poets, and co-edit a literary magazine, The Journal Petra.) The emphasis on language and the ambiguity of the words and gestures allowed multiple (but not infinite) interpretations, thereby giving a lot of agency to the audience in addition to shocking them with the absurd and grotesque content.

Impression 11: Like—but to an even greater degree than—several of the other plays in the Ritual, “There Is No Edge” was at some fundamental level a work of cosmic horror, a play about crossing and/or collapsing boundaries, particularly the limits of the human (and not simply human beings themselves, but human systems of perceiving and understanding and ordering the world). This theme was evoked through the unsettling presence of the aperture, and also through Berry’s direction, which made recurrent and effective use of concealment and layering: the draped performers, the jewels hidden in the handbag hidden in the audience, the complex lighting (including the use of the blacklight, with its unveiling of unsuspected fluorescence), and the sound design (which rendered much of the play’s text unintelligible, present but masked, and therefore potentially more dangerous).

Impression 11a: The performers also used a video camera during the performance, running its real-time output to a handheld projector. Sometimes they shot close-up views of Zalek’s actions and projected them onto the stage floor, or onto other surfaces, revealing every element of the theater as writable, and also as obstructive. At one point they projected the image of Zalek’s face onto her face: a mise-en-abyme of masks, a thing distorted and obscured by itself.

Impression 11b: “Visible things always hide other visible things,” the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte once wrote. “Our gaze always wants to penetrate further so as to see at last the object, the reason for our existence.”

Impression 11c: There is no last object.

Impression 12: The tone of “There Is No Edge” blended fear and farce, the comic and the erotic, and of course death into an atmosphere that arced and crackled across the surprisingly narrow gap between disturbing and cute.

Impression 13: Afterward, when Kathleen asked her what it was like to be in the play, Zalek—who is an accomplished performance artist, Butoh dancer, and poet, but not a performer who often works with spoken text—emailed, “Memorizing the text I thought would be near impossible for me and I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to speak that text in front of people, or make it even remotely relatable.” But she added that “Logan was so persistent and had a vision the entire time and never doubted that I could create an atmosphere of extreme tension, an authentic quality, a hair-raising kind of experience. I still don’t know exactly how I did it, or what made it so palpable for people. Maybe I finally have a bit of understanding why people are drawn to horror. I myself cannot watch it. I guess it’s very close to the way we feel, this abstract poetry floating around in our minds as we attempt to process our reality/environment.”

Impression 14: Afterward, Martin emailed Berry that “That image of Sara’s face in blacklight as she was being carried off will be making regular appearances in my nightmares until I fucking die.” His email also stated: “The first time I ever had an attack of kidney stones it was painful, but what was most upsetting about it was that I was experiencing that pain in parts of my body where I had previously never had any sensation in at all, and where it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I ever might have sensation.  ‘There Is No Edge’ was exactly like that, only awesome.  Art is cool.”

Impression 15: Sometimes Kathleen looks at the night sky and thinks, “This is never going to last.” “There Is No Edge to Imaginary Things” rendered that feeling both a petrifying threat and a liberating promise.

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Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Her most recent novel is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) and her next novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey will be published by Penguin in Fall of 2020. She teaches at DePaul and lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay. More from Kathleen Rooney on PRJ

Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief was published by Melville House in 2016.  Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.