The Powerful “I Saw Myself” Leaves a Lot of Questions Unanswered
In a former life, I spent 38 years as an English teacher. I mention this because it might explain why I tend to have an affinity for literary puzzles. Oh, I’m perfectly fine when a play’s meaning is sitting right there on the surface for everyone to pluck and enjoy. But I have no trouble with a play, done well, that begs me to do some thinking, that leaves me with more questions than answers, that buries the sweet fruit of its meanings on deep, interior branches and challenges me to find them. Such a play is Redtape Theatre’s I Saw Myself, now playing at The Ready, the company’s new home at 4546 N. Western. It has been whirling about my brain since it ended hours ago and, while I doubt that anything short of a sit-down with the playwright Howard Barker would resolve all of my issues, I found it fascinating.
Actually, Barker would most definitely be loath to help me out were I to seek him. His “theatre of catastrophe” depends upon chaos. “My lady likes chaos on her own terms,” someone says of the main character of this play, but it could as easily be said of its author. Rather than resolve a scene, he would much rather allow it to become more ambiguous. He celebrates the darkest instincts of humanity, focusing on violence and sexuality as he does here. In all, I think he’d rather have me left with a thousand questions than provide a single answer. And I’m wrestling with the notion of filling you in on my own theories about the play: perhaps it would be best to allow everyone to ask their own questions. Nonetheless, that would be a huge cop-out for a reviewer, so forgive me if I do take on at least some of the more important issues.
The story of this play takes place many centuries ago as the widowed Queen Sleev (Carolyn Hoerdemann) and her servants are working diligently on a tapestry depicting the story of her life and her late husband’s. They are in a rush to finish the work, for the war that killed him is now nearly knocking on their door and there is some fear about what might befall a tapestry in war. In conversation with her servants, especially the very outspoken Ladder (Jyreika Guest), Sleev comes to the decision that she wishes to show her own life in the tapestry with all of the ugliness intact. She instructs them that the “great stream” on the tapestry will now be entirely dedicated to her, warts and all. And the woman has warts. We see them from almost the first scene of the play: she is extremely free with her body and has no qualms about whom she shares it with. For instance, we witness her and her son-in-law (Jake Szczepaniak) sneaking in a quickie just before her daughter and grandchild arrive on the scene. She keeps a naked man (Zach Livingston) in the wardrobe and continually teases him with her desire before closing him back in again. (She’s the Queen; they can do stuff like that.) She acknowledges that her only child (a daughter, Sheeth, played by Kelsey Shipley) was the product of a tryst with a “river man” she met only briefly. The woman lives for sex.
Once Ladder convinces her to include herself in the tapestry and she decides to open her warts to the world, the arras become the single focus of the Queen and her women. “The tapestry is the most important thing,” they believe, and we come to understand their reasons. While Ladder works on the war scenes with the King, Sleev dedicates herself to the great stream and her debasement. The other servants, Keshkemmity (Emily Nichelson) and Hawelka (Elyce Dawson), spend their time on the rich backgrounds and other scenes. As they work, time passes. A whole lot of time. From clues in the final scene, we can deduce that it has taken close to a decade to finish the tapestry. (One major issue I had with the play is the sheer impossibility of understanding or acknowledging that time passage. Whether that is a script problem or something that director Jennifer Markowitz might have helped, I don’t know. But, though it’s entirely logical to assume a huge chunk of time has passed, I’ll bet not many in the audience realized it.)
One thing that happens during all of that time is that Sleev begins to lose her sight. Why is never exactly clear, but the fact that Ladder too starts to go blind once she began work on the great stream suggests that the debauched nature of the work may have something to do with it: looking at that all day literally takes their eyesight away. (Shipley has a wonderful, emotional scene trying to save her mother’s sight by getting the servants to keep her from stitching.) That the others remain sighted lends some credence to this idea, as does the play’s ending, when it appears that putting that darkness onto the wall hanging may have actually lightened Sleev’s soul. (Metaphysics abounds in this tapestry.) Another thing that happens is that Sleev decides to get remarried, asking her daughter to find her a “fat man who knows Genesis.” He shows up in the guise of Mr. Club (Rob Grabowski). At first, Club is all sweetness: he will do anything for her (including practically memorize Genesis in a week). On later visits, though, he becomes threatening and even violent with little provocation: another unsolved mystery, especially since he still purports to love her.
Perhaps the greatest mystery of all might be why two characters (Sleev and the young man from the wardrobe, Modicum), in what are actually pretty raw and amazing performances, start at such high levels of intensity that there is almost nowhere for them to go. For Sleev, it is a mile-a-second delivery that Hoerdemann adopts from the beginning whose speed and fervor rarely provide a moment of respite for the audience to catch up. And later, when the character actually becomes emotional, fugeddaboudit. If you can focus enough to catch two-thirds of what she’s saying, you’re better than I. And she’s the easy one! Modicum arrives suddenly onstage as a soldier with the subtlety of a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, all manic energy, ferocity and furor. The thing is, though, that both of these performances (if you factor out the sledgehammer impact of their speech patterns) are stunning: Hoerdemann, who has probably half the play’s lines, is exhausted by the play’s end, for good reason. She has been turned up to 11 for the better part of the two hours plus running time of the show. As to Livingston, while he does have a few quieter passages in his ten minutes of extreme, nearly fanatical fervor, he’s still going to win the “Soldier You Least Want to Have as a Bunkmate” award. Both are great performances; both could have been helped by more variety. Perhaps that was dictated by Barker’s script or perhaps Markowitz just got carried away; either way I felt the characters would be better served by allowing the actors room to spread and let the characters grow.
After Sleev, the three servants are almost ubiquitous next-level characters, always weaving the tapestry, always waiting on (or in Ladder’s case arguing with) their mistress. One wonderful element of this show is how the servants are so clearly differentiated. Some of that is obviously Barker’s script, but a lot of credit must go to Markowitz and the actors. Dawson’s would-be nurse is all sweetness and desire to please, as is Nichelson’s too-nice-for-words-but-I’ll-try (“Your servants are your friends”) Keshkemmity. These two may share a central characteristic, but they are nothing alike; the actors and director have created vibrant, real women here who honestly love (for some reason—another mystery) this train wreck of a queen. As for Ladder, she may be too cynical to love anyone, but she deeply cares about the tapestry. She wants it to be right and she wants it to be preserved, and she’ll go so far as to strike her mistress if her passion demands it. (How the girl keeps her job is yet another mystery.)
Eleanor Kahn’s set is a masterpiece of minimalism. Taking advantage of a pillar in the middle of the room, she creates a giant representation of a loom frame on which the women will work on their tapestry. A few stools for them to sit on, a settee to suggest a nicer space, a small desk to hold necessaries, and the large wardrobe to hold Modicum pretty much finishes it off except for the walls, which are dripping with black paint in the same way that the tapestry will run with the blood of the King and his soldiers: a nice touch for anyone who noticed it. In addition, Hoerdemann does something I’ve simply never seen before: she actually enters the sound booth during scenes, adding another space to the set with no effort whatsoever. There is much perfect music here, but no one is listed in the program as having composed it, so all credit to sound designer Steve Labedz. Claire Sangster’s lighting was very effective, though where I sat a light shone brightly in my eyes quite a bit of time. That is not necessarily Sangster’s fault: The Ready is a difficult room to light.
It’s also a difficult room to direct in, and Markowitz has done a wonderful job of working with everything she has. Several times, she even has actors exit through the outside door. It was a little distracting from where I sat to see Western Avenue in the middle of this play—I clearly had a lucky seat—but the ability to create a second major exit proves critical for her staging. Markowitz is also brilliant at creating Big Distractions to allow Modicum to enter and exit the wardrobe unnoticed (unless, I suppose, you were sitting right next to it).
I Saw Myself is a play that left me with more questions than just about any other I’ve seen recently, but they are supposed to be there and I love that. It would be wonderful to see it a second time in order to test out all of my theories and figure out some of the things I have no good theory for. For instance, when she utters the title line, does Queen Sleev actually see herself? And what does it mean? I have my own ideas about this, but I’m keeping them to myself. Let me know your thoughts, OK?
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the things I have been thinking about since this play ended (now four hours ago). I found myself humming the old Moody Blues song “Questions” (“Why do we never get an answer…we get a thousand million questions…”) Tenuous connection, sure, but my mind does weird things sometimes. And when I’ve been to a play as provocative, well-crafted, and well-acted as I Saw Myself, I tend not to care all that much if my thoughts are weird. All I care is that I feel that I have come to an understanding of the play that fits the text, and it works for me. Somehow I think Howard Barker would be happy with that.
I Saw Myself is now playing at The Ready, 4546 N, Western in Chicago, presented by Red Tape Theatre, until February 17. Th-Sat 8 PM; Sundays 7 PM. Tickets are free and are available from Red Tape Theatre. No half-price tickets are available. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.
Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member