A most unique event is happening to me in Toronto. I am getting a full production of a play that U.S. theatre folks know me for, but have never seen. I'm getting some 3-D action of a play that I wrote out of fury after graduate school, when I realized all of my theatre experiments had no place in the market. "F! it!" I thought on a spring day in 1998: I'm writing a play that no one will ever dare to stage. And because I'm such a dork and take the First Amendment so literally, I freely expressed for six pages a day, nine days in a row and wrote "Ajax (por nobody)."
It's a simple play: Four people get together to have sex. My inspiration initially came from Ajax the cleanser. Something about "cleanliness is next to godliness" appealed to me, especially in light of a sexually "free" culture encumbered by its puritan undertow. How free can one really be in a predominantly Christian superpower society that teases with sex and then politicizes every touch? Besides, Ajax the cleanser has its own physical theatre: It sprinkles out white and turns blue when it gets wet.
Fifteen pages in and I realized there was the Greek play "Ajax" and decided to cull Sophocles' climactic action and sprinkle in some porno names like Double Penelope, Dick Odyssey and Archie Heels, wet it with hoses and gun-squirters on white tiles, and see how blue the obsession to win awards and be number one can make a citizen of a flaccid democracy. I must admit I am still to this day baffled by the naming department at Colgate-Palmolive, which named their 1947 product after an inarticulate Greek hero who impaled himself on his own sword. Perhaps something to do with earnest and unrelenting action over the charm of hollow words that their cleanser would provide.
I was so terrified by the horror my fury wrought in bringing "Ajax (por nobody)" into the world, I could not face the play for two years, until Jim Simpson directed it at his own Flea Theater in New York in 2000.
The play impacted through Simpson's elegant and sonically sophisticated staged reading, where the script itself was a prop to remind of its artifice and, besides microphoning the four actors at their own podiums in private pools of light, all of the hardcore action was read by a fifth actor in a clinical British accent.
Simpson understood that the audience's interior was infinitely more pornographic than any actual stuffing of cocktail wieners as an extreme-sex sport. He ran the play off and on for a year -- what a gift to a playwright! Not only did the actors get to deepen their performances into a heroic darkness, I got to learn about (and finally face) the play.
As grateful as I am to Jim Simpson for taking on the dare, the full challenge was still up for grabs for any producer or director with balls enough to stage the whole monty.
O Canada! The gift that Toronto offers is through the mighty adventurous director Zack Russell, who is taking on my theatre challenge by fully staging "Ajax (por nobody)" at the SummerWorks festival, opening in just minutes.
Through a series of kismet, terror and enthrallment, Russell, along with his producer William Goldbloom, have figured out a way to provide a physical life to what was intended to be an impossible-to-stage play (only in the puritan context really). Russell found the script at the bottom of a filing cabinet when he spent a year working with Simpson at the Flea. According to his first e-mail, which he sent to me out of the blue while I was in Shanghai, he expressed his obsession with the play and his interest in staging it in Toronto's "only juried theater festival."
I found it novel that the next generation of theatre artist would be interested in engaging in a piece that was written when folks still rented porno movies for their VCRs and called the TV "the tube." By dint of Russell's intelligence and self-possession, I was confident after our first phone conversation that he had the fierce courage and artistic eye to steer the play into its full incarnation. On top of all that, every phone call was a jamboree of curiosity and fun -- we simply had a blast getting to know each other and dreaming of how to make the motherfucker happen.
I think of Russell as a boy wonder in the traditional sense of being precocious and astoundingly capable, but also in the literal sense that he wonders -- actually wonders -- and doesn't squander his young core through mindless hours of video games or Facebooking.
He didn't even fry on TV the way I did, growing up in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. He has a rich literary interior, one that is so vital in making theatre in the 21st century; Zack is one who can fuse his deep intellect with the ether of an internet mindscape, in an historic moment that begs for fluidity between a human primality and a super-kinetic surface for artwork to truly impact. Our fruitful collaboration stems from a love of sound design and a chance to expand the human canvas.
One thing that Zack particularly delighted in about the Flea production was the fact that a gay audience found the play to be a comedy, while a straight audience found it to be a tragedy. Some wanted to see the whole play staged and felt cheated; others said it was fine the way it was, they didn't want or need to see any more than they did. The best comment came from a fellow playwright who told me how important having a fellow audience was; not feeling like strangers, but rather survivors of a terribly wild ride. Others claimed to feel drunk afterwards.
My top theatre credo is the last line of Peter Brooks' Empty Space: "A play is play." OK Toronto--Game on!