Avante-garde explored in Monologue of the Mind

It’s frightening when you get to a point in life when you realize that the best parodies don’t simply mock their subjects, but recreate them. When truth isn’t just stranger than fiction; it’s funnier, too. I watched an obscene amount of television growing up, most of it sketch or situational comedy, and lately I’ve been noticing that most events in my actual life have already been parodied, almost verbatim, on television. True, this might be an obvious revelation – the events or nuances of my life that have been mocked have usually been those that are common to all of us (puberty, strange speech patterns, injustice) – but it’s the eerie fidelity with which those parodies skewer real life that frightens me.

Monologue of the Mind, a short play written and directed by Christine Cheon ’02, is a good example of the sometime accuracy in parodies. At one point during its performance in the AMT Studio Theatre on Friday night, I was hit with “Oh! This is one of those typically avant-garde, heavy-handed, and oblique pieces of college theatre, during which we are typically barraged by images of high art, snippets of high music, odd monotonal speeches, and goat masks, all wrapped up in a gushing homage to a typically important artist, Marc Chagall!”

The play is what a lowly philistine might call “really pretentious,” or, even better, “artsy-fartsy.” And why did this occur to me? Because I’ve seen a handful of parodies of Monologue of the Mind (one that comes to mind is from an episode of Saved by the Bell). So I had a pretty well-developed intolerance before the play even started; and, of course, being the college skeptic that I am, it didn’t help that the play was written by a student (surely no good theatre could come from a student!).

The play, which really isn’t a monologue at all (there are over 15 characters played by nine actors), is dense, figurative and terribly tough to follow. Its story, as I understand it, follows a girl’s life (her name is “C,” which I still can’t figure out – the playwright’s name? Chagall? Christ?), as it relates to her love and respect of the painter Marc Chagall. The play is quite literally art about art, to such an extent that it at times seems a faithful recreation of a lecture in Art History 102, complete with huge slides (of Chagall’s work) and wordy, wondrous descriptions (usually of Chagall’s work).

C, a musician with violin case, talks to V, a “voice in the dark” played by the playwright/director herself. C talks to her friends S and M (I wasn’t thinking that, you dirty reader). Actually, S and M seem more like parents than friends, as they spend most of their time ignoring C at the dinner table. C has a romance with the boy J, typified by C’s desire to lie “side by side” with J, “like two strips of bacon.” The structure of the play is based on a journey through C’s mind, as she feels persecuted and neglected in her love for Marc Chagall. This is not one of those plays with exposition, so that’s about all I can tell you of the story.

I am, perhaps, being harsh. But I just think that if we as an audience are to feel anything for this Kafka-esque protagonist, we need to be told something concrete other than “she really likes Marc Chagall.” If the play were truly a monologue, or even a piece of performance art on the street, the confusion would be understandable (and, yes, predictable), but we’re given scenes and supporting characters, and a lot of “realistic” dialogue, so we expect to follow some sort of arch. But instead of a dramatic arch, Christine Cheon has written a series of connecting avant-garde conventions, most of which have become entirely cliched (the anonymous interrogation from V, for example, is straight out of Beckett). The play is so caught up in its ludicrously lofty and innovative praise of Chagall that it forgets to be a play, for people, sitting down, in a theatre.

I am not criticizing Christine Cheon for her ambition – it’s kind of nice to see romantic art about art on this campus – but Monologue of the Mind suffers from a truly obese sense of self-importance. It basically screams at its audience to like Marc Chagall, love Marc Chagall, have Marc Chagall’s children. There’s Chagall on the walls, Chagall coming from the speakers and towards the end, in the play’s most parodied sequence, everyone dresses up as a figure from a Chagall painting (the clown doing cartwheels, the juggler, the prancing rooster with red umbrella, the cow and goat in pastel tights…you get the idea) and walks across the stage, provocatively. How, reader, how can I not laugh at this?

What makes the play’s hyper-indulgence most tragic is the clear fact that Christine Cheon has a talent for writing beautiful language. Some of C’s words (spoken with a very nice innocence by Elizabeth Moulton ’02) are wonderfully vivid and wistful. But then she says that “bacon” line, or “Behold! A gift! A box full of sun!” (about a box full of oranges – I’m paraphrasing) and the audience starts to moan. When young Chagall, played by Christopher Durlacher ’03, asks in an inexplicable monotone, “What is light? Is it nothing?” I wanted to reply, “Yup. You got it. Nothing.”

I’d be very interested to see what Christine Cheon could write for the stage when the subject matter doesn’t have to depend on the work of someone she already understands as “the best-loved and least understood of all 20th century artists” (from her program notes). She also writes in the notes that Chagall’s art is “unashamedly rooted in the particular,” something that Monologue of the Mind most certainly is not. Instead, it is unruly, vague and, yes, way too artsy-fartsy.

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