Tom Noonan‘s films and plays are always thought-provoking with an ironic and edgy philosophical humor. His writings move in a skewed line toward the cliff’s edge. Then they leap into an examination of issues which ends in illumination. He always takes the audience to the surprising and offbeat. His routes are unanticipated. On the journey he throws in dangerous potholes that warp the roads. For their jostlings you are not ready or aware until your tires are ruined, your wheels bent. Such is the fun and pain of it. Noonan’s bumpy, ragged scenarios come together by the play’s end making for an exceptional and ironic (the joke’s on us) journey. And as he leaves us at the end of the road, we realize the extent to which he has toyed with us, twisting our assumptions to give us a helluva ride.
Such describes the felt experience of The Shape of Something Squashed at the Paradise Factory Theater. It is a production directed by Noonan, who wrote the play and stars as the “driver-actor-auditioner,” though you must hunt for him disguised in the program, where he is unlisted. His character, Douglas Whymper (a less recent picture of Noonan), is on the same insert sheet as a picture of Friedrich Nietzsche. How Noonan evolves the plot to position his photo (as Douglas Whymper) below Nietzsche’s is clever. And if the association is that Nietzsche and he are akin to soul brothers, then we have to laugh. Is Whymper’s “will to power” in effecting the courage to “go on” despite repeated “letdowns” worthy of the philosopher? Perhaps, if we, as similar life survivors, are worthy.
The setting is a precipitously successful New York theater run by Sedge (Grant James Varjas) and Hermione (Monique Vukovic). The couple desperately need funds for their theater to remain viable. In the afternoon Sedge has invited producers to attend the reading of his play starring Hermione, his actress-wife, and an older, noted star. Producers will either “yea” or “nay” the funds, without which the theater will close. Mona (Talia Lugacy), the assistant, officiates and is at Sedge and Hermione’s beck and call. She is their “right arm,” and we learn she is a “jack-of-all-trades” even taking on sexual double duty with this hyper-dramatic and uber-flawed husband and wife team. All the players are present when an austere and self-effacing man dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform (Noonan) shows up to be of service.
Sedge and Hermione, filled with angst, jitters and fears of failure, are oblivious to any real signs of the tall man’s identity. Since his uniform signifies what they need, a driver, they assume he is there to pick up a producer for the reading. In fact the truth is elsewhere. As Hermione and Sedge frequently act offstage as they live their overblown, diva lives, this driver too is playing a part, which they are slow to realize. Who he is and why he is there is the subject and focus of The Shape of Something Squashed.
Whymper’s (ironic name) presence has a strong impact on the others. Not only does he elicit the deeper truths that Sedge, Mona and Hermione have been withholding from each other and themselves, he has a soothing effect on their relationships. He stirs them to become more candid and attuned to their inner feelings and one anothers’ sensitivities. As a result they are able to command a new respect and confidence in themselves with which to face down the producers.
How do they in turn impact this mystery man? That is for us to decide. The Shape of Something Squashed is an intricate play within a play and a simulacrum of theater and of life as a stage upon which we all play our parts. Throughout, we look in the mirror at ourselves in empathy with Whymper. We also watch the impact we have as an audience on the players. In his depiction of the characters, playwright Noonan examines the possibilities of resilience: the second, third, fourth or however many opportunities it takes for an individual to gain the depth of introspection to define his or her own brand of success and contentment. Importantly, Noonan reveals at every turn that there are both risk and opportunity. He shows that we must embrace both to maintain life’s vitality, even though the end result might not be what we’d hoped for. It’s the journey that matters, even if at the end “we are but the shape of something squashed.”
At the end we are happier for the dark humor, provocation and soul jostlings. And we enjoy the intricate and fine performances by Vukovic, Varjas and Lugacy. As for Noonan, he is exceptional, giving a magnificent rendition of an invisible man transformed to a being who is alive, and then back again. He is astounding. As an artist Noonan is a gentle and fierce role magician. He presents reality and makes it disappear with his talents and Nietzschian “will to power.” This production is incisive and powerful Noonan all the way.
The Shape of Something Squashed is at The Paradise Factory Theater until March 16.