Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Flu Season"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Arthur Hennessey

"The Flu Season"

Reviewed by Arthur Hennessey

The Flu Season by Will Eno
Presented by Whistler in the Dark
Directed by Ben Fainstein

Prologue - Ed Hoopman
Epilogue - Jennifer O'Connor
Doctor - David LaBahn
Nurse - Shelley O'Connor
Man - Nael Nacer
Woman-Meghan Nesmith

But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often;
and what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact.
In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything
is simultaneously actual and illusory.

---Brian Friel, in "Dancing at Lughnasa"

A few weeks ago, I heard these lines delivered by actor Ed Hoopman, playing the reminiscing narrator in the Way Players presentation of Dancing at Lughnasa. So it was pleasantly surprising to see the lights come up at Whistler in the Dark's latest production and see Mr. Hoopman, sans brogue, playing the narrator, or at least one of the narrators, of Will Eno's The Flu Season.

I did say there are two narrators, and they are needed to guide us through what are basically two different stories. One narrator, introduced to us as "Prologue", is there to guide us through the original play that was set out before the playwright when he started writing. The second narrator, the slightly cynical "Epilogue," (Jennifer O'Connor) is there to help us reconcile the original concept with what we are seeing unfold in front of us.

In Eno's tortured little comedy/tragedy we get, not the allusions and poetry of Brian Friel's meditation on memory, but a more clinical examination of how fiction can be created, destroyed and rebirthed before it even reaches an audience.

White wicker chairs with blue cushions move about the dark space to configure many settings in the hospital/rehab center where a Man and Woman, each with obvious and undiagnosed neuroses, enact a bizarre courtship of twisted syntax and quirky observations.

The staff of the hospital dressed in white labcoats and blue shirts, (nicely mirroring the furniture,) isn't much help at all. This Doctor and Nurse echo the bizarre therapists in Durang's Beyond Therapy. But despite their incompetence and vanity, they do grow on us through the comically gifted performances of David LeBahn and Shelley Brown.

The patients, (Nael Nacer and Meghan Nesmith,) have a harder time of it. They manage to fully inhabit these lost souls, but the structure and thesis of the play is not in their favor, for they are to be thwarted in their connections to both one another and to the audience. Eno is on a different hunt.

In her recent play Well, Lisa Kron reminds the spectators that, "this is NOT about my mother," and then she tries, with all her might, to avoid the inevitable scene of confrontation and reconciliation with her mother, who happens to dominate one half of the stage. The idea in The Flu Season is that the playwright is trying to avoid the quirky romance of two off-beat rehab patients. The play veers in directions unexpected, unreliable and unbelievable, but don't worry, at every turn the narrators are there to help out.

The real story, Eno would seem to be saying, is found in the mind of the author as his health and his outlook on life changed from the time he began writing this play and the time he finished. By extension, of course, he is suggesting that our larger lives are written with this same unpredictable outline.

Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa fills the stage with a beautiful poetry that has been assembled with an acknowledgement that some wistful elements of these memories cannot possibly be true, but Eno is peeling back the curtain a little further in order to show us the hard mechanics of art and fate.

However, there is a corner into which this deconstructionist approach can find itself painted. While Eno seems to express distrust in story, metaphors, allusions and imagery, he still must rely on words, sometimes solely on words, to accomplish his objective. Words must naturally convey meaning and Eno proves gifted at giving us the very images he is looking to subvert. The Prologue points out that the story starts in spring, which brings up all sorts of traditional, happy associations, but the Epilogue is quick to point out, "Somebody can get cancer on a nice summer evening, and people get married in the middle of winter."

But this particular verbosity doesn't stop at the narrators, or even at the comical doctors. As the play opens, we see the therapists talking far more than their patients, and the hopelessness of the situation is very palpable. However, once the Man and Woman also start speaking in complex sentences with unexpected clauses and funny observations, we start to lose focus. Eno may want to show us people in so much isolation and alienation that they have trouble expressing themselves, but these pained souls are as garrulous and articulate as the gals on Sex and the City.

Having seen Will Eno's Thom Pain, based on nothing in the very same venue last fall, I couldn't help but see this as a rough draft for that more effective piece. Indeed, some of the passages are almost identical, including the imagery of stinging bees.

The advantage of the rough and acerbic protaganist of Thom Pain was his conflict with the audience, and The Flu Season also comes most alive when the Prologue and Epilogue address us directly. These narrators can't conflict with one another because, in a nice twist, Epilogue can see and hear the Prologue, but the Prologue remains oblivious to the Epilogue. So they each have a dialogue with us, and we are forced to pay attention to their language because they are trying to tell us something urgent and important. However, when the Man and Woman are speaking in Eno's more than clever phrases, we are a little less patient, despite the quality of the performances.

That lovably rash character of Thom Pain appeals to us, "When you go home tonight and people ask you about what you did, please don't say that you saw something clever." Instead, he asks us to acknowledge that we saw somebody, "trying."

In the case of the The Flu Season, Eno has a little too much clever and not enough trying.

"The Flu Season" (21 April - 5 May)
@ Black Box Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, WATERTOWN MA
1 (617)923-THTR

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