What this constant evaluation and re-evaluation resulted in is a very complicated structure. The play is vaguely based on Orpah, a character from the The Book of Ruth; in this story from the Old Testament, Orpah and Ruth go in different directions after their husbands’ deaths – Ruth follows her mother in law, while Orpah returns to her family, abandoning to an extent the traditions. Oelbaum admits a certain, long-term obsession with the character of Orpah, the leading persona in his play. But it’s the character, rather than the story that provides the backbone for There We Will Be Buried, and Orpah is joined by another female character; the two ‘infantile paupers’ deal with the pain of child-loss, and venture on a journey, while surviving on a healthy diet of prayer, ‘the only activity that they are truly capable of performing’. This narrative is then constructed and deconstructed in, it seems, every way imaginable – there’s videos of the cast from rehearsals, voiceovers, Oelbaum and Althoff take on female roles, while others are played by close friends (none of whom are professional actors), whose personal relationships add yet another layer to the characters. The play also happens outside a definite historical time frame – and clearly references both the present and Biblical times. The devising process that culminated in such a complicated structure surely must have been complex itself.
“Again I have to say that a lot of it came from writing and analyses of my own writing. I had noticed that I was referencing the Book of Ruth; I had a latent obsession with this character who is really quite minor but there’s something about how cast off she is that really appealed – the fact that she’s known for not staying. There was something there that looked like a plot device. I knew from the start I wanted to use the voiceover and I knew how it related to the supposed schizophrenic feeling embodied by Orpah. That made me start to think about constructing characters solely based on these devices rather than trying to make fully portrayed characters as often done with trained actors,who are so capable and confident in their actions that they just present a full construction. These are characters that are almost presenting the fact they are a construction, divided into characters on stage, in voiceover, and video, and they are never confident, they are just ragged things – which is also the basic aesthetic. Even going into what the characters are wearing: I thought that these would be outfits that these specific characters would make for themselves if they had nowhere to buy clothing or anyone to make it. It’s also definitely set in no existing period. It’s all over the place – at points it seems biblical at times it seems casually modern day.”
With all these elements, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to ask if an average audience member will be able to productively catch on the piled up semiology – or if they would simply be overwhelmed and confused? Oelbaum is clear about not wanting to create one, clear and distinctive narrative – but has he devised too many? “I heard from some audience members that they were not even listening to the audio because they were so distracted by what the actors are doing, and I also imagine it’s not always an easy task to pay attention to all these things at once. I would say that this is in my eyes a benefit and was a goal of this performance – to lead to a variety of specified interpretations rather than any single authoritative narrative arc.”
Oelbaum is so instant on allowing the audience to come clean into the performance that he doesn’t even try to introduce the Book of Ruth into the press material, believing it wouldn’t necessarily be familiar even to those who share a similar cultural context – Oelbaum grew up in an Orthodox-Jewish community. He doesn’t seem worried that imposing this knowledge on the audience might cloud other interpretations, as much as he acknowledges its obscurity: “People just aren’t really familiar with that book because it’s really not a major book of the cannon of Biblical literature, and even beyond that, it’s a reference to a minor character. The cultural context isn’t necessarily even so important. It can provide a further layer of meaning, that other audience members would totally miss, but on the other hand it’s by no means necessary.” The subdued nod to the The Book of Ruth is not the only cultural reference integrated into There We Will Be Buried. The performance found inspiration in religious rituals Oelbaum observed growing up, but these are again not necessarily meant to be recognised: “I try to filter these things through myself and through the practice of developing a performance. I definitely appropriated a lot of things from the Jewish canon but I wouldn’t necessarily say this is exclusively what they call ‘Jewish art’ in any specific or discrete way.”
The seeming perplexity of this performance doesn’t exactly vanish as Oelbaum tries to verbally dissect its pieces – although it does unravel the mental effort clearly invested into it. It often seems like he chose numerous elements to put in the play only to then deconstruct them in an equally devoted way. This perpetual process of building and then dismantling, Oelbaum insists is a way to constantly evoke the major themes: ‘disembodiment’ and ‘disfiguration or the notion of self’. Whether the constant deconstruction left too many interpretative doors open remains to be seen, but Oelbaum seems more concerned by the possibility of anyone figuring out exactly what was on his mind: “There was a professor of philosophy in the first set of performances who seemed to be the only person who really picked up on [all the references], and he did it so keenly that he was able to stab at my intent, which I thought was a little unnerving.”
There We Will Be Buried, is being presented at the ICA as part of LIFT from 21st – 24th June 2012.