The performance space at HERE Arts Center in the Lower West Side is a medium-sized room, square-shaped and empty but for a wooden table, a wooden chair and some props. The audience is made to sit in chairs surrounding the flat space, facing two walls where images that look like glittering stars in the vast expanse of space are projected; a low buzz comes through the speakers.
This is a dramatic setting for the terrible events that take place in Obskene, a play conceived and directed by Tina Shepard, a founding member of the Obie-winning theatre company The Talking Band. It is difficult to try to explain exactly what Obskene is. A theatrical term used in ancient Greek plays, the word obskene means “behind the backdrop,” or backstage, where death and violent scenes take place away from the audience’s eyes. It is also where the word obscene originates.
This play takes the audience through a vast expanse of time, starting in ancient Greece and ending in the United States of the not-too-distant future. This fantastical and difficult-to-define production unites elements from classical Greek tragedies with new scenes depicting a semi-apocalyptic future. It is a compendium of the work of eleven playwrights, the segments incorporating themes of death, carnage, incest, the crazed politicians’ absurd actions, and a delicious dose of what the hell is going on here?!
In Part One, Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow (fellow founding members of the Talking Band) take the stage, their simple beige clothes and old-fashioned furniture recalling a bygone era. Zimet, an older man with white hair and boundless energy, plays the role of a prophetic narrator telling the gruesome tales of the dismemberment of Pentheus by the Bacchae, of Clytemnestra’s rage and Agamemnon’s death. Zimet performs these ancient texts with fervor, as if to make the audience see in his gleaming eyes the blood, flame, and guts of these ancient tragedies. He runs around the stage, performing each text tremendously and then leaving quietly, entering then from another corner of the room. After each tale, he takes a cleansing drink of water from a bucket beneath the table, where Maddow stands, quietly listening and slicing up a large cut of meat.
Maddow’s presence is a haunting one. She whispers to herself as she works, silence entering the space each time Zimet exits. She finally speaks towards the end of Part One, telling a gory tale of infanticide and cannibalism.
That is not to say that Part One is without comedy. Although the subject matter of these ancient texts is dark and terrible, Zimet performs them in a way that makes the audience relish the gore but also laugh at the ridiculousness of the events. His brief asides like, “brave, but not an arrogant prick” and “if there’d be no wine, there’d be no love-making” are successful attempts at humorous absurdity.
Part Two features the other seven cast members. The room is without props but for a white plastic table and whatever prop each actor may have — a cell phone, notepads and pens. Six actors rush about, chattering quickly to themselves while one sits watching them quietly from the table. As each starts to speak the rest of them freeze in their spots, a haunting game of Red Light, Green Light. The shouts of “this just in” and “breaking news” make it apparent that these six are reporters and journalists, each a messenger with a horrible tale to tell.
Part Two is made up of the work of modern playwrights, including Zimet and Maddow. Maddow’s “Special Zone” is a tragic story about an inter-species couple, a woman and an eight-food python, performed fabulously and to great comedic effect by Anastasia Olowin. Zimet’s “It’s Hot Out There” is performed zealously by Chinaza Uche and tells of a New York City in the future being destroyed by global warming-caused heat waves.
Deb Margolin’s “Bush Hostage” is a hilarious telling of President George W. Bush’s pseudo-psychotic actions to avoid standing trial for war crimes—performed fantastically by Jake Margolin—and David Greenspan’s “A Very Exciting Study” is the haunting and terribly sad tale of a lab rat, played by John Jesurun, the seventh actor who until the end sits quietly watching while the others scurrying about.
It is not until the end of the performance that the structure of Obskene reveals its political nature. Trying to interpret this experimental performance will yield different results for different viewers, but it is certain that the gruesome tales of ancient gore and violent political strife should not be taken lightly, for the future may offer similar atrocities. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the 2012 Presidential Election in New York, Obskene is extraordinarily timely and powerfully stirring.