It was no mere technical hiccup that waylaid my high school production of Oklahoma. Instead, it was the lighting equivalent of a grand mal seizure: a memory dump that cascaded through hundreds of programmed cues over a couple of horrifying minutes before plunging us into darkness. When tech goes that far off the rails, the results rarely improve the show. So I'm more than mildly bemused to report that's exactly what occurred during my encounter with This Is Not a Novel, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern's immersive, imaginative environmental work, which closes this weekend.
Audience members are supposed to listen to Bill Floyd's audio play, an adaptation of writer David Markson's later works, through earbuds on their phones as they explore the dozens of nooks and crannies in this sprawling, two-story multimedia installation. But in order to do that, I now know, you have to download the SoundCloud app and/or the large audio file before show time. A number of us were left standing outside the Lakewood venue long past the 8 p.m. opening on Saturday night, as a combination of poor signal strength and multiple patrons trying to download the file at once led to glacial transfer times. When my hosts saw that it would take more than an hour to download, they finally bade me to enter without it.
And that, as it turns out, is the best way to take on This Is Not a Novel.
After I'd explored for about fifteen minutes, director Jaybird O'Berski tracked me down to loan me a device with the sound file loaded, so I was able to also experience the show as intended. Earbuds in, I listened as an avuncular John Fidel Justice and an intergenerational choir of actors and nonactors narrated passages from Markson's last four published novels, his most radical—and arid—efforts to deconstruct the form.
In the titular work, an author "weary unto death of making up stories" and "equally tired of inventing characters" seeks to form a novel "with no intimation of story whatsoever": no plot, characters, setting, descriptions, or "overriding central motivations," and, thus, "no conflicts and/or confrontations."
In Floyd's compiled text, Justice dryly intones the writer's intentions amid what he terms a "disquisition on the maladies of the life of art"—an extremely extended list of the colorful dysfunctions and deaths of artists and philosophers across the ages—before a benediction of sorts, one hour and fifty minutes later. (Among hundreds of entries, we learn that Bertrand Russell was "so inept physically that he could never learn to make a pot of tea.") Though references to Van Gogh and others occur repeatedly, they're kept far enough apart to prevent them from building narrative momentum—another stylistic no-no, apparently.
The result suggests an audiobook version of some popular trivia compendium—say, the literary parts of The Book of Lists series—occasionally laced with a compiler's real-time misgivings. After a while, I noticed I was zoning out from this recital of relentlessly disjunctive factoids.
But an abundance of visual and sensory stimuli kept me busy as I traversed the thirty-six separate installations in the show's three main areas. (Only two of these are accessible to those with physical disabilities; the company is offering these patrons free admission.) Plus, you need to hear what's going on or verbally interact with the characters in at least a third of the installations.
Ultimately, I found that the earbuds and vocal track insulated me too much from the live action and sensory riddles I encountered. After a while, I stopped taking them out to interact and putting them back in. By then, there were more than enough voices in my head, and I really didn't miss the extra ones. I confirmed this assessment when I went back later and listened to the soundtrack in its entirety.
I have intentionally provided next to no description of the thirty-six elements that form the wide-ranging environments in this work. Last week, Brian Howe gave readers a glimpse into a handful of them in his feature story. After my experience in this rough-edged, prismatic amalgam of music, theater, film, puppetry, and visual, literary, and performance art, I've concluded that one of its most important qualities is the element of surprise. Not knowing what's next and learning how to navigate the environment is part of the challenge—and the fun.
But it is fair game to note that, while some characters, like the puppet, Mr. Delius, seem confined to specific interactions in an established space, others are free range. Since not all performers are conspicuously costumed, you always wonder if someone approaching you is a character, a visitor, or someone choosing to be both. (Protip: Some of the characters have to be drawn out; when anyone invites you into their narrative, go.) After Saturday's performance, actors said that the different worlds were beginning to further interact and recombine.
I can confirm that This Is Not A Novel fully achieves the aim stated in its subtitle; it is a playscape for adults, though frequently more pensive than delirious. And these hints won't spoil the surprise. Explore all spaces thoroughly. The back alley's important. Slow down when exploring the silken maze. And consider carefully what it means to be a guest and a host. In this everything-except-a-novel, sooner or later, you're both.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Picture Pages "