Director Daniel Fish is taking on one of contemporary American literature’s most revered authors in a new piece premiering today at the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City, called “A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (After David Foster Wallace).”
That mouthful of a title points to some of the challenges in reading the works of the author the play pays homage to: David Foster Wallace. Renowned for his exuberant, careening sentences and “maximalist” style, Wallace, a native of Ithaca, NY who battled depression for most of his life, killed himself in 2008 at the age of 46.
“Reading the work is demanding, it’s kind of a workout,” Fish said of Wallace’s oeuvre — anyone who has ever picked up his most famous work, the 1,000-page novel “Infinite Jest,” will understand what Fish means. This sentence, from the title essay of the collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” about a cruise ship journey Wallace undertook, is also a fine example:
“I have acquired and nurtured a potentially lifelong grudge against the ship’s Hotel Manager — whose name was Mr. Dermatis and whom I now and henceforth christen Mr. Dermatitis — ... and a searing crush on the cabin steward for my part of Deck 10’s port hallway, Petra, she of the dimples and broad candid brow, who always wore a nurse’s starched and rustling whites and smelled of the cedary Norwegian disinfectant she swabbed bathrooms down with, and who cleaned my cabin within a cm of its life at least 10 times a day but could never be caught in the actual act of cleaning — a figure of magical and abiding charm, and well worth a postcard all her own.”
Fish described his own piece, developed at the University of Rochester and during a residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, as “the theatrical equivalent to that.”
The play/performance, clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, features the work of five actors who channel Wallace by listening to the author himself reading his works or speaking in interviews — what the actors hear through headphones, however, the audience won’t.
“There’s this sense of the presence or absence of Wallace in the room, this person who’s no longer here,” Fish explained. For the actors, interpreting Wallace’s words in real-time is no easy task.
“First of all, he speaks very quickly at times, and the recordings aren’t paused. What [the actors are] really doing is listening and speaking,“ Fish explained. “For the actor it becomes a physical experience, because they get so lost in the language.”
Actors hear excerpts from a variety of materials, not just “A Supposedly Fun Thing,” but also an essay or two (the script changes from performance to performance) from “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” another collection of Wallace’s writings, as well as interviews he did with PBS’ Charlie Rose and others.
Fish, a New Jersey native, has worked around the country and internationally, initially focusing on Shakespeare — as an assistant director with Washington, DC’s The Shakespeare Theatre Company, for example — before creating or directing a variety of pieces based on movies, records and other sources. This is his first time staging a show at the Chocolate Factory, though he has known Brian Rogers, the theater’s artistic director, for a long time.
“We’ve been talking about this project for years now,” Fish explained. “I kind of just got hooked on the writing.”
The show features performers John Amir, Efthalia Papacosta, Therese Plaehn, Mary Rasmussen and Jenny Seastone Stern, and will run through April 7.
When: March 22-April 7, Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m. except April 6, at 7 p.m.
Where: The Chocolate Factory, 5-49 49 Ave., Long Island City
Tickets: $15. (212) 352-3101/chocolatefactorytheater.org