The joys of a Mac Wellman play can be hard to describe, as his work often skips via the brain-twistingly absurd directly into the utterly surreal–and perhaps even more defying of description when, as in Muazzez – presented at The Chocolate Factory as part of the COIL 2014 festival – the work in performance remains almost completely unadorned by the usual theatrical elements: no set, spare lighting, the only prop a water glass, and one man, dressed in neutral clothing, sitting at a plain wooden table.
Yet there is something deeply, almost subliminally pleasurable about his work, especially when directed by Wellman himself and performed by an actor like Muazzez’s Steve Mellor, a longtime Wellman collaborator who is attuned to the writer’s particular style of allusive, elusive wordplay. Wellman’s work sometimes seems to speak directly to the subconscious mind, hovering as it does on the edge between narrative and nonsense (and sometimes, here, heading all the way into the incomprehensible).
This is all preface to saying that the narrator of Muazzez is an abandoned cigar factory on an alien planetoid, on a quest to examine and investigate the Radical Symmetry of his universe, and in context, this does not seem nonsensical. (The piece’s only other character, unseen but frequently referred to, is the equally abandoned cigar factory next door, whose name is Finn.) The piece was conceived originally as a short story, part of a collection of stories set on imaginary asteroids and planetoids (A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds)–several of which have now been adapted into theatrical monologues–and its writing is indeed denser and prosier than it might ideally be; there are passages very difficult to parse when hearing them for the first time.
Yet, with its first-person, albeit inhuman, narrator, the monologue has a certain unexpected theatricality, one that comes partially from its sheer incongruity, its placing the voice of a structure in the body of a man. There’s an odd charm in the combination of Mellor’s wry tone and the factory’s frequent bafflement and bemusement at both the foibles and the very vocabulary of humanity. (Too, Mellor’s precision with the language cuts through the wordy thicket, using gesture and emotional shifts almost as punctuation marks, and adds humor that might perhaps not be so visible to the reader on the page.)
The glorying in the absurd poetry of language does sometimes cross the line into sheer self-indulgence, in a way that, while enjoyable as pure poetry, distracts from the momentum of the piece as a whole. This is particularly true in one long section that has an odd perfection while still feeling unnecessary or digressive in the play: the narrator lists, in alphabetical order, the layers through which he has dug, with his unique zygodactyly foot, to reach the hollow core at the center of his universe: “decrescendo, a region of decreasing volume; demijohn, an expanse of colored glass supported by an odd wicker thatch; demisemiquaver, a thirty-second note pressed like a leaf in the middle of all this…” and on like this for some time.
Still, there’s something of the purest essence of theatre here, stripped down to its core of storytelling, a stripping–or excavating–that resonates with the themes in the piece. Its pleasures are quiet and understated, but genuine.