I don’t know when “Me Time” entered the popular lexicon, but a Google search reveals a litany of complaints stemming from lives that are an endless series of professional, social and family commitments, and the need to counterbalance those with luxurious self-indulgence. We tend to think of over-scheduling as a scourge rather than an indication of privilege, but Yana Ross’ production of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s play, Request Concert, at BAM last week, deflates that fallacy with devastating efficiency. Loneliness, not busyness, is the opposite of “Me Time,” and it kills.
The concept is simple, and the results in this co-production by Łaźnia nowa Theater and TR Warszawa, are wrenching to watch. Actress Danuta Stenka executes the meticulous indications of Kroetz’s 1971 text, which includes nothing in the way of plot or dialogue or even an interior monologue. Instead, Kroetz imagines a woman in early middle age as she comes home from work to a small, tidy apartment, sorts mail, does laundry, prepares a cold supper, eats, listens to a radio program, smokes and goes to bed. Oh, and she finishes by taking a bottle of sleeping pills. As mundane as the majority of that routine is, the accumulation of detail – every towel swipe across the kitchen counter, every button pushed to start the washing machine, every smoothing of the bedsheets – takes on exponentially increasing weight as her solitary evening drags on. The clock on the microwave reads 8:58.
The audience is invited up close to the action, whether sitting on chairs just at the perimeter of the set, which is placed in the middle of the Fischer theater, or walking around it to observe this hyper-naturalistic, gleamingly new, Ikea furnished apartment from different angles. Seats were also available in the mezzanine, allowing a bird’s eye view of the proceedings, but floor-level viewing permitted an unsettling intimacy with Stenka’s magistral performance.
Magistral because Kroetz does not give any indication as to who this woman is, why she lives alone or what thoughts pass through her mind as she goes about her occupations, preparing for bed and another day at work. In the silence, there’s not much reason to care about her, at first, and the clues we get reveal a Type A personality as she carefully pops a pimple, scrupulously aligns crackers on a plate, or painstakingly hangs pantyhose to dry. We might find it maddening how much time she can spend on each of these, but we’ll also come to realize that time is the one thing she has in droves, and this, too, makes her reside at a distance from ourselves. In a sense, our engagement is blocked by the window through which we seem to be watching her, like voyeuristic neighbors; we can hear the soundtrack to her evening – Bob Marley, Elton Newton John, Leonard Cohen, Pink Martini… on a fictional radio program anchored by the real life NPR journalist Ari Shapiro – but, besides that and the bells and whistles of her kitchen appliances, we can only rely on what we see.
Yet, Stenka lends this woman great humanity, in the quality of the look she trains on everything she does, or in the glimpses of humor she reveals, like when she abandons her routine to dance around the kitchen with salt and pepper shakers to “A Night Like This,” or, in the moment that flips the mood from bemused to tragic, when she sits in intense introspection, smoking, her face clouded by regret or anger or sadness, listing to Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.” The scene is interrupted when she runs to use the toilet, in full view of the audience: with this taboo breached, we no longer feel like voyeuristic neighbors at a safe remove, but more like children in the apartment with her, helpless to understand or intervene in the unfathomable world of this adult.
But we are adults watching her and asked to interpret the signs that Kroetz and Ross place in our view. For example, the woman’s reading material is limited to advertising mailers (Costco), furniture catalogues (Ikea again) and an electric bill. She scans these attentively as if they hold clues as to how to live in the society that lies somewhere beyond the fortress of her four walls. Her TV viewing is limited to roughly a minute of local news and fashion shows running on repeat. And instead of texting or Facebooking to connect with friends, she plays The Sims with an invented family living in the same apartment as hers (in Kroetz’s original text, the woman knits for a hobby). Stenka is a tall, imposing actress with a no-nonsense way about her, but we feel we want to take this desperately lonely woman in our arms – and shake her out of her commercially addled torpor, too.
She appears so controlled in her gestures and matter-of-fact about her evening that it comes as a surprise when, at 9:32 on the microwave clock, she jumps from bed to fish the bottle of pills out of a drawer and instantly pours them all out with the clear intention of taking every single one. What switch was flipped so suddenly in her mind and why? Or was it a slow-burning intention that we just couldn’t read? What kind of interior life can you have when a life simulation video game, a warehouse club and a homogenizing design aesthetic are your social outlets, reading material and cultural references? Yet it would be dangerous to scorn her without turning a finger at our own indulgence of the same diversions and brands. In fact, as the final minutes of this fascinating performance drive home, the woman is not alone, because we are her also.
Request Concert shares certain formal and thematic affinities with the story “Evelyne” in James Joyce’s Dubliners, where another lonely woman stands at her window, lost in thought as she considers leaving home, but who is held back by the accumulated detritus of her wrecked family, a suffocating society and a repressive religion. Joyce pulls us through the window into Evelyne’s room to feel intimately how every item in it adds to the dust weighing down her limbs. Kroetz, with Ross as his sensitive interpreter on this contemporary production, works in the same direction, thrusting us into the intimacy of this woman and turning over for our consideration every item in her small apartment in an exercise of contextual reading to discover a similar spiritual paralysis. The one difference, although it is nuanced by its defeatism, is that his character does make a move and takes her exit. The clock on the microwave reads 9:49.