“That was bizarre,” exclaimed a woman next to me as the lights rose — though whether in anger or delight, it was hard to say. Such is the confusion of Singlet, a new play by Erin Markey receiving its world premiere at the ever-indispensable Bushwick Starr. It is an experience hard to categorize but, for the most part, easy to recommend.
As a newbie to Markey’s work, I can’t compare Singlet to their previous musical pieces. I can say that it is unlike any play I’ve seen. A series of scenes play out between two vague persons — Erin, played by Markey, and Emily, played by frequent collaborator Emily Davis. The script mostly keeps those names throughout, but in performance nothing feels constant. One moment, Erin/Emily are addressing a class as two closely bonded social studies teachers; the next, they are gym coach and student, engaged in a possibly abusive dynamic. Even within these new characters, Erin and Emily seem to also remain somehow present. It isn’t always clear who’s talking — or if Erin/Emily are each one persona, built up of several variations.
In keeping with Markey’s porous tone, director Jordan Fein only sometimes indicates clear transitions between “scenes,” leaving others to bleed into each other. Fein also keeps the stage bare, with few props. (The set is a curved white wall, generic but adaptable.) Fein’s approach can prove confusing. At least a couple gags fall flat because of vague mime work or an unclear sense of location. Some exchanges passed by in a confusing haze, lost to my overly literal mind. Others stuck more strongly — I am still turning over the phrase “a wind-swept plateau,” which the social studies teachers keep returning to, as in: “ERIN: What does a wind-swept plateau have to do with the Byzantine Empire?” To which the answer is: “Your mind is flexible.”
Yet the work’s angry energy overcomes its flaws. If there is an emotional throughline, it seems to be anger, and its close relationship with love. Singlet both opens and closes with literal wrestling, but neither bout feels exactly like a fight — rather, Erin and Emily always seem on the verge of hugging. When they later break into choreographed dance, it’s a relief. After all that pent-up tension, finally some joy breaks through.
The final section of Singlet cements the theme of love-as-aggression, though it also may overemphasize the point. Donning fake moustaches and adopting exaggerated masculine poses, the two play out a cliched father-son dynamic. Feelings are talked around; insults are tossed; beer is chugged. Finally, they wrestle. Paternal love as masculine sport feels like one of Markey’s less original points, if that is what we’re seeing.
But is it? Markey’s script names the child in this scene as “Daughter.” That the character read to me as male either indicates that I missed a few lines, or speaks to my own coded assumptions. Markey’s work deliberately undermines these assumptions, but doesn’t lead you by the hand while doing so. Still, it starts to make a certain kind of sense. How can the characters be one gender, when they are not even one character?
The fungible dynamics of Singlet make it best experienced emotionally, rather than in a linear fashion. While that emotion may initially just be confusion, my feelings did shift with time. Each pairing in Singlet is only as abusive as it is caring. Those we love encounter us at our kindest, and at our cruelest. That’s the most consistent duality in Singlet. In this way, it may be striking at something fairly straightforward.
Singlet runs to June 12, 2018. More production info can be found here.