A Visit to the Underworld

There’s a subtle clue on the chairs: the packet of two Saltines. As the audience enters the low-ceilinged basement space, with its molded, convex design, the crackers sit on each chair, along with an odd token—perhaps an old postcard, or an old photograph, or an object such as a miniature sewing machine. To the left of the seating area for Jarring, the peculiar and unsettling solo show written and performed by Tracy Weller, is an L-shaped room with an industrial sink. Trays of dirt sit in the sink as Weller’s character silently uses a mortar and pestle to grind powders and pour them gingerly into clean Mason jars. She pours milk into the dirt.

After preparations, she takes a frayed ledger, clutches it to her bosom, and walks to the front playing space. Smiling with satisfaction, she says, “Good morning.” And then she pulls back the curtain on the space to reveal metal shelves full of Mason jars with powder in them, all neatly aligned. She begins a hasty, breathless lecture: “To begin: CANNING. But not a can. The act of. ‘To can is just the verb. BUT, they are not cans, obviously. There’s an enormous difference.” Her lecture becomes more disjointed and emphatic. The cans, of course, are glass: “the Mason jar, an elusively simple and elegant preservation system.” We are told that the jar was patented by John Landis Mason in November 1858.

The woman goes off on tangents rather easily. “Footnote, yes. There were others with their patents we need to acknowledge. Yes, fine. Kerr with his wide-mouth jars. The Ball Brothers (cutthroat entrepreneurs, latched on like ticks, launched into high-gear mass production). Those Ball boys, of course, were thieves and drunks….” It soon becomes apparent that she is unbalanced, doctrinaire, obsessed with the history of food preservation, jars, and canning. She assumes various identities as she describes the history. She’s dismissive, overeager, pained—in short, the part is a tour de force for Weller, and she makes the most of it.

Soon her lecture is finished; she returns to the sink area; then it begins again. Gradually, though, her demeanor changes. Slowly we are able to piece together what has happened to her in this forgotten basement. Although this solo show is more challenging to follow than many plays, it’s theatrical nonetheless. The plot here takes a back seat to character. At times, it is frustrating to follow her diseased mind—the crackers are descriptive, if you manage to make the connection—and sometimes the repetition is wearying, but Justin and Christopher Swader’s sets and lighting create an unsettling mood, and Joel Bravo’s sound design contributes eerie, distant clanks of metal. They help on this journey to a strange underworld with a lunatic as guide.

The production is the first by Mason Holdings, a company that describes itself as dedicated to preservation of all kinds" and which preserves "stories, people, places and moments and ideas—before they vanish into oblivion." That may sound didactic, but director Kristjan Thor keeps the pace varied. Weller’s obsessed figure apostrophizes to Mason (“Oh, Dr. Mason, you make a very elusive jar!"), and to the imaginary audience (“Our hero’s favorite color? Great question!”), delivers the history of preservation and contamination, and becomes both more distraught and ecstatic. “Ball and Kerr and other smiling wide-mouthed thieves in the night,” she exclaims, “but never another, any, any other, holding and sealed, tending and taking care, our little lives—in a jar! All in a jar! A Mason jar!” 

The drama provides Weller with a wide range of emotions to encompass. The disjointed exclamations, the leaps of imagination and changes of subject, the addresses to the audience and the drifting into reverie, give the experience an unsettling and impressionistic air. Although the plot is simple, there’s lots of information to process. Is there an important point? Perhaps not, but like all good theater, Jarring will leave you haunted by the experience.

The Mason Holdings production of Jarring plays through May 17, with evening performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and on Monday; matinees are Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $35 and may be purchased online at http://jarringnyc.eventbrite.com.


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