Love, Leisure, and Philosophy

Waiting in line to get a cheeseburger, holding a cold beer in my hand, I smiled when the woman in front of me said “What a great idea. What a great concept.” I responded, “Yeah, I’m already having a better time than I do at most shows.” Indeed, my favorite moments of Charles Mee’s Fire Island, now playing at the 3LD Arts Center, came before a word of the playwright’s text had been uttered. Surrounded by enormous high-definition video of beautiful island landscapes, milling about the space or sitting on cushions and low-to-the-ground beach chairs next to coolers full of ice, soda, and beer, the audience members chatted and smiled and took in the atmosphere. This friendly, unstructured feeling persisted even once the performance had begun. The food truck left but the coolers of beer and soda remained. In between scenes actors and audience members alike dashed or stretched to grab a cold one. As enjoyable as all of this was, though, about half an hour into it I couldn’t help but wishing that the text itself provided comparable pleasures.

Fire Island is one of Mee’s meditative, conceptual works. A series of episodes—some loosely linked together, others not—finds hyper-articulate men and women of leisure flirting, arguing, having sex, and walking along the beach, all while expounding on and debating the nature(s) of love. This is well-worn ground for the playwright, and those familiar with his other work will recognize passages from more successful plays peppered throughout. Filia vs eros, the history of marriage, the aesthetics of soap operas, differences between the genders: these and other topics emerge as sites for mildly angsty musings as various couples wind their way through the space. Sometimes they stroll; sometimes they chase one another, playfully or otherwise. They shout, they whisper, they caress, they laugh. Through all of this, though, they never seem to be going anywhere. Mee conceives of his island paradise as a landscape outside of time, a place that enables long philosophical conversations about passions and preoccupations.

Some of the scenes play out on the enormous video screens, some occur live in the space. A few, intriguingly, occur both on video and live. The actors are not asked to reproduce their taped performances, but allow the words and emotions and gestures of the live scenes to overlap with and slide up against those they previously recorded. The actors are miked, but we are still able to hear where the voices are coming from when the scenes are played live and the actors are moving through the space. These moments raise a host of issues too academic to pursue here, but it is worth noting that theatre scholars and enthusiasts interested in ongoing debates about “presence” and “liveness” will find much food for thought.

The video projections are stunning and calming, successfully providing a sense of place and time that encourages the audience to sit back and soak in the experience of the production rather than engaging it in more conventional ways. A live band that combines classic rock with Tuvan throat-singing and a hostess who occasionally circulates through the space offering to pour wine for audience members add to the festive, laid-back atmosphere.

I am of a mixed mind about the text itself. It seems specious to complain that the musings and aphorisms about the nature of love often feel clichéd. Indeed, part of Mee’s ongoing project is to explore the fact that philosophers of antiquity can sound clichéd and soap operas profound, and that there may be a fractured and fragmented series of links between the most disparate of sources. To complain that we have heard these questions and thoughts from Mee before also seems beside the point.

Again: recycling, re-imaging, and re-making are precisely the foundation for his often celebrated work. The lack of palpable urgency or passion in conversations about love, sex, suicide, etc. struck me as strange, but it also struck me as at the core of the production: Mee’s Fire Island, as realized by director Kevin Cunningham and his team of technical wizards, is meant to provide a soothing backdrop for fraught conversations and thus allow some perspective on and distance from them.

As I have often enjoyed Mee’s plays, then, what was it that was bothering me about this one?

Another question may provide the answer. Watching the scenes unfold between various couples, I repeatedly asked myself “Who are these people?” Who are these people who have so much time to sit around talking about things they have clearly talked about before? Who are these people who take the breath-taking beauty of their island real estate for granted and not for luxury? Mee has not created characters to people his island; he has created vessels for his own leisurely musings. None of these figures is in any way aware of the privilege that allows them to spend so much time recycling their thoughts and longings. They have no responsibilities and their actions have no consequences. As such, their conflicts fall flat. These characters aren’t in crises or in the throes of passion; the only thing at stake here is whether they will find adequate comfort in one another and whether they will find words eloquent enough, clever enough, trenchant enough to pass the time.

Still, though, the cheeseburger was really good.

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