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Strangers in a Strange Land
by Nirmala Nataraj on Aug 18, 2004
You've got to hand it to Dave Eggers. The internationally acclaimed memoirist, novelist, and publisher has managed to transcend criticisms of being self-indulgent and solipsistic. A simple rule of thumb is that you never write a memoir before having accomplished something stellar in the public eye- Eggers broke this rule with his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, an insoluble, artful memoir about his family's tragedies. Eggers' prose is relaxed, colloquial, but full of penetrating clarity that can be both humorous and crushing. His publishing company, McSweeney's, features the same sort of postmodern gamesmanship in its quarterly "magazines", which draw writers like J.T. Leroy and Jonathan Lethem. What makes Eggers' work so important is that it's a huge part of an eclectic yet casual experiment- one that combines prose, social commentary and, now, performance.
Eggers' first play, Sacrament!, created in collaboration with Campo Santo Theater Company and Intersection for the Arts, is a speedy take-off on his second novel You Shall Know Our Velocity (also vaguely autobiographical), and is full of the same self-conscious narration and revisionist memory that has made him such an iconic figure on the literary landscape. The play follows two young men (Will, played by Sean San Jose, and Hand, played by Danny Wolohan) who fly around the world in a week to give away $32,000 in cash after Will randomly comes into a large sum of money. It's a brilliant satire on western privilege, cultural avarice, and personal vindication.
The characters are plagued with an obsession for movement, which actually slows them down. Eventually, they find themselves in Senegal, beleaguered by a roguish Chilean named Raymond (played by Michael Torres), itinerant prostitutes, and peasants who don't greet Will and Hand's cash offerings with gratitude. Will and Hand are unable to rent cars, obtain visas, or book flights when they need to- instead, their encounters are fraught with pandemonium and hostile natives. Even despite synchronistic meetings with wayfarers who look and act like them, Hand blithely quips: "Globalization has killed the possibility of ever learning anything new from anyone"- revealing a tension between the men's preconceived ideas of "foreignness" and the byzantine reality of their cultural exchanges.
The play follows both Will and Hand's separate accounts of the journey and has a touch of magical realism. (Hand's account takes place three years after the trip and openly refutes Will's version of things.) Will, the more sensitive and confused of the two, is beleaguered by his confusion about motives, the meaning of charity, and what it means to give freely. We discover that he is haunted by the wraiths of his dead mother and his best friend Jack, who was killed in a car accident. When Hand palms off cash to a woman in Morocco, Will questions him: "Did she smile? Did she look happy?" The need to give away large sums of cash is almost an equivocation, because it gradually becomes obvious that the decision is impelled by Will's sense of guilt and helplessness surrounding the deaths of his loved ones. The act is cathartic, but for Will it's also a way of finding connection and recognition for his deeds.
Wolohan is voluble and charismatic as the articulate, high-strung Hand. San Jose delivers a more muted performance as Will but nonetheless, one that is deeply moving and nuanced. Tina Marie Murray and Michael Torres bring to life beautifully the national identities of the people Will and Hand encounter. Murray ranges from vapid British flight attendant to giggly Senegalese prostitute to laconic beggar woman to Will's quizzical mother; Torres displays the same versatility with his portrayal of Raymond and a vodka-swilling Estonian hitchhiker.
Director Kent Nicholson deftly works with James Faerron's simple set—a frugal black space with a smattering of raised platforms. The musical cues and projected airport screens and landscapes work in concert to add color and animation to the performance.
The performance overflows with Eggers' customary tangential diatribes, reflecting the characters' American afflictions with boredom and restlessness. Luckily, this version eschews Eggers' penchant for heavy self-reflection, and the ideas presented here are distilled into lines and expressions that are easier to chew on. Occasionally, I found myself zoning out when Hand waxed poetic on the virtues of Glenn Campbell or the formidable Tuore tribe of Morocco, but most of the issues that arise are riveting and necessary: the true meaning of generosity, what it means to live in an inequitable world, the possibility of understanding across cultural difference.
Joy and reverence pervade the performance, even those moments awash in anguish. In many ways, Sacrament! is about the mystery of human hope. Towards the end, Hand relates a sermon he heard a priest delivering:
What is the sacrament? It is not in itself nourishment; it is, rather, an outward symbolic act of an inward grace... It is not practical and without it we would feel the same way; it is a reminder only, and a relatively unnecessary one at that. But that does not mean it is indispensable, nor does it mean it is unbeautiful.
This curious communique, in some ways, sums up Will and Hand's experiment: the desire to create a "secular sacrament", a connection without reason, without expectation. Whether or not they succeed is a different story altogether, but all the same, their journey is full of riches.
June 3-June 28
Performed at Intersection for the Arts
446 Valencia Street @ 16th
San Francisco, CA 94103
by Nirmala Nataraj on Aug 18, 2004