Before Placing Me on Your Shelf, a Lunar Energy production directed and conceived by Philip Gates and featuring the talents of Jonathan Horvath, Caitlin Johnston, Adam Scott Mazer, Josh Odsess-Rubin, Elizabeth Romanski, Theo Salter, and Nadia Sepsenwol, is inextricably tied to the poetry of James Tate.
Nearly all of the dialogue in Before Placing Me on Your Shelf is taken directly from Tate’s poems, and the vision of this play rests in bringing the enigmatic, associative, and absurd worlds created in his poems to life, which is a very interesting concept and makes for an intriguing work of Art.
The play leaves the audience with striking visual impressions and the feeling of having entered a stream of consciousness filled with lofty dreams, lucid nightmares, and heavy symbolism. There is a vague sense of uncomfortable familiarity in this terrain, and the surreal worlds of Tate’s poems are often masked, literally and figuratively, forcing the audience to work at understanding that which contains hidden depths but is never fully revealed.
“Where are we?” asks one character to another, who is given the answer: “We are parallel to everything that matters.” Throughout the play, the characters struggle with questions that center around self-identity, truth and illusion, life and death, sex, and revelation. There is a strong connection between this play and the Theatre of the Absurd, giving Before Placing Me on Your Shelf the feel of avant-garde plays from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
This lingering sense of the Theatre of the Absurd is juxtaposed with its slightly formal, dramatic presentation. Before Placing Me on Your Shelf reveals itself to be an extremely non-traditional play. The play spirals and spins, creating tension as the normal life of these characters begins to slip and crack, suggesting the weird, dark, and surreal worlds lying just underneath the surface.
The actors featured in Before Placing Me on Your Shelf are very talented and give stellar performances. Caitlin Johnson is radiant on the stage, clearly having fun with her playful, sex-obsessed character. Adam Scott Mazer, Theo Salter and Josh Odsess-Rubin are by turns dramatic and seriously funny. They had the somewhat reserved audience laughing uncontrollably at their deliberate and skillful deliveries.
Elizabeth Romanski and Jonathan Horvath shine as a team; as a married couple, they worked together and played off each other in a synergistic manner. Some of their scenes together are among the most provocative in the play; their characters deepen and expand as they attempt to explain themselves to each other. Nadia Sepsenwol, as the mostly silent and masked moth-woman, brings her character to life by tapping into body language and non-verbal communication.
There are visually stunning moments throughout the play. In the beginning sequence, the lights go up, exposing the audience to an empty black-box stage. The back of the stage then opens to reveal a revolving piece of wall. Against the wall is a woman, her face hidden behind a winged and glittery mask, her body fully entangled in a cocoon-like web. Throughout the play, the moth-woman appears at pivotal moments which touch upon disclosure, leaving them with butterflies in their hands and on their bodies.
“Life is as fragile and beautiful as a spider’s web. And the wind is blowing, always blowing.” Lines like this punctuate Before Placing Me on Your Shelf, returning us always to the eye of the poet, as the actors attempt to reveal the many facets of the mysterious and bizarre worlds we live in, by baring and bringing to light the poetry of James Tate:
A Knock on the Door
They ask me if I’ve ever thought about the end of
the world, and I say, “Come in, come in, let me
give you some lunch, for God’s sake.” After a few
bites it’s the afterlife they want to talk about.
“Ouch,” I say, “did you see that grape leaf
skeletonizer?” Then they’re talking about
redemption and the chosen few sitting right by
His side. “Doing what?” I ask. “Just sitting?” I
am surrounded by burned up zombies. “Let’s
have some lemon chiffon pie I bought yesterday
at the 3 Dog Bakery.” But they want to talk about
my soul. I’m getting drowsy and see butterflies
everywhere. “Would you gentlemen like to take a
nap, I know I would.” They stand and back away
from me, out the door, walking toward my
neighbors, a black cloud over their heads and
they see nothing without end.
Before Placing Me on Your Shelf was originally produced in January 2011 as part of Manhattan Theatre Source’s PlayGround Development Series and ran until August 21, 2011 at The Kraine Theater as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.
Before Placing Me on Your Shelf
Adapted from poems by James Tate
Directed and conceived by Philip Gates