Academic journal article American Drama

Profile: The "Queerest" Conclusions: The Theater of Stuart Sherman

Academic journal article American Drama

Profile: The "Queerest" Conclusions: The Theater of Stuart Sherman

Article excerpt

I. OVERVIEW

Stuart Sherman, who died 14 September 2001 at the age of 55, was most often called a miniaturist because he appeared on stage, particularly in his "Spectacles," in ordinary clothing, with only a rickety stand (like those waiters use for serving food), a small sample case (not unlike that of a traveling salesman) set upon it, and a set of cue cards in the pocket of his (often flannel) shirt, to which he referred almost haphazardly for guidance. (1) In at least one "Spectacle" (Yes and Noh, 1993) they were blank playing cards. However, in his "Eighteenth Spectacle" (The Spaghetti Works, also 1993), his script/scenario sheets numbered 22 and were set out in meticulous detail, suggesting that the pocket cards might well often be genuine and his absent-minded handling of them a deliberate distraction. The sample case itself contained a miscellany of objects--mostly cheap (often plastic), some found or chanced upon, some modified for some arcane "coherence" either in themselves or with other objects (mini-dramas within a mini-drama), often subsumed under thematic subtitles like Time, The Erotic, The Spaghetti Works, that wryly engage large fundamental parameters. The objects, when their stage life was over (a matter of seconds), were either dropped or thrown negligently back into the sample case, creating the need for "rummaging" for later "events" or "scenes," or discarded on the stage floor, creating a cosmic disarray (for it is a world we are talking about, a universe, even). Finally, Sherman's "skits" were performed deadpan a la Buster Keaton. There was no emotive hint from the world you entered the theater with and later (mentally) staggered back to. Or if there was (occasionally), it happened in the merest blink of an eye that one found disorienting. This lack of emotive content was not a neo-Brechtian distancing for the (ultimate) purpose of seeing and constructive political engagement and action, but rather the bleak nothingness of Beckett's landscapes, the frozen look of futility and resignation, the certainty of doom in a world without foundation, without validated direction or guide posts, where game theory might well equal theology. When it was all over, there was the merest indication of "end." Indeed, "end" was not an applicable word; if we had been attentive, we had been moved beyond "end" and all other consoling terms. A pro forma bow and somewhat awkward exit completed the evening. We were left with the unmasked stage and its props (our lives, in other terms, if you like).

So what exactly constituted a "Spectacle" for Sherman? Absolutely anything and everything, particularly what was hidden, forgotten, edited from, or beneath our notice. Sherman's dramatic terrain was profoundly not comfortable.

Now, of course, the term "miniaturist" must be qualified. The writer to whom Sherman is most often compared is Richard Foreman (of the Ontological-Hysteric theater--his own, for more than 30 years), who might be described as a maximalist, but in the same line of philosophical-dramatic work. Both use an abundance of props, but whereas Sherman's are confined to a small suitcase, Foreman's are spread across a normal stage, a set. And although they share a Dada-Surreal dimension in their props and much the same derivation (detritus, inventions, amalgamations), their use of them is fundamentally different. They are on different sides of the epistemological/ontological wall. Foreman's entire dramaturgy of props, including the geometry of his strings, tricks of perspective, solemn pronunciamentos, shocking noises, verbal conundrums, disorienting tempi, his neatness, and so on, are all intended as an assault on the finitude of unknowingness, or human inability to break through that wall to a raw feel of truth, reality, what is. They delineate, as do the performers (who are props also), an agent that has neither reprieve nor resolution. Sherman is on the other side of that wall and does not see anything there except contingency, impermanence, disconnected and unreal bits and pieces, no foundational meaning, no grand vistas. …

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