Academic journal article TheatreForum

INTRODUCTION TO ASTRID SAALBACH'S: End of the World

Academic journal article TheatreForum

INTRODUCTION TO ASTRID SAALBACH'S: End of the World

Article excerpt

A flight attendant suffering from severe jet-lag and premature hot-flashes has just returned from a long and stressful tour abroad. Her passengers panicked for no apparent reason. On her way home from the airport she gets lost and can't find her house. A strange girl, who would rather be a horse, offers to show her the way, but leads her instead into a world beyond our time zones, a world where airplanes are a thing of the past (because they inexplicably started falling from the sky), and where a roller bag can be traded for a baby.

When working with playwrights I often ask them to tell me about the fictional world that their play takes place in. What are the "rules" that govern this world? Playwrights of a fantastic bent sometimes answer: "I want to create a world where anything can happen."

Then I know we've got a problem. Because if anything can happen in a play, nothing can mean anything. In order for meaning to arise in a play, the status quo and the actions of the characters have to be circumscribed by a set of rules that obtain in this particular fictional world.

The social and physical rules that the world Astrid Saalbach has created in End of the World are vastly different from the world we live in. But they add up to a coherent alternative world. Strange things happen, but not just anything. It's all perfectly logical, in it's own way.

Saalbach's fictional world is the fascistic opposite of the world we want to live in. Through some advanced form of gene splicing, the authorities are attempting to create the perfect woman. Four of the young women we meet are science's rejects, failed experiments, but necessary steps toward perfection. (They are all played by the same actor; they are apparently near clones.) Each of them has been designed to have a particular skill or attribute: a talent for math or drawing, generosity or empathy. In this the authorities have succeeded. But each also has a major defect: one is autistic, a second one was born with a grossly deformed head, a third with no legs, a fourth with no eyes.

Perfection is this society's only goal. For them, winning is all; there is no place for losers. Once out of office, popular politicians are viewed as a threat. Soccer teams that lose are hounded and often killed. In this world, there are no second acts, no second chances. When your time is up, it's up.

Why is this particular flight attendant thrust into this particular topsy-turvy world? Again, it's no coincidence.

Saalbach writes obliquely. Much is left understated, and any plot summary will necessarily be a ham-handed interpretation. But this much is clear. Prior to the start of the play, Xenia, the jet-lagged flight attendant, was feeling out of sorts and went to the doctor. He, a young man, diagnosed her as approaching menopause. This came as a shock. While having a great time travelling around the world, she hasn't been paying attention to her biological clock-which is ticking alarmingly fast. Her visit to the doctor is the play's "inciting incident," the action that causes the rest of the play. She feels that her time is up.

The action of the play can be understood in various ways. Maybe it's all Xenia's dream or nightmare. Or, perhaps, it could be her thoughts in the minute or so before her plane crashes. Certainly she is confronted with her greatest hopes and fears. In this world Xenia acquires everything she always wanted, but had neglected in her life-only to lose it all again.

In the final scene Xenia sees the tail of an airliner sticking up from the sand. Do we see it, too? This is a major design question; there's no stage direction one way or the other. If the set includes something that looks like the tail of an airplane, then it would seem that her plane had crashed, and she somehow survived. If we don't see the tail, we have to guess.

One production didn't leave the audience guessing. Theatre du Trillium, an experimental group in Ottawa, staged the whole play in the rubble of a crashed airliner. …

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