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Existentialism

Three legends of Off-Off Broadway theater create what is in essence an homage to equally legendary true life-partners Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

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Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet in a scene from “Existentialism” at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Tony Marinelli

Tony Marinelli, Critic

It is a testament to the richness of a NYC theater season that we have something as illuminating as Existentialism playing in our midst. You put together the forces of La MaMa, founded in 1961, with Talking Band, founded in 1974 by former members of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater, and Anne Bogart, director and founder of the sadly now-shuttered SITI Company, and while the subject and process are very immediate and contemporary in nature, you get the idea of what it must have been like to be attending that “downtown” type of theater in its heyday of 1960’s and 1970’s.

These artists have lost nothing in their timing. Their content is urgent, often playful and provocative. Where existentialism in itself is a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of will, the postulating of our two performers, Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet, never comes off as preachy, but more like the verbose old aunt or uncle that you only get to see at holiday family functions. They have their own rhythm and proper vocabulary.

The work of Talking Band, both traditionally and for this piece, seeks to reveal the “extraordinary” dimensions of ordinary life. This play involves not much more than mundane grocery shopping, watering of plants, reading on the porch, doing a little bit of writing (or just banging at the typewriter), some sweeping, listening to the radio, some dancing, watching a sun go down or watching snow gently falling, yet it is also about much larger ideas such as: Why do we exist? What is free will? What is the meaning of gender? And the meaning of time? What impact does any individual have upon the world, or upon other people? Putting the important passing of time in perspective, think of ads we see for pet adoption: a cat or dog is only with us for a short time of our lives, but for that cat or dog we represent their entire world.

Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow in a scene from “Existentialism” at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Probably foremost in the ideas spoken and acted out is the passing of time and, further, how much time is left to make an impact. The ages of both participants, Paul Zimet is 81 and Ellen Maddow is 75, are not wasted on us. Both actors, without any frills, engage us in their tackling of meaning in the world and in the struggle of facing one’s own mortality. It is particularly poignant that Miss Maddow is alone for the last pages of the play. In contemplating how dependent they were on each other’s presence, “We used to talk about all kinds of things, and I felt that time not spent in his company was time wasted. We hardly left one another except to sleep”…   “What now? Hah…Will I be able to work or not?…Loneliness in a strange world that I no longer understand, and that carries on without me…I am nothing else now but that burning, proud, impatient longing for you.” Maddow is the personification of utter heartache.

Director Anne Bogart’s physical precision is supported by the economy of movement and charming physical comedy from the actors sneaking back and forth between the tiny square houses of the set. Meant to copy the actual living situation of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Anna Kiraly’s set is whimsical in its “tinyness” as well as the foreground of both properties occupied by what could pass for moats separated by a runway. Mr. Zimet’s side features a rocker whereas Ms. Maddow’s side offers a garden that she often waters. Both homes have a spare space fitted with minimal office area: a backless stool, a desk and a typewriter. Bogart’s specific choreography for the two actors of typing, rolling paper, and head gestures suggest classic synchronized swimming as neither actor can see the other through the walls.

The passing of time gets further support from Kiraly’s projection design loaded with imagery of seagulls against cloud-filled skies and bodies of water rolling with waves. Add to this Brian Scott’s subtle lighting design and Darron L West’s astute sound design of waves and trees rustling. The passage of seasons is marked by Gabriel Berry’s on-point costume design of layering of outerwear, sweaters, caps and scarves.

Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet in a scene from “Existentialism” at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

The text created by Bogart in collaboration with Maddow and Zimet is a collage of assembled passages from the works of Sartre and de Beauvoir, amongst others. Maddow and Zimet don’t often speak to each other in the piece, yet they are still very much “in dialogue.” The piece is designed as to keep them separate, though inseparable. The moments where they share stage action: putting away groceries, having sex (brief, then on to the next thought), and dancing is charming as comic relief in contrast to all the other serious content of the piece. One tongue-in-cheek moment that sheds light on how much history they share is their little jazz dance routine abruptly segueing into the Jim Carroll Band’s New Wave classic, “People Who Died.” The change is as abrupt as it is disconcerting, but it is seamlessly incorporated into the stage business.

Maddow and Zimet keep the text moving along as each pronouncement is delivered almost out of wide-eyed wonder. His “this-is-what-I-learned” from the nature of things is followed by her “this-is-what-I-learned” based on the nature of identity, and of course, gender. Zimet early on sets the tone for how he looks at life. “I’m going to smile, and my smile will sink down into your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become…There may be more beautiful times, but this one is ours.” As existentialism so focuses on will rather than happenstance, one of the key messages reveals just how much it is the underpinning of the philosophy: “Choice is possible. What is impossible is not to choose. If I decide not to choose, that still constitutes a choice.” It’s one of many “lightbulb moments” in a text filled with so many.

In this celebration of Talking Band’s 50th anniversary, it has been announced that another premiere production will take place at Mabou Mines@122CC this spring, adding the other founding member Tina Shepard to the cast of players. It goes without saying this will be another major event in must-see “downtown theater.”

Existentialism (through March 10, 2024)

Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, 66 East 4th Street, 2nd floor, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.ovationtix.com

Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission

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Tony Marinelli
About Tony Marinelli (54 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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