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The Invention of Tragedy (Mac Wellman Festival: Perfect Catastrophes)

On a school auditorium’s stage, young adults portray children as they perform Mac Wellman’s playful abstract fantasia with slight political overtones. 

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Sophia Aranda and Drita Kabashi with chorus (Alice Marcondes, Mary Lanceta, Madelyn Rose Robinson, Renee Harrison, Zoe Zimin, Ana Semedo and Mirra Kardonne) in a scene from Mac Wellman’s “The Invention of Tragedy” at The Flea Theater (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)


Darryl Reilly, Critic

I am here to announce, er. I am her to er here to pronounce and enounce and denounce and renounce a total that is TOTAL expostulation of cats er. A total exposure of cats er. A TOTAL I mean TOTAL departure of cats… I mean I am here to announce and PROCLAIM a departure of all cats.

Good-natured, nonsensical and bursting with verbal distinctiveness,

The Invention of Tragedy is a 2004 work by venerable playwright Mac Wellman now having its world premiere staging as part of The Flea Theater’s five play Mac Wellman Festival: Perfect Catastrophes. An “…examination of the post-9/11 world and America’s general and genial acceptance of the Iraq war” is how this hour-long cryptic fantasia that’s performed by young adults portraying school children is described on the show’s website.

So the sleep of tongue that forces an each to become an all is also the itch of an each to teach the thing to be replaced by an appropriate symbol so that what is symbolized by our speech is the call of the all of certainty.

Drita Kabashi and Susan Ly in a scene from Mac Wellman’s “The Invention of Tragedy” at The Flea Theater (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

Halfway through the abstract hijinks there are fleeting references to terrorists, getting in trouble for bringing a little knife on an airplane and vague political debates as the tone grows more serious. Devotees of Mr. Wellman’s idiosyncratic style may be enchanted while anyone else could be baffled. Brevity, playfulness and presentational polish are its virtues.

Scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader provide an arresting recreation of a school auditorium’s stage with artful details. There’s an American flag, polished wood floors, and fluorescent overhead lighting. Off to one side is a small organ and a microphone where the narrator (the droll and beaming Sarah Alice Shull) drones on and plays evocative music including “God Bless America” and “Hail to the Chief.” Later, there’s a series of bright curtains representing a forest, an airplane and buildings.

The personable and youthful company of Sophia Aranda, Renee Harrison, Drita Kabashi, Mirra Kardonne, Macy Lanceta, Susan Ly, Alice Marcondes, Madelyn Rose Robinson, Ana Semedo, and Zoe Zimin portray the school children with vigor and charm. They’re clad in costume designer Alice Tavener’s two-tone ruffle-collared flowing robes. Embodying cats, dogs and a hare, the delightful ensemble enact Wellman’s quasi-fable with glee and depth.

Madelyn Rose Robinson, Susan Ly, Mirra Kardonne, Alice Marcondes, Drita Kabashi, Ana Semedo, Mary Lanceta, Sophia Aranda and Zoe Zimin in a scene from Mac Wellman’s “The Invention of Tragedy” at The Flea Theater (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

The combination of director Meghan Finn’s energetic staging and Chanon Judson’s lively choreography contribute visual sparks, transcending the piece’s murkiness. Composer Michael Cassedy’s original score tunefully accompanies the differing moods. Lighting designer Brian Aldous and sound designer Sadah Espii Proctor inject as much theatricality as possible with their accomplished efforts.

Born in Ohio in 1945, Wellman has been a prominent figure of experimental theater since the 1970’s. The Invention of Tragedy is impenetrable but its poetic goofiness and superior production are appealing.

The Invention of Tragedy (extended through October 20, 2019)

The Sam at The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-226-0051 or visit

Running time: 60 minutes without an intermission

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