KOLT’s “My Own Stranger” is a great piece of theater. The stage on opening night was the Alex Bult Gallery in Midtown, which had Picasso, Monet, Goya, Joan Miro as backdrop. A beautiful setting. And quite appropriate.
The play consists of three women (Lisa Thew, Ruby Sketchley And Kellie Raines, directed by Kelley Ogden) reciting Anne Sexton’s writings, as arranged by Marilyn Campbell and Linda Laundra. “Arranged” is the right word — like a piece of chamber music. Pure language — poetry, prose, conversation, dialog. The actors move according to the cadence of the language and the emotion of the situation.
I think the best way to describe the play is to say it’s Dr. Seuss meets Hunter S. Thompson. It is absolutely full of itself, contained in a logical framework that is apparent, if not common. The thing has it’s own perspective. It is funny, rebellious, horrible, lucid, drunk, sensuous, sensible, full of life, and full of destruction. It is not dull, or blunted, or timid.
The play is (more or less) staged as a Greek Tragedy with no cast — just the Greek Chorus. There isn’t any plot exactly, but there is a marvelous rhythm to the voice and movement. There is no nonsense to this play. As uncommon as it is, it has a commonness that can be amusing, insofar as we can all recognize the marvelous difficulty in finding the “I” in ourselves amidst all the streams of “I” that actually exist. We’ve all been “there”, wherever that might “be.”
I confess I approach plays like this with a great deal of trepidation. In high school I read The Bell Jar, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and Naked Lunch. I didn’t find them fun to read. To the extent they reveal what the authors actually went through, they are autobiographical, and I had the feeling I was being told there are, actually and truly, monsters under the bed, and evil in the closet.
And so we have Anne Sexton, a talented author and poet, who for some reason could not enjoy life enough to live it past the age of 47. But “My Own Stranger” isn’t exactly morose, there aren’t really any monsters. A real woman, with real pain. And some hope. There is quite a bit of hope in Sexton’s words. Perhaps not enough for her.
Suicide is a harsh choice. I’ve known several people who took their own lives; I think some of them were angry, and some had reached the point where they would never be in good health.
So listening to Sexton’s words, hearing her persona brought to life by three talented women, and concluding Sexton was capable of great insight, one can’t help but ask why she chose to end her life. How is it she was such a stranger to herself?
My sense of it is this: that there are only two great themes in all of Western Culture — love and redemption. Unfortunately for Sexton, she had not enough of either. She couldn’t get away from her compulsivity, her habit of seeing nostrils as caves with air rushing in and out, the sound of her own mind, the need to play out the imp of the perverse. And there was no amount of solace from friends and family, no amount of faith that life could have a useful meaning. No redemption.
And understanding that is what theater allows us to do. Of course each of us comes to interpret the story through our own filter, which is to say we write our own story as we go.