|Photo by Clare Hawley|
JOHN, is a play by American writer, Annie Baker. It is the third play by Ms Baker that the Outhouse Theatre Co have produced for Sydney audiences. THE ALIENS and THE FLICK. All three Directed by Craig Baldwin. All three of them have been extremely rewarding nights in the theatre. Ms Baker becomes more interesting and more daring with each play. JOHN takes you somewhere beautiful and is gentle in taking you there.
JOHN, is, in literal length, a three-hour fifteen-minute experience (with two short intervals). Set in the living space and breakfast room of a Bed and Breakfast (B&B) accommodation in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, convenient to the haunting sites of the battle-fields of the American Civil War. Two customers, Jenny Chung (Shuang Hu) and Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (James Bell) girl-friend, boyfriend, arrive late one winter's night during the Christmas season, to be welcomed by Mertis Katherine Graven (Belinda Giblin), the owner and devoted hostess.
The bedrooms are named after notable figures of the bloody Gettysburg collision and are situated upstairs. Eric finds that he is not in the room that he had booked because of a leak - he is not happy about the unexpected change - it is a curious moment of whiny petulance, of expressed dissatisfaction that, on reflection, later, is a signal to his persona, that, we will gather is not satisfied with much. It is, we discover, the worm in the bud, the core of his relationship with Jenny. It is, evidentially, a deteriorating relationship that has an unseen character, a friend of Jenny's, John, floating in the ether (ethereal) background of their tensions, that materialises, climatically, as a force of overwhelming destruction, as Eric pursues with mounting hostility, in the closing act of the play, access to a mobile telephone belonging to Jenny.
Oddly, Mertis' first husband was also called John, he seems to have been a force for good. Her second husband, George is, we think, living in the back-of-house, ill and dying - we never meet him, just hear of him - he could be just an empathetic projection of imaginative invention for the grieving Mertis - we never get to know. George haunts the back rooms and our curious perceptions.
There are lots of things that we don't get to know. There are lots of things that are raised over the course of the play to which no answers are given. Ms Baker is more interested in giving us connections and contemplations not just narrative 'facts'. She is interested in engaging you into inventing and endowing the possible layers of the life - lives - in the play with your own primary knowledge and developed secondary resources. We, the audience, become creative agents, in support of the actors who are giving us JOHN.
The fourth character of the play is Genevieve Marduk (Maggie Blinco) a friend of Mertis, who visits every now and then for the comfort of the friendship that Mertis can give her. Genevieve is blind. One demonstrable way of their friendship is that Mertis reads to her - a spiritual sustenance. She also supplies earthly sustenance with cookies. Genevieve is sightless but not blind - rather like a kind of Greek Seer. Tiresias-like. She tells us of visions of her dead husband and of his vengeful actions that are as vivid as you could wish them. Dark images of invasive insects that invade her head and body, devour and turn her mad, she claims. Genevieve has an entrance, a gateway, to a vivid metaphysical world. Blind in the real world but vividly sighted in the metaphysical dimension.
In Mertis' house, meticulously Designed by Set and Costume Designer Jeremy Allen (assisted by Veronique Benett, who also is the Lighting Designer) - even to an overhanging ceiling - stuffed with the detritus of spooky collections of 'dolls' and other paraphernalia perched on every possible surface that all seem to stare (glare) at us, one is, subtly, discomforted.
Sitting in the theatre one may recollect the horror films of CHUCKY - who was a serial killer whose spirit inhabits a "Good Guy" doll and continuously tries to transfer his soul to a human ( as does Genevieve's husband?), for in Mertis' house it is the "Samantha Doll" (1986) sitting on a shelf, unavoidable to one's sight as one ascends the stairs, that features in the memory of Jenny and haunts her with a particular dread - and is used as a tool by Eric who threatens 'abuse' to the Doll unless he is given her iPhone, unlocked - be careful for what you wish for!
Featured above this is a portrait of a widow from the days of the Civil War. This house, situated near the bloodiest battle field of the Civil war, with 57,225 casualties over the three day fight, maybe haunted. This battlefield was the Turning Point on which this nation's fortunes were drawn. This B&B maybe the Turning Point for these two adults: the maybe-boyfriend/girlfriend in the existing world. Genevieve, quietly, believes so and silently witnesses the disaster. Mertis thinks maybe so, too. They both know that the haunting is important. One of them believes that the haunting may possibly be positive. In a reverie with Jenny, Mertis talks of the metaphysical soul of the human animal, of the other animals, of plants and, even, she provokes, of the soul in the picture frame around the widow's portrait.
When was the last time a play, a night in the theatre, offered that kind of provocation to contemplate, take home, change you?
This is a 'weird' play. One feels the creep of Henry James and his perceptions of spiritual dimension: THE TURN OF THE SCREW, or, more nakedly, John Clayton's film adaptation, THE INNOCENTS (1961), with Deborah Kerr. JOHN, grew, for me, as the evening passed, into a supernatural psychological thriller - the shivers of the insidious naturalism of ROSEMARY'S BABY suggestive ascetic (1968 - Roman Polanski) chimed into my consciousness. The ultra naturalistic style entwined in the existential metaphysics of the gifted.
For, like the 2016 film by Olivier Assayas, PERSONAL SHOPPER, starring Kristen Stewart as Maureen, who is embedded in the details of a modern 'frozen' world: fashion, jewellery, travel, computer laptops and iPhone - recognisable gadgets of little emotional consequence, Maureen is, also, passionately enmeshed in the belief and pursuit of proof that her dead brother, Lewis, is attempting to contact her from the other world - from the spiritual realm. Similarly, Annie Baker presents to us, also, a beautifully articulated real world - it is presented in ultra-naturalistic detail that when it is engaged by the actors is something more than theatrical storytelling but is a kind of glacial documentary, (at a daringly boring reality time pace). We see authentic human beings, doing very ordinary things, that are surrounded by worlds greater than what they know, for certain.
Mertis, however, is in touch with those layers of perception and simply articulates the possibility. Annie Baker with her play JOHN is urging us to put away your wifi 'gadgets' and just be, to see what is there - to extend the walls of our perception. As in Christopher Nolan's 2010, INCEPTION, find what is really there? It is astonishing.
Mr Baldwin as coaxed his actors into trusting their writer, and although there were nervous tentative moments on the Opening Night, it seemed the actors sensed the intrigued absorption of their audience as the play evolved and began to trust, and honoured, without fear of boring us, the writing and the intention of Ms Baker. The modern robo-humans Eric and Jenny collide on this battle field in this B&B at Gettysburg, and there are revealed dire consequences to their relationship, blindly overseered by Genevieve, and, especially, the wonderful Mertis, each suspended, on the rims of the ethereal world of the awakening consciousness that every human animal can have if awoken.
Now, Thornton Wilder is another author, that with his plays, particularly: OUR TOWN (1938), THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH (1942) and almost any of his wonderful novels: THE BRIDGE OF SAINT LOUIS REY (1927), for instance, has dared to treat his audience's with spiritual possibility in the contemporary world and JOHN, the other night, transported me to that miraculous level of pursuing that gate way to sensitivity.
I recommend JOHN and its layers, levels, possibilities, that if you attend with your eyes truly open, perception of your world beyond the everyday activities may be able to be made possible. Tall order but worth the time to try. Put down that social media eater of your time and just relax, spare the time and permit perception beyond your venal needs. The actors, especially, Ms Blinco and Giblin are rewarding. Mr Bell is so very good that I could not decide whether it was the character or the actor I was responding to with such hostility! Whilst Ms Hu was a gently winning performer for whom I hoped her John was going to be rescuer.
JOHN, is worth seeing.