A few years ago, during a one-man show in Belvoir’s intimate Downstairs Theatre in Sydney, the performer abruptly left the performance space, clambered over the stairs to the tech booth, hijacked the control desk and switched on the house lights, hauling the audience out of the comfortable darkness and into the scorching light.
It happened the same way almost every night for three weeks, because it was written that way. The setting of the play Thom Pain (based on nothing)is “a theatre”, and it isn’t really a one-man show, since the audience is a character – it even says as much in the dramatis personae of the script (“male, female, various ages”).
The American playwright Will Eno has a habit of reminding audiences that they’re in a theatre. In an Eno play, any mention of what day it is will be, as per Eno’s instructions, “Whatever day it presently is.” A character might point out the building’s fire exits (Middletown), or will suddenly announce, “I’m sick of the story. I’m sick of you. Next scene. It’s got flowers in it” (The Flu Season). At various times, Thom Pain singles out an audience member to tell them, “You’re lovely” or “I hope you’re paying attention” or, as if in passing, “I have that same shirt.” At the end of Gnit, which mostly resists direct address, the hero finally turns to the audience to say, “I hate you.”
In contrast to the diabolically in-control Thom Pain – personified with mortician iciness by Luke Mullins in the Arts Radar production at Belvoir in 2009 – Eno in person exudes human warmth. The New York Times gleefully reported his being “flustered into incoherence” in interview. His sentences are prone to false starts, followed by pensive silences. At one point, in the bustling Brooklyn cafe where we meet, he spectacularly topples a large cappuccino. “That’s the most coffee I’ve ever spilled in my life,” he says.
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