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A new show asks the biggest questions of all
So far, it's been a good year for deep thinking in public places. At the end of January—the same night people were gathering at airports across the country to protest the Muslim ban—a line stretched out the door of the Brooklyn Library's main branch. Queued all the way to Eastern Parkway, people were waiting to attend "A Night of Philosophy and Ideas," a 12-hour, overnight bonanza of philosophical debate. The library was packed, and when attendees weren't checking their phones for protest updates, they seemed eager to exchange their own perspectives on the lofty subjects at hand.
Later on, succumbing to late-night hunger but still unwilling to stop talking, a group of friends and I found ourselves discoursing at a local diner. It was the kind of late-night outing that felt familiar, reminding me of high school and college, but also a bit foreign in the context of my so-called "adult" life.
The playwright Jerry Lieblich understands this sense of dissonance. "Asking 'what is the meaning of life' or 'what makes a good life' is embarrassing," he says. "It's something 14 year-olds do, and we are socialized to stop asking after these questions after we graduate from college."
And yet, like so many of the people at the library last month, he can't stop himself from pondering. That's why Lieblich and the director Stefanie Horowitz, who together lead the troupe Tiny Little Band, created their latest show, Your Hair Looked Great. Running through February 25 at Abrons Arts Center, the piece endeavors to explore fundamental life questions through motivational speeches, ad speak, and myth.
Much like a philosophical argument which can flip and flop and build on itself while tearing down what came before it, Your Hair Looked Great is structured like a kind of anxiety spiral. "The show keeps proposing systems for how it will organize itself and people keep doing it but then failing," Lieblich says. At first we hear a motivational speech. Then we experience a monologue from another actor about the motivational speaker's difficult life. But then that falls away to another character's bad attitude, which steamrolls everything before it.
During previous workshops of the material, Tiny Little Band tried to apply a rule to organize scenes. "But it would fall apart," Lieblich says. "We needed something intuitive because when we tried to apply a single system to the play, it didn't work."
Horowitz adds, "Instead of intellectual sense, the show's structure makes emotional sense. It's a feeling structure and a feeling-through-a-thought process. Our shows often ask: How do we take these think-y processes and turn them into a feeling landscape for the audience? Our goal is for the audience to have a think-y, feely process of their own."
Audiences are invited into this meditative space by characters who keep shifting tactics as they talk. A rousing oration, for instance, might morph into a collection of catchphrases. "Everybody in the show is trying to articulate their lives and thoughts and feelings, and the only language they have is the language of cliché," says Lieblich.
He continues, "One of the stranger things about living at this moment is how you can watch a commercial and cry at it and maybe have a really necessary emotional catharsis, but you know the commercial is selling you something. And the fact that it's selling you something poisons it, but it doesn't mean that the catharsis isn't real."
Lieblich and Horowitz are less interested in offering catharsis than they are in getting us into that meditative space. To wit, near the end of the show, a character speaks about the minutiae of closet organizing before a group of actors succumbs to primal screams.
"At first we wanted to empower audiences," says Lieblich, referring to end of the show. "But the strange thing about empowerment is that if I give you something that empowers you, it doesn't last. It's something I gave you."
"We realized that play cannot have the answer," says Horowitz.
Indeed enlightenment must come from within.
"The only way we can truthfully articulate this is beyond language, through the frailty of the body. There is something very truthful about the physicality of that," says Lieblich.
When I saw the show, the screams made me think of one of Wittgenstein's famous quotes: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." I suppose screams also fill the void.
Eliza Bent is a writer and performer who frequently contributes to TDF Stages.
Photo by Marcus Middleton. Pictured: Alex Hanna and Janice Amaya.
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