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The New York Neo-Futurists find the power in O'Neill's stage directions
What do actors have to do to make us feel something? Do they need to cry? Do they need to speak? Do they even need to make expressions? Or can the simplest gestures, the most benign movements, pierce something inside us?
Those questions simmer beneath The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 2, the latest installment of the New York Neo-Futurists' ambitious series, which begins performances on Thursday at Theater for the New City.
And yes, the company will only enact the stage directions from early O'Neill's plays like The Sniper and Recklessness, not the dialogue. Crucially, though, they won't perform like they're in a naturalistic drama. We might hear a narrator read the cues and watch the actors embody them, but we'll never think we're at a "typical" show.
For one thing, the New York Neo-Futurists don't work that way. They reject the idea of acting as "pretending." When they're on stage, they always acknowledge that they're who they are and where they are. No one tries to convince us they're "actually" a German duchess or a 19th-century doctor.
So with two artifices stripped away---both O'Neill's dialogue and the pretense of becoming a fictional character---we're left with the raw basics of the scripts. The company must decide how to bring those pieces to life.
"It's addicting," says Christopher Loar, a Neo-Futurist who also wrote and directed this production. "Every rehearsal was like an act of mystery. It was thrilling to get in the room and say, 'I don't know if this is going to work, but we'll try.'"
But that's not to say the show lacks discipline. In fact, the company tries to honor O'Neill's strict instructions. "The particular plays have a list of commands that very much tell a person how to move, think, and feel from the outside in," Loar says. "They're given a lot of commands to take physical attitudes with their bodies and faces."
The surprise is what happens when the actors perform those commands without putting on a traditional character.
For instance, a character in The Sniper named Rougon loses his son in World War I. "There are stage directions that have him cover his face with his hands, rock back and forth, and just moan softly," Loar says. "And something we do a lot is have people sustain their stage directions until they get something else. So the actor is doing that and doing that, and through that simple action, he ends up channeling something genuine in himself."
In other words, just going through the motions of deep feeling, without even trying to "become" Rougon, can create a visceral experience.
In another section, the stage directions say a character sobs while his shoulders shake. Loar says, "One choice that we have is for him not to sob---because that would be pretending---but just to shake his shoulders. And through sustaining that, the actor has genuine emotions."
Loar feels the audience can experience something powerful just by watching these gestures. "There's narration that's emotional, so you're being told a sad story," he says. "You watch the performers just do stuff with their bodies, but their faces remain neutral. It's ultimately for me---and I think for other people---more resonant and more powerful to watch."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor