"I like that frisson between what's being said and what I'm making of it."
The everyday folks in Ethan Lipton's sci-fi show
How would your pets feel if you pulled up stakes and moved them to a new town? How would they feel if you moved them to a new planet?
If Ethan Lipton is right, then their reactions would be pretty much the same in both cases. That's one of the conceits of his new show, The Outer Space: No matter how far we run, we can't get away from the basic facts of life.
So in other words, cats will scratch up the furniture, no matter where they are. People will spread gossip, drink to calm down, and use household repairs to avoid bigger problems.
That's certainly true of the people in Lipton's show, which is currently running in Joe's Pub at the Public Theater.
Standing at a microphone and backed by a three-person band, he plays a narrator telling the story of a woman who desperately needs a change of pace. Eventually, she convinces her husband to move to a space colony near the planet Mercury, but the same old issues follow them across the solar system.
And sure, maybe a "real" space colony wouldn't involve an eccentric next door neighbor or a ship with an organic market, but that's not the point. "I'm not doing it because I'm interested in the actual mechanics of living in space," Lipton says. "I'm doing it because I'm interested in life as we know it. I want to lift it and separate it and be able to have an imaginative experience."
The show's songs stoke our imaginations, too. Take the question of pets: At one point the narrator says, "Here’s how the two dogs feel about trading in life on a fourth-floor walkup for a great big spaceship with plenty of room to roam." And just when you think he's going to bark, the band plays a jaunty, wordless tune that lets us picture two golden retrievers running wild.
Well, this writer imagined golden retrievers anyway. You might picture schnauzers or poodles or Scooby- and Scrappy-Doo. In fact, Lipton explicitly wants his audience to fill in some of the blanks for themselves.
"My job is to give just enough information – and arrange it in just such a way – for people to have an active experience," he says. "That's one of the things that I like as an audience member myself. I like to be leaning in and doing work. It makes it feel like a multi-dimensional experience to me. I like that frisson between what's being said and what I'm making of it."
Plus, when Lipton lets us work things out for ourselves, we can also decide how we feel about the story. That's meaningful in The Outer Space, since depending on how you respond to the fundamental sameness of human behavior, the show can be hilarious, heartbreaking, or inspiring. Or it can be a mixture of all that and more.
In one scene, for instance, the husband begrudgingly decides to do yoga. This prompts a song about all the things in life that ARE yoga-esque ("Working on a ship, that's yoga. Going on a trip, that's yoga. Loosening your grip, that's yoga") and all the things that AREN'T ("Laugh when someone cries, not yoga. Steal your buddy's fries, not yoga.")
From one perspective, this is a goofy little ditty, but from another it's a catalogue of behaviors that shape our moral identities. As Lipton says, "It's all of those funny, ironic things, but it's also reminding you of just being present with all these things. For me, that's all stuff that embodies yoga – the need to be physically present and mentally present – but in the context of the show, the narrator is singing that entire song because he doesn't want to do actual yoga. So it's all of that."
That might sound contradictory, but contradictions can be honest. "I like things to be ironic and sincere at the same time," Lipton says. "There's this idea that irony is anathema to earnestness, but that's not my experience in life. It's my experience that irony and earnestness are five seconds apart."
Follow TDF Stages editor Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo (L to R): Vito Dieterle, Ethan Lipton, and Ian M. Riggs.
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