A man stands in front of the army tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests. A woman helps topple a dictator, with surprising results. A man tries to rescue a child in a plane crash. Another man shoots and kills a group of children, in what he considers – just as much as the other actions — an act of heroism.
These are the stories that three actors tell, in an unorthodox and largely self-defeating way, in “There Has Possibly Been An Incident,” an experimental theater piece written by Chris Thorpe presented as part of the New York Fringe Festival by Mind The Gap Theatre, which describes itself as “NYC’s premiere company for presenting and developing the best new plays from all over the UK.”
The stories in Thorpe’s 2013 piece are presented in three monologues and six dialogues, broken up and interspersed, followed by a final speech recited by all three actors in unison.
The story that most reflects the title also feels to me the most immediately timely, given the sudden shift of Americans’ views of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from reformer to possible murderer. Ruth Kavanaugh as an unnamed character, in fits and starts, tells us how she was part of the revolutionary movement. But now there was an “incident” – actually an act of brutality for which she is responsible but has kept her involvement secret from the public, and which she doesn’t reveal in any detail to the audience until near the end. It makes her indistinguishable from the ruler she more or less replaced, including in her lies (which she may herself believe): “There’s another crowd below. I need to go and explain to them, that despite this Incident. This regrettable Incident. That nothing has changed. We’re still. We’re heading in the right direction.”
C.K. Allen is briefly the man at Tiananmen Square, but more often a witness, given to lengthy rumination about the cosmic and atomic nature of a man “clicked into nameless immortality by a camera shutter on a hotel balcony half a mile away.”
David J. Goldberg’s monologue is about the plane crash, but he is also the central figure in the dialogues, in which he is a different character, interrogated about his massacre of the children attending a Parliamentary Youth Meeting. He killed them to bring attention to his cause, which is to save Europe from being killed off by multiculturalism. “I didn’t kill those children. Their choices, and the choices of their parents and their leaders, meant they were effectively dead already. All I did was give their deaths a chance of meaning something.”
The program informs us that the stories are “loosely based on actual events,” and one can guess the sources, though they are never named. The words “Tiananmen Square” or even “China” are never mentioned. The chilling child-killer resembles Anders Breivik, who in 2011 killed 77 people in a Norwegian summer camp. The toppling of a totalitarian regime suggests Romania, but it frankly could be any number of countries in Eastern Europe and many nations involved in the Arab Spring.
Far more problematic than the avoidance of specific references, is Thorpe’s deliberately dilatory storytelling. My summary of the stories above almost counts as a spoiler, since during the performance they take forever to come into focus. Some of what the characters are saying while we’re kept in the dark is intriguing, even when we don’t quite know what they’re talking about, e.g.:
“Back then, we thought we were poets. Among other things. We thought we were poets. It’s been suggested that because we were poets, or thought we were poets, we didn’t have a plan. And we used to say, when that was suggested, what is it about poetry that you think doesn’t involve structure and strategy? Why is it such a ridiculous idea to structure a country the way you’d write a poem? That shut people up for a while.”
But much of the language itself represents a kind of poem, repetitive and rhythmic but without clear meaning.
When the characters finally reveal what’s going on, there is something of a payoff – the twists in the tales themselves, but also the accompanying reflections, especially on the complexity of heroism. But I can’t help thinking this would work better as written text, when the reader sets the pace.
The slow unfolding is exacerbated by the mannered presentation that Thorpe has encouraged directors to execute, and that Mind The Gap director Paula D’Alessandris does to a fault. The actors each read aloud from their own pile of loose papers, sitting down in folding chairs side by side in front of a nondescript white backdrop. When someone finished reading a page, all three placed that page on the floor – which had the effect on me of trying to calculate how much time remained before all the pages were on the floor. Occasionally, all three paused, stood and picked up their coffee cups for some synchronized sipping, then sat back down.
I’m sure the spare staged reading, which amounted to sensory deprivation, had some higher purpose and stunning symbolism that passed me by. The program quotes Thorpe as saying “I wrote There Has Possibly Been An Incident in an effort not to write a play.” I don’t think he completely succeeded in his odd goal; it is a play, and thought-provoking at that. But even at just 80 minutes, “There Has Possibly Been An Incident” requires what I consider an heroic level of patience.
There are four more performances of “There Has Possibly Been An Incident” at the FringeNYC. (Meet under the red flag at Fringe Hub) Friday October 19 at 7:15 p.m., Saturday October 20 at 2:45 pm, Sunday October 21 at 6:30 p.m., and Monday October 22 at 7:15 p.m.