“The Invention of Tragedy,” a 70-minute excursion into a puzzling world of word play, cat ears, and synchronized neon footwear, is the third of the five plays in the Mac Wellman festival at The Flea. What I like best about it is the title. This would not be the work I would personally choose as the ideal introduction for a first-time Wellman watcher. Yet there are three ways of looking at “The Invention of Tragedy” that offer some satisfactions – as a political parable, as a metaphor for Western theater, or as entertaining nonsense full of such surface pleasures as colorful design, pleasing music and an appealing cast.
Only the third way of looking at the play is easily accessible from the get-go. We are greeted by eleven young women dressed in the vaguely medieval green and white robes of a chorus, collectively singing and reciting multiple verses laced with Joycean tongue twisters — by which I mean much of it is indecipherable but undoubtedly clever. There are a lot of references to cats, and chopping off cats’ tails, and words that use cat in them, such as catastrophe and cataclysm.
Eventually, two characters break out from the chorus. One (Drita Kabashi) is called the Answerer, and is also a cat, or fancies herself one; the other (Susan Ly) is called the Enforcer, and is also a hare.
The Answerer attempts an announcement: “I am her to er here to pronounce and enounce and denounce and renounce a….” She finally gets the right words out: “I mean I am here to announce and PROCLAIM a departure of all cats.”
This is where (for those who choose to see it) the parable and metaphor begin to kick in.
To understand “The Invention of Tragedy” as a political parable, it helps to know that Wellman wrote the play in 2004, a year after the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq, launching the Iraq War. It helps even more to read the program (available online) which describes the play as “Wellman’s examination of the post-9/11 world and America’s general and genial acceptance of the Iraq war.”
This will be less evident to most audience members (ok, to me) than the ways in which the play offers a metaphor for the creation of Western theater. The title is a clue. The Enforcer objects when the Answerer first speaks out as an individual. “A chorus must speak with one voice,” the Enforcer says – and by forthrightly opposing the Answerer for being an individualist, she is herself asserting her individualism….and creating conflict… the essence of drama.
Later, as the hare, she says: “The tragedy in all this is that when we fall out of the all, all we are is an each, even if a peach of an each….We were all the same in the chorus. We are not all the same out there, out here in the open air.”
The Flea is billing its production of “The Invention of Tragedy” as a “world premiere,” which is a contrast to the first two plays in the festival, which were first staged three decades ago and have been revived many times and in many places since then. It is surely telling that this is the first full production of a play that has existed as a published script for more than a decade. The script is certainly clearer when read than staged.
But clarity has never been one of Mac Wellman’s priorities, and director Meghan Finn’s flashy production encourages us to worry less about understanding “The Invention of Tragedy.” It’s a show they ‘re betting that even your pet can enjoy; on September 29th, they’re inviting theatergoers to bring along your dogs.
The Invention of Tragedy
Written by Mac Wellman
Directed by Meghan Finn
Scenic design by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader, costume design by Alice Tavener , lighting design by Brian Aldous , sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor, composed by Michael Cassedy, choreographed by Chanon Judson
Cast: Sophia Aranda, Renee Harrison, Drita Kabashi as Answerer, Mirra Kardonne, Macy Lanceta, Susan Ly as Enforcer/Hare, Alice Marcondes, Madelyn Rose Robinson, Ana Semedo, Sarah Alice Shull as Narrator, Zoe Zimin
Running time: 70 minutes
Tickets: $17 to $102
The Invention of Tragedy runs through October 14, 2019