The Wedding of Berit Johnson & Ian W. Hill: A Theatre Study by Ian W. Hill & Berit Johnson
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
June 19, 2010
You reach a certain age and you begin to go to lots of weddings. You may even have one yourself, as I did almost a year ago. Inevitably, each wedding attempts to answer two questions: Who are these people and why are they getting married? I was expecting The Wedding of Berit Johnson & Ian W. Hill to be somewhat different. Hill, playing himself (of course), even explains toward the beginning of the "ceremony" that he and Johnson, also playing herself (of course), are trying to subvert the form. It is, he says, both a piece of theatre and a wedding. I was surprised to find then that their wedding, while unforgettable, is hardly subversive. With one exception. Rather than being a marriage of two, theirs is a marriage of three. More on that later.
The structure and components of the piece even somewhat mimic that of a conventional wedding. We begin with the wedding party, not processing but performing an understated dance, the men and women circling each other slowly. Instead of J. Crew, they wear (thanks to Karen Flood's expert design) variations on wedding wear from different eras and classes. These range from an '80s cocaine-chic silver suit to '20s flapper-wear to '50s roller-derby denim and emphasize the timelessness of the event about to begin. Behind them, Hill's silhouette appears on a screen amid flashes of multi-colored lights. There are readings, albeit tongue-in-cheek recitations of passages from the Guide for Brides. And there is a whole lot of musical underscoring, including Johnson's Scandinavian mother on the accordion. One thing you may notice missing, however, is the bride. Decked out in a pristine all-white tailcoat/top-hat ensemble, the groom is the focus of the day. He tracks their relationship—complete with photos and dramatized reenactments—while Johnson is tucked away in the tech booth. Her disembodied voice constantly interjects via microphone. Hill's goal throughout the wedding, in fact, is to convince Johnson to leave the booth, come onstage, and participate—both in the piece and in her own wedding. I won't reveal whether she does or not, but her decision results in a quiet, still moment that is the most intimate and affecting of the evening.
Johnson's interjections, however, raise some interesting questions. She refuses to be called a "bride," rejects almost every suggestion Hill makes about the content of their wedding, and seems generally disinterested in anything conventional. She is entirely reactionary, making it abundantly clear what she doesn't want but never what she does want. This is complicated by the fact that we're never quite sure how much of what "Berit" and "Ian" are saying is more character than not. Hill protests that he is playing his actual self for the first time rather than a persona named "Ian W. Hill." While he doesn't say it specifically, I assumed the same of "Berit." I suspect neither is entirely true and that there is a good deal of theatrical manipulation going on—which is perfectly reasonable. What's a good piece of theatre—or wedding for that matter—without a little manipulation? Despite this, in the course of their back-and-forth, their dynamic grows into what most weddings only touch on. It takes on the feeling of a marriage—that blending of personalities and thoughts that only comes after (as in this instance) a decade of living in each other's heads.
The same blending begins to happen with the show's dynamic as both a piece of theatre and a wedding. The intertwining of the two illuminate just how similar they are. As any undergraduate theatre major will tell you, weddings are theatre. Hill ties them together with pinpoint accuracy, calling a wedding "a play that non-theatre people get to do." This is true, but The Wedding of... is a wedding that theatre people get to do more than once, which is an argument for catching the show in its final performance this Saturday. The performance I saw—the first one—was filled with a wedding's improvisational energy. When a scene change goes awry, Hill admits that the show had never been fully rehearsed with everyone present. There are some unforeseen technical gaffs. The "Officiant," marvelously droll downtown vaudeville impresario Trav S.D., seems to go off-script at one point, throwing Hill into a fit of laughter. In other words, it felt like a good wedding. Spontaneous, emotional, personal. This is what people love about weddings and about theatre. I hope they're able to preserve that feeling.
Now back to that "marriage of three." The wedding I witnessed was not just between two people, but between those people and their art. Toward the end, Hill delivers two heartfelt monologues, almost equal in tone. One is directed at Johnson in the booth; the other is directed at the audience. Just as he thanks her for coming into his life, he thanks us for allowing him to serve us. Earlier, when he says that this is the only honest love story he's told onstage, we assume he means his relationship with Berit. He does, but he also means with us. In this, Johnson and Hill find the subversion they've been attempting to achieve. Weddings are supposed to be about a couple, but they've made it about art. In theatre, I'm not sure how weddings can get more honest than that.