nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 25, 2006
After I left John Jahnke's arresting production of Susan Sontag's playlet A Parisifal, and I let its evocative imagery waft through my subconscious for a while, it occurred to me that lines from two poems were popping into my mind. One is Auden's, from "September 1, 1939": "We must love one another or die." The other is Donne's: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."
And so, whether or not Jahnke or the late Miss Sontag intended me to, where I found myself after this extraordinary work of theatre was pondering mortality and our relationship to it. In A Parsifal—Sontag's oblique paean to the myth and the opera—a young man kills a beautiful swan by accident and then witnesses the ravaged decline of an ailing King (on a gurney, getting hooked up to an IV drip); later, he sees his sometime lover Kundry die in much the same undignified way (both scenes, in their jarring hospital-white coldness, bring to mind the modern-day plagues, especially AIDS, which may be how, via Larry Kramer, I got to Auden).
The question is not whether the hero Parisfal is responsible for the deaths, but rather whether he is or should be moved by them. In the end I thought he was, or maybe it was just that I was. We can hope for a timeless hero, here armed with an Uzi instead of a bow and arrow or mace, to be humbled and touched by death, even when death is his business.
Sontag wrote A Parsifal in 1990, and yet the script feels particularly resonant at this particular moment. Parsifal says, "I'm not good at talking" and later "I read as little as possible. I trust what I feel," which made me spontaneously start mapping his character to that of our current President; it's not a perfect fit (couldn't be), but I think there's some validity to the notion that this mythic finder of the Holy Grail is supposed to be learning lessons here possibly lost on some of our own current political leaders.
The play is very short—the script runs to just six pages—and Jahnke's production, about an hour all told, makes it not just longer but larger. Each movement seems magnified, the better for us to look at it. The brief tale plays out in a stark white space, defined mostly by levels that ascend from front to back of the stage, with holding areas to each side, some enclosed by translucent netting. Jahnke's design team—set designer Michael Casselli, lighting designer Shaun Fillion, costume designers Ramona Ponce, Pilar Limosner, and Hilary Moore, and sound designer Kristin Worrall—do stunning work in synch with the director's pristine and precise vision.
The staging is filled with memorably striking effects: Black-Eyed Susan as the Ostrich, mother-figure to Parsifal, wears downy feathers and furry slippers and occasionally sits on a broad white swing. Okwui Okpokwasili as Kundry, Parsifal's temptress and (perhaps) beloved, progresses from savage sprite to inner-city AIDS ward patient, climaxing her deeply-felt performance with a gorgeous mournful rendition of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Gardiner Comfort enters as the newborn Parisfal completely naked except for his machine gun, disarmingly innocent and not a whit erotic or prurient. The chorus of knights are young men toting Uzis, and in a particularly moving sequence they pass the "word" down from their hero, which turns out to be a shockingly tender touch or kiss—Auden's message, again.
It's theatre that makes us think about what we're seeing—Jahnke's work provokes contemplation and analysis despite the often opaque and/or perversely indistinct text. It is also singularly beautiful, not a bad end at all for a piece as abstract as this.