Panic! Euphoria! Blackout!
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 9, 2010
"This is the way it works."
This phrase—an oft-repeated mantra in Ellen Maddow's new play Panic! Euphoria! Blackout—offers as apt a summary as I can find of what this fascinating piece has to tell us. Maddow, one of the co-founders of the invaluable indie theater troupe The Talking Band, has mashed up the diary of a Jewish businesswoman from the 17th century and her own observations of Wall Street traders of the present day with a variety of artistic/cultural constructs (including the story of Abraham and Isaac) to reflect on the endless cycle of barter and finance that propels our daily world. Panic! Euphoria! Blackout is about the middlemen/women who facilitate transfers of property and wealth but neither define or profit from them: it's about the way meaning (worth) is imposed on muddle by those who benefit from such imposition, and the intrinsic meaninglessness (worthlessness) of much of what such powerful people ultimately do.
Here, from early in the play, is just one of Maddow's remarkable poetic explorations of the "way it works":
A pair of shoes for a loaf of bread
Two sewing needles for a bowl of soup
A bail of hay for a gallon of cider
A bottle of beer for a ride into town
5 brown eggs for 3 cigarettes
12 silver coins for a week of work
A truckload of gravel for a Border Collie
60 goats for a teenage bride
Next year's corn crop for a bar of gold
16 bucks for a sweater from Bangladesh
2,000 dollars for a Kate Spade handbag
A share of joint stock for a ship filled with spices
100,335 yen for a share in the debt of Japan
A campaign contribution for control of the energy grid
Structured investment vehicles for natural catastrophe bonds
An annual bonus for slices of bundles of debt.
In the play, three traders—Silverman, Rubin, and Ruth—alternate between remembering stories about themselves/their people and conducting their business as defined above and elsewhere, always donning some kind of traders' uniform to do so. Their work is part game, part serious madness, part rote routine; their lives away from work feel far away and heading toward emptiness. Maddow has designed her play to be circular, replicating the cycle it models and explores; and also to be full of transformations, so that even as our three heroes handle transactions that will turn dollars into hundreds of dollars (or into handbags, or teenage brides), the world they inhabit is constantly shifting, a table turning into a doorframe into a railroad car. Panic! Euphoria! Blackout dabbles more than a little in magic, as well: financial wizardry and theatrical sleight-of-hand both get their due here.
The play is performed by three remarkable performers, Randolph Curtis Rand, Mary Shultz, and Paul Zimet. (Zimet is also a founder of The Talking Band.) Under the endlessly imaginative but perhaps overly complicated and manic direction of Katie Pearl, this trio manipulates Lenore Doxsee's stark set pieces and Maddow's breathtaking language with skill and rigor. Shultz brings authentic pathos to her portrayal of the woman trader, Ruth; while Rand (as Rubin) impresses particularly with his extraordinary dexterity, juggling objects with the grace of the world's greatest three-card-monte con artist and, later, his own uncooperative body when Rubin is afflicted with "a revolution in the upper cervical 6." Zimet, who also introduces the show as a kind of street busker, exudes bountiful charm and intelligence.
Maddow's play is layered and complex and very deep; it's one I'd want to spend time reading and studying and one that will support many interpretations, as I hope will happen in coming years. Pearl's production, I think, simply scratches its surface. The wisdom and poetry here is quite profound, and tells us much—so much—about the way "it" works.