Menu

Essay

The American Voice: D'Amour Fou

"I think I am feeling another skin just below my real skin. It's been there the whole time." –Mary, in Detroit

Christine and Léa Papin, sisters born six years apart, were described by the few who knew them as extremely quiet and retiring young women; but on the evening of February 2, 1933, they did something unexpected. For seven years, they had worked as live-in maids to the family of Monsieur René Lancelin, who came home that evening to discover his wife and daughter dead, beaten beyond recognition, their eyes gouged out. Upstairs in their garret, the maids were found carefully bathed, in bed, waiting. Upon their confessions and sudden infamy, these two photos of the Papin sisters were printed in the Surrealists' publication Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution:

Papin Sisters

The dramatic transformation these snapshots recorded was exciting to the Surrealists (somewhat prone to excitement already), who saw in them an expression of their manifesto's core tenets: to overthrow an oppressive social order, fueled by rationalism, by unleashing the irrational impulses of the unconscious mind; to debunk prevalent conceptions of reality, choosing instead to pursue the logic of dreams, speaking from the position of irrationality, of madness. In the past few weeks, as I've had the thrilling and often scary pleasure of revisiting the outrageous, far-reaching, ever-surprising collection of Lisa D'Amour's plays to date, my mind returned again and again to the story of the Papin sisters and their passage into a psychological wilderness. It seems to me that the space between these states, the pull from one state to the other, is the terrain where Lisa's work resides.

It's as though there is a membrane, thin but tough, that separates the regimented, socialized reality we accept from the frightening, dangerous, ecstatic wilds that live just on the other side of consciousness, where our dreams take us; and the landscapes and characters that D'amour puts before us on stage are pressed against that membrane, excited and terrified as the passage through it feels increasingly inevitable. The effect, when one takes stock of her body of work so far, is a continual expansion, as tumultuous as it is euphoric, of what our life experience might contain, broadening our range of what is possible. "We don't have a lot of time to think sideways in our daily lives – we're too busy trying to get from point A to point B," D'Amour said recently in an interview with Steppenwolf. "We should be allowed and encouraged to think in circles when we are in the theater, to see what provocative ideas we might stumble across." With an incisive, angular writing voice, she disrupts our sense of what's familiar by allowing us to simultaneously see reality and its many alternatives.

...Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say that, in the theater of Lisa D'Amour, reality is invaded by its many alternatives. (Her catalog of plays is brimming with potent examples that I'd love to jump up and down and point to, but my limited word-count demands I choose only a lovely few.) In 16 Spells To Charm The Beast (2002), a respected and well-off (but somehow incomplete) cosmopolitan housewife becomes suddenly aware that from far across town her every move is being watched by a beast, spying on her through a telescope from the window of his rundown apartment. Wooing her, the beast literally climbs up the side of her building and into her 27th floor apartment. "I am dancing around the edge of a fascinating life," Cyrus realizes in a later play The Cataract (2005), Lisa's staggering portrait of four lives on the edge of the twentieth century. Set in 1883 Minneapolis, just as electric light is about to render the night sky visible, two couples living under the same roof become claustrophobic in the sudden awareness of life's boundaries. "I read in a book," one character says, "that dreams float up from our second self. And that second self actually experiences the things we dream about." A few scenes later, a purple iris grows out of her eye. Dream again merges with reality in The Night Sky (2007), a Playwrights Horizons commission, in which six New Yorkers live parallel lives: in one, each comes up against restrictions and order; in the other, the city has become a forest, each of the characters becoming creatures who dwell there. The forest is the life they do not live, but could and might, just on the other side of this one. "[Lisa's] is a realm of all realms: human, animal, bestial, monstrous," writes Todd London, Artistic Director of New Dramatists. "Or, maybe, it's all one realm: the wild kingdom that lives beside and inside the human."

As the content of her writing grants us passage between worlds, so too does her career itself. In considering her impact as both theater-maker and theater-thinker, to cite only the plays above would be criminally insufficient. As if fueled by the inner expansion of her plays' characters, the shapes and methods of her work seem to stretch continually beyond boundaries or categorization. In one alternate life, she might have a play running in an uptown, off-Broadway house; but simultaneously in another alternate life, she's a teacher and philosopher; and meanwhile, in yet another alternate life, she is literally re-configuring the form of theater in ever-unexpected spaces. "I grew up,''' she recently wrote, "making theater in alleyways in Austin, parking lots in Minneapolis, under bridges in Portland, Oregon, and in movie-palace-turned rave clubs in New Orleans." Most of these site-specific works were created with Katie Pearl, her celebrated collaborator; together they have created at least a dozen memorable, mind-bending experiences. Though the forest of The Night Sky exists within a proscenium arch, How To Build A Forest (2011), her installation at the Kitchen theater downtown, featured a stunning indoor forest made largely of fabric pieces, which was constructed and dismantled before our eyes. And Bird Eye Blue Print (2007), staged in an empty office in NY's financial district, transformed the office "into a mystically-charged alternate reality," according to The Gothamist, "where a hallway could be an optical illusion, and a room covered with lists and hanging light bulbs could approach the sublime."

Like The Cataract, Detroit focuses on two couples whose particular alchemy opens a door to anarchy, to liberation from the rules they have trained themselves to live by. They cling, as if for dear life, to the props and the values they associate with the comfort and familiarity of American-Dream-middle-class life, but—(first) financially and (ultimately) psychologically—they move farther and farther away, reaching toward one monumental night in which the beautiful, horrific nightmare-reality eclipses their consciousness. "Help it's happening," Sharon says. "Just like they said it would happen in our meetings... They said our old life would feel like real life and our new life would feel like a dream. I'm dreaming right now." But, as in all of D'Amour's plays, the dream gives way to new, uncharted freedom. And I'm reminded again of the Papin sisters, specifically of Jean Genet's The Maids (1947), the fantastic play inspired by their story, which concludes with these rapturous words, their passage into madness finally complete: "We are beautiful, joyous, drunk and free."

–Adam Greenfield, Director of New Play Development
July 2012

BACK TO BULLETIN  BACK TO DETROIT