Thursday, August 25, 2011

FringeNYC 2011: The Town of No One

The Town of No One by Tariq Hamani, presented by Playsmiths at Teatro LATEA as part of this year’s New York Fringe Festival, has been billed as a “surprising black comedy” but, while it may be “black,” there really is nothing comedic about it.  Rather, it is a dark, existentialist, nihilistic work which provides few laughs.  But if it is not funny, it certainly is thought-provoking  and, on that score alone, it is worth seeing.

The play is set in a somewhat phantasmagorical seaside town which boasts no laws, no rules, and no religious nor marital institutions.  Women procreate but don’t necessarily raise their own children nor even know their names: Mother May (Mary Catherine Wilson), the proprietor of the local pub, has borne eleven children but she never sees and can’t even recall the names of ten of them who she handed off at birth to be raised by Felice (Iriemimen Oniha).  The only one of her children who she still maintains contact with is Charlie (Timothy John McDonough) who publishes and hawks a trashy newspaper and drops into her pub where, at his mother’s insistence, he engages in a game of “Tick Tock,” the town’s favorite sport, with Mag (Helen McTernan) the town gravedigger’s spunky daughter.  (The game or sport of Tick Tock consists of two players alternately punching one another until one is physically unable to continue.  When Mag and Charlie play, it is Mag who prevails.)

Residents of the towns neighboring on “the town of no one” are followers of the “Religiobook” and, consistent with its teaching, they ritually toss the bodies of their deceased out to sea, envisioning their souls arriving at a better place in some afterlife.  That may or may not be so, but so far as their physical bodies go, it certainly isn’t: their bodies end up bloated and decomposing, only to be fished out of the sea by the gravedigger, Deadmen (Michael Selkirk) who, with the reluctant assistance of Mag and occasional help from Bub (Ben Newman), buries them in “the town of no one.”

The “town of no one” is thus something of a libertarian dystopia – or, worse yet, a libertarian nightmare.  With no laws and no rules, everyone does as he wishes and communal needs tend to go unanswered.  When the school house burns down, for example, the ineffectual Mayor Monty (Jim Nugent) is reduced to seeking voluntary contributions from the town’s citizens to rebuild it, but to little avail.

Things begin to change, however, when Harold (James Parenti), a runaway from another town, arrives on the scene.  In rapid succession, he and Mag fall in love, he is (possibly) seduced by Felice, and Mayor Monty resigns his post.  Mag assumes the position of mayor, promulgates new regulations for the town for the first time and, armed with a lead pipe, enforces her will on the town’s citizens.

But is the town any better for that?  Deadmen ultimately discloses to Mag that neither he nor she were born in “the town of no one” but that they immigrated there from some other place after Mag’s mother died in childbirth.  It was her mother’s death that made Deadmen realize that the platitudes he had been fed all his life – that if men engaged in productive labor and if women fulfilled their biological destinies by reproducing, all would be well in this world and that, in any case, an even better world awaits us all after death – were all just so much pap and that he and Mag would be better off in a town that had no such nonsensical illusions.

So what point, exactly, is the playwright, Tariq Hanami, trying to make?  Surely it’s not that an anarchic town with no rules and no laws, depicted here so distastefully, is more to be desired than a world in which laws and rules exist.  But equally surely, it’s not that rules and laws imposed by force and a society suffering from religious mystical delusions is preferable to one that is based on rational considerations and individual freedom.   Perhaps Hanami is simply saying “a plague on both your houses” – on both the libertarian dystopia that inevitably would result from a total lack of rules and laws and the totalitarian monstrosity of a state that would inevitably emerge from the forcible imposition of rules and laws on an unwilling citizenry coupled with that society’s facile acceptance of religious platitudes.  Or maybe Hanami is saying that what is really needed is something in between – a compromise suggestive of the big deal that eluded Barack Obama and John Boehner.  In any case, it’s worth thinking about.

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