The Arthropologist

Why I love Will Eno and you should too: A playwright to get freaky with

Why I love Will Eno and you should too: A playwright to get freaky with

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Mikelle Johnson and Erik Hellman in "Oh, the Humanity" Photo by Bruce Bennett
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Philip Lehl and Erik Hellman in "Oh, the Humanity" Photo by Bruce Bennett
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Erik Hellman in "Oh, the Humanity" Photo by Bruce Bennett
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Mikelle Johnson and Erik Hellman in "Oh, the Humanity and Other Exclamations" at Stages Repertory Theatre through Feb. 20 Photo by Bruce Bennett
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I fell hard and fast for Will Eno's work. Something about the energy of his sentences, the awkward spaces between words, the brain aches from following the swerve of his prose, the beckoning present in what remains unsaid yet inferred, the mid-thought switches derailing my expectations and the blazing honesty that's nearly too bright to stare straight at with your eyes wide open. All of that. 

I credit the Nova Arts Production of his one-man show, Thom Pain (based on nothing), for turning me into an Eno freak, and Mildred's Umbrella's production of The Flu Season for pushing me off the cliff. For a while there, it seemed I found a way to mention an Eno play was either coming or going every time I wrote in this space. Friends accused me of winding most conversations down to, "Have you seen The Flu Season?" 

Houston is in the midst of another Eno fever, with Oh, the Humanity and other exclamations , which runs through Feb. 20 at Stages Repertory Theatre. I've been once, but it's not enough for a heavy user. 

I'm not the only member of this club, Eno has been hailed as a rivetingly original voice in contemporary theater. When you listen to writers from The New York Times, to closer to home in Houston Arts Week, trying to come to grips with what happened in the dark, they suffer from the same word-induced euphoria. I've been there myself.

We just keep spouting, circling some kind of mysterious epiphany that leaked out during the play, not unlike what happens to Eno's characters all the time. There's no actually getting to the bottom of what went down, just a kind of standing on the edge of an event horizon of something that shattered us enough to give it a whopping and oftentimes, blathering try. Usually they end with a command to go. So, consider yourself summoned to this play.

Alex Harvey, director of Oh, the Humanity, feels my pain. "The magic of Will is that he's preoccupied with that inexpressible mystery at the center of our existence," says Harvey, who has directed at Stages and the Alley Theatre. "He taps into that poetic, fractured expression."

Harvey rants on about the self consciousness of any Eno character: "They are aware that they are being watched. It's like being under an electron microscope, yet they have an urge to be heard."

I see what Harvey is saying but experience it a different way. (Blame the dance mind.) Eno's characters fall into truth folds, just lurking in the space-language continuum, where they can't help but confess a level of honestly that whacks us across the frontal cortex in a way that feels new and fresh. Harvey and I agree, that none of us ever get there entirely, but there is a sublime pleasure in the trying.

"Almost is good enough," Harvey adds. "We can't really get to it, but that incompleteness is a kind of truth."

Oh, the Humanity is a collection for five short plays that together make an evening, yet there's no need for them to relate to each other. It's more symphonic, like movements. Much about Eno is musical. I suspect he played French horn.

In Behold The Coach, In a Blazer, Uninsured we meet a losing coach at the end of the season. Texans will relate. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rain brings us into the room where two single people are making matching-making videos. It could single-handedly kill that industry. Imagine the person who first speaks to the public after an airline disaster and you have Enter The Spokeswoman, Gently.

Harvey sees The Bully Composition, where two photographers try to recreate a famous photograph of soldiers from the Spanish War using the audience, as a kind of clown act relief piece. The final play, Oh, The Humanity features a couple on their way to a funeral or a christening who come to the realization that they are sitting in chairs, not a car. They are joined by a character called "The Beauty of Things," evoking a humility, approaching a sweetness, leaving us on the calm side of the void.

Did I mention that much of this is hilarious? Although, expect to catch yourself laughing with nervousness added to the giggle mix.

The piece is poignantly realized by a trio of actors, Erik Hellman, Mikelle Johnson and Philip Lehl, all of whom Harvey worked with in Mr. Marmalade, also at Stages.

"I have a personal connection to all three on stage and off," he admits.

Each possess that sense of such urgency that when a moment reveals itself, we fall into the truth void right behind them. Kirk Markley's modular set lets the play breath, offering what Harvey refers to as a "resting architecture." Tim Thomson's sound and video design further ventilates. Jeremy Choate gives us just enough light to see in dark, which is exactly what Eno is suggesting we do.

According to Harvey, Eno's sense of theater as a live, performed event is breathtakingly distinct.

"We are growing old together in the dark," he says. "I get that. It's hard not to get pulled in. The point blank act of telling cracks open our listening. We seem necessary. To quote Thom Pain's soliloquy, 'Let it be enough.' "