Cutting Ball’s `Pain’ hurts so good
What begins in darkness ends about an hour later on a bleak shiver of hope.
Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) is many things: a solo show starring one man and an entire audience; a bleak comedy that thrives on paradox; an existential nightmare; a great piece of theater that makes you simultaneously thrilled to be alive and filled with despair.
San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, the go-to company for absurdist, thoughtful, brain-expanding theater, is just about the perfect place for Eno’s 2004 show to land in the Bay Area. In director Marissa Wolf (who also happens to be the new artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre), Cutting Ball has found a sure-handed guide through Eno’s winding pathos.
Wolf assistant directed Les Waters on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s brilliant production of Eno’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy last year, and she gets just how funny, how theatrical and how gut wrenching Eno can (and should) be. This is a writer, after all, who would probably like to scream down the world’s rampant inanity, slaughter all the fools and describe every atom of pain as a means of exorcism. But he keeps getting tripped up by certain human things, most notably humor and emotion.
Just why this man, Thom Pain, played brilliantly by Jonathan Bock (pictured, photos by Rob Melrose), has arrived at the theater in his somewhat rumpled black suit, skinny tie and terrible shoes is never explained. It’s a theatrical convention that we, the audience, are in his thrall, and it’s his job to be “the show” and give us, in his words a little “turn on the themes of fear, boyhood, nature, hate, the nature of performance and vice-versa, the heart of man, of woman, et cetera.”
Thankfully, Thom does put on a show, of sorts. He comes out in the dark and reads to us. In the dark. He attempts, without success, to light a cigarette. The lights finally come on (Stephanie Buchner is a lighting designer with a keen sense of humor). He’s highly aware of his audience to the point that he taunts us, manipulates us, scares us and even punishes us in a clever twist on the old audience-participation trick.
It’s all about contrast: Thom wants to be there sharing the story of how his childhood ended in pain, ugly death and bee stings. But you also sense he’d rather be anywhere else licking his considerable wounds. He’s a showman, a misanthrope and a marvelous poet.
Consider his definition of America’s favorite word, “whatever”: “…the popular phrase we use today to express our brainless and simpering tolerance of everything, the breakdown of distinction, our fading national soul.”
Bock’s performance as Pain can be electrifying. He makes fierce eye contact with the majority of his audience members, and he tends to deliver most of his performance mere inches from the people in the front row. He’s a little scary and a lot funny: “I made serious inroads into a woman, once, doing card tricks with a deck that only had one card left in it. `Pick a card,’ I’d say.”
Or, on the topic of his (naturally) painful love life, he recalls a date: “`You’ve changed,’ she said, the night we met.” He goes on to describe that same woman: “Sometimes you meet someone who you know right away is made up of trillions of different cells, and, she was one of these.”
Director Wolf’s production builds beautifully, and it’s impossible to resist Bock, especially at his most droll. This brief evening of theater feels much more substantial than its hour-plus running time, but you don’t really want it to be any longer. After all, you can only laugh and feel grim around the edges for so long.
Theater, in many respects, fulfills the deep-seated human need for storytelling as means to feel less alone in a giant world. The genius of Eno’s Thom Pain is that we experience the feeling of connection and isolation at the same time. Paradox, it turns out, is highly entertaining.
It’s hard to leave the theater without thinking about old/young Thom talking about the notion of a happy life: “Who can stand the most, the most life, and still smile, still grin into the coming night saying, more, more, encore, encore, you fuckers, you fates, just give me more of the bloody bloody same.”
Thom Pain (based on nothing) continues an extended run through Ma 9 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.cuttingball.com for information.