By ELIZA BENT
Welcome to Borough Play, our exclusive series on theatre in Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond.
A play set on an asteroid may call to mind green alien heads, Trekker aesthetics, and campy space humor. But Mac Wellman's Muazzez, running through January 17 at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, is no standard piece of science fiction. Featuring Wellman's long-time collaborator Steve Mellor, the show is sparsely staged---the actor is simply seated at a table with a chair---but dense with rich language. Consider the following, which Mellor announces at the top of his character's monologue:
They lied to me about the reality of things here on Muazzez. About the foundations of these, their basis, their fundament, the profound bottom of things. I am an Abandoned Cigar Factory (or ACF) groaning in the dunes near the settlement at Culpepper. That alone would be of little interest because there are many abandoned cigar factories near Culpepper. However I am the only one of these many Abandoned Cigar Factories to possess both a telephone booth (nestled handily within the deep recesses of my abandoned tool shed) and also a zygodactyly foot, as of a parrot or vulture.
Mellor is punchy and delightfully curmudgeonly, yet his delivery always maintains a level of matter-of-factness and is devoid of ironic winks. "The trick is saying this stuff so that it doesn't appear too weird, but that it appears normal and natural," says Wellman, adding, "It's not different than any other play."
However, Muazzez, which is part of this year's COIL Festival, didn't begin as a play at all. It was originally in a short story collection.
Several years ago, Wellman had an artistic residency in Bellagio, Italy---his studio was a 14th-century stone tower near Lake Como---and at the end of his stay, he came across a list of all the named asteroids. "There are 2,000 of them," he says. "I still have the book." He began to write stories about what might be happening on some of those distant rocks.
"My impetus was partly political because that was roughly the time of the breakdown of socialism in Russia and Europe, which was a cause for great celebration," Wellman recalls. "But if the unifying ideas go out the window, I wasn't sure of what would happen [in those places]. So I began wondering about a universe of small, crazy, eccentric bad worlds. The asteroid belt comes from the remains of a planet that got torn apart because it got too close to Jupiter. I used to study a lot of astronomy."
From then on, Wellman worked on asteroid stories at the end of any residency. Many of them address philosophy. "I was reading a lot of Wittgenstein and began to think about, 'What is it like to be on a world and be "one of us?" How do we function? What's important and what's not? What are the basic questions?'"
Wellman eventually published the stories in a collection called A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, and at the time, he never expected them to see the stage. "All of them are basically monologues and written in the first person, but I didn't consider them as theatre pieces," he says. "But in some ways that's better than trying to write for theatre, which is always a disaster!"
Theatre people found the collection anyway. In 2008, actor/director Paul Lazar of Big Dance Theater Company spearheaded an adaptation called 1965 UU, which Mellor directed. Since then, Omaha-based actor Tim Siragusa has taken on Woo and Brooklyn-based actor Erin Mallon has tackled Horrocks.
Muazzez, then, is just the latest iteration of a miniature theatrical canon created by Wellman's book. "It's surprising what people get interested in," he observes. "Perhaps no one wants to do my [actual] plays because those are about Mussolini and Hitler!"
Eliza Bent is a writer and performer based in New York City.
Photo by Madeline Best