Most of what passes for comedy in plays and movies these days comes from television, where mundanities are manipulated for amusement. You take a funny but recognizable situation and milk it for laughs with an occasional flight into lunatic exaggeration that immediately sinks back to a realistic setting; picture an actual living room with cartoon balloons floating to the ceiling. The other kind of comedy works vice versa. Starting from patently outlandish circumstances, it finds the real in the ridiculous; picture a cartoon in which stick figures bleed real blood.
Situation comedy seems to be predominant today, but that's an aberration, a recent development like Hamburger Helper, whereas stylized comedy goes back to the Restoration with Wycherley and Congreve. And it has passed down in our century from
Oscar Wilde to Joe Orton to John Guare to Christopher Durang -- about none of whom is it likely to be said, "Gee, he has a good ear for dialogue." Instead of exchanging banalities, their characters speak the desperate things the heart feels and the daring things the evil mind invents but doesn't have the guts to say. This style of comedy gets darker and more savage with the times, of course, and usually comes tinged with the dangerous frivolity of camp, the wisdom masked in witticism behind, say, Quentin Crisp's dismissal of Russia as "a land without lipstick."
Poised to take his place in this lineage of comic playwrights is Harry Kondoleon, the 27-year-old poet, painter, and dramatist who has emerged in the last two years with an armload of swoonily ornate, intensely original poetic comedies that couldn't possibly be less fashionable or "commercial." A recent graduate of Yale Drama School, Kondoleon contributed a play called
Rococo to the Yale Rep's first Winterfest last year. His
Cote D'Azur Triangle was seen in a workshop at the Actor's Studio. And his first major New York production was
Disrobing the Bride (also known as The Brides), which Lyn Austin's Music-Theater Group produced first at the Lenox Arts Center in the Berkshires and then at the Cubiculo. Now the Double Image Theater, a nest of ex-Yalies ensconced at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, have undertaken four Kondoleon one-acts --
Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise, Andrea Rescued, The Cote D'Azur
Triangle, and The Fairy Garden -- in a program that begins June 2.
Kondoleon's plays come in many strange shapes and sizes; some are more like poetic events than dramas. But they all share certain key elements beginning with the language, a sort of lyricism heightened at times to the point of hysteria coupled with a poetic condensation very reminiscent of British novelist Ronald Firbank, whom Kondoleon has, surprisingly, never read. "John Guare was my teacher at Yale," says the playwright, who is tall and willowy with Greek-dark features, "and he kept saying to me, 'Read Firbank! Read Firbank!' He said it so accusingly that I couldn't bring myself to do it." His plays also share a sense of magic and ritual picked up from the year he spent studying theater in Bali on a fellowship and an eye for design that spills over from his painting. Most of all, they are hyperemotional -- romantic and fantastical at the same time, furiously funny, always wicked and always sexual.
In The Cote D'Azur Triangle, three actors impersonate a woman, her husband, and the husband's male lover vacationing together on the Riviera -- until they are eaten by sea dragons -- in mock-world-weary choral passages that tread an evanescent line between passion and parody.
Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise is a feverish screwball comedy about a self-centered hit novelist named Carl who runs off with his best friend's wife Bethany, a failed poet, after his wife Adel, who fancies herself a writer, tries to commit suicide. "Carl is the maker of all things evil on this planet!" shrieks Adel, who returns
wrists- bound for revenge. "Adel, I insist that you calm down," says Bethany's complacent hubby Alvin, "you're beginning to distort things." The eponymous heroine of
Andrea Rescued, distressed by her husband's transformation into a dog, lures a mail-order marriage counselor to her home and refuses to relinquish him when the man's wife calls to retrieve him. At the end a puppet stage descends, and the characters take out hand-puppet replicas of themselves and say things like, "Aren't you tired of fake movies with fake happiness and fake unhappiness and the stars and the stars and the stars mocking you with their huge hands and faces reaching for props and touching the walls of sets which cost more than the places they
The newest and most dazzling of the plays is The Fairy Garden. It begins on a lower key than Kondoleon's other plays; Dagny sits in her chic garden with two gay friends, Roman and Mimi, who are lovers, and tries to decide whether to stay with her rich but despicable husband or run off with her sexy mechanic boyfriend. But in nine short scenes everything rapidly shifts. The lovers break up, Dagny cuts off her husband's head and tosses it in the ice bucket, a real fairy appears (a
real fairy?) to grant them one wish, and they decide to put the husband's head back on. Mimi falls in love with Dagny, the hated husband announces he's fallen in love with the fairy who is now disguised as a real woman (a
real woman?), and the two couples go off. The mechanic shows up, only he's really a stripper and does his act for jilted Roman, who chases him off. Finally, Roman and the fairy have a confrontation and -- in a dreamlike coup de theatre -- disappear in a vapor of memory and obliterated identity.
The wacky behavior of his characters is Kondoleon's guard against sentimentality. There is poignance as well as ludicrousness in his characters' manic self-delusions ("I've written a new novel, it's in my head, all I have to do is type it") and overheated romantic complaints ("I've been deserted, Connie, I'm a shoe in the desert") -- they're the bloodstains on the cartoon carpet. But Kondoleon surprises the absurd possibility out of everyday activities as a reminder that even when one is emotionally self-absorbed, ridiculous things come along that take the grace out of your sorrow, and you just have to laugh at them. This wild cartoonishness can also turn into a kind of preciosity and silliness that some people find insufferable.
Rococo, Kondoleon's longest and least "finished" play, exemplifies his weaknesses; although there are some very funny things in it, the play indulges in much undergraduate humor -- Wedekind jokes that wouldn't fly outside the Yale Cabaret -- and long speeches unsuccessfully integrated into the narrative. But the strength from which all else flows is the passion for love, the unquenchable lust, the yearning for connection with the Other that defines the language and the form and the almost tropical feverishness of Kondoleon's plays. Who cannot recognize what the character in
Andrea Rescued calls "the incurable hunger, the rampant churning, the pitiful diet of small kisses, handshakes, and telephone calls"?
Kondoleon's supreme mating of style and substance is The Brides, an odd 20-page script of verse and prose with no stage directions or character assignments. A rococo musical fantasy that apparently takes place in the mind of the mythical Bride moments before she enters the chapel to meet her Groom in marriage, the play is in sections that take the form of fairy tales. The Groom is the shining knight that every woman is taught to believe will come her way, but he also represents that thing (but isn't it usually a lover?) that all of us wait for -- foolishly, of course -- to come along and transform our lives, make them real, happy, wonderful. This ideal is both a dream and a curse, and Kondoleon captures both in the most dizzyingly exquisite language. This passage, which must be quoted in full, follows a groom's asking a fair maiden if he may bring her flowers:
'Oh, do!' says the bride, already a little wet, a little anxious, already turning the present into the past by mentally describing this happening to her sisters who are less beautiful and stay at home with handicrafts and sketch pads. 'Oh, do!' says the princess, already sizing up the groom beneath his tight doublet, his tight tunic, his tight tights. Already she is imagining his magic stick, describing it to her sisters who themselves will make quick sketches of the unseen instrument, exaggerating their sister's already exaggerated words. 'Oh, do!' says the bride, 'Oh, do! Do!' And the groom picks the sweet things -- baby's breath, bachelor buttons and briar roses. 'The scent will knock her out,' he thinks to himself, already rather horny himself, already mentally unbuttoning the bride, picturing her high firm tits popping from their bondage into the sunlight, furry stingless bees resting on her tall dark nipples, and, unhooking the fuschia bell -- her skirt -- finding the honey nest, dipping the spoon, getting hungry....
It's Kondoleon's deep identification with women -- as well as his orchidaceous writing style -- that links him to Firbank, who also wrote constantly about women without any of the pathetic preconceptions or rancid caricatures that riddle so much writing by men "about" women (cf.
Vanities, Agnes of God). As Firbank biographer Brigid Brophy wrote in
Prancing Novellist, "Firbank and Wilde alike were at the creative advantage of not bothering to simulate or prop-up heterosexuality in themselves. Consequently they had no emotional inducement to swallow those myths of inherent psychological differences between men and women behind which society hides its imposition of social inferiority on women." Brophy might well have been writing about Kondoleon and his battalion of heroines.
Typically, Kondoleon makes no claims about what his plays "say about women" or anything like that, though he does identify with underdogs; he figures he's always been an outsider, observing from without since he was a child. The "outsider" stance has been an essential element in his aestheticism and his sense of humor. It probably goes all the way back to his father and mother, an accountant and secretary whose names are Sophocles and Athena -- a joke he's never gotten over. It certainly prepared him for the odd twists and cruel jokes of life. Like his trip to Bali: the only reason he went was that he was so impressed by the essay on Balinese theater in Artaud's
The Theater and Its Double, and when he confessed that to someone he met in the airport he was told that Artaud never visited Bali, he had only seen some performers in the Dutch pavilion at the Paris World Fair. Kondoleon almost came right home. If he had, he would have avoided spending six weeks under quarantine with typhoid. But he also would have missed getting a taste of the primitive power of theater.
"One ceremony I went to was in the middle of the night," he remembers. "It was a fight between good and evil. There was this witch fighting a sort of lion figure; these men were really in deep states of trance and they were, like, knifing themselves because of the force of this witch. It was just great. After that when you go see some awful dreadful little family-argument play, you just can't believe you're being asked to sit there for two hours and watch something that's not as interesting as your own argument at home." Indeed -- what could match home with Sophocles and Athena? Kondoleon's plays will tell you what: a severed head in an ice bucket, sea dragons eating adulterers on the Cote D'Azur, furry stingless bees resting on tall dark nipples...............................................................
Village Voice, 1982