News & Articles
Letter from Artistic Director on A Parallelogram
2009-2010, Volume 5
by Martha Lavey
We conclude our season of belief with Bruce Norris’ play, A Parallelogram. Over the course of the season, we have watched the characters in these various plays construct narratives to support their version of reality. The stories these characters tell themselves (the stories we tell ourselves) are grounded in a leap of faith - a belief - to account for the unknowns that are constituent to our human condition. Belief, however unconsciously carried, is our necessity: mortality is our limit, consciousness of our mortality is our anxiety. How to make our lives livable as we approach the unknown? Belief.
We’ve watched those self-narratives in conflict. In Fake, a collision of the scientific, the religious, the personal. In American Buffalo, the collision of social force with personal myth. In The Brother/Sister Plays, a collision of the communal narrative with the process of individuation. In Endgame, a confrontation with death in the absence of any overarching narrative.
And so to A Parallelogram. One of the things the play brings first to mind is the credo that to see is to believe, the idea that our beliefs are guided by evidence available to us through our vision: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I recently heard the counter to this statement: “We see what we believe.” This “seeing is believing/believing is seeing” dynamic is central to A Parallelogram. Bee, a woman in her early 30s, “sees” a character that no one else in the play can see, designated as Bee 2. She converses with Bee 2 who seems to be some future version of herself. Bee 2 explains her presence by describing a phenomenon of the physical universe that she calls “a parallelogram” based on Einstein’s assertion that there is a space/time continuum, that there are multiple, infinite universes and that there are infinite spatial points at which all events of one’s life happen simultaneously. Bee is resistant: if her future self exists simultaneously with her present self, does that mean her present-day actions cannot change the course of her life?
The deft move that Bruce makes in the creation of Bee 2 is that we see what Bee sees: Bee 2 has a reality for us because we see her on stage. There she is! The inability of the other characters in the play to see Bee 2 seems their limitation - we are made complicit in Bee’s version of reality, we believe her because we see what she sees. Bee sits at the center of the play, literally: she sits on her bed and the world moves around her.
The story issues from Bee’s point of view - she is, in that sense, the play’s narrator - and in her, Bruce has created a character whose reliability is uncertain. On the one hand, she seems the clearer-eyed party in her relationship - Jay’s treatment of JJ, his yelling into the television while a football game proceeds, his testy conversation with his child from a failed marriage - all point toward a limited view. On the other, we begin to discover Bee’s history and suspect that she may be an “unreliable narrator.” I think of Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon. Like Lemon, the narrator of that play, Bee is visioned as an ailing character - Bee is in bed throughout - and in both plays, the memories and projections emerge from the vision of these persuasive but perhaps unwell women. In both plays, the audience is invited into an identification with the narrative voice and only incrementally begins to question the angle of vision they offer.
I resist the temptation to describe more completely the turns in the narrative and the revelations that emerge in Bee’s story because a good part of the pleasure in the play comes from the audience’s opportunity for their own time travel: to loop back to the beginning of the play and put the puzzle pieces together. Bruce enjoys a twisty tale. His creation of one is, I think, part of the underlying motive of the play. A Parallelogram asks us to investigate our assumptions - our beliefs - about the logic of our own lives: is our will the determinate of our fate? Is our end forewritten? Can the narrative be interrupted, turned another way? Can we control the course of our lives? And do we want to?
Bruce has set A Parallelogram in the realm of interpersonal relationships. This is a return to the landscape of some of his earlier plays - The Infidel and Purple Heart. The plays that followed were more explicitly centered in the socio-political realm: The Pain and the Itch, The Unmentionables, Clybourne Park. When asked about this shift, Bruce has said that he didn’t set out to be a social satirist but the political situation in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century made it necessary to speak directly to the world. I don’t think A Parallelogram is without political content, however. Bruce’s eye for the way in which the choices we make in our personal lives have political impact is keen. Our beliefs about how we can or cannot control our own destiny are germane to the decisions we make about how to interact with the world.
A Parallelogram, in the guise of a witty domestic drama, asks large questions about personal agency, about personal effectiveness and responsibility. And it teases at the question of belief: to what extent does our belief system serve as a consoling narrative for the frightening mysteriousness of our own lives? What can we know about ourselves? What can we know about the people closest to us?