AJ McDougall’s one-act play, “Imperson All,” directed by Abigail Smith (BC ‘21), ended its three-night run yesterday in the Glicker-Milstein Theatre at Barnard. It was incredibly highbrow and endlessly interpretable.
A day later, I’m still left with questions just about the mechanics of the story. But ultimately, I thank both cast and crew for making my first Barnumbia production a hard one to beat.
The play starts with Marley Meyer, a disaffected high school senior (Cecelia Morrow, CC ’21), walking out of a Halloween party in tears. After she makes her way to the end of the dock, we get a markedly different entrance from Clementine Fish (Daisy Mayer, CC ’22). She is drunk, stumbling, and at some point falls into the water below the dock. What follows those entrances is a series of conversations between the two girls that oscillate wildly between bouts of loathing (either of self or of the other), and hints of fondness.
Their tattered rapport is established via discussions on such topics as: fathers; religion; their former relationship; and the want (or lack thereof) to leave the – per Clem – “deep sea sunken butthole” Midwestern town where they live. McDougall then shifts more strongly into the supernatural aspect of her play, by introducing the character of Noah (Mario Garcia, CC ’21).
But before we get there, a comment: coming into this show, I was told that it involved a deer carcass. Imagine my relief when I found that it was a prop deer carcass – and my surprise when I found that said deer carcass had removable entrails. Props to all who worked on that thing, especially “Deer Specialist” Kristian Woerner (CC ‘21).
Noah. Holy hell, what an entrance. In no less than thirty seconds, this dirty, bloodied serial killer whose existence was foreshadowed in earlier conversations between Marley and Clem yells his way on stage and asks the girls if they might “know where to hide a body.” He makes the absolute most of the stage time he’s afforded, especially with the way he does his impressions.
This being a Halloween party, Marley dons a white dress and blonde wig to model Marilyn Monroe, whilst Clem wears a blood-stained pink suit to represent Jackie Kennedy. Noah does not have on a costume until later, but all three of them do impressions of the characters they’re impersonating. Though the impressions were at first somewhat playful, they take on a far more sinister tone as Noah begins impersonating those he’s killed. He says that when he kills, he feels like he takes on aspects of his victims.
One impression scene stands out in my mind: Marley, channeling her inner Marilyn, spars with Noah, channeling his inner John F. Kennedy. (Darkly hilarious, McDougall.) For what it’s worth, neither Morrow nor Garcia did good impressions of either figure, and they didn’t need to. What they had to do was arguably more difficult – carry on a conversation/verbal parry while acting out their characters’ best impressions of those figures. They succeeded immensely.
Now, the play was highbrow, and while it was a joy to watch, the writing left me puzzled at parts, specifically with the mechanics of the supernatural. Marley wonders aloud if she could walk on the water under the dock, and Clem derides her for it. Later on, Clem herself walks on that water, then helps Marley find her own footing. This opens the rest of the stage up for the actors to explore, but it wasn’t clear to me why Clem was able to walk before Marley, or why the space needed opening beyond practical staging reasons. Thankfully, Bwog Guardian Angel of Art Riva Weinstein threw me a bone:
“For me it functioned less as a thematic element and more as a way to demarcate the space between realism and fantasy: the moment Clementine steps off the dock and onto the water, the play goes from being relatively realistic, to surreal (with the murderer, deer, etc.). We can basically assume from that point on that anything that happens on the dock is actually happening, and anything that happens on the water is Marley’s imagination.”
While that clears up a good amount of things, it still leaves some scenes murky, such as a scene in which Marley – while still on the dock – asserts that a frying pan (yes, a frying pan) is a gun in order to scare Noah back into the water. In and of itself, the gun/frying pan scene isn’t important. But it’s an example of the type of scene that appears to break the rules the play sets for itself. As much as the play implores its viewers to suspend a certain sense of magic, even magic has rules. They can be bent, but not without purpose. If there was a purpose of bending the rules for scenes like this, it wasn’t fully clear.
In math and the sciences, when you research a hypothesis, you’re asked to document your work as you arrive at an answer. McDougall has the hypothesis, the answer, and a good amount of the work – but a few crucial omissions make following her project more difficult than it need be. And for me, a person who is neither a member of the cast nor crew (or, for that matter, Bwog Guardian Angel who knows and has worked with McDougall before), there’s only so many steps in that work that I can deduce myself without partially losing my way in an otherwise phenomenal project.
Set design (Zoey Massie, BC ’20) and lighting (led by Bhairavi Chandersekhar) all make great use of the space it’s afforded. A couple of platforms paired with a small staircase, representing the dock, allow the actors and their characters to truly stand out, while the simple blue and red gels complement the black box space and get right at the heart of the emotion of the play. Sound (led by Courtney Fulcher, CC ‘21) was something else – not only did they choose songs that you’d hear at any high school party (among some of the songs played: Charlie XCX’s “I Love It” and Fall Out Boy’s “Light Em Up”), some of the songs’ endings just so happened to sync perfectly with the passionate end of a conversation between characters, thrusting the play into a sudden and total silence. All in all a wonderful showing by the tech crew.
All things considered, however, McDougall’s play and its staging were a success. McDougall’s lack of familiarity with the American Midwest gives the space in which her story exists an abstractness that molds well with her blend of the supernatural and the realistic. The play recalls and rivals the short acts of “Almost, Maine,” and is easily more ambitious in its experimentation. McDougall’s “deceptively simple” play on “plotting escapes and fighting monsters” ends with its characters looking out into the great beyond, prepared to face yet another danger together, having learned that there’s a strength to acknowledging and working within each other’s idiosyncrasies instead of trying to mask them. It’s a clear cut and satisfying close, and one that I’m thankful wasn’t expressed – as McDougall originally planned, apparently – through the medium of a BuzzFeed quiz.
Image via Erin Ergun (BC ’21)