Pataphysics Anyone?




In Absurdist theatre the emphasis is placed on behavior—witness Ionesco's bourgeois dullards in The Bald Soprano, for example, or, in several of  Tina Howe's plays, characters fixated on making art. Lee Breuer, however, isn’t much interested in that (his stationary cast might be headed by a puppet or be used to play the back end of a farm animal). Unlike those of the other playwright’s mentioned, his characters’ communication faculties don’t fail either.  Animals they may be, but they’re articulate and cogent, even if what they’re examining–the monstrous  human soul–is a place where we're more likely to meet an anime figure rather than God. Breuer’s double bill of monologues, Pataphysics Penyeach, currently at New York Theatre Workshop through January 31, is an example of a rarely used style giving due to the space beyond the metaphysical ('Pataphysics, defined by Webster’s, is Jarry's notion—“expounded upon by other French absurdist writers as a parody of modern science").  Even if they’re only metaphors, though, these creations are free to formulate their own worlds. For example, if one were to conjecture that American society was inhabited by capitalist pigs (not so unusual a sentiment from the Left)–a character might turn out to be a literal swine, which is exactly the state of affairs in the second one act here, Porco Morto.  Given that it is 2010 and the U.S., with a collapsing newspaper industry, is in recession–it is not very strange that we’re presented with a depressed reader of The New York Times (Greg Mehrten), albeit one that stutters, as if Porky Pig had been sent to Harvard.  




In both monologues, Breuer is examining the cartoon within, or cartoon as soul—in the first, an academician, who happens to be a cow, and whose top-half is played with incise professorial hauteur by Obie winner Ruth Maleczech, tells us that the “psyche lives in limbus.”  She asks, “What is God’s action?” and tells us that “Reality is not real—it’s virtual." “If it works” she also contends, “it must be unreal.”  The plays are free-floating Rorschach tests–acted by performers of immense focus and stamina–where we analyze our responses to a daffy mindstream taken perfectly seriously. The mashed combination of scientific theory, acting technique, and Eastern thought may be profound or inconsequential: we decide.  I can tell you several places where I thought Breuer wasn’t playing with our minds, though.  One was where, bewildered, his character wonders why writers who go to the theatre see themselves as reviewers and not reporters.  And the other is the finality of his observation: “Truth is not beautiful.”




The evening is fun and horrific, intellectual and sophomoric, coarse and rich—but what else would one expect when exposing the mind to the ridiculous?  It’s also rather freeing to disconnect from the patterns that the entire society has taken up as we toggle from Twitter to Facebook, the Drudge Report to blogs. Maybe this is where theatre can become relevant again—in its ability to circuit break virtual reality, which only seems to be making us more conformist. Society and our humanity have devolved and been reduced Breuer seems to be saying; more than ever, we’re all been dumbed down. On the freezing night I saw Pataphyscis Penyeach, the East Village was especially deserted. One of the waiters at Gandhi restaurant on East 6th Street, where several other Indian restaurants have recently closed, said, “Times are tough.”  Having just come out of the play, more reporter than critic, I extended the metaphor, “These are tough times for the American mind, too.”




© 2010 by Bob Shuman


Pataphysics Penyeach by Lee Breuer:


Summa Dramatica & Porco Morto

January 13-31, 2010




At New York Theatre Workshop’s 4th Street Theatre—83 East 4th Street, 1st Floor


MABOU MINES | 150 First Avenue, New York, NY 10009 | Phone: 212.473.0559 | Fax: 212.473.2410 |


Visit the Mabou Mines Web site:


Visit Stage Voices blog for video:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *