Two plays, different in tone, one by the young Bulgarian writer, Ivan Dimitrov, and the other by an American, Ethan Lipton, refine the concept of existentialism for the age of social media. For them, being alone in the universe includes company—except that the observers don’t really care much.  European-Americans, of course, started with the idea that no one needed to watch them—the only time one should be in the newspapers was when one was born or died; today, if you’re not messaging on Facebook 24/7, you’re losing touch (we’ve also read reports of serious crime posted to hundreds of followers on twitter or facebook going completely unnoticed).  Such ideas would, of course, provoke complex responses from a writer from Bulgaria, a country heard little about in the West beyond, perhaps, being the birthplace of an educational system, Suggestopedia, and the famous blind oracle Vanga.  Being watched in a post-Communist state evokes a different set of responses than what we'd expect in the U.S. (even if one were under surveillance here, presumably, our Constitutional rights would protect us).  In remote Bulgaria, what stands in between accusation and punishment?


In The Eyes of Others, Dimitrov’s play, intellectual and absurd–directed by Samuel Buggeln and translated by Angela Rodel at the New Ohio Theatre–we meet a woman who works at a deserted underwear shop, played by the young commedienne Zoe Winters. Although she is watched all the time, through the windows by passing strangers, her salesgirl has formed an erotically tinged relationship with a manikken.  We also meet two bureaucrats (Evan Zes and Michael Frederic) who spend lunches together, pining for male bonding.  What gives their relationship meaning is the fact that they are watched by a third man, across the square, who may be an agent from the State.  The intriguing, if controversial, implication is that we have a need to be watched, even if an observer is presumably threatening:  This is preferred over the anonymous observer, no matter how many.

Dimitrov is finding himself in an American theater that will ask more of his plays,  in terms of structural tension; this, despite the fact that he joins other distinguished absurdists, who rejected this notion of artistic consideration—I’m thinking of Beckett.

Ethan Lipton’s play reminded me of a lighter version of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, set in a different work environment. His characters are the starers, professional watchers, the security people and doorpeople we meet when we enter buildings and show IDs or when we need directions to upper floors.  Despite their uniforms, in Red-Handed Otter, now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre–directed by Mike Donahue–they’re hardly figures of authority or very good at observing—in fact, they could care less. When a break-in occurs in the building, damaging property, no one is on hand to apprehend the perpetrator—and no one can figure out such a simple, obvious crime, even when the police are brought in (the crime has also been videotaped).  In a world where technology is based on the need to be seen, actually nobody is looking beyond themselves. Whether Lipton is aware of it or not, whether he is trying to compare his characters to the boxed-in pets he writes so rhapsodically about—and Lipton’s easygoing dialogue is always interesting, his crafting assured–his characters have been so socialized that they don’t see things intellectually; they don’t ascertain existential dilemmas. Whether or not it’s a point being made, the characters passively accept lives of little importance and meaninglessness, watching without registering anything, without concern for a larger world—yet oh how their own lives consume them.  The ensemble cast–Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Gibson Frazier, Rebecca Henderson, Matthew Maher, and Bobby Moreno–don't let on that Lipton is thinking small;  Dimitrov is dealing with the issues of his universe getting bigger. Both are projections and delusions about an audience.

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Copyright © 2012 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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