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A CurtainUp Review
Bitter Bierce
or, the Friction We Call Grief
by Jenny Sandman


It's not about all the hooting and hollering. It's about the stillness after all the hooting and hollering has stopped.
---Mac Wellman, Sincerity Forever

Cabbage: A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head.
--Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary.
Bitter Bierce, Mac Wellman's latest, is marvelous. I'm firmly convinced that Wellman is one of the very few practicing geniuses left in the American theatre. Certainly he is one of America's foremost experimental playwrights; once considered unproducable outside downtown New York, he is now being courted by the regional theatre circuit, and is deemed very hip among the theatrical elite. In addition to two novels and a volume of poetry, he has written over 50 plays since the beginning of his professional writing career in 1979.

Wellman is best known for his innovative wordplay. Almost fabulist in tone, his canon is an exercise in linguistic perversion. His dialogue is mischievous, joyful, and elliptical, playing with diction and vocabulary as well as with theatrical convention. In a broader sense, however, his canon is about alienation-most of his characters are alienated from others, both mentally and physically, and often from themselves.

This is definitely the case in Bitter Bierce. Ambrose Bierce is the only character, and is a lonely and disillusioned one at that. Bierce is one of the cornerstones of American literature, a true satirist in the nature of Twain, but is also one of the most underrated of writers. He is best known for The Devil's Dictionary (1911), but had a long and colorful career as a newspaper columnist and novelist before and after that. As the title suggests, he was bitter, extremely cynical, and extremely intelligent-a dangerous combination for a columnist, as the politicians of the time quickly found out.

In the play, Bierce (Stephen Mellor) stands before us, simply telling us about his life, his writing, and his ideas, in the same studied nonchalance as that of the ultra-hip. Wellman's admiration for Bierce is apparent throughout. Bierce said that, ""Shallowness or obscurity of speech means shallowness or obscurity of thought," a statement very akin to Wittgenstein's "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." It is an apt analogy for Wellman's work.

While Bitter Bierce is more realistic than most of Wellman's works, there is still plenty of that grand and elaborate Wellman language. Bierce speaks in long, rolling, lush sentences, full of irreverence and impeccably dry wit. But he is a true cynic, exasperated by the world, and deeply scarred by his experiences in the Civil War. At the end, he concludes that "Nothing matters," and makes arrangements to leave for Mexico--where he disappeared without a trace in 1914.

Though Bierce led a fascinating life, the play is more a dialogue about politics, government, humanity and the state of civilization. He skewers American politics and the purposeful ignorance of middle America, another common Wellman theme. At one point, Bierce moans that, "We are the laughing-stock of Europe and a menace to civilization," even as he berates Teddy Roosevelt for his "mediocrity and warmongering." Well. History does repeat itself.

The intimacy of the space is a perfect accompaniment. The stage is sparsely decorated, with only a chair, a cabbage, and canvas hangings of mechanical drawings. Mellor is riveting as Bierce-an old Wellman pro, he has been in enough of his shows to be perfectly comfortable with the intricacies of the language and to play up his subtle humor. Bitter Bierce is an auditory feast, a truly unique theatrical event, and another Wellman tour de force.

BITTER BIERCE or, the Friction We Call Grief Written and directed by Mac Wellman
Featuring Stephen Mellor Scenic and lighting design by Kyle Chepulis
Costumes by Barb Mellor
Running time: 1 hour and 20 minutes, without intermission
P.S. 122, 150 1st Avenue; 212-477-5288
Wed-Sun at 7:30-- $15
Through March 2
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on February 12th performance
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