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LETTERS TO EDITOR
by Jerry Weinstein
This production, seamlessly mounted by Rude Mechanicals, sets the tone before the curtain has risen. A tape loop of Barbara Kruger-esque slogans and screeds pricks our ears. The set is a living space--not minimalist by design--but lifeless. Couch, coffee table, and chair are familiar in silhouette, but in spray painting them a Pantone concrete-gray, the lifeblood of the space has been drained. A floor covering fashioned of parallel lines anchors the living space as a grid - fixing it as an all-purpose set devoid of history or fidelity. On the rear wall, a projection screen looms, while a stationary bike is at rest.
DeLillo's characters are likewise glassine. Protagonist Michael Majeski is an Everyman who, pinch-hitting for a stricken work colleague, takes to the friendly skies for a business meeting in Valparaiso, Indiana. By the by, his trajectory is thwarted and his peregrinations take him through Valparaiso, Florida, finally terminating in far-flung Valparaiso, Chile. His 6,000-mile overreach becomes a "human interest story" for the local press. The first interview is brief, a quick Q&A that is over before it begins. When Majeski seeks to embellish, he is told, "That's all we need."
Yet in Majeski's circumnavigation of Valparaisos three, his exploit becomes a triumph. In a span of mere days, Majeski will have given over 140 interviews. His thoughts mediated, rehearsed, and amplified, he emerges reconstituted and reborn. Wife Livia is not nostalgic for his anonymity: "I see him complete when he's on TV."
DeLillo has masterfully taken the arcane theories of Foucault's "technologies of self" and made them lucid in the klieg light of daytime television. While DeLillo's novel Underworld mined the Cold War, and Libra deconstructed the end of Camelot, Valparaiso is his entrée into a modernity that, as one interviewer says, "is all footage waiting to be shot."
Majeski is himself initially awkward, unable to repackage his life force into a story that has a beginning, middle, and an end. But he is never reluctant. In his second interview cum lesson, he is admonished to back up to the morning before, then the evening prior. As the interviews pile up, he recapitulates his life, so that when he asks, "How far back do you want to go?" with an air of finality he is told," The interview started basically when your father fucked your mother one rainy night in May."
Husband and wife make quite a pair. They are consumed by their consumption - -shown to best advantage as Livia chain-smokes while doing "demon repetitions" on her exercycle. From Michael Majeski's anointment onward, their lives are lived only in the presence of the media firmament. As requested by their interviewers, they "submit to the idea," participating as subjects of a documentary shot according to the filmmaker, as "Super Verite." This would do Derrida proud, this "hyperreality" where things are more real than real. At this point, Majeski quits his job to pursue his true calling, etching out a life not merely punctuated, but defined, by public appearances. Asked on-camera to explicate on overshooting his destination by 6,000 miles, Majeski and the play itself hit their stride:
"I felt submissive. I had to submit to the systems. They were all-powerful and all-knowing."
In the above Majeski is talking about airport security, but in the wider universe of the play, he stands in awe at the prowess of technology. It is his total submission -and ours-that is at the crux of Valparaiso.
The second half is full of surprises. The set remains, but Happy Meal-orange accents - pillows and artificial flora - are added. The Majeski living room has transmogrified into a studio for a daytime talk show. An actor addresses us, the audience, directly, implicating us in what it to proceed. Satisfied that we understand our role, he introduces the Queen of Daytime, Delfina. Delfina, as interpreted by actress Carla Harting, is a hybrid - part Delphi, the Oracle of Apollo and part delphinium, a winsome, colorful plant of spiky leaves tainted with toxins. Delfina is media, "a trick of lights," drawing "literal life" from her studio audience. She is a marriage of Oprah with Roy Cohn, cunning with a tele-presence that can travel light years. But Delfina is unlike the hack interviewers that have preceded her. Where they solicited Majeski for the same story, word for word, pause for pause, Delfina demands meaning -- the ontology of Majeski's misadventure.
DeLillo's use of lexicon here is particularly thrilling. As he has written, it is language attuned "to locate the metaphysics of a form," the form being daytime television. Delfina goes for the jugular, upending Michael's control of his story and thus, his identity, while also causing irreparable damage to his marriage. Intercut with Delfina's real-time forced march of revelations are commercial spots performed, according to program notes, by the Chorus. In this moment of terror and heightened security their hawking of an airline, Air Reliance, is hauntingly prescient.
Delfina asks the most poignant question of the play to Michael: "Who were you?" Initially he shrugs it off, verbally cavorting in mediaspeak. But Delfina is no mere pixilated sycophant, she fixes Michael to his destiny: "What is that word for a man who advances towards the truth? Perishability."
This production succeeds because it runs like a top. From the precision with which the actors attack their roles, to the overall direction, to the set design, Valparaiso is consistently provocative. In Don DeLillo’s hands Michael Majeski’s fall is as inevitable as his media ascension has been meteoric. Valparaiso is no mere exercise in satire or parody; the play is a chilling up-to-the-minute take on the steep price of synergy on the individual. If seeing oneself in a mirror, or on a monitor, is a form of infinite regress, then our global reach has indeed exceeded our grasp.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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