Memories of “Vladimir, Vladimir”

Memories fade. They begin vividly and then start to decay. And worse than decay, they start to deform. Until they are no longer very reliable. Valuable perhaps but not reliable. And then they vanish altogether. That’s one good way to think about memory.

Another way to think about it. We store our memories in a honeycomb of chambers. Sometimes we wander into one of the chambers and it’s dried out and empty. Nothing there of consequence. And then maybe the chamber collapses entirely. Much of the time, though, the chambers contain SOMETHING — a little drama, a smell, a lesson, maybe a song, sung just so by James Brown (Please, Please, Please). Weirdly, we are often rummaging around these chambers, yes, even when we are young.

We could come up with some other metaphors, too, I suppose, but I want to consider these two a bit, and how they relate to Imago’s Vladimir, Vladimir,
which I saw earlier this month and having succumbed to germs (among other things) never got back to. So this discussion about memory isn’t about Imago, really, it’s about me! Though we will get to Jerry Mouawad’s Vladimir, which closed last weekend, one way or another and soon.

We often borrow ideas from science (evolution, say) and apply them inexactly to our lives, and think that these ideas have special weight because they are “scientific.” I fall prey to this all the time. And perhaps I am again, because I want to compare these two ideas about memory to something like the way physicists think about light. Sometimes it’s more useful to think about light as a particle (a photon) and sometimes it’s better to think of it as a wave (this is called the particle-wave duality, and maybe it applies to all particles).

So, while I accept that my memory of Vladimir, Vladimir has indeed decayed, and even when I consult my notes, I can’t reproduce it the way I might have immediately after it was over, due to the forgetting curve, I also have it stored after a fashion in my honeycomb of memories. (I wish these memories were shelved properly, so it would be easier compare them.) Which fits with current research on memory formation and retention — memories are essentially links between neurons in the brain and the links are activated by chemical “messengers.”

All of which is simply to say, that I am about to regard the traces or the residue or the neuronal net of Vladimir, Vladimir in the full understanding that I am a bumble bee who may fall through the spider’s web, but hopeful that even that has some interest. And really, my motivation is far from scientific — Imago is reliably our most inventive theater company, this play was somewhat anomalous for them, it can lead into potentially rich speculative territory nonetheless. So, we go into this particular chamber, understanding that what’s there wasn’t what was on stage. Though, in fact, it never was!

Vladimir, Vladimir isn’t about memories; it’s about alternate realities (which could be memories, too, I suppose, but probably not in this case). It’s about the Vladimir duality: Vladimir as a poor struggling balloon man (a particle?) and Vladimir as a rich and successful magician (OK, a wave). Each is played by Mouawad (who also wrote and co-directed with Pat Patton and probably tended to re-stocking the snack bar, too), which means you never see the two versions at the same time (or maybe you always do, I don’t know).

— What’s wrong?
— Nothing’s wrong. The world is broken.

This exchange arrives early in Vladimir, Vladimir and makes us feel that we have indeed entered a typical Imago universe, where things may be weird and distorted and even incomprehensible at times but at bottom there’s often a difficult little truth. The first act of the play conforms to that description — Vladimir the balloon maker is sad and grumpy about his career and his poverty, his strange wife Natasha (Carol Triffle, delightful as usual) is a klepto, their two younger friends (Alice played by Megan Skye Hale and Ralph played by John San Nicolas) aren’t any better off, as a group they engage in comic patter that gets pretty crazy at times. But Marty Hughley’s comparison to the melodrama and comedy of It’s a Wonderful Life is well taken, because that first act isn’t that unconventional, really. And then thanks to the miracle of the revolving stage, we are spun into a different universe, one in which Vladimir is a rich and famous Vegas magician, but no more happy than the balloon-maker was because his relationship with Natasha has disintegrated, his friend-manager is having an affair with her at the same time Vlad’s having a fling with the manager’s wife, and everyone is frankly miserable. More miserable than the poor souls in the first part. This part is not fun. At all. It’s merely “schematic” — a demonstration of “duality”.

The conceit of the play is that Vladimir has somehow developed a magic trick involving a mirror that allows the two to switch places, and then the rich Vlad finds himself being happily integrated into the poor one’s life and the poor Vlad sees how awful the life of the rich one is and pines for his old Natasha (not the rich snooty one he finds in her place) and his old life. Obviously, there are morals a’plenty available here, and they become the point of the play, I suppose, although there are some possible reflections on the power of the environment to influence personality and vice versa. But the problem with the schematic is that it is predictable, especially yoked to the “moral of the story”, and Imago has successfully subverted the predictable for the past, what, almost thirty years. The most subversive thing about Vladimir, Vladimir in the Imago context was that it rarely surprised, after that jolly first act.

In his blog for the production, Mouawad talks about co-directing with Patton (who was associate artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years and then artistic director at the Tacoma Actors Guild), and their different approaches — Method versus Lecoq. Here’s the duality he’s set up. We know Method, of course, which has dominated American theater and film since the ’50s. LeCoq is based on the principles of French mime/actor Jacques Lecoq, who resisted the determinism of the psychological for the freedom of the “State.”

“Method – Psychological
State – Non-psychological

Method – character has a past, present and future.
State – state has only has a present.

Method – a psychological person (”what’s my motivation?”)
State – a being (”I am this, this is what I am.”)

Vladimir, Vladimir attempted to blend these, but the determinism of the psychological net killed the possible surprise of the State. At least that’s what I saw. Or remember. The material had lots of elasticity — the mirror as a metaphor can be construed in many different way, for example — repetition, distortion, imitation, reproduction, aping, twinning, cloning, etc. And don’t get me started on alternate universes, which Imago might be uniquely situated to explore. String theory with its multiple dimensions should be a piece of cake for these guys, too, dimensions folded within dimensions nested within dimensions, and then sliced so it’s nice and lean. The mirror or the mirror in a mirror might suggest these things. It might also imply freedom — from motivations, from the past — the mirror as a door.

I appreciate the experiment of Vladimir, Vladimir, the risk of the uneasy marriage, the attempt to drive opposites together, the blend. In some ways, it was perhaps the best-acted Imago ensemble show I can remember, with the possible exception of No Exit. Jerry and Carol have become mesmerizing on stage. I started to type “actors” instead of “on stage”, but I never really think of them as “actors”, maybe because they are States, and often States that are about to be whacked by something out of their control that will change them. I like the randomness of this. Sometimes I think of Imago characters as wind-up toys that you set loose on the floor and watch travel, collide, bump into furniture and then tip over, their feet spinning in the air. Except, as I said, there’s often a difficult little truth in there somewhere, a cry from the bottom of the well, a State we haven’t encountered before, a dimension nested within another, a little kernel of meaning that might grow into something bigger once it gets planted in a neuron net.

Because specific memories decay, yes, but in the chambers of the honeycomb, in the chrysalis, they sometimes turn into something amazing. The monster in Alien, a butterfly, a new way of looking at things. And that’s what has made Imago so great over the years.