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Game Theory 

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
Milan Kundera has a famous theory of the novel that imagines its history as an evolutionary tree, with important books like Ulysses at the cruxes of major branching trends, and other books, like Tristram Shandy, at the start of little half-grown twigs. Over and over Kundera points to his tree in essays and says, more or less, "The novel is not exhausted. Its history is a saga of missed possibilities," and he is, of course, absolutely right. Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste belongs on the twig begun by Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Kundera calls these books "game novels," because they're both playful, high-energy, picaresque rants. "No one heeded Sterne's invitation au voyage," writes Kundera, with obvious enthusiasm for this game-novel idea. "No one but Diderot."

So why Kundera, who already had a novel-writing career, should have turned his hand to playwriting in the early '70s to make his "homage à Diderot" by mocking up Jacques for the stage is kind of a riddle. Why not do a game novel yourself, Milan, instead of philosophical stuff like The Unbearable Lightness of Being? The answer has something to do with Soviet censorship after 1968, but Kundera's play also toys with the notion of destiny. It's a game in itself to put Jacques and his Master into a show whose end has been dictated by another writer -- kind of like (OK, exactly like) Stoppard's game in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The play is not quite an adaptation. It stands on its own as a piece of Pirandellian absurdism. The characters know they're in a play, wonder who put them there, discuss the audience ("Why are they staring at us?"), and wonder where their horses went ("You're forgetting we're onstage," says Jacques). In a foppish 18th-century tricorn and frills, the Master wants Jacques to lead him to someplace uncertain; but instead of finding their way they lose themselves in recounting stories of a series of romantic entanglements that escalate and merge like a sitcom.

Where Diderot's novel is fast-paced and wild, Kundera's script contains a lot of clever misbehavior cut with existential debate. The stories of Justine and the Bigres, St. Ouen and Agathe, the Marquis des Arcis and Madame de la Pommeray almost don't matter; they're just vehicles to clinch what happens to Jacques and his Master at the end of the play. Neither are they particularly funny in the script -- and frankly, they're not that funny live.

Danny Wolohan, as Jacques, is earnest, wide-eyed, and puppy-dog scrappy. He wears simple rags and likes to make fun of his Master. The Master, played by Todd Parmley, has a bald head and a smirking, superior, but kindly way with Jacques. There's room for Parmley and Wolohan to stretch away from each other -- you wish the Master could be more superior and Jacques a little more humbly wise -- but their relationship onstage has a funny and vaguely homoerotic tone, even when they describe the enormous asses of women.

Other players aren't as strong. Todd Barker, who plays and wrote part of the score, doubles onstage as Old Bigre, but makes a hash of his role by forcing a rambunctious-minded old-guy shtick. Melissa Culross is neither here nor there as Agathe, and Janet Roitz, who's otherwise skilled and clear onstage, tries too hard to be farcical. Jessica Jelliffe does a good job as Justine -- imploring and frantic and lusty -- and Stephen Jacob, as both St. Ouen and the Marquis des Arcis, is precise and sinister, walking the tightrope between witty-absurd and ridiculous. But the cast overall could be nimbler; only Jacob and Wolohan land their lines without effort.

In the final scene, after a funny conversation about how every direction can be called "forward," the Master says, "Well, then, Jacques, forward!" and in the script there's a stage direction: They exit diagonally upstage. Since Jacques is a deliberate echo of Waiting for Godot, I imagine Jacques and his Master moving crabwise, or backward, upstage. (Remember how Godot ends: "Shall we go?" "Yes, let's go." They do not move.) But when Jacques and his Master exit upstage in this show they really are moving forward, and you get the odd sense that they've found their direction at last. Intentional? I have no idea.

FoolsFURY debuted as a troupe with Howard Barker's The Possibilities in 1998, and as a general thing I like this play better. Kundera is a more potent writer, which improves the whole show. But director Ben Yalom brought in some mysteriously effective "buffoon" movement for The Possibilities, and his musician (Todd Barker again, no relation to Howard) cooked up a marvelously weird percussion score. Jacques is less innovative. The troupe's stated mission is to "break down the barriers between 'The Theater' and other live events"; but there was more barrier-breaking last year.


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