Grab Your Torch and Pitchfork! We’ll All Be Healed!

“We’re here to see the Horsehead, Horsehead, Horsehead

We’re here to see the Horsehead like be-fore!”

A  hungover musician optimistically called ‘The Band’, also called ‘Joe’, is leading us through the opening number. He grabs the mic and mumbles a verse. Joe is wearing tight black jeans, a pinching suitjacket and a messy tie. He pushes his sunglasses up and gestures to the audience. The group of strangers follows his lead. We mumble and shift nervously on the edge of our  Yard Theatre seats.

David and I are sitting in the center of the front row. Chanting. We’re getting into it. So is the rest of the crowd. The murmur builds into a low roar.

“We’re here to see the Horsehead, Horsehead, Horsehead/

We’re here to see the Horsehead, like be-fore!”

Neither David nor I  have any idea who The Horsehead is, or what he’s done. No one knows. But we are all in this together.

The Leader of the Community is chiming in with approval. This man in a tux wears wild eyes. He’s got the build and poise of a young Orson Welles. He speaks with rich, desperate authority. He is the one who organized this “Reconstruction” of the terrible crimes committed by the Horsehead. We, the audience, are his captive community. The Leader has lost a loved one to the murderer. He tells us that we, the audience, also know victims of the Horsehead’s crimes. The Leader of the Community hopes we will all learn something from this reconstruction. Everything is broken after the tragedy, but this performance will make it all whole!

The Band and The Projectionist are in The Community Leader’s employ.  An old-school overhead projector beams the lyrics to the ‘Song to Summon the Horsehead’ against the white wall of the theatre. The Projectionist handles the song lyric transparencies during the show. The Projectionist, a weedy, sullen character in a navy blue sweater, is also the puppeteer. He shines hand-drawn scenes and characters against the walls during the reconstruction. He moves them with Q-tips and gives them silly voices.

“Louder!” commands the Leader of the Community.

“We’re here to see the Horsehead, Horsehead, Horsehead-“

Yes, every soul who tromped through the icy drizzle to this post-industrial corner of London repossessed by art, every single soul, is implicated. Everyone who bought a seat to the first show of The Yard’s N.O.W. ’14 series this Tuesday night in February becomes a witness. The audience is a crucial part of Horsehead: A dark, rollicking satire; a weird, compelling ritual;  one of the most cohesive, inventive and fun pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.

When the horse-headed boy whinnies and charges into the theatre, the Leader of the Community traps him in a ‘municipal chalk circle.’ From his cage, the parameters of which are literally chalk lines drawn on the floor, the Horseheaded Boy (Steven) is forced to re-enact the atrocities he committed.

What atrocities? Tramplings. Steven used his booted human feet in equine fury.

The motive? Sexual shame, social isolation and, well…horse brains.

We, the audience, chant! We pray! We sing hymns! We boo! …Some of us.

David was easily the loudest and quickest to break into the catchiest ditty, “We burn monsters/OH/We burn monsters!”

The man is always up for an adventure; he’s a dream audience member. Yet, his face crumples into a compassionate grimace when asked to boo the Horsehead boy.

The Leader: “Shall we boo him, ladies and gentlemen? BOOOOOOO! BOOOOOOO!”

David leans over,”I…I don’t want to boo him! This feels so wrong!”

“BOOOOO! BOOOOOOOOO!”

“I kno-ow!” I whisper back, “The liberal arts have ruined us!”

“I SAID SHALL WE BOO HIM, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN?”

Despite the chants, and the strange, enticing sense of community, there is no sense of victory at the play’s end.

The Leader of the Community cradle’s Steven’s severed horse head in his arms with a glazed look of shock in his eyes. The Leader’s voice no longer booms. He is unsure. His last command, for the audience to sing a hymn and take a ‘victory lap’ around the space, is issued in a daze.

It seemed to me that The Leader of the Community felt lost without the firm roles of the reconstruction. Perhaps, he had been doing the reconstruction over and over again- only this show was the show when he lost control and killed the captive Horsehead.

Now it was all over.

What had been put back together?

The audience’s ‘victory lap’ around The Leader of the Community and the horse head was funereal, and equally unsure. What did we just do? What was that all about? David and I weren’t certain, but the spell cast by the Horsehead has lasted weeks after we saw the show.

Over beer at The Yard bar, David said he saw a satire of “provincial English council meetings” in the show: the shabbiness, the shaming, the forming of mobs and designating of scapegoats. He talked about how becoming part of the mob was irresistable as well as uncomfortable. We discussed Frankenstein, fear of monsters, and the desire to create a sensible narrative, that is self-justifying and self-preserving in the wake of tragedy.

For me, the play also evoked the ritual played out after every atrocity committed by a ‘monster.’ The Theatre of Atrocity Coverage. I thought of the Boston Marathon bombers. I thought about the DC Metro area snipers. The school shooters. The outraged, wounded community, in addition to due process, demands a reconstruction. What exactly happened? Scenes are played out again and again in the media and over dinner conversation.

Who was he? There is always a sense that if the life and motives of the monster can only be explored and understood, answers will emerge. The victims will discover a crucial separation between their own humanity and the monster. So often, both the pitiable humanity and the inhumane monstrosity of the perpetrator emerges, muddying as well as clarifying the portrait of a killer.

Justice will be served!…What kind of justice? And will it be cathartic? Is there any release, any satisfaction?

Horsehead brilliantly explored all the elements of the reconstruction in the wake of tragedy- the pain and righteousness behind it;  all the complicated, perverse, problematic relishing that can come with it; the ambivilance, relief, or lack of relief…It is about that staged transformation between something broken and the inevitable way life continues. Does the transformation always occur? If we perform the ritual and it doesn’t, what does that mean?

The show was a rough-hewn, well thought out crucible for both incorporating and alienating the audience as a community. The audience members were both participants and observers in a mob, placing the consequences of the play solely in their own hearts and minds. I’m sure that the crowd reaction and feeling varied with each show.

It was fucked up. It was funny. It was sad. I was never sure what was going to happen next. To me, those are the marks of a good show.

Most importantly, Horsehead is a piece of theatre that has haunted me.

I think about it often. Walking around London, the catchy tunes sometimes float, unbidden, into my brain and match the beat of my boots on cobbles. I hear my own voice in the chorus echo at the strangest moments: When I read the news headlines; when the pub conversation turns to politics; just as I sit down in a completely different theatre to watch a completely different play…

“We’re here to see the Horsehead/Horsehead/Horsehead/

We’re here to see the Horsehead, like be-fore!”

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Retail Chronicles: Potty Talk, The Prologue

Not long ago, the famous columnist and sedimentary scholar, Gene Weingarten, wrote a column for The Washington Post magazine reviewing a product for sufferers of Poop Shame. I don’t recommend that everyone read it aloud at the breakfast table, but when I did, it inspired an engrossing release of opinions and anecdotes. I myself was viscerally reminded of the robust lack of poop shame I witnessed when I used to hide in a women’s bathroom at an old hellish job. I’ll return to that, and my unintentional bathroom study, in another post.

First, for those not familiar with the concept of Poop Shame, I’ll give you a classic example:

I am waiting for one of three stalls to free up at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Frederick, Maryland. The line is long. All stalls are occupied. There is no chit-chat amongst the waiting women. The tension suddenly amplifies when fortissimo anal trumpeting and toilet bowl splashes echo off the tile.

A little girl at the front of the line screams,”LaTanya, you NASTY!”

Her sister emerges from the middle stall and says, “Shut up! Wasn’t me!”

Another brassy burst sounds, acquitting LaTanya.

Giggling, her little sister uses the middle stall.

Now, I’m the last in line. There are a dozen women before me. However, the two ladies occupying the two other stalls refuse to emerge, knowing that they’re are nailed as Poop Trumpeter suspects. It had to be one of them, right? And neither of them can bear the thought of leaving the stall to face a crowd of women who heard them poop! Worse, one of them was not the Poop Trumpeter, and she can’t stand the thought that people might think she was the one!

It’s not like someone farted at the Macy’s perfume counter. The Poop Trumpeter is doing exactly what is acceptable to do, exactly where it is acceptable to do it. Poopin’ in a toilet in a private cubicle. Yet, even though the ladies room line is long– even though it takes forever and a half for the line diminish—even though all the fussing, twitching women, their eyes tearing up, have to cycle through one bathroom stall to relieve themselves–the embarrassed stall-sitters settle in for a stake out.

I know this is exactly what is going on. I am positive, because, as I said, I am the last in line. No one else enters the bathroom. So when my turn to use the stall comes, the bathroom is quiet. No more shoes or shoe-wearers waiting against the wall are visible from the view under the stall doors.

This is when one possible Poop Trumpeter flushes. She seizes the moment, that critical moment when the last person in the a long line of witnesses, me, is safely ensconced where I can’t see her. She washes up and scurries out at top speed. The second occupier waits cautiously. She must’ve been the real Poop Trumpeter, because she didn’t leave, conscience-free with her fellow suspect. No, if she was innocent she’d have had the satisfaction of shooting knowing disdain at the culprit. Instead, the Poop Trumpeter makes sure I’m not flushin’ anytime soon, then she makes her getaway.

That, readers, is a brief and clear illustration of the Poop Shame phenomenon. For additional stories, I can only refer to Mr. Weingarten’s piece. For the sake of full disclosure, I will confess that I am both a defecator and a urinator. Poopery. Pissery. These acts are committed daily, hourly, every second…And I suspect all of you are guilty, guilty, guilty!

Rules for Recreation

From time to time, I like to address my fellow foreign travelers. Yes, I am only too happy to share the little bites of knowledge I’ve received during my rambles! Really, it’s no trouble at all.  My experience may be small, even limited, but rest assured, that won’t stop me from discoursing at length.

I grew up in a sub-rural place, so I’m intoxicated by city life. Still, there comes the moment when the hubbub bubble bursts, and then I love nothing more than being able to retreat to one of the city green spaces.  Yet, in a foreign country, one can’t just expect to go to a park and do everything you’d do in a park back home. The parks are different. The rules are different. (Just because a sign is in English doesn’t mean it says what you think it does.)

So come with me to the English borough where I perch these days. I’ll be your garden guide.

The green spaces in the shadow of the Tower of London are sown in between repurposed warehouses, housing developments and abandoned commercial docks. Tower Hamlets boasts over 120 parks! It’s true! And hey, you may get to visit them all in one post…Because you’re not allowed to hang around in any of ’em for too long…

Let’s start with The Wapping Rose Gardens!

In February, there’s no evidence of roses. I don’t spy any wintering bushes through the wrought iron gates. Damn, must’ve gotten here too late. If you clutch the bars with chapped hands and hang your head, as I do, you will spy the little placard near the bottom of the gate that explains, This is a locked park. Note: When city parks close, they close with lock and key.

However, there are two clearly visible signs at either entrance to the Wapping Rose Gardens. Even when the park is shut, you can read about what is expected during your next visit.

The sign reads: Wapping Rose Gardens, We Hope You Enjoy Your Visit. These lines are followed by two simple images: One of a person applying  plastic bag behind a jaunty-eared dog. The second features our cartoon protagonist tossing squiggly detritus into an industrial trash can. Below these pictures is the command: NO CONGREGATING.

Here is our first rule! These muddy, knobbled few meters of earth are not for congregation. In fact, the sign clearly outlines what you are supposed to do in this park. Enter. Expel and fling as you animals are wont. Clean it up. Exit. No congregating. Wapping Rose Gardens makes this course of action all the more appealing, because the thin trees will give no shade, the featured barren earth is only appropriate for squatting over, and a freshly rain-washed stone path guides you pointedly from gate to gate.

As you attend briskly to your park-going duties, you may glimpse some of the park wildlife out of the corner of your eye! (Note: Prolonged attention to the wildlife may cause a temporary environmentalist congregation, which I must discourage for legal reasons.) Pigeons linger, hoping the trash bins will overflow. Unimpressed sea birds spin overhead then head back towards the Thames.

When you leave Wapping Rose Gardens, just in case you did not notice the approximately six foot tall sign I described before, a placard on the gate refreshes your memory about the rules. This time, our cartoon dog friend is unattended. He’s gone rogue. He defiantly leaves a distinct symbol: a curly cone of crap. A big circle with a slash through it surrounds the crime scene. Block letters admonish: CLEAN UP! In lowercase it educates: Dog (Fouling of the Land) Act, 1996. Do not forget that there is a legal dimension to your park visit. Foul the land no further. Please.

Now you have an idea of what an in-depth visit to one of the local parks may entail. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to spend that much time with you in each park, and frankly, it’d be discouraged. We were pushing the limits by convening so long outside the Rose Gardens gates. If you brought a friend we’d be teetering dangerously on the brink of a gathering. However, I have compiled a quick guide to other notable Tower Hamlets parks. Please refer to it and prepare accordingly for each visit.

Park: Fugue Street Gardens

Rules: No Loitering. Be Mindful of Noise, Residential Area. 

Features: Muddy 8’x10′ of crabgrass, wrought iron fencing, one mature oak

Park: Sniffing Corner

Rules: No Foreplay. Move Along.

Features: A healthy clump of weeds, damp-crotched linden grove, clotted trash collection along eastern chainlink

Park: Heckles-in-Snakes

Rules: No Littering. No Self-Aggrandisement.

Features: No gates. No fences. Four signs.Three mature trees and six dirt beds. Mysterious hissing at night time.

Park: Saint Tromple

Rules: No Tittering. No Cribbing the Toad

Features: Concrete walkway around circular pond. Lush pond greenery. One angry duck. Amphibious mutterings.

Park: Priest’s Finger

Rules: No Snookering. No Dickering.

Features: Triangular wedge between St. Jonathan of Cats [Church of England] and the Laundrymat. Plushy grass.

Park: Whiffling Twidge

Rules: No Plotting. No Dissembling. No Leaning on the Tulips.

Features: Dormant tulip garden. Statue of Whiffling Twidge.

Oval patch of turf, sporting tiny punctures in the dirt every 1/2″. Humming shrubbery.

 

I offer only a brief sample of the panoply of parks in Tower Hamlets. Still I hope it is informative. Fellow park-going foreigners, please congregate in the comments section.