backstage (2006-13)

In Effect, No Effect

Existentialism comes to town with the gruelling production, Knox County Commission Meeting

by George Logan

Playing at the City County Building is a performance of an avant-garde production called Knox County Commission Meeting . This drama is not for everybody, but for patient theatergoers it contains certain insights.

The play has a large cast, and opens in a provocative tableaux, with an array of 19 “commissioners” seated behind a counter as if in solemn judgment. As it turns out, this will be the production’s only scene. The setting is never specified, but the costumes suggest the late 1970s.

The cast is overwhelmingly male. The few women are conservatively dressed, despite one who has hair of an unusual orange color. However, there is one variant, seated on the far left of the tribunal, a woman in a black cowboy hat. 

The production opens, improbably, with what is termed a “devotional”: a Christian prayer, in which a minister twice invokes “the name of Jesus.” It further twists the setting, suggesting that this action takes place in a post-Constitutional world in which Christianity is established as the government religion.

One by one several of the commissioners speak, while remaining seated; obviously coached to minimize physical gestures, they stay within a monotone with minimal lip movement, cleverly disorienting dramaturgy that often leaves the audience uncertain about which commissioner is actually speaking.

What they say is not immediately comprehensible. The script maintains a deliberate obtuseness. The dialogue on stage seems to concern itself almost entirely with spatial matters, but does so employing only words. There are no visible charts; there are no maps nor diagrams, no photographs nor artists’ renderings. The production is most effective when it points out the inadequacy and perhaps meaninglessness of words. Grammar is regularly abused by the commissioners who, despite their conservative demeanor, exhibit a certain wild anarchy with word usage. One commissioner says, as if seriously, “the people that was talking to me last night would really and truly like to see some part of it as a place as people to connect it to, the way we have here, and they have always been there.”

Unspecific pronouns flow into each other; words wash over the audience like warm ripples in a jacuzzi over the corpse of a drowning victim.

Language’s shortcomings are apparent, but no discipline is safe. In the first act is a 15-minute discussion about whether a developer of a particular plot of land will be allowed to build eight houses, or perhaps nine. He is, by the law, permitted to build 8.8 houses. In this way the playwright points out the absurdity of mathematics as well as grammar.

As if to emphasize the audience’s bewilderment, the playbills are kept in a stack behind the players, inducing audience members to go on stage to obtain a program and become, in effect, a part of the drama. Once obtained, however, the program sheds little light. The audience is left to discern the meanings on its own.

Somewhat more comprehensible than the “commissioners” are a series of “citizens” who make appeals before the tribunal.

Early in the play a man stands to speak on behalf of the Dogwood Arts Festival, and remarks that the festival has done much to improve the quality of its “artesians,” apparently an allusion to the depth of the well of art, the soul’s only hope.

However, art is also obscure. A woman standing with the man reveals—but only to the commissioners—a signature painting said to be called “Appalachian Spring.” The commissioners respond with applause. Some members of the audience applaud, too, even though they cannot see the picture. At the performance we attended, this sly experiment in group behavior—or, if you prefer, a practical joke—was successful.

“Let’s be festive in the next month,” the man concludes solemnly.

One puzzlement is the director’s choice to endow the commissioners with somewhat exaggerated Southern accents. When the chairman says, “Awl in favor say aah,” the commissioners respond, as if in one voice, “aah.” The reason they’re assigned stronger accents than most of the citizens who appeal to them may be a reference to the primacy of the provincial.

The postmodern aspects of the play are most striking in a lengthy discussion of whether it’s appropriate to vote to reopen a certain parking garage. It becomes clear that the parking garage in question is the parking garage for the building that includes the theater. The fact that the characters onstage in the theater are gathered to discuss parking for the theater becomes the height of circular absurdism, to a degree unmatched by Tzara or, for that matter, Tarzan.

An obvious allusion to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot appears, or doesn’t appear, in the form of an applicant called Gary D. Anderson. He is called but never seen. His West Knoxville project has been on the schedule in several previous meetings, but no one ever appears to represent it. It’s obvious to the audience, but perhaps not to the commissioners, that this negated Messiah may never show up.

“If we were to take him off the agenda, what would that mean?” asks one commissioner. Answers are not obvious, for them or for us.

The longest act comes toward the end, concerning a large parcel of land on Campbell Station Road. “Are you in opposition to this?” a commissioner asks. “Sort of,” a citizen says.

In a sudden, harsh moment of clarity concerning the tribunal’s inadequacies, one of the commissioners compares their body to “Larry, Moe, and Curly,” a reference to the mid-20th-century existentialist thespians.

Another citizen complaining about the Campbell Station Road project responds, “Now I’m terribly confused and don’t know which way to go.” As if to emphasize his existential plight, he mentions that he’s a Ph.D. at UT, symbolizing the helplessness of knowledge in an absurd universe.

 “I’m terribly confused, rammed from pillar to post, from County Commission, to MPC, to staff,” he adds. “I’m not sure anybody’s looking at the collective impact.”

It’s one of the few flaws in this script, belaboring the obvious in this otherwise understated drama.

The script recovers its gnomic gravity in the play’s most memorable line, delivered by a commissioner called Larry Stephens: “In effect, you’re saying it has no effect.”

The production is a three-and-a-half-hour ordeal, a Warholian dramatization of stasis and an embrace of emptiness: the duration reminds one of what playwright Richard Greenberg called “the excruciation of time.” The audience yearns for the release of death.

Throughout the ordeal, the woman in the black cowboy hat, the one we might have assumed would be the hero, or villain, maintains a mysterious silence. She is an enigma, perhaps a statement that there are no heroes or villains in our universe, only death and its victims.

Note: future performances may contain slight alterations.

What: Knox County Commission Meeting , a play, by Knox County Commission