MAN TO MAN
November 22, 2017
The usually isolated one-person show tactics of lucid storytelling, flashback, and protean character shifts are mashed together by Manfred Karge in such a way that the largest surprise about Man to Man is its linear narrative – Ella, played by Maggie Bain in Wales Millennium Centre’s production of Alexandra Wood’s new translation, recounts taking on her husband’s identity after his premature death in order to survive Nazi Germany. It is fitting that a piece demanding so much modularity from its one performer has two directors – Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham, who craft an experience that takes spatially fixed Bain’s spectators from BAM Fisher’s seats to Ella’s every memory.
The space Ella inhabits has fluid continuity. Designed by Richard Kent, we walk in on a humble studio apartment. The dimensions are altered so that all lines slope to the uppermost corner, charging the largely empty space with lonely tension.
Rick Fisher’s lighting divvies up when we are accompanying or observing Ella, who speaks to us directly under naturalistic bulbs. She is disturbingly good-humored about her traumatic past, perhaps because the worst is now behind her. Without warning, however, lighting will invert, dropping Ella into a memory. As she makes an effort to keep us engaged, we wish she would quit being so hospitable that she might grapple more presently with her flashback.
Andrzrej Goulding’s projections further confound. Frost permeates the walls when Ella talks of a hard winter. Bricks crumble away when a wall’s dismantling allows her to visit her husband’s grave. When she finds his grave replaced with another, walls rebuild, now of an internalized sort.
It is ultimately Mike Walker’s sound design, embedding occasional whispered echoes and talking objects, which situates us inside Ella’s head. Traumatic memory, however, is not faultily cerebral, but physically exacting. As such, the only certainty we have into Ella’s experience is Bain’s wild physicality: her well-trained masculine gait, slumped posture, and constantly shifting eyes, vigilant for an instance of invisible manipulation overcoming her – when Ella is in bed with her husband, or when some suspicious soldiers forcibly check her genitals.
In this sense, hallucinogenic sequences in the room become hyperreal. It starts tenderly – Ella behind her husband’s jacket over a chair, her arm slipped through the sleeve as though it were his, caressing her(self). Later, she climbs walls, subtly embedded with hooks, allowing her to hang a chair like a painting to watch TV. Not always in control, she gets sucked into a suitcase that holds a dress she once wore.
Telling us still in a male presentation, Ella permanently maintains the incidentally queer existence adopted out of necessity. A woman develops feelings for male-Ella, advances deflected by the remote existence of the very wife Ella used to be. When she is under persecution, Ella gives her female-Ella’s passport, effectively accepting that she will never live as a woman again.
Man to Man inverts notions of transgenderism from many sides. Some say it is a choice; transpersons do not agree, suggesting self-directed compulsion. Ella similarly had no choice, though externally motivated. Some transpersons remain in a body that feels incorrect as to function in society. Ella transitions into an identity that feels incorrect to the same end. Both are damaged by prolonged, forced misalignment between internal and external existences.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews