Playwright Fly Steffens has the phrase “quem quaeritis” tattooed on her collarbone, which, if you’re a theater geek, speaks volumes. The Latin phrase, meaning “who are you looking for?” is the first recorded dramatic dialog in Western Civilization in the thousand years after the robust pagan theater was supplanted by Christian ritual. The line, sung in an Easter Mass by some monk playing an angel at the empty tomb of the risen messiah, was the very beginning of Medieval mystery plays, and by roundabout roads, the grand tradition of Marlowe, Shakespeare—and Fly Steffens.
Not that the prolific 23-year-old’s play, Love Is a Horse With a Broken Leg Trying to Stand While 45,000 People Watch, is quite the ground-breaking work of dramatic literature, but she does have a real knack for dramatic situations. And if the script (actually three short thematically-linked plays) seems like something written during an emotional meltdown while under the influence of James Joyce and Charles Bukowski—well, that’s pretty much what it is. Steffens wrote it four years ago during a personal crisis, has staged a few readings, and its full-scale (if low-budget) manifestation opened last week on the tobacco-friendly patio of Red Dot Tavern. The playwright also runs light and sound for the production, and one hopes that the staging works for her as a personal exorcism. But there’s more going on here than theater as therapy.
The show opens with a world-weary Tom Waits ballad; the super-casual atmosphere of Red Dot, with it’s concrete floor and pole-barn canopy, suits the production well; even the waitress, whisking efficiently in and out of the stage lighting, seems part of the action. The scenes take place in some eternally-depressed Midwestern suburban hell: diners, racetracks, strip joints, grubby apartments: a writer stuck on one word; a photographer who wants to burn her negatives; a poet who writes the same poem ove and over. Love Is a Horse (etc.) bum’s-rushes us into in a world of losers, artists, and artist/losers at the dead end of the road less taken: generally distraught and usually drunk, they struggle with relationships, obsess on their obsessions, talk in cryptic non-sequiturs, and smoke cigarette after cigarette to fill the void left by their bankrupt inspiration. It’s hard not to think of it as a recent theater graduate contemplating an artist’s prospects in the current post-collapse economy, or a dramatic version of R. Crumb’s diagram of hopelessness. But weaving together themes of love, art, and addiction, Steffens is treading on venerable, if well-traveled, ground.
It flirts dangerously with nihilism (no more than Beckett), and it would be pretty hard to take if Steffens didn't have such a good ear for dialog: her lines flow crisply, as loopily nonlinear as her literary models, if more restrained and naturalistic; you can imagine people actually talking this way. The best thing is her obvious compassion for her characters; she embraces them sympathetically, like Micky Rourke in the movie Barfly happy to blow his paycheck on drinks for “all my friends.” The young performers throw themselves into this dirty-ashtray of a world with great commitment, and if they don’t seem quite as shopworn as the mood merits, well, give them time (says the bitter old drunk). It’s hard to convincingly play “beaten down by life” if you haven’t been, but of the actors, Glenn Widdicombe as a last-chance gambler and Tim Palecek (in two roles; his douchebag character could have stepped right out of a Mamet play), best capture the flop-sweat desperation the play requires. Steffens seems to have a special knack for writing male characters, which is more than you can say about many male authors writing for women.
Love, art, addiction, and gambling all make great promises, which often lead to wreck and ruination; artists of the dive, like Joyce, Bukowski, and Waits celebrate our defeats, raising them to the level of art, making it possible to see our lowest moments as part of a story which runs utterly against the grain of American triumphalism. And if inspiration fails, the horse loses, and the girl is lost-- hey, that’s life. Who are you looking for? One thing Fly Steffens makes abundantly clear: they’re not going to save you.
Love Is a Horse With a Broken Leg Trying to Stand While 45,000 People Watch
by Fly Steffens
Directed by Emily Rindt
The Red Dot
2498 N Bartlett Ave
Admission is FREE, but with limited seating. Standing room will be available.
Cabaret Style with Table/Drink service during the performances. Adult content, with tobacco use onstage.