The Anesthesiologist: A Poetic Play

Included beneath the poetic play is a conversation between the author, Jefferson Navicky, and Human Company (www.humancompany.com), discussing the possibility of staging a work such as this.

Characters:

She: 22-30 year-old girl, (dressed in jeans and hooded sweatshirt, alternating with a white dress). Plain appearance, short hair.

Anesthesiologist {A}: 58 year-old man, usually dressed in slacks and a button up, light blue oxford shirt. During monologues, he carries a hard-back copy of Moby Dick on stage with him.

Female Narrator: 40-60 years.

Setting:

Black box theatre. Upon entering, audience members are given a coffee mug, a small plate and a set of chopsticks/fork. Music plays soft as audience enters, ambient soundtrack.

—–

The twin histories of nostalgia and bone-snapping.

Vertical Interrogations of Strangers

Bhanu Kapil

{The Anesthesiologist in all white scrubs, surgical mask, nondescript brown loafers. She lies curled on floor, sleeping, in a hooded sweatshirt. The A walks around her sleeping form holding a syringe in his hand.}

Narrator: Breath comes heavy.

Narrator: Hood as implement. Night draws up her darkening. Sometimes she can’t get warm. She sits with her back against the heater, lets its electric coils undulate into the base of her spine. Hood as night-stroking apparatus. Warm under this fabric. Breath fetid, sweet, emanations of what has settled in her intestines. The dryness of flannel sheets. Snow, white and clean and soft and deadly in its comfort. A hump like a snow hill.

Narrator: Needles prick, dull clatter as syringe bounces on wood floorboards. Toe wiggles, head falls off and she has to keep getting up, getting up, getting up again to go to the corner and screw head back on. Her back and lungs, touched invisibly. Darkness and sleep and night, longing for day to come. Birds, come wake me. Nuzzle me, my deer. Trees wave, clouds pass, mind shatters with its sudden perceptions. Fingernails fall off.

{A carefully, slowly lays the syringe down next her. Lights go out.}

{Attendants pass through attendance for coffee. She stands behind the counter with apron.}

Narrator: The coffee shop is quiet, a lull before lunch, gentle hum of refrigeration.

{A enters, briskly.}

A: One regular coffee to stay.

She shouts: No, che cazzo sai! Pistolino! {Spit flies from her mouth as she pops her p’s.} Che shamo! Vaffanculo! {She spits in his face. Her voice is raw and broken and satisfied.}

{He gasps, wipes spit slowly from face. Pauses, quietly, looking at her, ashamed.}

A, sobered, penetrating: Do you think you’re not apart of this?

{The A wears sunglasses and swim trunks, sitting in wooden chair, readying to write on himself, arm upturned and exposed. He taps a quill/fountain pen against his teeth. She sits beside A. in a beach chair, sunglasses and bathing suit, staring at audience as if sun bathing and sun baked.}

A, exasperated: What do you think I did to you?

Narrator: She climbs to the top of a sycamore and looks down at babies – cubs, fawns, puppies. She becomes dizzy and floats out over the bridge, out beyond the city to where whales play.

{She clicks her tongue to speak to whales.}

Narrator: Baby whales roll in white water, try to avoid the tigers of red weather.

A, tipping his sunglasses to look at her: The tigers ate my family, chewed my mother, tore my father. I watched it all as I did my anatomy homework. Then I went away, but came back later to burn down the house so there wasn’t any evidence. I actually enjoyed it. It was a happy time.

A, turning toward audience: You may wonder where is the mother in all this, the feminine counterpart, the receptive protector? The gods were troubled by the giant phallus that set about to destroy the world. The black stone linga was devastating forests and palaces, boring through lakes and people, filing down mountains and hills. The gods launched great armies against him, but were powerless. Finally the Great Goddess manifested herself in the sky, took hold of the giant phallus, and slipped him into her, where upon he experienced such pleasure that his destructive madness was pacified. Well, that sounds nice, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s not going to change anything. One can try to name the mother but the mother is disorder and her nights are noise. Unnamable, walled in and pitching stones.

{He puts sunglasses back on, looks at her. She ignores him.}

A, uncertain: We have a deal, right?

{She continues to ignore.}

Narrator: Her mouth full of sticky whiteness like ashen webs in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. The Anesthesiologist inscribes her dimensions, number of bones, shape of toes, degree curve of anklebone, size of bust onto his left forearm in colonial script.

{The A begins to write her dimensions in tiny script on his forearm with a pen, continues through narration and his speech.}

Narrator: Whales gutted on the beach. Long strips of blubber like giant french toast fingers, ten thousand red oxen cloud the sea.

A (speaking down, almost mumbling, into his arm): I must record this information or else it will be gone forever. You will grow up, you know. You won’t always be like this.

{When finished, the A exits absent-mindedly. She remains on stage.}

She, to audience: A poem I once wrote for English class: “My father is a barber. He cuts hair with a pair of chopsticks. People don’t know the difference. It’s like he’s tossing a salad, or, for short hair, like he’s checking for lice. Sometimes he makes buzzing noises with his mouth for the sound of the clippers. He says to his customers, close your eyes, let your brain release, let your hair hang free, I must work. There is art in his touch, in the energy and attention he pays to those once living strands. Often, hair bounces under my father’s touch like a dog about to go on a walk. Other times, hair shines with a light from within. It’s love, my father says, I love hair; it is only natural that hair should respond to such love. Who doesn’t want to be loved? My father clicks together his chopsticks. No one, he answers.”

{Lights out.}

{Anesthesiologist Theme Song plays over speakers. She and The A. sit listening back to back in center of stage. They listen to music for at least four minutes. She sits entranced by the music, drinking in its peaceful and strange tranquility. The violin moves her to tears. Goosebumps. The A. begins to get restless.}

A (in a loud whisper, nostalgic yet bone-snapping): You could’ve been that good. If you would’ve practiced more. If you would’ve listened to the masters. If you would’ve stopped playing in the forest by yourself and invested in your future, then you’d have a future.

{She ignores him. Music continues.}

A, standing up. She remains seated, holds her knees. He speaks towards the ceiling: That’s it. That’s enough. Play something different. Play something I can dance to.

{Matt Rock’s “Poison Apples” begins to play. The A. loves it, moving slowly at first, joyfully, then spinning around faster by himself, dervishly. Making cha-cha-cha noises with his mouth and grinning maniacally. He reaches down for her hand.}

A: Hunt me, fuck me, play me a nocturne.

{She looks up at him with disbelief. Lights out. The A exits. She moves to back right of stage.}

{Attendants offer beets. She reads spotlighted from the back right corner of the stage.}

Beets with Orange and Almonds

1 lb. beets
Juice of 3 oranges
Zest of 1 orange
1/4 C. unsalted butter
Salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/3 C. slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 orange, for garnish
2 T. coarsely chopped chervil or 1 to 2 t. chopped fresh tarragon, for
garnish
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Trim the leaves off the beets, leaving
about an inch of stem. Set the beets in a roasting pan. Bake until the skins are crinkled and loose and a sweet beet smell permeates the kitchen. Medium-sized beets should take about 1-1/2 to 2 hours, small ones about 1-1/2 hours. Are there ethics to sex? Are there ethics to erotics? Sex as the urge to eat, erotics as the urge to use cutlery. What turns you on? What do you want to subvert? What are your fantasies? Are there ethics to abuse? How are you attracted to the erotics of abuse? What is the nature of attraction? Are there ethics to it? With tweezers, a scalpel, my own set of surgical implements encased in a red velvet box. Do you think you understand this? It is all a movie, black and white. The absence of sound. Is it wrong to want to remain special?

{The A. sits in his underwear on a wooden chair in the back left corner of stage.}

A: Let me tell you my dream. I’m usually against listening to other people’s dreams and telling mine, because everyone starts psycho-analyzing: “What does the white whale mean?” or “What is the gaping maw? Why does he only have one leg? What does it all mean?” How the fuck should I know? Give me a break. Who do you think I am, Orson Fucking Wells? Herman Fucking Dickville? But anyway, my dream…a girl was growing a skirt of skin, thick white puff-pastry, elephantitusy like a slow unraveling tongue, wool tights on an August morning, wrinkled waves lapping up the shores of her legs.

{The A. stands up, acts out the dream.}

She farmed the skirt up from her ankles, wriggling it up to her waist, resting it on her hip ledges. What do you think about this dream? I’m having a hard time breathing. My throat is so tight. My fibers are choking me. I want to pull my neck apart like cotton candy. My choking sounds. I’m picturing you getting ready for the prom, ruffled skin dress sticking to your body, stink rising from your crevices, your dimensions carved across my eyelids. After the prom, that boyfriend you had in high school, watching Saturday Night Live in the basement, lying together on the pink couch. You didn’t know I knew about this, did you, how when he went down on you, he had gum in his mouth, and it got stuck in your cunt hair and you had to cut it out. With my surgical scissors. With fingernail clippers. How do I know about all this? How do I do it, you ask. My ears like two seashells. I just do it.

{She sits on chair in center of stage, leaning over knees, with an empty pie tin in her hands. She wears a surgical mask.}

Narrator: She waits to take the pumpkin pie from the oven. A bluebird alights outside her window. She thinks about observing the Sabbath tonight. Not creating anything. Not cutting anything. She drinks a glass of wine. It goes to her head. She swims in a sea, a book of clouds at sunset, a single rowboat – let us paint vermillion stars on the oars. When the water recedes, she is walking along a tightrope as a trapeze artist, balancing herself by carrying a large toothbrush horizontally in front of her.

A (from off stage): Don’t worry, if you fall, I’ve got you.

{She glances doubtful, scornful and unbelieving in the direction of his voice.}

Narrator: She can see him far below her. His face is the net that will catch her if she falls. She walks the tightrope but knows she will never make it to the other end. She tries to see the other side, but cannot. Teeters. She can feel his breath rising hot and foul below her.

A, gently in a loud whisper: I’ve got you, don’t you worry, I’ve got you.

{She raises her eyebrows.}

Narrator: The Anesthesiologist smiles like some kind of heaven. She falls headfirst as if collapsing, released, brandishing the toothbrush in front of her like a harpoon, a malignant iron. The anesthesiologist opens his mouth.

A, yelling fiercely from off stage: My true death rod!

Narrator: As she descends she smells her pumpkin pie burning in the oven. She wonders what happens to bones flooded with electricity, wonders where whales go to die.

{She gets up as if she smells something burning, drops the pie tin, clatter, and walks off stage.}

{The A. alone on stage, like MC for Cabaret, smiling big, welcoming with open arms.}

A: It’s almost intermission!

{He bows. Cue for the audience to clap.}

A: I am the soliloquizer; soliloquies are my specialty, talking all the time to continue like the bruited wheel of a Rubicon riverboat, but you can’t prove anything. I’m too smart for that. There’s no going back.

{Cue audience to applaud. The A. bows again, gestures ‘no, no stop, you really shouldn’t’ but obviously loves it, then he exits. She enters, meanders around stage, waiting expectant. Her body language: ‘let’s get this over with.’ The A. bar is brought on stage; it is the oven turned on its side. The A. stands behind the bar wearing a bow tie.}

A, politely: Would you like something from the refreshment stand? {lapsing into his usual mix of casual sycophancy and force} Diet cola has no calories, you know, that’s good, it’ll keep you skinny, you don’t need to put on any weight, you look good when you’re a little emaciated, but then there’s the synthetic sugar, it causes cancer in lab rats. How can a cola have no calories and still be good for you? It can’t, it will all kill you someday.

{She turns away from the bar, pulls a cigarette from a pack, flicks her lighter, but can’t light the cigarette. The A. follows her, stands next to her, smoking a cigar.}

A: Cancer…but I’ve always enjoyed killing myself, it’s such a slow, indulgent process, I’m coughing {coughing exaggeratedly}, I’m spitting up blood. {suddenly composed} We should go back in. The second act is going to be a real killer. Once they find me, all I do is wreak havoc, splintering boats. I’ll send the whole crew to the bottom, only you survive, but do you really survive? Do you really want to? What is the quality of survival? You have to want to survive.

{The A. exits briskly. She’s left onstage, pauses as she notices audience, then begins to walk off. House lights suddenly come up. She freezes, holds gaze with audience. The audience stares quiet and expectant. Then she exits.}

**{Intermission}**

{Three minutes before action resumes, Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” plays over speakers.}

Here begins the discussion between Jefferson Navicky and Kelly Hanson:

Hi Kelly (and Royd),

Here is my play we discussed at Lodge a few weeks ago. As I mentioned, I haven’t quite figured out what its best/most authentic form is, and thus it feels pretty fragmented to me, which is both good and a little frustrating (which, again, may be good). Anyway, it is supposed to parallel someone going under, and coming out of, anesthesia.

My most recent thoughts were to edit out all of the female character’s speaking parts, and have her only respond/speak with movement/dance. But I don’t know how or what that would look like.

Parts of it have been published in elimae, The Oregon Literary Review, Omphalos, Fact-Simile, and maybe some other places, but if so, I forget them at the moment.

Below, I’m including a rough outline of action, which will probably make the play easier to read, and along the the attachment of the actual play, I’m including a list of props, which for some reason feels almost more important that any attempt at synopsis.

Thanks for showing an interest in the work,

Jefferson

Hi Jefferson,

Thank you so much for sending me your play! I’m sorry I haven’t responded before… my email account has been acting up and sending things into my spam folder, and I just found this there.

I’m very excited to read your work. I loved what you had to say about it, and I enjoyed meeting you and talking with you. Royd and I are going upstate for some much-needed rest and relaxation this coming week, so I’ll take it with me and give it the attention it deserves.

Hope all is well, and I look forward to speaking with you more.

Best,
Kelly Hanson
Human Company
www.humancompany.org

Hi Kelly,

That sounds good to me. Hope your time upstate is restful.

Jefferson

Hi Kelly,

I’m wondering what your thoughts are on The Anesthesiologist. I know that you’ve probably been extremely busy, as I have been, with the onset of fall and all the things that immediately pop up. And I also know that The A is a bit of a confusing/perplexing/provocative text, which has caused some people to, understandably, pass on the project. But I’m very willing to work with you and Royd and Human Company on an adaptation, or whatever, that may interest you.

Hope you’re well,
Jefferson

Hi Jefferson,

Thanks so much for checking in. I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch… truth is, I read your script back in late August. I have been bugging Royd to read it so I could talk it through with him, and he finally did this week. So I’ll include both our reactions… mine will be from memory (which is sometimes interesting… to see what impressions remain after time passes) and Royd’s will be much more fresh. Sorry if this seems fragmented! Mine first:

You are obviously an incredibly gifted writer. The language in this piece is beautiful and it really made me feel something. (I still feel something in response to it, even though I read it back in August.) I’m interested in hearing more about why it wants to be performed. Right now so much of it is carried by poetic language, rather than action on stage.

I do think some of your theatrical instincts are amazing, especially how you’ve engaged the audience… giving them stage directions, passing out coffee, etc. I also love the recipes. Reading or reciting a recipe seems like an interesting performed action that resonates in all kinds of ways… it makes me think of my grandmother, and how she always shares recipes with me, and the way you’ve pulled it out of context and collaged it in is very effective.

Have you read India Song by Marguerite Duras? For me it’s one of the most successful examples I’ve encountered of pairing narration with related action on stage. This is a really tricky thing to do… It is so easy for the action to just seem like a pantomime of the narration, which can just feel redundant in performance. Duras manages to give the narrators stakes in the action on stage, so they have a personal relationship to the action, which makes it very engaging. Something else that I’m playing with in my own work right now is juxtaposing the spoken text with the action on stage instead of trying to describe it.

This from Royd:

The writing is flowing and imagistic, but it doesn’t engage action. It is meant to be read rather than spoken. The images that build are ones I create in my mind, not ones that are brought out in the enunciation of the words paired with the images you describe. To actually render this on stage would take a drastic act of intervention, which could be interesting to work in collaboration using the text as a prompt for exploration in rehearsal to try to uncover something deeper, but then it’s not really a play. Your instinct to cut the narrator, or transform her into a series of dance moves is good, but it shows the need to activate the text and create a complimentary stage action to the imaginative narrative action that happens on the page. I wonder why do that? Why not flesh out the action on the page rather than attempting to either construct a way of being present with this material on stage, or using the material to go somewhere else, but then losing the presence of what is happening on the page?

The best playwrights who use abstraction in this way (Sarah Kane, Heiner Mueller) create spoken text paired with active contexts and stageable images. Something happens in enunciating the text, it is transformed into an active process. Beckett was the best at that, where language becomes action in the process of speaking it, it does something more than the images the words create, it has a force of it’s own in the speaking that reflects back on the actor to create a sense of character. This language feels literary, in a good way in reading it, but rather than it doing something to me in hearing it, I feel the need to try to catch up to it, and it stays just out of my grasp.

I don’t feel enough presence of the woman, as well. She feels like a foil for the Anesthesiologist, but if so, I need to know what she is doing all the time. Is her presence somehow reflective or contradictory to the A’s monologues? And then what role does the narrator play in that relationship, even if she is transformed into a moving commentator? I don’t see the connections clearly established. In reading it, I can accept the women just popping up every once in a while, but on stage she needs to be a constant, and if so, then we need to justify her presence.

Okay, back to Kelly again:

You clearly have a strong instinct that this needs to be on stage. I’m curious to hear more about that. What is it about the performer/audience relationship that is essential to what you’re doing here? And how can that guide where you take this piece?

I agree that a collaboration with a director/creator could be a great next step for you. Right now, we are putting all of our resources into an original piece that I’m developing over the next year, so we probably aren’t the right fit. I am interested in talking with you more if you find it helpful, but I won’t be able to act as much more than a consultant. If you like, I can try to suggest some people to contact who might be a good fit for the bigger process.

Hope all that is helpful, and I apologize for taking so long to respond!

Best,
Kelly (and Royd)

Hi Kelly,

Wow, thank you so much for such thoughtful comments. It has been quite a while since I have been able to think/talk/revise the project in this way. I really can’t overstate how helpful these comments are, and how grateful I am for these thoughts.

The project, as I mentioned, is definitely problematic. It is the first thing that I ever attempted to write for the stage, if one can consider it for the stage, and was also the first real longer narrative hybrid piece that I attempted. So it has that frustrating, yet endearing quality, for me, of a first born when a parent can’t really get too upset because both parties are going through a process for the first time.

That said, and to answer one of your questions, I am not completely sure why it wants to be performed. Honestly, maybe it doesn’t. All I know is that it was originally a gathering of prose poems that was circling around a theme, and like a labyrinth, I was trying to follow a thread to the center. Then one day I literally woke up and something told me that it should be a play. I’d never written a play, nor even thought of writing one, but nonetheless, it seemed too poignant to ignore. So I tried to make it into something that could be performed; I wouldn’t even necessarily call it a play, more like some type of extended performance piece. Eventually, if it ever makes it this far, and ideally, I’d like it to be published as a poetic play, and to be performed as a piece in some way/shape/form. Again, yes, as Royd said, some type of drastic directorial intervention may be necessary for the performance part to happen. Since I don’t really know that performance world, nor the experimental theatre world, very well, I don’t really know where to start, except to follow chance encounters like our meeting at Lodge in August.

I agree, Kelly, with your appreciation of the theatre instincts of the piece, which seem a little bizarre even to me as I read your recap of them. But that’s what I like about it — it is a strange piece that really functions with its own internal logic, not beholden to narrative resolution or even audience sensibilities, which might make for a frustrating viewing/reading experience, but yet at times there are these strange, humorous, intuitive moments (recipes, coffee, honey…) that seem to transcend some of the piece’s difficulties.

Thank you for the Duras recommendation. I’ve read other things, but not that particular one. You mention you are working with spoken text and action on stage. I wonder how you are approaching it; what are, if any, your philosophies? I’d be interested to know, as that area seems incredibly difficult to gracefully navigate.

I agree with Royd that the text doesn’t inspire as much action, though it does in some small ways, as it does imaginative thought, the kind of thought sparked by reading and the necessary imaginations. And if I’m going to bring it more towards theatre, I will have to inject more action into the text, which at the moment feels nearly impossible because I don’t know how to enact anamorphosis (if that’s a word), don’t know how to change it from one animal to another without losing its essence. This seems fear based, yet still important.

Royd mentioned that he felt like he had to keep trying to catch up with the text, but that it was continually a little beyond his grasp. It seems like that could be a good thing, but not necessarily. I wonder if it was a good thing.

And then, finally, of course, I don’t know what to do with the girl. I’ve tried so many interventions for her character, so many ways to give her increased agency or increased voice, or something, but none of them feel authentic to me. And to be honest, that bothers me. I’d like her to be a formidable foil to the Anesthesiologist, but honestly, as much as I want her to be that, she isn’t. She tries, somewhat, but she can’t stand up against him, at least not until the end and even that scene is more of an act of preservation, an act of exit, more than anything else. Her character bothers me, as does the A, but for different reasons. The A is pathological, maniacal, and even when he nears vulnerability, he is still crazy, and I wouldn’t really want to be near him as a person. She, on the other hand, never comes into focus as a fully developed character. Yes, she disappears and hides in the wings, she recites recipes that aren’t even her own; in reality, she is not a matured adult and she finds herself locked, so to speak, into this world with this madman who is hellbent on destroying them both. So, in the end, I suppose she is successful just by the fact of breaking the seal on that contained world. Regardless, she is problematic.

I would love any other names of places to contact about the piece. I’m trying to move it ahead very slowly at this point; I tried the full speed ahead approach for a few years and that hasn’t gotten anywhere, at least not beside a few published excerpts. So I’m really trying to intuitively move it ahead at its own pace, and an extremely important part of that progression seems like it is talking with you and Royd about this project. Thank you so much for your time and insights. Really, they’re invaluable.

Good luck mounting your own piece for Human Co., and please keep me informed as to when it will be performed.

Jefferson

Jefferson Navicky‘s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Artifice, Staccato, Bombay Gin, & Smokelong Quarterly. In 2007, Black Lodge Press published his chapbook, Map of the Second Person. He teaches writing at Southern Maine Community College. Other excerpts from his poetic play, The Anesthesiologist, have appeared in Omphalos, elimae, Fact-Simile and the Oregon Literary Review. The play was also a finalist for Acorn Production’s 2008 Ten-Minute Play Competition.

Human Company is a group of artists challenging the boundaries of performance experience, blurring the distinctions between theatre, dance, image, language, and sound to create a new theatre of engagement. Our pieces are developed in the rehearsal room through process and exploration to create work that is energetic, passionate and playful. We hope to stimulate a dialogue in the performance community about what theatre is and what it can be in both open forum discussions and with our work on stage. Ultimately, we want to make work that evokes what is unique and vital about the theatrical art form: its inherent demand that we bear witness through risk, investment and vulnerability.