When I first saw the stage after entering the theater to see Renaissance Theaterworks’ World Premiere Wisconsin production of Tidy, I was reminded of an upscale department store.
Yes: Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s scenic design was dominated by white packing boxes – not the sort of object one ordinarily associates with high-end shopping.
But those boxes were artfully arranged to showcase beautiful, nostalgia-inducing props – including an Edison phonograph, an Underwood typewriter, and an old-fashioned cradle telephone – of the sort that I’d love to buy, even though I don’t need and will never use any of them (props design by Olivia Bastien).
Playwright Kristin Idaszak’s Tidy does many things; one of them, as suggested by the nod to Marie Kondo in Idaszak’s title, involves making us think about why we buy so much stuff we don’t need and won’t use.
Maybe it’s because we imagine such objects can ground us, despite a frighteningly fluid world of planned obsolescence in which such objects – like the world in which they lived and the world we thought we knew – are disappearing faster than coastlines threatened by rising seas.
Reviewers described Cassandra Bissell’s performance in Idaszak’s one-actor play as “luminous” and “impressive”; one said it was his “favorite Bissell role and performance in some time.”
So stipulated. But the word that came to mind as I watched Bissell perform last Saturday night was “lonely,” and not just because – not even primarily because – she is out there on stage all by herself, for 85 minutes during which she must coordinate all she says with the numerous props she simultaneously references, handles, and packs away.
That sort of coordination between subject and object – between the words we use and the things to which they refer, as well as between the body we inhabit and the world within which it lives and breathes – suggests an ordered and tidy universe in which we always know who and where we are, and in which the stories we tell resonate and make sense.
It’s the sort of world in which Bissell’s never-named narrating character was once at home, having grown up in harmony with nature out in the country before moving to the city and working in a library, where every story had a place on the shelf and where her own place was alongside a partner aptly named Joy.
But before Tidy even opens, that world is long gone. The animals have vanished. The trees are dying. The libraries have closed. And Joy is missing.
Tidying may intermittently give the narrator a sense of order and control over her environment as she moves about her locked condo, perched on the top floor of a high-rise building. But her desolate outpost there also underscores how isolated she is and how bare her world has become.
No wonder Bissell struck me as lonely, as well as very much alone.
It’s not as though I haven’t seen Bissell play loners before.
I’ve frequently watched this magnificent actor play the smartest – and because they’re women underappreciated – person in the room, in which her characters fight lonely battles to be seen:
A detective (Miss Holmes). A scientist (Photograph 51). A farmer (Amelia). A playwright (The Revolutionists). A journalist (Russian Troll Farm). A celebrity actor (The Wanderers). An immigrant (Crumbs from the Table of Joy). A professor (There is a Happiness That Morning Is). A stage manager (The Understudy). I could go on; Bissell has given many memorable performances. But you get the idea.
In some of these plays, Bissell’s character succeeds in getting noticed and maybe even understood; in others that character fails to change an implacably hostile world.
But in all of these plays, one never doubts that Bissell’s characters have justice on their side; they don’t just battle to be seen, but also to open others’ eyes so that everyone can grasp hold of what both her characters and we in the audience know to be true.
The usually straightforward narrative structures in which such characters are embedded include a shared goal; we collectively root for a character whose efforts will, we hope, result in a universally understood good trumping a universally understood wrong. Even when things get hard for Bissell’s characters, the storytelling itself usually remains transparent.
Tidy doesn’t work that way; in Idaszak’s play, the narrator’s rage for order isn’t a struggle for a solution, but part of the problem.
“Tidying gives you power,” the narrator tells us. “You can create order. You can triumph over your environment. You can shape your own tiny, tidy universe.”
But is that ever really true? Is it even a good thing?
Or does Bissell’s narrator seem so lonely – and does her illusion of control begin to unravel – precisely because she is so self-contained?
Bissell repeatedly hugs herself as she gives voice to the narrator’s story. Does doing so truly allow the narrator to keep it all together? Or does such self-containment underscore how imprisoning her isolation makes her, as she turns her back on a world that refuses to be denied?
Idaszak has made clear that Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body (2017) played an integral role in the way she thought about and wrote Tidy.
Hildyard suggests that the actions we take as individual physical bodies moving through the world affect a second body: the world as a whole – of which each of us is also a part – that boomerangs back on us.
“The perspective which allows every human individual to look down on the earth, while standing outside it – as though in space – is nothing but a delusion.” Hildyard insists.
Yes, of course: “you are stuck in your body right here,” Hildyard acknowledges.
“But in a technical way you could be said to be in India and Iraq, you are in the sky causing storms, and you are in the sea herding whales toward the beach,” Hildyard continues. “You have an individual body in which you exist, eat, sleep and go about your day-to-day life. You also have a second body which has an impact on foreign countries and on whales.”
Maybe Bissell’s narrator feels so lonely because she isn’t struggling to reshape a world of which she’s an acknowledged part, as so many of Bissell’s characters do. Instead, her efforts are geared toward escaping a world that’s spun out of control and which feels beyond her.
If Bissell’s narrator struck me as lonely as well as alone, it isn’t just because Joy has gone out of her life. It’s also because everything she does and every effort we see her make to establish order and significance winds up exacerbating the chaos growing all around her.
The outside world literally comes knocking on her door, but she doesn’t want or even know how to let it in, any more. Trying to hunker down and stay safe – trying to just survive and stay alive within an increasingly constricted space – the narrator instead paradoxically places herself in greater danger.
Although she is a writer, she has lost control of the story she wants to tell.
She may be the narrator, but she has lost control of the narrative, which is being written for her by the larger world, within which she plays a small part rather than the lead character.
Even as I watched Bissell’s narrator fall apart, I couldn’t help but notice how together this production’s excellent design was.
Noele Stollmack’s lighting, Christopher Kriz’s sound, and Yeaji Kim’s projections give life to that second body Hildyard talks about, as they repeatedly disrupt Kmiec and Bastien’s alluring set and props and thereby unsettle the narrator trying to make a comforting home within them.
Content, as Sondheim never tired of telling us, dictates form: in this world premiere production of Idaszak’s play, the production design elements embody the disruptions upending the narrator’s sense of order.
“There [a]re no plots and sub-plots, no protagonists,” Hildyard writes. “There’s no order.”
Such disruptions expose what often remains hidden in more traditionally structured, well-made plays, through which the narrative courses from a promising beginning to a predictable end.
There’s nothing predictable about this messy play, which leaves the audience with far more questions than answers. Credit Renaissance Artistic Director Suzan Fete for yet again programming such a play; it’s worth noting that Renaissance had previously staged an Idaszak play, The Surest Poison, as part of its annual BRINK New Play Festival in 2018.
As is not true of the narrator in Tidy, such plays aren’t trying to escape the mess we’ve made of our world. Nor are they under any illusion that we can easily clean it up by telling a soothing bedtime story.
They instead drive home what the best storytelling inevitably does: if we’re going to overcome the darkness lurking at the end of town, we can’t go it alone. We need each other, and we need to work in tandem with the world of which we’re a part and which is changed by every action we take – or don’t take. In short, we need to write a collective story.
No art form makes these hard truths clearer than theater. What a renaissance there’d be if more of what we saw on our stages honestly grappled with them, before the Doomsday Clock strikes midnight and the world’s stage on which we play goes dark.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Tidy continues through April 16 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For more information and tickets, visit https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/event/tidy-2/.