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The Passion of the Christs

With a Zeal For the Avant-Garde, Playwright Erik Ehn Takes Baltimore Theater into Uncharted Territory

Alex Fine

By John Barry | Posted 4/27/2005

When Erik Ehn came to Baltimore last December and offered to write plays for Hampden’s Run of the Mill Theater, it wasn’t because he had nothing better to do. Ehn is one of the country’s best-known modernist playwrights, founder of the RAT alternative-theater movement, and dean of theater at the California Institute of the Arts. Since the late ’80s, Ehn has been networking, delivering manifestoes, and churning out so many plays that even he doesn’t know the number off the top of his head.

“Just say I’ve written 25 to 45 percent too many,” Ehn says via e-mail from Lithuania, where he’s currently holding a workshop and directing a production of four plays.

On the day after Christmas 2004, Ehn began writing a suite of short plays called 13 Christs for Run of the Mill, and he wrote until Valentine’s Day. On May 5, Run of the Mill, which frequently features new and unpublished works, will premiere these brief, intensely visionary one-acts, which deal with what the playwright describes as “Christ in the modern world.”

No, this is not the sort of stuff Mel Gibson would go for. Ehn’s plays are hallucinogenic fairy tales inspired by what he calls the mystical, abstract patterns of his Catholic faith. When asked to explain this combination, his response is fairly pat: “Art and religion are simultaneous.” And he’s unwilling to discuss his relationship with the current Roman Catholic Church “until I get to know you better.”

His new batch of plays deals with Christ in strange contexts, and the titles alone make it clear that he’s approaching his subject from unusual angles: “Applewood,” “Like Rich People Live,” “Greenland,” “Il Pirata,” “Vista Cruiser,” “Equiprobabalism,” “Nurse Shark,” “Snake River Merman,” “Sha La De Da,” “Niobe Christ.”

“I’ll warn you, understanding them is going to come hard,” says Jim Knipple, Run of the Mill’s artistic director, who is directing the plays. “I read them for the poetry, and then they take on meaning when they’re performed. They’re beautiful, impossible plays.”

That’s a fair assessment. In strange, modern landscapes, weaving narrative voices and chunks of dialogue full of apparent non sequiturs, Ehn’s writing is a compression of abstract images and unformed personalities. Plot summaries are impossible. Here are the opening lines of “Nurse Shark,” one of his latest, as spoken by a flock of birds.

The mountains are where the ocean was,

Under is over and over is under.

They trade places.

Birds were fish once,

Fish can speak the language of birds.

Knipple says he came upon Ehn by accident, while browsing at a Johns Hopkins University Press book sale, where he came upon a collection of Ehn scripts titled The Saint Plays, a series of plays loosely based on the lives of the saints. Since Run of the Mill was looking for one more play to finish up its 2004-’05 season, Knipple sent an inquiry to Ehn. After a little back-and-forth, Ehn offered to spend January and February writing a new series of plays that would debut at Run of the Mill in the spring.

“I asked, ‘What do you charge for a play?’” Knipple says. “He told me to give him a T-shirt and a place to sleep. We did give him a place to sleep, but for a few nights it was on my floor. He was pretty cool with that. He’s used to sleeping on people’s floors.”

That’s the way Ehn operates. Since breaking out in the early ’90s, Ehn has been a tireless advocate for progressive community theater. He was also one of the central instigators of the RAT movement, a collaboration of about 20 nonprofit theaters across the country. The acronym, Knipple says, stands for whatever you want, which seems to fit into Ehn’s own anarchic aesthetic.

A quick look at the 2004-’05 season, however, would be enough to indicate that Baltimore’s community theaters tend to stick to the more traditional, plot-driven mode. In typically cryptic language, Ehn looks at that as a lost opportunity for theaters that don’t really have anything to lose.

“Poverty and disenfranchisement promote crabs-in-a-bucket mutually assured destruction,” he says. “It’s a hard frame of mind to twist out from, but the underground has to turn to itself before it can build the New Jerusalem. The old order will pick a crab only to boil it.”

“He thinks that 99.9 percent of psychological theater is on its way out,” Knipple says. “It’s dead. It’s really coming from a culture of about 120 years ago. He’s aware that it’s polarizing—but his goal is uncharted territory.

“His work might scare people,” Knipple adds. “But he knows that there are going to be three types of people—the ones who love him and don’t get it, the ones who hate him and don’t get it, and the ones who just don’t know.”

Ehn might scare directors as well. The stage directions of Ehn’s plays are probably the hardest thing to comprehend, as they’re difficult, and often impossible, to stage literally. In 13 Christs, they call for five women to be inserted into a coffee cup, characters to get lit on fire, and people to crawl out of other people’s mouths.

“Nonspecific” is Ehn’s way of describing them. “The actual (a particular dog or cat) has a narrow sphere of reality; worst of all is the simulated actual (pretending that your dog or character is actual),” his e-mail reads. “The simulation of the apparently real is the most vague and ultimately useless trope in the theater. The abstract, being closer to ultimate and impersonal truths (Plato, Blake, Dickinson, Weil . . . the good guys), is more useful on a day to day basis. So the Bible and fairy tales are apt sources of news.”

When asked if he’s ever accused of self-indulgence in his writing, though, Ehn insists that, if anything, he’s self-effacing.

“I am unused to being called anything, and pleased to disappear,” he says. “I am lucky to participate in process and would rather live as water in water than a boat upon it, much less an officer.”

Despite his admiration for Ehn, Knipple admits that staging him is difficult. Two weeks from opening, Knipple and his cast still spend much of their time trying to stitch together the blocking that the players will follow to determine their movements onstage.

“Those plays are five to six pages long at the most,” Knipple says. “But we’ll spend eight hours trying to block them. I don’t think there’s a single rehearsal that goes by where we don’t hit some kind of a brick wall.”

So when several characters find themselves with instructions to get into a teacup, Ehn is willing to help them get over that wall, by encouraging them to use the directions as abstract images. That means that instead of having a character spit a baby out of her mouth—which occurs in the play—they will use a small necklace.

“What you’re going to see is actors using very few props trying to evoke these images, which are sometimes very weird,” Knipple says.

So what’s the point in writing stage directions, if no one’s expected to use them? Ehn insists that being flexible isn’t the same as being casual.

“I require people to use [stage directions],” he says. “They’re all achievable. They are all expensive. Not all of them require the expense of money; rather, a leap of faith. So I like stage directions to be followed exactly, but not necessarily literally. A cow of some sort must jump in some way over a moon of some sort.”

Knipple admits that it’s not always easy to figure out how to negotiate those jumps. But for Ehn, in low-budget theater, the leap of faith is what is required. The cow will take care of itself.

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