A young Asian woman in a fashionable, low-cut black dress and high heels busies herself with last minute fussing over the white bulk of an architectural model, positioned on a table elevated enough so that she needs to climb above it on a high tech stepladder to reach down into its interior.
Meanwhile, a video projection plays on the screen above and behind her, on a wall covered with floor plans, vying for attention with the other, occasionally outre’, architectural models positioned above the stage of the Aurora Theatre for the production of Oren Safdie’s aptly titled play, Private Jokes, Public Places.
On the screen is the extreme close-up of a smiling, dark-haired Caucasian man with an almost decorative, ostentatiously foreign accent, addressing the camera in a relentless torrent of words: “ ... as if you created a dialectic ... most basic poetic structures ... allows for the true viscera without pusillanimity.”
The camera pans tightly over what seems a panel, three men exuberantly spouting the most absurd meta-language that seems to refer to, qualify, judge or exalt stray citations of examples of architecture—or, more often, projects. The Aurora audience is already laughing, and in a moment will be pressed into service, literally as an audience, not of a play, but of an ideological brouhaha erupting out of a review by distinguished men of the profession of student projects.
The panel disbands, the screen goes black, and the three men seen projected on it enter the third dimension through the opposite entrance into the theater, carrying chairs, routing a harried videographer, who sets up at the back of an aisle. The brightly lit Aurora house has now become the architectural school equivalent of an anatomical theater--or dissecting lesson--with one of the suited gentlemen, obviously the academic advisor, advising “those of you who have just joined us” that there will be “the tour of a hospital wing for anorexia ... followed by a picnic lunch,” but that, first, “Well, this is Margaret.”
It seems we’re all on a first name basis in a breezy, friendly—if self-conscious—academic environment, the extended friendliness ricocheting back from the professional guests. But this is belied by Margaret’s very personal self-consciousness, expressed in many ways as she endeavors to present her project, a public swimming pool designed to scrupulously respond to private needs and fears, which she illustrates with anecdotes from personal experience. Margaret wants the pool and its surrounding structure to be a refuge, “but not claustrophobic.”
This occasions a diatribe by Ehrhardt, the gangling professional European with a leer, all over the map with his mixed metaphors, far afield from Margaret’s obvious intentions. He waxes Nietzchean, neo-Freudian, post-modern with compelling ambiguity, fashionable yet fully adjustable: “Thanks to psychoanalysis, we only have to communicate visually ... to be one with God!—as an iconoclasic symbol, of course ... You see what I’m getting at; architecture is not about words; architecture is about what’s in here [his hand grazes Margaret’s breast] ... No, Margaret, don’t think architecture is about words!”
And many, many words follow, ostensibly about architecture, swarming like bees, stinging with issues of class, gender and race (when told her ideas have “a Pei-like quality,” Margaret explodes: “He’s Chinese. I’m Korean!”)—which charmingly remind the learned gentlemen of the ’60s.
Unlike other plays which use theoretical physics, fine art or poetry as a flimsy, discardable metaphor for social misunderstanding or personal passion, Private Jokes reverses the field and takes on metaphors as a means to misappropriate humanistic ideals for private preoccupation and gain. And it remains a comedy throughout, as directed by Barbara Damachek, an even more farcical tea party in which Mad Hatter Robert Parsons (as gangling professional-European-with-a-leer Erhardt), March Hare Charles Dean (as puckish-then-prissy Colin) and Dormouse Max Gordon Brown (nebbishy advisor William) drag Margaret, a disbelieving Alice, through the ruined place settings they’ve gleefully befouled.
Through it all, M. J. Kang, for whom the part was written, defines Margaret contrapuntally with her distinctive voice and body language, her facial expressions ranging from melancholy to uncomprehending to furious, turning the tables on her inquisitors, but with a unique humor.
As a farce, even tour-de-force, which has to top itself, the climax, in which the hilarity finally provokes a display of the men’s hysteria and Margaret’s naked pride and contempt, is a little bit hackneyed, very much like ‘60s memorabilia. But the brief denouement, of her looking down on her spurned model like a mother into a cradle, is good, and the play stands as a paradox, a wry and sanguine view of the aesthetics—no, metaphysics—of contemporary architecture and all that the shape of human dwelling places can possibly imply.
PRIVATE JOKES, PUBLIC PLACES
8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through May 12 at the Aurora Theatre. $12. 2081 Addison St. 525-1620.