Michael Kell doesn't fit the stereotype of a Southern Californian writer: he's quiet, he lacks sarcasm and most of the work he creates is for the stage. Every Monday night he drives approximately 112 miles from San Marcos to listen to Los Angeles actors read scenes from his plays. That's how I became acquainted with him.
Michael's plays are sad, poetic, hilarious and atavistic. I care about the characters, but I never get to know them completely - nor do I believe I'm intended to know them. Their personalities are deliberately unfinished; their primary struggle is with the longing that results. I feel a deep and ugly familiarity with that kind of self-dissatisfaction – it's an aspect of myself I'd rather not face, but instantly recognize.
I recognize it, but it's not always predictable. Because Michael's plays often don't have traditional plots, I seldom know where they're going – but when they get there, it feels inevitable and right. And funny. And unsettling.
Take The Presser: within seconds of the beginning, something's already unsettling: Buckameyer meets Eddie for the first time and asks to see "Eddie Buckameyer." Were this staged (and it ought to be), a quick check to the program would reveal that the two men share a last name, evidencing an innate and obvious connection between strangers. One expects an explanation (long separated brothers? father and son?), but none is forthcoming. Neither character brings up the name issue for the rest of the play; it's an association that's left to the audience to decipher.
Maybe it's a way of showing that the characters are different aspects of the same personality – a duality explored by Sam Shepard, Samuel Beckett and Ken Roht (see last month's issue). But a few minutes in, it becomes apparent that this is not the case. There's no bridging Buckameyer's earnestness with Eddie's relentless pessimism. These two men who share a last name are as different as they can be.
Buckameyer tries to bridge the gap by becoming Eddie's protégé, not just in the occupation of pressing (which is on one level drudgery and on another level the systematic placing of order on a chaotic and threatening outside world); but also of Eddie's misanthropy, anger and despair. Buckameyer never gets it; he's simpler, kinder, less introspective. His enduring desire to find Eddie's humanity, and, perhaps, to save him, only drives the two men further apart. There's no reconciliation here; no one gets saved.
Of course, it's also possible that Buckameyer is just a figment of Eddie's imagination – an adversary he's made up in order to alleviate his loneliness, to remind him of who he once was, and, perhaps, to kill. But if that were so, Eddie wouldn't need to kill himself as well.
The play leaves us with more questions than answers as it marches into the dark, delving into threats, violence, murder, and culminating in a detailed description – a set of instructions, really – about the process of taking of one's own life. Then, just as it's about to climax, it begins abruptly again, with Buckameyer reintroducing himself to Eddie. It's as if the journey into despair has no end – like a suit that's been worn, it gets pressed and put on again. But, as Eddie says, "That's what makes us men. We're dark. We're moody. We get pissed off easy! We break things! We tear people's heads off! And we don't want to be cheered up!"
Eddie might means "men" in this context as opposed to women – but in The Presser, men are the only tangible beings. A woman is an idea, to be discussed in platitudes. This is true of everything in the outside world that seems tenuous or difficult to attain: romance consists of intimate French restaurants with "a nice white cloth napkin that sits on your lap;" companionship is "sitting next to some guy who's bumming cigarettes, forcing his stupid jokes on you;" spiritual realization is "being punished for this sin that we did, or our father did, or his father. Somebody's fucking father did." The whole out-of-reach outside world is comprised of dour generalities. But the inner essence, the work, the despair, the hope, the naiveté, the bitterness, the humor and the struggle of living, is found here, in the Pressing Room, with these two characters fighting it out.
This play has never been produced. There have been readings of Michael's work, many of them by prestigious companies, but to date, no one's brought his vision to its full physical potential. Which is a pity. Someone who reads this ought to do it.
We don't get many chances to witness something truly new in the theatre these days. Much of the stuff that passes for "experimental," is, in fact, a refurbishment of ideas dreamed up by Meyerhold, Jarry, Artaud, or in Dadaist Zurich. A lot of it emphasizes the visual – placing images, color, movement and energy above character. But innovation can be just as powerful if it comes from a writer having the courage to fully explore a side of our humanity which many of us haven't seen – maybe because we couldn't bear to look.
All Connotation Press plays are presented online to the reading public. All performance rights, including professional, amateur, television and the rights of translation into foreign languages are strictly reserved. If you are interested in seeking performance rights to a specific work contact the Drama Editor, Joshua Fardon.