Review by Brendan McCall
Written, performed, scored, and designed by finkle
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
Premiered October-December 2020
8-part online audio theater
“Genius is not a gift, but the way out one invents in desperate cases.”
–Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr (1952)
Theater companies, like individual theater artists, have all needed to adapt and change how they produce theater during the course of this pandemic. To kick off its 21st season, Off-Broadway´s Keen Company pivoted from presenting live productions into offering an online-only season of audio plays in a series entitled “Hear/Now”. The first, 1993 by the multi-talented finkle, is an eight-part radio drama
Hold on a sec: 1993´s not really a radio drama. Maybe it´d be more accurate to describe this piece as…an online musical? The piece has a number of original songs which appear throughout the episodes, all written & performed by finkle.
Sorry, no, “musical” isn’t quite right, either. 1993 feels closer to a concept album, except this one is wrapped in the digital pages of a Playbill. One of the characters is spending that year recording an album on a 4-track, and listeners could interpret the songs in 1993 as excerpts from that demo recording. And, like quintessential examples of the genre (“Quadrophenia”, “American Idiot”, “Sgt. Pepper´s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), 1993´s audio episodes feature characters (all played by finkle) and scenes (in a script he wrote) that unfold like tracks on a double-LP, interconnecting by theme more than dramatic action. Rather than progressing forward in a realistic linear narrative, these eight almost psychedelic episodes fit together like tiles of an almost psychedelic mosaic, perhaps describing a dream or a memory whose logic remains elusive. finkle´s piece is about sex, about identity, about AIDS; it is also about the burdens of silence, of memory´s complicated intimacy between the past and the present. Listening to 1993 feels like a raw, intimate conversation with a stranger.
But finkle isn´t a stranger–not to me, anyway. We went to the same university, and he graduated one year ahead of me, so basically we´re part of the same extended experimental theater family for life. During the time of finkle´s eponymous world blending fact and fiction, where his primary characters resided at 512 East 5th Street, I was living at 122 St. Mark´s Place. Practically neighbors. Each of the episodes inspired me to revisit my own personal geography from that year, which also held a potent yet complicated importance in my life.
So what happens?
1993 is set mostly in the East Village of Lower Manhattan, a neighborhood and scene that doesn’t quite exist anymore. The characters inhabiting finkle´s piece–Steven, Byron, Loreena, Jean Wayne Genet, a younger version (or two) of finkle himself–pass through a variety of remembered spaces in this time-capsule along kaleidoscopic pathways. There’s Wonder Bar and The Tunnel, as well as Leshko´s and Kiev. There’s a key scene in an elevator at the Twin Towers, as well as a fateful late night trip into the deep regions of New Jersey. We flip through the pages of the Village Voice, hop onto phone sex lines, and check out the Robin Bird Show on Channel 35.
As a script, 1993 is raw. It’s like re-reading pages from that journal you kept the year you graduated college, while trying to describe to someone who wasn’t there what it was all about. Generally, finkle´s story is one of gay adolescence, of coming out, of clumsy and occasionally hot sex with other men, of the experience of a first kiss after many earlier fucks.
But more than this, 1993 is also about memory–about looking back on who we were then, and how this informs who we are, now. Within the world of his audio theater, finkle plays all of the characters, collapsing biography and artifice into a dynamic blur. Events largely occur in 1993, of course, but a few happen in 2013, too. Further, there’s also a frequent layering between our current coronavirus pandemic with the AIDS epidemic during the early ´90s. The author´s “present self” also interrupts 1993´s dramatic action frequently to speculate, interrogate, and reconsider what happened. It’s an invitation for the listener to reflect upon our own past choices, and how we recollect them. How were we during this year–what do we remember, and how do we remember? What events changed us?
With any narrative work that places memory as a central subject, it is tempting to reference Marcel Proust and his seven-part novel À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27). While previously translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past, the more current (and accurate) translation of Proust´s magnum opus as In Search of Lost Time points to one of the novel´s central themes: a quest, through recollection, to find a kind of redemption. Such a theme seems fitting, at least in part, with finkle´s 1993, which breaks a series of important silences through his work.
But perhaps a more fitting comparison can be found in the writing of another Frenchman, one who is referenced a number of times throughout 1993: the brilliant outsider, Jean Genet. Inside the younger finkle´s apartment, Steven notices a poster for Querelle, Fassbender´s 1982 adaptation of Genet´s 1947 novel. While in prison, finkle explains, Genet´s manuscript was destroyed, and so he rewrote it on toilet paper. “It was a kind of porn for him,” finkle says, before popping the cassette he got from Kim´s Video into the VCR, “he needed to jerk off to his own writing.”
finkle´s 1993 ultimately offers more questions than answers, its fiction and facts frequently having unsafe sex. True, the narrative time-line gets a little squishy sometimes, but the themes of the piece can always be touched and felt. Instead of seeking the objectivity of cold hard facts,1993 celebrates subjectivity, warmth, contradiction, even confusion. It’s warmer. While 1993 recalls events (real or imaginary) from a defining year in finkle´s life, there´s plenty of room within this tactile audio theater for each listener to feel and experience.