The Life and Times of Durham's Own Daedalus, Jaybird O'Berski, on the Eve of Little Green Pig's Wildest Theatrical Maze Yet | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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The Life and Times of Durham's Own Daedalus, Jaybird O'Berski, on the Eve of Little Green Pig's Wildest Theatrical Maze Yet 

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I suppose this merits a disclosure, though it's the most random one I've ever issued. At the run-through, a very tall man with a genial Southern demeanor walks up to me and introduces himself as Bill Floyd. He reminds me of something I'd completely forgotten—that, a year ago, he'd emailed me cold to ask for advice about a theater adaptation of an experimental novel. It sounded like a wild idea, so naturally I suggested he reach out to O'Berski.

When O'Berski and Marks started reading Markson, they loved it, and Marks sent out a Twitter blast to artist friends to find collaborators. "Somehow it has this visceral emotional surge, yet there's no plot and character, just facts," O'Berski says. "I told Bill, knock yourself out."

Markson, who died in 2010, started out writing offbeat crime novels and westerns, one of which became the film Dirty Dingus Magee, starring Frank Sinatra. But he's best known for Wittgenstein's Mistress, which David Foster Wallace anointed as a high point of American experimental fiction.

"That's where he started to get his form of little snippets, but it was still fiction," Floyd says. "His last four books, the ones we adapted, really hit on his collage of factoids and anecdotes about composers and painters and musicians and writers and philosophers."

Like Markson, Floyd is a former genre writer turned experimentalist. His thriller The Killer's Wife was published a decade ago, but he doesn't read those kinds of books anymore. Now, Markson is more his speed.

"I don't have a classical education, so I don't know half the names, but I feel it has a page-turner effect after a while," he says. "The themes resonate." He wanted to hear the unusual prose, with its subtle but distinctive syntax, in actors' mouths, even though he'd never had anything to do with theater.

At first, Floyd adapted the books—Reader's Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel—as a play. But on the first read-through, O'Berski said he thought it should be an installation.

"It was three hours long, and it really was mesmerizing," O'Berski says. "It seemed like something you could be listening to while having an immersive experience, like going to a gallery and listening to information on works of art." Little Green Pig was primed for this kind of project. Its annual Halloween fundraiser, Treatbag, is a small-scale theater installation, and ten years ago, O'Berski made Misterioso, an immersive re-creation of a jazz loft, for Duke Performances.

For This Is Not a Novel, the company rented three spaces, each containing rooms of various dimensions (two of them without electricity), in the Lakewood strip mall the Scrap Exchange is turning into its ReUse Arts Center. Beholden only to their interpretation of the text and the oversight of several curators, the spaces were designed by twenty different local artists and groups, including Neill Prewitt, Gabrielle Duggan, Stephanie Leathers, Alex Maness, and INDY contributor Chris Vitiello.

Actors perform vignettes throughout, including one by O'Berski that sets the overall tone: a Bukowski-esque L.A. flophouse full of degenerates, wannabes, and artists. The recorded text is read by some sixty people, from Little Green Pig company members to children and Duke football players. You download it on your phone and wander for as long as you please.

"I was a little bit hesitant but he convinced me," Floyd says. "At the first walk-through I found Jay and told him I was right to trust him. They did something I never would have come up with. It's like Markson says: A writer doesn't necessarily know where this is going but he hopes it'll end up some place that even surprises the writer himself."

It was the right decision. The text is compelling when you can pop in and out of it, but a traditional theatrical setting, with the quotations coming at you ceaselessly, would have felt like a hostage situation. Little Green Pig devised a form for the formidable text that renders it as accessible as it was to Floyd without watering it down.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

Company member Caitlin Wells, who designed a room in the show, has been working with O'Berski as an actor—and, starting this fall, as a director, with a show based on Viv Albertine of the Slits' punk-rock biography—since 2013. She's also a member of collectively run troupe the Delta Boys, whose Orlando at Manbites Dog recently earned our highest rating. She's says there are no two companies in the state she'd rather work with.

"It's hard to even separate Jay from Little Green Pig. There's a bit of a cult of personality around him, but he really is magnetic," she says. "He's wildly inventive; he's got these kooky ideas he manages to pull off in a way no one else would even consider. One of his strengths is bringing together all the right people for a given show."

I ask her about a certain quality of O'Berski I've been trying and failing to pin down in words. I keep coming up with inadvertently insulting terms like "earned arrogance" or "self-aware arrogance" that I know aren't what I mean. Wells comes through.

"Sometimes he sees things before anyone else does," she says. "He gets the germ of an idea and pushes it through come hell or high water, and some people want to get out of the way of it, but others get swept up in it. It can rub people the wrong way but it's also what makes him a great director. He has this wild confidence, relatively visionary—the word that keeps coming to mind is brashness."

It's this wildly confident bearing that has made O'Berski one of the fundamental architects of the Triangle theater scene, and it's seldom been on display more clearly than in this brash, visionary show.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

"We want to conjure up stages of confusion, frustration, submission, fascination, and finally luxuriating in an alternately lyrical, unnerving dream," O'Berski says of the ultimate goals of This Is Not a Novel.

"We hope to mirror the search that Markson was on in his final novels," he adds. "Some elements stick and many others are immediately forgotten, but there's a sense of that being OK, that as an adult you get to choose what's tragic or hilarious or sexy or vile. We're hoping for maximum stimulation at some times and focused minimalism at others. Chaos and Zen, one being impossible to experience without the other."

This article appeared in print with the headline "When Pigs Fly."

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