In Genesis, Abel is the first human to die. Abel’s name derives from the Hebrew “Hebel,” a word found some 38 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes and the title of Pavel Zutiak’s latest work in which I am a performer. Hebel translates to vanity, emptiness, vapor, breath, absurdity, or fleetingness, among many other possible definitions. Murdered by his brother, Abel becomes the embodiment of the absence he’s named for. With no motive given, we are forced to fill in that narrative gap ourselves, to make sense of the senseless.
There’s a short scene in Hebel where I act out a murder. It’s one of many micro-narratives that spring up throughout the first scene, in which the performers (Christine Bonansea, Wendell Gray II, Emma Judkins, and I) encounter, as if for the first time, a kind of blue-planet soundstage, a scenographic collaboration between Pavel and Keith Skretch. We find a collection of objects there—repurposed household tools and sports equipment, all covered in blue painter’s tape— and we work, build, and play, sometimes together but mostly alone, to understand, extract, or invent meaning with them.
You can see me upstage right, striking someone with a stick, but you can’t see my victim, obscured by a blue curtain hanging from the ceiling. You have to fill in the gap yourself. My weapon looks sort of like a blue femur bone, at least according to our lighting designer, Joe Levasseur. I do the deed three times, changing my approach each time like an actor responding to an invisible director. The first time, I’m a crazed killer in a bad horror movie. The second, I’m Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The third time I just try to feel it, the force needed to strike down an invisible someone, the guilt when I emerge from my rage to realize what I’ve done. I stare at the blue blood on my hands— a Lycra suit I pull out from behind the curtain and then wear for the rest of the scene—the skin of my fallen brother Abel. This kind of semiotic transference is the motor of the scene: a hockey stick becomes a guitar and then a gun; a blue soccer ball wrapped in gold mylar becomes a treasure.
It’s a wild ride in there. There’s so much to do, and once I feel comfortable in an idea or proposition I have to move on. As a performer, I can’t know for sure what the audience will see, their own referential library at hand to help them fill in the missing pieces; how can I bring them with me through my experience while giving them that space? Meaning is autonomous and shifty, adhering momentarily to various objects only to slither away.
I’m writing this in Los Angeles, with a view of the Hollywood sign from my friend’s apartment in Silver Lake. I have another three-part movie moment in the show, in which I perform three “tantrums” in a row, changing my approach each time. Through the three attempts, I move on a performative continuum that starts with pantomime and ends, hopefully, with pure feeling—from a child’s tantrum to a mournful keen.
How can I embody the somatics of grief? How can I do the thing rather than show the thing? Part of what drew me to Pavel’s process is a willingness to ask the big questions, with all their implicit impossibilities. What are we all doing here? What are we left with at the end of it all? What strikes me over a year into working with him is the levity I feel in the room despite the weight of these questions, perhaps based in a shared understanding that asking them is worthwhile. We don’t have to be alone in the questions.
In one run of the section, I’m doing too much, showing rather than doing. Pavel asks me to channel Naomi Watts’s audition scene in Mulholland Drive, and I tell him I’m always trying to channel Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. “Don’t play it for real until it gets real,” says the director in the scene. What I find fascinating is how Watts’s performance rises from the many layers of absurdity and artifice to turn the scene into one of the film’s truest and most believable. I really try to do it, to become pure feeling, to give physical form to the vapors of emotion.
During a residency in Cambridge, I’m having crazy dreams. Emma, my roommate for the week, takes credit for this, her own vivid dreamscape seeping into mine. On the first night we both have dreams about our mothers (well, not exactly—in mine, my mother is a choreographer I work for and we’re acting out a scene from Mommie Dearest.) Another night my dream is basically just an extension of the rehearsal we had that day, sleep providing the time to work on a transition our waking hours didn’t allow.
The boundaries are blurring; the hours of rehearsals and meals and time spent over wine in the evening blend into one another. Christine’s native French brings out my own (quite rusty) and Emma’s (much sharper). We read our horoscopes from a copy of Femme Actuelle that Christine’s mother sent from France. Wendell’s next to us working on his Spanish on Duolingo.
Hebel has a rich nomenclature all its own. Different sections of the work are known among the team as “Glitch Limbs,” “Alien Language,” “Arrival,” and “Pictograms.” Christian Frederickson’s sound score includes various words and short phrases that we recorded early in the process, words that contain the immensity of Hebel’s questions: “perfect loss,” “stock futures,” “love of your life,” “contingency.” Some of them are played backwards, and it’s become a joke among the cast and crew to try to pronounce these indecipherable words. They become ear-worms for us, and we find ourselves quoting them incessantly backstage: the ones that stick sound something like “Poor Ralph” and “Weefarsil.” None of us can remember the actual words.
Another dream: the cast is starting a band called Perfect Loss. I play the keytar, Wendell is on the keys (we need both, okay?), Emma serves as drummer-vocalist, and Christine’s on bass. Our band looks range from basketball-player chic to pop-star cowboy to ’60s mod to millennial Hugh Hefner. Perfect Loss plays originals and covers, our most popular being “Arrête, au Nom de L’amour,” a French cover of “Stop, in the Name of Love.”
We haven’t actually started a band (yet) but I do feel like I’m in one. The questions Hebel is asking are songs as old as time, but maybe we’re singing them in a new language, yet to be invented. Being in this piece is an act of trust, trust in Pavel’s vision and trust in our place in it. My internal experience doesn’t always directly correlate to how it lands theatrically. We don’t know how the viewer will fill in the gap, the Hebel, we are offering. We are working to build a delicate architecture on the land of this work, knowing it will collapse by the end of the show. We work with the tools of the past and present to imagine a future, dancing on wild terrain where meaning is continually made and unmade.
Hebel, a meditation on the fleeting nature of life and live performance created by Pavel Zutiak and Palissimo Company, has been postponed from its original April 2020 premiere at NYU's Skirball Center until a later date due to concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic.