In May 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre—the influential 20th-century philosopher, critic, writer and all-around Very Intelligent Person—premiered No Exit at the Vieux-Colombier in Paris two weeks before the Allied landings in Normandy and just three months before Paris was liberated from her Nazi occupiers. One can only imagine sitting in the audience watching Sartre’s existential hell being performed through the damned characters of Garcin, Serrano and Rigault, all while keeping in mind that attending such performances past the German-imposed curfew could lead to summary execution. Now, 70 years later, it might be difficult to fathom an era when seeing a play meant one could be put before a firing squad.
How times have changed. Live theater hasn’t gone the way of the Third Reich, but its status as a means of entertainment and a form of literary discourse has diminished in the face of Twitter, Netflix and other technological advancements. And it’s that very technology that has created a different existential unease: People we barely know on Facebook know what we ate for breakfast, and yet these new technologies have only compounded our sense of isolation and alienation.
In Viscosity Theater’s upcoming production, Mystery Mark, the Missoula theater group captures the struggle of the lonely individual living in an absurd world, like in No Exit. Except this time it’s the kind of technologically induced existential loneliness inextricably woven into our modern age.
The story centers on a man named Clay Searle who lives in an unnamed city. His face is frozen in a permanent state of terror and his only friends are a stuffed “wee dino” plush doll and a TV set, though the world hasn’t broadcasted TV in years. He carries a briefcase, but he doesn’t know the combination and has no idea what’s inside. Every night a Might, an eight-legged creature with human hands for claws, comes out and tries to unlock it. The anxiety mounts.
Mystery Mark began as a novella written by Josh Wagner and illustrated by comic-style artist Theo Ellsworth. “I’ve been wanting to work with Theo for years,” Wagner says. “He doesn’t collaborate and is always busy, so I tried to trick him into working with me.” The longtime friends met up for a drink at Charlie B’s along with Daniel Scott Morris, Viscosity’s artistic director, whose role was to expand the novella into the realm of theater. “Scott was getting into masks and puppets at the time, so I connected the dots between Theo’s work and Scott’s,” Wagner says.
Sporting a dark goatee, shaggy hair and classic Woody Allen glasses, Wagner could pass for a boulevardier and frequenter of the all-night jazz clubs in Sartre’s postwar Paris. He founded Viscosity in 2012 with Rebecca Schaffer, Morris and Diego Burgos, and they’ve already staged six original productions. He has helped produce short films, written novels like Deadwind Sea and The Adventures of the Imagination of Periphery Stowe and tried his hand at playwriting. As the titles of his multifarious projects suggest, Wagner is most comfortable with playful characters in speculative settings—less in the vein of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series than, say, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
On a recent afternoon, Wagner put out a mass text on social media—and people responded. Morris’ stucco house in central Missoula has been the setting for Drop-In Art Night, a weekly DIY workshop where Mystery Mark’s cast, crew and anyone else willing to show up can help with the project. The residence has a European flavor and a distinctly artistic vibe. There’s a white Piaggio scooter parked in the driveway. French doors open breezily out onto the back deck where the new arrivals are hunched over masks, puppets, frames, buckets filled with flour paste and a mountain of paper bags.
The production, which can be seen during Zootown Fringe Festival this week, now includes a performance space incorporating closed-circuit television and social media. Actors, costume and set designers, prop makers, a media guru and even a local band, Cash For Junkers—who will live score the novella-turned-play-plus-art-installation—have all had their input into the ever-changing Mystery Mark recipe. “The whole thing,” Ellsworth says, “seems untraceable now.”
More people arrive at Morris’ house with paper bags and add to the growing mountain. Not far away, Wagner sits alone on the deck like one of Sartre’s lonely No Exit characters. A faint blue light flickers across his nose as his thumbs swipe the screen. Updating his Facebook status, no doubt.
Mystery Mark shows at the Downtown Dance Collective Thu., Aug. 14, and Fri., Aug. 15, from 7 to 8 PM and Sat., Aug. 16, from 9:30 to 10:30 PM. Free.