The Harrison Hilltop Theatre's latest offering is the 65-minute solo presentation Thom Pain (based on nothing). Yet its title seems more than a little inaccurate, because by the time this rather astounding monologue reaches its climax, it seems to have been based on everything: truths and fabrications and suppositions and dreams, and on the audience's expectations and perceptions not only of theatre, but of life itself.
If that description makes Thom Pain sound irritatingly analytical and overreaching, you should know that it's also a hell of a lot of fun ... so long as you don't mind being made to feel a bit uncomfortable. Written by the New York-based playwright Will Eno (a name so good it sounds made up), this one-man show throws you off guard within its opening seconds, and you may not fully get your bearings back until after the curtain call; Eno's hypnotic rambling exists in an elusive middle ground between presentational and interactive theatre - Thom Pain's program states "starring James Bleecker II and YOU" (capital letters theirs) - and you may find its effect supremely, gloriously tough to shake off.
I won't, however, insult you by pretending that I understood it all. After an intentionally disorienting opening - the first of many instances when you're not sure whether the play is proceeding according to plan or falling apart right in front of you - Bleecker's title character appears, an anxious, soft-spoken youth with dark glasses and a black binder. He welcomes us, makes a few awkward attempts at conversation ("Do you like magic? I don't. Enough about me."), and begins to read his story, which starts with what we presume is a reminiscence from childhood, involving an innocent little boy in a cowboy outfit who encounters a dead dog. Pain's tale, however, has barely begun before its author abruptly cuts it short, and this turns out to be a presentational motif that, throughout Thom Pain, Eno will return to again and again.
Over the next hour, Pain will repeatedly resume reading - offering recollections of bee attacks and nocturnal emissions and the girl that got away - only to interrupt his recitations with direct addresses to the audience, or bizarre non sequiturs, or jokes to which he forgets the punchline, or jokes that have no punchline. ("Why is a fat girl like a tiny motorcycle? Well, of course, she isn't ... . You should be disgusted with yourself for even for a second trying to think of how she might be.") Pain leaves the stage area to walk amongst the audience. He ends a soliloquy mid-thought for a raffle - twice. (There's no raffle either time.) He recruits the assistance of an audience volunteer, whom he quickly forgets about. (On Saturday night, I was the lucky victim.) And through it all, he paints a vivid portrait of a young man who knows that the wealth of human experience must Mean Something, even though he can't express, or fathom, exactly what.
So what does the experience of Thom Pain (based on nothing) mean? Your guess is as good as mine. For me, it's about being haunted - by your childhood, by the choices of your past, by the impossible desire to make life comprehensible though definable beginnings, middles, and ends. Yet Eno's beautifully searching poetic prose seems able to work on any number of thematic and psychological levels, and will no doubt affect its audiences in any number of ways. (While I'm not among them, it's even easy to imagine some being bored by this short play.) Ideally, it's a show that should be watched with a bunch of friends willing to hash it out over drinks afterwards; like those cinematic mind-benders Donnie Darko, Mulholland Dr., and Synecdoche New York, Thom Pain - if you let it - gets inside you in ways that are both fascinating and profound.
If there's one thing I know Harrison Hilltop's production is about, though, it's the dazzling talent of the prodigiously gifted James Bleecker. At times devastatingly controlled, at other times thisclose to full-scale nervous collapse, Bleecker suggests a man struggling with a dozen simultaneous conversations in his head, but the effect, astonishingly, is never alienating. There's a thrilling yet intensely subtle theatricality to his portrayal that entertains even during his most complexly tortured moments. (With little in the way of extraneous movement, director Tristan Layne Tapscott appears to do his finest work simply by staying out of the actor's way.)
Bleecker's inherently kind, generous stage presence is used to tremendous advantage here - for all of his meanderings, rants, and occasional crudeness, Pain remains empathetic to the end. And Bleecker's a gracious enough performer to know that the real star of the play is Will Eno; this performance doesn't scream, "Look at me!"; it whispers, "Look at the play," and then, later, "Look at it closer." Thom Pain (based on nothing) is a hilarious, sad, edgy, weird, wonderful piece of work.
For more information and tickets, call (309)235-1654 or visit HarrisonHilltop.com.