12 Peers Theater’s production of Thom Pain (based on nothing) is prefaced by this note from director Vince Ventura:
When I first read Thom Pain, I was struck by the density of the language, the specificity of the images, and the raw emotion of the character. While I had not experienced the exact circumstances that Thom had, this play had a way of cutting to the core of the “loss of innocence” experience. For me, this play is a meditation on the universal experience of loss, maturing, and realizing exactly how little time we all have on this earth.
This play can be painful. I believe Thom is trying to mythologize his own pain, with you, to help you find a way to process your own. Thom will ask you to confront your deepest, darkest, most painful experiences; to define fear for yourself. To see, at the end, that there was never anything to be afraid of in the first place.
This is your guide. This, I believe, you should know going in: look for catharsis. It’s here within the folds of this man’s narcissism.
Because it’s hard to watch a man talk about himself for an hour. Thom Pain seems to want to investigate his past with the audience as spectator, having an impressive dedication to his own self-importance. Does this make the show hard to watch? Yes. Does Ventura, then, suggest that you occupy this task as a challenge rather than a burden? I believe so.
Thom Pain begs the challenge of the audience: Don’t say you were out watching someone be clever, a smartmouth nobody working himself into a frenzy. Rather, say you were watching somebody trying.
Matt Henderson‘s performance as the solo man on stage grates in just the right way. A bit of Woody Allen and a bit of Artaud. I like the way he smiles throughout the show. Eyes squinted and lips pulling, cheeks twined—smirking. A madman assumes you don’t understand. His talent in the character is that you never quite know where he’s coming from, as if his origin doesn’t even make sense to himself. He’s lost, so you get lost with him. But he’s a very sensible man! He speaks in lofty phrases and riddles, allowing for laughter where it’s evident his jokes are a defense mechanism.
Henderson should be praised for holding the line between comedy and tragedy, a veritable marionettist lingering over the audience the vanity of his self-subject matter. You are forced into the zone of his pain and his mind, which processes absurdity with the same lust for hope. You are put into a room where a man yells at a wall. You’re the fly on the wall. Occasionally he’ll pluck an audience member to be his insinuation of another person. You are also a figment of his memory, then. So he toys with plucking your wings.
I’s more than the limp vaudeville of a sad man telling jokes. As has been stated: it’s an investigation. A man’s existential plight into the madness of his memory through anecdote and metaphor, cute helplessness and rage. And it’s all about the man. There’s very little staging. Very little prop work. That’s alright, though. Feel like a psychologist for an hour. Be silent. Listen. Try.
For a one man show, it implores you to be uncomfortable, to push past the boredom to feel restless.
Though, understand that this is a clever show. It’s lovely with it’s word-play and it’s sprawl of stories and jokes. It’s filled with distinct, classic one-liners:
I’m someone you might not hear from for a long time, then ‘Boom!’ you never hear from me again.
“you’ve changed.” she said on the night we met.
She wasn’t from here, so I had to talk to her with the international language of love: English.
But I think it’s also important to understand this isn’t a typical theatre experience meant merely for entertainment. It asks to invoke. To journey. Henderson’s animated characterization begs a question of the past and he does a great job of towing the line between charming and scary.
Of course, one-man shows are a bit of a trap of captivity for the audience. When they’re painful, it’s as if you step into the broken elevator and the true reward is the relief that comes with finally making it out. After all, at the end of this show your reminder is that all is ephemeral, but life moves on.
I do believe we have to understand pain better. Everyone’s pain has value. And to see it bleed a bit. To see a stand-up tragedian self-flagellate for the sake of expressing a question in the most charming way possible; I’d say: check it out. Henderson’s brilliant. He’s very much in the role. It’s a bit of a downer, but there’s a lesson inside.
Special thanks to 12 Peers Theater for complimentary press tickets. Thom Pain (based on nothing) runs at the Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning through June 18. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photo courtesy of 12 Peers.