When you arrive at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater for Daniel Fish’s A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace, you’re greeted by the sight of hundreds of tennis balls, laid in precise formation across the entire stage. A serving machine repeatedly chucks tennis balls against a large photo of the tennis pro Tracy Austin in her youthful prime. Austin either returns every ball (to the curtain at stage left) or misses each one, depending on your interpretation of the scenario. They just keep thwacking against her.
It’s an interesting visual metaphor for the essays of David Foster Wallace, a handful of which are dramatized in the course of the four-performer piece. What happens in A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace (I’m going to use the whole title every time, just because) is what might be called a staged reading of the essays, though the staging is related to the text conceptually rather than literally.
Specifically, the four readers (John Amir, Therese Plaehn, Mary Rasmussen, and Jenny Seastone) listen, via headphones, to Wallace reading his own work — which they repeat to the audience in real time. It’s an exercise requiring great concentration, which is constantly apparent as the performers struggle to keep up with the voluble Wallace.
As they speak, the performers execute a series of choreographed motions — sometimes in synchrony with one another, sometimes not. They stand, they sit, they do jumping jacks, they lie down. Over the course of the performance, the carefully arranged tennis balls are gradually strewn into disarray, and finally (spoiler alert?) pushed into a giant pile upstage.
(On Thursday night, my favorite audience member reaction came from a woman sitting behind me. After the performers struggled for a while to collect the balls using only their hands and feet, one of them ran offstage and came back with a push-broom. “Yes!” whispered my neighbor, as if it were a personal victory for the performer to have figured out how to most efficiently accomplish this artificial task.)
It’s an interesting way to present Wallace’s writing, and the conceit isn’t as distracting as it initially seems it will be; Foster eventually slows down (the speed of the recording the performers hear is varied, presumably under the control of the two people sitting unobtrusively at computers onstage), and by the end the performers are managing very well to speak his words without undue distortion. It must help that this isn’t their first rodeo — the show has been presented at multiple venues — though the specific selections and sequence can vary from performance to performance.
Whether you find the staging compelling or distracting, then, Wallace’s rightly-lauded words are there to enjoy, in essays about a cruise ship, a diving board, and the phenomenon of the sports memoir as exemplified by Austin’s Beyond Center Court: My Story.
While the performance can, often, be enjoyed simply as one would enjoy a reading of Wallace’s work, the production adds interesting resonance to the pieces that are presented. As my girlfriend pointed out, for example, if you find Wallace’s approach to Austin’s book to be a little condescending and possibly sexist, that impression is amplified by the fact that the essay’s being recited by a male theater artist (Amir stands center stage, with the women, from the shadows, chiming in on Austin’s quotes) under the direction of yet another male theater artist (Fish, present backstage). “I think I would have enjoyed that more if I’d just read it,” said Dana.
At other times, the staging adds poignance to the text — for example, near the conclusion of Thursday’s performance, when the women present Wallace’s essay “Forever Overhead” in hushed tones, amplified by microphones. (The essay, about a 13-year-old boy jumping off a diving board, is preceded by the playing of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” lest we doubt the depth of Fish’s hipster cred.)
Tumbling from these performers’ mouths, Wallace’s words gain new life. You may find it a relief, though, when A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace ends and the writing is returned, safely, to the page.