What are facts? What is truth? Can you state truth without a factual basis? These questions debated for centuries have been redefined in every age. Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell refine the debate in an intriguing and humorous go-around between a fact-checker and his essayist in The Lifespan of a Fact. The play incisively directed by Leigh Silverman is comically paced for its light side. And its darker side leads to questions about how information, “facts” may be misused in the wrong hands. The production suits in our time of “alternative facts,” and truths skewed to make a larger point about the human condition.
Based on the titular book/essay written by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the “true” story tells what happened when Jim Fingal fact-checked John D’Agata’s poignant essay about a teen’s suicide at a Las Vegas resort. The play explores their individual perspectives about the importance of writing for impact despite the inaccuracy of ancillary background details. But more importantly, it explores personality types and the very funny heightened alerts that sound when an obsessive compulsive, detail-driven nerdy researcher clashes with a loosey-goosey, poetic, symbolic, “going meta” writer with panache.
The conflict generates when Emily Penrose accomplished, saavy editor of a magazine chooses John D’Agata’s piece because of its social import. In hoping to get the article turned around for publication in less than five days, Emily appoints Jim Fingal. As the fact-checker he will ground the details of D’Agata’s piece for consonance and coherence to reality.
Cherry Jones portrays editor Emily Penrose with humor, good will, yet stern determination. Strong-willed and no nonsense, yet measured, she selects her new hire, Jim, quickly assessing him and asking all the right questions. Happy with his reasonable answers, she sets him spinning off on his journey. Indeed, her expectation rides on Jim’s assurances that he will make the deadline. Ironically, the opposite occurs. Not because the fact-checker is incompetent. But because his magnificent competence strains the credulity of time and patience.
As Jim, Daniel Radliffe reveals his gifts for timing. He employs the right amount of deadpan edginess. And his ironic delivery isn’t quite over the top, but appears organic with his researcher ethos. Though he exasperates Emily, he does so out of ego pride of meticulousness. Indeed, she does not fault him for doing a fine job. And despite Radcliffe’s history with owls and wands, we appreciate his portrayal of Jim’s excellence, however a tad outrageous. When you see this too good to miss production, consider the traffic map which Jim uses to prove John’s inaccuracy on the day of the teen’s suicide.
Bobby Cannavale stands on the opposite continuum of Radcliffe’s Jim and pushes back with parries, jibes and wordy counter punches. Cannavale’s portrayal has John D’Agata’s indignation finely tuned. And we respond with riotous laughter. His initial attitude toward the fact-checking assaulter of his exquisite prose reveals a huge ego. Despite all the word talk, these male egos can barely be in the room together. What a pleasure to watch Radcliffe and Cannavale go head to head.
Indeed, after the two meet, we note their reactions pair beautifully with their physical types. Jim, fits the researcher twerp type, diminutive in stature and voice but a giant in intellect and research skills. By comparison John D’Agata’s muscular presence and bruising confident carriage signals macho. The irony that he is a romantic and goes for the meta sources the humor between them. However, the fact-checker holds sway. And D’Agata becomes affronted by the miscalculations Jim tells Emily that John has made. How dare this guy attempt to restrain and retrain his ineffable, high-minded prose?
Of course the humor explodes every time Jim attempts to toggle John. And the exceptional Bobby Cannavale’s bite challenges worse than his roar. Indeed, only Emily can straighten out the warfare between the two. How this evolves and resolves remains as the meat of the play. Indeed, she exquisitely maneuvers the two male egos, forces them to recede and calls upon “their better angels” to emerge.
This ensemble piece moves quickly. It arrives at its non resolution resolution with delectable, sometimes rolling in the aisles comedy. The philosophical arguments hold worthwhile import. Emily as the arbiter explains why responsibility for accuracy must be taken with extreme seriousness for publications. And yet, the vitality of striking the readers’ emotions with well-written prose that sings also must be taken seriously. Thus, the two perspectives must combine with equanimity. One must not submerge the other. Indeed, John’s intimation at truth is not enough. Facts secure it and make our feelings about an essay indelible and irrevocable.
Silverman’s direction and staging works well. The emails written among Emily, John and Jim provide the opening salvos of humor. Through screen projections we get to read and appreciate the writing styles of both the researcher and the essayist. Of course, the humor and explosions escalate during their live interactions as the notorious Jim investigates the scene of the suicide and visits the uber frustrated John. How Emily arrives at the scene to stem these two embattled paces with LMAO humor.
You will enjoy the superb cast who Silverman has brimming with fast-paced quips that slide down easily. Their finest scenes take place in John’s Las Vegas home when each faces off against the other. How they negotiate their own ire, frustration, and need to harangue mentors us with the silence of their inner thoughts and the power of their words. With intellect, logic and rationality they persuade. How refreshing!
Kudos go to Mimi Lien for Scenic Design, Linda Cho for Costume Design and Jen Schriever for Lighting Design. For Original Music and Sound Design we have Palmer Hefferan and for Projection Design, Lucy MacKinnon. For Hair and Wig Design, kudos to Charles G. Lapointe.
Wild Goose Dreams by Hansol Jung, the captivating and uniquely relevant production currently at the Public Theatre, promises no hackneyed storytelling. Its settings of South Korea, North Korea, social media platforms, and individual consciousness meld irreverently and ingeniously. Directed by Leigh Silverman, Jung’s characterizations and plot receive the clever staging and conceptualizations they deserve. Coupled with sensitive performances by lead actors Peter Kim, Francis Jue, and Michelle Krusiec, this innovative work is vibrant and exciting.
Intriguingly, the production accomplishes this while striking into hot themes about virtual dependency. Traveling through disparate settings, we avidly follow the characters, empathizing with their loves, aspirations, and dashed dreams and hopes.
The production’s dramatization of the ever-presence of virtual reality in our lives becomes one of the annoying yet graceful saving impulses that ping the characters throughout. For Guk Minsung, virtual reality becomes a way, however ineffective, to try to acquaint himself with his daughter, separated from him by time and distance. For Yoo Nanhee it remains the way through which she attempts to deal with her guilt after leaving family, boyfriend, and friends to escape from North Korea to South Korea. And for Minsung and Nanhee it is the medium through which they, like countless others, attempt to ameliorate gnawing loneliness and the pain of grappling with their own inner struggles, regrets, and self-flagellating failures.
The rhythmic propulsion of the internet intrudes on our consciousness like an addiction. Jung and Silverman convey this with the ensemble’s kraks, “beeps,” and 111001s, evoking in rhythmic poetry the allure of connecting with others across social media. The effect achieved is astounding and grindingly inescapable. As a thematic metaphor the humor and “randomness” conveyed simultaneously made me laugh and threatened like a monster.
But before this sensory assault, the Father (a wonderful, emotionally varied portrayal by Francis Jue) recalls an ancient process of communication: oral bedtime storytelling. The fable he relates to Nanhee tells of an angel who flies to earth with fellow angels. Her flight robe stolen by a woodcutter, she is forced to remain earthbound. Despite the woodcutter’s love, his care for her, their marriage, children, and growing old together, when the angel finds her buried robe, she flies away. The Father reinforces the theme: If one has a choice between family and flying away, fly!
The myth becomes Nanhee’s haunting reality. And the theme of selecting flight over family threads throughout the entire play. Not only is it acute for Nanhee, whose physical flight from North Korea floods her soul with guilt, fear, nightmares, and regrets. This flight from family also abides as a central theme in the life of Minsung, who remains in South Korea. Separated from his wife and daughter, he financially supports them, living “small” while they create a better life in America against a time he can join them.
Yoo Nanhee, whose Father told her the story as a child, becomes plagued by it. The nightmare myth worsens in her imagination even after her “successful” integration into South Korean culture. Should she return to family? Has her flight put family in danger? To stem the tide of anxiety when a conversation with her Father provokes her sense of failure in her new life, she goes online. A “love” platform invites her to seek a man, so the next time she speaks to her Father she won’t lie to him anymore about being married with sons.
Likewise, Minsung goes online because he is lonely for his wife and daughter. He cannot fly to them or “fly from them” to a new life until he finds someone to fly with.
Continually intruding on this couple is the allure of virtuality, where one can connect with family and friends, especially if one is estranged from them. Also, the chance at meeting someone on a dating platform enthralls and addicts. Both take the plunge. The effusion of noises signifying the devices humming to retrieve information we need and our comments and responses to what we read or search for online puts us on overload.
Nevertheless, Minsung and Nanhee meet online. From that they move even more quickly to have sex, converse, know a bit of each other, then separate. This attempt at bonding becomes as ephemeral as digital 10110s. But the impact they have on one another remains unmistakable. The reality of their live, physical meet-up, coupling, and conversation becomes irrevocable. Jung’s argument for supporting the virtual as a meld with live exchange titillates.
Ironically, their head-on, live, intimate interaction also exacerbates their personal struggles and issues. With their power of dynamic confrontation, living interactions have a way of forcing growth. Eventually, both enter a crossroads. Though they meet only one more time, the exchange motivates each to act almost in a parallel reversal. One indeed returns to family. The other flies away. These decisions lead to fascinating, unexpected results.
This brief description cannot intimate the profound themes of Jung’s drama, which is both humorous and tragic. Nor will I define the fantastic dreamscape of Nanhee’s imagination, wonderfully evoked by Silverman’s interpretation of Jung’s story using surreal characters. I will state that Jung effectively employs clever, striking symbols and metaphors that the production chillingly brings to life. The match symbol is particularly revelatory and poetic. You will just have to get to the Public Theatre to witness for yourself the surprise, the production’s danger, beauty, pathos, and uplifting poignancy.
Peter Kim’s performance as Guk Minsung builds, turns surprisingly, and blossoms with his versatility. He remains touching and heartfelt at the conclusion. Michelle Krusiec’s Yoo Nanhee reveals a subtle range of emotion. She moves from shock to anger, numbness, and cool indifference. Indeed, her aloofness masks the turmoil underneath. And the dominant, sinister, mythic Father portrayed with precision by Francis Jue charges and gives grist to the other portrayals.
I particularly enjoyed the adroit costumes, lighting, and scenic and sound design, which cohered with the themes, characterizations, and story development. Special kudos are due Clint Ramos (Scenic Design), Linda Cho (Costume Design), Keith Parham (Lighting Design), Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design), Paul Castles (Composer), Jongbin Jung (Korean Music Composer), Charity Wicks (Music Supervisor), Lillis Meeh (Special Effects Designer), and Yasmine Lee (Movement Director). Finally, I liked the water effects and the recreations of club settings. The projections used to convey these coupled with the lighting provided colorful interest.
And to the ensemble, who effectively evoke the technological platforms and digital thrumming that have sorrowfully yet vitally become our lifeblood, more kudos. The ensemble includes Dan Domingues, Lulu Fall, Kendyl Ito, Jaygee Macpugay, Joel Perez, Jamar Williams, and Katrina Yaukey.
Wild Goose Dreams is at The Public Theatre, until 16 December. Tickets are available online.