A man stands alone on the small square stage of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, a gun to his head -- except that the gun is really his own hand. He tells us that he's the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust, that we in the audience are ghosts, and that he comes to this theater every year on the anniversary of the conflagration to play Russian roulette. There's applause from the back of the house. A woman comes forward, congratulates the man on his speech and begins correcting his pronunciation, quibbling about his delivery, suggesting alternative ways of handling the gun. Now it seems that the man is an actor, playing the role of a nuclear-holocaust survivor, and that the woman has written the script and is directing.
The two actors -- Lee Worley and Ami Dayan -- consult, argue, try first one thing then another. Dayan keeps asking what Worley wants, what's going to happen, but she is infuriatingly close-lipped, even mocking, though we can't tell if she's refusing to reveal the ending or if she doesn't know it herself.
There's talk of patience and uncertainty. They discuss the Garden of Eden, the Fall, God's anger: "What went wrong?" They quiz each other. They quote Chekhov, Shakespeare, Beckett, Kafka. Dayan says he wants a woman so that he can begin to repopulate the world. Worley finds the idea banal, then offers him Lilith, the first woman, perhaps a demon, perhaps the mother of the earth. Ignoring her sneers, Dayan begins to prepare for Lilith, excitedly tossing a snowstorm of phone-book pages onto the stage to represent a garden, creating a tree by clapping more pages onto branches made of double-sided Scotch tape.
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As the evening progresses, The End moves in deeper and deeper circles and accretes more and more layers of meaning. It explores the relationship of art to life, the imperative that drives us to make art, the ability of the artist to, in a sense, redeem what's destroyed by creating anew. When the text alludes to past great masters of the theater, it's neither reflexive nor superficial. It brings their ghosts into the room; they speak through the actors. The pathetic paper tree transports us instantly to the stretch of road where Vladimir and Estragon wait -- endlessly, hopelessly, faithfully -- for Godot. At one point, with Dayan speaking in counterpoint, Worley recites Chekhov's haunting lines from The Sea Gull: "All living things, all living things, all living things, having completed their cycle of sorrow, are extinct. For thousands of years, the earth has borne no living creature on its surface, and this poor moon lights its lamp in vain. The cranes no longer wake and cry in the meadows, and there is no sound of the May beetles in the lime trees..." The words are from a play within a play written by Chekhov's protagonist, Konstantin, in his callow and romantic youth. Later, just before Konstantin's suicide, they're repeated by his beloved Nina, herself now older, sadder, and battered by failure. In The End, when the last man (or the actor playing him) finally realizes what he's lost -- not only the entire world, but his real flesh-and-blood wife and son -- he finds his own words, and they're jolted out of his body, singly or in pairs, by the sheer force of his pain.
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Though the concepts it explores are vast, messy and intractable, there's nothing vague about BMOCA's production. Every moment is diamond-bright and lucid, and event follows event in a sequence that's both surprising and inevitable. The play does demand an attentive audience, willing to take in the images, listen to the rhythms of the speech and set aside preconceptions.
Worley and Dayan have extraordinary resumés, and their decades of work in the theater give them a profound authority on stage. They explore every sequence to the fullest and work with an alert and underlying calm, even where the action is confused or frantic. Worley, who is now director of the theater program at Boulder's Naropa Institute, was in the thick of '60s experimentation: She toured Europe with the Living Theatre and was a founding member of Joseph Chaikin's seminal Open Theatre. Dayan, who trained as an actor in Israel and Paris and at the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York, also teaches at Naropa, and at the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver. His slight Israeli accent brings to the evening a whiff of the flames currently threatening to engulf the Middle East. He portrays his quintessential Everyman character with a quiet, often weary humor. Worley's performance is higher-pitched, sometimes self-referential, as if she's half mocking her words even as she speaks them. Both can switch from joking to portentous, angry to sorrowful, full-heartedly and in an instant. The two actors have been working on The End, which is an amalgam of an original script by Dayan and their improvisational discoveries, for over a year, and it shows in the depth and commitment of the performance.
In the end, what is The End about? Human connection. Love. Death and loss, of course. The puzzle of existence, that wonderful terrifying gift we're presumably meant (by whom?) to use wisely. Certain words and phrases recur: "the horror," "luscious light," "What went wrong?" "This is mine." Are they clues? For hours after seeing the play, I couldn't settle down to talk or read or watch TV. I didn't want to ruffle the oceanic rhythm of my thoughts. When I finally slept, Dayan's voice kept teasing at my consciousness; Lee Worley -- like a goddess or a bird of prey -- stalked my dreams.