Emmaly Wiederholt interviewed “Arthur in Underland’s” Co-Director, Writer and Performer Mantra Plonsey about the creation of Dandelion’s new work:
EMMALY WIEDERHOLT: What was the process of drawing from Eric’s personal history to write Arthur in Underland? Conversely, what is it like to perform in?
MANTRA PLONSEY: Eric had recently completed the process of creating and producing AND performing in our past winter season’s piece FRIEND, which dealt with a dear companion’s death from a brain tumor, with whom he had gallivanted around during their middle teens in Berkeley. The material in that project brought up deeper memories from that period in the 80’s, when he was a perilously impressionable 15-year-old, separated from his Los Angeles family home of origin, and out of his depth as he navigated through the counterculture, including neo-primitive, urban tribal music and ritual experimentation.
One of the defining features of that time was Eric’s deep attraction to a young male contemporary, prior to his coming out, combined with his distant encounters with a older, sexually predatory man who was both frightening and intriguing. This series of encounters with this man and his entourage in a rock band sent Eric into a descent into severe anxiety (“I went to pieces,” he says) for a time, and his work with a therapist “saved his life”, as he told me. He began to feel he was ready to address the earlier times that had in part included his friend who recently passed away, and look back to face that part of his past, and share those memories through art.
Perhaps because of my acute travels through severe childhood neglect– (I was abandoned in a locked apartment with my baby brother when I was 4, and later spent two years of my teens in psychiatric institutional life–) Eric felt he could trust me with what he felt required a dark re-telling of his story. My five years of working with Eric as a performer and collaborator convinced me that he could indeed face a story rich with risk, requiring strong confrontations with his own fear and dread. This direction builds upon themes of other works I have seen him initiate in the past, which, as I see it, have often referred more to the higher, more positive aspects of spirituality; I wanted very much to illustrate his and my congruent points of view, that one doesn’t achieve enlightenment by embracing only the light.
I asked Eric several times before we began if he truly felt safe with the prospect of confronting the character of Sarastro, the intensely violent and transgressive antagonist I was developing for my role as Eric’s opposite: my own representation of an murderous, manipulative villain, a pedophile, an archetypal “Dark Man”. (I continue to ask Eric to check in with me regularly, in fact, and I need the same from him. His emotional safety, and my own, and that of the entire ensemble is a radical imperative for the two of us.) In the early stages, I immediately became engaged with a notion I had of the therapist as Sibyl, as a guide through the dream world, and as a foreteller. We share dreams with the people who help us integrate our personalities when in acute episodes of threatened personality and identity, and in recovery from trauma. These thoughts quickly became expressed mythically, as I wasn’t wanting to make a piece about two people in upholstered furniture in an office with a clock and a box of tissues — at least in the current creative cycle. Who knows.
I am fascinated with villains. You can’t have a hero without at least one player in a black hat, and as Eric said just yesterday, the enemy in a fable like this one is (at any rate, in a truthful telling) making a sacrifice, which, I’d say, can be of his or her self, body, life, or essence. I see this as a nearly erotic submission, a consenting to being overthrown, and this is an indispensable element in the play. There are, as well, the equivalent and/or opposing sexual tides and rhythms influencing Arthur, Eric’s character.
For me to perform in this piece is exhilarating, and I’m having the time of my life. This euphoria is tempered with bouts of doubt. (Rhymes with trout.) And guilt, even. The metaphorical and actual extremes I’m inflicting on my actor comrades in this play are often harrowing to deliver– often not in the moment, but later when I’m second-guessing myself. Was it too much? What are they thinking? Should I go comfort them or are they OK? I find myself feeling remorseful and pitying my performer friends for what I’m doing to them, but the ones most disturbed seem to be the ones having to watch the violence, not the ones being knocked around. The other side of the doubloon is that I’m getting a colossal charge out of acting out the sadism. I’ve been on the receiving end on stage several times, but very seldom have been the one taking charge.
The balance of energy in a group when this kind of business is written into the script can have chaotic consequences, bordering on disaster and havoc, with people crying and withdrawing, or becoming so psychically merged with the power dynamic that their identities become lost. For stable, self-aware people, of course, it can have the best possible outcome. I hadn’t thought much about the possible effects of being on the dominant side of the exchange, or that I would find myself inhabiting the energy so completely, but I should have known better! One can express an elemental animal force in stage violence. You can give it or take it. There is genuine freedom in allowing yourself to feel the emotional, if not the physical impact of taking a slap in the face, or getting knifed, or just yelled at, to release your inherent masochism, or beat the hell out of someone who does or doesn’t like it… all of human variation is there.
EMMALY WIEDERHOLT: There are so many allusions in the text… Shakespeare, King Arthur, Lewis Carroll, The Rite of Spring, Tarot cards… why did you draw on so many different references, and what do you hope to illustrate through the use of so many references? Was there a particular theme you looked for when choosing references to allude to in the text?
MANTRA PLONSEY: The story of the transit through an “underworld”, in many traditions, begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh, travels through Greek theatre, European and Asian myth, appears in every recorded history in every culture and continues to present day (and will, I predict, for as long as we tell stories). Its themes have been unceasingly with us in ancient and contemporary works– see Wagner’s Ring Cycle, The Matrix films, Harry Potter– and in these, the residents of the Underworld must always meet the hero with ordeals and tests before he or she may ascend to the sunlit lands, and this occurs always with the hero receiving precious new knowledge, gifts and secrets.
I chose to draw from several “Underworld” traditions for the questions Arthur must answer before he may reach each level — Tarot for the occult, Shakespeare for tragedy and to express a use of literary scholarship as an arcane challenge, Alice in her rather disturbing transit through distorted reality– I believe it was David Ryther who contributed the idea of using Le Sacre du Printemps, which happens to dovetail with the trope of the virgin sacrifice– King Arthur appears as the champion of Right vs. Might, whose visionary idea of chivalry is broken and destroyed at the end of Malory’s medieval work, Le Morte D’Arthur. All of these sources have a sort of shadow to them, and I love each of these elements for the sense I have of their origins in a sort of eternal, infinite past, which we imagined as the setting for the band’s lair.
The name ‘Arthur’ for our hero was my spontaneous impulse, which led startlingly to countless parallels for the story. Eric was born in England, which I had forgotten. King Arthur’s inclusion led, predictably, to irresistible appearances from several other members of the Round Table. Eric suggested we name a central character, played by Keith Penney, “Lance”, perhaps half-jokingly, but the resonance really grew and continued to evolve. I couldn’t help it. The references shouldered their way in, and, for instance, one young knight in particular became utterly crucial to the plot in ways we hadn’t anticipated. That’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in Dandelion– happy accidents of lighting, location, properties, circumstance, people showing sides of themselves that were dormant or not fully expressed blossoming– myself included.
EMMALY WIEDERHOLT: How has your understanding of the text changed from when you wrote it to now when you perform it?
MANTRA PLONSEY: One way to look at is that to perform this part myself means that it can be played the way I see it. Besides this convenience, the relationships between each of the characters and mine (onstage and in real life) have deepened. I was becoming intensely identified with the role as I was writing it, and because of this, the villain’s effect upon my comrades is possibly more profound than it would have been if I didn’t play the part. I feel that my understanding of the text itself hasn’t wavered. The individual words, dance, music, blocking, lights, effects, etc., do indeed keep metamorphosing, as they always do in Dandelion, which is a big reason why I love the company.
The Therapist as Sibyl idea quickly disappeared almost entirely, becoming subsumed into the character of the sinister bandleader Sarastro. Indeed, I personally had never meant to play anything more than a disembodied voice, nearly obscured in the darkened loft with my back to the audience, and wearing a blindfold, leaving me free to help direct. Of course, sometimes it seems that, due to our dedication to create a collectively functioning ensemble, nobody in the troupe ever really gives up one responsibility for another, except in the degree of involvement per piece. Mostly we add more on! We thought of casting every other member of the company as Sarastro, until Eric had the brainstorm to try cross-gendered portrayal, with me playing the male character as male in costume and makeup, yet ambiguously so, with the spoken and singing voices ranging between male and female tonalities. Sarastro himself went from being a purely evil, singly dimensional archetype to becoming a more conflicted, fully developed personality while still retaining a supernatural glamour; he assumed the classic position of the disguised, apparently hostile guide who initiates the novice into the mystery.