I’ll be frank: for much of 8 Stops, Deb Margolin’s newest solo performance piece, now at Unexpected Stage Company, I was bored. I didn’t necessarily want to commit suicide, as Margolin said she has wanted to do for much of her life, but I did want to leave the party.
This play clearly wasn’t for me: I was confused by the disconnected and self-absorbed tales of mothering, suburbia, cancer, and career.
When I returned home and read some articles about Margolin’s personal life (I knew of Split Britches, the group she co-founded as well as a few of her scripts), but I knew nothing of her upbringing in Westchester County, NY. And Montvale, New Jersey, the locale of almost all of 8 Stops’ stories–well, I could only imagine its milieu.
More importantly, however, I knew nothing of Margolin’s personal struggles, other than her successful struggle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, about which 8 Stops is primarily concerned.
Now knowing more about Margolin, the person, I understand more about Margolin, the character who inhabits 8 Stops.
In other words, 8 Stops is like an inside joke: if you know Margolin, if you’re a fan of Margolin, if you know Montvale and the kind of people who live there, then parts of the play will definitely ring funny while other parts will sing tender.
If you don’t–well, you’re in for a long 90 minutes, filled with confusion and sighs.
To begin with, 8 Stops will appear decidedly under-rehearsed. Margolin enters the stage script in hand. She will read from that script on many occasions and her ability to truly enter the moment engaged as actor and performer will be hindered by it. (I read afterwards that memory loss is one of the results of the chemo she had to treat Hodgkin’s.)
The script also shifts back and forth through time on numerous occasions: Margolin does not clarify those shifts very well.
More importantly, in many ways 8 Stops combines performance art with the stage play; yet, the script suffers from a lack of a “present” tense, one of the hallmarks of performance art.
The play begins with Margolin stepping onto the stage from the audience. She is decidedly a person and this story that she will relate will be hers.
What she does not do, however, is create that “present” context, that “present” Margolin, in any definitive manner. Instead, the play immediately slips into the past, when Margolin nursed her first baby decades ago.
Without that theatrical “present” to give meaning to the story, or stories, we are about to hear, we (the audience) are left to flounder about in a theatrical monologue that Margolin freely admits is “pointless.”
Margolin has given us a nod to the performance art part, when what she needs to do is give us the “performance”: that person in the present with real needs and wants and a reason to perform.
In other words, why are we here listening to these tales of woe and humor? And why should we care?
If she gave us that, then the stage play which follows would have context and resonance.
Of course, preexisting knowledge of Margolin might provide enough of a “tree” on which to hang 8 Stops many “limbs,” but without it, the play remains an amorphous assortment of branches, a mash up of stories if you will, rustling about the idea of the “grief of eternal compassion.”
Now, that “the grief of endless compassion,” is definitely an idea worth writing about. Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, in which the poet steps into the lives of everyone one he meets or imagines, from the destitute and dying, to the enslaved or working man or woman, or the woman in labor, or the prostitute, to the soldier and the criminal about to be hung. As a result, the poem’s catharsis is visceral: his grief from empathy tangible.
Margolin’s exploration of that force is not nearly so visceral, except on one occasion when she erupted onto the stage in true grief for the “other.” Rather, the idea is discussed as a family trait, passed down from father to daughter to son, whose empathy with the dying is quite provocative, even if left mysterious or even mystical.
The “eternal” grief of “eternal” compassion is perhaps clouded over in 8 Stops by the personal suffering of Margolin’s struggle with Hodgkin’s.
Jay Wahl directed 8 Stops. He most definitely could have spent more time clarifying transitions and shaping the meta-narrative.
Set Design was by William T. Fleming. A backdrop of lamps and an array of other household objects was curiously inexplicable.
The Lighting Design was by Andrew Dodge, with Sound Design by Chistopher Mark Colucci.
The Costume Design for 8 Stops was true to its performance art origin–it wasn’t, i.e., Deb Margolin came on stage seemingly as is, which just goes to show you that conceptually the overlay of performance art, as meta-narrative to the stage play, was indeed a part of the design.
The last line of Margolin’s bio reads: “Deb lives in New Jersey, which she denies.” I read that after seeing 8 Stops, which ironically is about Deb’s life in New Jersey.
A theatrical art rooted in the personal (performance art), on a subject about which the author is in “denial” (life in New Jersey), is a truly challenging subject to explore.
8 Stops offers its audience that challenge.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
8 Stops plays through July 31, 2016 at Unexpected Stage Company performing at Randolph Road Theatre – 4010 Randolph Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, or purchase them online.