KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 15, 1998
So, here’s the paradox: ‘The barber of Seville shaves all the men in Seville if and only if they do not shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself?’ Now, this may be totally inconsequential to you, but it’s the kind of thing that can torture a mathematician, and, in the case of a brilliant one like Bertrand Russell, it can throw his entire life’s work into question. Because it defies logic, the main domain of mathematicians.
In “The Third Voice of the Nightjar,” there’s a mathematician, and there’s also a constant defiance of logic and explicable reality. In the story of Bertrand Russell that inspired the play, the great philosopher spent his nights wondering and wandering in the woods, where he never solved the problem, but he did learn the three different calls of the nocturnal bird, the nightjar.
In Karin Williams’ 21st century cautionary tale, the mathematician spends his sleepless nights cruising the Internet, a place that, like the dark forest of fairy tale and myth, is, according to the playwright’s notes, “a vast and uncharted wilderness… ripe with the potential to fulfill a wanderer’s wildest dreams… or to become his undoing.”
All of the above happens in “Nightjar,” which takes place in three simultaneous realities (or unrealities): cyberspace, dream space and real space. For the audience, as for the main character, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.
Set simply and surreally, it’s a wonderfully magical piece, rife with evocative language, dark as the forest but also witty and clever and thought-provoking. The very talented Williams, Fritz resident playwright, has created her ripest, most satisfying work, though it’s quite enigmatic. The ambiguity is obviously intentional, but things do get a bit too murky at times. Was someone murdered, and if so, who and by whom? When the mathematician searches for meaning in logic, and goes for solace to Cyberia, what does he ultimately find? And who does he wind up with? His devoted wife? His cyber-obsession? Or some product of his drug-addled, insomniac imagination?
If you can deal with ambiguity and incertitude, if you’re a Net-surfer yourself, if you’re titillated by the thought of cybersex and the mysteries of life, and the magic of theater, you’re gonna love this show. I certainly did. It’s beautifully executed, spellbinding, sexy and perplexing.
Bryan Bevell has done a masterful job of casting and direction. Tim West aptly captures another zhlubby, middle-aged Everyman gone awry. He’s lured into online sex with the seething, leather-clad Michelle Hanks, the alter-ego and cyber-persona of Michael Hummel’s Shawn, a waiter and drug dealer who’s sexually irresistible to males and females. This is Hummel’s best performance ever — a focused, centered, knockout portrayal that oozes sex and humor and menace. The cast is rounded out by the no-nonsense Beth Bayliss, playing the faithful wife who gets sucked into the online madness; a cynically deadpan Lamont Thompson as Lynch, computer programmer and terrorist; and the redoubtable Sarah Gunnell as the object of everyone’s concern and desire, a woman who may be a man, a runaway, a murderer, a victim — or someone who just wants to press the Escape key and start her life all over.
You see, in cyberspace, you can be whoever you want to be, or whoever someone wants or needs you to be. Online morals and ethics and expectations are different, disarming. Truth is hard to discern. But, despite the overall darkness of the piece, the loneliness and isolation, the soullessness and desperation, people are reaching out, trying to establish some sort of relationship and community. In the end, it may be possible to reconfigure yourself, to start again, and even to get some sleep.
Do yourself a favor. Boot up, log on, and glue your attention to “The Third Voice of the Nightjar.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.