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Eugene O’Neill Without Words

The New York Neo-Futurists stage nothing but O’Neill’s stage directions

Eugene O’Neill and the New York Neo-Futurists seem like strange bedfellows. After all, he’s a venerated playwright best known for realistic family melodramas, and they’re an experimental troupe that thrives on destroying theatrical illusions and reminding the audience they’re watching a show.

But there are surprising overlaps between the playwright and the company. That’s why the Neo-Futurists are tackling O’Neill’s early plays with The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays, running through October 1 at the Kraine Theatre in the East Village.

Christopher Loar, the Neo-Futurist who created the show, is a longtime fan of the playwright, and he was determined to make him “suitable” for his company. He found his answer in O’Neill’s verbose stage directions, which sometimes run for several pages. In Complete & Condensed, actors “perform” all the stage directions in the plays, but in pantomime, while a narrator intones the playwright’s complex and vividly described instructions. O’Neill’s dialogue, however, remains unspoken.

“There are plays where the story comes across really strong, and there are some plays where it sort of comes across,” Loar says “But what happens is kind of like a test of how much of the story can come through under those conditions. It’s almost like watching something as a little kid who doesn’t quite understand all the language or the adult things going on. Sometimes it’s not very clear, [but] in a real fun way.”

Months of readings and editing have reduced the show to a swift 90 minutes of pure movement. After essentially turning the plays into silent films being performed live, the company used rehearsals to make sure the “reduced versions” still made sense. “It was a constant process of editing, bringing something in, condensing it more,” Loar says.

Only the most dedicated O’Neill fans will recognize the plots the plots in Complete & Condensed. His best-known plays didn’t come until much later in his career, and his early work is as non-traditional as the Neo-Futurists are today. For instance, O’Neill’s first play, the short “A Wife for a Life,” features a character called The Older Man who occasionally steps outside the play and describes his own life, as though he were the narrator in a novel. That may not seem strange today, but in the American theatre in 1913, it was startling.

And that’s the crucial link between O’Neill and the Neo-Futurists. “I definitely feel a certain kinship, just in researching him and reading about the kinds of things he was doing in the early aughts and ’20s, when people thought he was very experimental,” Loar says. “So there is something attractive about treating this experimental playwright in this experimental fashion.”

Mark Peikert is the managing editor of City Arts.

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