TIC Reading April
"Performing Words II"
To see the artwork featured in this event,
please visit Sonya
"The Madness of Ian Wakil:" story
The subject line read Death—with an exclamation
point--as if Ian, in his last e-mail, might be selling us
the inevitable. Ian’s messages often contained extreme
words in the subject line: “lust,” “die,”
“spit.” But Death!, given my mood at the time—happy,
relaxed, waiting for the next thing—jarred me. Maybe
it scared me, too. I clicked it open, and it was an obituary.
“Ian Wakil, promising theatre director, whose work has
alarmed and surprised audiences and critics, dies at the age
of 45, while watching a production of Mamma Mia.
I called Roger, in Salt Lake City, a mutual friend, another
theatre person—we knew Ian in college, years ago. Roger
had also received the message, and he laughed it off.
“ It’s obviously just a ruse,” he said.
“Why is he putting us on?” I asked.
“Could be a press stunt. It’s so hard to get anyone’s
attention. And he’s shrewd,” said Roger. “
He’s a business man.”
“Like his dad,” Roger said. “ Who by the
way is Very rich. Very successful. “
“You met his dad?”
“Yeah,” said Roger, ”When we were going
There was an awkward pause here, for Ian had, many years ago,
left me for Roger. Roger charged ahead, with an intellectual
assessment that left me feeling like I was in a leaky boat
on an impossible river.
“It’s Brechtian,” he said. “Now he
wants us to think he’s dead. And before that he wanted
us to think, well I’m not sure exactly what—but
don’t you think he’s been asking us, all along,
what the fuck? What the fuck do we do with this mess? He manipulates
the e-mail like there’s no more fourth wall, and there
isn’t, you know, that wall that protects us is gone,
honey, don’t think you can hide anywhere. Technology.
I mean he can just get in our houses, whenever he wants, you
know, he’s relentless. “
Ian Wakil came back into my life, after ten years of relative
silence, by sending an e-mail, In it, right after 9/11, he
described what he saw in the city, as if he were a reporter
on the front line. The message came to me, and to a list of
“undisclosed recipients.” And then he sent another.
And another. Sometimes they were about the world; more often
they were about art. If you took the time to actually read
the e-mails, they were very disturbing. Ian’s innocence
had been replaced by cynicism. The women in Lysistrata--Ian
called them “hos.” He made vague death threats
towards certain critics.
He railed against art and against crap. He reviewed
The Revengers Tragedy, which he had directed, lauding himself
for his directorial “virility.” In a review of
a techno show in the East village, he wrote about his own
performance as a critic, admitting he had performed badly
because he threw a can of Heineken at the actors.
Ian’s “Death!” message spooked
me, and I deleted it. But the rest of his e-mails I collected
in a folder on my computer called ”The Madness of Ian
Wakil,” This puzzled my husband Bill, a retired psychologist,
Bill read a few of Ian’s messages and assumed bad behavior
from an emotionally immature man. “Why would you want
to keep those things?” he asked.
I reminded him that I’m a writer, even
if I mostly write junk, and that I save lots of strange things.
“I couldn’t make this up. Not in a million years,”
I’m not clear on how much time transpired
between Ian’s last message and his real death. Time
is not always trustworthy with me. Time tends to warp, depending
on what I’m working on. If it’s magazine writing,
time relentlessly whispers hurry up get this over with. If
it’s television, there’s a hole I fall into and
bango I wake up and my children are practically grown up.
I think I’d just stopped writing for “America’s
Top Model.” Zuki had won, big surprise. And I had been
back home in the piney woods long enough to gain weight, because
the dress I wear to funerals and cocktail parties barely fit.
On September third, a Friday, there was a brief
notice in the New York Times that Ian Wakil, theatre director,
had died. It said that Ian Wakil was promising and that his
work had astonished and offended many patrons. It mentioned
his production of Mother Courage. I read the notice at my
kitchen table, in Oregon. Roger , across the country in Madison,
directing a commercial for denture cream, called to find out
if I was going to the memorial service. There was going to
be a gathering at the Public, he told me. I said, yes, I was
going, and booked a ticket right away.
Roger and I met for a drink in the city, before
the memorial, to toast Ian. That’s what we planned,
but I think it was really to bolster ourselves up before entering
a world that both of us no longer truly belonged to. I wanted
to know how he died, and I guess I assumed he had committed
suicide, but there was some guilty part of me—why hadn’t
I contacted Ian after the e-mailed obituary? Had all of us
ignored a cry for help?
In the bar, a monochromatic pastiche of the
movies adorned the walls. There was Ingrid Bergman, Swedish
and sexy; there was Sylvester Stallone, neck as thick as a
tree trunk; there was a still from my favorite French movie,
Jules et Jim. I lifted my glass to Ian and toasted him as
the only person in our college group who had held onto his
Roger, whose tears clung to his eyelashes like
dew on spiderwebs, replied, “And look where it got him,
Franny. Look where it got him.” He nodded, smug, sad.
“You look good, Franny, “ he told
me. “How’s your love life?”
I stared at him. It was a strange question,
one I’m rarely asked.
“We both loved him, didn’t we?”
Roger reminded me.
Roger had a dangerous, end of the world mood,
and he told me that he had never loved anyone as much as he
had loved Ian, and that his entire adult life had been spent
trying to find someone who could even approximate the intensity
Ian brought to even the most mundane of experiences. Roger
wanted me to spill what I had to spill, which wasn’t
much, but I nodded and said something vague about Bill, retired
early, and my kids, in junior high.
“Passion, “ I said, “well
it mutates into something else. It’s never like when
you are young.” I’d been writing dreck for television
for too long to offer any real wisdom.
And Roger ordered another Tom Collins. By the time we hailed
a cab, we were both a bit tipsy, Roger with booze, and me
with a grief that I couldn’t pin all on the occasion.
Before getting out of the cab, Roger asked me how he looked,
and I said you look gorgeous, and he told me the same—and
we entered the lobby of the theatre, leaking fear and middle-age.
The memorial service. First of all, everyone
wore black. Which was to be expected. The people gathered
at the small pub at the Public Theatre were theatre people,
and theatre people--in New York, in Madison, in the Pacific
Northwest—all wear black.
Black is a slimming color, and as all of us
have aged, we’ve gotten fat. The truth is that our field—whether
it’s theatre or television—eats you up, it makes
you crazy, it makes you a drunk. It makes you smoke, it forces
you, with its relentless scheduling, to not get exercise.
We were also in mourning, although this part was buried, it
had been put away somewhere. Maybe the grief was backstage,
waiting for its cue, but it seemed as if the evening’s
purpose was mingling.
Stephan, a writer I remember as a lithe, funny
grasshopper of a man, blew a kiss at me across the room. Any
resemblance to a grasshopper had faded—and the man who
greeted me looked as if he were coated with shellac. He wore
round glasses and his face was puffy and bloated. Married
for twenty years, he was really attracted to men, according
to business gossip. I knew his wife from prep school. She
had become an alcoholic shrew. We once had an argument over
the last shrimp on the tray at an opening of a musical. She
waved brightly. Then milling near the entrance, the ever so
famous set of misnamed twins, Faith and Hope. Identical twins,
they were often cast in the same role and switched off. Rumor
had it they did the same in bed, which made them attractive
to the handful of straight directors who still thought that
sleeping with actresses was part of the process. I had worked
with Hope, once, a long time ago, and approached her, with
my hand on my chest, pledging allegiance I think to the past.
“Oh Hope,” I said, “ I didn’t
know you knew Ian.”
“ Faith knew him, I’m here to see if Jonathan
will audition me,” she admitted.
So Jonathan was there, which surprised me, because Ian hated
Jonathan—called his work the scourge of the American
Theatre, perhaps because Jonathan was so successful.
Over by the stage, the people who run the theatres had gathered.
I was surprised they made the time to come, but then we all
love a good party and this promised to be filled with real-life
drama. For some reason, everyone I saw that night looked vaguely
like an insect and the group of artistic directors, gathered
near the stage, were the cicadas and the caterpillars, and
one of them—a tall man with no hair--reminded me of
a poisonous spider in my son’s bug collection. I wondered
to myself, lord if a bomb went off…but then it’s
hard not to think that anytime there’s a gathering in
a big city.
I personally kissed about a hundred people. Here are some
of the more memorable lines, “Oh, darling, I saw your
show in Chelsea. Those critics were idiots!” (This show
in Chelsea was twelve years ago.) Or, “Franny, my word,
where have you been” without waiting to hear the answer.
I did run into Julia, who had also been in our graduate program—she
wore red, and spoke with me solemnly about the success she
had in Chicago as a director. “I was nominated for a
Jeff,” she told me. “For a musical revue about
homelessness. Experimental. You know.” And then when
she asked what I was doing and I replied, “making lots
of money writing trash,” she warmed up and asked if
I could put in a good word for her with my agents. “I’m
at the point in my career,” she told me, “where
I’m ready for television.”
MacIntire M, an experimental theatre artist who Ian had worked
with in the 1990s, sat deflated in one of the chairs, which
had been set up to indicate that a show was on its way. I
touched MacIntre’s arm, and he jumped, frightened by
my touch. He was mumbling something to himself, a long recitation
of regret, it seemed—listening closely I wondered if
he were cursing us all, mumbling and messing up his hair,
until finally spitting in his wine glass and stalking away.
Then Roger stumbled up, he was in flirtation
alert, and whispered in my ear, “I don’t believe
it. This is like candid camera or something.”
The night was so surreal it didn’t seem possible that
Ian could be gone.
I had drunk perhaps three glasses of cheap red wine in quick
succession by the time a video projection of Ian’s face
flooded the stage. The video must have been recent. He had
on a wig, which was very Ian, and he looked gaunt and wasted—too
much partying, it was all over his face. Oh that face. The
nose, like a Roman senator’s, the eyes dark caves, the
eyebrows oversized, wild with stray hairs…. I had not
seen him in ten years or so. When I was transitioning from
theatre to TV (selling out to the Man, he told me), he’d
been mad, insisting that the play I was writing—a post
apocalyptic tale about three children whose parents were philosophy
professors--was of “our time.” He had directed
one of my first plays, a few years out of school. I had intended
it to be set in a European ruin, and he had put in a drycleaning
store. We had a slight falling out over that.
Ian’s face, aged, was a miracle to me. He would have
been a handsome older man.
Would have been? I looked around to see if I saw someone vaguely
like him, maybe dressed in drag, hanging at the edges of the
Soon, we all sat down as if we were about to watch a show.
Ian’s video-taped face bore witness to the proceedings.
The face murmured and twitched. Jonathan got up and talked
about how “important” Ian Wakil’s work was
to the history of American experimentation. MacIntire read
a poem he had written about wildness, which must have been
what he was rehearsing earlier in the evening. Five other
people, including Julia, talked about Ian’s friendship.
I can’t really remember anything specific anyone said.
It was over quickly. Ian’s parents stood up. Mr. Wakil
shook with grief, and Mrs. Wakil looked resolutely down at
her hands. She wore a knitted Irish shawl over her shoulders.
They mentioned there would be a party celebrating Ian’s
life at Clubbed Thumb. So far, no one had told us how he had
If the Public had felt like a cocktail party, then the event
at the Clubbed Thumb had been planned as some kind of dervish
ritual—some kind of cleansing, non verbal experience,
intended perhaps to release our collective grief. Electronic
music hit us like whips as we entered. Inside, on the stage,
there were a series of mannequins dressed up, with plaques
around their necks. Shakespeare was a woman wearing a beard
and a fan collar. Chekhov had a stethoscope. Strindberg’s
arms were removed, leaving gaping oversized doll-like holes.
Brecht had been mutilated, with a hole carved in his chest—and
where the heart might have been there was a blue bird sticking
Everyone started dancing in a frenzy. I needed more liquor,
and there was this heavy feeling in my chest that made me
think I might never be the same, I might never recover. I
can’t, even now, identify that feeling—but I looked
at us all and I felt so changed, so impure, so tainted. Julia
came up and offered me some Ecstasy. I saw Roger pop a pill
on his tongue.
The Wakils were sitting at a table in the corner. Mr. Wakil’s
head was bobbing to the music. He got up with his wife and
tried to dance a little. They danced for three seconds. He
escorted her off the floor as if they both might trip and
I approached their table, during a lull in the music. “I’m
so sorry for your loss, Mr. and Mrs. Wakil,” I said.
He grabbed my hands, looked me in the eyes and asked, “How
did you know our beautiful son?” I mentioned we went
to college together: we were old college friends is how I
And then the music started up again, and I screamed into the
jangle of it: “How did he die, Mr. Wakil, Did he kill
He screamed back, something I couldn’t hear, all the
while shaking his head with either disbelief at me, for my
question, or at the unfairness of the world.
And then Mr. Wakil began to sob, it wasn’t audible because
of the din—like watching a silent movie of sobbing,
his face twisted, his mouth open, his hands raised to his
I tried to apologize—how could I have asked his parents
such an inappropriate question? I kissed his father, who patted
me on the back, and infected with his tears, and red with
embarrassment., I walked towards the door. Roger was on dance
floor, writhing with drug-induced desire and I waved good
bye, not watching to see if he saw me leave.
Outside, I hailed a cab, and asked the driver to take me to
my midtown hotel along the river. The city was just waking
up for the real night. Couples navigated the sidewalk like
they were gangplanks. The light from the cars, from the buildings,
from the neon, made it seem as if night had been banished,
as if night were now imaginary.
We drove through what used to be the Meat Packing District,
where there were an assortment of transvestite whores strolling.
It used to be grittier, I thought. Even the drug addicts looked
like they worked out at the gym. The couples looked so wealthy,
so strong, so resolute in their pursuit of life. I felt an
incredible warmth, watching the way people held onto each
other, as if they might be so easily lost.
I flew home the next day, early, and from the airplane I could
see the missing buildings in the landscape. The city looked
like a comic book, and then up above from far away, a shimmering
Byzantine thing.At home, far away from New York, from my gossip
with Roger, I lie in bed with my husband, Bill. The windows
are open, letting in the musty cool smell of a fall night.
Jackson and Eleanor are asleep. The piney woods can’t
hear us either, and because death is so present I reach for
I keep all the people I love and have loved in my heart like
a chain of rosary beads. Ian is among those beads and as Bill
hits all the spots—the ones that make me stir, the one
that brings on desire--I worry the Ian bead.
So many years ago. We weren’t even twenty. Ian and I
ended up sharing a cab after a strange party in Chinatown,
filled with Lacanians and drug addicts. He got out with me
because we had run out of money and we walked up B together
to my dive. Ian was stumbling a bit, and I remember I had
smoked pot earlier that evening, but that I was not muddled.
I had been so clear, so that everything I saw had firm edges
and I knew exactly what Ian and I would do before we did it,
and I knew that whatever happened that it was going to be
some kind of portal, I had decided, into another world. We
were young. We were so clean.
Bill murmurs in my year, Is this OK?, and I say yes, thinking
about Ian. How clear and hot and passionate we were. Ian whistled
at me when he got my clothes off. I was a sight then, pink
and firm, and we fell to the floor in a huddle.
We’re climbing up the mountain Bill and I. And in my
mind, I hold on to Ian, the quickness and the heat of the
way we made love, on the couch in a dingy apartment, with
that metallic morning light insisting its way through the
bars on the window, and even then through the blinds.
When Ian came, he said “I’m going,” in a
sort of whispered frenzy as if he were in fact headed somewhere
unknown, as if he might never return. In the piney woods,
holding my dear husband, I say in a whisper, not to him, but
to those two young ghosts, “I’m going, I’m
KIRA OBOLENSKY’s plays
have been produced here in Minneapolis and around the country.
Recent work includes Snow, a collaboration with Open Eye Figure
Theater, 21 Lies for 4 Characters, A Modern House and Quick
Silver, a play for puppets and actors. She has received support
and fellowships from such granting institutions as Jerome,
McKnight, Bush and Guggenheim. She is also the author of three
published books about architecture.