TIC Reading April 21, 2007
"Performing Words II"

To see the artwork featured in this event, please visit Sonya Berlovitz online.

"The Madness of Ian Wakil:" story
Kira Obolensky

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.”

“He is?”

“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 out. “

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 Ian’s innocence had been replaced by cynicism.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 said.

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 dreams.

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 gathering.

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 died.

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 out.
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 break.

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 put it.

And then the music started up again, and I screamed into the jangle of it: “How did he die, Mr. Wakil, Did he kill himself?”

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 eyes.
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 Bill.

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 going--I’m going.”
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.

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