A few years ago, a friend went to an academic conference and saw a reading of Anne Carson’s adaptation of “Antigone,” with the celebrated academic Judith Butler as the Theban king Kreon. “She was hilarious,” my friend, a theater professor, wrote to me. “Maybe she has a future onstage.”
The future is now.
Butler, a professor of comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, currently stars in “Fragments, Lists & Lacunae,” a performance piece enjoying a brief run at New York Live Arts. Her role: A professor of comparative literature.
Over the course of the semester, in a series of punchy, truncated lectures, the professor hips her undergrads to the idea that “absences are more than merely meaningful; rather, they are the material that governs that which is present.” Her examples include doughnut holes, the Nixon tapes, Sappho. Pay attention. This is going on the final.
Divorced from an academic context, lectures have negative connotations. A lecture functions as a knuckle-rap, a don’t-do-it-again form of verbal deterrence. But lectures used to qualify as entertainment, with traveling speakers trekking from town to town, obliging a populace eager for diversion and instruction. P.T. Barnum built a lecture hall into his American Museum — alongside the trained bears and the mummified mermaid — as one more attraction.
Theatrically, the form has come back into fashion, with works both esoteric, like the French artist Fanny de Chaillé’s re-creation of a Michel Foucault talk, and popular, like John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons.” Last season’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” nominated for a Tony Award, interleaved memoir with constitutional law analysis.
There is something elemental, ascetic about the lecture and the way it strips performance to its simplest constituent forms — a speaker, an audience, a stool if you’re feeling fancy. Besides, you can only sit through so many kick-lines and dysfunctional family get-togethers before the idea that you might be made to think as well as to feel tantalizes.
Intellectually, “Fragments, Lists & Lacunae” is a treat; theatrically, especially after the first hour, it’s less digestible. It’s not exactly theater, and Butler’s performance isn’t exactly acting, but it isn’t fully anything else either.
The piece, written by Alexandra Chasin and directed by Zishan Ugurlu, takes place in a classroom with Butler, as the nameless professor, speaking to three onstage students — Hailey Marmolejo’s Noë, Aigner Mizzelle’s Quin, Jackie Rivera’s Wyler — and several hoodied young men seated in the front row.
The rest of the audience is constituted, vaguely, as other students, and as the professor takes attendance, you may hear your name called. (Relax, no 15-page research paper is required.) As the professor lectures, cameras and large screens reveal the notes taken by the onstage students — doodles and all.
Butler is a household name, provided that your household bookshelf buckles beneath critical theory texts. Put it this way: She gets a shout-out in the final season of “BoJack Horseman.” (Take that, Fredric Jameson.) “Fragments, Lists & Lacunae” does and doesn’t suggest what it must be like to sit in on her seminars. The words and habits of mind are not hers. Chasin, whose faculty bio notes an interest in “the limits of sense; white space; repetition; and fragments,” adapted the piece from one of her own courses.
But I would bet that Butler lends the professor her own mannerisms. Her voice is low and gently burred, her affect is a funky mix of playfulness and precision. Clad in a trim black suit, clutching a laser pointer, she gestures lavishly from her elbows and wrists and sometimes wields a funny, Groucho-esque shrug — an intellectual who is down to clown.
Chasin’s talks, as delivered by Butler, are brisk and deft, cognitive chew toys to worry as you walk or ride home. But where the piece falters is in its more theatrical aspects, especially its tawdry imagining of the students. At the end of several of the lectures, the classroom lights dim and silent scenes play out upstage — alcohol poisoning, an unplanned pregnancy, a bacchanal with shirtless dancing. Do these students ever go to the library? Or call their moms?
By contrast, the off-hours glimpse of the professor shows her in a comfortable armchair, perusing a student’s presentation. The play also generally avoids professor-student interaction, though Butler had a nice improv as she handed a student a dropped earring. “A little fragment,” she said.
The play runs two hours — about the length of a seminar meeting — and as it continues, the work of listening and reading, of thinking and watching, of trying to reconcile the romance of the classroom with the melodrama of the students’ lives, becomes more difficult and less pleasurable. Why couldn’t this just be a lecture, I scribbled, as I made my own fragments and lists and the occasional doodle in my notebook.
Fragments, Lists & Lacunae
Through Feb. 15 at New York Live Arts, Manhattan; 212-691-6500, newyorklivearts.org. Running time: 2 hours
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