The Invention of Tragedy

A chorus of students, all alike and all unalike, perform The Invention of Tragedy as part of The Flea's Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes Festival of Plays. Original photo by Hunter Canning.
This isn't The Play That Goes Wrong. Then again, maybe it is!?

By Andrew Andrews

Mac Wellman’s 2004 examination of the post-9/11 world and “Zmerca’s” acceptance of the Iraq War takes the stage for its fifteenth anniversary, as part of The Flea’s Perfect Catastrophes, a festival paying homage to its co-founder. For this production, a chorus of Catholic school girls (who might or might not be anthropomorphic dogs) present the play full of nonsense dialog somewhat resembling lorem ipsum, repeatedly instigating nobody in particular to “chop the chails off all cats.”

Pushing the concept of “a play within a play” to the extreme, the embedded piece takes up the entirety of its wrapper, from the opening appearance of the narrating organist, to the curtain call that also serves as… well, the curtain call.

There’s only one thing wrong with this play. It’s not the cast or director, as it seems that the performance is exactly what it should be. It’s not the set, which perfectly depicts the proscenium of a private school auditorium that’s been well maintained but never updated in more than fifty years. And it’s not the handsome costumes of alternating green and white habits and white flat sandals. Even the lighting and sound fit beautifully into the premise of the production, and everything is executed with the utmost professionalism to depict the complete lack of polish in the nested performance.

No, the only thing wrong with this play is the play itself: Wellman takes the monotony of the first scene waaaay too far, beating the audience into a slumber with such boring nonsense that I actually wanted to fall asleep so I could miss it. And by the time the scene changed and the dialog became just a bit less dada, it was too late—we were already far too disenfranchised to hook us back in. In theory, The Invention of Tragedy is genius, but the implementation just doesn’t live up to its ideals.

Wellman can and has done better, and I direct you to Sincerity Forever, and my five-star review of Bad Pennywhich are also a part of this festival—as examples. Perhaps the real tragedy of this piece is that the perfect quality of the production just isn’t enough to make up for the tedium of the script.

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Andrew Andrews attended The Invention of Tragedy at The Flea Theater The Sam in New York on Sunday, September 15, 2019 @ 4:00pm to write this review.

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