To me, both pieces of art were nothing but average, ready-made items that were presented as far more valuable than they were. If those were considered art, then anything could be. But would that fit into The Duchamp Syndrome? I knew who Duchamp was, but still wound up entering The Flea Theater in a relatively clueless state.
My mother and I were directed through red curtains and suddenly we are on the stage of The Duchamp Syndrome, facing the audience.
We squinted beneath the florescent lighting as we tried to orient ourselves. Were we supposed to be entering this way? It seemed strange to be walking to our seats from the same direction that the actors would typically enter.
We nabbed front row seats and then set to work dissecting the set. There were coffee cups stacked into pyramids, jars filled with what looked like real dollar bills, TVs, and a desk so cluttered that it reminded me of home. But the weirdest thing by far was a man dressed in blackness from head to toe (even his face was covered). He was standing in the corner and holding a puppet of a creepy old man. The puppet was fishing in a water cooler that was clearly labeled a no fishing zone.
For over twenty minutes we waited.
The show was supposed to have started. But the only person on stage was that man operating the creepy puppet. The audience was all on their phones, talking very loudly with one another. And the longer we waited, the more disruptive they got. On the one hand, it was kind of annoying. I mean, maybe the show did start? This was a person's vision, and nobody was respecting it.
But at the same time, something was gnawing at me in the pit of my stomach: What if the entire play was like this? All at once it became clear to me just how intentional all of this was. The audience was supposed to feel uncomfortable as they waited. Or at least that's how it seemed to me. I got as relaxed as I could in my seat as I tried to prepare myself for what was sure to be a very long and uneventful experience.
And then a janitor named Juan walked in and started mopping the floor.
It was an actor; it had to be! I let out a relieved breath I didn't know I was holding, suddenly genuinely excited by my first glimpse of movement on stage.
The stage consisted of two people: The guy dressed all in black and then Juan, the janitor.
Stuff proceeded to get weird and fast, and my emotions were all over the place.
Juan's only friend? A cockroach. Ew. And not even your average cockroach. This one was a chainsmoker named Tony who had a bad mouth that would put sailors to shame and a day job telling raunchy jokes at a club called The Turn Table. Tony drank from a mug that was sculpted and painted to look like a human breast, and his opening bit was about the importance of washing your ass when in a relationship. "I'm not talking about your whole ass," he croaked, "I'm taking about your asshole."
When you looked past the vulgarity, Juan's story was a sad one, and Tony's presence in his life merely a coping mechanism. The only reason Juan, a Mexican immigrant living as a janitor in New York City, could even "befriend" a cockroach was because his misery at not being able to realize his dream of being a professional stand up comic had caused him to literally shrink. Over the course of the show, Juan would shrink to the point where he could easily sit along the edge of a penny. Juan's shrinkage was portrayed creatively with the aid of miniature puppets and furniture.
Juan saved his money in three jars. The first jar was for his marriage to Maria, Juan's childhood friend and love interest. The second jar was for his blind mother's eye surgery. And the last jar was for anything leftover. Juan's existence was painfully lonely and pathetic, leading him to lie to his elderly mother and tell her that he was a comedian so successful he graced magazine covers.
Juan's insecurities stemmed from a traumatic childhood event that left his father dead and his mother blind. As an adult he is in a constant state of shame and guilt, his life's biggest goal to make his mother proud.
Using a fan, Juan made several plastic bags soar into the air while he cried "American Beauty," referencing one of my favorite films.
Circumstances are bleak for Juan. Tony is no longer in his life, and his mother informs him that Maria is engaged to somebody else. Juan is left to mop a filthy floor in despair, when...
He writes a happy ending, just for our benefit!
Juan gets offered a spot to perform his jokes, his mother assures her son that he was in no way responsible for his father's death or her failing eye-sight, and Maria returns to his life! It was everything Juan could have wanted, and although I knew that Juan had only given us this happy ending so we could leave the theatre in good spirits, I felt grateful to him. It reminded me of foreign films and how oftentimes the endings are hauntingly realistic and even bittersweet, while most popular American films are sappy as ever with all the loose ends tied up neatly.
As my mother and I walked out of the theatre, I couldn't help but think of how Americans can't seem to take sad endings, even if those endings are more truthful. The Duchamp Syndrome was heartbreakingly personal, and at times made me feel like I was intruding on another's misfortunes. I had to wonder if the director/writer's play was at all borrowed from his own life... Perhaps the happy ending he wrote was the one he never got to have.