Those more inclined to literary analysis and academic-adjacent thought will probably spend days or weeks thinking about what No Man's Land "means," and those more inclined to listen to the way words sound and enjoy fantastic performances in the moment will enjoy just sitting back and observing. (Of course, it's also possible for someone to do both, and if that is you, mazel tov.)
Personally, I decided to take off my thinking cap and forego the usual pre-play research and just see where the production led me. This method comes highly recommended in most cases, to be honest; a play should be able to stand on its own without knowledge sought out beforehand, and while No Man's Land would probably be served well by additional analytical research, it also makes for a fine night at the theater on a whim, too.
Even playwright Harold Pinter's biographer Michael Billington said of No Man's Land that it is a play that he "can never fully understand—who can?" … so I feel a bit better about my lasting confusion.
In this, the second offering of New Mexico Actors Lab's 2019 season, director Nicholas Ballas also plays Spooner, a quick-talking and verbally masturbatory agéd writer who has run into his (presumably) long-time friend Hirst (Jonathan Richards, one of my favorite NMAL mainstays) at a pub. They're now back at Hirst's house, drinking even more, telling ridiculous stories, eventually even getting combative with hurled insults and scandalous confessions. The first 20 minutes of the show are essentially a monologue from Ballas as he babbles on about nothing, giving the distinct impression that he is trying to impress Hirst.
Soon, after the power dynamic shifts and flips and Hirst gets some monologues of his own, it's unclear whether Spooner is in fact whom he says he is, and even Hirst seems confused about whether or not they have known one another for decades. By the end, we have taken sojourns into nonsensical asides and poetic, lyrical repetition of lines, unsure whether the characters are awake or asleep, alive or dead, and whether this story even exists at all. (The signal that stuff's about get really weird is the floral apron. Just wait for it.)
We also meet Foster and Briggs, played by Joey Beth Gilbert and Robert Henkel, Jr., respectively, who represent the muscle behind the tony Hirst estate. I'd be tempted to say that Gilbert and Henkel are the best part of this show if Ballas and Richards' rapport didn't also please me so much.
The decision to cast Gilbert as Foster is a fantastic one. Out of the 17th-century trappings we last saw her in as Élise in The Miser, Gilbert affects a fantastically androgynous, ultimately spooky and sinister manner perfect for the henchman who may or may not be a villain just waiting to act. Alongside her, Henkel, whom we last saw as a monkey with bare feet and spats in Trevor and in a golden Speedo for Rocky Horror, plays a Briggs that is maybe not the brightest crayon in the box, but who could definitely snap me in two if he had half a mind. These chameleons side-by-side make a great partnership.
Also, after the genteel and classy (if not bland) appearances of Spooner at Hirst at the beginning of the show, Foster's creepy Clockwork Orange-reminiscent eye makeup and Briggs' septum ring-paired-with-suit combo shake up the play's aesthetic in a much-needed manner. Bravo, Ballas (who also designed). And brava to dialect coach Maria Johnson, whose sure hand led these talented actors to flawless delivery of both aristocratic and cockney accents. The cast seemed perfectly comfortable and settled, a feat for any show this complicated—and certainly an impressive impression to get on opening night.
As the play spirals into some kind of oblivion, both plot-wise and script-wise, the actors still manage to keep perfect control of the barren moonscape they have created. And then, suddenly, the lights go out—and a woman behind me shuffled, whispering to her husband, "Was—was that the end?" I suppose he replied in the affirmative, because she suddenly leapt to her feet in applause. Guess it didn't matter if she didn't know what was going on. She loved it anyway.
So, with regards to whether you should read some scholarly articles about this play before you go: Yeah, probably. But another option is to read them after—or even see the show, read up, and see it again. I highly advocate for any of these options, as long as you see it. Just the wordplay and the feel of the lines in the actors' mouths is worth the price of admission.
No Man’s Land
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays June 13-22; 2 pm Sundays June 16 and 23. $25. Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie, 424-1601; tickets here.