We're on the second floor of what looks like a warehouse, in a big, spare room with bunk beds, hiphop records strewn on the floor, somebody knitting on a couch. Implied Violence is having its first rehearsal for its new play, during which it will take over a farm.
There is a hand-drawn map of Smoke Farm on the wall. Everyone has seven copies of the map to take notes on where to enter, how fast to run, when to attack the audience. "The barn where the audience will be sitting is 160 feet long and has 20 windows," says codirector Mandie O'Connell. She sounds military, like a general briefing her troops on an impending invasion.
The military feeling, the level of control, is a little surprising. Implied Violence's plays are chaotic, an explosion of words and incongruent costumes and music and goop.
This is a theater company that hates most theater, dreams of poetic spectacles, is in love with Gertrude Stein and the Wu-Tang Clan, and, according its mission statement, "loves nothing more than a good pie in the face." O'Connell and Ryan Mitchell (the other codirector) met while studying at Cornish in 2003. They started working together, doing thorny, sometimes inscrutable plays by Sarah Kane and German expressionists, and now make thorny, sometimes inscrutable original work.
Once they did a show involving a man slicing lemons—dozens and dozens of lemons—during which a second man told a story about a deformed child and a third man hanged himself. Another show starred two actors beating the crap out of each other in a boxing ring in a downtown alley while feathers and goo were rained on them from a high window. Mitchell tells me about a show that required 20 gallons of stage blood to be poured on the floor. "Afterward, someone was like, 'You should put a tarp down for cleanup,'" he said. "And we were like, 'No, we can't put a tarp down because that cheapens it.'"
In other words: Life is a mess. Our shows are a mess. Let it all be a big fucking mess.
The show they're planning for Smoke Farm sounds messy. According to the hand-drawn maps, there's a big, derelict barn with a stage, where most of the audience will watch the Inside Play. It includes lines like this: "I have a headache and a suicidal thought. Hang, hang, hanging in my head head head head. I have heartache, gray hairs, and wrinkles. I'm a young old lady!"
Behind the barn is a huge field where the Outside Play will happen—platforms for musicians and performers, a string-and-tin-can telephone, big patches of sod, 40 balloons full of helium and globule lights, microphones and loudspeakers, blood, piñatas, and performers running around, stoking the pandemonium. The catch is this: The audience members inside the barn aren't allowed to turn around and look at all the spectacle going on behind them (save for eight of them, who will be assigned to sit in seats in the field). If people want to watch the action in the field, they have to raise their hands and get carried out there on the backs of cast members.
Mitchell works as a produce delivery driver and O'Connell works for Cupcake Royale. You can see the repetition and absurdism of their jobs in their plays. O'Connell talks about frosting innumerable cupcakes, many of which will go to waste. Mitchell talks about driving to the airport to pick up crates of fruit that are sitting on a runway. But there's a strike. So he sits in a hangar for several hours, reading magazines, getting paid for not picking up a box of fruit a hundred yards away.
The laziest criticism of Implied Violence is that its plays don't mean anything, that all that sound and fury is affectation run rampant, that it doesn't make sense.
"We know the story even if the audience doesn't necessarily know," Mitchell explains. "The duration of our rehearsal process is so long—the world of the play is so clear to us." They know what they're doing, even if you don't. In other words, it's a code.
It figures that their heroes are Gertrude Stein and the Wu-Tang Clan. Mitchell and O'Connell have a bunch of tattoos (a cloud of horseshoes, a heart pierced with swords), but the best one is on O'Connell's forearm, a Stein quote: "Yes and yes and more and yes and why."
"The first time I read her, I was 12," O'Connell says. "I thought, 'This is garbage, this is weird.' But when I went back, I had enough patience to break the code. I like to study. I like things that require more. If I had taken a class on Gertrude Stein, I wouldn't be as interested." Letting someone else do the work for you is boring.
Mitchell talks the same way about Wu-Tang Clan, enamored of its obliquity and its toughness. "They're not like other rappers," he says. "They made their own language. It seems like it makes no sense, but it's a code. And to have enough appeal that people want to be so deep in your material to break the code...."
Then he starts talking about numerology and dog fighting and some crazy Christian rapper. His monologue is like an Implied Violence show—majestic in its scope, veering from theater theory to pop culture to nasty details about pit bulls tearing each other's throats out. He totally loses me. I love it.