During a recent rehearsal for A Pale and Lovely Place, director Kevin Kent stood in the middle of the room, proposing a sound cue to one of the show's designers.
"And Kevin will only change it once," performer Kevin Joyce said sarcastically, "and in a way that's clear and understandable." Kent advanced on Joyce, playfully wagging his middle finger. Joyce gingerly retreated to his stand-up piano. "You move away as if I might strike you," Kent said. "I move away so that I don't strike you," Joyce responded. Kent turned toward me with a dramatic sigh: "That's the way it is sometimes—pulling of hair, slapping of..." He trailed off and returned to the sound cues.
There was love in the air, and something a little darker, too—their banter sounded uncannily like something from A Pale and Lovely Place, Joyce's cheerfully nihilistic solo show, directed by Kent.
Place is an impressionistic monologue, punctuated with piano ditties. Their cheerful tunes are a veneer over devastating lyrics—sugar frosting on a shit cake. Joyce pirouettes between three characters: a dour announcer, a meek child, and a chipper huckster who offers the audience an ambiguous, Faustian-sounding deal. Its eight principles include: Chase the Things That Run Away, Take What You Hate and Make It a Present to Yourself, and Make Someone Love You.
"Welcome, welcome, welcome!" the huckster beckons, gliding around the stage like a balletic imp. "Tonight we can make history, alter the course of our own lives, and be remembered for a very long time. It's a Special Deal, an arrangement I made, a Covenant I struck to stir things up a bit, add a new flavor to the stew, and make the world a better place—not just for the children, but for all of us." He dazzles us with a villainous smile.
Joyce wrote A Pale and Lovely Place in the winter of 1995 in an automatic fashion, with sentences and passages pouring out of him. "It was the most exciting experience of the muse I've ever had," he said during a break in the rehearsal. "I didn't think about it—but it had an internal logic I didn't contrive." He showed the script to longtime performer Kent (perhaps best known in Seattle for his work with Teatro Zinzanni and Dina Martina) and they put the show together for the 1996 Seattle Fringe Festival. It was well-received, so they remounted it at ACT Theatre in 1999. (The Stranger review at the time called it "an unnerving acid trip of a performance.")
The script has been sitting in the closet for over a decade. When they took another look, Joyce was tempted to rewrite it. Kent said no. A Pale and Lovely Place is still, he says, "an embrace of the shadow, a deal with the devil that has the power to be redemptive." That is a theme without an expiration date.
Joyce says that the initial audience reactions were enthusiastic but befuddled—people didn't know what it was, but they knew that they liked it. That makes sense—A Pale and Lovely Place can be simultaneously, confoundingly savage and charming. Sometimes the text is menacing and the delivery is light, as in the story of the huckster chasing a lost little boy down an alleyway. Sometimes the text is light but the delivery is menacing: "So just remember, boys and girls, you're important—and everybody wants to be your special, special friend!"
It's not all about Christianity, Faust, and the Devil. Sometimes, Joyce's description of the Covenant sounds like a promise of enlightenment in the language of yoga, Buddhism, and the other bits of Asian theology that have floated across the Pacific and into America's culture of self-improvement. In one passage, Joyce tells us that we "often confuse desire with reality" and cheerfully suggests an exercise to release us from the chains of "desire's bondage":
For the children in tonight's audience, I encourage you to try this at home. Find a friend or nearby family member, and ask them to lie prostrate on a bed of nails or sharp glass shards. Then begin to lightly pound on their back with a hammer or some similarly heavy, blunt object. As they scream or cry, imagine some thing or person you truly desire, especially a desire that may be difficult or impossible to attain—true happiness, for example, or a full head of real hair—and hold that vision in your mind, mingling it and mixing it with the screams of your beloved friend or family member. This type of activity is guaranteed by the Covenant to rid you of the desire forever.
A Pale and Lovely Place is something to be befuddled by and enthusiastic about, a short but intense trip through the moral looking-glass, where it's hard to tell the good from the evil.
"Laughing at the dark is my muse," one of the Kevins said during rehearsal (I don't recall which—it really could've been either). "Lucifer was an angel, after all." And then they both smiled.