Merce, Acting, in Cage’s “Alphabet”

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2002, 2017 Christine Chen

BERKELEY — On Tuesday, Cal Performances presented the Bay Area premiere of John Cage’s “James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet” at Zellerbach Hall. “Alphabet,” a work originally imagined and written by Cage as a radio play in 1982, has now been adapted for the stage under the direction of Laura Kuhn (director and co-founder of the John Cage Trust). The integrated score, composed by Mikel Rouse from a manuscript Cage created before his death in 1992, consists of sounds, found environmental music and spoken text, all of which occur — in typical Cage fashion — sometimes by choice and sometimes by chance. Cage’s carefully crafted text collages quotations (real and imagined) from the three title figures, along with witty quips and non-sequiturs in the form of “mesostics” (text that can be read vertically as well as horizontally). It is all put together through an elaborate system of chance, involving the different possibilities of each character being alone or with another character or characters, the 26 letters of the alphabet which correspond to each of these possibilities, and an “unabridged” dictionary (?!?!). The resulting effect is that the audience members, unless they are Cage fans, Joyce aficionados, Duchamp buffs, or all-around modern art fanatics, are made to feel like Forrest Gump in a highbrow modern art world — bewildered, yet naively appreciative of the strange characters around them. There is the sense that the 15 historical figures represented in the fantasy, including Joyce, Duchamp, Satie (played, in a casting coup, by Merce Cunningham), Mao Tse Tung (as a child), Brigham Young, Henry David Thoreau, and Buckminster Fuller, are speaking both to and above the spectators.

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