Spoleto Festival: Hugh Hughes, we love you
Hugh Hughes made me cry. It’s a good thing.
Story of a Rabbit is about death and trying to understand it. It’s about life and trying to understand it. It’s about finding a dead rabbit one day and then confusing the memory of that death with the memory of your beloved father’s death, because you can sooner face one than the other.
Acting as his alter ego, Shon Dale-Jones presented what really amounts to a plain sad story — my dad died and it devastated me. If that were it, I might say Story of a Rabbit was a cheap way to pull at my heart strings, a short-sighted attempt to substitute sentimentality for artful stagecraft.
But there is art here that hangs on two lines of action, two deaths. In between Dale-Jones provokes all kinds of questions about memory and time and the nature of being. Are we more than the sum of our parts? How can order matter when in the end, all is disorder? And isn’t there something funny about a Welshman impersonating an “emerging artist from Wales,” who is himself telling you a story and then takes a moment to explain how he just told you that story?
Despite its subject matter (death) and postmodern sensibility (hyper-awareness of artifice), Story of a Rabbit is remarkably funny. Dale-Jones gets a lot of comedy out of turning the old saw show-don’t-tell on its head. For most of the first half, he explains what each of the items on stage are for, the problem of sight-lines in theater, and the structure that goes into a story (he uses a flip-chart to outline the main parts, as if it were Cliff’s Notes: “subject, narrative, ourselves”).
He reminds us throughout that each of us has his own way of experiencing a story, that we remember events differently, even ones we experienced at the same time. And he asks repeatedly that we think of our own experiences, our fathers, someone we loved and lost. He uses the word “reading” to describe how we interact with the play, which to my mind reflects the time he spent in literary theory-soaked Paris studying theater. He’s fascinating by fragmentation — of knowledge, of wood into sawdust, of bodies decomposing into oblivion. But even as things fall apart, they can be put back together again.
This may sound glib and academic, but it’s not. For all its abstraction, this one-man play strikes the heart deep. After all, it’s about loss. The telling and not showing is almost like a dramatic build up to when Dale-Jones finally shows and doesn’t tell. And that’s when I started crying. It was gorgeous when it happened (three times) and I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Also remarkable is what Story of a Rabbit manages to say about the human imagination. Even when the bones of the story are exposed, we still see a story. We fill in the gaps. We don’t even know who Hughes’ dad is. We never get a full portrait of the man. But the specifics of the individual are secondary to the qualities we imbue him with.
Originally published in Charleston City Paper
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