Big Dance Theater's '17 C' Demands All Of Our Imagination

You never know what you’ve got until you’ve reached the end and sometimes even a long time after that—it’s true of performances, of books, even the mundane work of the day. We never know the true state of things until the last breath is drawn, you close your eyes, and the lights go out.

That’s one way you could think about Big Dance Theater’s mysterious and often-beautiful 17 C, conceived by Annie-B Parson, and co-directed by Parson and Paul Lazar. The importance of waiting until the end, to staying in a state of flux, to seeing what happens: it’s an interesting life lesson and a theatrical one, too.

That we feel the urgency of this question—of waiting to assess our lives and other people’s, or perhaps the better word is judge—is a testament to Parson’s shifty and inventive takes on the 17th century master-diarist, Samuel Pepys. 17 C is not in any way a historical drama or a biographical play. None of the actors is playing Pepys in any conventional sense, but rather they are trying to perform a sensibility, the way Pepys felt, lived, and wrote in the midst of a chaotic life.

Let’s say the cast is acting his words rather than him.

Of course, catching the sensibility of the moment, or an age, or just our lives is a difficult task and the play beings in a deliberately shaky manner. Cynthia Hopkins, decked out in one of those fluffy 18th century wigs, addresses the audience before the houselights dim, kind of catching us off guard. Tucked to the side of the seats and on the smallish side, she’s dwarfed by the space.

Her voice is loud, but as a performer she doesn’t seem up to the job. While reading a Pepys’ diary entry on a painful bowel movement, her recitation has a tinny, strained quality to it, like a child taking a stab at playing an adult. Hopkins’ evolving performance throughout the evening is crucial to 17 C and the issue of ends and waiting. For now, we’ll say that it’s purposefully insufficient.

So one of the first moves Parson makes is to slip from the provisional to the refined. After Hopkins’ exit, a voiceover asks us this hypothetical, a startling riff from Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano: “What if you closed your eyes and imaged the 17th century.” Then, as in a liturgy, the disembodied voice asks us to “imagine” again and again that we are in another place and time. And because of that, the stark, sharp set—soon to transform into a dance club—starts to take on the qualities of the 17th century.

It’s a neat trick and apparently all Parson and company have to do is ask and we’ll comply. What follows is a sequence that catches the tenor and stakes of the show. Firmly ensconced in the past, Mikéah Jennings (who is terrific throughout), wearing the ubiquitous fluffy wig, reads from what I believe is Pepys’ first diary entry, January 1, 1660:

My wife gave me hopes of her being with child but on the last day of the year the hope was belied. This morning I went to chapel, a very good Sermon, “That God sent his Son a carpenter made of a woman.” And so here begun this diary.

It’s a beautiful passage that conflates Pepys’ wish for a child with the miracle of Christ and then in twisted fashion the inspiration for his diary.

What follows is a stylized dance floor encounter between Pepys’ and his wife where in the process of meeting each other they discover that they already live on the same street, in the same building, in the same apartment, and in fact are already married—“Then I believe that there can be no doubt, you are my own wife.”

This is not any objective historical reality, but it’s at one with the fervid imagination of the diaries, the way desires—for a child, for emotional clarity, for a sense of purpose—spring from every day experiences. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to a sermon or trying to pick up someone on a dance floor, any one moment can bring on a flood of feelings and associations.

What Parson and company understand so well about Pepys is that when you think like that, when life is your subject, everything leads to philosophy. Jealous of his wife’s dance instructor, which is funny considering how much he cheats on her, Pepys comes up with this gem—“A gentleman never dances so well as the dancing master.”

When every moment of life is alive to philosophy the world reacts in kind.

17 C is one long series of reactions to a man who never stopped reacting and refashioning the world before him. And thinking like that just begets more thinking; not only in how Parson stages diary entries, but also in how she makes clear that the 17th century Pepys is in shocking ways an emblematic figure of the 21st.

He demands commentary and so throughout the evening two enchanted and enchanting lesbian scholars of Pepys do just that. They are so in sync with each other that at first they seem one person but are eventually torn asunder by their favorite writer’s treatment of women. Kourtney, the one who can’t give him up, loses herself in marginalia and endless web commentary, whereas the other, Lizzie, is the actress (a striking Elizabeth DeMent) who plays Pepys’ beloved wife Bess, which is a nice touch.

Pepys’ life was a web of intrigue and Parson is keen to that. She reconfigures every scene in ways that the performance 17 C mirrors the thinking that it stages. Much of it is dazzling and beautiful, but it is almost always rooted in the most mundane of concerns, the complications of living (as well as stagecraft). The beauty before us is, by necessity, the product of rank human behavior, exactly what Lizzie cannot abide and Kourtney accepts.

And you couldn’t get more rank than Paul Lazar’s Pepys sitting in an armchair next to a burning log and delivering an excruciating account of a painfully inept affair. The situation is so crass and the set up so haphazard that it all seems a joke, but as it goes on Parson’s wry staging and Lazar’s acting, at first offhanded and unconvincing, gain in force. You might even describe the scene as riveting.

The central question of Pepys and the production is how could we possibly get to this end from that beginning—

And so the question of Cynthia Hopkins’ acting returns.

If you had left after fifteen minutes you would never know how subtly Hopkins’ acting changes over the course of the evening. She seems to gain gravity as the piece progresses. I don’t know when I fully took it in, but there she is close to the end of 17 C playing Pepys mourning the death of his wife Bess.

Still small of stature, she stands on a desk, her shadow cast on the flat behind her, and somehow the shadow is that of much larger, rotund man. Her delivery is somewhere between total passion and ironic distance, as the beauty of Pepys’ language takes us away to of all things, real feeling:

I will compose a Latin epitaph praising your knowledge, lineage and beauty. I will commission a statue made of your likeness, where you are slightly smiling, your mouth open and eyes wide, still intent on the comedy of the world. And it will be set high in the church, remind me of you when I pass by.

As a friend of mine said, he wishes someone would write so beautifully of him after his death. And Parson is right to almost end here, though I keep on thinking of Hopkins’ acting and wondering if she got it right. It’s a daring, odd performance and I had trouble assessing it. I’m guessing it’s almost perfect, but just misses the mark, which seems about right.

Does it matter that the beautiful lines Pepys wrote of Bess came after she died?

I do know I liked the ending of 17 C, which you can kind of sum up thusly: sparkly green pants and a gallant kindness towards the audience.

‘17 C’ runs through December 16 at Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.