Not Your Average Math Class: Thoughts on “A Parallelogram” at the Mark Taper Forum
As I flipped through the program on Sunday evening before the show, I encountered an interview done with director Anna D. Shapiro, in which she was quoted as saying that the play I was about to see was “more about love, than life and death … So much of what happens in Parallelogram is about human foibles around love, and wanting to be good and do right.”
Shapiro’s quote reminded me of an indie game called “Braid,” in which your character, a man in a suit, goes after his lost love to rescue her from a monster. What’s interesting is that should you make a mistake, you can go back in time using the shift key. Press “shift” and it’ll seem like a video in rewind.
Similarly, Bruce Norris’s A Parallelogram uses the time-space continuum, and the characters’ actions also revolve around their loved ones. The character of the future Bee, a woman in her 50’s or 60’s, played by Marylouise Burke, explains how her time-traveling remote control works: "Imagine that each line also extends indefinitely in all directions and since space is infinitely curved, that means that any two parallel lines eventually cross at some point. You follow me?" While it’s a bit hard to understand where a parallelogram actually fits into this, I took it to be a concise symbol of the crisscrossing of those lines. After all, one set of parallel lines does cross the other set in that quadrilateral.
But remember that this play is not just some geometric metaphor for one’s existence and life and death, but is also about love, and the “human foibles around love, and wanting to be good and do right.”
For example, in the relationship between the current Bee, our twenty-something protagonist (played by Marin Ireland), and Jay, her older boyfriend (played by Tom Irwin), Bee tries multiple times, rewinding the same scenario using the remote control, to tell him what the future Bee (whom he can’t see or hear) has communicated to her, in an effort to make their failing relationship better. Here are two key concepts that we generally attribute to the success of a relationship: honesty and communication. So here’s Bee, wanting to be good, trying to do right by someone she loves. But with such a philosophical and controversial dilemma, that’s her mistake: being honest and telling Jay something that sounds so outlandish, it convinces him she’s insane and needs treatment.
Perhaps you can’t change the past; does it also follow that you can’t change the future? If that’s the case, the play takes on a fatalistic and quite defeatist tone. Many people might believe we have free will, but is this not the case? Are we stuck on one track with no way to deviate from it?
This leads to the existential questions that Bee poses in Parallelogram. In the first scene, she pointedly asks aloud: “If you knew in advance exactly what was going to happen in your life, and how everything was going to turn out, and if you knew you couldn’t do anything to change it, would you still want to go on with your life?”
Marylouise Burke and Marin Ireland
Personally, my answer would be yes, even if my future looked pretty bleak. There’s no way someone would be able to tell you all the nuances and small details that occur throughout your life, and those are often the most interesting parts. It’s like reading ahead to the end of a book, and skimming the middle because you already know the end. Relationships are also a smaller scale where you could experiment with the question Bee poses. If you knew what was going to happen in a relationship, and how it would all happen, and you couldn’t change that, no matter what you did or said, would you still want to go on with the relationship? It’s a way for how the question can play out on a more relatable and mundane level.
Of course, the play also suggests an alternative to Bee actually knowing the future: that she really is crazy, as a result of brain lesions, and is beginning to hallucinate.
What are we supposed to think now? If Bee is actually insane, and her future self is just a hallucination, we can then assume that perhaps we do have the power to change our future. If Bee is sane, and has this supernatural power to see into the future, we come to the unsettling conclusion that we are powerless and fated for an inevitable life. This is no critique of the play at all, but I did wish that the ending had been more ambiguous, as the ending scenes hint at a certain conclusion. After all, there were changes to the play after its Chicago run; Shapiro, the director, told KUSC in an interview that she and Norris felt the audience was previously given “too wide a berth” to determine what was really happening onstage.
Shapiro also is willing to admit the play contains “things that just aren’t possible.” The first thing that came to mind was the idea of the future Bee, and her odd remote control. That remote control—we automatically think of the rectangular object used to change the channels or the volume on a TV. Taken literally and separately, the words “remote control” would mean something a bit different. “Control over something from very far away.” How about “far away in space and time”? Is the use of the remote control here a nod to the saying “knowledge is power”?
But how can it be possible to mute people, to freeze time? There is also a smoking issue, where one character insists the other is smoking, when it’s clear that that other character wasn’t—or is it? The smell of cigarette smoke pervades the physical air of the “now” but no one is actually smoking, except for someone the first character can’t see or hear but can somehow smell?
Because of what the future Bee tells the present Bee, the present Bee is able to jump into situations (thanks to the remote control) without having the emotional reactions and ties that would come normally with the passage of natural time. However, it wouldn’t be possible for
people to just jump from situation to situation and lack the emotional context that the passage of time would give them.
The audience was definitely caught up in the present Sunday evening. During intermission, a small group of people joked, “We got lost in the time continuum!” as they struggled to find their seats. And as I left the theater after the play had finished, I heard others behind me comment on the performance. “Very good,” one said. “Yes, different, but very good,” another agreed. I, too, would have to agree—I enjoyed the play thoroughly. Witty, comical, with a mind-bending twist—Shapiro and Norris certainly delivered.
“A Parallelogram” by Bruce Norris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Clybourne Park,” is playing at the Mark Taper Forum of the Music Center downtown at 135 N. Grand Avenue through August 18th.
Cynthia Park is a summer intern at KUSC who will be starting her sophomore year at Middlebury College later this month.