Talented and tortured writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide at 46 in 2008, had a little something in common with the vampire squid, which turns itself inside out for self-defense.
Wallace, best known for his 1996 dystopic novel “Infinite Jest,” accomplished the same feat, but with words — spun and catapulted from seemingly random thoughts and encounters, turning small, neurotic encounters into epic happenings.
Theater-maker Daniel Fish draws upon three works by Wallace — the short story collection “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and the essays and interviews in “Consider the Lobster” and “A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again” — for his latest show, which opened a three-night run Thursday at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Titled “A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace,” the second show in this year’s Out There series turns a literary reading into a theatrical event. It’s a meta-theater treatment of the meta-fiction at which Wallace excelled.
Amid a sea of tennis balls that line the stage on a grid, four actors sit onstage connected to headphones that convey Wallace’s words — read by the author himself but inaudible to the audience — from an onstage control booth.
The quartet of actors —Mary Rasmussen, John Amir, Therese Plaehn and Jenny Seastone — are literally limp until activated by Wallace’s voice, then, standing at microphones, they dive into his hypnotic sea of words.
What these actor-readers reveal, as they repeat Wallace’s words either solo or in chorus, is a man who was like a high-brow Seinfeld. His humor flows through as he wonders about how to treat a Lebanese bellhop on a Caribbean cruise, or his fascination with a tennis star to whom he is terribly attracted.
There is a saying that we often apply to great actors: they can make the reading of the phone book dramatic. The quartet of performers in “Supposedly Fun Thing” are engaging. Rasmussen does jumping jacks through her entire delivery of one Wallace excerpt.
But, in general, the words are more engaging than the theatrical treatment. While Fish is smart and clever, his theatricalizing of Wallace’s genius does not meet the writer’s words at the same level of achievement. The words are not enacted or dramatized. They are spilled, creating a jumble of vivid metaphors that stay with you as you leave the theater. But you can get much the same effect simply from reading Wallace’s works.