My Arm is up in the Air Mar 25, 2011

by Sean Nelson

In Tobias Wolff’s story “Bullet in the Brain,” a curmudgeonly book critic is shot at point blank range by a bank robber whose linguistic clichés the critic can’t help mocking. The bullet’s physical speed of 900 feet per second, becomes “a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lighting” inside the critic’s skull. “Once it entered the brain,” Wolff writes, “the bullet came under the mediation of brain time.”

I kept thinking about that phrase all through “My Arm is Up in the Air,” a show obsessed with the gradual entropy of meaning that follows both the casual misuse and catastrophic abuse of language. But it’s not quite accurate to say the show is “about” language. (Better to say around, athwart, astride.) It’s full of heady ideas, but the experience isn’t precisely intellectual, or typically dramatic. It’s more like being shot into Charles Smith’s head, and riding the discursive, hyper-referential synaptic lightning. You come under the mediation of his brain time.

Much of the pleasure lies in discerning the connections in Smith’s dissociative monologues; he switches characters, voices, and tones so sharply and so often that it’s easy to get lost. But only if you think you know where you’re going. Smith’s presence is so commanding that even when a given speech is inscrutable, you trust he knows what he means. It’s also possible that some of those dissociations don’t necessarily connect. But literal meaning isn’t really the object of the piece (I made it 242 words without resorting to “piece,” btw). It’s the theme. The language is only an ingredient, like the simplicity of the design: three platforms, three video screens, a hammered dulcimer, and a bowed psaltery. The triumph of this word-obsessed show—and maybe it’s a small one, rendered more acute for me because Charles Smith is basically my favorite performer (or because I’m an insufferable pedant)—is that it isn’t a monologue. In its own obdurate way, it’s as experimental as performance gets. Major credit is also due here to director Matthew Richter, obviously.

It’s also funny. It’s also silly. The high lowbrow references swing from Copland to The Odd Couple, from Gustav Mahler to Sherwood Schwartz, from Emily Dickinson to Andy Griffith. The songs are good. It has probably the best embouchure joke I’ve ever seen on the legitimate stage. But it’s also full of troubling images and ideas pulled from the well of things you’re not allowed to say (a prohibition that contributes to the decay of meaning every bit as much as text messages, LOL). Best of all, though, you get Charles Smith, whose performance choices—vocal, physical, aesthetic—have that amazing quality of being both improbable and inevitable, alone onstage for an hour. What more do you want, a foot rub?

“My Arm is Up in the Air”—one of those rare titles that actually does say it all—isn’t for everyone, if only because it tackles a subject about which most people could care less about. SIC. Fortunately, though, it’s also not for everyone. Bravo.

- Sean Nelson