Just words and movement. According to Lungs playwright Duncan Macmillan’s wishes, “No scenery, no props, and no mime.” The two performers are clothed in this production at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company (running through April 13), and Lisa Boquist is credited with providing costumes, but both look as though they wore just anything to attend a rehearsal. Other than that, nothing: just a black, raised rectangle with lines marking off 12 quadrants and two dozen transparent bulbs high up in the flies.
The cryptically named M (Jesse Bush) and W (Anne Troup) pull us into their love life and obsessions for about 90 minutes, just in the ways they talk and how their bodies express the unspoken. And, boy, do they move. If you cupped your hands over your ears and just watched the thousand different ways their bodies relate to each other, you’d know what is happening.
Lungs also substantially resembles Mike Bartlett’s Cock, seen at Kitchen last month. Once again, on a completely bare stage we saw a man named M and a woman named W, but there were also two other characters. Cock delivered bitter, often profane conflict, one of several reasons it is sometimes titled Cockfight. Lungs, which might be classed as a dark romance, is sometimes sweeter and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Both Bartlett and Macmillan are part of a cutting-edge movement in Britain known as the Apathists, favoring stripped-down but intense action. There’s nothing quite like them in the United States, but the fashionable young playwright Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation) is a kindred spirit.
The first subject concerns parenthood. Not that W is pregnant, but it’s something that could happen. W is against it: “You might as well have punched me in the face and asked me to do a math problem.” Not because of what it would do to her figure or the labor pains, but all the ecological implications. Aren’t there 7 billion people already? Worse is the carbon footprint, with all those diapers in landfills. Babies would require 10,000 tons of diapers, equal to the weight of a Parisian landmark. “I don’t want to give birth to the Eiffel Tower,” she wails.
The political is here, however, a metaphor for the personal, as first signaled in the title. Lungs are a favorite body part for ecologists because they are so vulnerable to all the garbage the industrial world has dumped into the atmosphere. The cry “Let me breathe” is shorthand for “Let me live.” Crowding is equally threatening as pollution. Challenges to space and to self affect breathing. Keeping your lungs healthy and functioning is an absolute.
M and W do not stand on equal footing. They may not be married but somehow have acquired a mortgage. She may be striving in the higher reaches of academia, but M works in a music store and is a part-time musician. “Plenty of musicians have children,” he says defensively. She retorts, “Plenty of successful musicians have children,” a verbal bludgeon to remind him she does not think they are ready.
W does more of the talking, and her words often come a mile-a-minute. M insists that he deeply loves her. They dance together, and we understand that a fully clothed brief embrace signifies coitus. But her rages, her self-involvement and outright narcissism often put her just inside the line of M’s continuing to care for her. “I just need you to hold me,” she barks late in the play, trembling with anxious unhappiness. As M obediently moves forward to embrace her she demurs, “But not right now.”
Director Michele Minnick, brought up from Baltimore, is a former student of Kitchen artistic director Rachel Lampert, herself a former choreographer. Any director with academic training gives attention to expressive stage movement, but Minnick has made it the focus of her career. She has worked with something called the Rasaboxes approach to train actors in highly physical stage works, such as Macmillan’s Lungs.
Jesse Bush, active at both Kitchen and the Hangar Theater, where he is associate artistic director, is something of a star in Ithaca. Audiences are used to his coming up with the unexpected, like an expert Afrikaans accent in J.T. Rogers’ The Overwhelming or singing of cannibalism in Sweeney Todd. For the intensity of his Lungs portrayal he has never been asked to deliver more.
Anne Troup, up from Manhattan, brings golden national credits. Starting with W’s sometimes spiky dialogue, she has to give us hundreds of emotional tones in the character’s capricious, even mercurial evolution over a decade. More than a speaker, she is a tormented dancer.