By James Bartholomew
“Being‑On‑Stage” is perhaps the greatest solo theatrical adaptation of a 500‑page early twentieth‑century ontological treatise ever devised. Of course, that’s because it’s undoubtably the only one of its kind. And while that compliment may sound backhanded, the ridiculously highbrow premise alone makes “Being‑On‑Stage” refreshingly unique enough to merit conversation.
Written and performed by Tara Turnbull, the piece takes its name and a good deal of its script from Martin Heidegger’s 1927 groundbreaking book “Being and Time,” one of the most influential (and densest) philosophical texts of the last century. The play opens as an unnamed philosopher reads Heidegger’s preface to his book, waxing poetic on the nature of existence and asking, “Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being?’” The philosopher, or possibly some new character, abruptly interjects as Ms. Turnbull quickly transitions to a new passage and a new scene.
With all of the philosophical paraphrases, there isn’t much room for establishing a plot, at least not in the conventional sense. It’s hard to even say whether the play’s litany of personas comes from the same person or are meant to be separate characters. In fact, very early on, “Being‑On‑Stage” makes it clear that it has little interest in even functioning as a play, dissolving instead into metafiction. Both the philosopher and the actor herself seem to become aware of their existence in the piece, and attempt to escape the confines of the stage however they can.
But lest you think that too easy to follow, Ms. Turnbull is more than happy to oblige. She sprinkles in epistemological and etymological thought puzzles about the nature of dwellings, measurements and actors. There are also quotes and monologues from Heidegger’s writing beyond “Being and Time,” and heavy references to the poems and elegies of Thomas Moore, Robert Frost, and Rainer Maria Rilke, to name a few. High‑flying and high‑minded, “Being‑On‑Stage” wears its literary roots proudly and isn’t afraid to do justice to Heidegger’s weighty words.
Thankfully all those erudite endeavors don’t necessarily make “Being‑On‑Stage” exclusionary for those not intimately familiar with the source material. Ms. Turnbull’s performance is more than enough to anchor the piece, even if some of the monologues are a little too lengthy to follow exactly. At several times throughout the play, Ms. Turnbull breaks into song, each time showcasing her impressive vocal range in a wide array of styles. Late in the play, while arguing against Heidegger’s disregard for corporeal bodies, she races around the stage doing jumping jacks and pushups, all without detracting from her well‑reasoned criticisms.
The intense physicality of it all helps pace the play and give the audience something to latch on to apart from the plentiful esoteric musings. And they certainly are plentiful. “Being‑On‑Stage” is a show of constant speech and a deceptive wealth of action. Between the multilingual rantings, the gymnastics poses and the remarkable singing, Ms. Turnbull has earned substantial praise simply for being able to hold everything together.
But despite an enthralling performance from its writer and actor, “Being‑On‑Stage” remains a play that’s difficult to recommend. With so much of the text taken from one of the most challenging works ever written, the piece takes considerable effort to keep pace with, let alone understand. That isn’t helped by Ms. Turnbull’s tendency to deliver her lines quickly and leave the audience to puzzle out her meanings.
The metafictional bent to the story and the commentary on Heidegger’s writings are compelling and thoughtful, but there are a lot of meditations and deliberation to get through first. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you’re in the mood for a heaping side of hermeneutics and existential phenomenology with your theatergoing, “Being‑On‑Stage” is a must‑see.
Written and Performed by Tara Turnbull
Nov. 7 at 7:30pm
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.