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Photograph: Thomas Dunn

Eternal. Incubator Arts Project (see Off-Off Broadway). Text by Charlie Kaufman. Directed by Daniel Fish. With Christina Rouner, Thomas Jay Ryan. Running time: 2hrs. No intermission.

Eternal: In brief

Downtown visionary Daniel Fish reunites with actors Christina Rouner and Thomas Jay Ryan, the stars of his superb 2011 piece, Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason Starring in a Movie by Nicholas Ray…. This new twist of film is based on the final sequence of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Eternal: Theater review by Helen Shaw

Sometime in the last year, director Daniel Fish took actors Christina Rouner and Thomas Jay Ryan (the stars of his tremendous Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason...), sat them opposite each other in a white room, and had them perform the approximately six-minute final scene from Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, repeatedly, until two hours had elapsed. Their paired, looping performance, unedited and almost entirely uninterfered with by Fish, now plays as a split-screen video called Eternal. The title pays tribute to the source material, but it also serves as a warning about the show's sadistic attitude toward time. Fish encourages viewers to achieve comfortable positions—my night someone lay down on the floor—and it is up to us to achieve a kind of Zen state as we watch this Meisner repetition exercise from hell.

The obvious question applies: Is it theater? Bless you, of course it is (and isn't). Theater artists made it; it is mounted in a space associated with performance; and the rules of attendance/silence/duration apply. Just because none of the customary qualities of live performance (like, shall we say, liveness) are legible doesn't mean the framing mechanisms don't make us engage with it as theater. Fish has a tricky, slippery mind, and it did strike me—as I found myself watching the audience suffer through the piece—that he may have simply made a work in which the “cast” is that random bunch of theater-obsessed ruffians who show up nightly to see things like this.

Minute by minute, I cannot claim rapture. Nor can I claim perfect focus on the situation at hand—such a nonplay measures our attention span to the micrometer. The surrounding have been stretchily confined in black latex—the walls glisten; we must enter through hanging flaps of shiny black plastic—and the S&M dungeon aesthetic can't be an accident. Torture is what we're here for, both our own and that of the actors (we laugh when Ryan goes into hysterics over the absurdity of it all, we lean forward as Rouner clearly starts to slump with exhaustion). Experimental theater often plays with our masochistic impulses, playing odd tantric games in an effort to relocate our pleasure center. Fish, bless and damn him both, really puts his shoulder into the lash.

Yet we're not simply here for the thrill of being tormented. The text of that final scene, from a film about recursion and return and the willingness to keep doing it, really can't be listened to enough. It's gorgeous. The actors start with powerful performances, and—whether the methods are kind or not—they do grow more wonderful with each obsessive repetition. Ryan only gets more marvelously weird as he slumps into a daddish middle phase, tugging on his ear and collapsing in endearing laughter; Rouner seems to flay herself for us, the repetitions forcing her into crueler and crueler states of vulnerability. The useful thing about boredom is that, like pain, it fades quickly in your memory. Don't envy my two hours sitting through Eternal. But you should be jealous of the echoes I hear even now of this sustained, oddly climactic experience, the way I'll stumble across it in my memory, where it has begun its own infinite repetitions.

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