Julia Jarcho (re)makes history with American Treasure
Wed Nov 25 2009
By now, the novelty of 13P has worn off. Suddenly, we all feel casual about a successful playwright-run company that turns its entire attention to each of its writers in turn; these days, it hardly seems surprising that this "implosion model" company (after the 13th piece, the entire organization is designed to fold) has become one of the most reliable ways to see new work in New York. But for Julia Jarcho, also known as P9, it's still all a bit new. Jarcho has been away in Berlin and in San Francisco—where she's getting a Ph.D. in Berkeley's Department of Rhetoric—so she feels like she's just "swooping in" to capitalize on an infrastructure that sprang up largely in her absence. She talked to TONY about American Treasure, her dense, metaphysical, time-jumping mystery which is playing now at Paradise Factory on East 4th Street.
According to Jarcho, she began the piece a year and a half ago with this frightening monologue about vultures:
We lived on a mountain, my sister and I. In a great big apartment complex surveilled by vultures. Everything there was waste. Everyone, waste. Wildcats prowling the ramparts, pissing all over the garbage. Giant garbage, parts of machines, not even human garbage. How we came to be there, or if we'd always been, I don't know. Our neighbors were mostly escaped convicts. You ever been to that part of the country?
You've heard of those mountains. Big black heaps, like accidents. Women would sometimes run off with the wildcats, try to ride on their backs, nuzzle in the whiskers, convince themselves it was love and get their bellies gnawed off way out in the canyons. Remains were found, or not found.
From this point on, Jarcho's script wanders into a desultory sort of adventure story, or at least one as written by the love child of Gertrude Stein and Thomas Pynchon. A woman asks a detective for help after her sister disappears leaving only a scalp, but the whodunit element soon melts into a weird, transhistorical search. Our P.I. turns into John Smith; the gal turns into a sort of ur-Pocahontas. American history itself seems to be hiding something, and Jarcho uses linguistic depth charges to bring the culprit to justice.
So did Jarcho have some kind of scarring experience about history? Hardly. "I think what made me want to think about history was less the direct experience of scholarship and more about how it manifests in pop culture, like in the National Treasure movies." This must surely be the first time that Nicolas Cage has spurred an avant-garde playwright into action, but Jarcho (whose husband is part Cherokee) bristles when she talks about the El Dorado payoff in Cage's notoriously hokey adventure flick. "El Dorado was buried under Rushmore...by the Aztecs? I have to admit, I felt a kind of disproportionate outrage watching that movie. It was totally a driving factor."
But it wasn't that Jarcho felt she had to defend history from Hollywood yahoos; she was identifying a more troubling motif. "What the hell does it even mean to make oblique references to the 'Indians who we're going to give this treasure back to'?" she squeaks. Pretending that rewriting history is a means of righting unrightable wrongs (give 'em some Aztec gold and that whole Trail of Tears debacle can go back under the rug) strikes Jarcho as unconscionable.
In a climactic moment, Jarcho's detective (played by deadpan everyman Aaron Landsman) tells the Pocahontas figure:
Hauntus, I want you to understand that I'm not in league with anyone, least of all the Trader and Cooper and Mouse and Pa Ingalls and Lewis and Clark and Jackson and Bruckheimer. I've devoted my life to trying to fathom the depth of their great wrong...
Jarcho is certainly being direct. But in the severe emotional landscape of Jarcho's work, audiences will have to do their own prospecting to find her sense of outrage. Jarcho believes in a certain low-key minimalism, a movement whose high priest is New York City Players director Richard Maxwell (Ode to the Man Who Kneels and People Without History). As a high school student, Jarcho acted in Maxwell's work, and you can see his stamp. She adopted his willingness to answer textual conundrums with physical solutions—here she is directing her own work, just as Maxwell always does—and she copies his tendency to underwrite in places that could be solved with staging.
"His work opened up for me certain possibilities when it comes to what kind of communication has to happen or doesn't have to happen," she notes. "I think of his work as something in which the conveying of information is consistently being interrupted and forestalled. The dimension of mishap and strangeness in everyday communication is being expanded and dwelt in, and that confers a freedom and exhilaration."
It's true that Jarcho's work operates on an incredibly low frequency. Despite her newfound interest in genre and adventure structures, American Treasure never panders to our narrative addiction: The modernist script is deliberately opaque. But if you are willing to do some digging, little treasures pop up everywhere. Jarcho likes to pun, so her character Poca transforms into a strange entity called the Hauntus, and when things get cracking plotwise, Poca yells, "But we can't kitten out now!" Double meanings glint like ingots in the dust. "For me the treasure in this play is this fantasized truth or understanding," Jarcho reveals. "But since the play is all about the wish to get to a source, to uncover, to unmask, that search is replicated in the language."
For her next play, Jarcho wants to stick with her pop-culture theme. "I went to Las Vegas with my husband this summer and it's something I'm still trying to process. If I was disappointed by anything, it was that I wanted the themes to be more aggressive. But still, it's deeply weird." Jarcho knows that life as a full-time playwright may not be possible once she moves back to New York, not even with that Rhetoric degree. Luckily, she's identified a surefire moneymaker. "I realized that ghostwriting for cookbooks would be pretty excellent," she admits. "I like cookbooks even more than I like cooking, so I just need to find a celebrity who can't write but has a lot of food-related ideas." TONY has promised to keep an eye out.