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When the voice you hear isn't the actor you see

When the voice you hear isn't the actor you see

In the darkest moments of a family tragedy, when playwright Mona Piernot couldn't find the strength to express her feelings to her lover or his therapist, she tried something unconventional: She typed her thoughts into her laptop, and wrote a text. Sent -speech program to give them a loud voice.

It was a coping mechanism that also led to a creative pivot: Piernot's then-boyfriend, now-husband, Lucas Hnath, is also a playwright, with a long-standing interest in sound and the recent development of building shows around disembodied sounds. There is history. His final play, “A Simulacrum”, featured a magician recreating his side of a conversation with Hnath, whose voice was heard through a tape recording; And before that his play, “Dana H.” Lip-syncing interviews of an actress were shown, in which the playwright's mother recounted the trauma of being kidnapped.

Now directed by Hanath Pirnot, who wrote it, he is the sole actor.i love you so much i can die,” a diaristic exploration of how she was affected by a life-changing event that left her sister disabled at the beginning of the pandemic. In the 65-minute show, in preview off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop, Piernot sits in a chair on a staircase, facing away from the audience, while a Microsoft text-to-speech program reads her lines. Between storytelling chapters, Pirnot plays guitar and sings songs she has written.

The computer voice is masculine, robotic and, of course, not emotional; Its rhythm and length of pauses depend on how Pirnot and Hanath punctuate the text. The program occasionally contains mistakes – a running joke concerns Shia LaBeouf's accent – ​​which the cast cherishes. Having a machine tell stories of very human pain can be strangely funny, and the audience is laughing, especially early in the show, as they adjust to the disorienting experience.

Pirnot said, “I love the consistency that I can get with (the computer's) voice which is shocking and surprising, and I think it's sometimes very touching but sometimes extremely worrying. Is.” “It really feels like I'm capturing and sharing a little bit of what I felt.”

The production features some of Hnath's signature fingerprints. Like “The Christians,” his 2015 play in an evangelical church, “I Love You So Much I Could Die” includes snaking cords and cables, reflecting his preference for transparent stagecraft. The set, designed by Mimi Lien, is exceptionally spare – a folding table, a lamp from the couple's bedroom, some speakers, and, in the corner, a purple canister for the show's, almost imperceptible, mist effect.

“It's not very smooth,” Hnath said. “It basically announces that 'We're not pretending. We're just going to work.' I became worried about it turning into an ancient art installation. Whenever something goes wrong, I stop trusting them, or I question, 'What are they hiding?'”

Hanath has been experimenting with disturbing audio experiments for some time now. “The Thin Place,” his 2019 drama about a mental patient, and “Dana H.” Include moments of deeply jarring sound. And in “Dana H.,” “A Simulacrum” and now “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” each with sound design by Mikhail Fixel, the speech is separated from the speaker in different ways.

“I think there's a part of me that is a frustrated musician deep inside. My first love was music, and I always wanted to compose music, so the way I approach playwriting is very creative,” Hnath said. He said, “My level of control over sound qualities and rhythm is good.” “I can make it so it doesn't change and I mean exactly that.”

Hnath's plays often involve what she implicitly calls “a gimmick” – a task for a performer that leaves little room for error, like an actress completely impersonating another woman's words, breaths, and movements. Copies. His next play is about memorizing lines, and features an older actor reciting lines to a younger actor; Hnath described it as “a nightmare to learn – someone getting a line wrong five different ways – I don't know how you learn that.”

For “I Love You So Much I Could Die”, Pirnot and Hnath gradually settled on a text-to-speech solution. At first, in 2020 and 2021, Piernot was writing about her grief as a way of expressing her emotions. Some of it resembled journal entries; Some were almost transcriptions of conversations with family members. At one point, Hnath thought that Pirnot should turn the material into a memoir.

When they started talking about staging the work, it was still the height of the pandemic, when in-person gatherings were complicated. So he did preliminary readings with the actors via video meeting; Pirnot and Hnath briefly discussed having her script presented each time by a different actor reading the cold words.

Pirnot tests text-to-speech idea A Short Podcast Monologue, And at home, she worked at a desk under his bed, meaning that sometimes, while he was sitting in bed, she would turn her back to him and play material, and that setup would go on as was, informing the play, at His Living Room, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Dartmouth (for a residency), and now New York Theater Workshop, where it opens on Wednesdays.

Over time, the story became more about Piernot's feelings, and less about his sister's medical condition, which he does not describe in detail in the play.

He said, “Everything that's included in the show is to intentionally report on that experience when life falls apart and completely falls apart, and what you do with all those pieces and how it makes you feel.” And that's how you keep moving forward,” she said. , “I felt like I could provide that experience without saying, 'And by the way, here is the exact sequence of the extremely excruciating, continuous series of events that led to my new understanding.'”

Why write about something so painful if you don't want to share the details?

He said, “After struggling so much to keep a loved one alive, the question becomes what and why?” “This is what I have to share. This is what I really want to express. Although I question every night, 'How can I do this?' How can I share so much?,' This seems less sad to me than doing something that I have only put half of myself into.'

For Hnath, this collaboration fits into his long-term interest in storytelling.

“One of the early projects I did in graduate school was an adaptation of a Zen koan about San-jo. Sen – that which is separated from its soul – there is the soul and then there is the body. And which one is the real Sen-Jo? I think I've become kind of focused on physical and mental or intellectual stress. So it's always been in the background.”

https://static01.nyt.com/images/2024/02/12/multimedia/00hnath-01-tfwm/00hnath-01-tfwm-facebookJumbo.jpg

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