As soon as Edgar Oliver begins to speak, you feel as though you've slipped into a different realm. His new solo performance piece, In the Park, directed by Randy Sharp at the Axis Theatre, comprises Oliver's unique poetic reminiscences of his boyhood and of Brooklyn's Prospect Park together with his oddly mellifluous, uncanny voice and eccentric accent. His performance is a joyous ode to melancholy and solitude.
Oliver has become something of a downtown celebrity over the years as a poet and raconteur with his other solo shows Helen & Edgar and East 10th Street: Self Portrait With Empty House. In the Park focuses primarily on memories from two periods of Oliver's life: his boyhood and his recent middle-aged past. With his distinctive delivery and pronunciation ("war" rhymes with "far"), Oliver movingly relates highly personal stories in an hour-long exposition of poetic prose and poetry that's often startlingly beautiful.
"I am a hesitant man," he begins, elongated syllables lingering, before describing his favorite Prospect Park haunt, the "lost place," where he goes sometimes to write. Then he leads us back into his boyhood and to his summers in Baltimore, where he used to admire a fountain with a bronze boy on a turtle's back. "It seems strange to me now to remember that bronze boy was dancing with a turtle...that boy who was myself — was alone — always alone."
Oliver carries his solitude through the other memories that populate his soliloquy, as when he was 14 and traveling by train (a "surging cradle") when a young man appeared for only a moment and Oliver "loved him instantly."
"I would like to go back to that fatal second before love takes place and suffer the transformation over and over," he says. "What a sweet and terrible wounding it was!" Uttered by Oliver, the lines have a breathless urgency that conveys the exquisite pain of that transformation.
Some of Oliver's recollections have a surprising candor, especially when he recalls experiences with African-Americans in Prospect Park. In one memory from his 20s, he describes being afraid of a group of black boys on bicycles and his feeling of being "so murderable there among the woods — on the black side of the park." Yet in later life, he has a near sexual encounter with a young black man, told as a tender, almost heartbreaking story of longing and ephemeral companionship.
Oliver does not try to analyze his feelings or his reactions to people. He revels in the delicious confusion of his experiences, and he relates them simply, factually, and honestly. Admissions like these compel the audience to trust Oliver as a storyteller. We feel he has told us something real and vital, and perhaps on some level shared — akin to a close friend revealing an intimate secret.
Randy Sharp creates a haunting onstage ambience, blending Oliver's small but graceful movements into the shadowy fabric of David Zeffren's ghostly lighting. Steve Fontaine subtly uses soft echoes of rain to conjure Prospect Park on a drizzly day, and Paul Carbonara's incidental music augments Oliver's words. This is not to suggest that the show wallows in depressing imagery. On the contrary, In the Park celebrates Oliver's love of the natural world and the profound pleasures he finds in a life of solitary contemplation. "I realized that I loved sorrow," he says, "and that I loved melancholy and that I loved life."
Oliver's performance style and subject matter may be an acquired taste, but he is one of those rare performers for whom it is impossible to separate the performer from the work, the dancer from the dance. Those who see In the Park will probably agree that it is, for one reason or another, memorable. The New York theater scene is richer for small, meditative, verbally textured pieces like this.