During Daniel Fish’s interdisciplinary and complex work, Who Left This Fork Here, I was struck by the admonition given to me growing up: Don’t overanalyze, it’s not attractive in a woman. But that’s exactly what I had to do and why this piece, inspired by Chekov’s The Three Sisters, is so compelling. Mr. Fish invites us to delve into the present state of womanhood by referring to what was once longed for by other women.
The audience sits in the far end of a cavernous space, and before us a strobe light flashes on a screen that spans the entire back wall. Intriguing hints of what’s to come are neatly arranged at the edge of the playing space: 15 birthday cakes, carefully wound extension cords, lighting equipment, center stage, a chair with a camera facing it, and a movable sandwich-board cart holding several large square pieces of wood. In the far corner are the technicians, all male. Soon an older woman emerges from a door in the side wall and sits in one of three chairs against the wall. White shoulder-length hair, black shirt and trousers, and bare feet. Then the next woman enters, she is young and wearing a short modest dress and black sneakers. Then the final woman comes out, age-wise between the other two. She wears a loose top and leggings along with bright fluorescent sneakers. She sits and puts on a pair of gloves. So there we have the “three sisters.” They have no names and each is simply called “performer”.
Then the action begins, very slowly, very deliberately but not without humor. The young woman paces up and down stage left; the older woman sits on the chair stage center, and her face (with true Bergmanesque subtlety) looms before us on the huge screen throughout the evening. In the meantime, the second woman busies herself with rearranging with admirable vigor and no apparent frustration the large wooden squares as a line from Chekov’s play repeats and repeats about what if we could start life over.
Experiencing much of contemporary theater usually involves anticipating a story unraveling, often with some bizarre or shocking secret. But there is neither a violent secret nor a clear-cut understanding of how all the repetitive actions along with Chekov’s lines will be resolved: the young girl pacing, the older woman’s facial features slowly changing from resignation to seduction to quiet endurance, and then the incredible pleasure and defiance the middle woman has erecting a castle out of the cakes and thrusting herself through the cakes and posing in the exhilarated manner we have come to expect (even demand) of women popping out of cakes.
And what about the men? The task of the men in this piece is to assist in displaying the two older women on the big screen by adjusting cameras on them, blocking their movement with barriers and placing lights on the floor to capture their suppressed anguish at being watched and being expected to be watched. The young, pacing woman never stops moving and at the end screams out the famous line of longing for a better life from The Three Sisters, “When are we going to Moscow?”
One’s desire to know what everything actually means too often disrupts the pleasure experiencing all the surprises that Mr. Fish and his brilliant cast do, with quiet intensity and virtually no dialogue, to Chekov’s eternal themes of philosophizing and dreaming about work and aging and a better life in “200 or 300 years.” And so this production asks: After all those birthdays and birthday cakes, is life better, or is the fork still here?