February 26, 2024

When the voice you hear is not the actor you see

In the darkest moments of a family tragedy, when playwright Mona Pirnot could not find the strength to express her feelings to her boyfriend or her therapist, she tried something unorthodox: she typed her thoughts into her laptop and asked for a text message . -to-speech program to say them out loud.

It was a coping mechanism that also brought about a creative twist: Pirnot’s then-boyfriend and now husband, Lucas Hnath, is also a playwright, with a long-standing interest in sound and a more recent history of building shows around disembodied voices. In his last play, “A Simulacrum,” a magician reenacted his side of a conversation with Hnath, whose voice could be heard on a tape recording; and in his play before that, “Dana H.,” an actress lip-synched interviews in which the playwright’s mother talked about the trauma of the kidnapping.

Now, Hnath Pirnot, who wrote and is the sole actor in “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” directs a diary-like exploration of how she was affected by a life-changing incident that left her sister incapacitated at the start of the pandemic. In the 65-minute show, in previews Off Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop, Pirnot sits on a ladder chair, away from the audience, while a Microsoft text-to-speech program reads her lines. Between the stories, Pirnot plays the guitar and sings songs she has written.

The computer’s voice is male, robotic and obviously emotionless; the cadence and length of the pauses vary depending on how Pirnot and Hnath have interrupted the text. The program makes occasional mistakes — one running joke involves Shia LaBeouf’s statement — which the performers cherish. It can be awkwardly funny to hear a machine tell stories of very human pain, and the audience laughs, especially early in the show, as they adjust to the disorienting experience.

“I like the ruthlessness with which I can deal [the computer’s] voice that is quite shocking and surprising, and I find it sometimes very moving, but sometimes extremely terrifying,” Pirnot said. “This actually feels like I’m capturing and sharing a little bit of what this felt like.”

The production bears some of Hnath’s signature fingerprints. Like “The Christians,” his 2015 play set in an evangelical church, “I Love You So Much I Could Die” features winding cords and cables, reflecting his preference for transparent stagecraft. The set, designed by Mimi Lien, is extremely spare: a folding table, a lamp from the couple’s bedroom, a pair of speakers and, in the corner, a purple bus for the show’s sole, almost imperceptible blur effect.

“It’s not smooth like that,” Hnath said. “It basically announces, ‘We’re not pretending. We’re just getting started.’ I was concerned that it would be a pristine art installation. Every time something gets slippery, I stop trusting it, or wonder, “What are they hiding?”

Hnath has been experimenting with disturbing uses of audio for some time now. “The Thin Place,” his 2019 play about a psychic, and “Dana H.” include moments of deeply shocking sound. And in “Dana H.,” “A Simulacrum,” and now “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” there is a separation between speech and speaker in various ways.

“I think deep down part of me is a frustrated composer. My first love was music, and I always wanted to compose music, so a lot of the way I approach playwriting is very compositional,” Hnath said. He enjoys “the level of control I could have over the sound qualities and rhythm,” he added. “I can build it so that it doesn’t change and it’s exactly what I mean.”

Hnath’s plays often involve what he unapologetically calls “a gimmick”: a task for a performer that leaves little room for error, like an actress who perfectly imitates the words, breaths, and pace of another woman. His next play is about memorizing lines, and dramatizes an older performer performing lines with a younger performer; Hnath describes it as “a nightmare to learn – someone misunderstanding a sentence in five different ways – I don’t know how you learn that.”

For “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” with sound design by Mikhail Fiksel and Noel Nichols, Pirnot and Hnath gradually opted for the text-to-speech solution. Initially, in 2020 and 2021, Pirnot wrote about her grief simply as a way to process her feelings. Some of it looked like journal entries; some were almost a transcription of conversations with family members. At one point, Hnath felt that Pirnot should turn the material into a memoir.

When they started talking about staging work, it was still peak pandemic, when in-person gatherings were complicated. So they gave an early reading, with actors, via video meeting; Pirnot and Hnath briefly discussed how they would have her script performed each time by a different actor who read the words cold.

Pirnot tested the text-to-speech idea with a short podcast monologue. And at home, she worked at a desk at the foot of their bed, which meant that sometimes, when he sat on the bed, she played the material with her back to him, and that arrangement informed the piece as it moved. their living room, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Dartmouth (for a residency) and now New York Theater Workshop, where it opens on Wednesday.

Over time, the story became more about Pirnot’s feelings, and less about her sister’s medical situation, which she does not describe in the play.

“Everything that’s included in the show is very consciously intended to report on the experience when life breaks open and completely falls apart, and what you do with all those pieces, how it makes you feel and how you move forward “, she said. . “I felt like I could provide that experience without saying, ‘And by the way, here is the exact sequence of an extremely excruciating, brutal series of events that created my new insight.’”

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

“After fighting so hard to keep a loved one alive, the question becomes: what and why?” she said. “This is what I have to share. This is actually what I want to express. Even though every night I ask myself, ‘How can I do this? How could I share so much?’, it feels less sad to me than doing something I only put half of myself into.

For Hnath, the collaboration fits in with his own long-standing interests in storytelling.

“One of the first projects I did in high school was an adaptation of the Zen koan about Sen-jo. Sen-jo separates from her soul – there is the soul and then there is the body. And which one is the real Sen-jo? I think I’m a bit fixated on the tension between physical and mental or intellectual. So that has always been in the background.”

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