Potatoes of August
Science Drama/Comedy with songs
Potatoes of August is a theatricalist fugue wherein four retirees encounter a sack of sentient potatoes, and find their outworn belief systems forcibly confronted by the challenges of a highly integrated, enlightened metaphysics. These potatoes have brains, have read their Swedenborg, and don't always play fair. Parts kitchen sink drama, musical comedy, intimate biographical portraiture, museum educational presentation, opera, Renaissance fair, science fiction, science fair, and phenomenological debate, it is a fugue in both the musical and psychiatric sense, and also a swarm. A flight is tracked from comprehensible identity and habitual perception into an unknowable environment of vastness, multiplicity, and high, high entropy. Source texts include, The Mabinogion (the Welsh version of the Arthurian legends), August Strindberg's high-strung metabolization of the work of Emmanuel Swedenborg in his autobiographical novel, Inferno (that's where the 'August' in the title is coming from), and the writings of Barnard astrophysicist, Janna Levin. The piece also represents a certain amount of research into hive mind and behavior, looking in particular at studies by biologists Iain Couzin and Daniel Grunbaum. For both dramatic text and music, Johannes Kepler's 1619 work Harmonies of the Spheres. Research has focused on places in history where nature, science, religion and art were not disparate or conflicting, were not at war, but lived all happily together. The roots of that time reach now forward into our own dark age. Their tendrils feel their way up pantlegs and into ear canals, seeking audience and refuge so to develop buds and tubers of strange cognizance, and remembrance. The questions and confusions raised in Potatoes of August are rooted in the hope that a second Enlightenment could save us humans, where the forces of understanding in art, science, religion and nature can safely merge and guide us toward better choices.
Buck and Bethy at the doctor’s office waiting room.
Buck clears his throat rather violently yet seems to be absorbed in an issue of AARP Magazine.
Oh I thought I recognized you. I hope you don’t mind but I really prefer to keep to myself.
Huh? Oh. Uh, oh hi. Yeah, sure. Yeah. Great. I don’t even usually come to this doctor. I usually go up to the VA but.
I usually don’t come to the doctor at all. As a rule I generally do not trust doctors.
Right. Right. And so, why are you here?
Oh. Hey, you know that saved Fern’s life. Couple years back? Saved her life.
Uh huh yeah I know
They caught it really early and she had the surgery and so she was really lucky -
Yeah I know all about it.
I just hate always talking about cancer. Sorry. Cancer is the new weather. Quite frankly? Since I almost never go outside? I’d rather just talk about the weather! Or details about nasty idiot lawyers at our contract negotiations, or the ridiculous customer service people I have arguments with over the phone, who think I’m not armed with the facts or with my own consumer history when I always am.
Oh, I do a lot of that too. Every morning I’m always on the phone with american express or verizon. Pretty much no matter what. And they really seem to know how to push my buttons. I get pretty hot under the collar, and that’s how I usually get what I want. You know? You just don’t want to deal with me when I start getting disagreeable.
I’m sure I can imagine.
I mean, I’m a Vietnam vet. It’s just better not to piss me off. And they know that.
They know that.
There is a long pause here. As long as possible. Buck goes back to reading his AARP. Bethy doesn’t do anything. Maybe she gazes down into her purse for some moments. Maybe takes out a calculator and puts it back again.
Bethy (sighs heavily, then)
My methods are more about wearing down the opponent, blocking the avenues of their logic, which are usually pretty meager to begin with. I have almost no emotions. Nothing is ever anything more than a math problem for me. And I’m never embarrassed because I’m right too much of the time.
I don’t get embarrassed either. I do, but about other stuff. Situations. Parties. I worry people are going to play jokes on me. I feel guilty later though whenever I show my temper to people or scare them. I was raised catholic.
Do you know that I stand at the checkout at the grocery store with a calculator and I add everything up as they ring it through. They don’t get away with anything. No one is going to rip me off. It’s not even a question of expending energy for me. It’s just natural. And I bring this into my approach in negotiations. They see me walk in and a mauve blouse, you know teal or periwinkle with attractive accents and they think, oh this is going to be too easy. But really? Don’t fuck with me. I’ve got copies of everything. I’ve got your signature. I see right through you. I’m just waiting for the right moment to throw your own words right back in your face. I don’t forget anything and I’ve got all the documentation that exists, right there in my folder. I don’t let anything slip. If you want to tangle with me, I’ll make you look in front of everyone at the table like you’re not even seeing reason. So nothing you’re saying makes any sense. Even to those in your own camp. Go ahead, take a time out, call a huddle in the other room. Get another cup of coffee. I’ll wait. I don’t need a break. I’ll crack open a red bull and wait. I prepped dinner for my family this morning before work, it’s a lasagna in the fridge – so they’re taken care of. I don’t even need to go to the ladies room. My fingers are moisturized, and the fluorescents work to my advantage. (They match the frequency of my brain processes and my jewelry looks really sparkly under them.) So GO ahead and take a minute to regroup. Then come back and try to talk numbers with me. Just try it. NUMBERS are my specialty, motherfucker and now you’re going to know it. You’re not going ANYWHERE. So get comfortable, administrator. I know your budgets like I’m polishing my own nails.
That sounds really intense. I mean my approach was always about manipulating people. Scaring them a little because they'd get a sense that I might be unpredictable if pushed too far, and then removing their ability to gauge how far might be too far. Even though I’m not really capable of doing or saying anything really threatening. But the tone of my voice can reach certain heights that reveal, in combination with the expression on my face, my willingness to go always one step farther than they would be willing to go. I never had to do anything. I just had to show that I’m willing to go farther than they are in any given direction. Well, and that’s alcoholism too.
And moreover that’s a trait of an abusive personality, isn’t it?
Yeah. Well, it can be. But ultimately it’s just brandishing my own willingness to self-destruct as a weapon. I never fear self-destruction. I always had to fight my longing for it actually. As it is I should of been dead a hundred times over. But that’s just me. Holding up my own powerlessness as a display of power. Once you learn my tricks it’s easy to get the upper hand. Fern crushes me every day, several times a day now that I’m retired, without even thinking about it. It’s only if you don’t know me I can scare you. And customer service people, they’re not cops, they’re not bosses, they don’t have any real authority except that they are never really accountable because there are so many of them and they are just mouthpieces of anti-consumer corporate anonymity policies. I guess there’s a certain power in that, but it’s not a personal power. (I mean don’t get me wrong, I always vote republican. But that’s out of fear of all the intruders.) But if I was in one of those negotiatings meetings with you? I would be a good opponent because you would never be sure. I would use my own emotions as a tactic and find a way to remove your normal gauge of what is appropriate and admissible and what isn’t. I am perceptive and I can take the discussion to a level which is disorienting and unsettling to you. A man who is damned has a lot of freedom because he has nothing to lose and he is intimate with the concept of his own insignificance.
Pssh. I never admit concepts into the discussion. I don’t care how manipulative or unpredictable you are. Sounds to me like you rely on people feeling sorry for you. You’ll never get that from me, it’s impossible for me. And furthermore if there’s one thing I know it’s how to keep the concepts off the table and the facts on.
Yeah, sure. I’m just talking out loud here. I mean, I could never come out on the side of the administrators anyway. Fern would never allow that, are you kidding me? But I think it’s interesting. Yeah, that’s really interesting. I never thought about that, how it all works. And you know? We’re all just Americans.
The Potatoes enter, disguised as a doctor and carrying a medical chart.
She rises and gathers her purse and jacket very precisely, and exits.
The Potatoes roll across the stage from one corner. There are thousands of them. The thuds and thumps of the individual potatoes rolling across the floor becomes a deafening thunder on account of their sheer numbers.
2 women (cross-gender casting encouraged)
1 gender neutral potato wrangler and/or puppeteer
hundreds of potatoes
Issue 4 of PLAY: Journal of Plays
“Kempson splices avant-weirdness (are her potatoes escapees from Richard Foreman’s Potatoland?) to thrilling runs of everyday speech, thus forestalling the trance that poetically adventurous work can create. Her characters have bite and humor, which helps her lyricism maintain point and thrust. Want something impeccably julienned? Look elsewhere. But if you want to see the new Fornes (or Churchill or Kennedy) before she’s even peeled, get thee downtown.”
—Helen Shaw, Time Out New York
Production and Development History
Production: Red Eye Theater Minneapolis (Spring 2014); Dixon Place (December 2008/January 2009); Gettysburg College 2012.