Ted Swetz, my favorite acting teacher in college, liked to offer a paraphrased nugget, passed to him decades earlier by Stella Adler, and originally attributed to Plautus some time before the decline of the Roman Empire: Comedy is meant to lift the burden of the world from the audience, while tragedy is meant to place the burden of the world on the audience’s shoulders.
Plautus’s axiom leaves playwright/performer Eliza Bent to her own devices in considering, a few millennia later, how best to approach the burden in the audience’s intestines. In her new work Toilet Fire: Rectums in the Rectory (at Abrons Arts Center Oct. 29–Nov. 14), Bent and composer/co-conspirator Alaina Ferris ask us to take their stories and songs into our hearts and to let them peaceably move our bowels. Bent and Ferris share with us assorted tales of intestinal distress—both their own and those of an international cast of characters inhabited with soulful changeling glee by Bent, who performed the show over the summer at JACK in Brooklyn.
“I recall sitting in front of a gastroenterologist once and likening my stomach to Manhattan,” Bent recalled when I asked her about the play’s origins. With the mix of sober metaphorical decorum and Borscht Belt bluster that is Bent’s signature—or at least, that of the character named Eliza Bent in Toilet Fire—she continued the analogy: “Everyone below 14th is fine. The Upper East and West Side are fine. It’s midtown where I have trouble.”
The content of the talk and song in Toilet Fire—at times gaseous, fluid, or refusing to budge—might sound unusual, but the form isn’t so alien. The show owes a debt to standup comedy, to the ancient art of the soliloquy, as well as to Catholic, Jewish, and other (possibly extraterrestrial?) liturgical structures.
“Toilet Fire is in many ways a ‘coming out’ play for me,” explains Bent, a former editor at American Theatre. “It’s the truth about my poop.”
While the best theatre offers us a conduit into intimate, uncomfortable spaces, both interior and exterior, the interior discomfort we’re granted access to onstage is usually emotional; if it’s physical, it tends to be of the life-or-death kind. Toilet Fire brings us instead into a discomfort that is more quotidian, more intractable—until it’s not—but that can be harder to talk openly about than mortal fear and mortal danger, even harder to talk about than the indignities of love and loss.
That may be why comedy is a natural vehicle with which to go there; as Bent points out, “Shit is gross. It’s disgusting. And one of the only ways to talk about it is by joking about it. In humiliation there is humor. Quite simply: Scatology tickles the funny bone.”
Bent also points out that there is something of a shitstorm of bathroom-related theatre that has descended on New York City recently: Awkward Poop & the City is an ongoing storytelling series at the Creek and the Cave in Long Island City; An Inconvenient Poop was Shawn Shafner’s one-man agitprop show about sustainability that played at NYC Fringe in August; Max Mondi’s Maybe Tomorrow, another Fringe show, was inspired by a real-life news story of a marriage in which the woman sat down on the toilet and refused to get back up; and Renée Roden’s SHE, a site-specific piece that followed three girls across a day going from bathroom to bathroom in their high school, was staged over the summer by Open Booth Theatre in a bathroom at New York’s Cristo Rey High School.
But if Bent is not a pioneer in mining the scatological for laughs or deeper insights, she may be among the first to theatrically link the rituals of the bathroom to a religious service, which puts Toilet Fire at the unlikely intersection of theatre, spirituality, and classic standup (and sit-down) tropes.
Even the most gastrically sound theatregoers are likely to find communion in the church of Bent and Ferris—in the testimony of Valentina, an elegant but afflicted Italian woman, or that of Bonnie, a Boston flight attendant, or that of Arnold, a rambling older gentlemen, all played by Bent. The unfolding liturgy itself, which Bent carefully and joyfully constructs so that it weaves between feeling anciently wrong and slyly improvisational, makes Toilet Fire a unique experience that transcends mediums and has the chance to bring people together.
“For me the humor is meant to open us up,” Bent explains, “so that we can talk about the tough stuff, which is suffering.”
Consider in advance what will you use to wipe, as there will be tears of laughter.