There’s only one person on stage in Jack Ferver’s Mon, Ma, Mes, but the work is modeled on dialogue. There is dialogue with the audience, first of all, as Ferver begins the show with a forced Q&A session. And there is also plenty of dialogue in Ferver’s own speech, as he constantly refutes or modifies the details of a life revealed to us in spurts of energetic performance.
All these dialogues are simulations, however. The questions are scripted, openly so: the audience members chosen by Ferver (spontaneously, it seems) are handed notecards with a generally adulatory and leading question on it. The exchanges are funny, the way it’s funny to overhear a bad date or a pedantic museum conversation. But the equally simulated dialogue that Ferver carries out with himself grows decidedly less funny as the work goes on. In conversation after the performance was over, the question came up of when exactly I thought the tone changed. After all, the show began with loud and repeated audience laughter, but these moments gradually faded as it progressed. I thought, maybe simplistically, that the change had come when Ferver said the word “rape.” But this isn’t exactly so, as Allegra Jongeward pointed out to me, for there had been a previous moment when Ferver responded to an audience question with a long silence that led into his first dance performance. Both the pause and the dance elicited plenty of laughter, but in retrospect they foretold the improbable mix of lightness and gravity that would follow.
We might miss it as it’s happening, but this foretelling becomes retrospectively evident in another dance sequence, this one in the middle of a therapy session in which Ferver mimes both shrink and patient. I don’t want to talk about that, says the performer in response to some question he’s asked himself, I just want to dance for you. In isolation, this desire might be silly, but in the context of a work that constantly unveils the solipsism and insufficiency of language, it feels more serious. It places two forms of expression, speech and dance, in relief, and I think it holds the latter up as an ideal.
I think so because of the way that Ferver’s narrative runs from self-indulgence to absurdity. We all need to talk about ourselves, but from the outset—already in the title of the work (three French translations of my) and definitely in the simulated Q&A—Ferver is ridicules this societal norm. It is common tic among pundits today to chalk excessive self-involvement up to new technologies of the self like social media platforms and front-facing cameras. But to be thorough we’d have to go farther back, starting with the introspection encouraged by Freud’s talking cure and before that Catholic confession. Michel Foucault has even traced the phenomenon of parrhesia—etymologically, saying everything—back to the ancient Greeks. In short, narcissism isn’t the invention of the millennial generation. When Ferver sings about being the only person in the room, he’s tapping into a long history.
And in the structure of the work, no manifestation of narcissism is as evident as therapy—both as a practice and as a diffuse cultural form. A barely mentioned trauma gives a nearly absent baseline to the performance, and Ferver’s monologues are reminiscent, for me, of classic SNL characters like Jack Handy (self-affirmation: good enough, smart enough) and Mary Catherine Gallagher (anxiety: hand and verbal tics). His intent seems to be not to mock therapy, but rather to incorporate its structure of feeling into the show as a way of revealing the insufficiency of speech.
In this way, Mon, Ma, Mes can be contrasted with Germinal, a show I had seen the night before. Here also the construction of the self is placed on stage, but its comic effect derives from the futility of things like the drive to categorize and the inescapability of the dialectic. It shows how absurd it would be to arrive at where we are today through a careful consideration of all our options. Its funniest moment was when the characters had the opportunity to order a starter kit for existence via phone. Germinal’s foils or sources seem to be Hegel and Derrida, while Ferver’s—more refreshingly, I think, because Hegel and Derrida are cold thinkers and terrible writers—is the more eloquent lineage that runs from Freud to Oprah.
That lineage gives the context of Ferver’s work, but he’s not in thrall to it. If telling one’s truth always involves some level narcissism, dance takes us elsewhere, outside ourselves. At least that’s the hope I saw in Mon, Ma, Mes. Not only does dance come in when speech becomes difficult, but it also provides the only occasion for real coexistence. About halfway through the work, Ferver asked a dancer in the audience to join him on stage. Initially, their interaction shows a one-sided collaboration, ridiculing the egomania of Ferver’s character. But when they begin to dance, the task he carries out—following his partner’s hands with his own, turning the other’s horizontal palms into the letter T with his own vertical hands—is vulnerable and soft. He follows instead of leading, as the two become engaged in an elaborate game of Twister in the air. The scene represents an alternative to both speech and narcissism: bodily movement and entanglement with someone else.
Craig Epplin is an assistant professor in the World Languages and Literatures Department at Portland State University.