Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “To believe your own thought - to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius.”
From genius, though, how steep is the drop-off? In another quote, Emerson muses that anyone who does not live according to the truth and genius or possesses is but ‘half a man,’ and is destined to ‘die.’ Scary, huh? So what about the rest of us, Mr. Emerson? We’re destined to die while you get to transcend and experience an existential fullness that is just plain beyond us? Doesn’t seem right. What about those of us without your boundless capacity for self-expression? What if we can’t say it all in words? Huh?
The Kitchen Theater’s world-premiere showing of Call Me Waldo comically explores the double-edged sword of art consumption and the debacle that often results when idealism is practically applied. Actors Brian Dykstra, Rita Rehn, Jennifer Dorr White and Matthew Boston fill kooky character roles in this wildly entertaining Rob Ackerman creation.
In thinking of the ‘artist’ we encounter an abstracted idea — the silhouette of an accessible next-level significance: truth or transcendence or whatever. For Lee, a middle-class electrician, Ralph Waldo Emerson is that Great Man — the sort of poreless, sonnet-spouting capital-M Man who takes 5 a.m. dips in the pond and goes down on his knees periodically just to soak in the beauty of it all. On an exciting day, Lee installs recessed lighting. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate life — he does; but he’s not about to write a poem about Dunkin’ Donuts or self-tapping screws. An ‘Emerson revelation’ seems, to Lee, to be just categorically more substantive than a ‘Lee the Electrician revelation’.
As it goes, Lee starts spontaneously spouting Emerson lines verbatim after uncovering Ralph’s complete works in his attic. Whether he’s on the job or in the kitchen with his wife channel the spirit of Emerson as if possessed; he will ask to be called “Waldo” and then he’ll snap out of it, and live on as Lee almost amnesiatically. I’d sort of like to shove my theories about the effect this is supposed to have on the viewer down your throat — about how it so beautifully and hilariously illustrates the jarring contrast between our lives with art and our lives with each other; how the ‘truth in art’ isn’t, as it proclaims to be, the ‘truth about life’ – but I figure I should probably spare you. Nah.
The play also has a lot to say about our relationship with the ‘artist,’ as we come to know one through one’s art. Caught in the aura of beauty, we stop seeing the ‘artist’ as a person and rather as the embodiment of the ideals one’s work reveals. Surely something so beautiful was created by an equally beautiful person, right? Mr. Emerson?
One character is hilariously suspicious of Emerson and his motives. “Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, walking around the pond and getting all hyped up on endorphins, musing about their idealisms: it was a circle-jerk.” At times it seems as if Lee’s friend’s blue-collar scoffing will be validated, as the play flirts with a ‘subtle wisdom of the average-Joe’ morale. But it slowly become clear to all of the characters that Emerson’s ideals and elegant writing are not entirely for nothing. Initially, the middle-class man’s application of Emerson’s ‘genius’ is nakedly practical. “Emerson’s gonna help me with sex?” Lee’s friend asks in disbelief.
If it has a practical application, does it lose its transcendent component and is Emerson’s real message lost? Ackerman doesn’t seem to think so, and as the characters emerge from their mid-life lulls, their collective absorption and exchanging of transcendentalist ideals offers them real-life, on-the-ground, existential affirmation — and maybe that was the message all along. “This is our Work,” Lee’s Emerson-infected colleague exclaims with awoken eyes, his hand’s forming a “W.”
And so the play challenges us to find our Work. Emerson had it easy, you might say; Work for him was defining how to capitalize the “w.” But not everyone has that luxury, and without the constant self-affirmation that writing or similar professions offer, the day-to-day of the middle class and middle aged will tend towards the mundane. But Emerson begs us to fight it, and to look with regard upon each other and ourselves; we are, he feels, each the possessors of unique genius.