When "Thom Pain (based on nothing)," by Will Eno showed up in 2004, many theater critics were almost at sea when trying to describe it. But pretty much all of them were in awe of its beautiful writing.
It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was otherwise honored. Still, what is it about?
Local actor Michael Champlin will be giving audiences chances to think about it themselves when he delivers the one-man show for Los Altos Stage Company in six livestreamed performances beginning Feb. 26.
"Will Eno, as a playwright, likes to give these almost esoteric musings to the audience," Champlin said, during a recent Zoom interview.
The play "is about the struggle between thinking and feeling, between heart and mind, and how we get in our own ways," Champlin said. "Do we see happiness, do we accept it or let it sabotage itself?"
Part of the cleverness of Eno's writing is how he builds the story through connected ideas. "All through 'Thom Pain,'" Champlin said, "there are thoughts that come in relation to the stories he tells. The stories create a feeling, and make him think of something more."
It's not exactly a narrative timeline.
"There's a lot that's funny, a lot that is introspective. It's a blend of a lot of different things. It kind of traverses so many different territories," he said.
Does that sound like a tricky sort of play to deliver? To learn it, Champlin taped the entire script in pieces on the wall, and spent a lot of time reading through them, again and again, to absorb it all.
He'll be performing the show by himself at the Bus Barn Theater, in front of cameras that will livestream it, Feb. 26-28 and March 5-7. Tickets are $20.
It is the third one-person show Los Altos Stage will have livestreamed this season. The first two, "Fully Committed," starring Max Tachis, and "Ann," starring Judith Miller, were both excellent. Santa Clara County's COVID restrictions disallow live audiences but both Tachis and Miller delivered strong performances anyway, and Champlin can be trusted to do the same.
Even in normal circumstances, actors can't usually see the audience in the theater, Champlin pointed out, because of the way stage lights limit their vision. But, of course, live audiences can be heard, which gives a certain live feedback to the actors.
All that will have to happen in Champlin's mind.
Champlin is doing the show "for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that, as an actor during the pandemic, having the opportunity to get on a stage again. I jumped at it.
"And, also, I am thrilled to return to Los Altos Stage. Gary (Landis) is a fantastic director. When I read the script — I wasn't familiar with it — I thought it was incredible, and that I would love to dive into it."
A familiar face to local theater goers, Champlin was born and raised on Long Island, and lived in New York for most of his life. He got into theater at a young age, partly thanks to family trips to Manhattan theaters, and thanks to a grandfather who would read the New York Times Arts section with him.
"I started focusing on theater in middle school," said Champlin. "I did plays in school, went to Tufts University, studied theater there, then came out of college focusing more on directing in film."
But theater continued to pull him in, and he taught theater and story-telling in East Harlem and the Bronx.
His first wife brought him to the Bay Area 15 years ago. The marriage didn't last, but Champlin quickly came to like the Bay Area's theater community. And theater is now a family business. He met his second wife, Katie O'Bryon Champlin, while performing in "Northanger Abbey" at The Pear Theatre in Mountain View in 2008. His son Jack, 14, from his first marriage, is doing theater at Palo Alto High School; second son Henry, 6, with O'Bryon Champlin, is "doing kindergarten in the living room".
By Feb. 19, Champlin had already started running "Thom Pain" at the Bus Barn, and had gotten comfortable in the environment.
"It fits for this character. The entire show is direct to audience. It's written to deliver to an engaged audience. It's a fit for the void we all exist in now (during the COVID lockdown)," he said. "This surreal kind of existence, when you can almost trick yourself into thinking the outside doesn't exist. So much of that fits the theme of 'Thom Pain.'"
More information is available at losaltosstage.org.
Contributor John Orr can be emailed at [email protected]