Under the psychic knife Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:25:51
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In Spalding Gray’s newest monologue Gray’s Anatomy–a work in progress currently touring the country the existentialist storyteller turns his high-powered, introspective lens on his own body ailments. The main topic is an injury to Gray’s left eye a macular pucker, which means the vitreous humor, or gelatin, in the eye has liquefied. The monologue recounts numerous attempts to find a cure, including alternative therapies sweat lodges, dietary purges (he gave up eating fish for a while), shaman faith healers and psychic surgery that Gray explored after a retina specialist told him conventional surgery could either heal him or lead to blindness.
As in his past monologues, Gray gleans much of his material from outings in New Age country.
“I’d say I often get bored by what I consider mainstream American life,” he explains in a phone interview from Lake Tahoe where he says he’s “searching for a sport that will take me out of my mind.” Gray’s seemingly casual collisions with the other-worldly (like his dropping in at an L.A. convention for people who’d been beamed aboard space ships, or his impromptu visit to a Brazilian faith healer whom he’d heard touted in a Berkeley juice bar) provide heady material for his solo spiels. But even Gray’s confrontations with the irredeemably mundane (like his six-day hike through the hills of Malibu with a group of California weightwatchers “they have one glass of orange juice then walk for five hours oh, boy!”) can seem outlandish when filtered through his absurdist sensibility.
Several vignettes in the new monologue are recollections of encounters with esoteric or oddball therapy groups. “I like to be involved with groups, and then leave them and tell stories about them. It’s awful for the group.” And sometimes for Gray.
A sweat-lodge leader, who said sitting naked around steaming rocks in a tent could cure Gray’s eye, accused Gray of maligning her group when, in an introduction to Gray’s Anatomy in the New York Times Magazine last May, Gray contrasted the original American Indian sweat lodge with the contemporary counterpart he visited: “It used to be made of stretched animal skins over bent branches, now it’s made of stretched plastic over bent plastic rods.”
“She was very hurt about the reference to plastic,” he says. “In fact I think it was mostly wood, and maybe some plastic.” Gray admits that he tends to hyperbolize. “I refer to myself as a poetic journalist. I don’t take notes.”
But he insists that the outlines of his stories are true. “I can’t make things up very well. I wish I could. I would be much less ravaged. I could stay home. I’d have a home.”
Gray’s quest for a miracle cure took him to a slew of psychic surgeons in the Philippines. The quirkiest of them show up in Gray’s Anatomy.
“I went to a man named Jun Labo,” he recalls, spelling the name tentatively. Labo is known jokingly in the grapevine as the Elvis Presley of psychic surgeons. “He looks like a kind of movie star with a Beatles haircut and two gold chains around his neck and gold rings on his fingers. And when he operates, he operates with cowboy boots on and a butcher’s apron and a light blue gown. And with a very large crucifix behind him.”
Labo’s surgical uniform, rather than withering Gray’s interest, piqued it. “I let him operate on me.”
Psychic surgeons, he explains matter-of-factly, “reach right through your skin, into your body without any incision. They pull out cancer and stuff and throw it in a bucket.”
Ultimately, what Gray wants to see in a bucket is not simply his liquified vitreous humor, but the aging process itself. The eye ailment, he says, is a serious problem “in the sense that it’s deeply psychological. It’s the first kind of thing that reminded me I was 50 years old…that some of my parts were growing old.”
Eventually Gray opted for conventional surgery. “It helped a little. Maybe 20/70 versus 20/200.”
Though the monologue revolves around Gray’s retinal disintegration, it also has its digressions. Much of the psychological richness and ironic humor of Gray’s pieces stems from the provocative detours he unspools from his brain and then weaves into the fabric of his tale.
Gray tracks stray thoughts and feelings that most of us suppress, analyzes each with the detachment of a behaviorist, then ties them, sometimes neatly, sometimes not, into the universal themes of his piece. Ironically, the immediacy of Gray’s delivery derives from this detachment. He claims that life is most real for him when he’s recounting his experiences seated at his signature table with nothing on it but a glass of water and his elbows. “I’m most present when I’m sitting at that table. Telling a story about what happened during the day is more real than the day because I create it. The day was created by someone else.”
In performances at the Cleveland Play House in May, Gray’s Anatomy was still evolving Gray’s trademark pauses didn’t always meaningfully punctuate his run-on reminiscences and allow the deadpan to settle, and the piece’s lurid climax dripped with so much gore from Jun Labo’s frenzied psychic scalpel, it felt as if the story had hemorrhaged. But the bones of Gray’s Anatomy are in place, and its performer/author will be fine-tuning it this month in performances at the Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Sept. 7-12, and San Francisco’s Solo Mio Festival, Sept. 16-25, and at theatres across the country thorugh May.

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