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When the voice you hear is not that of the actor you see| GuyWhoKnowsThings

In the darkest moments of a family tragedy, when playwright Mona Pirnot couldn't find the strength to verbalize her feelings to her boyfriend or her therapist, she tried something a little unorthodox: she typed her thoughts on her laptop and asked him for a message. text. -Voice program to express them out loud.

It was a coping mechanism that also sparked a creative turn: Pirnot's then-boyfriend and now husband, Lucas Hnath, is also a playwright, with a long-standing interest in sound and a more recent history in creating shows around to disembodied voices. “The last work of his”,a drill”, featured a magician recreating his version of a conversation with Hnath, whose voice was heard through a recording; and I play him before that”,dana h.,” an actress introduced, lip-syncing interviews in which the playwright’s mother recounted the trauma of being kidnapped.

Now Hnath directs Pirnot, who wrote and is the only actor in “I love you so much I could die”, a journalistic exploration of how she was affected by a life-changing incident that incapacitated her sister at the beginning of the pandemic. In the 65-minute show, previewed Off Broadway at New York Theater Workshop, Pirnot sits in a ladder-back chair, her back to the audience, while a Microsoft text-to-speech program reads her lines. . Between chapters of the narrative, Pirnot plays the guitar and sings songs she wrote.

The computer's voice is masculine, robotic and, of course, impassive; Its cadence and pause length vary depending on how Pirnot and Hnath have punctuated the text. The show makes occasional mistakes (a recurring joke concerns Shia LaBeouf's pronunciation) that the performers appreciate. Listening to a machine tell stories of very human pain can be strangely funny, and audiences laugh, especially early in the show, as they adjust to the disorienting experience.

“I like the relentlessness that I can get with the (computer) voice, which is a bit shocking and surprising, and I find it sometimes very moving but sometimes extremely anxiety-provoking,” Pirnot said. “I really feel like I'm capturing and sharing a little bit of what I felt.”

The production bears some of Hnath's trademark fingerprints. As “the Christians,” his 2015 work set in an evangelical church, “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” includes snaking ropes and cables, reflecting his preference for transparent performance art. The set, designed by Mimi Lien, is extraordinarily sober: a folding table, a lamp from the couple's bedroom, some speakers and, in the corner, a purple container for the almost imperceptible haze effect of the show.

“It's not that slippery,” Hnath said. “It basically announces 'We're not pretending. We are getting down to work. I was worried it would become a pristine art installation. Every time something becomes slippery, I stop trusting it or ask myself, 'What are they hiding?'”

Hnath has been experimenting with disturbing uses of audio for some time. “The thin place,” his 2019 play about a psychic, and “Dana H.” they include moments of deeply discordant sound. And in “Dana H.,” “A Simulacrum,” and now “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” each with sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, there is a separation between speech and speaker, in different ways.

“I think there is a part of me that, deep down, is a frustrated composer. My first love was music and I always wanted to compose music, so a lot of my approach to writing is very compositional,” Hnath said. He enjoys “the level of control I could have over the sonic qualities and the rhythm,” he added. “I can build it so that it doesn't change and that's exactly what I mean.”

Hnath's works have often involved what he unapologetically calls “a trick”: a task for a performer that leaves little room for error, like an actress perfectly imitating another woman's words, breathing, and rhythm. His next piece is about memorizing lines and dramatizes an older artist running lines with a younger artist; Hnath describes it as “a nightmare to learn: someone gets a line wrong five different ways; I don't know how you learn that.”

For “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” Pirnot and Hnath gradually opted for the text-to-speech solution. At first, in 2020 and 2021, Pirnot wrote about her sadness only as a way to process her feelings. Some of it was similar to diary entries; some were almost a transcript of conversations with family members. At one point, Hnath thought Pirnot should turn the material into a memoir.

When they started talking about staging the play, we were still at the peak of the pandemic, when in-person meetings were complicated. Thus, they carried out an advance reading, with the actors, through video meeting; Pirnot and Hnath briefly discussed that their script would be performed each time by a different actor cold reading the words.

Pirnot tested the idea of ​​text-to-speech with a short podcast monologue. And at home, she worked at a desk at the foot of his bed, which meant that sometimes when he was sitting on the bed, she would play the material with her back to him, and that configuration informed the work as it progressed. her living room, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Dartmouth (for a residency), and now New York Theater Workshop, where it opens Wednesday.

Over time, the story became more about Pirnot's feelings and less about his sister's medical situation, which he does not detail in the play.

“Everything in the show is very intentionally intended to inform the experience of when life completely opens up and falls apart, and what you do with all those pieces and how it makes you feel and how you continue to move forward,” he said. . . “I felt like I could provide that experience without saying, 'And by the way, here's the exact order of an extremely excruciating and unrelenting series of events that contributed to my new understanding.'”

Why write about something so painful if you don't want to share the details?

“After fighting so hard to keep a loved one alive, the question is what and why?” he said. “This is what I have to share. This is really what I want to express. Although every night I ask myself: 'How could I be doing this? How could I share so much? I find it less sad than doing something I've only put half of myself into.”

For Hnath, the collaboration fits with his own long-standing storytelling interests.

“One of the first projects I did in graduate school was an adaptation of the Zen koan about Sen-jo. Sen-jo is separated from his soul: there is the soul and then there is the body. And which is the real Sen-jo? I think I've been a little obsessed with the tension between the physical and the mental or intellectual. So that has always been on the back burner.”

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