Cubicle Gal

We watch a woman just home from work. Her eyes are so blank, it’s hard to tell if she’s glad to be back in her spotless studio apartment or relieved to clock another eight hours. She checks her mail: a lone advertisement. No human contact.

Almost immediately she goes to work. She stores groceries in careful piles, labels front. She makes a meal, washes dishes, cleans her hands every time she touches something. She checks a blemish on her right cheekbone, rechecks later: a nagging imperfection.

Much of what she does prepares for the next day. But something about her mindless rituals, ending one and immediately beginning another, suggests that tomorrow will mirror today, just as today has countless yesterdays. It’s as if, as Wordsworth wrote, her whole “vocation were endless imitation.”

She’s Miss Rasch, the sole character in Franz Xavier Kroetz’s Request Programme, a minutely detailed study of compulsion and emptiness. In German, rasch means “impetuous, brisk, rash.” For most of the drama, which closes this weekend at Ion Theatre, the 45-year-old woman’s anything but. In the end, however, she’s aptly named.

“In the piece,” says Linda Libby, who plays Rasch, “the audience is like a fly on the wall. They become Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window but can’t take action when they need to.”

Request Programme is one of the most talked about, many say unique, dramas of our time. Kroetz strips away all the usual sources of information — dialogue, other characters. He leaves one actor alone onstage, speechless, for 65 minutes. Libby agreed to talk about what it’s like to play a character “as daunting as Hamlet.”

Kroetz radically narrowed the depth of field. Nothing “big” happens. Every action is mundane, which requires the audience to look closer than usual. At one point, for example, Rasch decides to have juice. Instead of telling another character, or licking her lips to show intent, three fingers of her right hand flicker for an instant, as if something inside has said, “Aha, beverage time.”

In this sense, Request shows us how lazy our eyes have become, how we often don’t see something the first time but rely on instant replays. And how, in an era of sensory overload, we accept obvious clues and easy answers at face value — and overlook the fine print.

“In most theater, especially musicals,” says Libby, “actors thrust the story into the house with great energy. But when there are no distractions, like words and other actors, every tiny move becomes enormous.”

To narrow the focus even more, Libby had to silence her most expressive instrument: her eyes. Most actors stress them, often to the exclusion of everything else. Libby had to dull hers, collapsing them from “musical big” to almost lifeless orbs that regard objects without editorializing.

“It’s important we don’t explain her too much,” says Libby. “The audience should do the interpreting.” Anything that lets people say, “Oh she’s just…” — as in, she’s just had a tough day, just broke up, etc. — “disconnects her from them.”

In his notes, Kroetz offers a few biographical details: Rasch works at a stationery factory in the envelope section (“makes sense: the form but not the content”). She has a small salary and once lost a lover and has an “involuntary virginity.” But since each of these facts could create a disconnect, the Ion production refrained from explanations. “She’s definitely a cubicle gal,” says Libby, “but we leave it at that.”

After one performance, a woman confessed to Libby that she had Miss Rasch’s job. “No, I do,” said two others, none of whom had the same vocation.

Libby also removed a social mask. “People have an exterior layer they wear like Teflon. It could be a smile, a sourpuss, whatever. Miss Rasch doesn’t. There’s an absence, not of energy, more like a missing aura.” In effect, Rasch has no protective shield. She’s naked in the most profound sense, and “for an actor — whooo-weee-DAWGIES! — that’s scary!!

“I have a rep for being a lively performer, and this character requires a stark flatness, like erasing almost everything actors use to explain and, quite frankly, to please.”

When Libby’s mother saw the show, she barely recognized her daughter’s dead-eyed stare and obsession with order. “After, she had to make sure I was okay. She was a little unsettled.”

Libby began studying for the project two years ago. “Rasch is not like me a lot,” she realized. “I’m neither organized nor clean.” Libby focused on simple activities. “Do I put the dish soap on the sponge or in the water?”

Libby invented a whole lexicon of Rasch’s physical habits: open both cabinet doors at once; close the armoire with both hands (quietly at first, louder later), fold things with microprecision, even toilet paper in neat squares. Rasch moves as if she must stay busy, must have the TV on, or a radio concert (which awakens moods, memories?), as if she must remain on automatic pilot.

“Every move speaks. For instance: who would believe that a smidgen of a toenail, tossed on the floor, would hold such significance?”

What in her background prepared Libby for this once-in-a-lifetime role? She cites Samuel Beckett’s late one-acts, where he insisted on taking all the “color” — everything actors add to a character or use to help the audience understand — out of a performance (“Less,” he shouted at Billie Whitelaw in rehearsals, “even less”). By eliminating color, Beckett made the audience more a participant in the process, tilting forward and paying attention, than a passive recipient.

“Most acting requires layers,” says Libby. “Beckett subtracts, so you just do the action by itself: when you look out the window, that’s it: just look out the window. It’s one of the most challenging things an actor can do.”

Libby also recalled an exercise she did as an MFA student at Temple University. Wal Cherry, department head, demanded simplicity. One day he asked students to walk in a room, club a guy over the head with a rubber truncheon, and walk out. The first actor didn’t just enter. He stealthed in, eyebrows bouncing, inspecting every mote of dust. Then he saw his target and froze. His face bubbled with perplexity: to club or not to club? He half-stepped forward. His legs locked.

“No-o-o-o-o!” shouted Cherry. “Stop adding stuff! Just walk in, belt the guy, and walk out! Is that so hard?” Given most actors’ training, Libby recalls, this exercise ranked among the toughest.

But it prepared her for what she calls “the invisible line” in Request between the “actorly” and the unadorned. In rehearsals she and director Glenn Paris squelched every theatrical impulse. Lately, however, she’s moving away from the line. During a performance she went from one section of the play to the next and couldn’t remember how she got there. “Total blackout. I stopped thinking. Spooky.”

In her most recent performances, Libby confesses to an out-of-body experience. “Honestly, when I’m in the moment of the play, I have looked, and sometimes what I see is unexpected. I lose a sense that I’m onstage — me, Libby. Miss Rasch has entered the room.”

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