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Shadows, Voices & Devoted Fans: Mark Danielewski's 'Fifty Year Sword' Haunts REDCAT

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Halloween night marked author Mark Z. Danielewski’s live telling of his novella The Fifty Year Sword at REDCAT, and it turned out to be an excellent evolution from the author’s 2010 performance. Thanks to a flawless musical score by John Zalewski and percussionists T.J. Troy and Matthew Cook, Christine Marie’s larger-than-life shadows, and the dizzying, yet enchanting succession of five well-rehearsed threads of dialogue, Mark Z. Danielewski’s highly conceptual live performance of T50YS was a true sensorial feast.

That is, of course, if you’re into that sort of thing. Much like MZD’s books, those who aren’t open to experimentation and the kind of intricate, expertly obfuscated narratives one can safely expect of the author’s work might have been a bit miffed by Monday’s whirlwind performance. But, as MZD fans know, the key to entering Danieleski’s magnificently dark and labyrinthian world, is to trust the often perplexing divergences and disorienting techniques Danielewski crafts into each and every one of his stories.

Case in point: The Fifty Year Sword. Set in an east Texas orphanage, Mark Danielewski’s obscure novella tells the frightening tale of a seamstress divorcee, five orphans, and a storyteller’s cursed sword. The story imbues suspense,horror, and MZD’s signature complexities, thanks to the use of colored quotations marks to indicate respective character dialogue. T50YS is, at heart, a script yearning to be heard. For Monday night's performance, five actors, clad in black, embodied Danielewski’s quick-paced dialogue, lending not only a new performative dimension to the text, but also imparting an exercise in focus and meditation. The barrage of dialogue allowed poetic blips and blurbs to burn a much more pronounced place in the mind’s eye.

Great music, dancing, and a gravedigger were all welcomed additions to MZD’s live performance of T50YS this year. John Zalewski’s sound direction made for an ideal musical accompaniment to Danielewski’s dark and feverish prose. And percussionists T.J. Troy and Matthew Cook, equipped with a MacBook Pro and dozens of delightfully strange and organic-looking instruments, were truly incredible--the duo's eccentric tools and sounds drew wonderful parallels to their work with the innovative Los Angeles Harry Partch ensemble. Katya Pirogovska, the talented Cirque du Soleil dancer who could have walked straight off one of Tim Burton’s animated films, played part muse, part off-beat mime. And the gravedigger, who you might also know as Justin Veach, Director of New Initiatives for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, provided a new comedic element to the event—Veach, it should be known, is a natural on stage.

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A highlight of the night was when we met two young men dressed up in costumes as ‘the forest’ and ‘the hunter,’ in homage to Danielewski. Nick Splendorr, 25 and Alex Olivier, 23 are the kind of fans writers aim to attract; loyal, knowledgeable, and seriously dedicated to the subtleties that may or may not be lingering in your work. The duo flew from Athens, Georgia, for the second year in a row, to attend the MZD event. “It’s a big deal,” Splendorr said. No kidding. The two aspiring writers have an impressive Danielewski-inspired to-do list that boasts venues and landmarks frequented by characters in House of Leaves, Only Revolutions and places MZD has recommended in various interviews since his first book debuted in 2000. But Danielewski’s Halloween performance of his rare novella The Fifty Year Sword is undeniably the main act on Alex and Nick’s MZD itinerary. What did they think of this year’s performance? “It was great,” they both said, nearly in unison. “This year, the show was much more polished,” Alex said. “And did you see the cat?” He smiled wide, alluding to an image found in the final scene of Monday night’s performance, and to a trope woven throughout MZD’s texts.

And the author’s fans are right: Danielewski’s Halloween production of The Fifty Year Sword at REDCAT was certainly a testament to the author’s affinity for detail, mastery of subtext, and innovative story-telling techniques. Similar to reading Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Only Revolutions, or The Fifty Year Sword, unearthing new discoveries is an integral part of the author’s work. And like Nick and Alex, we intend to be at REDCAT next Halloween to uncover more.