“The Last of the Knotts”

Doug Knott – “The Last of the Knotts” – Santa Monica Playhouse

Solo performances of dramatic scripts have shifted their focus in recent decades from homages to famous individuals (Will Rogers, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain) to tour de force enactments of more “ordinary” people’s lives. Sarah Jones’s Bridge & Tunnel, for instance, focuses on the immigrant communities of New York City; her ability to play both male and female characters marked a new level of imaginative engagement with androgynous plasticity. Both Linda and I were fortunate enough to catch a performance of Bridge & Tunnel, when we were living in Long Island and teaching ESL to immigrants, and can vouch for Jones’s theatrical dexterity.

In a more personal, self-reflective mode, Doug Knott, one of the original members of the Carma Bums, has been performing a one-man show over the past four years called “The Last of the Knotts.” A few of my friends, such as Laurel Ann Bogen, have seen earlier versions of this play and mentioned that it has developed considerably in the course of its public viewings, which began with the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2011. Linda and I finally got to see it this past Sunday at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Unfortunately for Doug, the audience was very small. A substantial number of people had received bad promotional information from sources other than Doug, and at least ten people showed up the evening before. Needless to say, they didn’t return, and as a result only eight people were present on Sunday.

Knott was unfazed. He feasted on his lines as if he were a chef who had prepared a New Year’s Eve banquet, and he was not going to let any of the sauce go to waste. So what if only a handful of guests were there to enjoy the delicacies of his kitchen. And the menu was of a delicate nature: childhood abuse and the life-decision of an unanticipated pregnancy. Knott recounted the details with a rhythmic edge that sharpened the sense of recitation. Of course he has told this story before, and told it long before it became a script. But whereas all too often one can hear a story from someone and feel – palpably detect – the sense that it’s all too well fixed and set in its proclivities, Knott’s monologue broke free of that gravitational aura of self-hypnosis within the first ten minutes and, from that point on, guided the audience through the comedy of a post-Beat life. If Knott knew where his life was going in the play, it was not because he had lived it. In point of fact, the surprises that loving another person brought to him in his life off-stage seemed to catch him just as off-guard in the recollection made visible in a single actor’s body and voice.

Knott’s success in keeping the audience attentive to a solitary voice, refracted through a poignant ensemble of love-fraught memories, is largely due to his ability to make his internalized movie flicker against a mural  painted on a single large board at the rear of the stage. The first third of the play does not make many references to the major symbols on the mural, but as the central love relationship takes hold, one of symbols slithers forth to become a central character. It’s not an ordinary snake that might be found in the mountains around Los Angeles. Knott’s lover has a boa constrictor. At one point, the snake wraps itself around Knott’s neck and he begins to panic. Slowly, all too slowly, the snake eventually stops strangling Knott as its owner stands in front of him, seemingly indifferent to his plight. To Knott’s overwhelming relief, the snake returns to his lover, flowing onto her arm “like reverse lava.” What a marvelous image! I have thought of it ever since I heard that line. It hints not just at the ambivalence that love brings to the life-and-death stakes of being intimate with someone else. It points to the very source of eros and thanatos itself: a primeval id whose song is rupture and rapture.

In thinking of the course of Knott’s life, after the play, it occurred to me how different the story would be if he had met his lover after she had been with the musician and had a child with him. The trauma of deciding on an abortion would probably have involved a much different conversation. Knott’s experience of being bullied by his father is a Gordian knot of irresolvable affliction entwined with the need to caress the bliss that life offers in brief installments. In making his love-relationship’s choice about a pregnancy a public confession, he offers a larger audience than he suspects a chance to revisit the incalculable wounds of their own journeys. No redemption awaits, but compassion is ever alert to our common needs.

Doug Knott’s program for the play notes the contributions of dramaturg Eric Trules, director Chris DeCarlo, and producer Debra Ehrhardt. They also deserve sustained applause. Gilbert Johnquest’s hand-painted mural was a wonderful introduction to his finely crafted work.