At PS122 this weekend through November 23, Joseph Silovsky presents a wonderfully sweet and quirky one-man performance that tells the story of the mysterious jester of the Pacific island of Tonga. Beginning in 2001, inspired by a New York Times article entitled “The Money Is All Gone in Tonga and the Jester’s Role Was No Joke”, Silovsky set out on a mission to discover for himself the details of how $23 million dollars theoretically belonging to the people of Tonga were claimed by the island’s king (on the grounds that the people would spend it on silly things like “roads”), placed in an American savings account, made to profit and increase by $11 million dollars, and then completely lost in a bad investment.
While the events that took place in Tonga in themselves make for an interesting and unusual plot, what really works in Silovsky’s piece is his poetic and unusual approach to telling the story. On a stage crowded with suitcases of different sizes and colors, microphones, and functional technological sculpture, Silovsky walks about, turning on little cameras, opening screens, awkwardly displaying a 1:1 map of the island of Tonga, claiming that he wants to make the story as clear and accurate as possible for us. His narration is made up of a series of vignettes, memory bubbles that he presents to the audience with the aid of paper-cut puppets, video and audio recordings, and Stanley, Silovsky’s robotic invention through whom we first hear the perspective of the jester of Tonga himself.
The irony in Jester of Tonga lies in the juxtaposition of the potential for precision and accuracy offered by the technology on stage, and the softer and more overtly interpretative story telling strategies used by Silovsky to share his own subjective understanding of Tonga and the events that took place in the small Pacific island. Silovsky, throwing suitcases out of his way and stumbling over his own lines, exposes the narrator’s struggle in piecing together a story that begins as something foreign and surreal, but eventually turns into an intimate and personal interpretative exercise dealing with recollection and memory. Part comical detective, part compassionate self-conscious anthropologist, and part nerdy techy artist, Silovsky’s character gently offers his research work to his audience and leads us through a humorous evening and a story that painfully echoes the recent economic developments on this side of the Pacific.