Here’s the thing about sexual assault, it’s a really hard thing for male writers to write about without seeming like the worst human beings on the planet. Because, and of course this is a generalization and we all know about the exceptions, but, for the most part, outside of the prison system, heterosexual men are rarely the victims of sexual assault. Women don’t rape each other. Women don’t rape men. Moreover, women feel obligated by the constraints of the patriarchy, by everything we are every taught, by every rule dictating female behavior, to acquiesce. To take the blame. To consider how we may have “tempted” or “provoked” or simply existed in the direction of a man. Sex has long been something that is considered an activity that men want and women tolerate, and that attitude, as antiquated as it is, still dictates much of contemporary behavior And if you can’t be raped, how can you understand rape? If sexual assault isn’t literal for you as a fear and concern in your life, how can it really seem significant? And that’s the underlying issue in Paul Downs Colaizzo’s funny but flawed Really Really, directed by David Cromer, now playing at MCC Theater.
When Grace (Lauren Culpepper) and Leigh (Zosia Mamet) return home one night from a party, they stumble drunkenly into their apartment, laughing hysterically at the sheer act of intoxication. But it quickly becomes clear to the audience that this is no mere homecoming. For one thing, Grace’s hand is covering in blood and it still has glass embedded in it. For another thing, these girls seem beyond wasted, they are in the land of incomprehension. Still, we’ve all had nights like that in college, and so when it turns out that there was a rager the evening before, thrown by some jocky frat boys, whose sport and greek letters are never really dealt with, it all makes sense. But what really happened at that party? That question is the subject of the entire play, and it becomes more important than any drunken attendee ever thought possible.
In the wake of this wild soiree of questionable decisions, frat boy Davis (a decent Matt Lauria) wakes up to a destroyed house and a lot of fuzzy memories. His buddies, the straight-laced Johnson (an excellent and wonderfully timed Kobi Libii) and the raunchy Cooper ( the talented David Hull, who stays shirtless a lot of the show, much to the delight of most of the female population of the audience), are dying to know what happened the night before, but Davis seems reticent to share his tales from between the sheets. And with good reason, too. It seems that Davis and Leigh have made the beast with two backs, and the assumption is that this isn’t going to go over all that well with Jimmy (a perfectly pitched Evan Jonigkeit) Leigh’s boyfriend and Davis’ teammate. But what really happened that night? Did Leigh want to have sex with Davis? Did Davis want to have sex with Leigh? Who can trust in this world of intoxicated emotions and juvenile deceptions? And, more to the point, does anyone really care?
As information is revealed and clouds the information previously received, these hung over young people try to find a way to construct their futures. With the arrival of Leigh’s ambitious and back-woodsy sister Haley ( Aleque Reid), Leigh finds herself in the position of defending her assertion that Davis’ raped her and caused her to lose a (faked) pregnancy against her friends, her family, and the world at large. As Grace delivers clever if clunky speeches about “generation me” at a Future Leaders of America conference, rumors swirls around this unnamed college campus and accusations are hurled at the speed of a tweet, reaching everyone before they’ve had a change to really be thought out, or heard. Leigh, a compelling and subdued Mamet who walks through the play with a numbness that is appropriate but hard to connect with, seems to be playing the long game. Because there is so much information, or misinformation, being bandied about, one never knows if one can trust anyone, especially Leigh. But when you make a story about sexual violence and call into question the veracity of the victim, that is a bit, um, what is the word, vomit-inducing? Because as a rule, women don’t tend to lie about rape. Or pregnancy, for that matter. So if you want to put the victim of a rape situation in the position of the aggressor, you better have a damn good reason. And Colaizzo, well, just doesn’t seem to have one at all.
The whole key to this story seems to rest on an unseen character, Natalie, Davis’ former girlfriend, whose fragile ghost seems to haunt this piece as a tenuous explanation for a lot of bad behavior For example, Davis is willing to have sex with Leigh, despite their mutual commitment to Jimmy, because he’s desperate to exorcise his ex, Natalie, from his system. And Leigh is willing to let Davis rape her (which is a plot point that can’t help but raise the hackles of even the least feminist audience member) because she knows, from Natalie, that Davis gets violent during sex, and she knows she can use this to secure her financial future. Which, you know, is totally something women do, provoke men into raping them for some cash. That’s a real thing that happens. All the time. But the problem then is, if Natalie is so important, so vital to this story, why don’t we ever meet her? And if we don’t meet her, why don’t we know that she is significant until the final moments of the play? Why do we spend so much time with characters who don’t seem to matter, really, if this unseen Natalie is actually the hinge upon which all this rests?
Part of the issue with this may be that despite the plethora of people who Colaizzo has put on the stage, all neatly directed by Cromer, most of these characters all speak with what is basically the same voice. They all have the same snappy quippy sense of humor, they all seem equally intelligent, they all seem, well, exactly the same. The vocal homogeny of the play is almost overwhelming. Everyone’s humor is the same, with Culpepper’s supremely well handled Grace as the forerunner in pop-culture meets academia style speak, with her pumps and clashing prints (courtesy of Sarah Laux’s spot on costume design) and snippy sharp one liners all delivered with a breathless mania. But because everyone is just like everyone else, even the “outsider”, Haley ( Reid’s annoying performance adds little to this already acerbic character) seems to be just as well off as all these other privileged people, and I couldn’t tell you for the life of me where the hell this is supposed to be happening. Vague references to “Christian Therapy” come and go, leaving on the impression that this is somewhere conservative, somewhere in the south or middle of this huge country of ours, but honestly, nothing else exists in the world of the play to clue its audience in on where this is all going on.
So when the play ends, amid ambiguous rape accusations and an anvil-sized point about getting what you really want at any cost and then realizing it wasn’t worth it (which…welcome to adulthood) one must wonder what the take-home message is in such a story. In a play obsessed with T.V. style buttons (each scene ends with a “scene ending line”, punctuated by a lengthy set change, courtesy of David Korins clever-but-tedious-to-watch set design, David Weiner’s neat lighting and Daniel Kluger’s excellent sound) at the end of the piece, the audience is left blinking in the wake of this ambiguous and odd story. But as Colaizzo writes, “You can’t get what you want until you know what you want”. So what I personally would like is a play that values human emotion over banter and sensation. Because what Really Really leaves its audience with is the feeling that of course what you want at the age of 21 isn’t worth what you do to get it. But if you didn’t know that already, you’ve really really got some deeper issues at work there.
Though it might have begun as a visual medium, the art of moving film quickly became the art of the escape. A 35 millimeter flip strip, projected onto a screen larger than many New York apartments, can and does completely overwhelm its viewer. Like stepping up close to a Rothko painting, the act of watching a movie inundates its audience with sensation and sound and light and shadow and experience to the point that there is no world beyond the world of the cinema. This is film’s virtue and it’s curse, it’s danger and it’s delight. Movies erase our sense of external reality while still pretending to be reality. Here in the United States, a movie-rich country with the largest film industry in the world, we believe in movies more than we believe in almost anything.We expect a reality from film that is impossible, and we expect a cinematic quality to reality that is insane. Hooray for Hollywood, indeed.
And yet, for many of us, it’s hard not to fall more in love with movies then with life. After all, movies are scripted, life is not. Movies have plots and protagonists and craft and arc and endings. Life just goes on and on. Movies have swelling soundtracks. Life just has noise. But life is what we’ve got, and movies are what we’ve made. There is a difference there, for those who choose to see it.
And the three people who live and breathe in Annie Baker’s The Flick, directed by Sam Gold, now playing at Playwrights Horizons, live and die by movies, but not all in the same fashion. (There is also a fourth actor, the lovely Alex Hanna, playing two roles, but let’s discuss the principles before the subplots, shall we?) After all, there are people who fall more in love with movies then with real life, and there are people who fall out of love with movies because they understand that real life, in all it’s complicated messy realness, can be so much better than the best movie. And in The Flick we have the person who loves movies more than life itself, Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), and the people who, while they may not love life, at the very least, they know it when they see it, Sam (Matthew Maher) and Rose (Louisa Krause).
All three characters are employees at a run-down movie theater in Worcester County, Massachusetts. It’s a rather small shabby affair, with faded stained maroon seats and mustard walls (fantastic set design by David Zinn, who also did the costumes), but it boasts one of the only 35 millimeter film projectors in the county, and that alone makes it a diamond in the rough. In a world colored by fluorescent (solid lighting by Jane Cox) in love with the pointillism of digital pixels, The Flick, the theater itself, still airs films, in all their full orchestral glory (lovely sound by Bray Poor). And that’s what attracts the awkward and unhappy Avery (who Moten plays with impeccable timing and excellent subtlety and depth) to his job as a movie theater attendant. Well, that, and the fact that he has nothing else to do, he’s taking a semester off from college, he’s uncomfortable within the context of his own life, what better place to escape to then a movie theater, the site of all he holds dear? For Avery loves movies, moreover, he believes in movies. They mean more to him then life itself, which isn’t surprising, given how unhappy he is in his own life. But even though Avery would rather watch a filmstrip then deal with his life, life has a way of going on even while the movie is running, and so Avery must interact with other humans, his fellow employees, Sam and Rose.
Sam (a stellar and sweetly sad Maher who breaks your heart and forces you to smile), is a guy in his mid-thirties working at a crappy movie theater. So that’s probably all anyone needs to know about him. But in case you were wondering, to complete the picture, he lives with his parents and he is desperately in love with his fellow worker, Rose. Rose (a fantastic Krause, whose sense of delivery and pace couldn’t be better, and whose defiant charm is bizarrely attractive) is a quirky, darkly sardonic woman who is as unconscious of the people around her as she is sensitive to them. Sam’s adoration for Rose makes him pathetic, but infinitely relatable. And Avery, with his shy stuttering presence, is the unaware catalyst that will force Sam to finally confess his love to Rose. And does she rush into his arms and kiss him with the pent-up emotions of a thousand lonely nights? Of course not. This isn’t a movie.
Watching these three strangers stumble towards each other, collide with each other, offend each other, betray each other, survive contact with each other, is like seeing an underwater ballet. It moves slowly, but beautifully, and as each moment settles on the audience the accumulation of images and moments add up to something far greater than the sum of its parts. The settling of each moment as it comes, the sheer awkward realness of every beat, which Baker’s prose electrifies and Gold’s direction stretches to its terrifically torturous limit, gives the audience the literal or at least semi-literal life and death of these relationships. There are those who would and will say that this play is overly long, but it is my personal opinion that the length of the play is as deliberate as everything else about this fantastic production. The beginning is slow and uncomfortable because it mimics the way Avery and Sam and Rose get to know each other, it traces Avery’s journey for the audience from desperate new guy to desperate film nerd to desperate closet case to desperate idealist to desperate angry young man. It moves ponderously but deliberately and in its pace it delivers to its audience a real understanding of these people and their progression, or regression, or maybe evolution. Nothing in Baker’s text is random, or extraneous, but neither is everything explained. Instead, it holds all the mysteries of reality, and all the craft of impeccable playwriting.
These relationships, with their petty battles and deeply felt heartbreak, resonate with their audience on an inherent level because they could not be more real. For example, a moment in the burgeoning friendship between Avery and Sam in which Avery has betrayed Sam is punctuated with Sam, who shares his cleaning duties with Avery between each movie showing, suddenly scattering popcorn all over Avery’s section with a deeply satisfying and fantastic pop of a bag. It could not be a better expression of the pain and frustration that Sam feels at this moment, perfectly calibrated to live within the world of the play as a gesture that only makes sense within its own context.
Our obsession with film leads us to believe that life works a certain way, and yet our reality continually reminds us otherwise. That tension weaves its way into this play, dipping into the lives of these phenomenally unhappy people and framing their denial in celluloid and sadness. Avery specifically is a fascinating mess of a person, so eager to define his life by the movies he likes, rather than the events that are actually shaping it. As Avery says, when Rose tries to touch him sexually, ” I always just think, I’d rather be watching a movie”. The fact that Avery doesn’t see how pathetic and sad this is, only highlights to the audience the impact of this statement. There is a way in which to be in love with movies is to be ignorant of the world, and this is unique in the way that no other medium denies reality so deeply. But if you had a life like Avery’s, so filled with unavoidable unacceptable realities, you too might wish to disappear into a Quintin Tarantino film.
However, this is not how the world works, is it. And those who chose real life over movies know this, we know that “sometimes the people you fall in love with fall in love with you back.Sometimes they don’t. But sometimes they do. And it’s awesome”. And all the movies in the world wont stop your parents from letting you down, or you friends from betraying you, or the world from hurting you. And rewarding you, and giving you wonderful things, real things, things that have nothing to do with a projector, digital or otherwise. The fact that Baker can say all of this without saying any of it, that her play can settle slowly upon its audience with gorgeous depth and deftness, that every moment of it can feel essential and important and also, somehow, truly real, makes this piece so magnificent, and so very real. And while some would argue otherwise, what is theater for, if not the most real of real things? If you want fake, go to a movie.
“Not many people survive the wilderness twice”, says the Devil, a smirk on his face. And he’s not wrong, neither. It takes a survivor to take on the wild, the wild without, and the wild within. But what are fairy tales about if not an explanation of our impulses, our fears and our desires, in a way that makes them both acceptable and a cautionary tale for young people? Beware of the world, these stories say, it will swallow you whole, it will take all that is pure and good in you and feed it to the Devil, for lunch. Stay on the right path, don’t trust the wolves of the world, the strangers in the crossroads, the people who offer you anything too good to be true. It probably is.
And yet, in Kneehigh Theatre’s astounding and exuberant production of The Wild Bride, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, that is exactly what one foolish father does. Poor and stupid, drunk off homemade moonshine and childish optimism, a gloriously oblivious single father, played magnificently by Stuart Goodwin, who, in a charmingly Elektra-themed turn, also plays the Prince, makes a deal with a charming stranger (Andrew Durand), selling him the contents of his backyard in exchange for wealth and success. But when this devilish rouge informed the man that he has accidentally thrown the baby out with the bath water, the man understands that he has sold his young daughter (the lithe and luscious voiced Audrey Brisson), to the devil, for a new suit. But because the girl is too sweet and pure, the devil finds himself unable to touch his new prize, and no amount of mud or dirt smeared over her body can soil her soul. As she cries her sacred tears over her hands, washing away the mud and filth, her purity makes her hands glow, so of course the devil orders her father to cut those hands off, like you do. (At this point it might be helpful to note that this is a Hungarian folk tale, which makes sense, after all, that’s life in the Balkans).
And so, handless, hopeless, sold to the devil and betrayed by her father, the girl (played later by Patrycia Kujawska and Etta Murfitt)leaves her home and the only family she knows, finding safely in the wild. Of course there is a prince, a marriage, a war, a baby, a horrible misunderstanding, seven additional years in exile,the re-growth of her hands, and a final reuniting of lost loves and lost children that makes all the hardship worthwhile. It’s a fairy-tale, what do you expect? We don’t watch these stories for the twist ending, we watch them to understand how happiness can be achieved after misery and suffering. These stories teach us how to live, if you are good and pure and faithful to yourself, if you can move past the trauma of your childhood and go on living, you will heal, you will succeed, you will be rewarded. It’s a simple enough message, but it’s one that is oft-repeated through this story. As director/adapter Emma Rice quotes from the show in her program note, “Now I know why no one notices a tree as it grows/ Because their deep roots creep down oh so slow/ And their clever branches quickly learn/ To blossom only when your back is turned”.
The story itself, originally called The Handless Maiden, is in many ways a metaphor for the process of becoming an adult. Certainly in its original form it was probably a metaphor for marriage, that is, a man gives his daughter away to another man and knows not his true nature. The greatest fear for many fathers for their daughters is that they marry a man who turns out to be a devil. But it’s also a feminist tale, one of a woman who escapes her unhappy life and the men who make bad choices for her, and finds her own destiny in the face of hardship. Moreover, it’s a human story; this is the process of life, you leave the home of your parents, you feel yourself cast adrift somewhere in the wilds of the world, you are bruised and battered by the very act of existing and trying to lead a virtuous life, and yet if you preserver you can, perhaps, if you are lucky and good, survive, and thrive, even in the face of abuse and pain. You can go on, even without your hands. Who knows? Maybe you will get them back someday.
Set to rollicking bluegrass tunes composed by Stu Barker with lyrics by Carl Grouse (who also wrote the text of the entire piece, which is fantastic, just spare enough to be mysterious, hilarious, sly, clever and sweet), and played by two musicians, Ian Ross and Damon Daunno. With amazing vocals by the entire cast, but specifically Brisson, whose pipes were clearly crafted for bluegrass soul, the music carries the piece along, setting it to a toe-tapping beat and letting it buzz. With gorgeous and inventive puppetry by Sarah Wright and a playground of a set created by Bill Mitchell, the piece has vaguely depression- era tones, and though Kneehigh is a British company, they’ve chosen to place this Eastern European tale in the context of the American South, which, somehow, really works. One part dust bowl, one part fairy tale, Myriddin Wannell’s costume design and Malcom Rippeth’s sound disconnects the audience from historical accuracy, and allows it to exist somewhere beyond the world of real time and space. Sparking with dance and fluid movement (choreography by Murfitt), this piece is inherently theatrical, involving its audience in the wonder and splendor of the story while dazzling them with the way it’s told.
It would be, I think, impossible to leave this production without feeling elated. The sense of joy and love inherent in this piece, the adoration the performers, who are all universally excellent, from the devil to the boys in the band, but especially the irrepressible Goodwin, bring to the work; it’s almost palpable, it’s so evident. This is a story that can only be told in a theater. And that is a rare and precious and gorgeous thing. Set to a bluegrass tune, with a Hungarian flare and a Southern-fried flavor. How could anyone refuse such a thing? Fusion is so in.
American theater of the 1940’s and 1950’s is not for the faint of heart. It’s just so genuine, so earnest in its emotional bluntness that it makes you almost embarrassed for it, like a dear relative who gets drunk at a family event and starts sobbing all over everyone and telling them how lovely they were as children. From the Puritanical restraint of the past burst forth a theater that insisted on discussing things, uncovering secrets, dealing opening and honestly with feelings, especially in the face of post-war return-to-normalcy-everything-is-fine-now America. These plays, these writers, were necessary, significant and vital to our communal understanding of the emotional journey of American theater. But the reality is, we are so inundated with these writers, so desperately proud of our mild and minimal contribution to global theater, that we idolize them to the point of deification, without actually evaluating what about these plays is continually relevant or useful to us.
Of course we all know these names, Miller, Williams, O’Neill, a club of white men with axes to grind against their fathers and odd notions of motherhood and femininity. These men have defined our standards for Realism in American theater, in fact, they have dictated the majority of the so-called rules of American theater for the last half a century. So what does a company curious about these conventions but also desperate to deconstruct them do? Do they create a fascinating piece of theater based on but not bound by these story tropes and characters? Well, maybe not all of them, but certainly that seems to have been Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble’s solution.
With Set in the Living Room of an American Play, this company, headed by artistic director John Kurzynowski, seeks to excavate the tropes and tribulations that recur in so many realistic dramas of 40’s American stagecraft, and rearrange these fractured ideas and identities into a new piece of theater. When the company was denied the rights to an unnamed play from this period, Kurzynowski and the company decided that the solution to this inexplicable rejection was to make their own brand new vintage work. With resident playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, members of the company and invited actors have created a rumination on the act of making theater, the act of making this kind of the theater, and the way this form both invites us into its home and alienates us as modern audience members.
Dancing around the many threads and through lines of the existing stories, the failed salesman, the business partners lying to each other, the football hero brother who has burnt out and seems to be fading away, the next door neighbors, the adulterous husband, the drunk wife, the neglected younger sister, the Italian immigrants threatening good old American values, this living room is filled to bursting with characters and caricatures. One would say it’s a kind of cocktail, but they didn’t become popular until the following decade. This is a piece that unpacks that desperate post-war anxiety that pervades all of the original source material, the concern about the second world war and the way the trauma of that event had fundamentally destroyed that sense of suburban safety, no matter how much society tried to pretend otherwise. And so on one hand you have the older generation, represented by the central parent characters, Marla (Anastasia Olowin) and Frank Lorimer (Nick Fesette), and their peers, Frank’s business partner Bernard Marshall (Harlan Alford) and their Catholic neighbor Florence del Franzia (Backhaus in a hilariously ominously melodramatic turn), each one consumed with concern and regret about their past choices. Then there are the bright young things, the Lorimer children Penny (Lauren Swan-Potras) and Patrick (Michael Barringer), the Gershwin kids (no relation) Ned (Nick Lehane) and Dotty (Sydney Matthews), Emily Vicks (Emily Marro), Patrick’s former sweetheart, and Florence’s nephew, Carlo (Patrick Scheid), all of whom express concern for the future and exhibit the growing pains of this liminal time in their lives. Rounding things out are the requisite outsider radicals, the college classmate of Patrick’s, Ollie O’Shannon (Andrew Butler) and Marla’s spitfire Aunt, Edna (Tina Shepard).
So there you have all the elements of an old-school American drama. Middle class morality? Check. Fathers and sons in conflict? Check. Elicit love affair and possible pregnancy, or to put it more authentically, a young girl “in trouble”? Check. Money issues? Check. A young woman besotted with a foreign stranger? Check (and as a side note, one does grow nostalgic for the days when an Italian immigrant was enough to add diversity to a play). But as familiar as all these elements are, placed together in a black box theater and played almost casually by the large and talented cast, they take on a more troubling aspect, peering into the aching anxiety at the heart of these plays and our current concern and dislocation from these dramas. Beginning in the format of a table reading, the actors take up their places next to sound designer Kate Marvin, who operates her delicate and evocative design from behind a macbook, and stage manager Nick Smerkanich, who reads all of the stage directions from his binder. Jonathan Cottle’s set is a simple one which accumulates a sofa, a rug and a chair over the course of the play, and Some actors drift around, sitting in the front row of the audience, while others sip their water and giggle over the out-fashioned names from their places at the table. Lehane tensely paces, correcting Fesette and acting as a sort of reading director, while everyone turns to Backhaus when she cuts a line.
It’s a rehearsal, a ghost of a performance for a ghostly play. But as the actors read they start to stand, half in and half out of this deliberately overwrought story, going through the motions, entering it here, mocking it there, a real-life metaphor illustrating how we now view plays like A View From The Bridge and All My Sons, with equal parts reverence, confusion and disdain. The dangers of the story are muted by the carefully crafted distance Kurynowski has created in this performance, and Backhaus’ text marries with the direction to give the audience a story that is gorgeously complex and deftly told. The actors move through the story like spectators themselves, moving somewhere in the land between stock characters and real people. In playing with the rituals of this fictive world, the things that are always done and the things that are just “not done”, and pointing out how absurd these habits look to our modern eyes, this piece is its most successful when it is its most consciously theatrical. When an actor can’t or refuses to do something described in a stage direction, for example, when Marro tries and fails to cry onstage, or when someone uses the actor’s name instead of the character’s name, these moments cut across the intentional schmaltz of Backhaus’ writing to unify the characters and the actors, to show us a world in which real people can relate to imaginary stock roles.
Though at times confusing, at times just a hair too long and passing from profound silence into static air, this piece is, nevertheless, a sharp, complex, funny and surprisingly profound look at theater, realism, and how we approach and communicate with these plays in 2013. As a writer Backhaus is witty and wise, and as an actress she is macabrely comic and neatly timed. With lines like “Emily was misunderstood in her circumstances” and “We are such a good family when we’re good”, she walks the line between satire and homage while paying tribute to both. In an over-all talented young cast, Fesette and Barringer are both excellent as a mutually disillusioned pair each furious and saddened by the death of their respective images of each other. Olowin’s Marla is fantastic, affected and physically fluttering but with an emotional center that is clear in the final tranquil moments of the piece. Matthews’ consistently campy Dotty is hilarious and a nice complement to Swan-Potras’ sweetly fawning Dotty. And in his role as Ned Gershwin Lehane is stellar, though it is less clear why he spends so much time onstage observing and not a part of the action.
At the top of the show a line strikes the cast as a bit odd, and they interrupt the reading to ask if the cost of a cab in the 40’s can be googled. In that moment lies the heart of this piece, that in confronting the source material, the real plays of that period, we are disconnected from it in the most practical of ways, and while we might relate to the emotional heart of a play like Moon for the Misbegotten, it’s world is lost to us. It’s like looking at an old photograph, our eyes go straight to the person, disregarding their unfamiliar clothing and outdated settings, trying to connect with the one thing we can be sure of, that no matter what living room they grew up in, they were a human, just like us. These characters, so familiar to us and also so fragmented, so far away from the circumstances of our own lives, so dislocated from the way we are now, something about them still fascinates us, still reaches through time to capture our interest. Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble is to be thanked for trying to figure out why.
Set in the Living Room of a Small Town American Play runs until the 9th of March. Tickets can be found here.
Posted in New York, Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble | Tags: Anastasia Olowin, Andrew Bulter, Arthur Miller, Emily Marro, Eugene O'Neill, Harlan Alford, Jaclyn Backhaus, John Kurynowski, Jonathan Cottle, Kate Marvin, Lauren Swan-Potras, Michael Barringer, NIck Fesette, NIck Lehane, Patrick Scheid, Sydney Matthews, Tennesse Williams, Tina Shepard
In the darkest recesses of our souls lie monsters. They are frightening not because then are from without, but because they come from within. They live in us, they feed off our fear, our hatred and our worst desires, they sip deep from bitter cups of our most wretched selves. And the scariest part of all? We don’t know what these monsters look like, until we see them. Often we only see them reflected in the eyes of other people.
Back to Back Theatre is a company made entirely of outsiders, people with perceived disabilities, people who aren’t like the rest of us. Their outlier stories are, in their own words, the tales of “a group of people who, in a culture obsessed with perfection and surgically enhanced ‘beauty’, are the real outsiders” (Source) In their piece, Food Court, recently presented at the Live Arts/Fringe Festival, six company members/devisors (Mark Deans, Bruce Gladwin, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price, directed by Bruce Gladwin) and five performers (Deans, Holland, Mainwaring, Price and Sonia Teuben) tell a very simple story, and the term simple is used in the Aristotelian sense of a “simple plot”.
Aristotle, in his contribution to/noose around the neck of theater, described complex and simple plots. Complex plots are ones that involve rising action, reversal, revelation and climax. Simple plots are ones in which nothing every changes, it just becomes more and more intense. As humans we tend to prefer the complex to the simple, as the illusion of problems solved and secrets revealed is somehow comforting and exciting to us at the same time. But simple plots, in their bewildering sameness and deafening eventual intensity, can hold the power to surprise us by how deeply we react to them.
Food Court begins, as one might guess, in a food court, probably of a mall (where else have you ever seen a food court). Already the stage is set as a public space, one soaked with the commodification of social interaction in its most blatant and mundane form. Two women in gold leotards and tights enter from behind the curtains, giving us their front and side views like convicts or dogs at a show. The women sit on two chairs, and survey a third woman from across the stage. They begin to comment on her, her appearance, how grotesquely fat she is, wondering why she doesn’t talk. Their commentary is amplified by a microphone being helpfully stuck underneath their faces. Unresponsive, the third woman simply remains in her seat. The two commentators cross to the seated silent woman and confront her directly, with the same ugly words as before. She continues to be unresponsive. The world of the play fades then, from plastic tables and canned smells, to a forest (set by Gladwin and Mark Cuthbertson). Our tortured silent figure is, from behind a sight-blurring plastic sheet, tortured by her tormentors, who grow in number, and force her to strip and submit to a severe beating. More and more spectators gather to watch her pain, and then she is left, trembling on the ground. Because of the plastic sheet which completely curtains the action, this is all seen from a featureless distance, and as we watch the systematic destruction of this abused figure, we thank God for it.
Finally, when the stage is bare but for the woman, she restores her clothing and stands, walking up to the edge of the curtain and, from behind the plastic, giving the speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, declaimed by that most pitiful of outsiders, Caliban:
I should preface this by saying that unlike many Americans, I actually have read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I don’t say that to be arrogant, or impress you with my widespread knowledge. I simply say that because I know that most of us don’t read this book, it’s not exactly a part of our current collective consciousness. I read this book as a part of a program I did as a 16 year old and it has stayed with me ever since. Not because it was so revolutionary and significant to me, though I have never forgotten the advice to “live deliberately” (which…you can get from the very first line, so you don’t really need to go further if you don’t have a lot of time…), but because it was at both so sincere and so pretentious that it struck me as rather amazing. I remember distinctly that there is a passage where he, Thoreau, has been a wandering as he is wont to do, and discovers a pine tree, in bloom! Which is amazing. Because pine trees don’t bloom. They don’t have blossoms. That’s just science.
But never mind the facts, Walden is in many ways an inspirational handbook for living outside the oppression and dictates of polite society. And it was, at one point, a very influential book for Toshiki Okada, a Japanese artist who is one in a long line of collaborators to create a piece, Zero Cost House, with Philadelphia’s own Pig Iron Theatre Company. But for a company with such a strong performance history, it’s amazing how malleable Pig Iron can be. This collaboration is more Okada, one assumes, then Pig Iron, it’s a wordy yet quiet behemoth awash with pauses, direct audience address and lengthy self-contemplation. Which can be useful for an artist, but isn’t always fascinating for its audience.
The seeds of this story are affecting, interesting and true. As an adult, Okada, who is played by a variety of actors over the course of the show and who wrote this play, considers his younger self, first inhabited by Shavon Norris, a shlubby kid in a nothing job that gives him just enough money to eat and sleep. And yet he’s happy, and he’s obsessed with Walden. 15 years later he finds that this book, which he read and re-read as a bright young thing, is no longer so relevant to him, in fact, quite a bit of it rings false to him, or self-indulgent, or just irrelevant. What happened between then and now to defeat this powerful influence in his life? Okada doesn’t consider this in a literal sense, but ponders it in an abstract way, considering elements of the book itself (inhabited at certain points by Mary McCool and James Sugg as rabbit-people, I don’t know, maybe it makes sense in Japanese), the reved-up rambling sermons of fellow artist Kyohei Sakaguchi (played with Mick Jagger like abandon and manic funny energy) and the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
In theory this piece is a meditation on the things that mark our lives, the sense of loss we feel when they become unimportant to us as time goes by, and the shock of recognition but also alienation when a new circumstance in our lives makes us confront those things again, in new and startling ways.The tragedy of this lies in the circumstance of the renewed acquaintance, i.e. Okada returns to Walden, fleeing Tokyo itself, because he has been forced to, or because he feels that Tokyo is no longer a viable option and so perhaps Thoreau was right all along. How frustrating it is to grow out of something, a philosophy or a pair of shoes, and then turn back to it and find it fits you once again. Are we cyclical?
Certainly this play is. Which isn’t a bad things, necessarily, as it’s wandering content dictates its meandering form. And the content itself, at its roots, is a fascinating one. With Alex Torra and Dito Van Reigersberg (who is, on a personal level, my favorite Okada impersonator; Van Reigersberg is so warm and trustworthy that even when we don’t know what’s happening we lean forward to listen to him) rounding out the cast, the actors are all able and willing to discharging this rumination on youth and experience, change and influence, loss of manifesto and regaining of manifesto. But the snail’s pace at which it progresses, along with Okada’s plodding and self-aggrandizing prose, gives us a long conversation with no sense of an ending and no real event. Because the nature of the story is one of remembering rather than real-time, we are automatically distanced from the work by time and space, layering the remove of the form upon the remove of the content upon the remove of the convention of theater itself. That’s too many steps. Because we feel so far away from this piece we don’t desire a connection with it, even though avenues of connection exist. There are many ways we could enter this work, but it’s nature is such that we observe it, briefly, from a distance, before moving on to other pursuits. Much like Okada himself, as it happens.
Mimi Lien’s set design is as functional and effective as a Muji Story, efficient and compact without extraneous elements or any real character. Coupled with Kimitha Cashin’s props and Peter West’s lighting design, and Katie Down’s minimal sound, the air is one of restraint and elegance, it’s a modern and useful structure, much like the “zero cost house” that serves as this plays title and an important moment in Sakaguchi’s life. And Dan Rothenberg’s direction, well, it might as well be non-existent for all we feel his influence on this project.
It’s so dominated by another consciousness, another goal and another sensibility that its almost devoid of physical action. Playwrights are, by their nature, controlling. They create the world of the play, everyone else just tries to find a way to live in it. But when that control is destructive, well, it’s a train off it’s rails. And as slow-moving as this particular train is, it’s still going, still moving, still plugging along at its weak goals.
Zero Cost House has ceased it’s run in Philadelphia, but it will be running in New York in January.
It’s clear that women just can’t really be funny. Despite the generations of female comedians, comic actresses, wry authoresses and just and social indications that women can both tell and understand jokes, it’s clear that women can’t be funny. Despite the recent extreme popularity of female writers/performers like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig, to name four among thousands, it’s clear women can’t be funny. Or if they CAN by some aberration, they sure as hell can’t be attractive doing so. I mean, that’s just crazy talk, right?
But if women could be funny, and sexy, or funny and talking about sex, or sexy and talking about being funny, what would be the appropriate forum to explore that? A courtroom? A classroom? A sex show? Well, what would be the most fun? Because its girls and laughs and sex all in a room together, someone should be having fun. And Charlotte Ford, along with Lee Etzold and Sarah Sanford, must be having fun. At least, I hope they’re having fun, because they bring the audience so much fun that it would be a shame if it was one-sided. (That’s what she said).
In Bang, conceived by Ford, co-created by Etzold and Sanford and directed by Emmanuelle Delpech, three women, Gail, Barb and Cheyenne, find themselves alone, together, in a half circle of long red curtains, standing in front of an audience who eagerly anticipates a performance. Of what, the women ask, one indignant, two eager to please? A sex show, of course! While Gail is ready to explode, Flustered Barb and hippie-dippy Cheyenne are intrigued and excited, ready to give us a show, or what they think a sex show ought to be. What it actually turns out to be is a hilarious side-splitting series of moments and comedic, well, vignettes isn’t the right word, but neither is scenes, really. Moments, perhaps, or miniature events, or maybe just a series of individual comedy shows, each circling back to the same subject, and that is, sex can be funny. Women can be funny. Both SHOULD be funny, and fun. And owning that, as a woman, is the best thing you can do to MAKE those things fun. Oh, and sometimes, it just makes sense to get naked.
Each woman has her own persona, and her own goals on the stage. Sanford’s is repressed, buttoned up, intellectualized to the extreme. She wears her clothing like an armor, until a fit of anger strips her down to her turtleneck (and nothing else) daring us to sexualize her. Her task will be one of liberation. Etzold’s is eager to please but rather unbalanced, happy to dance and show off her booty but unsure how to really please a man. Her task will be one of confidence. And Ford’s fairy-child-earth-mother-sandlewood scented nymph is, well, she’s all in, she dares men to just come up on stage and fuck her. And it is she who leads her compatriots through the wilds of insecurity and modesty, and through to a marvelous nude walk through the streets of Philadelphia and into our hearts and minds. All three of these performers are magnificent, there is no other word for it. Their performances are all different, but their skill, adeptness and willingness to go further than anyone expects is simply admirable.
This is, quite simply, one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a long time. It uses the audience brilliantly and simply, involving us both literally, drawing men out and forcing them into uncomfortable situations in a warm and welcoming way, and figuratively, forcing us to consider our expectations in the theater, and our expectations and guilt at enjoying a sex show. And it also forces us to think about the voyeuristic experience, how most sex shows are only enjoyable for the largely male audience who witnesses them, certainly not for the performers who writhe and dance for dollars. As Ford says, “Self care is the Sex Show”. Why shouldn’t everyone enjoy themselves talking about and laughing about sex? Of course, Ford, Etzold and Sanford could be having a horrible time up there, coaxing guffaws out of everyone in the room, but I hope that’s not the case. Because I don’t like to receive without giving.
The design is excellent as well. Katherine Fritz’s costumes are spot on, describing and illustrating these people so completely and with such accurate detail that they give us an instant understanding of these people before they speak a word. Dan Soule’s set is minimal but well created, and Oona Curley’s lights marry with Dan Perelstein’s excellent sound work to create an excellent stage upon which these three ladies can get freaky.
Comedy can be theater’s most powerful critical weapon. So why have women been excluded from its creation for so long? To be fair, women have been excluded from all artistic expression for centuries, but somewhere along the way someone decided that it’s unattractive for a woman to have a sense of humor. Women are some of the funniest people I know. We go through immense pain bringing new people into the world and then, afterwards, somehow we can smile, we can laugh, we can even make fun of ourselves during the experience. We can detach. And comedy is all about distance. So do we laugh at Bang because it’s so far from sex, or because it’s so close? I couldn’t tell you, honestly. I just know that it’s gloriously funny without ever making light of female sexuality, it’s liberating on some level, for the audience, certainly and hopefully for the performers as well.
Bang has ended its short run at the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival, but I sincerely hope it is performed again. It’s just too much fun not to live on. I do hope they don’t make us beg….
Since the first time the first person heard the myth of Orpheus, music and mythology have been eternally intertwined. I couldn’t tell you how, or why, but music is an art that goes beyond logic and straight to the gut, and we treat its heroes and stars like gods, because how else would you treat people who introduce us to accension? Who take us to the heavens and dare us to touch the stars? Who infiltrate our hearts and minds and give them a beat? We are never so aware of our own heartbeat as we are when we feel it moving along to music. And so it’s no wonder that we deify our greatest musicians, especially those who die young, running hot in a blaze of glory. We mourn the music they will never make, and we celebrate what they were able to create within their lives. They died young with a bang, and they never had to fade away. Their ends are tragic, sure, but aren’t they also a relief? We never had to see our heroes fail, our gods fall from grace, they live on in eternal perfection forever, the titans who never suffer.
The 27 club is a rather fanciful concept that someway, somehow, all the musicians who died at the tender age of 27, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and many other lesser known folks, are all in heaven, or purgatory or limbo, all together, hanging out, making music, and being phenomenal. It’s a lovely fantasy. It’s a desperately romantic image. And it’s the subject matter of New Paradise Laboratories latest creation, 27, conceived, created and directed by Whit MacLaughlin.
In this abstracted kaleidoscopic rumination on the subject of remarkable people and death, the lights slowly rise on an afterlife of musicians long past rigor mortis. Stiff and lethargic, they linger with unseeing eyes, stiff and static and tied to their physical locations, periodically doused with bursts of fog. Their movements are scored by guitar riffs and chords, courtesy of composer and performer Alec MacLaughlin, which comes as a relief, because the action on stage is so incomprehensible to the audience and so clear to the performers that the music is the only thing that invites us into this work. Cobain (Matteo Scammell) seems to active the movement sequence, with repeats several times, and Winehouse (Julia Frey), Hendrix (or is he Morrison?) (Kevin Meehan) and Joplin (Allison Caw) jerk and twist, chasing each other and collapsing, then resetting and starting it again. This is interspersed with brief moments of text from each actor, a drunk Winehouse sobbing, a charismatic Joplin preaching her gospel, a dry and wry Cobain too cool for cool, each one a relief in the sea of so much incomprehension and visual sensation.
Having established what’s going on in this space, the event of the story is then, finally, possible, and so into this wild world of wunderkinds is tossed a normal person, a scared young woman who clearly has just died, Riley (Emilie Krause). Riley is unremarkable, except under these circumstances, where she is the only non-rock-god in the room. And while the motley crew is at first thrilled to welcome anyone artist into the mix, it becomes abundantly clear to everyone that Riley doesn’t belong here. So after they steal her underwear and make her eat inedible food, they send her on her merry way into the great beyond. And then they go back to, well, doing what it is they do in that room at the end of the universe, dancing to the music and reliving their glory. But not before Krause has the chance to shoot around the stage like a bullet and deliver a heartbreakingly sweet monologue explaining how she lived and how she died. Somehow it’s the only true thing said in a room full of imitation.
And that’s the show. No tension, no conflict, minimal event, just the passage of time after death, a small incident measured up against the eternity of the afterlife. The before is just the same as the after. Which of course is something we know well in modern drama, we have grown accustomed to stories in which nothing changes, and knowing, as the audience, that we are changed by this lack of change. But when that fails to happen, then we realize we have been excluded completely from the work. And while this piece works to give us windows into its world, it doesn’t actually allow us to enter, to be a part of the experience, and despite the cast’s fantastic physical work and comprehensive design, with sets by Matt Saunders, excellent and innovative lighting by Thom Weaver and solid costumes by Tara Webb, we find ourselves lost in crowd of sensations with no tools with which to evaluate them.
An issue devised work often faces is that it is so clear to its performers and often completely incomprehensible to its audience. Because of its long maturation process and intensive development, it can exclude its audience who haven’t been working with this company in the rehearsal room, and don’t know any of the rules. So if you don’t give your audience any rules, any road maps to follow or framing devices to grant perspective, well, you do them a disservice. You rob them of the opportunity for comprehension in an art form where clarity is half the battle. It is clear that the group of performers on this stage fully inhabit this world, they know it well, they get its laws, they understand it’s geography. And Krause, Caw and Scammell somehow find ways to attempt to bring the audience into this world, Krause having the easiest task because we are her character, the outsider looking in, the normal person in a room of stars. But so much of this piece feels as if the audience is inconsequential. And none of us want to feel inconsequential, even if we aren’t demi-gods of rock and roll.
MacLaughlin’s vision of the 27 club is an interesting one, however. Instead of a happy world of love and drugs and music, he’s given us an after-after-after party, with drooping decorations and stale air, and we see these troubled stars as what they must have been, sad and lonely people doomed to repeat their own patterns. It’s more of a true vision of what a real 27 Club would be, it’s troubling but it’s also eminently logical. As the story comes to a close, just where it started, we are relieved for Riley, sent off into an unknown afterlife. After all, anything has to be better than staying there.
If American Literature was a high school, and who are we to say it isn’t, Edgar Allen Poe would have been deemed “mostly unlikely to succeed” by his graduating class. In a generation of great American writers who were, on a very real level, defining what a literary understanding of United States would be, both to itself and the world, literally creating a written legacy that would define this nation through to the modern age, Poe was writing creepy stories about depressed and troubled people who, by and large, met horrible ends. Oh, yeah, and there’s that whole thing about the bird. A magpie, was it? A crow? Who can ever remember such things….
But Poe, for all of his depressive tendencies, addictions and macabre leanings, intrigues us, because, of course, he was so deeply troubled that we are fascinating to know what was going on in the head of the man who envisioned a heart beating beneath floorboards and a bird speaking English. And more mysterious than his life, which is fairly well documented, all things considered, is his death. Poe died alone, but don’t we all, and in 1849 before his death he was found, suffering from a host of diseases including rabies, on a bench in Baltimore, wearing someone else’s clothing, miles away from New York, the city he was supposed to be traveling towards at the end of a long lecture tour. No one knows why, no one knows how, but Poe died in a hospital in Baltimore a handful of days later, unnoticed and unsung. What was he thinking, in the last days of his life? What did he think at all, this troubled and troubling person, who lived in conflict and died in ignominy? What would the mind of this man look like, really, in its twisted and treacherous corners and impulses? And it you were to tell its stories, how would you do that, what would you say? Would it involve a gently deranged park ranger with the voice of an opera singer, a lithe dancer with a Cheshire Cat smile and a skinny depressive with a Hitler Mustache? Well, for Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, you’re damn right it would.
Beginning with a fire-speech from a sublimely hapless and happy Park Ranger (after all, we do have an Edgar Allen Poe house in Philadelphia, aren’t we lucky?) we are told the facts that are most important about our friend Eddie, i.e., he married his cousin when she was 13 (in his defense, he was raised in Virginia, so he probably felt that action was a normal one) and they lived with his aunt/mother-in-law who he affectionately called “muddy”. Virgina Poe died at the age of 23 from consumption, a disease we have now cured completely, thus robbing the world of romance, but most Poe scholars (and people who like to read) agree that Virginia haunted Poe’s life and work, driving him to drink heavily (not that he needed to be driven) and write frail but haunting female figures. All this our helpful guide (David Wilhelm) cheerfully informs us, before stepping back and letting us watch Poe (Ean Sheeny) wrestle with himself, his dead wife (Sophie Bortolussi) and his piano player (Jeremy Wilhelm) who plays him into eternity with stunning skill.
And so we witness Poe’s last great lecture tour, in fact, his last anything, the final days of E. A. Poe. Sheeny’s Poe is frail, thin to the point of skeletal, and feverish, constantly alert, and completely a mess. As well, frankly, he should be. His wide eyes and constant frown give us a Poe who is wry, sad, sick of his most popular poem (The Raven, of course, for which he was paid 9 dollars because honestly art is many things but profit isn’t among them), and exhausted, all the time. Arrogant and dictatorial, yes, but mostly weary, of his ever-present suitcase, of his greasy black suit, of lectures and venues and the constant ghosts of his past.
And so the show takes its lead from Poe in structure; its depicting the mind of a madman and so it is mad, disjointed and wild, feverish and frantic, because its giving it’s audience an insight into the world of its protagonist (or antagonist, can Poe ever really be a hero?) and it must take on the characteristics of the source material. In some ways this is confusing, disorienting and overwhelming, but ultimately it’s mesmerizing, luscious and saturated with detail and soaked with the scenic elements that characterize all of Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental’s work, shrinking the enormous Suzanne Roberts Theater stage into a dark, cramped, claustrophobic space littered with hallways and train cars and little places. Of course it’s inherently clever, we would expect no less from Thaddeus Phillips, who both directed and designed the production, and it’s incredibly efficient; each element is used until its logical end. Sheeny is wonderful, both Wilhelms are magnificent, but there is something so sublime about a cheerful and helpful national park guide preaching to an audience about this horribly troubled human being; it’s fantastic. And Borolussi is a wonderful Virginia, childlike, as of course she must have been, and filled with devious mischief which is both adorable and scary. She climbs up and down Sheeny’s body, as a spider on a tree limb, sometimes as awkward as a reanimated corpse would be, and sometimes as graceful as a swan.
Elegant and beautiful as it is, it is also a bit too long, which sadly diffuses the impact of the story and robs the players of the full praise they are due. On one level its a thrill to learn this much and travel this deeply into the mind of the first American writer to make his mark on the genre of science fiction and horror. On another level, it does lose it’s audience somewhere in the middle, and no amount of smiling park rangers and glorious choreography (also Bortolussi) can make that up for us. And despite the excellent lighting by Drew Billeiau and the fantastic costumes by Rosemary McKelevy, it can’t quite pull us back, despite the stunning ending and it’s slurred and stupefying explanation of Poe’s last work, Eureka.
It this show moved just a bit quicker it would be unparalleled. As it is, it’s good, great, even, but it’s length diffuses it’s impact. Once could make an argument that that time allows the actors to settle into their relationships, building a world that ten finally immerses us in its sad and scary wonder, but the truth is, we would understand this world sooner and more easier without all the white noise. There is a tendency, when representing madness, to draw out the process, as if madness is so foreign to us that we wont understand what it looks like at first glimpse. But we are all more troubled than any of us would care to admit. And we know madness more than anyone would ever guess. We don’t need the easy coaxing. We can do horrific all on our own.
- 11th Hour Theater Company
- Act II Playhouse
- Adrienne Theater
- Arden Theater
- Arden Theatre Company
- Azuka Theatre
- Back to Back Theatre
- Blindspot 2011
- Brat Productions
- Brian Sanders' JUNK
- Center City Theatre Works
- Charlotte Ford
- Flashpoint Theatre Company
- Found Theater Company
- Fresh Ground Pepper
- Friends Central School
- Groundswell Players
- Inis Nua
- Interact Theatre Compay
- Irish Theater Festival 2011
- Keila Cordova Dances
- Lantern Theater Company
- Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental
- Makoto Hirano/OMNiBUS
- Maukingbird Theatre Company
- MCC Theater
- Moving Parts
- New City Stage Company
- New Paradise Laboratories
- New Works
- New York
- New York Classical Theatre
- Nichole Canuso Dance Company
- Nicole Canuso Dance Company
- No Face Performance Group
- Pennsylvania Ballet Company
- People's Light and Theatre Company
- Performance Garage
- Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival
- Philadelphia Theater Company
- Pig Iron
- PIMA Group
- Playwrights Horizons
- Renegade Classic Theatre
- Shakespeare in Clark Park
- Simpatico Theatre Project
- Solo Show
- St. Ann's Warehouse
- Team Sunshine Performance Corportation
- Temple Repertory Theater
- Temple Theater
- The Academy of Music
- The Groundswell Players
- The Maas Building
- The Mural and The Mint
- The Riot Group
- The Well Theater Group
- Theatre Exile
- Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble
- Underground Arts
- Wilma Theater