The Theatergoer

Personal Theatrical Musings on Performances

Monday, February 7, 2011

"The Big Meal" at American Theater Company on 2/7/11 in Chicago, IL

In "The Big Meal," a new play by Dan LeFranc receiving its world premier at the very exuberant American Theater Company, a father tells his daughter who is about to get married that "you will encounter storms and hail but eventually it will pass." The play bills itself as 75 scenes about a family in 75 minutes, fragmented in a way that reflects fragmented life in a contemporary society. I don't know about that: there are a lot of scenes indeed and there is tension in the family but the play itself is linear and the family is no more fragmented than any of the memorable families in American theater. Instead, it's about a couple, tracking them from the moment they meet in their youth to the end of their lives. The play follows their life together, through storms, through hail, but that all passes.

At first, the scenes are short and move quickly, requiring intensive acting if it's going to inspire pathos. Peggy Roeder, who plays the mother-in-law of the woman at the center of the story and then the woman herself, is fantastic. She has the acting chops to pull that off. As the play develops, scenes lengthen, which seems necessary to create the depth the play needs as it shifts from comedy to drama. Phillip Earl Johnson plays partner to Peggy Roeder and his performance is centered and varied.

On opening night the acting wasn't even but it was often excellent. The best acting was spotlighted during moments when death is announced. The play is centered around meals at the dinner table(s), as the title suggests, and the drinking takes place out of empty glasses but the arrival of real food means death for the character who gets to eat the actual meal. These moments are the most beautiful in the play. As the final meal is served, it is served to the husband and Peggy Roeder's repetition of "Sam. Sam. Sam." signals that despite the storms and hail that we've witnessed in their marriage, at the end of the marriage they had weathered the storm.

Friday, January 21, 2011

"Brief Encounter" by Kneehigh Theatre at Studio 54

"Brief Encounter" is one of the most magical theatrical experiences I've ever had. By the British company that did "A Matter of Life and Death," another magical theatrical experience, "Brief Encounter" is a play with live music on stage and film incorporated in the scenery. Based on the film by Noel Coward, it's the story of a married woman and married man (a doctor) who fall in love but know that they cannot be together because of their families. The film was produced in 1945 and the play attempts to recreate the beauty of the black and white cinematography.

The wife is married to a man who trusts her completely but their marriage is one of politeness. Politeness is a very contained thing but when she falls for the doctor she describes their love as a violent thing. Still, she is committed to her family: her husband and two children. When sneaking around leads to nothing but pain and embarassment, the doctors realizes that they must end the relationship. He tells her that it will be the end of their spending time together but not the end of their loving each other. For Coward, a gay man living at a time when it was not ok to be gay, this served as a metaphor for the love he must have felt for men but couldn't act on or nurture. All of the sadness of his situation is represented in this play. The sadness is at its height when, during their last moment together, their goodbye is interrupted by a chatty friend. The wife says that it was cruel of fate to be against them even in those last few minutes, their goodbye eventually being nothing more than his hand on her shoulder. Imagine love being able to express itself only in so poor a gesture.

The story itself is beautiful but the production's spectacle is equally wonderful. In the opening scene, standing in the aisles of the theater rather than on stage, the man yells to the woman that he loves her deeply and knows that she loves him too. She tells him that she loves him but can't stay with him and must go back to her family. Then, her husband's voice begins to call to her from the stage and, at that moment, one notices a large blank movie screen on stage. A black and white image of her husband appears and fills the screen as he pleads with her to come home. She looks at him and runs away from the doctor. She leaps on top of a couple chairs and tables and up to the stage, running into and disappearing behind the movie screen as her image appears on in the living room as she sadly looks back at the doctor. At another point the woman and the doctor sit at a table in the train station's cafe and laugh as they talk: they are falling in love. At the same time, a young musician on the edge of the stage sits back and mournfully sings a song called "Go Slow, Johnny." It's as though he sings it as a warning to the doctor as we watch them falling in love off to the right.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"American Idiot" at St. James Theatre on April 16th in NY, NY

This show has it all: music by Green Day, an impressive urban set with lots of television monitors blaring news about all of Bush's fuck-ups, a car hung upside down with headlights on, a woman hanging from a trapeze, cute young nubile things, lots of fake tattoos, punk costumes, a very talented cast of youngins, no drama, a story unworthy of the music, no story, cast members strumming acoustic guitars and looking silly because its so forced, a sing-along at the end that no one seemed inclined to sing along with because half of the audience wanted to escape, a completely facile analysis of the impact of global politics on American youth, a cheesy concept that is cheesily realized.

I wanted to leave the auditorium screaming half way through the second song but was in the middle of the row and so was stuck. "Hair" is playing right right around the corner and deals with the same themes much, much, much, much more effectively. This play was a waste of money and a 90 minutes I'll never get back. I think its made me like Green Day less. Now those songs seem to have lost their energy.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"The Shipment" by Young Jean Lee's Theater Company at the Mueum of Contemporary Art on March 28th in Chicago, IL

"The Shipment" is a perplexing show that is highly entertaining, vexing, and clever. Although I never completely made sense of it, in fact maybe because I never made complete sense of it, it left me thinking for a long long time. The playwright, a young Korean American woman, says in her artist statement that she's writing about black identity-politics. Obviously a dangerous thing to do as a non African American but why not? The question is whether or not she's been successful in saying anything new and coherent.

The play is divided into four sections: the first is a dance performance that records various styles of African American vernacular movement; the second is a stand up routine by an African American comic; the third is a series of scenes about a black child who becomes a drug dealer, goes to jail, and makes it big as a hip hop artist; and the fourth is a 30th birthday party for a man who seems to have it all but wants to die and take his friends with him.

In the second section, the comic tells the audience that he's going to say confrontational things about racism and that they should leave if they don't like it. He conflates jokes about race and sex that cross the line of what's acceptable in a way that reflects the same line we often see real comics tow. He manages to go just over the line while most comics tend to step just on the line. The audience laughs for the most part, finding it unbelievable that they can experience such tasteless things funny. Near the end of the routine, he says that while white folks complain that black folks whine about race too much white people are the biggest whiners there are. "They whine by saying things like 'I had a terrible day at work today,' 'My job doesn't fulfill me.'" In other words, they complain about problems that many other people would be thrilled to have. They whine about the state of their existence rather than their existence. As a friend always says to me, those are high class problems to have.

The third section chronicles an African American boy's decent into drug dealing, his imprisonment, and his eventual rise as a rap star. The acting is highly stylized, as though middle school students were doing the acting. And every moment of the section is comprised of cliches -- about the violent schools that African Americans grow up in, their being coerced into dealing drugs and fighting with other drug lords, getting famous by rapping about killing cops, and getting rich and dating women who want to spend their money and demand sexual pleasure at the drop of a hat. While the second section left audience members perplexed, the third section left many people angry at this depiction of African Americans.

The final section is the only one that had a set. Five black folks are at a party celebrating a 30th birthday. Slowly, we realize that each person is a bit of a stock character and we notice increasingly that they're whining about the things that the comedian had joked that white people whine about. Eventually, the characters play a game called "library" and we realize that the black actors are playing white characters. During the game of "library" a woman writes a joke on a piece of paper that clearly titillates her but that she knows she shouldn't think is funny, thus mirroring the audience's feeling while watching the second section. When the characters read their racist jokes, the vegan in the group protests that he's uncomfortable playing the game and doesn't believe that they would be playing it if black people were present. One of the characters replies "Depends on what kind of black person it was." Of course, the truth of the matter is that black people are present (the actors, after all, are black) and one has to wonder what kind of people they are to be in such a play. The equivalent of the racist stereotypes recorded during the game "library" had been presented in the third section by black people and with black people present.

I talked with friends after the show who were incensed. They are the ones whom Young Jean Lee had invited to leave during the second section. I knew that I liked the play but I couldn't explain the apparent racism in it. I knew it was smart: the structure was tight, the dialogue clever. But I couldn't give an analysis that would appease my friends. Still, I felt that the play was alive, in a way that an August Wilson play isn't. Those plays are easy to like because we all agree on what is bad and what is good. Its themes reflect a past that we've struggled with and come to agreement on. This play seemed vital. I don't know if people would have found it less offensive had an African American written it. Maybe so. First voice and all. Either way, give me this over something that we've all come to agreement over.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Taming of the Shrew" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on April 14 in Chicago, IL

First, let me say that this is by far the best production of "Taming of the Shrew" I've ever seen. It's critical of Shakespeare's script and the play within the play that we normally think of as "Taming of the Shrew" is more engaging than any I've ever seen.

"Shrew" of course, is a play within a play. The story of Kate and Petruchio is being performed for someone but the scenes that frame the play are almost always cut from the productions. For this production, Neil Labute, the consummate gazer on misogyny, has written new scenes that frame the play within the play.

The truth of the matter is that"Taming of the shrew" is incredibly misogynistic. Kate is a shrew because she knows that marriage means agreeing to become a man's property. Petruchio breaks her of her headstrong ways by starving her, preventing her from sleeping for days, keeping her in her dirty wedding dress for days, and keeping her from her family. Eventually, Kate accepts that the only way to eat is to do what her husband tells her. If he says it is day, then she agrees. If a second later he says it is night, then she agrees. In the play's closing scene, Kate preaches to the other women that they should always obey their husbands. In fact, they should lay their hand on the ground for him to step on. And then she lays her hand on the ground and he steps on it.

That is all typically played for comic effect and in this play much of it funny. However, at some point we realize that Kate is only pretending and the people who are so happy about her submission seem like the problem, not her shrewishness. By the time we get to the scene where Kate preaches to the other women, her repressed anxiety is palpable and incredibly sad. Disturbing even.

All of this works because of the Labute scenes that frame the play. There are somethings to dislike about them. They seem to go too far in search of humor at times. They even seem to explain the themes of the play too much. That much explanation is unnecessary since the directing and acting are so good that the point comes across anyway. Yet, this interpretation of the play, one that is critical of Shakespeare, needs the framing device for the commentary to work. Or rather, this way of doing it works. As the play entered its final 20 minutes I found myself almost anxious, wondering how the production would integrate this critique of sexism in the play considering where the script goes. Eventually, the framing device takes care of this surprisingly and effectively. I won't give it away but I'll say this much: there is a lot of talk about kissing in the play, both in Shakespeare's text (Petruchio thrice asks Kate to kiss him as a sign of her submission -- we won't talk about symbolism but I'm sure you get it) and in the framing scenes the woman playing Kate has some ambivalence about being kissed by the actor playing Petruchio. That kiss, the one that is asked for in the play and discussed among the actors, is important to the final scene of the play and it is the final commentary of the play.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"The Cabinet" at Redmoo Theater in Chicago on 3/6/10

In traditional theater, one hopes for a production in which the art design is integral to the piece and beautiful in its own right but also somewhat invisible. In puppet theater, the mechanics of the performance is visible by necessity. For one, its impossible to ignore the people manipulating the puppets. Puppeteers have tried to make themselves somewhat invisible by covering their heads in black, wearing black clothes, and black gloves. My favorite puppet theater pieces, though, have left that convention behind and made the puppeteers visible.

"The Cabinet" is such a production. The set, which is a series of drawers in a cabinet that open and close noticeably, and at time magically, is manhandled by a group of puppeteers who are spookier than any of the puppets. I love the way contemporary puppet theater asks you to be aware of the puppeteers' presence and yet suspend your disbelief. In this production, the puppeteers create the dark and somber mood of the play, making it scary even. That they so visibly control the puppets and the various drawers of the cabinet reflects the theme of the play nicely.

In the play, which is based on the 1919 film "The Cabinet of Dr. Callagari," a film I've never seen, a somnambulist (a wonderfully somber word that is fun to hear and say) goes to a mental institution hoping to overcome his condition. Instead of providing help, his doctor uses the protagonist to satisfy his own curiosity about how thoroughly one can control a somnambulist. He leads the somnambulist to the extreme of murder, killing not only various strangers but also someone who seems to embody life and love, things missing from existence as a somnambulist.

"The Cabinet" is blessed with incredible art design, evident both in the cabinet that serves as its set, beautifully expressive puppets, and the puppeteers whose dress is as disturbing of their demeanor. They wear monocles that are bend and missing glass, which somehow makes them seem incredibly sinister. One of the puppets of the doctors has him as a short rotund man with little hands. The little hands lend him an air of the grotesque and encapsulates the cleverness of the design work. The show is not a home run, though. While it's a wonderful show, its theme seems somehow less developed than its mood. It's lots of fun to sit through and something that should not be missed because of its inventiveness but could stand to have a better developed narrative.

Why fund theater?

I was asked to write a short essay about why the corporation I work for supports theater as a funder. This was my response. Since I have a theater blog, I thought I'd include it here:

As someone who manages the arts giving at a large corporation, I’m often asked why Boeing funds the arts. What’s behind the question, of course, is a query about how an aerospace company, centered on the work of engineers, benefit from communities having a robust arts scene. My response typically includes three reasons: the arts comprise a natural breeding ground for innovation, provides a civic service, and that beauty serves as a respite from an increasingly overcrowded life.

The innovation answer is expected. However, the kind of causality people imagine is not always what I intend. It’s true that the arts breed innovation and we need innovative workers to design our products but I also mean something else. Our communities need members to think in new ways if we are to respond productively to all the change the world is presently throwing at us. As we become an increasingly global society and experience a growth in international migration, we are experiencing an important shift in demographics all over the globe, whether in the United States, Italy, or South Korea. Other kinds of changes, in the earth’s climate and genetic engineering to name a couple, require a speedy response in new technology, behavior, and ethics. People will have to think differently to create these solutions. Innovation in the form of theater helps us strengthen those muscles. Last fall, I saw Richard Foreman’s “Idiot Savant” at the Public Theater in New York, a thoroughly abstract and non-liner piece of theater in which the characters take orders from a disembodied voice and consider the subjectivity of experience. It was, in a way, a completely non-sensical experience but the humor and acting talent kept one engaged enough to make it through. Like a Faulkner novel, this play asks you to give up on making meaning until it unfolds in its own time. This means choosing to remain engaged while not understanding. At some point if one is open and works hard, meaning emerges. Until then, though, you make your peace with what at first seems nonsensical. This is an emotional and intellectual exercise that theater makes possible and that serves us well as we try to take issues the world puts before us seriously and tackle productively. This skill and patience is needed in our communities but also in an increasingly diverse company.

Innovation then, serves the purpose of developing the workforce of the future but also a civic one. The second purpose, as I see it, is also civic in nature. Theater presents us with a picture of ourselves that we are often willing to encounter only with the distance the stage provides us. One of the special treats of living in Chicago is having the Hypocrites theater company among us. One of the highlights of their 10-year life was a production of Eileen Fornes’ “Mud,” a play about a hard working woman who cannot escape poverty due to a lack of education and the financial and emotional dependence of two men. This production protected the audience from the protagonist’s pain by placing the action in a glass box. The audience walked about the box to view the scenes, with a light bulb lighting up to alert the audience of the direction in which the next scene would be played. As an audience member walking around the box, one finds oneself trying to walk a little faster than ones neighbor in order to get a better view of the action. Near the end of the play, the protagonist tries to escape her situation. With an ax, she breaks the box and leaves, walking out among the audience. As she slowly walks among you, looking at you amazed, sweating, and exhausted, you realize that her pain has provided you entertainment (much like the evening news might) and that you have vied for position for the best peek into her pathetic life. Then the men pick up a gun, go after her, and bring her back in the box and again you realize that you’ve done nothing. This is, of course, a play and in a way nothing is to be done. However, it does implicate the audience about our response to poverty and violence. If someone were to tell us directly that we use often other people’s pain as entertainment and refuse to get involved, we are likely to be defensively shrug it off, maybe even getting angry at the accuser. However, when the argument unfolds in front on us on a stage, we accept it less defensively.

While my first two reasons are centered in civic benefits my third is purely personal but is, in my estimation, the most important. The arts provide the opportunity to experience beauty in a world where the work day keeps getting longer and where we have less time for leisure. Rejuvenation is important for productivity and our souls, a word we often think too slippery to use in public discourse, and Americans turn to theater more than any other performing art form for that rejuvenating experience. That beauty might reside in the sharpness of an idea engendered in the story on stage, the sound of a voice, or the colors and textures of art design. In Josh Schmidt’s and Jason Loewith’s musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s dark play, “The Adding Machine,” which received its world premier at Chicago’s Next Theatre, there is a moment when a husband and wife who have come to loathe each other remember better times during the song “Didn’t We” that is engrossing both because of the emotional content and the register of the actors’ voices. In Mary Zimmerman’s “Eleven Rooms of Proust” at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre, one loses oneself each time one enters another room filled with beautiful costumes, lighting, set, and words. Living a meaningful life, or perhaps living well, requires working productively, living in consort with ones neighbors, and experiencing beauty. Few of us do any of those as much as we want but our society rarely publicly recognizes the benefits of the third enough.