Friday, October 24, 2008

Machinal-Record Review (unedited draft)

Saw Machinal last night, real good production. Kudos to the actors and the design team.I had my problems with some choices/the play itself, but it was a worthwhile night of theatre, pretty raregoing in these here parts. Check it out:

We are led into the theater – no, scratch that, we are led out of the theater into the factory. Guided by the arm-signs of the 62 Center authorities into the machine-like interiors, a purple green light where the performers we never see are themselves before impregnating their souls with a role. Then we enter the theater, only we enter to find ourselves part of the factory, everything is part of the factory. Where is the Centerstage? We ask ourselves, but this is the Centerstage, it is all the Centerstage ever wanted to be.
In doing so, set designer David Morris has solved the riddle of the Centerstage and created a perfect setting for an albeit dated proto-feminist expressionistic pseudo-drama (the all too hyphenated Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell). Before, productions in the Centerstage always had to answer to the fact that the theatre itself had more personality than the design. The millions of dollars that went into the theatre became more a centerpiece than the raging artistic mind, trying to contain the monster of brick wire and stark, raving architecture. Morris does not decide to fight, he chooses to critique. Adding to where the stage has already given us the allusion of the factory, he shows modernity’s still all-too strong hold on us. It’s not that Morris uses factory motifs and brings the audience into the fray as a way of turning the Centerstage into a factory – it’s merely Morris using his visual aesthetic to show us, with a gentle nudge that it is that the Centerstage already is a factory, in theatre’s clothing (to say nothing of the wolf).
My only regret is that the rest of the production did not take this philosophy to heart. That is not to fault the production itself, it was a marvelously realized work of Expressionism that managed to keep me riveted (if a bit alienated) for the full hour and a half. The riveting aspect I feel was due to both a focused and impressively well-rounded cast, anchored by strong lead performances from Lizzie Fox, as Woman and Evan Maltby, as husband – whose anti-chemistry echoed the oppressive lull of it allTreadwell’s script in near-parable fashion tells us the somewhat true story of Helen Jones, a woman whose absolute alienation from her surroundings and frustration in life (as well as a poorly timed affair with a younger ‘rebel’ played with a charmingly dashing superficiality by Nathaniel Basch-Gould) lead her to ‘gasp’ murder her husband. It’s Lifetime with automatons. . Fox should be commended for bringing a vital humanity to a role that grates on cloying. The moments where we see her eyes light up and the inner rage step up, the cold directed scream of “I’ll kill you” to her mother; or, in one of my favorite scenes, straying from her husband accepting a rose from another man she choosed to bend and crack it, all with delicate grace, while still accepting it. I felt the tinge of character snap in that precise moment, a small but vital addition to a character that needs desperately to evolve from her sketch, and Fox does the best she can.
Director Rob Baker-White takes his cues right out of the early 20th century Expressionist playbook, narrowing down the difference between man and machine by literally putting the machines on the actors in the first scene. Many common social relations become mechanized through Treadwell’s too-structured sentences and Baker-White’s use of the vignette to show us the interchangeability of human emotions. In one particularly effective scene, while Woman talks to her Mother (Lisa Sloan, who plays a stern but loving mother better than anyone else I know) we have the playful arrest of horny townspeople pittering about; costume designer Deb Brothers further highlights their Eli-Whitneyish quality by coloring them in similar shades and patterns. In the blur of lighting one can barely tell one from the other.
One could call Treadwell’s piece feminist, in that it tries to revise the traditional narrative by casting this strong-willed, tortured woman in the main role, highlighting the nearly impossible conditions set out for her. However, though Treadwell saves us from the tendency of theatre to cast desperate maidens and strong-leading men, she still overly victimizes the Woman (to the point of near-patheticism) and when the main point of feminine power can be adduced, she almost frustratingly gives half the credit to this sort of wild-exotic Mexican-tinged fellow. The ‘liberation’ comes from an ideal postulated by a male-subject no better (dare I say interchangeable?) with Maltby’s ‘Man’. One could say we have moved on to better and stronger forms of liberation, those that require no male-bravado to spark up.
Treadwell’s play is revolutionary in terms of sound and Eric Kang’s use of it was a perfect counterpart to Morris’s set. Like Morris, Kang chooses to use the Centerstage for music rather than otherwise. His most terrfifying sound; a cross between a piano being sliced open with a sword and a chewed out xylophone comes from the playing of one of the stair-ways. Light designer Julie Seitel’s lights also bring out the quality of the theatre itself, taking some light from all the way in the top, having the grates of the catwalk reappear as patterns on the stage.
Perhaps the play was too old to be put back onstage without some of the alienation turning into curious detachment, or perhaps a more deviant choice should have been made in respect to the setting of the play (if we are on the subject of the Centerstage perhaps Williams College might have made a better setting than NYC); but these are minor ideological quarrels, anyone who desires to see an authentic theatrical experience – with all the potential that a space like the 62 Center offers, should make their way to Machinal sometime next week.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Platonic Performance?

So, new developments. I am thinking of staging Socrates.

Why, you ask?

Well, I don't want to do it - boring style. I am not merely putting words to Plato's texts. I feel I need to try this sort of mad-directorness that Castorf is so good at and 'direct' the Dialogues to make something theatrical out of them. I will have to a) choose a dialogue, I wanted Phaedo for sheer dramatic capacity, but it's Phaedo talking the whole time and I'd have to transcribe the dialogue and that would take so long and I am too lazy. But the other stuff becomes very, how do you say...philosophical? No shit. I am trying to figure out a way to stage - or a vision with which to treat the texts that will completely subvert them. It's not so difficult - after all, if Plato's biggest problem is the dramatization that distracts from the real forms of the world, why dont we just dramatize the shit out of this play?

then again, this is work. I mean, serious - sit down with a text and have the director's cap on and a lot of close reading sort of work...goddamn it - why couldn't I have been a painter instead?

- J

Saturday, August 16, 2008

7 actors but 12 Ophelias?

First of all: it's wonderful to be back in the states because I get to see my friends and family, get to sleep in my bed, get to watch soccer teams on the television, get to practice piano and be with my books, get to use dollars instead of Euros, but NOT because of the theatre.

Theatre in this country is dying. Is in a dismal state.

Who will pull the plug on theatre in this country and wheel it out to the morgue?

That might be the most theatrical act we have seen staged here in a while.

And that it should be fascinating! I mean imagine- new plays every day, they must all be great right? Or at least pull the limits of our imagination, right? RIGHT??

No. Wrong. So wrong. I'm sure there are wonderful playwrights, but they're the ones not getting their plays done. I'm sure of this because i have met a few - and I have seen too much crap to even begin to say.

That being said, this is a hopeful entry, because 12 Ophelias is NOT one of those plays that make me want to catch the next flight back to Berlin, thank goodness.

If I had to summarize it in a word I would say - excellently written, theatrically creative, but directorially and production-wise lacking.

Why would I say this? Well, first of all, if you were given an entire, emptied out swimming pool to do a show in - a show that isn't too demanding in terms of trueness to the text. The playwright, Caridad Svich has a wonderful imagination - and a more capable director could have given us some strange Lorca-ish landscape with exaggerated heroines and chilling music...though the music was a high-point in this production.

The play, which I will quickly describe right now - is a sort of continuation of Hamlet, already I become immediately doubtful. But, it's a smart, funny, and quite beautifully written continuation, forcing the Shakespearean era characters into our time period and, thank goodness into a bit of good old fashioned pragmatic common sense. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become R & G, androgynous clowns, while Hamlet becomes Rude Boy and Gertrude wins a bit of confidence on her road through Elysium. The plot is basically - Ophelia reappears, in the world of the dead (I can only guess) and has it out with Hamlet and life, and learns a lot about herself - enough to figure out to be herself and not some weird sort of obsessive harpie, and in doing so books the next walk out of the creepy alter-world of Hamlet. (surprisingly enough, Elysium looks and feels a lot like backwater Tennessee)

I'm not sure if it said in the script that everyone had to speak in a Southern accent - though it didn't hurt the production too much it was certainly a quirky choice. Some of the actors you could tell weren't too comfortable with the voicing, while some (Horatio, for example) wore it proudly and it actually enhanced their roughneck characteristics.

The acting was fine - well measured, dramatic in the right parts - but man, oh man, the directing. What can I say - it was a fine production, it was well measured and conveniently designed. We had a high rise and a low rise. There were tears there was a bit of fighting there was sex.

The lighting was well done, and it gave us the feeling that we weren't necessarily in a theatre or Tennessee, but somewhere in between.

The music by the Jones Street Boys was a mix of bluegrass and singer-songwriter My morning Jacket-ness which was actually quite beautiful and worked with the music.

It was fine - go see it, spend a lovely evening under the stars and enjoy some good music and lyrical language. jussst fine. (Aug. 20-22 and yes, no matter what rant follows, please go see it!)

But I am sick of 'fine' productions. I feel that's all I see here, and frankly I'm scared that that's all people here are capable of. Caridad's work, in my opinion, deserved better. A director who was willing to challenge and pull apart, while retainingteh aesthetic adornment - something that we haven't seen. We had a swimming pool for chrissakes and all you can manage is a moment where the lead actress walks off and we see her trail away - almost teasing us with what could have been.

The play is called 12 ophelias, there is a part where the playwright's words are - we are all Ophelia - oh my, it couldn't be easier. BAM 12 Ophelias, drowned or not, female or not, spread across the length of an olympic swimming pool. BAM that aesthetic image does not leave you. No way Jose.

My mother lamented the dear departed Reza Abdoh wasn't there to use this space - McCarren Park pool is a great space, for concerts and yes, for theatre. But this could have been done in a blackbox, just add a bit of outside ambience and maybe cool the theatre down and give a breeze.

I feel, that a director's job is quite simple. Be theatrical. Make something theatrical out of something that is inherently not. I.E. a bunch of writing. I feel this because I am too a playwright. When I write a play, sure I write for THEATRE, I direct my writing towards a stage, but that writing, as hard as it tries, cannot act. That writing is not the stage. The director is the one who writes theatre. Who uses the tools of drama to write the theatre onto the stage. The playwright supplies words and ideas and canvas tools that the director can slice into, but in teh end, the creation of the unbound image is what is the ultimate goal. Unbound because it moves, it breathes, it is living just as the audience is living. Bound images can be found in museums. bound images can be found in a limit that is a film. In a stage the only limit is the limit of life.

All in all Caridad Svich is a playwright whose text deserved better - though to be honest, the production was fine and a lovely work to see. But like I said, I'm tired of lovely works. Of things that are fine. The next time I see something fine I'm going to throw up.

I prefer a ramshackle absolute disaster that makes me so angry I have to write about than something fine. Please - someone! Now is the time to attack this theatre with all we have. Let us make the stage a dangerous place again! Let us make it a place where ideas are attacked, not fed chips and made to sit and watch television.

Onward, ho!

- J

to begin with...

"And now I am going to say something, which perhaps,
is going to stupify many people.
I am the enemy
of theatre.
I always have been.
As much as I love the theater,
I am, for this very reason, equally its enemy,"

- Antonin Artaud

...get it?