Wednesday, March 07, 2007

PLAY: "it is said the men are over in The Steel Tower"

"How can you be a good performer?" asks Jonouchi, an AWOL soldier, of Sasakura, one of four frightened, mediocre vaudeville actors who have fled a relief show to hide from War in a giant steel tower. "Just take a deep breath and say whatever comes to mind," he replies. This philosophy is the heart and undercurrent of it is said the men are over in The Steel Tower, a play by the prolific Japanese playwright Hideo Tsuchida, now in production at TBG Theatre.

Something has been lost in translation; Tsuchida's parallel about trivial bickering in the light of an overshadowing war is clear enough, but the endless, repetitive chatter used to get there isn't entertaining (especially when it goes on for almost two hours straight). Given an American adaptation (Matthew Paul Olmos) of an English translation (M. Cody Poulton), not to mention director Ronit Muszkatblit's interpretation of the final text, how much of the original still exists? Coupled with the lethargic blocking of the action and the unusually low energy of the performers: Not enough.

The play succeeds in frustrating the audience, but that only allows us to sympathize with how the characters in this play feel stuck. One of the "shticks" performed involves a pantomime of how different types of people walk up and down stairs; that subtlety is called out as markedly unfunny in the play, but it's the same device the play uses. The common, ordinary dialogue (which sounds improvised, even with a script in front of me) leaves profundity to the subtext; unfortunately, this cast allows for only the mundanity of the text. The ensemble is so locked into the passive-aggressive that their range is limited, and the few scenes that would show us another side are set at night, on a dark stage lit by flailing flashlights.

There are some good sequences: at one point the act of creation is compared to giving birth (to triplets), and later on, the joke is carried on when one of the troupe offers to help the rehearsal process along by being a Lamaze coach. Running jokes, even those about overused metaphors, are a window into seeing the history of this troupe, pre-war, and the rare moments when we see the characters vulnerable (Christopher Loar, as Jonouchi, has a sweet innocence) give heart to an otherwise dispassionate, Seinfeld-ish play.

it is said the men are over in The Steel Tower tries to mix subtext and symbolism, but you can't hide allegory in a message that is already hidden. This adaptation is simply too subtle for its own good: the play we wind up seeing is the opposite of the play we want to watch.

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