Saturday, October 13, 2007

PLAY: "Start Up" (GTA's Road Theater USA)

Start Up is destined to be one of those plays that is more remembered for its vehicle (an obnoxiously green school bus on a sixteen-state road trip to bring theater to the heart of America) than for its concept. That's unfortunate, because the actual ideas of this play are some of Roland Schimmelpfennig's strongest, and certainly the most accessible for America. (No surprise, it was written for our uncultured shores.) Our three ambitious and clueless German heroes (Kati, Rob, and Micha) have come pursuing the loftiest of American dreams. They want to start a business, yes, but not an easily marketable one: they want to theatrically share German culture. Instead, the proprietor, Ike, keeps pleading that they open a video store instead ("There's a real need for a video store").

So what's more important: culture or capitalism? It's a very good question to be asking, especially for theater, an enterprise which isn't always economically feasible. GTA, a company run by actor Ronald Marx (who last brought us the 2006 Stadttheater at HERE Arts Center), is looking to do both, by boldly marketing eccentric modern shows not just to New Yorkers, but to those who would be tourists, and he'll be bringing the theater to Kentucky, Tennessee, George, Arizona, and a lot of other hub cities that we wouldn't normally associate German theater with.

To handle such an enterprise, however, GTA has turned to a shaky multimedia presentation that keeps getting in our faces, only to back away. Start Up starts up by pumping the audience up with the Rocky theme, but then plunges them into a darkness lit only by the tech team's open laptop computers and a microwave that is steadily working its way through a popcorn bag. Later, Micha and Liz start to get a little wild and crazy, only for the show to cut to a lengthy documentary-style segment that follows Rob, Kati, and Ike as they journey around NYC to get food. (This segment may have been filmed live, but it hardly matters: theater is never as raw as it is when it's directly in front of us.)

The only place where this works is when the pace breaks so that Micha can lecture us (complete with PowerPoint slides) on Germany's economic fall and rise ("Nobody remembers the Marshall plan anymore"). It's a ballsy demonstration of the very type of "theater" that nobody likes to sit through, but it's necessary for contrast with the only types of conversations Ike (the American) can have with anyone outside his culture, with films as a sort of bastardized universal language. America is, according to the characters, "a country of cinematography," and it's not hard to see that: clips of Das Boot segue into recently filmed segments of the touring Germans in front of local landmarks (like Doc Holliday's over on 10th and A, or Coney Island), and conversations often wax on a yearning for the Western vistas of rolling hills (one scene overlaps one such rustic monologue with a lengthy zoomed tracking shot of New Yorkers walking by PS 122).

The filmed portions of Start Up are a little hard to take in; Schimmelpfennig's writing works best in close proximity, where he can still surprise you with an act of violence (Start Up happens to be calm and demonstrative, but Roland Sands, as Ike, is able to at least threaten it at any moment). On stage, it's also easier to see the talents of the cast, who act so casually familiar with one another that it really does almost feel like we're intruding on their business affairs, even when there's a panel of people on laptops stage left, or a boom mike operator following them around. Which, you know, really does sound a lot like America after all.

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