Monday, August 31, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (p. 620-714)

As we approach the end, I keep coming up with reasons to postpone my reading of Infinite Jest. Here's my latest: 15, 10, 5, 1, 6, 10, 14, 3, 2, 19, 40, 8, 16, 6, 24, 38, 21, 18, 25, 23, 15, 59, 62, 47, 49, 78, 189.... I'm not going to bother saying what that is (though readers will surely guess), but I'll say that this scope on patterns (or the lack thereof) has helped me come to terms with obsession, a thing that comes to mind when reading this novel, so let's consider that it's not a waste of time.

In any case, Holy Crow is there a lot of good stuff here. We start off with a bang, as Wallace describes Too Much (p. 620-626), starting with the InterLace TelEntertainment system, and then blowing our feeble "Home Entertainment" minds. The list is, as usual, a mix of technical terms ("laser chromatography"), half-jokes ("electronic couture," which Apple made a reality), quirks (by which I mean narrative opinions like "screens so hi-def you might as well be there"), and slang ("killer apps"), and then clever mashes this list (with an almost invisible semi-colon) into some side effects, like "phosphenic migraine" (which I get). You can't have the good without the bad, I get it, but the result is that people tend to just stay indoors now: they can go to school from home, work from home, get entertained at home. For real kickers, Wallace notes that "saying this is bad is like saying traffic is bad, or health-care surtaxes or the hazards of annular fusion: nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without." Don't forget that 2009 is the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment; are we that far off from this big, frightening Next?

This is also the point in the novel where Wallace starts to tie things together; note that the big "spect-op" (that is, the chance for public--as opposed to the 94% private--spectation) at the draining of the man-made duck pond is an event that was attended by J.O.I. and sons, and is currently attended by Rodney Tine, Steeply, and the M.I.T. student from 60 Minutes +/-. More dates start getting dropped, particularly around the central event of this chapter, Hal vs. Stice, a match that a newly drug-free Hal almost loses on November 11, though Wallace gives us the results (p. 627-638) before jumping to the match (p. 651-662) and then back to the post-game (p. 686-689). He (DFW) also does this more directly with The Events of November 14, which starts with Matty Pemulis (Michael's brother) espying a post-stroke Poor Tony en-route to the Antitoi's shop (not knowing they're dead); then shifting to P.T. Krause, who is following two purse-snatchable girls; two girls, who turn out to be Kate Gompert and Ruth van Cleve; a moment which consolidates into the "Meanwhile" moment on page 700, which checks in on Troeltsch, Michael Pemulis, Lyle, Schitt and Mario, and Avril.

One more hint at the narrator of Infinite Jest: page 694 mentions that "we (who are mostly not small children) know it's more invigorating to want than to have, it seems." It's not a child narrating, and we really are being spoken to. "An oral narrative begins to emerge," as it were, writes Wallace on page 699, just as he goes into that "Meanwhile" moment.

All that's just plot and structure, and maybe it's just because I've been conditioned to treasure everything but that over the last 700 pages, but let's get back to the good stuff. After all, Wallace knows that it's not about the parts, as he describes Hal in action against Stice (p. 658): "But all these were only parts, and made the motion seem segmented, when the smaller crew-cutted jowly boy was the one with the stuttered motion, the man of parts." Is it any wonder that Helen Steeply, putatively of Moment magazine, doesn't get it? There's another "At just this moment" moment on pages 654-656, and it's got a zinger: "Sometimes it's hard to believe the sun's the same sun over all different parts of the planet."

To summarize, everything is a moment, but as Wallace described in his sports-writing essay, they can be individualized, specific moments--for instance, Federer Moments--that must all be added up, in one giant, infinite complex immediacy, to ever approach true understanding. And perhaps why nothing can ever be understood. I don't find that to be depressing: after all, while you may never "get It," isn't it encouraging to know that there are some specific things you can absolutely get, fully?

This is, on reflection, another one of those opposites that Wallace uses, you know, like the way in which both disinterest and over-interest (Bain's parents vs. Incandenza's parents) are shown to be forms of abuse? Only, in this case, it's the way in which a moment can both express everything and nothing, depending on what exactly you're looking for. Bain describes this, in Avril--and in the unconsciously modeling Orin--as an act of simulacrum; that is, when you try to cover a lack of actual emotion with an abundance of feigned emotion. Consider, then, how fake someone consumed with a single moment looks, or how crazy someone obsessed with everything seems.

Thankfully, I'm not suffering from anhedonia: I've got nothing but pleasure for this novel, and I'm certainly able to Identify. But how terrifying a concept: "the anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts... The world becomes a map of the world." In other words, continuing to wind this thread around myself, even a moment that you know everything about becomes meaningless--words, words, words--unless you attach and invest something in it. Hence Wallace's fear of irony and need for sincerity.

(Screw you, James Woods, for this book has allowed me to Identify with the depressed, whom I had formerly dismissed, i.e., not understood. Page 696, with the definition of "psychotic depression" and the understandable parallel to a non-burning man's inability to comprehend why a man might jump out of a burning high-rise. Take this section in parallel with Wallace's first published work, "The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing" [just republished in this quarter's Tin House, issue 40], and you'll see just how much better Wallace got at describing this indescribable thing.)

Even as I try to grapple this idea to the ground, do I risk losing myself in the text? Am I actually present--or worse--even occurring? (Hal's great fear, when talking to deLint on p. 686.) Is this the Icarusian danger of too closely nearing "success," of the sort that LaMont Chu worried about with Rusk, earlier? These are all moments, yes, but let's never forget that Wallace played tennis: "Slice the court up into sections and chinks, then all of a sudden you see light through one of the chinks and you see he's been setting up the angle since the start of the point." If tennis is "chess on the run," then what does that make Infinite Jest, and what sort of Grandmaster was Wallace?

As always, that's too heavy (and heady) to leave off on, so instead, here's what Wallace would say about universal health care in America if he were here today:

And then also the little-mentioned advantage to being destitute and in possession of a Health Card that's expired and not even in your name: hospitals show you a kind of inverted respect; a place like Cambridge City Hospital bows to your will not to stay; they all of a sudden defer to your subjective diagnostic knowledge of your own condition, which post-seizure condition you feel has turned the corner toward improvement: they bow to your quixotic will: it's unfortunately not a free hospital but it is a free country: they honor your wishes and compliment your mambo and say Go with God.

P.S. I lied: one more big thing. What if Hal's not messed up at the beginning of the book? To us, he seems fine; to them, he seems abnormal. But this is the very essence of that Twilight Zone episode, "The Private World of Darkness (1960)," in which a beautiful girl (to us) frets because she does not look like the rest of the world, which is ugly (again, to us). This is one of the things Wallace writes about in his commencement speech, our need to be able to see outside of ourselves, so in that light, consider that Hal may be the one totally free and undepressed American, liberated by DMZ (free = demilitarized?), and at last totally present: "I am in here." After all, according to Wallace, "It's of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool." And here's Hal, anything but empty internally, and, for pretty much the first time in the book, not being anhedonic.

metaDRAMA: Congratulations

I don't normally post press releases, but I'm a huge fan of good news, so allow me to paraphrase a few of them.

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, which I called "honestly terrific" is moving from it's extended off-off-Broadway run at PS122 to the off-Broadway theater down the street, you know, the one that used to be the Pearl, and is now just "Theater 80 St. Marks." (Which is an appropriate venue for their subject matter, given that a large chunk of it is about preserving the essential but perhaps not maximally profitable pieces of a neighborhood.) They'll be there from September 10th to October 5th, and while the tickets are now $40, the show is roughly three solid hours long, so it's still worth it.

The Fringe Encores were announced, and three of the six shows I recommended pre-Fringe made it. To Viral, Powerhouse, and His Greatness, congratulations--I'll have reviews up as I get over this stomach bug and can think straight. As for my other picks, they all won Overall Excellence Awards: Remission and The Event for best solo show, and Ether Steeds, for best ensemble. (Powerhouse also got best ensemble, and Viral picked one up for best play.)

And last, but certainly not least, the New York Innovative Theater awards, which I was delighted to participate in this year, just released the list of honorary recipients. Congratulations to Maria Irene Fornes, for the Artistic Achievement Award; to Materials for the Arts for the Stewardship Award; and to the Brick Theater for the Caffe Cino Fellowship. Click here to get your tickets, and click here to see their 2009 nominees, a list which turned me on to quite a few companies I didn't know before--a list that includes, to come full circle, the Amoralists (Amerissiah)--currently doing The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Fringe/The Event

At first, the meta-existentialism of The Event is delightful: Matt Oberg, referring to himself in John Clancy's words as The Man, runs through a list of assumptions we can make about him and his role, and then about us, The Audience, and our role, whether we be theatergoers, actor colleagues, professional "observers"--i.e., critics--or family. It's a bit like Will Eno's Thom Pain, only far more straightforward: "The Man steps forward," The Man announces, "and the lighting changes dramatically." Over the course of the precisely timed and "plotted" 63 minutes, The Man will continue to break every conventional illusion about the theater, from his admission that his momentary break in character is scripted, as is his fumbling for a line, as are his gestures, which he assures us--demonstrating a silly movement--are the exact same, every time.

But after a while, the delight fades into a numbness, the sort of anesthetized state that may lead some to a paradigm shift, a waking up, a sudden realization that Clancy's goal isn't simply to pass off good-natured glibness while Oberg keeps a straight face. No, after the "theatricality" is good and dead, and our minds are all too aware of how the technician flicks the lights to produce a certain effect, how a seated man commands a different sort of respect than the standing man, and how the unseen stage manager might be wearing a plaid shirt and a sombrero, after all of this, Oberg suddenly expands his scope, ruminating now--in his affable yet oddly affectless fashion (as if he were self-effacing)--on the idea that we are all actors, in our own way. (Life doesn't strike him as a well-made play.)

If Richard Foreman is at the Ontological-Hysteric edge, then John Clancy--oddly enough, considering the sort of frantic work his company usually puts on--is at the Ontological-Anhedonic edge, and ultimately, The Event is so self-conscious that it's hard to actually experience it on a deeper level than the most facile one. That said, the facade is plenty funny, especially for serious theatergoers in desperate need of a chill pill. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Totally missable" and 5 being "The can't-miss social event of the season," The Event gets a 3.5.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fringe/May-December with the Nose & Clammy

Jonas Cohen and Naomi McDougall Jones have come up with a genuinely cute love story in May-December with the Nose & Clammy. They've even come up with a clever framing device: Lily (Jones) is having second thoughts about marrying Noah (Craig Waletzko), so she's invited him to this theater, where they can re-enact the highs and lows of their eight-month relationship for an impartial audience--i.e., you. Never mind that it's obvious, right off their opening monologues, that these two neurotically romantic intellectuals are perfect for one another. Even though it's nothing new, the following eighty minutes are fun to watch, running--like sitcoms--on the cast's considerable charm and chemistry.

The only thing that stretches too far is the decision to break the play's "reality" to show Noah and Lily's caped and crime-fighting alter-egos: the Nose, strutting around with a giant nose on his chest, and Clammy, a gal with a clam-shell face. (The clam is just a clam, folks: Jones and Cohen aren't going for deep symbolism here.) It's handled well by the director, Ava Geffen, but there's no need for sketchy laughs when Lily is already boldly gathering them--when we "first" meet her, eight months in the past, she's coming out of the Men's bathroom, explaining her entitlement to an uncomfortable yet curious Noah. Their chess-like banter is the sort of stuff that leads to lines like "Well played," and the drama is born of nervous sincerity: Noah, jaded from past relationships, has trouble believing that Lily loves him; later, when Lily turns out to be pregnant, she worries that she's already spending too much time raising her childish boyfriend.

Oddly, this ends up being the play's real Achilles heel: Noah and Lily are such nice people (and Jones and Waletzko such light--i.e., comic--actors) that they end up stretching the drama, too. The conflict is too well-reasoned and thought out--intellectual, not visceral--to do much. Then again, people do love their safe and scripted sitcoms. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Stuffy and cold" and 5 being "A hidden pearl," May-December with the Nose & Clammy gets a 3.

Fringe/The Books

There's something rather disturbingly cute about watching Helen (Aadya Bedi), a latex-clad dominatrix who goes by the name Mistress Chimera, hand a mix-tape to her stolid client, Mark (Scott David Nogi). "Twelve songs to get off the ledge," she says, and in response, Mark offers her his favorite book, The Sun Also Rises--pulling it from one of several foot-tall stacks. The point Michael Edison Hayden's making in this play, The Books, is that we're all trying to connect: sometimes we just need some strictly enforced guidelines to help us get there.

Sadly, Matt Urban's direction isn't half as severe as it needs to be. As a result, there's little difference between the role-playing and the reality. In fact, given how timidly Helen "spits" down Mark's throat, or crushes his hand beneath her heel, it's hard to understand why either of them even bothers with the in-character stuff instead of just sticking to their post-session conversations. (It doesn't help that this is where Hayden's focus is, too.) It's not a problem, but it trivializes Mark's need for humiliation, and turns Helen's job into a gimmick, as if the only way to tell an old story is to dress it up in a new profession. Bedi and Nogi do their best, and once they settle on the idea of playing things like "golden showers" for laughs, their characters start to come alive. And at this point, they get cramped by Hayden's script, which is full of out-of-character observations (e.g., "she threw back her head like a Pez dispenser") and a lot of repetition, as if he's not sure we're following.

Once they've dropped their acts, the final third of the play manages to deal with the real issues that people have connecting with one another: "Can't gives us an excuse for not doing things," says Mark, explaining his need to be told what to do. Out of 5 stars, with 1 being "Pure masochism, and not the good kind" and 5 being "Kinky, without any kinks," The Books gets a 2.5.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fringe/Dominate Yourself

You might not think that you're a theatrical bottom, but by the time you've finished watching Dominate Yourself, you'll be aching for the very funny Amy Heidt to continue knotting you up in laughter, battering your funny bone, and pulling "gags" on you. She's a comicatrix, which is to say the ideal solo performer: she's commanding and utterly in control of that stage.

If you're one of those who has mistook one of the "erotics" in the chorus to the Madonna song "Erotica" (which plays during the pre-show) as "neurotic," then this show's for you. Former dominatrix Catherine (one of the six characters Heidt embodies) has brought her wiles to the self-help lecture circuit, to help you find, face, fight, forgive, and flog your "bottom." Sadly, the supremely eccentric Catherine can't be there today--she's fallen from a roof while doing yoga with her dog. Instead, her mild-mannered assistant, Amy (Heidt)--who has obviously never taken the class--arrives, attempting to follow her boss's video instructions and written notes. "Helping" her are several alumni, and while it's the ensuing craziness that delivers the laughs, it's the regular Amy's presence that helps to balance and sell the whole show.

Lest you get the wrong impression, Dominate Yourself is far from cerebral or preachy. Heidt's had a lot of experience with improvisation and stand-up, and she brings an arsenal of clever character tics, mannerisms, and accents to the dungeon. (She's also wigged to the teeth, and well-directed by Amanda Duarte, who makes sure the stage is never empty.) There's Bianca, who speaks almost entirely in emphatic sound effects, and then there's Danni, whose reticent personality and reliance on horoscopes belies her Amazonian blond hair. There's Maxine, a tough Jersey-like girl who's all "fuck that shit," but also Sheila, an Australian who found salvation in a piece of talking toast. Don't let the descriptions fool you, either: Heidt doesn't play her characters just for laughs. She's genuinely trying to communicate a message--albeit in myriad manic forms--and that's what allows her to be so mercilessly funny. Seriously, at just 45 minutes long, you will be begging for more.

On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Pure execrable masochism" and 5 being "pure exhilarating pleasure," Dominate Yourself gets a 4.5.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Is there too much information in Eminene, or not enough? The first half of Barton Bishop's post-apocalyptic play works like a low-budget version of The Road, only without the nuance and persistence of McCarthy's text. An excitable slingshot-armed Girl (Britney Burgess) teams up with a hardened, gun-toting Man (Michael Sharon), who, though abrasive at first, soon reveals himself to have a savior complex. For the first act, they wander through a mostly barren stage, recapping their horrific moral choices in the too-dark darkness. (To director Matthew J. Nichols and lighting designer Andrew Lu, I know that you're going for contrast, but it'd be nice to see our heroes.)

All of these unclear moments are soon set aside in the game-changing second act, a bright and cheery suburban house--complete with family portraits--in which we suddenly recognize that the Girl has grown up and that she's married to Tom (Christopher T. VanDijk). Now Bishop bombards us with details: it's been fourteen years, and they're holed up in the walled U.P., which would have killed an "outworlder" like Claire if Tom hadn't fallen in love with her unconscious body at first sight. They've got a daughter, Casey (Morgin Felicia), and Claire has a best friend, the vivacious Gina (Ellie Dvorkin), and Eminene is suddenly a different sort of morality tale (in the same way that 28 Days Later transitions away from simply being a zombie flick): now it's a blatant parallel for class boundaries, immigration, and the underlying question of whether a nation has a responsibility to its peers, or if it should simply and safely serve its own needs.

Both acts take too long to get where they're going, but when they hit, they hit hard. Act I ends with the Girl and the Man floating out across what they hope is a gulf and not an ocean, hoping to leave the mutants behind. As time passes, the Girl's game--in which she pretends to see land, and the Man "naively" plays along--becomes hopeless and sad. At the climax of Act II, Claire is forced to reconsider her life of privilege, haunted as she is by her unconscious knowledge that Tom must have chosen not to save the Man as well. In both cases, it's Burgess's acting that sells it, particularly in her shift from her younger habits and inflections (she frequently adds "Yeah?" to her sentences) to her more-hardened yet somehow softer elder self.

For all that, Eminene leaves us wanting more, and that's a good thing. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "The end of the world" and 5 being "A whole new ball game," Eminene gets a 3.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Gemini CollisionWorks: "Sacrificial Offerings" and "George Bataille's Bathrobe"

Photos by Gemini CollisionWorks and David Finkelstein

Our ability to find new ways to use language may be inexhaustible, but that doesn't mean that we won't grow exhausted in the search for new, bold ways to experiment. All through August, Ian W. Hill has bravely turned the Brick into a command post for these alternarratives, and earlier this month, I touched on the effects of seeing Fassbinder's Blood on the Cat's Neck and Daniel McKleinfield's A Little Piece of the Sun, both of which struggled dramatically against the weight of their rigid structures. Ironically, it's a revival of Richard Foreman's George Bataille's Bathrobe, which begins in a literal prison and then enters the protagonist's fleshy cage, that is the most appealing, whereas it's Hill's free-wheeling, cerebral improvisation with David Finkelstein, Sacrificial Offerings, that doesn't seem to go anywhere.

George Bataille's Bathrobe
Richard Foreman may not be a household name, but it's not exactly Greek, either. And yet, his first play, George Bataille's Bathrobe (1983), reads like one of those ancient fragmented plays: there are no characters, no stage directions, just text. To Ian W. Hill, it must seem like a crossword puzzle in reverse: he's been given all the answers; his challenge is to make it all fit. It's an appropriate challenge, given Foreman's protagonist, Frank Norris (Bill Weeden), a man who isn't dead yet, but who is no longer shocked by anything, and therefore in need of "radical" help. But Norris's problem is Hill's solution: the former fears that he no longer has any power over himself, but this gives the latter free reign to take total control--starting with his choice to incorporate Foreman's deletions into the play. (From time to time, Norris, unsatisfied with a section of dialogue, will spin his finger in the air, and as the sound effect of a tape rewinding plays, the actors will move backward until they hit an earlier point in the script.)

The effect is meta-surrealism, set to the jazzy beat of the flapping Brundi twins (Patrice Miller and Kathryn Lawson). Don't ask what The Man from Another Planet (Timothy McCown Reynolds) is doing here, or why his utter normality gives off a whiff of Vonnegut. Don't think so much on whether or not Clara and Myra (Liza Wade Green and Sarah Malinda Engelke), two high society ladies, are any more real than the semi-sweet substance they carry around in boxes; after all, how often are we ever actually in control of our own reality? Delight instead in the few moments where all the cogs seem to line up: after all, Bataille attempted to construct his own form of matter--that is, reality--a form that would defy rationalism and run on experience.

As put by the Dandy Fop (Bob Laine), "Why not be everything at once?" Or, to look at it another of his ways, who says the dictionary doesn't have a story? That said, it's no wonder that things are so mad, with Norris being diagnosed one moment, and at the racetrack the next. The real wonder is that Hill has found ways to slide the pieces of the set (the white-plastic cage walls) around so smoothly that, at times, we actually follow him. ("Everybody can [understand]," says Norris, leading several of the actors in a dance.)

The text itself is a tougher nut to crack than the actual experience, and that's a credit to Hill's handiwork. It's also a credit to his attention to detail, because the idea of the experience was Bataille's point (twice filtered, through Foreman and now Hill). George Bataille's Bathrobe isn't a good play--but that's because it never tried to be one (there are moments, like an odd semi-funeral, where one wishes it had).

Sacrificial Offerings
Why did Beckett coin the term "dramaticule"? Was his goal to ridicule the literal meanings of drama, to abstract standard communication? Or is that just the thrust behind David Finkelstein's post-improv style, in which two actors purposefully avoid listening to the literal meaning behind their partner's words so that they can arrive at something more purely unconscious, something that he can then shape into a surreal film? The reason for all these questions is that one assumes there's something more behind Finkelstein's collaboration with Ian W. Hill, something more than just the effect of taking one of Finkelstein's films--Marvelous Discourse, which he improvised with Hill--and using its "script" and video as the backbone and centerpiece of a play, Sacrificial Offerings.

Perhaps there is, but I didn't see it. What they call "delicious" and "juicy" and potentially "adverserial" is, in execution, meandering and off-putting. I'm no fan of classics like Aeschylus, many of which are already fragmented, but the idea of taking these "old dead words" and somehow using them as "intellectual stuffing"... well, what's "smokier and richer" to one is unpalatable to another. More so, while this may have worked on a cerebral level as an exchange between two artists trying to find a new angle on the truth, the text is diffracted too far when redistributed between a bunch of party guests awaiting the visions of an oracle.

The play ends with a similar what's-the-point query: "What are we do to with the story, now that we have codified it." Their answer is that they should just leave it for others, and move on, and in truth, there is very little else that a "dramaticule" such as Sacrificial Offerings can achieve.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fringe/Live Broadcast

You need look no further than the recent backlash against Whole Foods (in response to comments from their CEO about health care) to see the relevance of John William Schiffbauer's Live Broadcast. The issue is no longer that we take our First Amendment right to free speech for granted, it's that we penalize others for exercising it. Our country can no longer agree to disagree, and if you're not with us, you're against us.

Dangerous times, then, to speak the truth. Congresswoman Madeline Bruce (Andrea Day) is willing to, at least so long as she knows her constituents are behind her. However, that's a luxury that Tom Powers (Schiffbauer) doesn't have: he's a movie star, his ball-busting agent Jane Forge (Amanda Brooke Lerner) reminds him; he's not paid to think--especially not in a conservative way. That's just not his pulled-up-from-Midwestern-bootstraps way, though, so Powers decides to go on a political talk show hosted by an old friend, Jack Tatum (Kyle Knauf), and to show that he has a mind of his own--that he has substance.

Schiffbauer succeeds in finding substance, both as actor and writer, and so what if he's heavy handed about it? After building up to the "live" show--Jane attempts to talk her client out of career suicide and, failing that, to bully Jack into pulling his punches (writing about as deep but just as entertaining as Entourage)--he finally lets his characters go, with Maddie and Tom pushing the manipulative Jack into the background so that they can actually speak--and it's a credit to Schiffbauer's writing that both sides make valid points (albeit never on the same hot-button issue). The only thing that feels tacked on is a brief romance between Jack and Maddie; it's well intentioned, meant to illuminate not just the power struggle between a man and woman, but also the divide between those who do things and those who get paid more to simply quip about it. However, given the limits of Live Broadcast, it gets stuck artificially showing those things: the play needs more dimensions, not fewer.

On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "The O'Reilly Non-Factor" and 5 being "Real Time with Bill Maher," Live Broadcast gets a 3.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Reviewed for Time Out New York's "Fringe Binge." Check out the review, but more importantly, check out the play.

Fringe/The Crow Mill

One of the dangers of genetics is that as we learn to control the traits of future generations, we eliminate their beautiful element of surprise. Such is the case with Andrew Unterberg's The Crow Mill, which starts off with the happy, open-ended romance of Nathan (Quentin Mare), a geneticist, and Anna (Margot White), a therapist, and quickly turns into a dull thriller that questions what really happened in Nathan's childhood that made him so reluctant to become a father. Nathan's mother, Mia (Geraldine Librandi), has Alzheimer's, which means that it's only a matter of time before--in a stupor--she reveals the truth; the real question is how long one can stand sitting through thinly-veiled polemic on "designer babies" before getting there.

To Unterberg's credit, the big-picture idea--the pros and cons of choice, as written in our genes--is clever. However, his writing is inconsistent: sometimes it is artificially witty; sometimes it is naturally dull. Of the three, White acquits herself the best--her emotional part avoids the brash exposition of Librandi's role and the lifeless intellect of Mare's character. Eli Gonda's direction is fine, though muffled: one almost wishes for more of the exciting melodrama that occurs after Nathan gives an inflammatory speech.

On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "an abhorrent mutation" and 5 being "perfection in double-helix form," The Crow Mill gets a 2.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fringe/Just Don't Touch Me, Amigo

As himself--or rather as "Pedro," the would-be actor who has immigrated from Buenos Aires--Fernando Gambaroni is pretty funny, innocently mocking US ("It's OK, you're American, you don't need to know where Brazil is") even as he lovingly embraces its contradictory ideals ("He says he lives in a project, so I guess it's not finished yet"). Unfortunately, Just Don't Touch Me, Amigo wants to fry bigger fish, which is a problem for Gambaroni, who is going at it alone.

It doesn't matter that all his characters--especially Catherine, a Kansan in New York--sound like Pedro and have his hand-flapping mannerisms. The issue is that he tries to engage these facets in conversation: awkwardly shuffling from seat to seat, often shedding (or donning) a prop as he does so. Director Jose Zayas does his best to make it quick and endearing, and Gambaroni has a nice self-effacing charm, but the effect is sloppy. For sillier moments, like a blind date between Pedro and the sun-glassed, straightforward David ("I'm bi...polar, but I'm on medication, so it's under control"), this works. But the real meat of the play--an argument about the difference between origin and ethnicity--lacks momentum, and ends up reducing Pedro's opponent into a paper-thin construct who can only offer up the ooze of contempt as a rebuttal. (Never mind that Pedro all but breaks character to take on a far-from-naive righteous indignation.)

Despite these flaws, Don't Touch Me, Amigo has some bold thoughts on the invisible lines that we create to segregate and identify ourselves, when the truth is that anyone living here is just American, period. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Return to Sender" and 5 being "Special Visa," Don't Touch Me, Amgio gets a 2.5.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (p. 562-619)

First off, let me start by saying that it was rather stupid, in retrospect, to bring Infinite Jest to Las Vegas with me, as I didn't get any reading (and very little sleeping) done. However, it somehow felt appropriate to have this, of all books, with me, as I was surrounded by what was very recognizably Too Much Fun (among other less attractive nouns). It's very easy to get addicted to Too Much; what thankfully helped me avoid the gambling was most likely the fact that I remain all too aware of How Little I actually have, in terms of money, alcoholic tolerance, and so forth. All the same, surrounded by such a change in scale and scope--well, it alters your own perceptions and what you're actually willing to do, which is why Too Much can be So Dangerous. There are positives and negatives to any such coin (or neither, if you, like Schtitt believe that there is simply a coin, period), so I will say that perception-altering total immersion is also a good thing: it's what Infinite Jest is.

So, on to some more of the reading, in which we get to "see" Don G. through snippets of his conversations with "Joe L.," Foss, Yolanda, and others. In which Idris Arslanian learns how hard it is to be blind, and ends up agreeing to provide a Concavity-explaining Pemulis with his pure urine. In which Orin gets it on with a Swiss hand-model, feigning emotion like a pro, and answers a survey from a legless putative member of the AFR. In which Mario takes a late-night walk. And in which Lenz's dog-slaughtering night out comes to an awful end, as Green catches him in the act, which leads--I think--to a trio of dog- and Item-owning Nucks trying to kill Lenz back at the halfway house . . . and to a protective, Jesus-like Gately getting shot.

Things are so accumulated by now--by which I mean each section is dense with the informed detritus of what once seemed picayune earlier in the novel--that I have nothing general to talk about, so I'll just skip to some specific observations on the whole:

  • The "lack" of God might be the central part of the so-called Sierpinksi gasket structure of the novel. What's interesting is that in that sense, that absence is still a triangle-completing presence, and this applies too to other readings of the structure, in which a triangle made up of the solid Incandenza siblings Hal, Orin, and Mario, is held together--defined, if you will--by the absent father in the center. What made me think of this? From page 566's Swiss family photo: "the tubby-faced man and Swiss-looking kids all smiling trustingly into a nothing somewhere up and to their right." Note how even emptiness is still neatly limned by the frame of any given picture. (Silence is a major effect in the theater.)

  • David Foster Wallace's book on Infinity (Everything and More) seems like necessary reading, given the title of this book. But what's on my mind right now is his explanation of Zeno's Paradox (in Everything and More), that is, that theoretically, to go from any point (A to B) we have to first get to a halfway point (C), and that given that, once we're at C, we still need to get to B, which has its own halfway point (D), and so on. And yet, we can all testify to the fact that we do in fact get from point A to B. So what made me think on this? Well, a lot of the action in this section of the book occurs in a halfway house, a house in which the residents keep complaining about how they haven't quite gotten there yet . . . and then sometimes suddenly wake up and find that they have, even if they can't explain it.

  • Schacht mentions (on page 567) that "someone in pain isn't entertainment" and yet, everyone seems to think that it is, including James O. Incandenza, whose crowning work, the Entertainment, features--to some extent--Joelle van Dyne, a woman about whom we know found great pain and sorrow in her own perfect visage (the excruciating pain of exquisite beauty). This is soon revisited, this idea that no matter what lens we look through, we need to find ways to laugh: it's what Mario calls the uncomfortability of the real: "It's like there's some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn't happy."

    Continuing on this point, and in this section, Mario remembers what he loved so much about Madame Psychosis: the truth. "He felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she'd taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real." This sounds, at last, like a perfect descriptor for the narrator of the book, who I now presume to be David Foster Wallace, acting in as veiled a manner as Joelle and the U.H.I.D.

    In this novel, Mario's the only one who actually seems happy, which implies that true happiness comes from when we give up on all pretense and stop being so embarrassed that we actually hide in plain sight.

  • OK, actually one further addition to that last powerful point: Green notices some buildings that Tiny Ewell described as "Depressed Residential" (emphasis on the double meaning of "depressed"): "unending rows of crammed-together triple-decker houses with those tiny sad architectural differences that seem to highlight the essential sameness." Does that not sound just the teensiest bit like a description of people, especially depressed people, or of the people in AA? Or of the idea of hiding in plain sight? The differences between us are architectural, they really are--this applies also to grammatical building blocks: is Roy Tony not really the same as Erdedy when it comes time to give a hug? We must learn to Identify.

  • And finally, because Wallace feels the need to resort to tension-breaking potty humor from time to time, let's end on that note, too. On page 594, Gately mentions the sameness of shits: "The daily bullshit here is hip-deep and not so much annoying as soul-sucking; a double-shift here now empties him out by dawn, just in time to clean real shit." In other words, all those small picayune unpleasantnesses really do add up (as the U.S. Clean Party found out, when it came time to start ridding themselves of it), and "over time, as it accretes, [is] unpleasant." In other words, once we Identify, we must actively work--or at least strive--to be less filthy to ourselves (addictions) and to one another.
A lot of these points can be seen to have religion behind them just as much as they don't. I'm a pretty resolute atheist, and even still, it doesn't change the fact that we can each read into any of these points as much (or as little) as we deem necessary. Keep coming back, now!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fringe/Ether Steeds

It is better, thinks sixteen-year-old Skeeta (Sarah Lord), to get lost among the understandable bits of nature, like Venus flytraps, than to spend time at home with Mom (Birgit Huppuch) and the men she drags home with her. Better to use the family's knack for storytelling (an art older than religion, we're reminded) to "shape the darkness." She flitters through her narrative like the mosquito she's named for, the ghost of her Daddy (Todd D'Amour) and her present but resentful Mother echoing her desperate hope: "I'd like to believe."

Jason Williamson's Ether Steeds is easy to believe in, thanks to its fantastical language ("soul-tired," "wedding-cake moon," "cactus heart") and phenomenal cast, which also includes Sahr Ngaujah, as electric here as the mild-mannered, wounded love-interest, Emory, as he was as the lead in Fela! last year. Niegel Smith's direction maintains the pace, using the lyrical repetitions to build tension and drawing a nice contrast between Skeeta's reality and her storybook ancestor, Ida, who falls for a kelpie (a supernatural horse, hence the "ether steeds"). The dream-like quality of the show is well-tempered by the presence of actors like the sturdy D'Amour and phenomenally ranged Huppuch, though Lord still manages to steal the show with her character's so-deliberate-it's-accidental charm.

On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "drowning in metaphors" and 5 being "smooth sailing on a raft of beautiful ideas," Ether Steeds easily gets a 5.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (p. 450-562)

You want to know how much I'm loving Infinite Jest? So much that I find it hard to even think that I can contribute anything to the brilliance that Wallace has already set down, and yet so much more that even now--with over a hundred pages sifting through my head, and a plane that I've got to catch in about six hours--I find myself unable to sleep without "jestating."

So, let's start with an interesting observation on Conditioning (p. 450-461), which is on the one hand the literal physical training that the E.T.A. students are undergoing here under Schtitt's cruel supervision, but underneath the surface, a reminder that the mind is being trained, too: in this case, to exist separately from the body (which is, remember, how Hal begins the book), to ignore the map, if you will (on which, because it's snowing, may be too co-wold), and focus on the actually territory, a world that is limned only by our consciousness, or more specifically, our will. Schtitt's emphasizing that unless we acknowledge something to exist, it doesn't: after all, our minds only process a certain amount of what our eyes take in, and let's not forget that eyes are lenses...and that James's specialty was in changing what those lenses saw. Also:

  • "It's all the sort of thing [tennis drills] that's uninteresting unless you're the one responsible, in which case it's cholesterol-raisingly stressful and complex." Filter our reading of Infinite Jest through the above context and with this quote, and you've got a subtle reminder that the reader has to be responsible: we can either make it interesting by building something from it, or we can simply turn to a bucket and hate this Puker.

  • "Hal hops up and down in his capacious jacket and plum turtleneck and looks at his breath and tries a la Lyle to focus very intently on the pain of his tooth without judging it as bad or good." Q (again in context of the above): what would it be like to process something totally without judgement? Would it still have an effect on it, i.e., cause pain?
Next up, Part of Don Gately's Live-In Staff Job (p. 461-469, 475-480) serves to fill us in on a lot more of D.G.'s background, emphasizing that Gately's accidental murder of DuPleiss has been taken over by Steeply's "Non-Specific Services Bureau," so that so long as Gately obeys the law, he's probably OK. (In the Marathe/Steeply section that interrupts this bit, it's made a little clearer that DuPleiss had the Master of the Entertainment--i.e., the copyable version presumably buried with J.O.I.--and that Gately must've accidentally burgled it. (More on this at this wonderful blog.) For some reason, it winds up in the Antitoi's shop--and in a very cinematic segue, as Gately zips through a "tornado of waste" in the Harvard Square streets (just how filthy is this place?), we watch as The A.F.R. Squeaks--ahem, Strikes (p. 480-488), which is to say, the Antitoi's are killed, the Entertainment presumably retrieved. Oh, and on a side-note, the Antitoi's purposefully gave Pemulis the D.M.Z., in the hopes that he'd use this Too Much, and corrupt his peers.

A bit more of the comical exposition about the handling of the samizdat courtesy of Steeply/Marathe, and then we're in another flashback, this time to B.S. 1963. James will later make the film Valuable Coupon Has Been Removed, but what we're getting here is an excerpt from a chapter of a ferociously expensive anthology of memoirs about the advent of annular fusion. Back in the present, at an AA meeting, Ken Erdedy meets Roy Tony ("You gone risk vulnerability and discomfort and hug my ass or do I gone fucking rip your head off and shit down your neck?), and then we get to:

Things That Are Blue (p. 508-527). The idea of telling a story via facts and disseminating those facts via a list is a tactic that Wallace uses elsewhere in this book (i.e., Things We Know About AA, and the upcoming bit of reportage in which Lenz Tells Green some things). I don't have much to talk about here, as Hal and Pemulis away the repercussions for the Eschaton debacle, and Hal's mother reveals herself to be the sort of person who plays Emotional Roulette (perhaps as a means of apologizing for her extracurricular "affairs"). However, it's worth noting some of the other ways in which Wallace layers things into the story, giving us a world of information that is real enough to not just pull details from, but to create memories and touchstones in such a way that the book itself becomes sort of like tapping into a brain. (What I like about this theory is that in this case, you, the reader, are actually the narrator.)

Mind you that the following observations extend from p. 527-562, in which Joelle starts to fall for Gately (when she finds out that he's a football player), even though Gately doesn't believe her statement that her deformity is that she's Too Perfect to look at (which "reflects" the Odalisque discussion that Marathe and Steeply have just had, viz. James's film about Medusas). Also in which we start to follow Randy Lenz around as attempts to assert power by suffocating cats, then killing them more directly, then slitting dogs' throats, and then only just managing to back down from killing a hobo, even though a whole major step of the AA he's in is to admit a certain degree of powerlessness.
  1. First off, whenever something major happens, Wallace either foreshadows it or echoes it in the following sections, regardless of when they take place (time-wise). When the Antitois are assassinated, they hear squeaks: for the next several sections, squeaks are all over the place, innocuous perhaps, but enough to give Hal the "howling fantods." Mind you, the entire mattress scene from B.S. 1963 revolves around a squeak. This implies that everything is always happening, not just in the smooth blend from Gately's car to the Antitoi's shop, but in an annular loop. From now on, people who don't enjoy Infinite Jest must explain that it's because they derive no pleasure from performing somersaults with one hand nailed to the floor.

  2. Second, Wallace plays a lot with the similarity of opposites. This isn't just an extension of what Schtitt's talking about: it's also a willful negation--or at least blurring--of facts. The reader must do the work when presented with a description of Pat Montesian, who is "both pretty and not" and has "serious regard and questionable judgement." The upcoming sections have a lot more of this: Rusk says that bed-moving Stice is underestimating objects . . . but also overestimating them; Tavis, as he works out on the StairBlaster, is either saying "Total worry" or "No don't worry"; Lenz uses cocaine "in the very interests of sobriety and growth itself"; and best of all, because annularization causes such overbearing detoxification that they have to retoxify the Eastern Concavity, you get "oasises of desert" [sic] in the middle of forests.

  3. Finally, the undercurrent of unresolved issues and deformity, which is to say that we all are both. This is one way to resolve point #2's "similarity of opposites": after all, if we are all "deformed" then isn't deformity just normality? Isn't deformity, in fact, just the very sort of mindset that Schtitt is telling us to avoid--we are neither too pretty nor too ugly? (I find it interesting that so far, Orin's the only one who managed to do this--and this apparently ultimately scared the shit out of him.) This brings me back to my observation about AA itself, when G. A. Day mentions that, well okay then, like doesn't everybody belong in AA, to which I agree. We are all addicts on one level or another, and our support group is all of humanity itself, which is the cause of and solution to all of our problems. (Like beer, according to Homer Simpson, and on that note, I'm out!)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gemini CollisionWorks: "Blood on the Cat's Neck" and "A Little Piece of the Sun"

Photos/Gemini CollisionWorks and Mark Veltman

Ian W. Hill has been a miracle-worker with The Brick's lighting, and this has led him to be a daring director, creative tricks lining his sleeves. He's got a strong voice, too, which helps him stand out in a crowd of actors. Last but not least, he's ambitious: his company, Gemini CollisionWorks, is staging four plays--in repertory--through August. His Achilles heel is in the incredibly difficulty of the plays he's selected: these are intellectual works, riddled with devices. Hill's ably assisted by his fiancee, Berit Johnson (the "crafts" to his "arts"), but he's bound by the repetitious rules of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Blood on the Cat's Neck and trapped by the jarring documentary tone in Daniel McKleinfeld's A Little Piece of the Sun. (The other plays include an original work from Hill, Sacrificial Offerings, and a Richard Foreman revival, George Bataille's Bathrobe.)

Blood on the Cat's Neck
To promote the explosive German auteur Fassbinder's play, also known as Marilyn Monroe vs. The Vampires, Hill jokingly quotes Lolcats: "I Can Has Fassbinder?" It's not such a stretch, though: Fassbinder's protagonist, the sexy, robotic, vampire alien Phoebe Zeitgeist (Gyda Arber, nicely managing to pull off all four "types"), has been sent to Earth "to write an eyewitness account of human democracy." If Lolcats has condensed deconstructed comedic language, then Blood on the Cat's Neck has done the same for the mannered dinner-party dramas popular in the early 1970s. You see, Zeitgeist understands words, but she doesn't have the reason that comes with "human language"; in the words of Immanuel Kant that are the punchline of this play, "Judgement and deduction or reason are in their formal sense only aspects of what is understood in that they appear as forms of abstract conceptual analysis."

Blood on the Cat's Neck is broken into three distinct phases: first, we are introduced to the archetypes, which include The Wife, the Model, the Lover, and the Teacher--nine in all. These early, short monologues, often spoken directly at Phoebe (though rarely to her), are the clearest part of the play, filled with the very real contradictions of the human condition. Ironically, many of these are about the silent language that Phoebe presents--the Butcher longs to communicate, not just to fuck; the Girl speaks of how repression is necessary to adapt to the present, in order to have freedom in the future; and the Mistress remarks on the secret enjoyment of submission. The Soldier considers raping Phoebe, but complains that "I need the girl to react so I can tell I'm doing it good"; in other words, he needs to communicate at least through body language.

From here, the play dissolves its characters in the ocean of humanity, and Phoebe moves about a party scene, listening in on two-person vignettes, each with an instantly recognizable dramatic moment, although no static characters. However, it does so in such a rigidly artificial way that the language ceases to have meaning; we are reduced to Phoebe's synthesized (a double definition, thanks to a voice modulator) observations, which are themselves the context-less repetitions of lines from each dialogue. (For example, "That's a fact. People change their minds. I am fatigued.")

In the third phase, Phoebe now interfaces with the party directly, throwing out the lines she had previously recorded (and in the exact same order they were spoken) in the midst of new conversation. Ironically, this leads to as many comic faux pas as it does to accidental revelations, oh, and about halfway through, Phoebe starts biting the necks of each guest, slowly turning them into zombies. The problem from the second phase persists, though: Fassbinder is more focused on ideas than he is on lives. The moments of humanity, oddly enough--though perhaps the point--come from Phoebe, particularly as she starts to assert herself. Here, democracy is a misunderstood joke, one that, while interesting, can sometimes be a chore to sit through.

A Little Piece of the Sun
Speaking of chores, Daniel McKleinfeld's historical mash-up A Little Piece of the Sun has one of the most demanding first acts (for actors and audience) ever staged. Even Jack O'Brien'd be hard-pressed to sum up this much Russian history (1924 to 1978) in the space of twenty place-setting minutes. Hill's get us off to a flying start with a surprise opening, but he's soon bogged down in dialogue that overlaps with voiced-over propaganda, a young boy's memories, and a chorus of roughly ten villagers, each trying to explain the effect of Lenin's death, Stalin's policies towards peasant farmers, and the rise of our two protagonists, Andrei Chikatilo (Tom Reid) and Grigori Medvedev (Hill).

But after those twenty minutes, the play gets our attention. "On December 21, 1978, Chernobyl Reactor...," stammers a nervous Dyatalov, is brought "on-line," whispers Medvedev. Suddenly, we know where this going. A few minutes later, we're slapped across the face by a fact we probably don't know: Chikatilo mentions, casually--and this is where the documentary style works--"It was December 22, 1978, the day after Stalin's 99th birthday. Her name was Lena Zakotnova, and she was nine years old," and as he'll soon explain, it was while he was stabbing her that he experienced his first ejaculation. McKleinfeld's research and writing pay off in the painful little parallels that he finds between these two, and Hill best supports this writing when he manages to avoid the sort of naturalistic blocking that makes it look like a classroom pageant recital.

The problem is that while Hill and Reid are gripping narrators (Hill on account of his voice, Reid because of his unassuming tonality and posture), a large chunk of the cast trips over the complicated cues and makes the play run much too sluggishly. Actors like Patrick Shearer, Adam Belvo, and Alyssa Simon all bring intensity to their lines in the chorus, but others (who probably know who they are) play their parts without opinion. Admittedly, the majority of the play is expressed as fact--the pronoun "I" is rarely used. Nonetheless, the actors are cast as named characters, and they suffer from a lack of specificity, a lack that makes Hill's direction look blocky or, at times, aimless.

At long last, the conclusion: both Blood on the Cat's Neck and A Little Piece of the Sun are filled with fascinating theories and facts, but the structure and presentation of these works often gets in the way of the storytelling. Then again, even when it's Gemini CollisionSometimesWorks, it's not every day you get the opportunity to delve into such unique and challenging voices.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

metaDRAMA: Copywrong

I'm no legal expert, but what?!? We'll never know if it'd hold up in court, as Spinal Tap has declined to fight this in court (yes, this is real), but Lego refuses to allow a fan-made music video onto a Spinal Tap DVD because it features Lego characters in "inappropriate" situations. I already think copyright law is ridiculous, but this is a real low point in the precedence department. Essentially, if I buy anything, be it a G.I. Joe, a Calvin Klein suit, or a Pepsi, and then try to make it into art, I can technically be harassed with copyright infringement for not upholding the unwritten standards of the product?

Look, it's one thing if I try to create a product that's eerily similar to yours, using your material as a template--for instance, if I analyzed that Pepsi and created a drink called Yo!, which tasted exactly the same. Or if I created my own unique flavor but then tried to brand it as Peppy, with a similar bottle design and everything. But if I'm an artist, and I wanted to make a satirical movie about a super-villain born from drinking Pepsi, I'm not sure why I'm not allowed to do so. I bought the bottles, and at best you'd sue for defamation, no? These are objects that exist in the world--we ought to have the right to use them. And if not, then I don't want to see product placement ever again; it's disgusting to think that they have some "right" to buy their way into art, but that we have no way, having bought their product, to use it in our art--as long as we're creating something discernibly different; i.e., the people who buy the Spinal Tap DVD would not be purchasing it in lieu of Lego products.

Not convinced? Consider more extreme examples: an artist faces copyright charges because the corporation that makes the pigment of blue he used--never mind that he bought it--thinks that it's been used in a way that reflects poorly on the quality of their blue. Having then learned his lesson, he decides to create his own blue, and it later comes out that to make that blue, he ground up blue raspberry rock candy--and the company which makes that raw material now sues him.

The point which I'm circuitously getting around to is this: all art is created from material. There are a limited number of raw materials out there, and an increasing number of materials with patents on them--including materials and objects that don't actually exist yet. No matter how many arguments I hear for the importance of protecting artists themselves through copyright law--i.e., Mickey Mouse cannot be used unless licensed by Disney--all we're really doing, time and time again, is reducing the vocabulary, tools, and raw material that we actually need to create things.

Yesterday, it was a generic claim against one of the Twilight books ("Your book has a vampire and werewolf kissing! So does mine! Fight!"). Today, it's the bonus feature on a Spinal Tap DVD ("No groin-grabbing Lego men!"). Tomorrow, it's that indie comic you've been working on for six years, because apparently one of your characters looks too much like a more popular one, even though they have absolutely nothing in common. And next year, perhaps, it's the one-man show you're performing at the Fringe Festival, in the Under St. Marks Theatre, for a crowd of 40, and you make the mistake of drinking from an Evian water bottle--inappropriate!, shouts an auditor from the wings. Artists have enough to worry about without this bullshit. I'm just glad that there are people out there like Michael Laurence (with his Krapp, 39), who are clever enough to find ways around copyright--and to remind us all of how magnificent the result can be, how richer our discussion, when we allow our imaginations to simply run wild.

Monday, August 10, 2009

metaDRAMA: The Thin Red Curtain

Aside from having pretty high expectations and slight biases toward original, straight dramas, I think of myself as a pretty objective critic. That's why I'm willing to have open discussions on this site, especially when I take a harsh stance; I think it's important not only that we understand where we're all coming from, but remember that we're all coming from a different place to join together in appreciating art. There's nothing wrong with disagreeing, so long as you've got a factual (i.e., not emotional) reason for doing so.

But as artists become friends, it can be hard to remain open and objective, and that's where this idea of a "line" comes up, i.e., a self-created boundary that allows both parties to engage and yet when it comes down to the critical moment, keep their distance. If nothing else, it's a mark of respect--even if I like you, I'm going to block that out so that I can treat you fairly. If I like your show, I really liked your show, no (heart)strings attached.

I bring this up because I recently canceled one of the shows I was set to review (that's why I've taken my schedule off the sidebar), after receiving a well-intentioned e-mail that unfortunately achieved the opposite of what it set out to do. In fact, had I received this e-mail after I'd seen the show and had a chance to freely react to it, it would have been fine. However, this e-mail took pains to point out what the critical response to this show had already been, and what it hoped to find in my review--a seemingly innocuous request to this person, but kryptonite to me. I suddenly knew Too Much about the show I'd be going to see, and I already had an opinion--worse than that, I had a purely emotional opinion.

Here's my bottom "line"--I don't want to know anything about your show before I see it: if you wouldn't put it in a press release, don't mention it to me. (I'm going to ignore any pull-quotes you include from previous productions.) After my review is up, feel free to post, e-mail, whatever. So long as you're talking about the work itself, I'll respond. That's where my line in the sand is--that's about as much distance as I need. Given that, I can karaoke with you one day and talk about your work the next, without feeling an ounce of bias, because we both know where we're coming from.

Any of you out there want to weigh in on this? Want to share some tips on objectivity?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

On The Way Down

All the characters of Michael Rudez's new play, On The Way Down, know what it's like to deal with the "too-much" of life: Browning (Steven Todd Smith) took a four-year mental sabbatical, Stevenson (Rocco Chierichella) buried himself in business, and Josie (Lindsay Wolf) chose to forget things. However, their individual escapes become a prison when the rest of New York City decides to attempt the same weekend getaway: it seems like there are as many tourists in the Hamptons as there are grains of sand. Things start going wrong with the simplest of things--all the bakeries have sold out of bread--and worsen as these three friends are forced to actually live with themselves.

Good premise, but Rudez cripples the show by molding it around Josie, a rather unreliable and painfully fake character. It takes Josie at least three attempts to enter a room, and On The Way Down follows too closely in those insecure footsteps, so constantly shifting its attention that it makes no progress. Furthermore, Rudez's characters speak directly about everything but the plot, keeping things as cryptic as Josie's forgotten memories. It's a neat trick to keep the audience as much in the dark as Josie, but then again, Josie grows comatose: is that what he wants from the audience? Such tricks also draw undue attention to dialogue that is serviceable on the surface, but clunky underneath. (The words "pshaw" and "square" are used entirely unironically.) It's no surprise, then, that Rudez excels at writing Stevenson--this arrogant, womanizing, big-time dick is all surfaces, and his outsized opinions on meaningless things--like Tilda Swenson's unattractiveness--help to divert attention from the threadbare plot.

As the boisterous Stevenson, Chierichella is the most comfortable actor on stage; better off than Wolf, who is forced to hide Josie behind a wide smile that reduces her emotions to a single dimension, and Smith, whose Browning is so totally defined by his former depression that he lurks in the background even as he speaks. They're all so tightly wound, trying to hide the plot, that it's hard to tell if they're skilled. Director Dan Waldron does them no favors: the actions he gives them are so irrelevant that they only make the characters more concealed. (For example: the play begins at 9:00 a.m., with Josie returning to their beach house; she immediately starts to take the clean dishes off the table, and Browning helps her store them in kitchen cabinets. If there's a point to this action--she's not obsessive-compulsive--it's drowned out in distraction.)

One wants to give young, new work like this the benefit of the doubt, but that's all On The Way Down gives its audience: doubt. (To avoid spoiling anything, I'll be cryptic: what's up with the kiss in the third scene? What's the deal with that phone message?) Life has given these characters lemons--there's a big bowl of them on the kitchen table--but Rudez doesn't do anything with them, and his vague result of a play grows sourer by the moment.

Friday, August 07, 2009

metaDRAMA: What Sort of Critic Are You?

Another interesting thing came out of my recent comment-board conversation with José Angel Santana, the director of William Inge's recently unearthed one-act The Killing, a work "buried" in the collection of the eight "new" one-acts that make up Summer Shorts 3.

Santana asks, explaining that the quality of my review was lacking, "Would a found Williams, Miller, Strindberg, Chekhov play receive such short shrift?" To this, my response was "Sadly, no." And I'll now elaborate: the sense I get from my peers and "betters" in the critical community is that we all ought to get down on our knees and absolutely worship "the classics" and that if we don't, we lose our credibility.

However, I'd argue a sort of inherently damaging-to-the-community reverse bias here: if you would rather cover/produce a new work by a established playwright, and barring that, cover/produce an previously unproduced/unpublished work by an established playwright (regardless, in both cases, of quality), then when exactly does the new, unestablished playwright get produced? The question I ask in this topic is "What Sort of Critic Are You?" but it might just as well be "What Sort of Critic Do We Need?" and I'd argue that it's the one from Ratatouille, that is the one who is going to speak out for the new. In this particular instance, the New York Times chose to run a feature on the "discovery" of twenty-five new works from William Inge rather than to review the one currently being performed, mainly because to them, it's of no importance whether it's good or not.

This certainly seems to be the case in David Sheward's fair but frightening Backstage review, in which he asserts that while the actors and director produce an "aching presence," the
"brief script has too many holes." So, in a review that praises only the cast and crew and pans the writing--with a nod to the exterior, nothing-to-do-with-the-play fact that Inge's suicide will somehow make The Killing resonate--why exactly does Sheward conclude his article by saying that this play is "chiefly valuable as a new addition to the canon of one of America's underappreciated playwrights." He's saying that you should see it for the performances, not the play, I get it, but so then why is this "valuable"? Why not cover something new that's actually good? Someone who, if they get attention and ink now, may be able to build a canon of their own.

I refuse to automatically give respect to anyone or anything--a product of my childhood, I'm afraid. In my mind, the choice to judge all playwrights equally, regardless of when it was written, or by whom, is the mark of true fairness. So I'll say it now: I'm going to be the sort of critic who would rather take a risk on a new three-hour play by Lucy Thurber than on seeing a three-hour revival of a recently discovered play by Williams or O'Neill.

Upcoming Shows

The Flea | The Great Recession (by Bradshaw, Callaghan, Courtney, Eno, Moses, and Rapp)
November 20 - December 30

Manhattan Theater Source | The Production Company's Meg's New Friend
November 27 - December 21

PS122 | Lisa D'Amour & Katie Pearl's Terrible Things (w/Emily Johnson)
Fri, Dec 4 - Sun, Dec 20

The Kitchen | Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Romeo and Juliet
Monday, December 17 - Saturday, January 16

Teatro Circulo | One Year Lease: Clay McLeod Chapman's Teaser Cow
January 8 - February 6, 2010

Thursday, August 06, 2009

metaDRAMA: Bad Habits

I had a bad experience lately, followed by a great one, and the two were directly connected. First off, the bad: I saw Summer Shorts 3: Series B and wrote a review of it. Then, the good: José Angel Santana, the director of William Inge's previous unperformed (and therefore "new") one-act, The Killing, responded in the comments. Obviously, we disagree, but the great part is that (1) it opened up a dialogue, which is what I'm after, and (2) it made me more aware of a bad habit of mine.

Here's that habit: because I'm reviewing for myself (i.e., not for pay, not for a publication), when I see something that I don't connect to, or which feels like a waste of time, I don't spend a lot of time writing about it. This doesn't mean that I "rush to print" (in fact, there are a few shows I've seen that I haven't published reviews for, because I simply couldn't fathom them), or that I don't spend time processing why I don't like the show. It just means that I'm not as bothered to convey that--and that's a problem, considering the critic's job is precisely that: to convey why something does or doesn't work (at least, in the critic's eyes).

I thought Santana had removed his post from the comments because he didn't want to engage, so I replied to him via e-mail. (Actually, he was just clarifying what he wanted to say, and you can read his comments.) We wound up corresponding back and forth, and lo and behold, though we still disagreed on certain fundamental issues, we at least better understood where each of us was coming from, i.e., why we made the choices we did. I wish I had taken more time to elaborate precisely why I felt a lack of drama in the piece: that is, because the deck is so stacked in favor of one actor, while the other actor's character is so passive that there is little tension between them, like a game of tug-of-war between a sumo wrestler and a baby. In retrospect, I wish I'd been clearer that I didn't like The Sin Eater: by saying that it had high stakes, I leave the door open to a misreading.

There is little I can do for my review of Summer Shorts 3: Series B at this point, but what I can do--especially when approaching Series A next week--is to invest more, even in something I don't necessarily like. As the Amoralists remind us (in their terrific The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side), the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference, which is what Santana accurately called me out on (the laziness, well, that's just wrong). In fact, I think it's a habit all of us theatergoers need to break, whether we write about the shows or not. Reading Infinite Jest reminds me again and again of just how necessary it is to invest in a novel: so while I'm invested at the theater, I need to remain invested at home, too.

That's why I'll continue to run unmoderate comments, and why I hope all of you will use the comments to help turn some of these reviews into deeper discussions, discussions that help to touch on why we go to theater in the first place. It's not lazy reviewing that will kill the theater, nor is it just a lazy artist: it's a lazy audience. Let's all wake up.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Infinite Jestation (A Blogthrough): A Digression

Let's talk about work. One of the neat things about Infinite Summer is how many additional levels it brings out of Wallace's work--and whether they were intended by him or not, he leaves the door open to this whole idea of the readers becoming the writers, thanks to the interpretive ideals of the sign/signifier: i.e., no matter how clear we are, every reader sees and filters things differently. (Look at Lucien Antitoi's unfortunate use of "Va chier, putain" on p. 481.) In fact, Wallace says this better than I've ever been able to:

This is the way Barthian and Derridean post-structuralism's helped me the most as a fiction writer: once I'm done with the thing, I'm basically dead, and probably the text's dead; it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but "through" the reader. The reader becomes God, for all textual purposes.
To take the "water" joke another way, it's not so much about ignorance or about taking their environment for granted, so much as it is that they never needed to qualify their world with a word: water means nothing to them, although another word, like "ocean" might take on the utmost holy significance to them. It's all about what we have embedded and invested in the novel, which is why (1) it's nice to read other reader's thoughts and (2) you need to work at this, by which I mean, invest in Wallace's writing.

There's another bit on this in this wonderful Wallace interview, in which he warns against "passive spectation." (This is exactly what he's talking about in Infinite Jest, too: the activation of our p-centers via the Entertainment itself, turning us into zombies, into passive goats, whatever. "Passive" and "pleasure" are not that far apart.) Wallace clarifies that he's trying to be "uneasy" in some sense, "so that the narrative arrangement has got to be done by the reader, or interrupting flow with digressions and interpolations that the reader has to do the work of connecting to each other and to the narrative (cf. the footnotes). We talk a lot about the narrative voice of Infinite Jest, but perhaps Wallace keeps that person hidden like the Wizard behind the curtain to make us "fight 'through' the meditated voice presenting the material to you." To requote further, "I had a teacher I liked who used to say that good fiction's job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable."

I knew there was a reason I liked David Foster Wallace so much, and if you've read any of my theater criticism, you'll see that much of what I condemn is often condemned for becoming barely distinguishable from television or film. (Grotowski commanded that theater do what those mediums COULDN'T do--and really, the only thing it can do differently is to BE MORE PRESENT.) To continue, near-Bible-like: "...[reading] is a relationship between the readers consciousness and her own, and in order for it to be anything like a full human relationship, she's going to have to put in her share of the linguistic work." Emphasis on work.

Some people seem scared of this, by the prospect of reading a 1,000+ page book, of the idea of actually digesting it (especially in a culture obsessed with being thing), of walking "away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller." When I last wrote about Infinite Jest, I was irritated at James Woods for labeling DFW as a "hysterical realist," and in fact with this whole obsession with "realism" itself, as if that's a goal we should strive for. (I mean, why read at all, then, instead of engaging with the literal windows of the world?) That's why I get upset for people when they tell me they don't get anything out of this novel, and upset at people when they tell me Wallace is an awful writer. Because this amazing, difficult novel is the Really Good Work that "comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something. To be sort of willing to die in order to move the reader, somehow."

I can't end with that line, because I know--sadly--that Wallace's suicide is what caused more than a few people to at last pick up this book. Instead, let me just close with the genuine appreciation and the capitalized Identifying that I'm doing with this book. I have read many books in my time, but I can recall very few of them, which makes me suspect that I was never really *reading* them, so much as I was escaping personal issues by getting "lost" in a book. And this is true, I know this...just as I know that I am getting "found" in Infinite Jest.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side

Photo/Larry Cobra

There are four things that a play needs. It has to be strong enough to grab your attention. It has to be honest enough to hold that attention. It has to be smart enough to make you think. And it needs to love and trust itself enough to not hold back. It's idealistic to expect that a play can handle these traits in tandem, but then again, Derek Ahonen's excellent The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side is all about living such a Utopian dream. Practicing what it preaches from the mid-argument opening (Warning: Explicit Sexual Content and Utopian Ideals, reads the postcard), there isn't a single second of indifference in this production. Given the dramatic energy and comic timing of this troupe, the audience will be hard-pressed to find even a moment of anything short of love for the show.

Speaking of which, Dawn (Mandy Nicole Moore) represents the love and trust of the show, a light-as-air charmer who insists only that everyone "just be love." If she looks small and frail, it's only because there isn't a mean bone in her body. So what if she's not great at playing any of the instruments she collects? Watch the way her body hums as she waits for the impulse to strike a drum and you realize that she is music.

Then there's Wyatt (Matthew Pilieci), the strength of the show--the sort of guy who blinks his wide eyes with such force that there's no room to be distracted. Part of the fun is watching Wyatt occasionally consider holding himself back, especially since Ahonen directs with the sort of no-holds-barred anarchism of his characters. Better still, Wyatt's a moody and indecisive guy, and with only a few feet between the stage and the first row, his wild energy is wholly believable (i.e., thankfully, there are some things you can't fake).

This brings us to the calm and rational Dear (Sarah Lemp), who advocates for and represents the emotional honesty of this show. Furthermore, as a former lawyer, she provides context to the other characters, allowing everyone to reach the different levels that are so vital and necessary for a complex and multidimensional play as this. The whole cast speaks with conviction, but it's Dear's direct and grounded dialog that enables us to connect with them, with this idea that we'd all be better off purging what we feel, even if that sometimes equates to lying your way into the truth.

Finally, there's Billy (James Kautz), the "intellectual" of the play. (Predominantly, that is; just as they share their bodies with one another, they also sometimes share their traits.) Rebelling against his wealthy parents, Billy first operated as an American journalist in the dangerous labor camps of southern Mexico, before heading to the city to help people fight the slow ceding of rights that comes of making little compromises to big corporations. He's paranoid, and not just from all the drugs and alcohol he uses, but he--and the other Pied Pipers--are so honest with themselves that everything they say makes a sort of sense.

The advancement of plot shows a few cracks, but this is a problem only for people who need their theater to be Botoxed into a stiff and more recognizable form. Billy's younger brother, Evan (Nick Lawson) is visiting for the first time since Billy ran off, which means that they're both in for some culture shock (especially since Evan's a would-be gangsta now, all about the bitches and the bling). There's also the arrival of their eccentric benefactor, Donovan (Charles Meola), the only overly comic part of the show (his constant "just kidding" is the grating antithesis of the Pipers, who are "always truthing"). Even with all this, things continue to pick up speed right until midway through the third act, at which point an act of "enlightenment" makes one character so blindingly "perfect" that we lose the lovely shades of gray amorality that electrify the rest of the play.

All told, though, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side is the sort of theater that needs to be done: it's vital, alive, and full of unsquandered possibilities. You know, the sort of stuff that seemed to be done all the time on the Lower East Side. The violence of this world is unsantized, and accidents happen. (Alfred Schatz's intentionally haphazard set is perfect for this: each time a door slams, something else winds up falling down.) It's the sort of show where--and highly credit the actors for this--something new will happen every night. How honestly terrific.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Summer Shorts 3: Series B

Traditionally, festivals are thrown for events worth celebrating. Now, there are new American short plays worth celebrating, but you won't find any of them in Summer Shorts 3, or at least, not in Series B, the back four of this "festival of new American short plays." Instead, you'll get four lazily written, lazily directed, and lazily acted shows--American, yes, celebratory, no.

Carole Real's Don't Say Another Word at least takes its own advice. At under ten minutes it's not able to define its characters or their relationship, but it isn't able to offend anyone, either. Real is understandably in a tight spot--she picks the uber-cliched scenario of a couple eating out, and then walks right into recently trod ground when the casual Josh (Andy Grotelueschen) unthinkingly mentions to Laura (Stephanie D'Abruzzo) that she's not his type. She avoids LaBute's Reasons To Be Pretty only by remaining painfully passive, with each character quickly forgiving the other: easy to do when there are no stakes.

The Sin Eater, on the other hand, has high stakes--all Greek and shit, as El (Clara Hopkins Daniels) puts it to her therapist, Candice (Jamie Watkins), after threatening to kill her own mother, Cleo (Rosayn Coleman), who has just been acquitted for killing her husband, El's father. In fact, at one point, Keith Reddin has the characters slip into Shakespearean prose, which is not the sort of gauntlet a writer as erratic as Reddin wants to be throwing down. Into this revenge fantasy, Reddin crams a guilt-ridden detective, Alex (J. J. Kandel), who out-of-the-blue espouses on "the sin eater" title; an expositional friend of El's (Teala Dunn); and El's deus-ex-machina brother, Orel (Sheldon Woodley). The only thing Reddin has going for him is the good casting of Coleman, and the abysmal casting of Daniels who, thankfully, will soon be in high school, at which point we can take the kid gloves off.

As a director, Billy Hopkins has better luck with Roger Hedden's If I Had. There's more meat behind the complaints of "lawn maintenance professionals" Augie (Andy Powers) and Slim (Shane McRae), who despite being well-paid to mow lawns by rich people, resent their own comparative poverty. The neat trick here is that Slim is educated enough to not resent people like Audrey (Emily Tremaine) simply for their wealth; it gives Augie an actual foil to push against, and both Powers and McRae play their parts rather solidly.

The real insult of the night is William Inge's The Killing. Inge's been dead since 1973, this play qualifies as a "new American short" only in the sense that it has never been produced before. And with good reason: there's little drama in the tired back-and-forth of a man who wants to die and a man who is reluctant to kill him. Neal Huff does a terrific job portraying the lonely Mac, who has seduced the easy-going Huey (Kandel) back to his home in the hopes of being killed. (Mac's a Catholic, and can't do it himself.) But he can't conjure up suspense, and Kandel plays his part with such indifference that his reluctance comes as the real surprise--and not in a good way.

If these had been Winter Shorts, the sort of our Discontent, the collection might at least make a dismal sort of sense. As is, Summer Shorts 3 is just a cruel waste of a summer's day.