Monday, September 13, 2010

THEATER: Brandywine Distillery Fire

Do we need a new Naturalism? And if so, is Matthew Freeman's Brandywine Distillery Fire it? The first question is unanswerable, as is the second, as is the play itself, which is an unperformable play, performed, which is, one guesses, sort of the point. According to notes from the collaborative team, which includes Freeman, director Michael Gardener, and the initially improvising ensemble, the show simply began--like some sort of theatrical Big Bang--with the failures then coaxed out, encouraged, embraced, and eventually fully staged. As the notes put it: "What resulted are texts which promise narrative, performances which promise elegance, sets and costumes which promise classicism and a production which never delivers on its promises." Or, as the play puts it in one of the more direct monologues: "You might be imagining that behind my eyes is a complex series of motivations. No, no. It’s less than that and more."

But we've seen this concept of less-and-yet-somehow-more before: Nature Theater of Oklahoma's dinner-theater reconstructions of casual conversations. Radiohole's mismatched actions and text. Chuck Mee's fractured narratives and near stream-of-consciousness text. Or, in the more surreal moments of furniture rearrangement: Ianseco. When scenes repeat themselves, or actors stand still for minutes on end: Beckett. Or, with the addition of chintzy music, perhaps Foreman. It's not clear that any of this is particularly new, or that this mash-up has a point, aside from pointlessness, which--to be fair, is the sort of New Naturalism of America. This much can be said about Brandywine: it's too mystifying to be annoying. The audience sort of rubbernecks at the intentionally butchered lines (putting the accENT on the wrong sylLAble, loss of modulation), much as they may have upon first reading Postmodern writers like Donald Barthleme.

Here's the interesting part: the show serves the straight-faced cast and its gleeful director--who uses the entire Ontological-Hysteric Theater: aisles, backstage areas, a lighting platform--really well, but it distracts from the playwright. There are clever bits about aphasia, grammar, and the nature of existence ("Harold, Wallace, and Winnie. Two cats." "You just said three names." "You're making a very good point."), but save for the few scenes that are entirely monologue-based, they're hard to grok. What you'll most likely remember from an observation about tourism is not the pang of first-world guilt, but rather how the actress describes herself as "nuclear fission," "radioactive," "Hiroshima" and "The Eastern Front."

The main point is made, though, echoing in different incarnations throughout the play: we shouldn't just say things. Logic demands a beginning, middle, and an end. Life is not but a(n American) dream. In the best possible way, then, to Freeman and company: Mission Accomplished. Now, can we get real again?

No comments: