Monday, September 12, 2011

THEATER: The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill

Photo/Anton Nickel
Ever read 3nuts or Garfield Minus Garfield? If so, then you'll feel right at home with the latest full-length production from the New York Neo-Futurists, The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill: Vol. 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays, which recontextualizes early O'Neill plays by performing only the stage directions, albeit in a selectively adapted and comically directed fashion, both courtesy of Christopher Loar. It's somewhat of a party trick, and if this isn't already an improv game, it soon will be. But at a swift seventy-five minutes, it doesn't wear itself out, thanks especially to the game six-person ensemble and their nimble-tongued narrator, Jacquelyn Landgraf. And while it's not necessarily as revelatory as earlier Neo-Futurist shows, like The Soup Show, it succeeds in expanding the company's repertory to a whole new level of non-illusory theater, one that's filled both with humor and existential terror (Beckett fans will rejoice): see both Lauren Sharpe's whimsically lewd depiction of O'Neill's description of a painting that's "an orgy of colors," and the way that she struggles under the weight of a dozen somewhat contradictory and poetically vague descriptions. (Consider the phrase "inefficiently pompous." Good. Now try to express that.)

Perhaps most surprising is the general clarity -- and hopelessness, presented here with humor -- that remains even in drastically abridged versions of O'Neill. The seven plays range from 1913 to 1917, covering everything from what appears to be a low-class gangster drama ("The Web") to the last shreds of humanity found on a shark-surrounded lifeboat ("Thirst") and the secret affairs of the upper-class ("Servitude"). These changes of pace are much appreciated, since the majority of the show is presented in Our Town minimalism, with the performance space blocked off in white tape so as to leave the wings (and idle actors) onstage, their entrances now as much a part of the show as in, say, those from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And yet, it's the uniform nature of the show, of the wardrobe -- grays, browns, suspenders -- that allows the uniquely flawed, peccably perfect language to stand out. Consider the half-whisper -- "Whis...," calls one actor -- or a "sigh . . . that is kind of like a moan." If there's an imbalance, it is a slight one, noticed only occasionally in the difference between the way a veteran Neo-Futurist like Cara Francis or Erica Livingston "throws herself into a chair" and the way Danny Burnam, Brendan Donaldson, and Connor Kalista do. [Update: As noted in the comments below, Kalista is actually one of the more senior Neo-Futurists; the error is mine, although I maintain that there's a difference in abandon between the men and women of this cast, one that in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the show.]

The text may be Eugene O'Neill's, but Christopher Loar has boldly liberated these "directions," like so much found art: chiseled out of one era and cast anew. And while the final five minutes are particularly clever, in the way in which they elevates both a simple stage effect and an absurd punchline, you could just as easily say that of any part of the show -- the chaos of an accordion in "Bound East for Cardiff" or the triplicate effect Loar uses to echo the very basic elements of "Before Breakfast." So with that in mind, here are your stage directions: take the F train to Second Avenue, walk to Fourth Street, and check out The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill.


1 comment:

Justin said...

Correction to your posting: While Danny Burnham and Brendan Donaldson are not Neo-Futurists (but very close friends/collaborators), Connor Kalista is actually a more senior Neo-Futurist than even Cara Francis or Erica Livingston in the company. His tenure goes all the way back to origins with the Chicago Neo-Futurists. Just wanted to correct that fact.

Justin (also a veteran Neo-Futurist)