Thursday, June 04, 2009

DR.C (or How I Learned To Act in Eight Steps)

Photo/Candida K. Nichols

Simultaneously self-indulgent and wholly giving, Theater Mitu's "new-form" experiment, DR.C (or How I Learned To Act in Eight Steps) is an admirable beast. It is almost certainly, however, not for the innocent bystander. For almost two intermissionless hours, the cast of eight follows a procedure designed by director/creator Ruben Polendo to dissect and evaluate the worth of acting, one that turns the philosophies of Aristotle, Appia, Stanislavski, Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski, Brook, and Bogart, into a living palimpsest. It's remarkable, but problems pile up right from the start.

For one, Polendo's framing device roboticizes the actors, explaining that they've been programmed with--of all things--the physical text of the 1918 silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. However, it's been so processed that even fans of the film will find the actors to be unrecognizable, especially given the high-tech atmosphere of 3LD. The actors spend the first four steps "growing" out of their percussive, jagged movements (on Amy Charlotte Rubin's grid-like set), and never reach the clear fluidity of the film. The same goes for Candida K. Nichols's costuming, for while the wool-ish suits appear to be from the right era, the avant-garde accouterments (collapsible-wire hoods, flotation devices) are clearly not. Ellen Reid's live score (performed alongside Jef Evans, Dan Murphy, and William Thomason) helps somewhat, but less so considering that the actors, playing themselves, are also assigned parts ("Acting," Critic #2," "The Audience," "The Poet") in name only.

Now, you can chalk the insufferable opening "steps" up to Adolphe Appia, whose core philosophy is summed up as "If we wish to be happy together, we must first of all suffer together." Or to Konstantin Stanislavski, from whom they've gathered that "The actor like an infant must learn from the beginning to look, to walk, to talk." But that, like the entire play, is just so much talk. One can just as easily rebut that this a failure of Brecht's Epic Theater (Step Five): even if we judge not by being satisfied but by being transformed, Polendo must face up to the fact that his audiences are more likely to be informed than transformed. On second thought, blame it on Appia after all, for Polendo's brutally deliberate physicalization is nothing more than an intellectualization of the body, making the body "nothing but the bearer and representative of a literary text," or in this case, eight fragmented texts.

But let's get away from the philosophy (all of which is, incidentally, sung): the execution is impeccable and unforgettable. After the first hour, it has become literally impressive, particularly as Polendo's actors escape the straitjacketing of the basic movements. Artaud's Theater of Cruelty is filled with actors screaming into microphones, the lights are turned out, and the actors run around with flashlights stuck up their armadillo-like hoods. Brecht's belief that "a theater that cannot be laughed in is a theater to be laughed at" leads Polendo to project random "facts" onto the stage as the actors clown their way through a mess of elevated wires, inflating parts of their costumes, and--for the first moment--allowing the audience a glimmer of life and humanity beneath their one-hundred-and-ten-percent professional veneers.

It's here that Polendo hits another wall. His presentation is at odds with Grotowski's Theater of the Poor--which emphasizes that theater is just an actor and an audience--and his attempts to resolve that dip so far into unwelcome minimalism that the show begins, as the actors strip off their outer layers for the plain whites of the Initiated, to go New Age. By the time the show begins to explore Peter Brooks, the music has taken on an Indian beat, the actors have pulled out chimes, and--now occasionally speaking in unison--chant that "Theater is life!" It's the sort of so-serious gospel that one expects to see at the Living Theater (no disrespect meant to Polendo or Judith Malina); it's the sort of inward, alienating (not in Brecht's style) performance that can only preach to the choir and, at best, stun the innocent bystander.

And yet, it's impossible to dismiss such devotion and dedication to craft, and harder still for a theater critic to objectively judge the value, importance, or even entertainment of such a singular work. Polendo and his admirable company--Justin Nestor, Matthew Carlson, Aysan Celik, Adam Chochran, Nathan Elam, Laura Stinger, Emily Davis, and Marc LeVasseur--are grappling with the existential big ideas of theater. Theater Mitu can rest on that note, having at least satisfied Peter Brooks: "To play needs much work. But when we experience the work as play, then it is not work any more."

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