Thursday, December 31, 2009

metaDRAMA: Theater in 2009

How Soon Is Now
This play was so good, I actually offered to pay for people's tickets; the gimmick to this modern "Peter and the Wolf" involved getting the audience physically involved and invested in the process. The show begins as a lantern-lit walk through the pitch-dark second floor of a being-renovated church, with ambient sounds and shapes wafting up from the stage; it then builds as the Wolf runs through the audience, forcing members of the audience to help the cast pin him down. Thus involved--and pulse-poundingly kept there by the live band and the potent choreography--we are implicated as judge, jury, and executioner, forced to consider our own morality (and perhaps mortality) long after the show is done.

Call Cutta in a Box
I have already forgotten the name of the representative from India who guided me through this one-audience show, but I will never forget the experience, and all that's sort of the point. Who stops to consider the outsourced labor on a tech support call? Or bothers to empathize with the employee who may be just as frustrated as you? There are whole lives and worlds out there, beyond the ones we encounter each day, and both technology and theater have the ability to make us more aware and open to that--so both should.

Also raising awareness--and the bar--was Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's collage of interviews with ordinary Iraqi citizens, a reminder of the human costs of war. We tend to generalize, but this show, thanks to its exceptional cast, reminded us that there are individuals everywhere you go, from smug dermatologists to scrappy artists, from married chefs trying to make due to imams who cannot simply be stereotyped, or who may have reasons--like being unjustly tortured--for their anger. It's powerful stuff.

The Pride of Parnell Street
Equally powerful is this slow yet richly paced play from Sebastian Barry, an intimate look into the lives of two people who are struggling--on account of their shared past--to get past their shared past. Despite being so soaked in memories--or perhaps because of it--the show remains very much grounded in the forward momentum of the present; that is, that we can only go forward. Barry's honesty reminds us how to do so; at a time when America prides itself in the smug, self-absorbed, misanthropic anti-hero Who Nonetheless Gets Things Done (how Objectivist), it is terrific to see Aidan Kelly and Mary Murry, in the true Irish style, reminding us of the importance of the flawed hero.

Krapp, 39
Speaking of flaws, Michael Laurence managed to get rid of all of his by embracing them. His goal--to record the thirty-nine-year-old portion of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape at the age of 39, and to then use it to fuel his performance in thirty years--not only revealed a lot about the sort of investment it takes to be an actor, but about how important the minutiae are; blink and you've missed your entire life. Fail to properly record a memory, and perhaps its gone forever. It was a meta-existential crisis, and all the better for its honesty and grace.

circle mirror transformation
Of course, no show was better at being honest this year than Annie Baker's new play. There was no exposition, no real "plot," and the pacing--six theater classes--was intentionally slow, to "mirror," if you will, what those classes are all about. (Self-discovery, learning to really listen, and more importantly, to really communicate.) And yet, through that, each character still grows--drastically--by actually doing what the play, and the class-within-a-play, demonstrate. It was the highlight of the year, for me.


  • Clay MacLeod Chapman's Pumpkin Pie Show is still going strong, with his eerie monologues once again turning to huge disasters: in the case of Commencement, it's a school shooting, and Hannah Cheek's portrayal of three forever-affected bystanders will stick with you.

  • On a lighter note, Matthew A. J. Gregory and his company managed to produce a contemporary farce, The Hypochondriac, by working off Moliere's classic (The Imaginary Invalid); their intimate space--an actually posh two-floor apartment--sold the conceit, but the actors, who had nowhere to hide, are the ones who really sold the reality of the comedy. It's best when actors don't play for laughs, after all.

  • On the flip-side, selling the authenticity of this socioeconomic play, was the cast and crew of The Thickness of Skin, which actually managed to be frightening on a physical level, thanks to Michael Chenevert's desperate, uninhibited performance.

  • Granted, Qui Nguyen's Soul Samurai was derivative of a half-dozen film genres, and yet, as a work of theater blending all of those together, it wound up being its own animal, and being the most effective of Nguyen's plays yet. Polished, engaging, and with terrific performances (including the rising Paco Tolson), you couldn't ask for much more.

  • Company XIV's Austin McCormick is also openly derivative--except that most audiences don't know what baroque dance is. Gaudy, but not tacky; burlesque, but not sloppy; picturesque, but not static, all three parts of his ambitious, genre-spanning Apple Trilogy were terrific, though a special shout out to Le Serpent Rouge!

  • And don't forget August Schulenberg's great ensemble piece, The Lesser Seductions of History, which pilfered an entire decade of United States history, processed it with the once-removed eyes of Our Town, and then truly made us feel the significance of big moments via the small, individual moments that are constantly shaping us (even as we otherwise miss them).

  • I can't leave out Josh Conkel's absurdly effective MilkMilkLemonade, in which talking chickens, terrified narrators, evil twins, and gender-reversed casting drive home the point that everything we do in life is the fulfillment of one role or another. Why not, then, choose the ones that make us happy, even if that involves becoming the next Andrew Dice Clay?

  • Likewise, Young Jean Lee's tricksy The Shipment, which used exaggerated vignettes to demonstrate the ways in which--whether we play to type or against it--we are still just playing, and should never be dismissed or simply taken at face value. Depth, people, depth.

  • And then, nailing the allegorical warnings of science-fiction, there was Ashlin Halfnight's Artifacts of Consequence, which explores what (of art) is truly important, and worth preserving, once everything else has vanished. What--in other words--is the point of living in a world in which only Twinkies have lasted? Thankfully, this production was nowhere near as blunt as this encapsulation.
Honorable Mentions!
Jailbait was a witty, villain-less play about growing up; Powerhouse was an inventive bio-drama that presented itself in the style of its subject; Electric Pear's Synesthesia '09 was an interpretive masterwork of collaboration; and Daniel Robert's Haunted House was an ode to the simpler, perhaps happier, days of childhood, before technology turned us all into smug, cynical, know-it-alls.

Yes, I saw Broadway shows this year. They're not up in the list above because they didn't stay with me. And of the shows that are on my list, none of them would work on Broadway (some of them don't even work in a theater). Which is sort of the point I'm making. With the exception of Sarah Ruhl's In The Next Room...or, the Vibrator Play, which had lively subject material, terrific acting, and a fabulously directed ending, most of what I saw was being played to such a big audience that it couldn't help but be a bit "broad." (I'm looking at you, Superior Donuts.) What's effective from a technical standpoint--like the television segments of Memphis--isn't as emotionally affective as it should be.

And though there were outstanding performances, like Christopher Fitzgerald's leprechaun in Finian's Rainbow, it was rare that the whole show fit together. To be fair, off-off and off-Broadway had more than their share of outright flops and follies--percent-wise, Broadway's probably doing better, even if their shows are still losing money--but at least many of those failures come from taking big risks--risks that have, for some of these companies, now started to really reward their audiences.

2009 wasn't a bad year for theater. It was a bad year for Broadway. I'm hoping everyone steps their game up in 2010; I'm looking forward to it either way. I'll see you all again on January 6th, 2010, to kick off coverage of the Under the Radar Festival. Happy New Year!

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