Sunday, October 9, 2011

Decade: 9/11 Ten Years Later

I was hesitant to check out Rupert Goold's Decade in London.  After all the 9/11 ten year anniversary hoopla last month, I was starting to feel like I had some breathing room from it.  Frankly I have been struggling with my feelings about 9/11 for 10 years.  I have said repeatedly that I still don't have any perspective on what happened.  I thought maybe a play written by a variety of authors and produced in England might give me some perspective.  The producer of the show was the Headlong Theatre company.  They were the ones behind Enron.

The show is staged in a "site-specific" office building.  The audience sits in "Windows on the World"  around dinner tables with views of the Empire State Building and the harbor from 110 stories up in the air.  There is a circular raised "dance floor" in the middle of the dining room and the performances take place there, on top of various tables, and above the audience's heads behind a wall of glass where it looks like office spaces would be.  Upon entering the "theater" space, you are sent through a metal detector and are surrounded by the post-2001 era TSA signs that reflect the extreme changes put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  It is a fantastic approach and setting and did not come off as gimmicky.  In fact, it made the show a lot more intimate and engaging.

The work is essentially a series of short plays woven together in theme and unfortunately it comes off as choppy and disjunctive.  Some of the connecting scenes are dance/movement/musical sequences.  Unexpectedly, those were the most effective for me.
Maybe there is something about this event that words cannot express yet movement and theater are well-suited for.  I generally do not like dance and often find it hard to connect to the narrative.  But here, the narrative is so well-known and words so ineffectual that watching people covered in dust standing at a glass wall contemplating their death is pretty much all you need to see or say.

Perhaps an hour long version of just those sequences with some narrative ones interspersed might have been, on the whole, more successful.  Instead it was 3 hours of various short plays and movement.  There are scenes about widows, there are scenes about Muslim deli owners, there are scenes about the memorial, and about the death of bin Laden.  But rather than developing characters to invest in or even connect with emotionally, the brevity of each scene and sequence made it very hard to connect.   Most of the play was focused on life after 9/11.  How people have coped, or not.  How our world has changed, or not.  But the most emotional scenes were the scenes of what the director/authors imagine was happening in the building that day.  The lighting, sound, music and movement of people trying to break the glass and get out of the building was incredibly powerful and well-staged.

Unfortunately the program did not connect which author with which segment so I cannot tell you which authors I thought really achieved something with their pieces.

The main through line of the show was a series of scenes with 9/11 widows from 2011 back to 2000.  They follow three women who meet up every year on the anniversary and as time moves on the women's feelings about the anniversary change: anniversary fatigue, people who move on and want to forget versus those who do not.  It is an interesting and important discussion.  It is one that I often think about.  I did not think the writing really captured who those women were as people.  Instead, they came off as symbols of certain feelings about the anniversary but limited to three women who in theory came from similar backgrounds.  The New York accents were pretty bad and it was distracting.  It was the kind of moment that reminded me I was in England and non-New Yorkers were producing this show.  I wish this part had been stronger and more compelling because it was essentially the backbone of the work.  Because it did not make a strong emotional connection, I kept losing interest.  The last thing a 9/11 show should be is boring and yet this repetitive sequence was just that.

There was a kind of funny/sad sequence about the guy who sells trinkets at the memorial gift shop who tries to pick up women who come to visit the memorial.  In a show without much levity, it was actually welcome.  But I think it could have been funnier in a better actor's hands. 

There was one monologue which I am still confused about, where I think some woman tries to pretend she is a trade center survivor who lost her fiancee. The performance was really messy and I wasn't sure what was being said. 

I really liked one particular story about a State Department employee who is dating Benazir Bhutto's niece and the day Bhutto was killed.  It expressed more about how for some people life after 9/11 was no different than life before and the coldness of the niece in the face of another family member being assassinated was compelling and real.  It also took the work out of a purely US perspective and cast a more global light on the events.  Cat Simmons played the niece and I enjoyed her work throughout the show in the variety of characters she played.

Overall, the most successful narrative sequence for me, was a monologue by an IT worker who worked in the Trade Center who ended up with the day off on 9/11 and watched events unfold from his apartment in Jersey City.  The segment starring Tobias Menzies felt much more specific than the other sequences.   It didn't feel like a lecture or a symbol.  It felt like a personal, unique journey that really doesn't "mean" anything in a global sense but means everything to the person experiencing it.  The performance and the writing captured the feeling that the whole event, the whole experience was in some ways impossible to comprehend.  We can speak about it, we can describe it and we can express feelings about it but in the end our brains almost cannot process what exactly happened and our hearts will struggle with dueling feelings about it all. 

Maybe that is why I struggle with a sense of perspective.  For me the feelings are too personal to translate into something larger.  It obviously has huge political, historical and global significance, but what is that when your heart is broken or your grief is overwhelming. 

The emotional place I went on that day was to a fear I had always had as a child. My father was a firefighter and I always feared he would go to work one day and not come home.   I went to the 9/11 firefighter funerals with my Dad and his department.  It was probably the last time my father and I saw eye to eye on something.  I remember trying to meet him on Fifth Avenue at St. Patrick's Cathedral.  The entire street was a sea of firefighters in their dress uniforms, all looking remarkable similar, all with my Dad's mustache--for some reason all firefighters seem to have that mustache from time immemorial.  I panicked for a moment I would not be able to find him, like a child lost in a department store.  And then I found him and we payed our respects together.

Oddly enough Decade made very little reference to the firefighters and rescue workers who died.  It was a surprising absence.  

In trying to make sense of the incomprehensible, Decade offers many different experiences to connect to but I think on the whole it is an interesting experiment with only middling success.  That said, I would check out other works by Headlong in the future. 

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