Friday, April 26, 2013

Quick Bites: When Shows Do Not Work

I tend to see, almost exclusively, professional theater in New York.  Even it at it's worst, I usually find something of merit (Venus in Fur excluded).  Lately I have had a good run of seeing shows I really enjoyed (Bullet Catch, The Assembled Parties) or shows I appreciated even if I did not fall in love (Matilda, Hands on a Hardbody) but there have also been some shows that did not work for me at all.

But I started to think about the good that sometimes comes from the bad.

 * * *

I caught Lanford Wilson's The Mound Builders at Signature Theatre and left that show at a loss for nice things to say.  It was not worthy of a scathing review. It was just a jumble of wrong angles that did not add up to a workable production.  There were some strange directing and acting choices that obscured whatever meaning the work had (and it did not stand out as a strong piece of source material to begin with).  But in a sea of things that felt off, a few pieces of nice work stood out and I might have overlooked them otherwise.

First, Zachary Booth had a drunk scene with an actress playing his wife.  He kept everything on a believable plane.  Not too loud, too tipsy, too clumsy.  But as he was sitting on the floor with his wife sitting behind him he reached out and started playing with her foot.  It was the tiniest of moments.  But this intimacy between husband and wife is made so clear in that moment.  It's not overt or loudly telegraphed.  It's played absent-minded and drunkenly.  But it said so much more about the characters and their dynamics than much of the rest of the play.

Also notable in this production was Neil Patel's scenic design and Rui Rita's lighting which created a character out of the house and this mystical location.   I might not have fond recollections of this show in the future but I'll keep an eye out for Zachary Booth in other things.

* * *

Tristan Sturrock's personal life story of returning to acting after breaking his neck in a freak accident is remarkable.  The theatrical version of that story, Mayday Mayday, currently playing at St. Ann's Warehouse is less so.  Written by and starring Sturrock as himself (among all the other characters) and directed by Sturrock's wife (who also features in the story) Katy Carmichael, the material is close to the hearts of those involved.  He says it is a story he did not want to tell.  And unfortunately I felt that hesitation in every aspect of the production. 

There's no question I love a good storyteller (It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later, Bad Kid, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs).  But here, somehow an intensely personal tale, told by the man who lived it, gets stripped of its emotional impact.  The production seems fixated on the external.  The theatrical devices used--vague projections, children's toys for the ambulance and medevac helicopter, literal smoke and mirrors, and some miniature skeletons--illustrated the tale but did not enlighten anything.  Rather than creating indelible images or expressing what could not be said, they felt purely instructional.   I left the show realizing I had little understanding of the emotions of Sturrock or anyone else rendered but a lot of facts about the incident. For a one man show about himself, there was, oddly, minimal introspection. 

I was aghast at my own reaction.  Was I rejecting Sturrock and his personal pain?  And then I realized he had not really bothered to include his personal pain in the show.  I think he tacitly acknowledges it but he never opens up to share it.  Sturrock has a pleasant, comedic personality but the type that makes you feel like he tells a joke to cover up his emotional struggles.  The character he creates on stage seems bound to avoid the messy bits in exchange for an easier laugh.

I feel like I'm his therapist complaining about his withholding.  All in all this story did not come to life for me.  It did not lack for factual appraisal, but it did not draw strong conclusions or build toward a strong theme.  That accidents happen and some people are lucky felt too pat a takeaway but there was little meat on the skeletal bones of this show. 

I know I was somewhat alone in my assessment of Mayday Mayday.  A woman behind me was moved to tears and an irritating woman a few seats away kept projecting loud  "awws" of sympathy at every moment in the show (FFS!!!).   So for others perhaps Sturrock gave enough of himself in the story.  But for me, I want to be told a story.  I want the teller to, in the tradition of calling upon "a Muse of Fire" use his or her tools, tricks, creativity and invention to move me, take me somewhere unexplored, reveal things to me I was not expecting, and shed light on a story previously untold. 

It was good to see a storyteller I did not like to remind me that it is not an easy art form to work in and I appreciate those who do it well so much more. 

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