Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Snow Geese: Overstuffed and Undercooked

Modern play recipe for disaster:  Start with one needy but beguiling woman coddled and cared for by the men around her, make sure you separate the woman from her husband (death is a good option) so she is left floundering in a soup of helplessness and woe, then mix in a precious child who is so charming that's all anyone tells you is how charming he is, and then gently fold in a son who does everything for everyone and no one notices him.  Add a splash of ethnic color with a German Uncle, and a Ukrainian maid, a soupçon of World War I panic, and a heavy dose of money troubles.  Set it in the country to bake.  In no time at all you'll have a Chekhovian soufflé that will be sure to fail because you're not Chekhov. 

Welcome to Sharr White's (The Other Place) new play, The Snow Geese, directed by Daniel Sullivan.  A saggy, half-baked mess which boasts a stellar cast who are sadly left struggling to breathe life into a thin script. 

Golden boy Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) has returned to his family's shooting cottage two months after his fathers death. His mother Elizabeth (Mary Louise Parker) is struggling to hold things together. On the eve of being set off to war as part of a tony regiment of the wealthiest scions of New York, Duncan's whole life has been society parties and aggressive social climbing. Whereas his younger brother, the oft neglected Arnold (Brian Cross), is in need of Duncan's help. Turns out Arnold has combed through the family books and has figured out that the family is broke.  But no one will listen to Arnold.  Also under the same roof are the boys' Aunt Clarissa (Victoria Clark) and Uncle Max (Danny Burstein). Max,  still saddled with a German accent after 30 years in America, has been unable to practice medicine after the war broke out. They've brought along their maid Viktorya (Jessica Love) who was an aristocrat in Europe but was driven from her homeland by the war.

It's a house full of people who are stuck--lost in grief, religion, or self-absorption.  Now Chekhov made a career out of giving people like this a voice. The vain, the moneyed, the climbers, and the put-upon.  And he had a knack for finding the poetry in their inertia.  All White brings to this play is a family and the inertia.  Everything is done in broad strokes so nothing feels authentic emotionally or dramatically.

The 1917 setting is constantly spoken of but most of the play feels anachronistic--spiritually and linguistically.  Perhaps his intent was not to create an accurate portrait of 1917 life, but the costumes and setting suggest this was supposed to be close to the mark and not an attempt at Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson revisionism.  I never felt the characters expressed or grasped the fear or anxiety of the world at war even though that war had come to their doorsteps and they talked about it a lot.  But the worst crime of the play is that the characters end up shallow portraits and not flesh and blood humans.

Despite the length and a lot of talking, the characters remain symbols or ideas.  Although the above the title draw is Mary Louise Parker, most of the drama comes from the tension between the two sons.  Of course there are many plays where the rivalry of brothers, the beloved and the forgotten, can provide for powerful drama and emotional catharsis.  I was a sobbing, snot covered mess after seeing Arthur Miller's The Price.  But in The Snow Geese, neither performer quite finds the heart of his character or an emotional hook for the audience--though I largely blame the script for setting up the idea of a conflict between the brothers but failing to make it the least bit engaging.  It was like watching a writing exercise where someone was trying to purge their emotional problems but feared going too deep or getting to close to the material.  So it's the idea of a struggle without any energy behind it. 

One of things I have enjoyed in the Chekhov plays I have seen is how he takes longing--whether for fame, riches, escape, love, or freedom--and let's it grow, then fester or abscess.  The audience gets to see the characters want, and then sees that desire fall through the characters' fingers or exist just beyond their reach.  Sometimes it is a mirage and the drama is in watching the character find out for himself.

Here, White takes each character's desire and puts a fine point on it.  They say what they want.  They say it again.  They say it a lot.  It probably won't happen because they are delusional.  But you never FEEL them wanting anything...because they have said it.  Over and over again.  There is no where to go. Nothing to grow into.  Someone forgot the subtext. 

It's hard not to make the Chekhov comparison because it feels like White himself is striving so hard for that kind of emotional family epic with the back-drop of a changing world impinging on the family's sense of self.  I'm a fan of plays that try for something nobly even if they fall short and fail.  But here, the play did not feel like it was trying at all.  Like White had taken Chekhov down to his literal bones and thought all he had to do was plug his words into that basic framework and voilà.  I was enraged at how poor it was both on its own merit or in comparison to other dramas and for making a cast of terrific actors jump through such lumbering and imprecise hoops. 

As I sat their fuming over the utter waste of Parker, Clark and Burstein, I found myself appreciating Chekhov all the more.  Of course when Chekhov is done badly it can be like watching paint dry.  But when done right, the modernity of it--the self-awareness, avoidance of self-knowledge, the desires to move outside of class and station, the connection to the natural world, the agonizing anxieties of money and desire at conflict with one another--is breathtaking. 

The Snow Geese unfortunately may have thrown many of those things into the mixing bowl, but it still ended up a flavorless porridge. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Mr. Burns Revisited: We Shed as We Pick Up

Remember life before the internet.  When you had to remember things.  You had to tell people about things they had not seen.  Once an episode of television aired that was it.  It was over.  Movies before VCRs were simply things you had to see or you missed.  What survived of the movie was our memory of it and maybe you remembered things wrong.* 

It has become so easy today to just turn to your computer or your smartphone and settle the argument about what year Say Anything came out?  What did Bette Davis actually sound like? Should we watch all the episodes of the West Wing right now?  When did I last hear from you?**  In an instant our queries can be answered  and our desires can be met.  Immediate relief from any anxiety or wanting.  

In some respects, The Civilians' production of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play is the theatrical hypothesis of what if that on-demand culture we are so comfortable with ceased to exist.  What would we do?  How would we cope?  What would we remember?  What would be forgotten?  Ultimately, it is about how we would put the world back together again and remake the things that help us communicate and connect.  How would "humanity" survive and it imagines what that would look like.

Written by Anne Washburn and directed by Steve Cosson, I saw Mr. Burns last year in D.C. and loved it.  But in revisiting it, I was struck by the deeper resonance the piece had for me and the intellectual satisfaction I got from this play.   Like time-lapse photography, Mr Burns speeds up the evolution of language, expression, entertainment, and communication, and we are given a unique perspective that allows us to trace that evolution.  Life is a literal pastiche of the things that have come before. 

In Act I,  a group of strangers have gathered around a campfire.  Mid-story we arrive to hear the group trying to remember an episode of The Simpsons.  Matt (Matthew Maher) is leading the charge as others weigh in on the bits they recall.  A memory of a musical tune.  A recollection of a shot sequence.  A fair impression of Kelsey Grammer doing Sideshow Bob.  They are trying to remember the Cape Feare episode, which is an homage to the film Cape Fear and the remake of that film but references Gilbert and Sullivan, Night of the Hunter and other bits of popular culture.  

When a new stranger appears, Gibson (Gibson Frazier), the seriousness of the situation becomes more apparent.  There has been some sort of nuclear meltdown and plague that has felled many.  With nothing more than what they can carry and what they can forage, these are some of the survivors.  And their new ritual begins.  Querying Gibson as the newest arrival, each person asks about family members or friends and hopes he will find their name in his book.  They each return the favor.  Each person looks to their handwritten books where they have written down the people they have come into contact with.  Each has their own catalog of survivors--returning to a world of pen and paper and information is passed person to person. 

These survivors are in need of distraction from the anxiety of not knowing what has happened, who is left, or what will become of them.  Everything in their lives is uncertainty.  Sitting around recalling an episode of The Simpsons provides something concrete and certain.

Act II pushes the story ahead seven years and from the confusion of the unknown, the campfire strangers have stuck together and have acquired some newcomers.  They have become a performance troupe.  These troupes (there are many rival performing companies) recreate episodes of television (including several of The Simpsons) and commercials for a live audience. The purpose of this performance is more than entertainment.  The survivors are trying to recreate flavors, sensations, and memories for things that no longer exist--the smell of bath salts, the taste of wine.  They are committed to keeping alive that connection to the world that is gone now.  In a post-apocalyptic world, reminding each other of a collective humanity is a necessity.   The forgetting would be fatal.  What has transpired in the past seven years is unclear but the threat now comes from other people.  These performances are a response to the desperation and uncertainty in this new world order.

Act III pushes the story another 80 years into the future from there and we are watching a musical-operatic version of the recreation of Cape Feare with music by Michael Friedman.  Like a sophisticated visual and aural game of "telephone," some of the bits of Cape Feare that the original survivors remembered live on a generation or two into the future.  But like a game of telephone, passing information human to human over decades is imperfect and the final result is far afield from the original.  These future performers use familiar fragments of the past--lines, catch-phrases, bits of music--but they are re-contextualized.  As viewers from the present, peering through a strange looking-glass to an unfamiliar future, we can hear strands of You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch being sung but in this discombobulated world of tomorrow it is about Mr. Burns instead.  Now Cape Feare has become a celebratory allegory for survival.  

From the moment you enter the theater, and covers of famous songs are playing, the world that Washburn, Cosson, and Friedman have created is about taking the quotidian and the popular and re-rendering it so you look at the world differently.  The Simpsons, as a base language and vocabulary for the story, makes a lot of sense.  First, it is accessible and you've probably absorbed enough knowledge about The Simpsons simply through cultural osmosis.  Second, in the world of Mr. Burns which has suffered a nuclear meltdown, here is a piece of the pop culture past that often referenced nuclear energy and would likely have had more resonance as time moved on.  Third, The Simpsons has always been a sponge for bits of popular culture and so it is itself already a place where references to other works get repurposed and therefore adds another meta layer to an already meta concept.

The play relies on essentially the same source material in three totally different contexts.  Like theatrical archaeologists, we know what the objects are, but our understanding of their use, their purpose, and their meaning evolves as we understand the cultures they are borne out of.

The glorious part of this show is that despite everything--being at the precipice of the end of civilization--storytelling survives.  Whether around a campfire to stave off fear and dread, or in a ramshackle warehouse to provide emotional solace and comfort to a world that is starting to forget itself, or on a "stage" framed by a television screen celebrating the endurance of humanity that doubted its own survival, the act of performing live for an audience continues.  That audience's wants and needs evolve.  The work evolves with them.  But the act of storytelling remains a necessary and critical part of our humanity.

I was reminded of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. As Thomasina Coverly worries about the lost plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus destroyed in the Great Library of Alexandria, her tutor comforts her.
"You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe...We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The procession is very long and life is very short.  We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.  The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language."

And so here Washburn and Cosson take the pieces lost on the march and re-write the plays of Sophocles...or well...Matt Groening and Co.   Those behind pick up the pieces and though the language may have changed, the objects are not lost.  But seeing how the meaning of those objects changes through times is the illuminating brilliance of the play.  It is a text made up of pop cultural items we know and take for granted and we watch as those things we "know" are woven into an entirely new unfamiliar tapestry. 

Originally I found Act III the hardest to reconcile and after this second viewing suddenly the entire work fit together for me.  When I first saw the play in D.C., I got really attached to the Act I and II characters and the movement away from them in Act III was really jarring for me.  Because I was wrapped up in the emotional state of the characters, I failed to recognize some of the structural and thematic work at play until my second viewing.  In addition, lost in the New York production was some of the levity of the original in D.C.  I felt the balance between comedy and drama was more acute there.  Here, it started a bit heavier and Act III's Wagnerian excess felt more like the emotional catharsis it was always meant to be.  I wish there could have been more of a balance of comedy and still delivering a powerful release at the end.  Act III was not just a society performing it's survival tale and telling a story.  It was a celebrating its origin myth and calling everyone to honor and remember it--the new Independence Day (movie or event, take your pick)--and this time I really felt that.

Through theater, Washburn, Cosson, and Friedman, give us a chance to piece together for ourselves the strands of music, language, communication, and connection that make us human and give us meaning.  I feel like shows that ask the audience to step up and pay attention in this way are a rare delight.

*I am always reminded of an interview with Martin Scorsese talking about films he remembered when he was a film student.  His recollection of the films that inspired him were just that--a recollection rendered through his memory.  When he went to make his own movies all he could rely on were the memories of the films that came before because they were not accessible for him to view again.  Whereas my generation of film student could, for better or worse,  just run out to a video store and rewatch movies we wanted to.  Memory had little to do with it.  And I think in some ways direct referencing is a lot less interesting than being influenced and inspired by films filtered through your personal perspective. The excitement comes from how you reinterpret, repurpose, recontextualize, and change what it was that inspired you.  Shot-for-shot remakes are such a waste of imagination.

**The experimental work, I Wish I Was Lonely, asked fascinating questions about how this instant connection could be harming us emotionally. I've had this show on my mind since I saw it in August and I feel like I keep bringing it up to anyone who will listen.  It probes our feelings of connection in  unexpected ways.  It may pop up on tour in the UK so keep an eye out for it.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ciara and Grounded: Powerful Women on Stage

The Edinburgh Fringe offered a number of solo shows with strong and dynamic female characters.   In two shows at the Traverse Theatre, Ciara by David Harrower and Grounded by George Brant, the women are being used by the world around them.  They believe in people and institutions which ultimately betray them.

Presented in very different ways with totally unique styles, there was something to these unexpected women that made me think of the plays as in dynamic conversation with each other.  These women were self-possessed and unique.  One a gallery owner with a love of art who understands the seamy criminal underworld in the most personal way.  The other a female air force pilot who becomes a mother and has to juggle two very different ways of life.  They are both pulled in opposing directions by the two aspects of their lives and for a while they walk the tightrope.  But in the end, neither's balance is good enough to stay upright forever.  


"Show them you seek nothing."

Poised in a ballgown, glass of champagne in hand, seated in what looks like a warehouse with a filthy mattress on the floor, Blythe Duff is a BAMF in David Harrower's play Ciara.  She is the daughter and wife of a Glasgow crime lord. Knowledgeable about the family business she is tough but elegant. Perceptive and smart—too smart—she sees and understands more than she should and with that knowledge there is pain.

A portrait of Glasgow, fathers and daughters, men and women, Harrower's play oscillates between the realities of today and memories of the past. Ciara tells up her story which weaves in issues of tradition, honor, power, and loss with bitter sarcasm and a broken heart. The play itself is a colorful monologue that flits through time. A good tale but at times the jokes went over my head as the play pokes fun at Glasgow and local Scottish personalities and places.  Nevertheless Duff is riveting.

After seeing her in Good with People earlier this year I was excited to see her in another collaboration with Harrower. She spins a yarn, shows her strength and her vulnerabilities, and pulls herself back together in front of our eyes as quickly as she fell apart. Duff’s a fantastic actress and she elevates the material into something special.



“It would be a different book if Odysseus came home from the war every day.”

Like a caged bird, The Pilot (Lucy Ellinson) stands in a cube made of scrims. When she looks up at what would be the sky, her eyes sparkle. When she talks about flying in “the blue” she becomes animated and electric. She is an American hot-shot air force pilot but when she learns she is pregnant she becomes “grounded—the pilot’s nightmare.” For a time motherhood is a distraction but she eagerly returns to service when she can, only to discover that air force pilots are no longer flying bomb dropping missions in F-16s. Instead they are manning drone planes. She will go to work every day in Las Vegas and with a joystick and computer screen control the plane and bombs to be dropped thousands of miles away.

This is the world of George Brant's monologue, Grounded, directed by Christopher Haydon.  

Instead of the blue, she spends her 12-hour shifts staring at “the gray”—a view of the ground from the camera on her drone plane. Suddenly, “the threat of death has been removed from our lives.” She can go home every night to her 3-year-old daughter and her husband. But as she would struggle to adjust when she would occasionally go home after overseas deployments, the daily readjustment from war to home is that same process happening every day.

Ellinson is as much a fly guy as Tom Cruise in Top Gun. All hopped up on fast planes and aggression, there is nowhere to blow off steam in the “chair force” drone trailers. And slowly the daily shift from war to home life takes its toll on her. Through lighting and projections on the floor, we shift between her home and her drone life.   Ellinson’s voice changes when she speaks to her daughter—surprising herself that she “sounds like a Mom.” But the longer this goes on the harder she finds it to turn off drone life.  As she becomes more fixated on her drone's computer screen, we get pulled along with her.  She is killing "bad guys" who are burying roadside IEDs, fiercely trying to protect her guys, scouring the gray blobs for anything useful. 

As she talks non-stop about what she is seeing, all I could think of is Tetris brain.  After playing Tetris for too long, you start to see Tetris everywhere.  And so does the Pilot.  The gray begins to bleed from the computer screen to her home life. As the audience, we too begin to get pulled into this tiny cube of dulled color and obsessive thoughts.

Ellinson embraces the physical strut of her military character and yet we never forget she is a woman. I’m not sure I’ve seen a character like this on stage before.  I saw Ellinson in Oh the Humanity last year at the Fringe and this role is totally different. With a range from drama to comedy, she continues to be a fascinating stage presence.

Ultimately I thought the play went on just a tiny bit too long but the growing intensity of the material and Ellinson’s performance made it another strong entry at the Traverse Theatre this year.