Friday, April 3, 2015

I'm Looking For Helen Twelvetrees: Lost in Memories

As I watched David Greenspan's dreamy memory play about gay identity through the years, a film actress from days of yore, and the challenges of ever really knowing anything from the past, I understood what he was trying to do.  Blending his own writing of the play, into his experience as a gay man in the 70's, with the characters and sentiments of Tennessee Williams, alongside the history of this actress and her possibly gay husband, he attempts to use memory, layering, and repetition to tell these stories, and his own story, in a nonlinear way.  But rather than all the complimentary aspects of these tales adding up to a coherent and emotionally gripping tale, I struggled to find my footing throughout.

Rather than getting poetically lost in the dreamscape he created (and the beautiful set and staging) I spent most of the time bored and impatient with his storytelling.  Unfortunately a number of things were working against the play.  Central to the problem was Greenspan's own performance.  He played a multitude of characters--from a 16 year-old boy in the 1950's searching for the now aged, early talkies actress Helen Twelvetrees to Greenspan himself as a young man in the 1970's to Twelvetrees ex-husband's new girlfriend to Twelvetrees's second husband and others.  But Greenspan's performance did not make each character clear in voice, manner, or carriage.   Since he narrates much of the storytelling it's a problem that these voices do not ring true and are not distinctive. 

Brooke Bloom and Keith Nobbs play Helen Twelvetrees and her first husband and do so passionately--with all their strife and struggle laid out to bear.  But despite their energy and verve, there was little they could do to clarify the narrative when so little of the storytelling was left to them.  

The structure of the play also worked against it rather than adding to the mystery.  It took me longer than it should have to understand Greenspan was telling his own life story in the midst of all of this as well as him trying to write this play.  The repetition did not make a lot of sense up front until it became more clear that he was struggling to write the story because there was so little information about Helen Twelvetrees out there.  Just tiny bits of clarity up front might have set the story in motion better, so that as things got repeated and layered they would have built upon each other for me.  Instead of flashes of memory or misremebered moments, with characters trading lines, and scenes being repeated or restaged to create poetry or mystery, it came across as muddy and uncertain. 

Working with a nonlinear narrative and an obscured thesis can be exciting and challenging on stage but only if the writer, director, and cast have a firm grasp on what they are doing. Despite beautiful staging by Leigh Silverman and the performances by Nobbs and Bloom, with so much falling to Greenspan, it just never clicked for me.

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