Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Subject Was Roses

Performance Date: 05.08.10
Pearl Theatre Company, NY City Center, Stage 2

I hate being late.  But increasingly, I find it happening, usually when my vanity has gotten the better of me and I find myself changing clothes multiple times instead of running out the door.  But I am rarely, rarely ever late for the theater.  And yet there I am, hopping into a cab in Chelsea at 1:52, trying to make it to 55th and 6th in midday traffic for a 2pm curtain.  Wishful thinking.

After slinking into the very intimate space, where The Subject Was Roses is 15 minutes into its first act, I very smartly decide not to cross the theater to my ticketed seat.  Instead, I quickly try to make myself as small as possible on a step near the door, freezing my body into perfect stillness and training a laser-like focus of concentration upon the stage.  I am hoping this will convince those around me that I am actually a deeply respectful theater-going patron rather than an ill-mannered lout.

The usher who was kind enough to let me in, however, decides I look pathetic down there and tries to direct me to some empty seats in the middle of the back row.  Loath to attract more attention by climbing over folks to sit down, I shoo the usher away, trying to convey silently that I’m a-okay here on the floor.  He thinks maybe I don’t understand, and laughingly tries to point me to an actual seat.  I shoo him again, but now we’ve made a bit of a scene, which causes some nice people to slide over a few spots in their row so I can take a seat on the aisle – which I do, sheepishly, but with great relief.  The step it turns out was not very comfortable, and Darwin clearly did not bestow me with great powers of camouflage.

With the lateness ordeal behind me, I can finally pay attention to the play.  Within moments I notice that I feel very comforted, as if someone has just served me a good portion of a nice, homemade stew.  I realize that it has been a long while since I have seen a production this…traditional, is it?  Classic?  I’m not sure of the term.  The set is detailed and realistically appointed – a mid 1940’s kitchen and living room – but it’s a thrust stage in a small space, so my field of vision is equally divided between the stage and the audience surrounding it.  I don’t know why but this juxtaposition feels comforting to me.  Perhaps because the two realities – the fictional one on-stage and the actual one around it – are so starkly divided.  Unabashedly divided.  There is no attempt to soften the transition between the two.  It's the 1940's kitchen complete with parqueted floor on one side, and row A seats 101-115 on the other.  In the foreground, it's a World War II era mother resting her evening bag on the divan while pulling on her tailored overcoat, and behind her a tourist sitting in shorts and knee socks with an umbrella and two shopping bags at his feet.   Two realities, starkly divided.  No attempt to soften the transition between the two. 

Ah yes, that's it.  It's not postmodern, this presentation.  It's not trying to break the fourth wall in any way, in either performance or design.  There's no attempt to demonstrate that we-know-that-you-know-that-we-know that this is theater here.  No effort made to confirm or deny that we are all suspending our collective disbelief.  It just is what it is.  We’re putting on a play and you’re watching it.  No need to get clever, no need to get conceptual.  We all know what the situation is, so why monkey around?  It's a choice that makes perfect sense for this play, and yet I'm surprised how good it feels to witness.  How comforting and familiar...yet startling and unfamiliar too.  Like seeing an old school chum after a very long time.  It's strange for something so...old fashioned, is it?...to feel so...refreshing.

I guess it shouldn't be much of a surprise.  Postmodernism is kind of played out, isn’t it?  I mean, isn't it?  There's no escaping it, that's for sure.  It's everywhere.  It's the very air we breathe.  It's so deeply woven into our cultural fabric that contemporary American life would be unrecognizable without it.   But aren't we just a little bit over it?  Maybe I'm a little late to the party to be saying so, but haven't we done the deconstruction thing to death?  Aren’t we tired of hearing and using the word “meta”?  Tired of being so analytical and self-aware?  Wouldn't it be nice to take a break from irony?  A break from skepticism?  I mean, really.  It’s exhausting.

Okay, I'll be honest.   I wouldn’t want to give postmodernism up entirely, even if I knew how to.  I'm a fan of irony.  And it's fun to be smart and clever.  Plus I’d really miss “The Daily Show”.  But it was still a little shocking to realize that this not-postmodern presentation of The Subject Was Roses was such an anomaly.  Out of the 37 plays I’ve now seen in this Year of Plays, there are only 2 or 3 productions that I can even suspect of not being fundamentally postmodern in approach.  Granted, it gets confusing.  Take a look at my thought process as I go through the list (sure, I think in bullets, don't you?):
  • Does a Shakespearean aside count as “postmodern” since it breaks the fourth wall? 
  • Is it postmodern to use a block for a chair, or is it just low-budget?
  • Am I calling something postmodern just because it’s stylized?
  • Have I mistakenly identified postmodernism as the opposite of realism when  representationalism is really what I mean? 
  • Are any of these actually real words?? 
  • I think I've got a case of the I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means.
Regardless of whether I've got my Big Ideas mixed up, I don’t think it insignificant that seeing a play done in this way felt comforting to me.  I think it means something that I welcomed having a moment of pure and simple theater in my world - this world where I’m rushing into cabs, and feeling vain, and making quips, and hyperlinking Wikipedia, and making parenthetical statements about thinking in bulleted lists. I think what it means is this: sometimes it's good to slow down for a second and just swallow something whole.   Like a nice bowl of homemade stew.


  1. I'm with you on the "meta" usage - sometimes I think I use it too liberally. As an aside (postmodern?) my acting professor in college defined postmodernism as this, and it always stuck with me:

    Imagine you see a fence on the side of the road: a white picket fence. Upon closer inspection of said fence, you realize that the fence is not made of wood but is actually formed from aluminum. A fence which would never need painting or re-picketing sits before you. Yet, the company that formed this indestructible fence has added the touch of a faux wood grain IN the aluminum printing. The wood grain - is postmodern. It serves no purpose other than to comment on how the fence is not wood but probably would have been had the aluminum not been more in demand.

    How meta. Oops.

  2. Keith, I think you made my head explode. "Meta" always makes me think of this bad education film they had us watch in pre-calculus in high-school. It was about the fourth dimension -- as in spacial dimension, not the dimension of time. In a fruitless attempt to help you visualize what the fourth dimension would look like, they showed a tinker-toy looking figure of a cube inside of a cube with the voiceover: "In the fourth dimension you could look at the INSIDE of the INSIDE of the INSIDE of the INSIDE."


  3. I have no idea what that means but I have a headache b/c of it.

    When I was in highschool I did this summer session in a hoity-toity arts school and I took a course on postmodernism. It was, to be honest, confusing. We watched a lot of films with male nudity and listened to Phillip Glass. It was freaky. I loved it.

    I left not knowing exactly what postmodernism was or could be. My professor, a big gay bear of a man, asked me what he thought I had learned and I said, to be honest, I don't know. He seemed incredibly proud of that answer. (?)

    On another side note, I would like to suggest that we bring this discussion to the attention of Ms. Anne Bogart who recently blogged that she was the first person to announce that postmodernism is dead.

    Take THAT Bogart.

  4. This conversation is getting better by the second.

    And I wish I had something funny to add to it.

    I don't think anyone can really say what postmodernism is because the definition got away from us at the inception. Just read the wikipedia entries I linked, particularly the second one. It's all over the place. It's like memetics. They both begin with really compelling and resonant ideas that kind of break open the golf ball and let out all the squiggly stuff inside. But the squiggly stuff has no form at all -- or rather infinite forms -- and that allows anyone and everyone to appropriate the ideas for their own uses.

    This is not a critique of either postmodernism or memetics, but merely an observation of how following a train of thought in either theory can quickly lead you so far afield that your destination bears no resemblance to your point of origin.

  5. Either way Bogart needs to watch herself. That squiggly stuff'll get ya.