Tuesday, May 25, 2010

City of Angels

Performance Date: 05.16.10
The Gallery Players

This is killing me.  I’ve had this blog post half-written for about a week now but had to scrap the whole thing because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to finish it.  And I had some lines in there I really liked.  Like how I’m not really a connoisseur of musical theater, and how that statement will come as a surprise to my boyfriend.  And how I love singing, in general, and singing in unison especially, and singing with FEELING molto especially, but that makes me a fan not a connoisseur. (I particularly liked the “molto especially.”)  And even though I’m cleverly getting those lines in here in this new post, it’s not the same. Context is everything.

This is not a case of me floundering for something to write because I didn’t actually like the show.  That has happened before, but not this time.  I really liked City of Angels.  It’s a smart musical about a writer in 1940’s Los Angeles who is trying to adapt his detective novel into a screenplay.  While he struggles with how much to compromise his artistic integrity on the road to fame and fortune, we also watch the plot of his film noir, narrating-gumshoe story unfold before us.  While both these narratives progress pretty much the way you think they would, the interplay between them – how his real life affects his adaptation and vice versa – creates a suspense that keeps you engaged throughout.  Add to that a pretty much flawless cast and a complex, jazz-inspired score, and I was thoroughly charmed.

No, I floundered on my earlier draft because I was trying to write about “smart writing” and I wrote myself into a corner, which wasn't very smart.  Basically, I had no choice but to define what constitutes “smart writing” and connect City of Angels to AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and the Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

All I really wanted to point out is that it is so satisfying to encounter good, smart writing these days.  It’s almost vindicating: Yes! Thank you! Thank you, [insert author of well-written work]. Thank you for being out there fighting the good fight.  Because there is so much bad writing out there.  Or perhaps more accurately, there is just so much writing out there period – movies, TV, news editorials, niche-cable shows, faux-reality series, magazines, webisodes, blogs, blog aggregators, tweets, vampire young adult fiction with poor female role models – and the law of averages makes the majority of it, well, average.  Dutiful consumer that I am, I absorb a ton of this mediocrity on a daily basis (the diet starts tomorrow), so when I encounter a morsel that is well-crafted and considered, or that takes risks and trusts its audience, it makes me want to dunk a basketball and hang from the rim or something.  Tackle a teammate and pound his helmet into the ground.  Rip my jersey off and let loose a primal scream in my sports bra.  That kind of thing.

City of Angels gave me a bit of that feeling.  Not at first, when we were just setting up the two worlds and alternating back and forth, but a little later, when the storylines began to twist into their double-helix.  That’s when I started sitting up in my chair, leaning forward and watching closely.  Like my dog Gabby used to when I’d hide in the pantry with the dog treats and she knew a biscuit would shortly come sliding out from under the door.  That’s when I started to marvel at a film noir musical that could satisfy every last genre expectation but still manage to keep its audience guessing.  It’s not easy to do that.  It takes effort.  And smarts.  Just as it takes effort and smarts to write a television show that has never once backed away from the dares it sets itself on a weekly basis (“Breaking Bad”), or a novel with a narrative voice so unapologetically specific it must have made some weak-hearted publishing exec quake with the fear of leaving audiences behind (Oscar Wao).

These are the folks that are fighting the good fight out there, be they battles large or small.  You know of many others who are doing the same.  Tell me about them.  And I’ll tell my friends.  And then we can all bum rush the field and pour Gatorade on each other and weep with the relief of having endured a very long season of proliferating mediocrity in popular culture.  Sigh.  Like I said, the diet starts tomorrow.

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.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gin and It

Performance Date: 04.25.10
Performance Space 122

Geez, how did they do this?

That was the recurring thought I had while watching Gin and It unfold it’s beautiful and complicated dance last Sunday eve. And not just because so much of the set-transforming, projection-catching choreography felt like watching one magic trick after another. No, the thought spawned from my insider’s brain which couldn’t help wondering how the hell they developed and rehearsed this piece.

But let me back up.

Conceptually, Gin and It – which lives in a liminal space between theater and performance installation – finds it’s genesis in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope, in which the famous director creates the illusion of filming the entire movie using a single, continuous shot. To pull off the stunt, particularly at that time, required a highly choreographed behind-the-scenes ballet. Grips and prop masters had to dismantle sections of the single-room set to make way for the huge camera as it followed the action, and then reassemble the set and props (in exactly the same way) in time for the shot to swing back the other direction -- all while staying out of the camera and sound operators’ way. Not an easy feat.

Gin and It in some ways replicates this feat in live performance -- and describing exactly how will be another feat altogether, but here goes. As Hitchcock’s film is projected on stage, a cast of four “grips” conduct their own “backstage” ballet, catching the projection on various surfaces that are continuously moved and manipulated throughout the piece. Frequently, the film is caught on mesh screens that permit the audience to see both the projected actor and the live actor (who is holding the screen) simultaneously.  It's a clever and spooky effect that is amplified when the grips synchronize their movements with those of the projected actor. Other times, the film is projected onto set pieces that are transformed both physically (by the crew) and seemingly (by the effect of the projection) from box to dining table to piano to armchair. As if all this were not enough, layered onto the entire dance is a tense narrative that develops amongst the grips as they work together, a narrative expressed chiefly in gesture and attitude, but supplemented by the occasional whispered conversation or “backstage” order that is called out with particular subtext. Whew.

Hopefully I’ve described the piece well enough that you can imagine how this highly technical and subtextually nuanced show made my theater brain pretty much explode. How do you develop and rehearse something like this? And I haven’t even mentioned how the projected images were sometimes sliced up into smaller pieces to fit onto various-sized screens, or how there’s this whole thematic thing about closeted homosexuality that is being echoed about. Furthermore, the technical, textual, and subtextual pieces intertwine quite intricately, and of course the whole thing is very meta-meta-meta, very deconstructed-reconstructed. It’s like someone took a macramé dress, unraveled it, and reknit it into a portrait of a macramé dress. And then someone else videotapes it and projects it onto yarn which somebody else crochets into a hat. I mean, how do you do that? (No really, how do you do that?)

Now I have an inside track – I know the lovely Keith Justin Foster, who plays one of the grips – so I can eventually satisfy my curiosity. But I’ll tell you how I imagine it was done. I imagine it was done bit and by bit, piece by piece, a la Sondheim putting it together.

I imagine they started with the technical, with a rough idea of where the projections would go and on what surfaces. And then as they rehearsed the technical, they added the textual, i.e. the cues the grips call out to one another as they work together to hit their marks. And then I imagine in the tedium of rehearsing the technical-plus-textual to a point of precision, the subtextual was born. I imagine the actors got tense or silly with one another. They joked and grimaced and flirted, as actors in rehearsal do, and from these real-life inspirations, they found what eventually became the on-stage narrative of the piece. And I imagine it was an iterative process. I know for a fact it was a long process, an extended series of rehearsal periods and workshops, but it’s not just for this reason that I imagine it was iterative. I imagine it was iterative because that’s the only way I know to build something this intricate and layered.

This is the repeated learning of my time as an artist on this earth. Art takes time. It takes iteration. Revision. It takes doing and doing again, all the while remaining open to the variation of each attempt so that it may inspire new and unexpected directions. The hardest part of this process is that your destination remains unknown – and that in itself is enough to coax an artist off the road. But if you stick to it, you find that when you arrive, you are exactly where you are supposed to be.

So who knows, I could be wrong about how it all went down. Maybe Gin and It was actually born whole, like Athena out of Zeus’s head, fully armed and ready to rumble. I suppose it’s possible. But I’m not sure even an Olympian could imagine the totality of the Gin and It experience. There are five performances left, New Yorkers. Go see it and tell me what you think.