Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Terrific Fire: New Work at 95 Empire

Aram Aghazian as Dr. Wishniak in A Terrific Fire. Photo by Flordelino Lagundino.

A Terrific Fire, the new play written, produced, and performed by Strange Attractor Theatre Co., at 95 Empire (the former Perishable Theatre), is irreverent, high-spirited, elusive, and frustrating. It is about a Victorian doctor named Wishniak who, if I understand correctly, summons, confronts, and destroys two embodiments of his opposing impulses: audacity, represented by an indefatigable mountain climber (Jed Hancock-Brainerd) whose motto is “Press on,” and indolence, personified in a sailor (Roblin Davis) who drifts happily where the tide takes him. There’s more to it than that, including an awkward but not unpleasant tea party, which the audience is invited backstage to enjoy, and a vivid attack on Wishniak and his wife (Rebecca Noon) by two wild animals (Davis and Hancock-Brainerd), which the audience is invited to intensify, but these events are better witnessed than read about. Put simply, there is nothing like Strange Attractor's work on any other stage in Providence, which may be reason enough to go see it – to experience performances of an utterly unique timbre, and to support artists committed to realizing a fervent and vital theatre.

Still, the show left me feeling strangely unmoved – cold, even. It is full of action – the play reaches manic peaks, the highest and most precarious being the climactic animal attack – but though it encourages the audience to move and even participate, it makes no such appeal to the heart, which remains inert and uninvolved. It eschews character, which means that there is no desire; without desire there is no conflict, which means that we, the audience, are compelled to make no moral commitment; so we neither suffer disappointment nor relish victory, which means that the events onstage unfold like weather observed through a window. Can the play be enjoyed similarly – as spectacle? (By which I mean not high drama but a morally neutral though nonetheless captivating depiction of movement.)
I think so; that may be how my fellow audience-members enjoyed it and, to judge by their enthusiastic responses, they enjoyed it very much.
And, moment to moment, the show captivates; but its project is, ultimately, terminal. In one scene, Dr. Wishniak demonstrates the many luxury qualities of his custom briefcase while a bear and a moose harass and taunt him. It’s a fantastical moment – bizarre, funny, nervy. But it seems to come from nothing, and it goes nowhere; there is neither motivation nor destination. Why is Dr. Wishniak so infatuated with his briefcase that he insists on describing it despite the danger he’s in? How are the moose and bear in his study anyway? As Wishniak, Aram Aghazarian is a pleasure to watch, but his performance is so understated that it can appear indifferent and tentative. Here, hemmed in by his attackers, he looks perturbed rather than terrified, and his voice hovers in a barely audible and unmodulating register. Perhaps this is meant to be absurdly funny; but to me, the arbitrary can only ever be so amusing. In this aura of anarchy there’s no exhilarating inversion of expectation – because the play establishes no expectation in the first place. Weirdness conjures only weirdness; nothing, as the philosophers say, comes from nothing.

Allegedly inspired by themes from the Henrik Ibsen epic Brand, A Terrific Fire averts its eyes from metaphysical landscapes to revel instead in colorful but barren silliness – a silliness that, though agitated, is never really troubling. It should be noted, however, that the plastic trees that comprise part of the set do evoke a kind of mysterious and melancholy forest primeval. Indeed, the set is the most finely realized aspect of the play. Dr. Wishniak’s study, decorated with bear skins and deer antlers, as well as an old radio, feels inhabited and inviting; it is also erected oppressively close to the audience, so that there is no escape: we in the audience feel as closely observed by the actors as they are by us. When the action takes the characters outside, the back wall of Wishniak’s study is swung back on hinges, revealing a dark expanse of snowy forest. One only wishes that the play itself were structured this way: a detailed and overbearing foreground, too close for comfort, occasionally giving way to an unfathomable and menacing subtext.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Paul" at the Gamm Theatre

“Paul,” the 2005 play by Howard Brenton about the conversion, missionary work, and final days of the early Christian apostle of the play’s title, is enjoying a spirited but specious North American premier at the Gamm Theatre. The play radically revises the story of Saul of Tarsus, the infamous persecutor of Jesus’ early followers who converted to Christianity and changed his name on the road to Damascus after he was blinded by a miraculous vision of the resurrected Jesus. Brenton undermines this foundational legend – in a way that would be unprofessional to reveal, except perhaps by noting that fans of “Scooby Doo” should be thrilled – to challenge the basis of spiritual identity and religious authority. The show is representative of the contemporary “atheist chic,” which is a sort of reverse loom that spins faith into straw. So the play clatters furiously and in the end we find ourselves amid a scattering of dried-out debris. Think about this for a moment. The author and countless well-meaning and under-compensated theatre professionals have sweated over a work that leaves the audience considering nothing more than a pile of psychological and spiritual detritus. One can almost picture Brenton slinking away from the mess he’s made, whistling through a prankster’s smirk. But the audience has paid, with currency and emotional involvement, for something more rigorous and complex than “Punk’d.” So much for putting an end to childish ways.

The play begins with Paul (Alexander Platt) in a Roman prison, and shows, in flashback, his conversion and his wide travels around the Middle East, often accompanied by his close friend Barnabas (the affable Anthony Goes). He meets James (Marc Dante Mancini), Jesus’ jealous brother; Peter (Jim O’Brien), the ambivalent disciple; and Mary (Karen Carpenter), Jesus’ wife, a diseased and disillusioned prostitute. Paul wants to disseminate the story of Jesus’ life and death; they want to guard and control it. In the end, imprisoned for their evangelism and interrogated by no less an authority than the emperor, Nero (the terrifically lascivious Kelby T. Akin), Peter and Paul are forced to reckon with the squalid and all-too-human circumstances of Paul’s conversion and fervor.

The play ends here, exactly where it should begin – his miraculous encounter exposed as a fraud, Paul starts life anew. But Brenton is too committed to his ironic deconstruction of the Paul conversion story to chart anything original in the terror of self-discovery. That Paul’s understanding dawns only in his last day is evidence that Brenton is unsure of its real consequences. The play is just a mischievous and self-fascinated hypothetical - a diverting parlor game.

It is hard to distinguish the qualities of this production from the shortcomings of the written work. Alexander Platt, who was so vivid as Hedwig in last spring’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Perishable Theatre, is an engaging Paul, but not dangerous. His performance is more gestural than internal, more mannered than felt. Indeed, this same criticism could apply to nearly all the actors, who seem to think that the somnambulant script might be awakened by very loud shouting. Only Anthony Goes, whose Barnabas is well-meaning but limited, and Kelby Akin, powdered and eerily prescient as Nero, modulate the stage volume and action. Cedric Lilly makes a fine Jesus, but the character is such a cipher. That's the problem with Brenton’s characters, who have no inner worlds to access. Brenton’s writing lacks poetry, spark, and fear – “Brentonion” will never join “Pauline” as a literary adjective of distinction – so his characters are taxidermic: dead on the stage, they move only when pushed. If we learn nothing else from “Paul,” it’s that the dead never walk on their own.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Gamm Theatre: "A Night at the Fights"

The tagline for the new show mounted by the Gamm Theatre in the vast, ark-like space in the Pawtucket Armory Drill Hall and featuring three experts in on-stage physicality is "Tricks of the trade revealed!" but don't let this spoiler alert dissuade you: some revelations ruin things; others enrich them. The few tricks that are really revealed in this snappy, and, ultimately, secretive show about the tools and techniques of stage combat will give you a new appreciation for the role of physicality in stage productions: for the thought that goes into its development and the energy and precision that go into its execution. Starting with fist-fights, and moving on to sword, staff, gun, and dagger fights, professional fight master Normand Beauregard and his colleagues Jim Beauregard and Paul Kochanek lead us on a sort of aerial tour of the stage-fight landscape. The audience sees a lot, and much of what we see is dazzling, but there seem to be plenty of unexplored depths left at show's end. As Norman Beauregard explains at the beginning of the show, there's more to stage physicality than can be taught over a four-year college course, let along a two-hour introduction. But, through demonstration and elucidation, he gets pretty far.

The show has enough slapstick to enthrall very young children - a couple of five- or six-year- olds at the performance I saw were doubled over with manic glee during some of the fights - and, I suspect, enough seductive theatre talk to engage curious adolescents. The audience ought to hearten even the most stolid cynic; those who weren't actually children certainly felt like them by show's end. I was hypnotized. The fights are fascinating, and no amount of explanatory talk can diminish their magic, which doesn't emanate from the weapons selected or the specific punch chosen for just that angle to the audience, but from the inches of air between the fist and the face. Still, for all the virtuosity on display here, I left hoping that if the Gamm makes a series of the "tricks of the trade" imprint, the next show is even more elemental: How do actors take the written word and make it song? Less explosive than a punch, that's still the real mystery of the theatre.

*** "A Night at the Fights" is, well, all about fighting. There are goofy flips and punches, but there are also slightly scary swordfights and a gunshot (though no victim). It's all in good fun, but it might also be upsetting to some viewers.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

"The Crucible" at Trinity Rep

One desperately wishes that the current production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” at Trinity Rep had not been given such royal treatment. The play is stooped and abashed under the heavy crown – and the errant expectations – placed on it by director Brian McEleney and his cast. Certainly, “The Crucible” is no model of modesty: it is full of declamation and self-righteousness. But it should be allowed to retain its rusticity, its squalor, and its urgency – the elements that make it a human tragedy and not a mere metaphor. McEleney sets it on a throne, from which it issues a series of ungrounded and untestable edicts, before which the audience is cowed like subjects or students. When the audience stands wearily at show’s end, it is as if to acknowledge Miller’s perceived prophetic infallibility rather than the production’s ingenuity. This reflexive display is, of course, anathema to the play’s celebration of the individual.

The premise of this production is that Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials, which he wrote as a way to understand and illuminate the farcical anti-communist hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, is relevant today because of our own febrile and delusional political discourse. It is a metaphor twice removed and, as such, it makes a better thought experiment than theatre experience. But the first proposition of the Theatre of the Sincere is that even the least articulated thought experiment makes a good play. This is a diminishment of theatre and should be a disappointment to audiences. It suggests that the best that plays can do is edify, and that the most audiences can hope for from a night at the theatre is a sound education, or at least an equivalency certificate. It seems as though Trinity has ceded terror to other media, which is as much to give up on theatre, because it is also a surrender of pleasure. Terror is not merely horror – although in a play about witches in an encroaching geographical and spiritual wilderness, horror ought to loom. (It doesn’t, here.) It is also an aspect of empathy: the fear, aroused through the use of sound, space, and performance, that the fate of the characters onstage is as real, consequential, and undetermined as one’s own. The current Trinity production does not work for this feeling of disorientation; instead, it meets us on our terms, as though only our story mattered. The play itself can practically be discarded as long as its relevance is asserted and our own contemporary condition is spelled out.

Crudely put, “The Crucible” does not tell our story but the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692, in which nineteen women and men were hanged because of the wild accusations of pre-adolescent girls. Or, rather, it tells the part of the story that involves the flawed hero-figure John Proctor, a paragon of masculinity and morality whose lone slip is a doozy: while his wife was sick, he had an affair with his teenaged servant, Abigail. From Abigail, Proctor learns that the girls’ accusations are baseless charges issued out of spite, vengeance, and fear – but in order to expose their fraudulence he has to publicly admit to his indiscretion with her. There are at least three stories entwined here: the hysteria of power enjoyed by the accusing girls; the angry convulsions of the besieged moral authority in Salem; and the degradation of John Proctor, who is not a witch but who, to survive this ordeal as the man he thought he was, must confess to some other transgression. We can’t forget that Miller’s work is not a general indictment of society but a sensitive scanning of community dynamics.

The text takes place in 1692; the action in McEleney’s production is set on the recreated steps of Providence City Hall, built in 1878. The house and stage lights are barely differentiated, so the drama appears to play out in the glare of the light of day. In an interview with Bill Rodriguez, in the Providence Phoenix, McEleney said the production was meant to conjure “guerilla street theater,” immediate and confrontational, but what it conjures instead is community theater, earnest and reassuring. Sure, the production is dyspeptic, but in utterly predictable and uncontroversial ways. The actors, looking adrift on the vast set and, occasionally, along the house aisles, recite their lines as though into a strong wind. They are serious and determined, but their performances feel projected rather than inhabited. The show has all the spontaneity and humor of a Puritan sermon; indeed, it is as dull and deliberate as an exegesis. It cries out for the fury and fervor of a revival.

This is not to say that the production lacks all feeling. The long second scene (the second act in Miller’s script) between John Proctor (Stephen Thorne) and his wife, Elizabeth (Angela Brazil), runs hot with the fuel of feeling: Proctor’s guilt, for having betrayed his wife with their young servant, mixed in equal parts with Elizabeth’s insecurity in her husband’s affection. Both know that Proctor must denounce Abigail, and both realize that he will have to confess his transgression to the community to be credible. Their relationship is real – it is no symbol – and McEleney gives it room to expand. Thorne trembles with troubled conscience and slowly budding resolve, while Brazil coolly controls her feelings. “Cool” and “control” are not qualities I have ever ascribed to Ms. Brazil’s acting, but they are apt descriptors here; she is the wonderful surprise of this show.

Other performances don’t fare as well. Reverend Samuel Parris is played by Bob Berky, who, the night I saw the show, was as rigid as a Puritan pew; his cadence was wooden, his posture uncomfortable. Fred Sullivan, Jr., as Thomas Putnam and, even more as Deputy Governor Danforth, was enigmatic. True to form, he has followed his authentic and awesome performance in “Absurd Person Singular” with a performance of exactly equal indifference. (I have only been watching for four years, but I wonder if one might follow this sinusoidal phenomenon throughout his career.) In “The Crucible,” he is fierce and inexplicable, like a summer squall. His instrument, his wonderful voice, is as sure and seductive as ever, but it is really just spit and wind. His Danforth is not fearful or paranoid or vulnerable or vengeful: he is just loud. Olivia D’Ambrosio plays Abigail; and I think “plays” is the right word for what she does with the role. She seems nearly to toy with it, an approach that usually pays off because, of course, Abigail herself is a kind of player. One senses her mastery, and, with her high cheekbones, vulpine eyes, and confident contralto, one can also understand John Proctor’s error. But the role calls for helplessness too, and D’Ambrosio is reluctant to surrender her power. When Abigail must pretend to be possessed by Mary Warren (Rachael Warren) in court in order to sustain the girls’ charade, D’Ambrosio can’t quite summon the necessary girlishness. It is an unconvincing performance within a performance.

D’Ambrosio, of course, is not to blame for the play’s failure, but her inability to access the spiritual anarchy of that historical moment is emblematic of the entire production, which is too measured and controlled. McEleney presents the play as a conclusion rather than an exploration, draining it of contingency and excitement: since we all know what it's about, anyway, there's no reason to evoke a specific time, place, or mood. He leans heavily on the play’s stature and keeps the audience at a long arm’s length. It is an allegory, too refined and remote to be mistaken for a yarn. McEleney has a mission, and “The Crucible” serves his ends. “You will not use me!” John Proctor shouts, in the play’s climactic scene. In this production, at least, his insistence goes unheeded.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Final Weekend: "Absurd Person Singular" at Trinity Rep

Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular is unmistakably a comedy, but it is suffused with a Chekhovian melancholy, a sensitivity, as the title suggests, to the world’s absurdity, and a yearning for its elusive satisfactions. The same inarticulate want that simultaneously energizes and oppresses the characters in Uncle Vanya or The Three Sisters exercises its insidious control on Ayckbourn’s bankers, builders, and buffoons. For them, the party is, quite literally, always in the other room – but they’re stuck in the kitchen.

Absurd Person Singular follows three couples in three separate kitchens on three consecutive Christmas Eves in the early 1970s. I have tried several times to summarize the play, which is episodic and elliptical, and have found the results messy and unrevealing; so I won’t confuse or bore you with any of those details here. The first act concerns a social-climber’s attempt to host a party for a banker and an architect he hopes to impress; in the second act, the architect’s wife tries repeatedly to kill herself but is foiled by her obtuse and oblivious house-guests; and in the third act, the banker and his wife have fallen on hard times, but the morbidity of their lives is relieved – even as it is thrown into relief – by an unexpected visit from the social-climbing couple from the first act. The comedy is as often fast-paced and frenetic as it is verbal and a little cruel. Ayckbourn is an equal-opportunity satirist: he ridicules with equivalent relish the obnoxious social climber in the first act and the crestfallen banker in the third. To Ayckbourn, these characters are more alike than they are different. They are all, in the end, materialists: questions of the soul stump them, when they choose to even acknowledge them.

The performances are all lively, though some burn more brightly and more vividly than others - in particular, Phyllis Kaye’s as the architect’s suicidal wife. She is marvelously acidic as a contemptuous party guest in the first act; almost entirely mute as she contemplates her suicide throughout the second; and chastened but resolved in the third. Kaye, so vulnerable in last year’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone and so vicious in The Secret Rapture, is on a roll. Fred Sullivan, Jr., who plays her husband, is also a treat – though one would not confuse his performance for a full meal. Sullivan has a long bravura moment in the second act, and is floppy and funny elsewhere, but his acting, I think, elicits more admiration than emotion in the audience. His phrasing and diction are so precise, one wishes they were employed in the service of more generous feeling. Nevertheless, one can’t help being awed by his prowess and control. And Timothy Crowe gives another in a string of memorable and moving performances, this time as the banker who ends the play too poor to heat his own home. More conspicuously than the other actors, Crowe gives the play its Chekhovian dissipation; he embodies its sense of squandered spirit and baffled protest.