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.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Perishable Theatre: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

For all of its cultish qualities and contemporary concerns, the rock monologue Hedwig and the Angry Inch (now playing at Perishable Theatre) has a simple, almost archetypal, agenda. It is an inquiry into origins. What has so galvanized audiences over the years, one realizes, is not its radicalism but its urgency; the quest of self-discovery and re-creation has rarely felt so perilous. Sure, the story is about an East German boy who has sexual reassignment surgery in order to marry an American G.I. and escape from his stifling life, only to find that the surgery has been sloppily performed - she is left with a closed incision instead of a vagina, and an "angry inch" of flesh - and that the liberated life to which she has fled is in a Junction City, Kansas trailer park. But the show, structured around a series of divisions and reunions, is about the possibility of transcendence rather than the thrust of transgression. Abandoned by her G.I., unsatisfied in her new life, a mere spectator to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hedwig forms a rock band of (presumably disaffected) Korean army wives: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. She falls in love with an earnest Christian teenager, Tommy Speck, and cultivates his blossoming religiosity and his musical talent. But when Tommy discovers Hedwig's unassigned sexuality, he leaves her and takes the songs they co-wrote on the road. Hedwig follows him, playing the dumpy dives in the shadows of his sold-out arenas - hence her performance at Perishable, a stone's throw from the Dunk. The show ends with a suggestion of reconciliation - not of Hedwig with Tommy, exactly, but of Hedwig with herself.

Perishable's production, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian in a creatively reconfigured space and on a spare set by Sara Ossana, is unforgivingly immediate. From the moment Alexander Platt makes his gloriously androgynous entrance as Hedwig, to well after he takes his even more ambivalent and triumphant exit, the audience is in a state of alert excitement. Platt's charged performance - erotic, self-effacing, spontaneous, and utterly compelling - is every match for the script's ebullient lyricism; his voice, incredibly, is very nearly a match for the songs' extravagant dynamism; his wanton physicality is certainly a match for Hedwig's desperation and ambivalence. He is, in short, fearless. He is buffeted and buttressed by a volcanic back-up band and, in Elizabeth Gotauco, who plays Hedwig's long-suffering transvestite husband Yitzhak, a superb co-star and scintillating singer. Her top-range vocalizations - all "ooohs" and "aaaahs" of thrilling clarity - are so perfectly tuned and adroitly performed they stun the heart. Somehow, in the sonic mass of guitars and drums and keyboards and voices, she finds her note each time and draws it out like a silver thread.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Trinity Rep: An Unbalanced "Odd Couple"

The first act of The Odd Couple, showing at Trinity Rep through May 9, is the funniest show that I have seen at any theatre this season. Until this past week, during which Perishable opened Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the Brown/Trinity Consortium put on Uncle Vanya, competitors for the title included Elemental Theatre’s Amadeus, the Gamm Theatre’s 4:48 Psychosis, and Trinity’s own crepuscular Cabaret, but this is not meant as faint praise. (To be fair, all of our local theatres have essayed other comic plays, but the ones I have seen were empurpled with mordancy or melancholy; The Odd Couple is the only unmitigated comedy I’ve been to.) It is a pleasure to laugh at Neil Simon’s jokes because they are funny and not merely because they are certified with an appropriately goofy cadence or broad gesture. Actually, the first act of the show is too funny; it is as tightly acted and well staged as the second act should be. The second act is markedly less amusing; having established Simon’s dynamic early on, the cast have left nowhere for themselves to go. This is not to say that the performers lose energy, but rather that they work furiously for diminishing – or, at the very least, familiar – returns. This is comedy as gold-mining: it’s easy to get started, nearly impossible to sustain.

Of course, Oscar Madison’s slovenly shoulders and Felix Unger’s fastidious fury have kept the show popular and profitable for four and a half decades. A certain type of comedy – brusque but affectionate; masculine but not macho – is realized in this play. Simon’s vision, x-ray but not x-rated, revealed to audiences the stunted stubbornness of the male psyche. There is nothing romantic – or Romantic – about these men. Indeed, their feelings about marriage are pragmatic rather than poetic: it may not be a lot of fun, but, hey, everyone needs a companion.

The play has a shallow enough plot and a deep enough penetration into our culture to obviate summary. Still. Disheveled bachelor Oscar Madison (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), a sportswriter and poker-night host, takes his thoroughly domesticated friend Felix Unger (Brian McEleney) into his home when Felix’s wife leaves him. It turns out that they are completely incompatible: camaraderie recapitulates matrimony. Oscar sullies reflexively; Felix tidies (and cooks, and carps) obsessively. After three weeks of this antagonistic arrangement, Oscar plans a double date for Felix and himself with the Pigeon sisters (Phyllis Kaye and Nance Williamson), two English divorcées from upstairs. Felix eventually relents, but commits to having a miserable time. During the course of the evening, Felix has a guilty, gaudy breakdown about his ex-wife and children, and the Pigeons, as pigeons will, eat it up. Consoling him with coos and caresses, they forget all about Oscar, frustrating his hopes for a lascivious – pardon the pun – lark. The tenuous relationship permanently fractured by this betrayal, Oscar sends Felix packing, but we don’t worry about him: when we see him last, he is heading up to the Pigeons’ place, where we are certain he will be taken under wing.

Director Curt Columbus handles the script and the staging deftly. The actors’ timing is perfect – Joe Wilson, Jr., playing against type as a meekly uxorious pal of Oscar’s, is especially funny, even in a minor role – and their movement around Eugene Lee’s large stage is purposeful and precise. What the play doesn’t convey is a sense of deepening crisis: the actors, like the poker players they depict, seem to be playing for small stakes. The screws of comic dread are never tightened, and the problems of the play’s second act are those of its first. Fred Sullivan, Jr., a wily and winning actor, doesn’t depict Oscar’s affection for Felix curdling into aggression; instead, he begins the show aggressively, his gruffness not merely skin-deep but intrinsic. The comic payoff is immediate and gratifying, but it doesn’t accrue. Brian McEleney plays Felix Ungar as the direct descendant of his Malvolio from Twelfth Night – impacted and imperious – but he seems not to trust Ungar’s innocent energy, and so hangs his characterization on strings: he performs with all the spontaneity and selflessness of a marionette. His work is always either reactive or provocative; it is, either way, over-executed. Ungar does not need to be nuanced or internal, but he ought to be oblivious. McEleney is too clued-in to the comic potential of his cluelessness, so his performance is asphyxiated by self-awareness. The same reflexivity that made his Richard III (way back in 2008) so menacing inhibits his comic characterization.

As the bird-brained and like-minded Pigeon sisters, Phyllis Kaye and Nance Williamson are both wonderfully animated. But the Pigeons aren’t really characters; they’re more like holograms of women, transparent and distorted, projected from a skewed imagination –whether that imagination is Simon’s or his male characters’, I’m not sure – so even as we laugh at Kaye’s and Williamson’s portrayals, we puzzle over their purpose in the play. Are we meant to be laughing at them for their giggling disregard for social convention or at Oscar for his bald lust? That this question remains unanswered is, perhaps, the disappointment of the entire second act. The play’s comic potential has already been mined, its gold revealed. What’s left but to sift through the loose dirt of goofy cadence and broad gesture?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Gamm Theatre: "The Glass Menagerie"

My review of Tennessee Williams's breakthrough family drama, The Glass Menagerie (at the Gamm Theatre through April 4), is in this week's Motif (available in cafés around town and as a downloadable PDF at Critical sentiment around this show is pretty much uniform: it's terrific (here, here, here, and here).

Amanda Wingfield, played by Wendy Overly at her most solicitous, flutters and fusses around the stage, forcing on her children the regurgitated detritus of her unmetabolized past. But they see her stories for what they are: pablum. Laura, crippled and shy, retreats from her mother's exhortations into a world of make-believe. Tom, the sympathetic center of the show, is graced with more resource: he turns his visions of escape into reality and joins the Merchant Marines. Of course, running away and breaking free are different things, and it is clear from the play - which is narrated by a much older Tom, who is played with well-lubricated charm by Sam Babbitt - that, as far as Tom has traveled, he has not managed to rid himself of his past. The play is a gesture of reconciliation for him (and, we imagine, for Williams himself): with his sister, his mother, and his younger, more impulsive, self.

Laura is played by Diana Biurski, who has proved her talent on the local stage in her performances with the Brown/Trinity Consortium and with the Gamm. With her wide eyes and long limbs, she is naturally expressive. She comes into her own in this play in the second act, when Laura enjoys the attention and encouragement of Jim O'Connor (the compelling and charismatic Kelby T. Akin), a go-getter whom Tom has brought home from his work at the shoe warehouse to satisfy his mother's dreams of gentleman callers for her lonely daughter. During this extended scene, which ripens and swells with feeling, Laura's eyes glow with admiration, and her body shakes with anxiety and anticipation. It is a long moment of suspense: like Laura, our bodies bend - achingly, warily, perilously - towards the suggestion of a fuller future. As Jim urges Laura to step beyond her perceived limits, so does Williams demand the audience do the same; he enlists our empathy in a wonderful and foolhardy enterprise. Biurski makes this a risk worth taking.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Oskar Eustis Profiled in the New Yorker

Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of Trinity Rep from 1994 to 2005 and currently Artistic Director of New York's Public Theatre, is profiled in this week's New Yorker by staff writer Rebecca Mead (abstract here.) Searching for "Oskar Eustis" on the magazine's website turns up a list of references, including to John Lahr's review of the Public Theatre's Hamlet from the summer of 2008, which is summarized thus: "Under the unfortunate direction of Oskar Eustis, Hamlet is currently presiding over the Public Theatre as a melodramatic fool." Lahr's scalding review expresses the paradox of Eustis's career suggested in Mead's profile: he's done great stuff for Theatre over the years, but, it would seem, little great work at any single theater. Mead quotes Rocco Landeman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, on the Public Theatre: "'It is always a mix of the compelling, the interesting, and the dreadful. And you have to be willing to do the dreadful.'" As an artistic director, he appears to understand his role as more organizer than aesthete: his vision, one feels, is for what a theatre can do, not just each production. Mead really has composed a wonderful profile. Although she is curiously indifferent towards the texture and temperature of his productions, she does capture Eustis's incorrigible energy - his vitality, brio, and fervor. Eustis comes across like a saint of lost causes: to Communism and to contemporary, serious New York theatre. Two more doomed, disappointed allegiances would be hard to imagine.

(I would love to hear about Eustis's years at Trinity. If you remember a particularly challenging, confrontational, or tendentious show of his, please don't hesitate to describe it in the comments section.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" at Trinity Rep

Despite the morbidity of its premise, which is tidily summed up in its title, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, by Sarah Ruhl (showing at Trinity Rep through March 28), is essentially comic. At the beginning of the play, a woman, Jean, is writing notes at a small café table, when she is disturbed by the incessant ringing of a nearby cell phone. Exasperated, she confronts the negligent owner of the phone, but he is strangely unresponsive. She answers his phone and conducts a conversation with someone who clearly assumes she is the man’s mistress. She prods the man, whose name she now knows is Gordon, and discovers the reason for his inaction: he is dead. The phone rings again. She answers it.

This impulsive impropriety changes everything in her life, deepening, stretching, and, ultimately, enriching her. She keeps the phone and continues to answer it on Gordon’s behalf, eventually fleshing out a saintly version of the dead man that reassures the grieving and consoles the lovelorn. Because of the phone, she meets Gordon’s family and falls in love with Gordon’s recessive brother, Dwight. But she also meets Gordon himself, and confronts her irrational love for him. The show, putatively plaintive, is actually resolutely playful: it literally flirts with death. This mixing of moods—the comic with the tragic, the cynical with the ingenuous, the mundane with the sublime—is the play’s alchemical act; but one senses that Ruhl is not as interested in gold as she is in weirdly-shaped gold things. She is as much a curator as a chemist.

It is her curiosity and obsession that give the play its distinctive energy. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is wildly far-ranging, exuberantly excursive. Jean travels to South Africa to meet with a sinister organ-trader (a former colleague of Gordon’s) and to a strangely banal heaven after a bizarre airport brawl. The show is about cellular technology, but the title, as obvious as Shakespeare naming Hamlet “Yorick’s Skull” instead, is a kind of red herring. The dead man’s cell phone is both synecdochal – it stands in for Gordon and for the world of which Gordon was a part and from which Jean feels fundamentally estranged – and talismanic: it possesses magical capabilities. The phone gives Jean the opportunity to conjure a man, to speak him into existence in the idealized image of the people who loved him. Like Prospero’s staff in The Tempest, the cell phone bestows a power too great to endure; and Jean, like Prospero, frees herself from the imperatives of that power by destroying their agent. One wonders if Jean – again, like Prospero – is meant as an authorial stand-in: her power to create mimics and amplifies Ruhl’s.

But if the script is full of adventure and allusion, it is also marked by certain trivializing preoccupations: like a traveler unable to shake her home country’s customs, Ruhl visits places and ideas with one foot in her own living room. She is as avid and sincere, and as transient, as a tourist. In retrospect, the show feels like an armchair anecdote, an embellished recounting of a pleasant visit to a faraway place. Ruhl is not inattentive to cruelty and venality there, but she remarks on it with a detachment that belies its urgency. The play’s tone – its moon-bounce mood – precludes any moral seriousness. Mrs. Gottlieb, eulogizing her son at his funeral service, is interrupted by a ringing cell phone and asks, testily, “Could someone please turn their fucking cell phone off. There are only one or two sacred places left in the world today. Where there is no ringing. The theater, the church, and the toilet.” Surely, Ruhl has seen the ample evidence in the news that the theater and the church are no longer considered sacred, unassailable places; that evidence sounds a hell of a lot louder, and has more terrible consequences, than the ringing of a cell phone. Yet the play never reproaches Mrs. Gottlieb for her parochialism – for her meanness, yes, but not for her privileged isolation. Later, Gordon, during his tour-de-force monologue that opens the second act of the show, opines, “Airports and subway stations are very similar to hell. People are vulnerable – disembodied – they’re looking around for their souls while they’re getting their shoes shined. That’s when you bomb them. In transit.” This glancing reference to the world of violence and consequence is disorienting. Not only is it utterly sophistic – Is Gordon suggesting that people in airports are so busy looking for their souls they forget to watch out for terrorists? Or that terrorists only bomb people without souls? – but it is also inane. The show has nothing to say about brutality. Even Gordon’s vocation is treated as a quirk of character: he sells organs, but he is never held to account for it. “Is he punished?” Mrs. Gottlieb asks Jean after she returns from Gordon’s afterlife. “Not really,” Jean replies.

Of course, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a fantasy; but what is its relationship with the real world beyond the stage? Ruhl is concerned with talk, but not with the possibility that the government might overhear your talk, or that the international community might not hear your talk. Talk in Dead Man’s Cell Phone is intimate and private, not agitated and public. It is not a weapon, just a nuisance; it doesn’t shake us from our foundational beliefs, but only interrupts our reverie, our precious quiet. Talk is an assault not on our politics but only on our ears. Indeed, there are no politics in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, though there are contesting ethics. Mostly what there are in the play are dozens of different ideas, zipping brightly and briefly across the stage. The show is constantly disappearing in the bright glare of the ever-new moment onstage. Janice Duclos is a dazzled and naïve Jean; her innocence is matched by Richard Donnelly’s oily charisma as the sophisticated but solipsistic Gordon. Donnelly also plays Dwight, the meek paper-store owner who falls in love with Jean. As Gordon’s wounded wife, Hermia (more Shakespeare!) Phyllis Kay is mesmerizing; in a long, drunken scene with Jean, Kay is both despairing and defiant. And Rachael Warren plays Gordon’s unnamed colleague and lover with a fantastic sneer, a gelatinous accent – now Scottish, now Ukrainian – and an ungraspable physicality.

In a way, she is the perfect emblem of the show: protean and evasive; funny and just a little sinister; familiar, at times, but also completely foreign. Welcome to the world according to Sarah Ruhl.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

There's Something About Olivia

Trinity Rep's Twelfth Night is set at the end of the festival of Epiphany, but its real dispensation is pagan, not Christian. Its spirit predates Christianity and rebels against its manichaeism, offering, instead of a linear model of conflict and consummation, a cyclical reenactment of release and renewal. Beginning with death and dolor, it concludes with matrimony and the promise of regeneration - neither of which could have occurred without the frenzy of mischief and misinterpretation in between. Still, we end the play with an unmistakable feeling of stasis: despite all the action, nothing seems to have changed for its characters. This is exactly the point. All the disguises, schemes, plots, and ploys unreeled in Illyria are meant to preclude rupture and transformation. What looks like mayhem, then, is actually a calibrated practice of purification. When all is done, and the thirteenth day dawns, it is not just the idea of order that has been restored, as in all Shakespeare comedies: it is the exact same order that prevailed before the action of the play began. In Twelfth Night, role-play does not lead to revelation or self-discovery (as it does in Much Ado About Nothing, for example) but to a hardening of assigned social roles.

When the play begins, Orsino, Duke of Illyria (Joe Wilson Jr.), is lamenting his unrequited love for Olivia (Anne Worden), a countess in grieving for her dead father and brother. Even as he laments, however, Orsino revels: his unsatisfied desire gives him direction and distinction. It is performative rather than productive. His fanciful affections, and Olivia's indifference to them (which Shakespeare scholar Jean Howard calls "the real threat to the hierarchical gender system" established in the play, as opposed to the putative threat of cross-dressing), represent a seam in the fabric of Illyrian society. Onto this compromised surface stumbles the shipwrecked Viola (Cherie Corinne Rice), only briefly disquieted by the loss of her twin brother to the storm that nearly killed her; disguised as a young man named Cesario, she gains employment as Orsino's attendant. She falls in love with Orsino but spends her days delivering his entreaties to the implacable Olivia, who herself falls in love with Cesario/Viola the first time they meet. Her mourning is as meretricious and mercurial as Orsino's love. Meanwhile, Olivia's drunken uncle, Toby Belch (Fred Sullivan Jr.), is hosting the wealthy but witless Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Stephen Thorne), who ineptly woos Olivia as well, while joining Sir Toby in a vindictive reprisal against Olivia's Puritanical attendant Malvolio (director Brian McEleney), who - oh, yes - also loves Olivia. One might wonder what Olivia has done to inspire such fervor in the men around her; the only celibate is Feste (Stephen Berenson), Olivia's fool, who is too smart to be ensnared.

This show is epitomized, anyway, not by intelligence but by the eruptive energy of Belch. Played with dizzying vigor by Fred Sullivan Jr., Sir Toby is an ebullient figure of inversion and destruction: for him, boundaries of class and etiquette aren't merely to be ignored, but gleefully obliterated. His anarchism is an affront to Malvolio, who runs Olivia's house with humorless tyranny; they are mirrored images of each other, even to the end of the play, when Malvolio, "much abused," leaves town in pouting disgrace, and Toby, bloodied in misapprehended battle, takes comfort in the companionship of the hapless Aguecheek. In Twelfth Night, the blurring - the eradication - of difference is not a symptom of disorder but a strategy of restoration: the extreme opposites of Belch and Malvolio confront each other, and each leaves the stage in shame; Viola models herself after her brother, presumed dead, and is later, and confusingly, reunited with him; a countess comes out of mourning to woo a woman dressed as a man and ends up engaged to a man who is the woman's twin. This extreme confusion is inherently terminal; it cannot hold. The force that tightens the knot of absurdity is lust; it is the mirrored image of hysteria, which simultaneously unravels.

The production at Trinity Rep, directed by Brian McEleney and starring half of the actors in Providence, is like a bottle of Dionysian vitality: shaken, agitated, and opened, finally, with a gratifying fizz. McEleney has captured the play's sense of controlled anarchy; the show is effervescent, and gently intoxicating. But something has escaped from his alembic: the play's connection to itself. The show seems timeless and placeless. It has plenty of movement, but too little choreography; speed, but no rhythm. It forgoes the deep emotional for the high fantastical. Still, where it succeeds - in antic, ataxic comedy - it succeeds thrillingly. Anne Worden, a third-year in the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium, is a terrific Olivia, swinging wickedly between lust and self-possession. As Aguecheek, Stephen Thorne is agile and perfectly pitiful. Joe Wilson Jr.'s orotund Orisno is a little forceful - his humor gets lost in his dire elocution - but Cherie Corinne Rice nearly floats as Viola (and is a spry and convincing Sebastian, to boot).

What this production lacks is coherence, or completion. The play seems to be set (by master designer Eugene Lee) in Victorian sumptuousness - far stage left is a cluttered library, with more books than shelves and more picture frames than pictures; at stage right is a dry fountain, littered with dried branches and leaves - but, for all of its fastidiousness, the set feels like a prop and never a place. It is not lived in, just tripped over. The library is unvisited - like most of us today, nobody in Illyria has the time or inclination to read - and the fountain is as redolent as a husk. McEleney's production does not suggest a life - or death - outside of the script. For all of its impudence and irreverence, the show is literal rather than metaphysical. It has a wonderful spirit of playfulness, but no sense of purpose. What is the life from which the excitements of Twelfth Night are a reprieve? Who are the books for? How does the fountain sound when it is on? McEleney marvelously exposes the urgent ritualism of the play but leaves us with a disconcerting question: Who are all these people behind their masks?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Elemental Theatre and the Holy Go.Go

I cannot say enough about the Elemental Theatre Company, whose "Father, Son, and the Holy Go.Go," the most recent iteration of their extremely popular, annual "Go-Go" plays, is showing at Perishable Theatre for one more weekend. Their work brings a rich humanity to the stage; a fineness of vision; and terrific sense of humor. I can't review the plays - there are three; like the trinity from which the work borrows its name, they somehow cohere in a single entity - but I can strongly urge you to see them. They will reassure you that people of great heart, dedication, and talent are still writing for the stage.

Catch them tonight at 8:00 and tomorrow, Sunday, at 2:00.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"4:48 Psychosis" Review Round-Up

The reviews of Gamm Theatre's production of Sarah Kane's "4:48 Psychosis" are in, and they are, superficially at least, unanimously positive; but they are also, it appears, deeply ambivalent.

My own review, in Motif, is short and timid. I acknowledged Kane's sense of purpose and the performers' persuasive powers, but I did not ask, "To what end?" What does "4:48 Psychosis" try to do? It has tremendous intensity (you'll see that word a lot in discussion of Kane's work) but little direction; it feels furtive. And of what do the performers intend to persuade us? That depression is a terrifying tribulation? After seeing the play, I believed it - but I didn't feel it. I had been persuaded, not convinced.

Channing Gray, in the ProJo, serves up a backhanded assessment of the script - "It reads as a long rambling poem" - before concluding that the show itself is "likely to linger in the memory for a long time." I agree, but I also wonder what sort of appraisal that is. It's safe, in that it's value-free; a lot of things linger in the memory for a long time. The comment's neutrality makes me think that Gray had reservations about the production that he didn't explore.

Bill Rodriguez, in the Providence Phoenix, calls it "so intense. Strident." He goes on
Drama is about maintaining the tension of conflicting needs or desires. And what could be more fraught than the either-or, no-middle-ground question of suicide? Yet, by all rights audiences could be expected to withdraw from empathy soon after entering this woman's ranting display of pain and suffering. Compassion fatigue is not a challenge dramatists often face. But thanks to the playwright's canny structure, director Tony Estrella's well-timed easing of the anguish, and Kim's every-moment focus, the center does hold, at least for us as witnesses, as the terrified woman's internal anarchy is loosed upon her world.
What does this mean? Rodriguez's frayed and tangled language seems borne of uncertainty: he doesn't know himself what he's trying to say.

The standard that Susan McDonald of the Attleboro Sun-Chronicle invokes to gauge the experience of watching "4:48 Psychosis" is comfort:
To say it pushes past the comfortable boundaries of the modern theater is an understatement. It obliterates them. It is not a comfortable show to watch but it is a compelling show, an educational show, an absolutely breath-taking hour and 12 minutes.
One wonders if the boundary through which Kane bursts isn't just comfort but pleasantness. A lot of modern theatre is intimate and cathartic; but not all modern theatre so strains the sympathy of its audience.

Dan Aucoin, in the Boston Globe, has the guts to note the clumsiness of Kane's script; "It should be said that there are some stretches of bad writing in '4:48 Psychosis,' wince-inducing lines like 'love keeps me a slave in a cage of tears,' when Kane was clearly straining to poeticize her suffering." He credits Casey Seymour Kim's performance with "astonishing intensity" and authenticity.

But he also reveals the submissiveness only euphemistically expressed by the other reviewers: he describes the audience leaving the theatre "after watching - or should that be surviving? - '4:48 Psychosis,'" as though endurance in the face of aggressive art - no matter how middling - were something to be proud of. A Theatre of Cruelty needs an Audience of Masochists. Tony Estrella, the Artistic Director of the Gamm, should be heartened to know that the audience is out there, demanding to be educated through punishment. Art about suffering does not have to make its audience suffer, too; but these practical times call for educational theatre, and there is not better educator than experience. So we suffer, but only for the sake of accuracy - or so we're brazenly told. Through her main character, Woman, Kane observes, "Some will call this self-indulgence (they are lucky not to know its truth)." What is most true, of course, may not be what makes good art; any of us can tell the truth, but the artist tells the most truthful lies. For Kane, in her last play, the truth was enough. When we are convinced that accuracy is the sole measure of artistic accomplishment, we get the theatre we deserve: authentic, I suppose, but dull.