Wednesday, April 9, 2008

RS: Curtains Up

I am so grateful that theatre exists, all theatre. It just isn’t all very theatrical. And sometimes, it’s just crap.

Cue orchestra for Cry Baby several weeks back. I don’t have to ask what they were thinking, I know. They were thinking that the producers of Hairspray made a bundle. There were so many insipid, short-sighted, bad choices that it could have been directed by the Bush Administration. The score didn't. The dancing was nice. Intermission couldn’t come too soon. The universe may have been conspiring against me. I sat next to a twitchy unfortunate who was at least a milligram short of a therapeutic dose. As the lights went down, he pulled out a cheese danish then proceeded to slap his leg throughout the show in time to music that wasn’t coming from the orchestra. I’m still not sure what concerned me more, getting a little contact crazy from seat B101 or getting a little of that shit oozing from the stage on me. Even at half price, it was an expensive way to sleep.

Since then, I haven’t seen a lot of theatre. Not a boycott, much more coincidental. Busy with life, less need for the escape, theatre less prioritized. Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to reinvigorate my love of theatre twice. Straight plays, off-Broadway, free. A triple threat, nothing to lose. The company was perfection. A working actor who, like me, loves and is enlivened, expanded by theatre. And he just happens to make me smile at the very mention of his name. How could the experience get any better? Well, the presence of an actual play might have helped. First, we saw The Four of Us. He liked it more than I did. Again, I am glad it exists and that writers are getting their work staged. But, why oh why, do writers, producers and directors allow the stage to be filled with moments that are merely dramatic, not theatrical? Theatre has long been infected with words like “real”, “true”, and “honest.” I don’t give a flying fuck in a rolling donut about any one of those words—be real, be honest, have a moment, be a con man, I don’t care how you do it, just make me believe it. And what happened to the word “entertain”? You don’t have to make me cry, you don’t have to make me laugh, but try to make me care. I’ll meet you half way, do my part, not just sit there like a bump on a pickle. Theatre is a shared experience, a new relationship that must go from first meeting through romance to at least one orgasm, or epiphany for you purists, to the ultimate amicable departure when the lights come up. What do I do when I realize I want to end the date early. More than once, I’ve walked out. First black out of The Girl in the Yellow Thunderbird comes to mind. A corner seat, MTC’s theatre set up, and no intermission trumped a hasty retreat. There was also the longing hope that something interesting would happen any minute now. It was a cock tease of expectation. I found it unnecessary, boring, and without voice or identity. Tough to watch a play about two writers when the playwright has nothing to say. Perhaps it was autobiographical. News Flash: life ain’t always good theatre. There were good lighting effects. Partial performances of promise. Little to respect and nothing to love. The thought went through my mind, “Wake up, this has to be the last scene.” The same thought went through my head for each of the last three scenes.

Next day, same theatre, same company, different show. Julie White had been thrilling in The Little Dog Laughed, even though it was a show that I found a bit sit-comish and much more relevant for the early 80’s. Perhaps I would have found it more significant had I seen Johnny Galecki’s purported huge talent instead of its understudy. She was wonderful, but I always had a nagging suspicion that it was one of those cosmic alignments of acting and writing styles. Loved, loved her on Six Feet Under and Grace Under Fire, so I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. No such alignment befell From Up Here. It was a classic example of every single pivotal, dare I say theatrical, moment happening off stage. The entire play was a commentary on what you didn’t see. My folded arms were commentary on the fact that I didn’t care. The writing wasn’t solid enough to cover, the talking not strong enough to replace action. The lead actor, a promising kid, was fascinating for about 5 minutes, until I figured out that his seemingly nuanced portrayal of a troubled teen was nothing more than the misguided assumption that tilting your head and wringing your hands telegraphs bi-polar disorder with likely scizophrenia. Perhaps he once sat next to B101 as well. Again, no intermission. Good thing, tough to end the date early and keep your date going simultaneously. My companion said he knew we were in trouble during the opening scene—on one side of the stage an actress gave a monologue hanging from a mountain climbing harness dictating postcards to our lower-lip biting hero holding a teddy bear stage left. When the symbolism is that subtle, you dare not blink or miss it. There was a discussion afterward. We were enthusiastic to learn about the process even if we were underjoyed by the product. I felt trepidatious when I saw but one chair, completely turned off when only the Assistant Director sat down. No doubt talented, I had hoped to understand the choices that had been made. Did they merely fail to translate? Were they off base entirely? Was I just an idiot who didn’t understand? The first question was from an older man who was about to burst to demonstrate his theatrical insight, “There were a lot of pauses, especially in that last scene, was that supposed to mean something?” My date and I reached for our coats simultaneously. As we walked out, the AD was spritzing some perfume on that pig of a question, desperately trying to convert the pause inquisition into something remotely meaningful. She rambled on about the aunt coming into this dysfunctional family and normalizing the conflicted lead. I saw the dysfunction. What I missed was the action, the conflict, or any role the aunt played other than as an understudy for Ambien. To be honest, there was conflict, plenty of conflict, everybody was conflicted, conflicted with themselves. It is just that no one or their conflict had anything to do with anyone else. Dysfunctional families on the fringes of acceptance are the meat and potatoes of the stage, I get that, I love that, creates a rich environment. Unsweetened chocolate is pretty rich and looks good on the surface too. I also tastes like shit. You have to do something with it, mix something in. Dysfunction and drama without purpose is just a family reunion. It is the difference between fractured and fragmented. Inspired and inert. Theatre and a turd.

From Up Here was all tangent no through line; but which tangent should I invest in? The one that gave me a glimmer of hope turned out to be a dead-end. Now there’s the real symbolism in the play.

The show had a lot going on. They both did. Neither was unpleasant. Both were dramatic. But they weren’t theatrical.

I’m still glad they exist. I am also glad my theatre companion exists.

We talked about those shows again over dinner the next evening. No candle light. No champagne. No drama. No theatrics. Just two blue plate specials at a crowded counter staring into each other’s eyes and talking about life and art. He asked if I thought our meeting might have been meant to be. I said I believed in the possibility. And I realized that that is what I love about theatre, the anticipation of possible. Unfortunately, the only thing I was anticipating at MTC was the possibility that both plays would end soon.

I’ve decided the antidote is more theatre not less. Those moments when anticipation meets action are magical, no matter how few and far between. As I sat there in the dark holding hands with my date anticipating possible this weekend, I was mighty grateful that theatre exists. And theater.

By the way, I have tickets to see Curtains on Thursday with a date. Oh, the possibilities.

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