MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Before … and After … and Now: Rabih Mroué’s Riding on a Cloud

On the Boards_Rabih Mroue

Fans of experimental theater and performance art are likely to already have Rabih Mroué’s latest show on their radar: titled Riding on a Cloud, it opened last night at On the Boards and plays through Sunday. But anyone interested in the issues that theater is so ideally suited to explore should see this unclassifiable performance. Anyone interested in the paradoxical truce between fiction and reality that underlies the very impulse to make art.

The Beirut-based Mroué wields a beguiling mixture of provocation and poetry, using his medium to pose fundamentally human questions about the identities we invent and the stories we fabricate to make sense of our past and present reality.

In Riding on a Cloud Mroué turns to the story of his own family– specifically of the youngest sibling, Yasser. Near the end of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1987 (when he was 17), Yasser was shot in the head by an urban sniper. He survived improbable odds, forced to slowly relearn as a young adult the lessons he had tackled in kindergarten.

Along with aphasia, one side effect of Yasser’s injury is the loss of his ability to process representations: he could no longer recognize the image of a person or thing (say, in a photograph) when abstracted from the reality — even including photographs of himself.

But the story that Riding on a Cloud seeks to tell isn’t the story of the war’s endless cycles of violence and suffering. Aside from a few specifically political references, Mroué shows no interest in dissecting blame for the war in this piece. (Some of his other theater works address different aspects of the conflict.) Most importantly, Riding on a Cloud does not offer a feel-good dramatization of “the human condition” and our capacity to heal; it’s not an entertainment to stir up emotions and then offer redemptive resolution.

Mroué works with fragmentary scenes, stringing them together by way of loose associations rather than linear narrative logic. There are many narrative tangents — the coincidence of his grandfather, Hussein Mroué (a significant Arab-Marxist philosopher), being assassinated by fundamentalists on the same day Yasser is shot by the sniper, or the sexual kindness a Soviet nurse shows Yasser when he is recovering — but before we can become too invested in any one of them, Mroué shifts his focus to provoke a fresh set of questions.

Moreover, he frames the entire piece so that we’re continually reminded of the divergence between what we’re seeing and what it seems to represent: Mroué’s dramaturgy, in other words, seeks to mirror Yasser’s Oliver Sacks-like condition — to see in it a kind of metaphor for the condition of art.

Rabih Mroué has written the script that Yasser actually performs — in Arabic, with subtitles and accompanying visuals on a large screen centerstage. Both language and visuals serve as the playwright’s tools to undermine the naive unification of what is represented with reality.  To what extent are these Yasser’s autobiographical memories, in sync with the “I” onstage who re-enacts them through narrative?  Should we understand Yasser to be representing or playing “himself”? How much is fantasy?

Through most of the show, Yasser is stationed at a desk downstage right (reminiscent of Spalding Gray). From there, casually dressed, he operates a complicated regimen of discs and tapes: a turntablist spinning memories. His voice is beautifully hypnotic, his Arabic flowing with elegant rhythms and poetic clarity. (The title Riding on a Cloud apparently comes from one of Yasser’s poems.)

But on occasion Yasser unpredictably abandons the role of performer and walks behind the screen, reappearing as a spectator of its images, of the stage. This juggling act between inside-out, role playing and reality, gives Riding on a Cloud a subtle, quizzical tone that’s best reflected by the often silent, attentive audience. We are given no cues to guide us to the “appropriate” response (which, in theater-as-entertainment typically manifests in the catharsis of corporate laughter as a relieving signal that “we get it”).

Throughout the piece are woven more abstract, non-narrative segments that give a taste of Mroué’s other projects as a video and installation artist. (Riding on a Cloud just appeared at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and was performed last year at MOMA in New York City, which earlier exhibited his pigmented inkjet prints The Fall of a Hair: Blow Ups drawing on cell phone images of violence.)

We see a sequence of TV screen snow shots, all the more mesmerizing in their variety: random “noise” usually left to be ignored, that here suddenly seems to offer an important clue, if only we could unlock its meaning…. Is this the image of the representations Yasser confronted after his injury?

In another memorable image, a video close-ups on a piano keyboard as five fingers painstakingly pluck out a slow melody. Its simplicity evokes the radical concentration of Arvo Pärt.

By its nature Riding on a Cloud provokes an uneasiness — the show is driven by a series of questions that beget more questions in their wake — but Mroué leavens this remarkable material with a welcome blend of warmth, humor, and humility.

The effect overall is marvelously liberating: as the artist points out in a recent interview, when we are forced to question everything, to meet reality (including ourselves) as a stranger, that means we have to abandon cliches and stereotypes as well. “You have to introduce yourself to yourself again.”

(C)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.


Filed under: On the Boards, review, theater

American History, Taylor Mac Style

Taylor Mac

Taylor Mac

The performance phenomenon known as Taylor Mac has been riding a wave of more mainstream success of late.

A few seasons ago he was a smash in a remarkable production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan by the Foundry Theatre at the the New York Public Theatre (playing both Shen Te and Shui Ta). The run of Mac’s wild new play Hir at New York City’s Playwrights Horizons was recently extended — yikes, recognition by the global capitalist economy! — and Hir is showing up on several best-of-the-year lists. (The title of this darkly absurd comedy about a dysfunctional, moving-to-postgender family conflates “his” and “her,” though Mac’s own gender pronoun of preference rejects both of these in favor of the delightfully befuddling “judy.”)

And Mac is heading into 2016 with his most-ambitious project ever: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (still in progress), which will eventually comprise 24 concerts, each devoted to one of the 24 decades of the history of the United States (from 1776 through 2016).

Ultimately Mac plans to stitch these programs together into a single blow-out extravaganza of three acts, eight hours each, spread over a continuous 24 hours. Food and a medical tent are being promised; bring-your-own bedding is encouraged; communities will be forged.

You can sample an excerpt from the intended magnum opus in this weekend’s show at On the Boards, where Mac is making his belated debut.

At the opening last night, Mac offered a brief overview of the scheme: a string of popular songs, with each hours’ worth more or less representing a particular decade. Many are of course instantly recognizable numbers, but he’s mixed in some genuine obscurities (and will also be writing some of his own songs).

Mac also promises some spectacular diversions will be part of the still-gestating Gesamtkumstwerk. For example, last night he remarked that he’s come to see the necessity of including a skit for 24 Tiny Tims: “half of them the ukelele-playing Tiny Tim, and half the Charles Dickens type — as choreographed by my dear friend Susan Stroman. (But she doesn’t know that yet.)”

Actually, “a history of popular music” is a misnomer: the songs serve as vehicles for nothing less than Mac’s subversive, “subjective history” of the United States. Through his running commentary — with abundant use of audience collaboration — he de- and recontextualizes the songs.

Mac’s Seattle show involves a distillation of material from the larger project into a stand-alone concert focusing on the theme of “songs of the American right” across the decades.

The guiding conceit is to get the audience to enact a “ritual sacrifice”: Mac’s version, more or less, of catharsis, of which, admittedly, we’re all in need in these unsettling times.

Songs of the American Right wants to force us to face ugly moments in American social and political history and then, through Mac’s ironic deconstruction and parody, to enable the audience to exorcize the associated negativity in what he calls “a radical-fairy realness ritual.”

Backed in this show by a band of three musicians (piano, bass, and drums) and a local burlesque artist as guest performer, Mac morphed from standup comic to larger-than-life glitter queen to confrontational therapist. The show flows past several hiccups with an improvisatory rhythm.

He was clad in a fantastically overwrought, deliriously reflective costume, complete with a Lady Liberty crown, that was designed by Machine Dazzle (who’s crafting a different costume for each decade of the big show).

Mac had a sequence of topics in his sights: religious and political hive-think, capital punishment, gender conformity, sexual repression, civil rights, and homophobia.

Each of these he hooked onto associated songs, preserving the original lyrics but undermining them with his commentary and audience-participation frolics. (Don’t even  think of trying to weasel out by sitting in the most anonymous seat. You won’t succeed.)

Some of these were self-consciously gimmicky, but forgivably so thanks to Mac’s sheer humor and stage moxie and humor; some, like a call to a communal “high school same-sex prom dance” (where Mac insisted that the entire audience leave their seats and join together onstage, intended to “undo” the judgmentalism of Ted Nugent’s 1970s song “Snakeskin Cowboy”), introduced a fascinating dynamic of awkwardness and vulnerability.

That points to the real flavor of Songs of the American Right — and of  Mac’s overall aesthetic. This is an artist not interested in offering a polished “product” to his audience to consume as performance. Some segments of his show were less polished, less persuasive, some were too drawn out. The historical points are intentionally exaggerated, at times sledgehammer fashion. (“What is there about this,” he asked, pointed to his costume, “that says ‘lack of hyperbole?!'”) But for Mac, a “mixed” experience is more authentic than precision-engineered illusions of perfection.

Mac sang a few well-known icons, like “An Okie from Muskogee” and the opening “Amazing Grace”, sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” But many songs on his set list were historical curiosities, doubtless first-time discoveries for the audience: “Christ the Apple Tree” (a pious hymn popular in the 1790s), the 1920s tune “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” and the anti-war song from the WWI era, ““I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (cleverly set off against its “right-wing” counterpart urging manly men to go to war).

Mac wasn’t too concerned about a literal association of each song with a “conservative” perspective. “Amazing Grace” became a symbol for the topic of churchgoing conformity — “one of the few kinds of rituals we still have in America, like sports,” Mac said. “Where everyone’s on the same team, and it’s homogenous.”

As with the anti-war/pro-war song confrontation from the early 20th century, he counterpointed the racism of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” with Nina Simone’s defiant “Mississippi Goddamn” in one of the show’s most electrifying highlights.

And does judy have pipes: Mac’s remarkably versatile vocal stylings were grounded throughout in charismatic musicianship. In a touching encore, Mac rose high above the audience, perched on a stool, leading a group-sing of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” — gently yielding the reins to the assembled crowd.

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: performance, review, theater

Nothing Human Is Alien: A Poignant Mother Courage and Her Children at Seattle Shakespeare

 Trick Danneker, Chesa Greene, Jeanne Paulsen, and Spencer Hamp; photo by John Ulman

Trick Danneker, Chesa Greene, Jeanne Paulsen, and Spencer Hamp; photo by John Ulman

One of the shows on my personal most-anticipated list for the season opened Friday, and I’m still digesting the experience. Staging Mother Courage and Her Children, which is on the boards now at Seattle Shakespeare Company, is not an effort to be undertaken lightly. This is, aside from their 2011 production of The Threepenny Opera, Seattle Shakes’ first time out with the work of Bertolt Brecht.

Obviously at home with the dislocations and built-in “alienation effects” inherent in Shakespearean dramaturgy, the company brings to the challenge a valuable perspective from its long experience with the Bard.

An unconventional, class-focused production of Coriolanus that Bertolt Brecht saw in Berlin in the 1920s (directed by Erich Engel) was, after all, one of the formative influences on the German playwright’s ideas for a radically new kind of theater.

Directed by Jeff Steitzer, this production uses the acclaimed translation David Hare prepared for a Royal National Theatre production in 1995 (directed by Jonathan Kent).

That choice establishes a basic interpretive grid from the outset. Hare’s version underlines the caustic, cynical humor of the text, mostly leavening any hint of preachiness in the longer philosophical asides with a theatrical tartness reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. Could it be that some variety of humor — the more acid-etched, the better — is our preferred modern form of “alienation”?

A couple of topical references depressingly bring home how little has changed over the past two decades. In fact the most “Brechtian” aspect of this Mother Courage might be how it shows the ease with which the condition of war becomes normalized — in the ways it gets talked, even joked, about, justified, maneuvered around.

No matter how far we like to think we’ve advanced since Brecht’s masterpiece was first produced in 1941 (in neutral Zurich, in the middle of war-torn Europe) — or since the play’s setting in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), for that matter — the headline news of today’s refugees unnervingly echoes the grim plight of those caught up in those historical conflicts.

Jeanne Paulsen as Mother Courage; photo by John Ulman

Jeanne Paulsen as Mother Courage; photo by John Ulman

Mother Courage is a play, and a project, riddled with paradoxes that are necessarily insoluble — starting with Brecht’s theoretical aims versus realizing the play in praxis. One of these is the (very Shakespearean) ensemble nature of the work which at the same time requires a “star” quality performance to make the role of Anna Fierling (nicknamed “Mother Courage”) work properly.

That’s what Jeanne Paulsen delivers in her unflinching, gritty, sentimentality-proof portrayal of the intrepid matriarch whose idée fixe is to make a living and get her three children — Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and Kattrin — through the war.

But the living she makes by trading from her moveable canteen turns out to be most profitable when nations are at war, so Mother Courage is not to be thought of merely as a pitiable victim of the violence — even if she ends up losing all three children to it.

That’s the paradox anyone who takes on the role has to cope with, and Paulsen emphasizes how this contradiction has hardened Anna into a position where her own cynicism is among her most potent weapons of self-defense.

Paulsen’s steely-tempered Anna delivers her repartees with the deadpan timing of a 17th-century Bea Arthur. She has no need of a Shakespearean fool — it’s the character inside her who comes out with devastatingly witty responses to the war. We see Paulsen’s Mother Courage endure unbearably cruel experiences, yet at her core she’s already been numbed from the beginning.

Seattle Shakes has assembled an admirably strong cast to counterbalance Anna’s powerful personality with other vivid character portrayals and effectively paced ensemble work.

R. Hamilton Wright and Larry Paulsen; photo by John Ulman

R. Hamilton Wright and Larry Paulsen; photo by John Ulman

Trick Danneker gives the elder son Eilif a touch of a dark-spirited Candide, swiftly corrupted by his success at slaughter but too slow to learn the rule of moral relativism that holds sway. Spencer Hemp plays the good-natured Swiss Cheese like the ill-fated hero of a Brechtian fable. As the mute, genuinely heroic daughter Kattrin (in a world where heroism is a sick joke), Chesa Greene does superb work inhabiting her character to life with only gestures and body language.

Larry Paulsen, who accompanies Mother Courage through many of the play’s peripatetic sequence of scenes, reveals the complexity Brecht built into the Chaplain — exactly the sort of character you initially expect to remain a nasty caricature of the evils of religion doubling as an excuse-maker for war. While he doesn’t disguise the Chaplain’s cowardice and opportunism, Paulsen underscores his contradictions, which are almost as imposing as Anna’s — including a sense of compassion he develops in contrast to her stuck-in-place cold-heartedness.

R. Hamilton Wright makes a terrific Cook, an everyman with a well-developed carapace of cynicism as well as a philosophical streak that can match Anna. Alyssa Keene’s Yvette, showing her own ways to profit from the war, also brings to mind a few scenes of Candide in her cartoonish arc from pneumatic camp prostitute to plump, rich widow.

Reacting to the first of her children’s deaths (just before the one intermission taken in this production), Paulsen retreats inside her wagon and lets out a searing cry of anguish — heard but never seen, for as Mother Courage her entire survival strategy requires a constant facade of acting, never revealing true emotion.

Jeanne Paulsen and Chesa Greene; photo by John Ulman

Jeanne Paulsen and Chesa Greene; photo by John Ulman

It’s a wrenching moment that crystallizes the larger issue that looms over any production of this play: the paradox of Brecht’s epic theater of ironic emotional detachment versus the urge to feel sympathy for Anna. Steitzer’s staging essentially opts to set this contradiction aside, with only a few token efforts at creating “alienation”: the bare-bones set design with curtain (Craig B. Wollam) and some over-the-top stylizations of ancillary characters like the Commander-in-Chief Bill Johns) who mentors his young warrior Eilif.

Otherwise the dramaturgy and design (including Doris Black’s period costumes and Rick Paulsen’s lighting) aren’t really too far off from the staging of a Shakespeare play.

The one area where I’d most expect the distancing to be played up — the songs — represents the production’s weakest aspect. Oddly, there’s no clear credit in the program for the composer of the new songs (not Paul Dessau’s), just a reference to Robertson Witmer for “music arrangements.” In any case, the score offers little more than pallid imitation Kurt Weill. The pre-recorded tracks sound a bit too canned and, not surprisingly, inspire lackluster singing at best. (Seattle Shakes’ blog posts a playlist of songs from various Brecht plays.)

That aside, Seattle Shakes has achieved a powerful and thoroughly engaging theatrical interpretation of a show that tends to be more revered as a “classic” than actually experienced, particularly by American audiences. Anyone bothered by the deviations from Brecht’s principles would do well to remember that the playwright himself believed the classics like Shakespeare only survived through “sacrilege.”

If you go: Seattle Shakespeare’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children plays at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center (305 Harrison Street, Seattle) through 22 November 2015. Tickets here.

–(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Brecht, review, Shakespeare, theater

A View from the Bridge at Seattle Rep

Seeing the excellent production of A View from the Bridge currently running at Seattle Rep, I was reminded of Arthur Miller’s genius for distilling his themes and situations into pared-down forms that are unrelentingly direct.

But the straightforwardness is deceptively simple: Miller’s plays make their stunning impact with the resonance of myth and archetype. Seattle Rep’s production certainly delivers that one-two punch: directed by Braden Abraham, the pacing is as tightly wound as the boxing lesson Eddie Carbone gives Rodolpho. (It’s fascinating to contrast Miller’s emulation of Greek tragedy with that of Eugene O’Neill or of his contemporary Tennessee Williams.)

Mark Zeisler’s gruff but not uncharming Eddie sounded the right note of insecurity that is the character’s fatal flaw (a bit overdetermined, perhaps, in Miller’s hint of a homoerotic attraction to Rodolpho in addition to Eddie’s jealousy over his niece Catherine — but Zeisler downplays the former in any case).

In much of the first act (does anyone perform the original free-verse one-act version anymore?) it seemed some of the audience wanted to defang what was making them uncomfortable about Eddie by trying to view the play as a comedy — Eddie as an Archie Bunker type they could easily mock. But Miller is no sit-com, and fortunately the isolated outbursts of giggles and snickering soon died out.

Amy Danneker makes a compellingly conflicted Catherine, gradually finding her way toward self-determination, with prodding from her Aunt Bea (played with great sympathy by Kristen Potter). Frank Boyd brings an interesting mix of passion, goofiness, and naivete, to Rodolpho. As his brother Marco — and fellow “submarine” (hidden illegal immigrant), Brandon O’Neill hides his simmering desperation uncomfortably until it inevitably comes to a boil at the play’s climax.

Leonard Kelly-Young is all gruff 1950s noir as the lawyer Alfieri, Miller’s take on the ancient chorus. Yet his final speech, about “settling for half,” delivers possibly the play’s most searing moment: “And so I mourn him — I admit it — with a certain…alarm.”

But back to the mythic/archetypal aspect of Miller’s dramaturgy. At the same time, View is deeply rooted in its 1950s setting, politically, socially, culturally. This fusion of place and realism with the archetypal reminded me of Edward Hopper, as did the superb work of the design team: Scott Bradley’s sets, Rose Pederson’s costumes, Geoff Korf’s lighting.

And that combination of realism and archetypes of course brings to mind the verismo aesthetic. So it’s no surprise View has been made into an opera (in fact, more than once): most famously, into a work of American verismo by William Bolcom.

One of the several reasons André Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire is so unsatisfying, in my opinion, is the superfluous prospect of translating Tennessee Williams’s theater, inextricable from his language, to this medium. But Miller offers a composer more genuinely operatic possibilities.

Reviewing Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere production of the Bolcom opera in 1999, the critic Philip Kennicott makes some thought-provoking observations:

If you believe what seems to be a growing consensus in American opera–that pursuing stylistic and dramatic originality is a dead end–then this can be judged a truly great American opera. Bolcom mixes it up–barbershop quartets, jazz, Broadway flourishes and Puccini–creating an unapologetic and dizzying stylistic mix. Had this opera been written while Bernstein was at his peak, reviewers would have proclaimed a new genius to rival the master.

If you believe that new opera need offer only a good evening of musical entertainment, stylistic and musical originality be damned, then Bolcom’s opera will seem like a mongrelized family portrait of the last century of operatic history.


Bolcom … seems to argue that this opera isn’t just more mix-it-up postmodernism but a genuine American verismo work that just happens to have been written in 1999 (and is meant to sound like 1955).

I expect that many listeners will have exactly the same reaction to this paradox of late-20th-century opera–is it really indistinguishable from the music theater we love from an earlier era?–as I did. They will enjoy it yet question the artistic integrity behind it.

Nonetheless, Bolcom’s new work has a feeling of tragic grandeur to it, and the Lyric Opera production spares no effort to underscore it.

Filed under: Arthur Miller, opera, review, theater

Time Keeps on Shifting: Bloomsday at ACT

Marianne Owen and Sydney Andrews; photo: Chris Bennion

Marianne Owen and Sydney Andrews; photo: Chris Bennion

“Wait, I wanted to. I haven’t yet.”

In Ulysses‘ “Hades” chapter, this terse formula spontaneously occurs to Leopold Bloom: part of the copious flow of thoughts rippling through his mind as he thinks about what it’s like to die.

They could also serve as the elevator pitch for Bloomsday. Steven Dietz’s new play at ACT Theatre is an ode to the ache of regret.

Watching the burial of Paddy Dignam, Bloom ponders what the poor man must have felt at the moment he knew it was all over. The sight of his coffin prompts Bloom to embark on an internal monologue filled with such alas poor Yoricking.

“Wait, I wanted to. I haven’t yet”: those seven words “sum up” the whole mystery of life, according to Robert in one of Bloomsday‘s most poignant moments.

A 55-year-old American and a professor who has taught James Joyce for decades, Robert has ultimately arrived at a jaded view of Ulysses: as far as he’s concerned, that phrase of graveyard musing is the only bit of worth to be gleaned from what he now considers “a piece of drivel,” best used as a doorstop.

But Robert is projecting his own bitterness and regret onto Ulysses. The fear-inducing modernist classic was the topic responsible for bringing Caithleen into his life 35 years ago.

Back then Caithleen, a 20-year-old Irish loner, had a gig leading a walking tour around the Dublin spots Joyce immortalized in Ulysses. These are the locations where the novel’s external events unfold within the span of just one day, June 16, 1904, now internationally celebrated as “Bloomsday” by fans of Joyce.

Also 20, Robbie (the name Robert went by in his youth) was a greenhorn American abroad with lots of time to think about what to do with his life. Young Robbie had no clue about Joyce and was blissfully ignorant of Ulysses, a book he hasn’t even heard of.

But his attraction to Caithleen when he happened to run into her — as instant as Dante’s for Beatrice — motivated Robbie to follow along on the tour to try his chance at romance. But, as the mature Robert announces with a shudder of self-disgust, “I am made of something cold.” He let the chance slip away.

Eric Ankrim and Peter Crook; photo: Chris Bennion

Eric Ankrim and Peter Crook; photo: Chris Bennion

Bloomsday involves only these two characters, but it requires a cast of four: two actors each to play Robert and Caithleen during two phases in their lives, 35 years apart. Dietz dramatizes and puts onstage what is past tense to the middle-aged Robert and Cait (the name the older Caithleen prefers).

The play’s dramaturgical conceit is that Robert has come back to visit Cait after this long hiatus. In the process they watch and interact with their younger selves, who are reliving the day when they first met — a day that might have gone in a very different direction.

On the surface, it sounds like the makings of another formulaic rom-com, bittersweet variety, using a time-loop setup that might bring to mind Groundhog Day or even Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with a dash of Our Town.

What Dietz actually does is to lure us into thinking we’re getting something familiar in the first act, only to push us out of that comfort zone into a deeply moving meditation on lost time, on the painful dissonance that comes with memory.

In one of the play’s most trenchant images, Robert contrasts the experience of time as a sequence of notes — the way we normally experience it, moment to moment — with time as a chord, where “all the notes are played at once.”

Bloomsday is a time-chord that pits recrimination against the yearning for resolution. The wonder of Dietz’s achievement here is to dramatize both sides so effectively, without resorting to easy sentimentality or mushy nostalgia. Robert’s existential esprit de l’escalier brushes up against Cait’s gentle acceptance of the past.

Peter Crook vividly embodies Robert’s mix of despair and cynical humor vis-a-vis his younger self and compassion for the mature Cait, whom he learns to know in a very different light.

As the latter, Marianne Owen uses gesture and understatement to imply the silent agonies and loneliness her character has lived through in the interim with haunting effect.

Dietz offers a less interesting, less developed characterization of the young Robbie — perhaps intentionally, to underscore how he is a “blank slate” at this point in his life — but Eric Antrim touches on an appealingly varied spectrum of notes, from naivete to Robbie’s dawning awareness of possibilities he hadn’t previously imagined.

Sydney Andrews gives a stunning, beautifully textured performance as Caithleen, the character Dietz develops most richly. Her Caithleen initially creates the impression of a strong-willed, confident young woman, yet we come to see her deep-rooted anxiety take hold.

Caithleen experiences time as a distressing “chord” of overlaid moments. While Dietz leaves the issue of her inherited mental condition vague — it’s meant to be both realistic and metaphorical at the same time — Andrews makes her unease and her contradictions touchingly palpable without resorting to melodrama.

Eric Ankrim and Sydney Andrews; photo: Chris Bennion

Eric Ankrim and Sydney Andrews; photo: Chris Bennion

The design work is admirably integrated: Robert Dahlstrom’s simple, efficient set of cobbled street surfaces provides the backdrop for the play’s instant shifts of scene and mood, which are enhanced by Duane Schuler’s subtle lighting and Chris Walker’s sound design.

Catherine Hunt’s costumes visually rhyme with the subtle irony of Dietz’s time-loops and overlays: the older couple is nostalgically attired in the Edwardian period dress of the fictional turn-of-century Bloomsday, while young Robbie and Caithleen carry on in “normal” clothes.

Bloomsday is the last production Kurt Beattie is directing at ACT before ending his long and fruitful tenure as the company’s artistic director. His long-term partnership with Dietz is clearly evident in the graceful, emotionally resonant cadence and tempo of his staging. (This is the 11th play by Dietz to have been premiered/produced at ACT.)

As a variation on the memory play, Bloomsday is also a strikingly fitting farewell gesture for Beattie. Dietz’s theatrical poetry, enacted by this well-knit cast, captures the intensity of experiences that pass by fleetingly and that at the same time can leave an indelible mark: the essence of theater itself.

Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday runs through October 11 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle (206-292-7676 or here to buy tickets online).

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: ACT Theatre, review, theater

The Coming-Soon-Park: Philippe Quesne at On the Boards

What a delightful way to launch the new season: over the weekend, On the Boards presented La mélancolie des dragons, a visual-theatrical tone poem by the Paris-based theater artist Philippe Quesne featuring his Vivarium Studio.

I’d only read about Quesnes before, having missed his previous appearance at On the Boards over four years ago in L’Effet de Serge. Once you’ve experienced his work live, en personne, it’s even more obvious that, like music, it really can’t be captured by the proxy of words.

The mise en scène initially signals that a hyper-realistic play is perhaps about to unfold: a run-down VW Rabbit sits stranded on the stage, as if exhausted from hauling a mysterious trailer. The wintry landscape is framed by snow-covered trees that are part-Chekhov, part-Stephen King: as the audience visibly shivers settling into their seats, you half wonder whether some menacing interloper would come stalking through the treeline.

But it all turns out to be the setup for a gracefully quirky homage to the evocative power of theater. The “realistic” stage picture opens up a world of surprising invention whose only unifying story line riffs on the magical connection between performer and audience.

Audience in this case enters into the picture in the figure of Isabelle, the far-from-menacing interloper who happens upon the stranded Rabbit and its inhabitants and offers to help. Though apparently a chance encounter, she is greeted warmly by a band of seven men on the road touring their “show.”

Before that comes a lengthy preludial section: the lights come up on four of these guys sitting in the car (all sporting metal-style, shoulder-length hair), sharing a bag of chips, drinking cans of Rainier beer, and rocking out to an ADD-driven setlist of AC/DC and The Scorpions.

No words, just a silent theater of gestures and movement accompanied by music. In fact, though the VW’s in dismal shape (Isabelle pokes beneath the hood, liberating alarming puffs of smoke), the sound system carries on unperturbed. Music is an integral component of Quesne’s vivarium, and later in Mélancolie the soundtrack makes way for some very apt Haydn.

Once all the characters have been revealed, spoken dialogue is introduced. We learn that these men have been peddling their nameless show: a sort of mobile, minimalist amusement park on wheels. “Really?” exclaims Isabelle in wonder. “Can you show me?”

Which is of course both Mélancolie‘s theme and process: the show-me part of theater that makes us sit up and eagerly watch, casting aside the drive for interpretation — whether that means fitting it all into a coherent plot or getting to the bottom of some putative motivation. Image is message in the world of Quesne.


Or rather, images and their enjoyment. Isabelle, and we, are treated to a parade of sometimes silly, sometimes buoyant “acts”: dancing wigs, a machine that blows bubbles, a tub of water made to spew in a “geyser,” enormous pillow-like balloons that are gathered into an installation, like a zany, tripped-out Stonehenge.

Isabelle’s reactions, and the reactions of her entertainers to her reactions, are just as fun to watch as what’s being displayed. At the climax, the varied attractions are mixed together into a lighter-than-air Gesamtkunstwerk.

Amid all the frothiness, Quesne does weave in some clever metatheatrical commentary, poking gentle fun at that logocentric need to make it all make sense.

When Isabelle is being introduced to the “installation” of books, Quesne humorously harps on an anthology of writings on melancholy and a children’s book about dragons. Aha! So that’s what it’s about!

“We are…autonome!” declared one of the entertainers, lauding their DIY inventiveness but also suggesting the best attitude for watching the show.

There’s also some delicious banter about texts versus images, and Antonin Artaud gets name checked, as if to seal the piece with experimental-theater cred. All very sweetly tongue in cheek.

Quesne’s theater artistry is rooted in his work as a visual designer for opera, theater, even exhibitions. He also likes to compare his sensibility to that of an entomologist. (He began studying insects as a hobby when he was a kid.)

But while much of the amusement of this show emerges from observing the naive, childlike wonder of Isabelle and the showmen, Quesne steers clear of any tone of mockery or superciliousness. It’s a subtle balancing act: and therein lies Mélancolie‘s real magic.

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: On the Boards, review, theater

“What Kind of a God Lets Others Fight for Him?”

I’m still processing my reactions to the Deutsches Theater’s production of Nathan the Wise, the Enlightenment masterpiece from 1779 by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

“Provocative” would be an understatement — though provocation (or at least the semblance thereof) is mother’s milk in this theater scene by comparison with the usual fare in the English-speaking world.

At least it can’t be denied that director Andreas Kriegenburg, along with his designers Harald Thor (sets) and Andrea Schraad (costumes), has created a visually arresting production: inspired by the enigmatic monolith at the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s dominated by a large wooden cube — here, a ramshackle, hut-like structure that comically, unpredictably, moves back and forth on the stage.

The Kubrickian impetus is also apparent in a lengthy pantomime-prelude that has nothing to do with Lessing. Kreigenburg shows two “clay figures,” man and woman after the moment of their creation in the process of discovering each other, but then enters in original sin…by way of a primeval “us against them” pattern the cast enacts. And then a childish voice reminds everyone: “But what about the Lessing?” — and the “play” begins.

The comedy is the thing here: Kriegenburg has dared to radically rethink this sacred text of Enlightenment tolerance as an “archaic comic strip” in which the characters — still decked out in their primordial clay but adorned with cliched bits of dress and props to signify their religious affiliations — waddle about in the comic style of silent films, recalling Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in their gestures. (Some of their stage movement also called The Walking Dead zombie dramaturgy to mind, though I couldn’t tell whether that was intentional.)

Jörg Pose (Nathan), Bern Moss (Saladin), and Elias Arens as the arrogant young Templar play out their roles, but their gestures and even declamation of Lessing’s poetic text are riddled with an eccentric, frequently strained, range of comic moves. The shtick at times gives way to the crudest potty humor, as when the Patriarch — (Natali Seelig, outfitted in a grotesque fat suit) — holds his conference with the naive Templar while on the can. And all of this is accompanied by an almost ceaselessly piped-in soundtrack of clownish music, as if these were routines they had performed over and over.

The dramaturgical notes for the production speak loftily of the relation between comedic form and the “supremely serious” content of Lessing’s text. But is Kriegenburg merely underscoring a profoundly cynical understanding of Lessing’s vision as not only a marvelous “fairy-tale” with a “utopian conclusion” but, literally, a farce in the face of historical — and present-day — reality?

Does this explain his avoidance of allusions to gravely serious issues in the news today, to which an “earnest” director would clearly want to relate Lessing’s play — from the refugee crisis to the atrocities of Daesh? Such topical allusions as do appear are treated as jokes.

And yet, in the scene Nathan’s recitation of the famous Ring Parable, the tone changed, perhaps even in spite of the context. Much of the critical reaction I’ve seen has been pretty vehemently negative, but I can’t say my own experience was. At times I was reminded of the eccentric, apocalyptic humor of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, at others of the craziness of Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theater, where iconoclastic absurdity can suddenly trigger a shocking reversal into something profound.

Perhaps it was just the chance to encounter Lessing’s magnificent text again (in English here), however distorted.

(c)2015 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: directors, Enlightenment, Lessing, theater

All the World’s a Stage


There’s breaking the fourth wall, and then there’s this:

Actress Christine Sherrill was waiting backstage to make her entrance in Signature Theatre’s production of The Fix when the doors through which she was supposed to make her entrance suddenly burst open the wrong way.

A woman stood there and delivered a dramatic request, “Where is the bathroom? I have to pee.”

All the world really is a stage.

Filed under: theater

The Dangerous God

Currently running at the Almeida as part of its “Greeks” season is a riveting production (in Anne Carson’s version) of the disturbing, tirelessly fascinating Euripides tragedy Bakkhai — as the company prefers to transliterate the title.

I agree to an extent with Dominic Cavendish’s assessment that the chorus of female bacchantes is a major weak spot as staged by James Macdonald in this production. As Cavendish puts it: “Even with the ten Bacchants on all fours, faces animal-painted, banging staves, the effect is more WI tea-party than wild tribal gathering.”

I’d also add that the humdrum music they are given by Orlando Gough — spiced with raw Balkan harmonies but never actually ecstatic — bears much of the responsibility for this weakness. That, and a shade too much ensemble gesticulation with kitschy echoes of the Macbeth witches (expanded from three to ten).

But there’s plenty of wonderful work here which more than compensates — including a staging of the early encounter between the blind seer Tiresias and old Cadmus that has a dash of Samuel Beckett’s humor. The big name draw has been the casting of Ben Whishaw as Dionysus — and he’s good at conveying the god’s savage contradictions and self-doubting.

The famous Apollonian-Dionysian dualism appears here broken down and recombined within in myriad ways: Dionysus is boyish, epicene, a smooth talker, a trickster, but, most memorably, the god does a volte-face after he’s gotten his revenge and, during the scene with Agave and Cadmus, viciously rubs it in. This is the nightmare that atheists turn to over and over to warn of the hideousness of our projections of divine entities.

So, too, Bertie Carvel undergoes a criss-cross, chiasmos transformation from stern, disciplined, “logocentric” ruler to a creature overcome by fatal curiosity — and the dissolution of borders. He trades his alpha male suit to put on campy drag, which is followed by his turn as Agave. This was far more than camp: I could have sworn I heard a kind of collective gasp in the final scene as Agave comes down from her high, in the moment when recognition dawns — their moment of catharsis.

Daniel Mendelssohn reminds us that with Bakkhai Euripides “won a posthumous first prize at that year’s [405 BCE] annual dramatic competition, an accolade that had so often eluded the irreligious and daringly experimental playwright during his lifetime.”

Of course the achievement of Euripides in Bakkhai continues to be rediscovered by each new age, reassessed according to its needs and … blinders. The enthusiasts of the 1960s found Dionysus a figure of liberation, of sexual and creative joy in the face of repression. Does our current reckoning with the consequences of religious mania make Pentheus a more sympathetic character? And what about Cadmus, grandfather to the god and worshiper, who is forced to endure seeing his descendants suffer this fate?

The final chorus of the tragedy:

The gods appear in many forms,
carrying with them unwelcome things.
What people thought would happen never did.
What they did not expect, the gods made happen.
That’s what this story has revealed.

Filed under: review, theater, tragedy

Some Rarities from Tennessee

Robin Jones and Sam Read; photo (c) Mike Hipple

Robin Jones and Sam Read; photo (c) Mike Hipple

It happens that two rarely produced plays by Tennessee Williams have been presented this summer in Seattle — and merely by coincidence, as far as I know, by two entirely different groups. They follow on director Kurt Beattie’s staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for ACT’s 50th anniversary season in spring, which emphasized the bigness of the play.

If the set design’s hints of Big Daddy’s generous portion of land — the irretrievable Eden — suggested those larger, mythic themes amid the naturalistic ambience of the Cat production, Orpheus Descending ventures much further out in that direction, employing a diffuse, associative narrative strategy that makes its stretto-like moments of tension all the more melodramatic (on the surface, that is).

The 1957 Orpheus is a bold choice for Intiman Theatre to launch the 2015 Festival — particularly in director Ryan Purcell’s staging at 12th Avenue Arts (closes August 2), which refuses to smooth over but actually underlines how Williams’s stagecraft here flouts conventions and flirts with excess. (After all, the play’s earlier incarnation as Battle of Angels was a famous flop for the playwright back in 1940, before his breakthrough arrived with The Glass Menagerie.)

Purcell focuses his attention sharply on the issues related to the construction of identity in the suffocating small-town Southern atmosphere in which Orpheus plays out: with real payoff when it comes to the miasma of racism that is hardly dated from Williams’s 1950s.

Here, the actors’ gender and race don’t necessarily align with those of the characters they represent — to powerful effect for the pivotal role of Lady Torrance, who is mprisoned in her marriage to the murderous racist Jabe (Max Rosenak, toxic even as an ailing old man). Lady is played by the wonderful Ugandan-born actress Kemiyondo Coutinho with a haunting blend of sass and fatalism.

She and Elise LeBreton (as another town outcast, Carol Cutrere) are especially outstanding in conveying an impression of deeply individual personalities struggling not to be entombed by their surroundings. The cast also works well as an ensemble to project the community’s palpably malignant aura, their gossip generating a never-ending hum of suspicion and resentment.

There’s a fundamental weak link, though, in Charlie Thurston as the invading Orpheus figure who shakes up the town and rekindles Lady’s hopes for liberation. He projects a personality too sensitive and withdrawn to account for the electric effect the Elvis-like Val is seen to have when he arrives. And too much of the substance of Williams’s great arias gets thrown away for an effect here or there: the famous legless bird speech never really takes off.

As an amusing side note, Purcell’s choice to substitute an accordion for the guitar with which Williams arms his hero seems to have baffled some as “illogical” — but it seems fairly clear that this is just another bit of commentary on the way roles are created, the semiotic dissonance further highlighting Williams’s exploration of how identities and patterns get collectively reiterated.

Charlie Thurston as Val Xavier and Kemiyondo Coutinho as Lady; photo by Jeff Carpenter

Charlie Thurston as Val Xavier and Kemiyondo Coutinho as Lady; photo by Jeff Carpenter

Purcell likewise seeks to recalibrate audience perceptions by encouraging movement to new vantage points in the three-quarter seating arrangement (which for the third act include a center platform around which spectators were invited to sit). The conventions of the theatrical experience get further spotlighted just as Williams’s dramaturgy begins to tighten into a more “conventional” plot knot and crisis (which does involve some questionable rewriting of the actual script for the horrific conclusion).

All told, it’s a thought-provoking, often moving experience that works only partially but is mindful of Williams’s experimental audacity — an aspect that often gets short-changed when evaluating this playwright, and that caused no end of misunderstanding from critics and audiences during his life.

Purcell has a smart and sensitive grasp of the richness of Williams, so I’m eager to see what he and his Williams Project do in their next adventure.

Orpheus is at least better known than The Two-Character Play, so of course I jumped at the chance to see the latter as staged by Civic Rep (at the New City theater space until August 1). Like Orpheus, The Two-Character Play stretches across a long span of Williams’s life and was presented in two different versions onstage as he continued to struggle with the material.

The cliché — which has been predictably repeated in a few reviews I’ve seen — would have us believe that poor Tennessee was too boozed up, drugged out, and just too damn depressed in his final decades, that he couldn’t match the earlier masterpieces: the old “there are no second acts” charge (as the frequently misused Fitzgerald phrase goes).

And The Two-Character Play (eventually premiered as such in 1975) is an unfortunate example of an aging, addicted, angst-ridden playwright who’d lost his touch — so goes the conventional wisdom.

In fact, for all its flaws — and flaws seem to be essential to its underlying philosophy of drama — The Two-Character Play actually has links back to the white-hot period of Williams’s creativity in the 1950s and, more importantly, manifests his restless search for new dramatic forms and modes of revelation. Williams himself deemed it his “most beautiful” play after Streetcar.

Much of what people complain about with the “he was too drunk and high” line comes down to the fact that Williams refused to repeat past formulas here, that he wasn’t trying to write another Streetcar (which Civic Rep staged as their inaugural production in January — and which I unfortunately missed). Civic Rep’s approach to The Two-Character Play, directed by L. Zane Jones, honestly tackles the difficulty of a piece of theater that denies the easy entrée of naturalism, of a storyline and characters with whom we can readily identify.

Sister and brother Clare and Felice are also trapped by roles and patterns, as in Orpheus — but now the focus is entirely internalized, a hell of the individual psyche. They are presented as actors who increasingly lose control as they attempt to control the success of their upcoming performance during a tour — a performance of a show titled The Two-Character Play.

Williams crafts a mise en abyme of identity, framing this piece of metatheater as a metatheatrical reflection — which is nicely captured by Thorn Michaels’ ghostly lighting and Angie Harrison’s “behind the curtains” design with its real and imagined entrances and exits. Audience “involvement” is encouraged in this case by Jones’s placement of the spectators on opposite sides (sidewise) of the action, so that reactions from other audience members become an integral part of the staging: yet another type of mirroring. Andy Swan’s sound design evokes hazy memories that jumble uneasily together.

By still further coincidence — or is it synchronicity? — a third group, Seattle Theatre Works, just closed its run of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, as adapted and directed by Daniel Tarker. The aims and world views of both playwrights differ profoundly, though there is a shared flash of Twilight Zone weirdness in the way the situations are set up in both (more so in the Pirandello).

But both deal with characters trapped by roles they are somehow forced to play. The six characters who appear suddenly in Pirandello are condemned to a kind of eternal return, replaying the tragedy that has been imagined for them, but knowing what is to come now each time they replay it. In his intricate reflections on the play and production (well worth reading), the Seattle writer Omar Willey remarks that points to “an unevenness of tone in the production” as to whether the play is ultimately a comedy or a tragedy or “somewhere between.”

A similar issue of tone — how much is camp, how much is “real emotion” — arises with performing The Two-Character Play. Making it even more challenging for the cast of two, there is no countervailing group of people from “normal reality” (Pirandello’s theater company members) as a sort of gauge.

As the two characters, Robin Jones and Sam Read sustain the suspense of gradual revelation of the past trauma that has scarred them, playing out a fugue of despair as relentlessly encroaching as the coming dusk. The sense of an ending — an ending dreaded and yet desired — hovers throughout in Williams’s text of this, his final full-length play.

In her earlier moments, Jones plays amusingly but also provocatively with the “type” of the volatile actress ready to fly off into a rage, while Read is reminiscent of a tormented figure from Edgar Allan Poe. They seek to escape their condition, as Page declares, “There’s no such thing as an inescapable corner with two people in it.” In The Two-Character Play the redeeming Eros of Orpheus has been replaced by the shared tragic connection of a pair of siblings. Or is hell really “les autres”?

“To think of The Two-Character Play as belonging to the tradition of a play-within-a-play would be a mistake,” observes dramaturg Thea Cooper in her lucid program note. “This play is more along the lines of an authorial confession than a demonstration of clever literary architecture. It shares more artistic DNA with Ionesco and Albee than with Shakespeare or Shaw. It may be the least contrived of all of Williams’s work, more about unmasking than masking…. Ultimately, this is a play about questions rather than answers. Like life itself, it is a narrative that one experiences rather than understands, at least in the moment.”

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, Tennessee Williams, theater

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR