12 May 2006

bountiful bounty

i've seen so much theatre in the last few days that the plays are coming faster than i can blog about them! ('you must blog very slowly,'* you say.) so before i see any more (brundibar, drowsy chaperone, spring awakening, spelling bee, and maybe well, all before the end of the month), let me tell you what i thought about some things i've recently seen, so you know what to think about them, too.

[this is an insanely long post, so feel free to skip around - i'm writing about based on a totally true story, defiance, and threepenny opera. 3penny goes into meditations on brecht and the alienation effect, and has some minimal spoilers about the production.]

last friday, as play-by-play continues to be awesome,** james, john, and i (and john's random friend) saw based on a totally true story at mtc. first of all, mixed as the shows at stage ii have been, the sets are consistently awesome. well done to mtc for doing such great, such different things with that small space. and second of all, you know we're in trouble if the sets are the first thing i mention.

since the buzz was not good, and the tickets were free, i was pleasantly surprised, and had a good time. carson elrod is mad cute. pedro pascal was good, if he tended to wander into weird gay indicator territory. kristine nielsen is insanely talented, and really needs to calm the fuck down. but the play? weelll... it was fun. it was clever. it was targeted exactly at our demographic. but why is roberto aguirre-sacasa the offical new hot thing of the world? i don't know. this is the second thing of his i've seen, first being mystery plays at second stage uptown two years ago. i don't know if it's depth or poetry that his writing's lacking, but he is not at all the most promising, talented, or intriguing young writer around. how about jordan harrison? itamar moses, jorge cortinas, sarah ruhl, adam bock? (the last two, not so young, but still "emerging.") roberto aguirre-sacasa just doesn't do it for me. and i don't think that's taste - i enjoy his plays. but they're not amazing. he doesn't do anything interesting with language, and, having seen him try to be profound (mystery plays) and having seen him go for a pop-culture romance (b.o.a.t.t.s.), he's better at the latter but in neither realm does he achieve anything Special, anything that approaches transcendence. anything that justifies the hype. and how the hell do you say his last name?

then, tuesday, giving me the feeling that i spent a few days living in the mtc/city center basement, defiance. meh. a big ol' meh. now, we all know i'm not a huge fan of doubt. very very good play, very well-written, well-made, well-acted. (the top of adrienne lennox's hat gave a stunning performance, seen from the nosebleed rush seats.) but not my sort of thing. 'well-constructed' isn't high on my list of virtues, and it was doubt's triumph. and my experience of danny and the deep blue sea at second stage was marred by being in the ass-back of the theatre, which there makes you feel like you're three miles away from the stage. so i went into defiance with not-high hopes.

sadly, in this case, my expectations were just about cleanly met. i wasn't bored, exactly, but i didn't care. chris mcgarry (in what i learned was his first performance, as a replacement) was wonderful, and next time he does something, you should go see him.*** where doubt succeeds, in part, because it is so incredibly high-stakes important to find out what happened, in defiance i really didn't care. i don't think there was any mystery, a did-he-or-didn't-he. (i mean, there is a small did-he-or-didn't-he, but i don't think anyone cares.) yawn. maybe i just don't like shanley. who knows. it's not a good sign that after defiance, i don't really much care.

but then, last night, threepenny opera. so didn't think i was going to like this. so surprised, because i actually really did.

first, the cast. alan cumming - i mean, of course, wonderful, wow. okay, a little off, but he's alan cumming, for fuck's sake. though i sometimes wonder how he ended up doing musicals because he doesn't have so much really the greatest voice. but moving on. jim dale - holy shit. this guy is how old and can still dance like what? amazing. ana gasteyer - bleh. sang it all like it was the last three notes of "defying gravity." chris innvar - i heart him. the little dance at the end was amazing.

now, nellie mckay and cyndi lauper. we're expecting crap, right? i saw cyndi lauper in a workshop of a musical the summer i was at nys&f, and i did not have high hopes for 3penny, to put it mildly. but wow was i surprised. both of their performances were amazing. inspired. nellie mckay has this wacky, slightly dorky thing going on that is captivating, and cyndi lauper was... i know i keep saying "amazing," but it's true.**** two examples of the power of conviction, of committing to what you're doing and going all the way. so wonderful to watch.

and then, the show. completely, totally worked. i've been hearing mixed-to-negative things, but kids, have you read your brecht? cause if you're going in here looking to be engaged in the story, you have come to the wrong place. now, i've done a lot (probably too much) of thinking about the alienation effect, and the possibility of brechtian theatre in a post- (or post-post-, wil) modern world. when metatheatricality, supertitles, direct address, and audience interaction are our bread and butter, how can you alienate an audience? or rather, when we're so used to the tools of alienation, is it possible for the alienation effect to, as brecht intended, make us think?

pretty much, no. (if anyone knows what oskar has to say about this, i would love to know.) we're so used to alienation that it doesn't make us think. i didn't leave pondering poverty and the role of the police. but the show definitely succeeded in creating alienation.

of course, that's probably why lots of people don't like it - you feel detached, don't care about the story. (and there's no tap dancing!) but the effect totally works. some of the techniques felt like old hat (big mirror flying in so the audience sees their own reflection? gosh, thanks.), but some was really effective (the snow, the weird lighting of the mezzanine rim to reflect in the stupid mirror). most effective for me was how, in the second act, the cast had this really palpable contempt for the audience. if there's one way to ensure that an audience doesn't empathise, there it is. (also a very interesting way to indirectly and subtly make sure the audience doesn't forget they're there.) and it left me with this wonderful nausea after the show. very affecting in its alienating. (which of course isn't what brecht wanted. but in this day and age, it's probably the best we can get.)

but that still leaves the question of the purpose of the alienation. in brecht's time, it was to get the audience to think, to be able to rationally consider the story to draw conclusions and apply them to their own lives and world. but when part of the alienating means devaluing the story (perhaps a flaw?), and when we're 80 years later, so it's not so relevant (nor is the form - low-brow operetta - any longer shocking), what are we left with? for me, it was my emotional reaction to having been alienated. it was powerful, and effective, but not what brecht would want. it made me think about theatre, though, in a more analytical way than after most shows.

my (and james') reaction had an interesting parallel to inishmore. because, and now it's obvious, the insane violence has an alienating affect as well. (interesting that in tracy letts it doesn't.) and my reaction to the threepenny alienation is like james' to inishmore - i'm alienated from the show, but have a visceral reaction to that alienation. it's also interesting to think about as paralleling my reaction to urinetown back in the day - during the show i don't love it (the ending of urinetown is super alienating in completely denying any emotional catharsis), but coming to love it in thinking about it (and, in urinetown's case, listening to it) afterwards. and, of course,***** urinetown is just threepenny reborn, so it makes perfect sense. and cool that they both worked that way.

so there's three different ways that you can come out of show gone into with low expectations. stay tuned to see what happens when the expectations (or hopes) are high, and if i'm able to find a shirt at drowsy for james that says 'putting the gin back in original.'

*requisite eddie izzard reference, just for tone: 'you must get up very early in the morning.'

**especially when it's your roommate's account, so you never had to pay the $100 fee.

***he reminded me of andy germanlastname (groetluschen?) from the trinity, who was in laura schellhardt's vampire play (which i spot-opped at brown), and with whom i was just in an elevator.

****her hair and make-up were also just so fucking cool.

*****i say 'of course,' but this is something i learned in a class.

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