Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Truth or Truthiness

George Hunka of Superfluities has a great post on truth and drama.

He uses the Frey affair as a starting point, but asks larger questions about the idea of presenting truth in drama.

This got me to thinking a little more about a performance I had recently seen.

Jose Rivera once said that we should try to write from every other part of our body before we write from the head.

We all have many selves, each with its own personality and deeply held passions. I have a self for work, a self for my friends, a self for family. If asked, I would probably say that my truest self is the self I am with my wife. However, as soon as say "truest" I have to ask myself if I can really be objective enough to say that.

Intriguing drama seems, (to me,) to come from a dramatist who is willing to engage those many selves and allow them their passions and personalities.

I was in D.C. this last weekend and caught a friend in a one act festival the Madcap Players were performing. One of the pieces, First Day of School, made me think of these questions of truth and drama. It consisted of a thirty-something married couple wheeling, colliding and tearing about the stage with their twin children. The dialogue consisted of seemingly random sentences and revelations, which you were never sure if they were the parents speaking through the children or the children speaking through the parents. At one point, the Father blurts out, "I am planning on using the next terrorist attack to dissappear and start a new life." The wife says to the daughter, "You are a constant reminder of the fact that I will get older and pass on." The husband and wife periodically collide together, have rough lovemaking, and then drag the children violently about the stage.

You may be thinking that you have seen this experiment many times. But what made this different was the way the playwright and the actors willingly engaged with the many selves of marriage. Rather than start with a thesis of "marriage with children is hell," or a thesis of "marriage is a blessing, but hard work," the creators let the many selves engage each other. And, (this is the most important point,) they SHOWED how those selves interact. They didn't tell us how they interact.

Thinking about this, I remember that Krapp's Last Tape was one of the most brilliant examples of SHOWING the many selves of man interacting. Like some sort of exponential fun-house mirror, Beckett was able to show the many selves of a man at different stages in his life.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Using Brecht To Slam Von Trier?

In this week's installment of his Beyond the Multiplex column, Salon film writer Andrew O'Herir takes issue with the second installment of Lars Von Trier's American trilogy, Manderlay. Manderlay apparently uses the same staging conceit as Dogville, which starred Nicole Kidman. For those unfamiliar with Dogville, the movie takes place on a soundstage with very minimalist staging, (in fact the buildings along the mainstreet are drawn with chalk outlines.)

In an open e-mail to Von Trier, O'Herir asks a number of questions, several of them refer to Bertolt Brecht:

2. In this film, as in "Dogville," you seem to be doing something that's very much in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht: the obvious artificiality of the presentation and setting, a situation that is satirical or cynical or absurd, a very loose relationship to actual history and geography. Is this a conscious influence for you?

2a. But Brecht's theater was specifically directed at capitalism: He sought to show the heartlessness and evil that current economic reality made possible, or inevitable. I don't think you're aiming at the same target. Or are you?

3. Another thing Brecht did was to try to engage the viewer
emotionally, even within this artificial and/or implausible setting. You try to do that, don't you? At least, I found the young girl's death, and the subsequent "execution" of the old woman, very affecting, even though the larger situation is not all that realistic. [Sorry about this one, readers; you'll just have to
see the film.]

I was reminded a little of Brecht with Dogville, but I felt more of an influence, (or rather a riff off of,) Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

Probably George Hunka of Superfluities would be able to speak more eloquently about O'Herir's above assertions.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

While We Wait...

The theatrical season is revving up the engine these last two weeks and we are waiting as the new shows kick into gear.

No Exit at the ART and Liasons at the Huntington are the centerpieces of this month and the reviews should hit soon on those shows. Until then we are in the doldrums that hang over from the Christmas dearth of new theatre.

There is some value in the No Exit promo piece by Louise Kennedy, but otherwise theatre journalism in still hitting the snooze alarm.
Aside from PR pieces like the Huntington's costumes and a dissapointing piece about the influential and important Jacqui Parker and her African American Theatre festival, (basically 2/3rds of the piece is Parker's resume and only a sliver of her actually talking about her art,) we get a completely scathing Phoenix review of the Solo piece at Merrimack Rep.

Bill Marx's review of Carey's new book, What Good Are The Arts? is an interesting companion piece to the review of Squeeze Box. According to Marx:

In his ballyhooed book "What Good Are the Arts?" Carey argues that the benefits of the arts have been inflated for centuries by self-proclaimed elitists, who think the high arts are an absolute good, elevating the few in the know into realms of the transcendent. Carey sees this as highbrow snobbery: "The religion of art makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic."

As proof, Carey apparently says that many things are considered art, from video games to Monet, and value all boils down to personal taste. Carey's conclusion is that arts are only useful as social programs.

However, Bill's review concludes:

Alas, Carey's crude notion that almost anything can be defined as art leads to a confused polemic. If video games and Matisse paintings are of equal value, then what criteria are to be used when deciding what kinds of art prisoners and students should be taught?

Mr. Marx is right to perceive a mission creep with regards to arts criticism. I have long believed that the last battlefront for commercial takeover of the arts is on the field of academic and critical aqueiescence. These polemics against any kind of standards are invading the middlebrow circuits on a regular basis. ( Books like Everything Bad is Good For You are a prime example.)

The most insidious culprit, the full-featured DVD, is an absolute miracle of digital dramaturgy which can turn the remake of Dukes of Hazzard into Citizen Kane. Read Grady Hendrix's rundown of the special features about Jessica Simpsons jeans and the General Lee at Slate and you will see what I mean. I love the closing line:

My viewing done, the question remained: Is The Dukes of Hazzard a modern day masterpiece? Have we returned to the great, auteurist-driven cinema of the 1970s? Judging by the all the extras, the answer has to be yes. But I haven't actually seen the movie and I never will. I don't want to ruin the special features.

In his review of Squeeze Box, Steve Vineberg taps into some of these issues, with questions about what the show is really about.

More some other time.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Movies Anyone?

I don't see nearly as many movies as I used to, and compared to my past, (when I could tick off most of the movies on the ten best lists from the nation's critics,) I now look at most of the titles listed in year end wrap up columns and scratch my head.

I will confess my elation to see, Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris pick Sam Mendes's Jarhead as the Best Film of the year. As far as I can see from the latest rundown at Metacritic Morris is the only critic to list it even in the top ten. I felt that Jarhead got a little bit of a bum rap when it came out, and I found myself disagreeing with other film buff friends whose opinions I usually respect. It was one of the few films I saw last year, but it made a great impact as a flawed, powerful, artistic and challenging film. It was Mendes' swipe at making an actual anti-war anti-war, film.

If you get a chance, I would check it out.

Full disclosure: Part of my fascination is that I am a Gulf War Era Veteran. I did not serve in Desert Storm, (having enlisted during the conflict,) but the incidents, equipment, and vernacular, brought a little wisp of nostalgia.

I actually did see Me and You and Everyone We Know, which appears on a number of ten best lists. My wife and I watched it on On Demand, not really knowing much about it. While initially ambivalent, we did admit in subsequent days after seeing it that it is one of the most surprising movies we had seen in while. However, I am not so sure that is good or bad.

Syriana is like the proverbial onion. It opens up new thoughts and themes with each of the viewings. I have seen it twice now, and I am convinced I will see it again when it comes to video or On Demand.

Thanks for the indulgence of movies on what should be more theatre related posts.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Kuntz's Satire in Weekly Dig is Great, but...

John Kuntz gets the right idea in the best roundup theatrical column of the year, or any year for that matter.

Basically, he did it as a blog of an imaginary theatre critic. He picks on Bill Marx and Carolyn Clay by name:

4.8.05 Place 3am call to Bill Marx (WBUR) but get voicemail. I know you’re there, bitch. Why don’t you answer?

Even Joyce Kulhawik gets a jab, (almost literally,) but he doesn't name Ed Seigel or Terry Byrne, the most read theatre critics in town. Proving that the edge of satire can often fall just short of the doorstep of the powerful.
Something All Small Theatre Artists Would Love To See

Starting off the New Year, I will point you to a surprisingly honest and very naked and raw admission by critic Adrian Ryan in the The Stranger out of Seattle.

Apparently, haunted by the scathing (really scathing if you read the quotes) review she did of Hyperion Production's Tartuffe in 2000, Ryan feels she must come clean and clarify a horrible review that couldn't have helped the company.
"Today, oh so many moons later, I must admit that I have a much broader perspective as far as theater criticism is concerned. I have seen 12 gagillion tragic Seattle shows in the intervening years, and I realize that I was dreadfully hard on Hyperion Productions in general and Mr. Sebers in particular. Although it may seem a bit grand, I feel that I contributed a nasty shove to Hyperion's fall—and perhaps even to Josh Sebers's, who, I have come to realize, was a darn good actor.
When I think of it now, it makes me want to vomit."