Friday, March 31, 2006

All Roads Lead to Conflict
The Road Home; Re-Membering America at the Huntington Theatre

In the intensely engrossing Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, Herzog inserts an aside at one point. His subject, a man who spent numerous summers living with grizzly bears in the wild, has just finished crying over a slain fox. The man sees the death of the fox as an aberration of the natural, peaceful nature of the world. Herzog's voice-over tells us that here he must disagree with his subject. "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony," Herzog tells us, "but chaos, hostility, and murder."

In the New Republic, Christopher Orr explained, in an eloquent essay, how the film, while on the surface a traditional documentary about a quirky character, is really about two men. Timothy Treadwell, the deceased grizzly activist, is the person documented, but the film is really a conflict between Treadwell's optimism and Herzog's nihilism. And really the mainstream documentary has been moving in this direction. While Fahrenheit 9/11 was about Bush and Company, the real heart of the film was the conflict between Mr. Moore and the Bush Administration. While arguments about the legitimacy of such use of "documentary," will rage forever in film circles, there is no denying that the form has arrived and is ascendant.

The new Huntington Theatre Company show by the freakishly talented and skilled Marc Wolf, disappointingly lacks this type of development. The Road Home, subtitled "Re-Membering America," is a gallery of great characters, espousing great ideas, but what are we to really think of them, or Marc Wolf's attitude towards them? At the top of the show Mr. Wolf explains his project happened when he was caught on the West Coast on September 11th. While driving home across the country he carried a tape recorder and proceeded to take an audio "snapshot" of the time period right after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

As the evening progresses, two things become apparent: Mr. Wolf is not really going to connect anything together and the people he has inteviewed rarely have anything new in the ways of ideas or metaphors about the impact of that event on us. In other words, we all lived through that time period and all experienced the rollercoaster of emotions that his interviewees are expressing. We saw and read many a piece about the importance of the WTC as a symbol of financial and economic power, and about the idea that "We are all New Yorkers now." In fact, the most interesting characters are the ones who have almost nothing to say about 9/11 imparticular.

A hilarious German hitchiker talks about how ridiculous Americans are in their assumptions about their technological sophistication. "This have...this Nokia?...we had this size phone in Germany, like FIVE years ago." And, in one of the evening's best lines, the hitchiker shakes his head in amusement, saying, "Sometimes...I look at Americans and I can't believe that you went to the moon." An African-American travelling salesman in Mississippi comments about all the confederate flags he sees around him, and frowns at the fact that they are voting in some states to make the Confederate flag legal. "If I bring up slavery," he says with a wry smirk, "I bet these same folks would say that I am living in the past."

However, the piece's most compelling and truly insightful monologue is the simple story, told by a Washington D.C. hairdresser about his having to come in the day of September 11th to do the hair of the wife of a Congressman. The customer, you see, has a reunion the next day and guests will be arriving from all over the country and she has to have her hair done. The hairdresser nearly explodes at the woman's myopia, observing that "Something tells me that your party is not gonna happen." This monologue succeeds above most of the rest because it tells a story and, more importantly for this particular project, it takes place at Ground Zero of the attacks. This is as close as we get though, for Mr. Wolf ends the evening's impersonations with the academic and semi-detached musings of an architectural critic who lives next to the site of the Twin Towers. We are given no testimony or eyewitness of the events.

I was left at the end of the evening, not questioning the ideas of a nation after September 11th, but more technically making assessments of which bits could be cut down, or expanded, etc. Will the piece be more valuable in fifty years, after our first hand experiences fade more, or actually start to die off? If so, might I suggest that the most important thing that will come to the mind of the audience in c. 2057 is just how unconnected people were from the tragedy. The first interviewee of the evening points out that many more people die horribly all over the world, all the time. Tell that to the people who were running for their lives from that smoke cloud billowing throught the streets.

Without such juxtapositions, the evening is a moral and artistic wash. The critic Jonathan Kalb pointed out that the saving masterstroke of Doug Wright's documentary play I Am My Own Wife, was the author's struggle with the apparent lies and untruths told by his subject, a transvestite who had survived the Nazi and Communist reigns in East Berlin. Mr. Wright becomes a character in the play and his disillusionment when his perfectly lovable character is revealed to have been an informer . But in the very place where the character of Doug Wright thinks his project is in jeopardy, the actual playwright Doug Wright saw the conflict inherent in this and he turned his documentary into a work of art. Duplicity is close to the heart of drama, and in the best docudrama's we should feel misgivings about the characters. The problem with Wolfe's latest effort is that there is nothing inherently interesting in listening to people talk straightforward about things we already know without seeing them under pressure.

The monologues Wolf presents beg to be interrupted. In the latest LA Weekly, Stephen Leigh Morris laments the waning of Chekhov, and notes the recent ascendency of Shakespeare:

"Chekhov is gathering dust because our culture is so far beyond even the remotest attempt at gentility. Our conversations are not ruminations interrupted by people on a different track. Our conversations are screaming matches. Dissenters are not politely given their say and then challenged with reasonable counterarguments. They are Swift Boated, discredited and impeached by people who do not mean well, and who do lie, knowingly. Motivation in our culture is not polite; it’s duplicitous if not venal. You can find all this in Shakespeare, which is why the Bard is so damnably enduring."

The requirement of conflict exists for docu-drama as it does for any other drama. Right now, there is a massive conflict around the solo performance piece My Name is Rachel Corrie, a docudrama based on the writings of a young girl killed by an Israeli bulldozer. One of the many strands of this controversy centers around the fact that the play, by using Corrie's words and journals, basically takes her at her word. The critic Mark Steyn said, in his review of the play in London last year, that the play doesn't want to show us the images of this girl burning an American flag, or even suggest any of her associations with nefarious organizations. Somehow, this seems to be the equivalent of Doug Wright completely ignoring the evidence of his protagonist's shady dealings.

The pure theatricality of the multi-monologue documentary is really to be found in the incredible skill of the performer. Even as you are walking out of the theatre, you have to keep reminding yourself that Marc Wolf was playing all of those characters. As I write descriptions of Wolf's interviewees in this review, I am seeing other people in my mind, and this is true of all of the best performers of this vein. However, Wolf shortchanges on what should be an important character..himself. I only bring this up becuase Wolf, unlike in his superior creation Another American: Asking and Telling, very much presents himself as a character in this collage. He introduces the piece, he gives a little epilogue and periodically he walks warily around his tape recorder as it plays back what confusingly sounds like Wolf's imitations of his subjects, although it could be the actual recordings. He, the actor, looks uncomfortable in all of these moments, and it very much gives the impression that he is still wrestling with the piece, not quite sure how to bring the project together.

I saw Another American after the show had been developed for a number of years, and perhaps The Road Home will gain the focus of that electrifying experience. Until then, might I humbly suggest that the fulcrum around which to work the play might be found, not in the voices that are represented, but in Wolfe himself and in his relation to those voices.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Huffington Asks How To Dramatize the Already Absurd

The title of Arianna's Column really says it all:

The White House's New Iraq Messaging Team: Ionesco, Beckett and Genet

Huffington's piece doesn't live up to the juicy premise promised by the title, (despite including a link to a 1962 New York Times article about Absurd Theatre by a "33 year-old playwright," Edward Albee, who "is "working on a new play, 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' for fall production.")

The money quote from Huffington's piece is this gem:
And check out this self-contradicting, media-bashing Rumsfeld gem: "The impression that one gets from the media that [Iraq] is in total disarray simply isn't accurate. That is not to say that what is being reported doesn't happen. It does." And: "I think that people do understand that [the media] dramatizes
things. But that's not to say it's inaccurate."

Got that? It's not that what reporters are reporting "doesn't happen" or is "inaccurate", it's that what they are reporting is "exaggerated" and filled with "a steady stream of errors". Ionesco would have been proud. I half-expected Rummy to turn into a rhinoceros in mid-sentence.


Albee makes Huffington seem like a cub though when he writes: "In the end--and it must always come down to this, no matter what other failings a theater may have--in the end a public will get what it deserves, and no better." And concludes, with this appraisal of the absurdist theatre:

The avant-garde theatre is fun; it is free-swinging, bold, iconoclastic and often wildly, wildly funny. If you will approach it with childlike innocence--putting your standard responses aside, for they do not apply--if you will approach it on its own terms, I think you will be in for a liberating surprise. I think you may no longer be content with plays that you can't remember halfway down the block.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Follow the Money?

Acerbic theatre writer Brendan Kiley scores an interesting, if cringe-worthy, piece of arts journalism with his feature in this week's Stranger, Play Money; Why Is the City of Seattle Financing the Worst Theater in Town?

He traces the $13,000.00 dollar donation from the City of Seattle to the Conciliation Project for their production: Global SeXXX-ism: un-wrapped. The production, according to Kiley, was horrendous. But in its examination of this case, Kiley's article appears to range over many of the arguments and discussions that seem to be raging in the theatre blogosphere:

1. Political Art (Kiley calls it Theatre of Good Intentions)
2. Artist Hostility to the Audience
3. Avante-Garde Theatre
4. Public Funding of the Arts
5. The Place of Criticism.

While Kiley admits the following:

Artists have a right, no a duty, to make bad art. You have to fall a few times before you can ride a bike, and putting execrable nonsense onstage, ( and being shamed by an audience's indifference or hostility) is good artistic training. I do not begrudge anyone an ambitious failure.


The incredibly unlikely happens. Art sometimes changes the world. Behind the Iron Curtain, jazz, hedonistic rock groups like the Plastic People of the Universe, and the underground literary scene helped erode

While saying that he understands the above, (as well as the fact that we should celebrate a City handing over this money to a small theatre company,) Kiley really seems to be questioning if the play he saw, (and didn't like,) should be receiving "arts" monies.

an artless piece of theater about racism is about as effective as a magic wand, only less entertaining. That's what makes SeXXX-ism a good case study: It was "political art" stripped of the art, naked ideology standing onstage. And it failed. It cared less about being good than doing good—the
Theater of Good Intentions strikes again.

What Kiley's dissection of the case seems to be probing for is the buried virus, the cause, not the symptom. He arrives at the crossroads of what appears to be the unfortunate meeting of a system that that is completely set up for the wrong elements to speak right to its very purposes.

In other words, when the Arts giving system seems to want to weight their giving towards something other than Art, then a "theatre company" not really interested in Art will be glad to take their money.

Anybody who is interested in all of these questions should read this article and meditate over it.

And the by the way, Kiley saves a big, stinging blow for his ending:

Part of the reason the Conciliation Project got funding was because it planned to take the show to local schools. You haven't made a socially useful piece of theater until you've tormented some school children with it and proved what they already suspect: Theater, like, totally blows.