Sunday, January 11, 2009

This Weekend on Stage

Last night, Catherine and I saw Sibyl Kempson's Potatoes of August at Dixon Place. The piece was described in the DP brochure as "a theatricalist fugue" and I would agree that it is more akin to a musical performance than a play... and I don't mean that in a nasty way. Kempson is one of a group of young artists whose work has been influenced by director Richard Maxwell and Elevator Repair Service. They pare down their theater to only the most essential elements, to the point that the actors represent characters rather than inhabit them and their emotions are removed or extremely flattened: these performances are pretty much a complete rejection of Stanislavskian naturalism. This stripping away of the conventional artifices of theater can be very effective—it provides an automatic irony, which can be very funny, and focuses our attention on what the characters are saying rather than how it is being said.

The central component of Potatoes is two elderly couples who discover sentient potatoes in the woods near their homes: this is the basic through line for the evening. The piece had a number of incredibly strong moments—visually and textually—but it never really coalesced for me. Some of that may be that it was a hard for me to understand the potatoes—performed live by actors offstage on a microphone instead of being pre-recorded, which I applaud—when they were speaking and singing, so I never really got what it was they wanted; I had no problem with the notion of thinking tubers, I just wanted to know what they were thinking. It wasn't a frustrating experience—I was engaged and interested throughout the performance—but missing so key an element kept it from being a satisfying one. Ironically, I'd be interested in seeing Potatoes again, which I don't say very often about any production; I think I might get more from it with a second viewing.

In a similar vein, style-wise, was the performance we saw today of Tim Etchells' Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First, performed by Jim Fletcher in the Under the Radar festival. Catherine and I first saw Etchells' company, Forced Entertainment, in London when we were on our honeymoon in 1993 and have been fans of the group ever since. In this piece, Fletcher, alone onstage, delivers an hour-long series of short statements—some are facts, some are opinions, some are just ludicrous claims—in a very simple, matter-of-fact fashion. He provides very little variety in his facial expressions or vocal patterns, which forces the listener to evaluate each statement he makes: what do I think about what he's just said? Sometimes I agreed with him; sometimes I thought "yes, but not exactly;" sometimes I thought it was just nonsense. But it ultimately required me to consider almost every single line of the piece: that's not something I have to do very often in the theater and it made for an interesting experience. On the surface, Fletcher appears to be playing "himself," or at least a character very much like himself, but I actually think there's more nuance to his performance than that: the barely perceptible arc to his stream-of-consciousness demands that the actor create an internal logic for these seemingly random thoughts; without that sort of character choice, memorizing the piece is impossible. My only complaint about Sight is that the actor occasionally fell into a rhythm that lulled me almost to the point of falling asleep a few times; I wouldn't be surprised, though, if that wasn't a little bit intentional by Etchells and Fletcher.

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