Thursday, February 5, 2009

This Week in Metatheater

In 1959, The Living Theatre mounted a play by a young playwright that influenced the perception of theater for a generation of artists. Jack Gelber's The Connection took metatheatricality to new heights: the "playwright," Jaybird, and "director," Jim, were characters in the play and interrupted the action periodically to explain and comment on the play; the "actors," so Jim and Jaybird said, were all really junkies who were improvising on the author's themes while they awaited their connection—a dealer named Cowboy—to arrive with the fix they'd been promised; and a jazz combo performed live on stage, breaking into the piece with extended musical interludes. Even by the Living's standards, it was groundbreaking: before this, their repertoire had consisted primarily of European writers like Brecht, Pirandello and Cocteau or Americans like Gertrude Stein or William Carlos Williams—works that employed abstract language and non-linear narrative structures, but very much plays in traditional sense. From what I've read about the production and from the stories I've been told by the people who saw it, it was an unforgettable production that was the genesis for much of the experimentation that dominated the Off Off Broadway movement in the 1960s.*

On Wednesday, we saw the 50th anniversary revival of The Connection, directed (as it was originally) by Judith Malina. I was already familiar with the play, since Peculiar Works had included it in our first OFF Project readings; nevertheless, it's a different thing entirely to watch someone shoot up than to hear it described. The production is incredibly well done, with especially strong performances from Jeff Nash as Cowboy, John Kohan as Leach, Eno Edet and Brad Burgess; Ms. Malina plays the sole female in the play—a Salvation Army soldier that Cowboy brings into the den of iniquity to mislead snooping vice cops—with a sweet blend of naivete and gentle scolding. The members of the Renè McLean Quartet are absolutely fantastic, both as musicians and as actors (they have ad lib exchanges with the other characters throughout the play); their music was exactly the kind of bluesy, '50s-style jazz that I had imagined when I first read the script.

The company made quite a few changes to Gelber's text for the performance: it's been updated to present day (when an actor referred to himself as being black, a musician commented, "like our president") and the beatnik dialogue has been eliminated or at least toned down dramatically (no one called anyone else "daddy-o," but at least one hipster junky asked if "you dig?"). I go back and forth as to whether I think the play might be better served as a period piece: on the one hand, if the play is set in the '50s, the author's convention of "not a play but reality" is out the window; on the other hand, the dialogue in the published version provides an interesting snapshot of particular people at a particular time. Ultimately, I think the Living made the right choice, since it fits best with Gelber's original intention for the work. The production only runs through next week, although Tom Walker (who also does a good job as Jim) told us after the show that they're hoping to get some funding to allow them to extend the run.

Coincidentally, the play we saw last night was also an exercise in metatheatricality: Donald Margulies' Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself) at Primary Stages. It's a charming and very witty piece of writing, cleverly staged by Lisa Peterson and flawlessly performed by Michael Countryman, Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Jeremy Bobb. The concept for the play is incredbily simple: Louis de Rougemont (Countryman) recounts to us—the audience—the fantastic story of his life with the assistance of two Players (Grays and Bobb) performing all of the ancillary roles and creating the sound effects (three assistant stage managers also appear to help out from time to time but they don't play characters). Margulies' script is nicely constructed—all of the many plot twists and reversals that Louis suffers build very nicely to the ultimate conclusion—and very entertaining. As I watched the play last night, I kept thinking how well it's going to do in regional theaters: minimal set, an accessible, engaging script, small cast, a particularly great role for a strong middle-aged actor.

Hmmmmmmm... now that I think about it, if there are any regional directors looking for an actor to do a production of Shipwrecked!, your obedient humble servant here would be perfect casting...

*If you're interested, one of the jazz interludes from the 1962 film of the play can be seen here.

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