Tuesday, February 24, 2009

This Weekend On Stage

This past weekend was another whirlwind of theater activity for us: four productions in three days (Sunday was a double-header). I suspect that this will be our norm over the next three months, in spite of the fact that Catherine is acting in two plays over the next two months: she'll be playing Hillary Clinton (no, really) in Gretchen M. Michelfeld's Not Her at Dixon Place on March 10 and 11, directed by our pal, ModFab; and then, in late April, she and Nomi Tichman will be in the new workshop of my play, Floydada. In spite of the economic downturn, there's a lot of activity in New York; I'm thinking it's because these productions were at least mostly funded before the financial world crumbled in the fall. I expect this time next year, the pickings will be much slimmer...

We began on Friday night with George Emelio Sanchez's Buried Up to My Neck While Thinking Outside the Box at Dixon Place. There must be something in the drinking water in New York this year because this is at least the third play I know of that directly references Samuel Beckett (you'll recall Krapp, 39 a few days ago, and Not Her is inspired by Not I. In this instance, Sanchez draws his inspiration from Happy Days, inserting himself into the place of Beckett's ludicrously optimistic Winnie.* There are significant differences, of course: the enormous mound of dirt has been replace by a 15' tall box created from the detritus of modern life—old monitors, books, video tapes, typewriters, record players—into which Sanchez's entire body is already embedded (while Winnie gets to spend Act I covered only below the waist); throughout the performance, Sanchez regularly gets hit on the head with a stream of water emanating from somewhere far above him; and, most importantly, Sanchez does not view his condition, as Winnie does, through rose-colored glasses: if anything, he's more than a little bitter about his confinement. At the performance we saw, Sanchez went up on his lines a couple of times, but his text is so strong and evocative that these lapses didn't really diminish the piece at all. It's an excellent example of the kind of performance that has long been Dixon Place's stock in trade—intelligent writing with a compelling context and an engaging performer. The piece runs through this Saturday: go see it!

I connected less with Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire, written and performed by Mark Sam Rosenthal, at SoHo Playhouse. As one might guess from the title, the premise is that Blanche DuBois, from Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, is one of the masses left homeless by Hurricane Katrina; in the course of the monologue, we see Blanche interact with other displaced people at the SuperDome, a FEMA case worker, a roommate in a FEMA motel and a variety of other characters. I say "we see Blanche interact" but it would be more accurate to say that we get Blanche's side of her conversations with these invisible characters and she repeats their responses/questions/comments for our benefit. I've seen other solo performances use this tool—Frank Blocker, in particular, uses it at times in his Southern Gothic Novel—but it falls flat here and the pacing and rhythm suffer from it. Rosenthal's Blanche feels more like a drag queen than a female character, which makes the piece campy when it needn't be: the script has some very poignant moments and important points to make that this characature don't fully support. I also found the "political incorrectness" in the piece superfluous: sure, it's logical that Williams' character would have been prejudiced against—or at least uncomfortable around—poorer black people (although I don't remember race being anything that Williams addresses at all in Streetcar) but her responses to the inevitable unusual names and urban slang smack more of contemporary bigotry than that of the late '40s. There are good ideas and a few good moments in Blanche Survives Katrina but not enough to sustain the 70-minute running time.

Thornton Wilder's Our Town, directed by David Cromer at the Barrow Street Theater, is an outstanding revival and easily the best production I've seen in the new year. In spite of its reputation as being done to death, especially in high school and community theater productions, I'd never seen Our Town onstage—I'd read the script in high school, seen both of the television versions (with Hal Holbrook in 1977 and Spalding Gray in 1989), the 1940 film with William Holden, and countless interpretations of the George and Emily scene from Act II in acting classes. So I really didn't expect to get caught up in this production as I did. The acting is uniformly strong—including director Cromer as the omniscient Stage Manager who explains key moments for us and offers his own philosophy on the themes of the play. Cromer has also turned the Barrow Street's very traditional proscenium space completely around: there's seating on three sides of the tiny central playing area—our seats were on what is actually the stage—and the actors enter, exit and play key scenes in and among the audience members. As is required by the script, most of the props and activities are mimed by the actors with the exception of one moment in Act III: I won't give it away but it was a remarkable revelation of space that I found completely amazing. I really can't recommend the production highly enough—you must go see it.

We ended our weekend at 59E59 Theaters and Gates of Gold by Frank McGuinness. The play chronicles the last few days in the life of a successful actor, Gabriel, bedridden in the home he shares with his long-time partner and director, Conrad (the characters are based on Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, who co-founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin). Gabriel has many intelligent, witty and very viscious conversations with the people around him—with his sister, his nephew and his caregiver—but he lashes out most cruelly at Conrad, who ripostes Gabriel capably but also accepts his partner's resentment with loving grace. This goes on a little longer than is absolutely necessary—there are moments that merely reinforce or even repeat information we've already received—but the acting is strong enough to overcome this problem for the most part. I can't say it's the kind of play I seek out, as a rule—it's more traditional and a little too sentimental for my tastes—but I thought it was ultimately an effective production.

*We were fortunate enough last year, thanks to an invitation from Nomi, to see Fiona Shaw play Winnie, directed by Deborah Warner. I know a few Beckett purists who didn't care for the production but I thought it was phenomenal.

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