Saturday, September 19, 2009

Recent Theater and Art

As a rule, I'm not a fan of documentary productions that are performed entirely by actors addressing the audience directly. In these works, we almost always "play" the role of the interviewer... and yet we don't, since the creators really expect us to just sit there, listening in silence, not participating or interacting with the performers. Often the author inserts little lines into the edited transcripts that are, in theory, a touch of "realism" for the piece but are actually a lazy way of including the interviewer's question: "Hmmm? What did I want when I first got here? Well, I'd hoped..." or something like that. These types of productions are also, invariably, agit-prop and the audience all arrive knowing how they're supposed to feel about the topic at hand—the death penalty, the Iraq war, the 2000 presidential election—and almost certainly already agree with the points being made; they get everyone all worked up and then give them a call to action, usually to make a donation to whatever organization is on the front lines supporting/fighting the issue. And finally, they're the epitome of "tell, don't show" theater: we're not witnessing or experiencing events, we're being told stories about them.

There are, of course, always productions that meet all of these criteria and yet still manage to be an excellent theatrical experience: Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's Aftermath is, for me, one of those pieces. Honestly, I didn't go into the New York Theatre Workshop thinking I'd be engaged so, at least in my case, the creators had their work cut out for them. Last year, Blank and Jensen traveled to Jordan to interview refugees of the Iraqi war living in exile: some fled the war and insurgency, some had became political targets of one religious faction or another, and one imam had spent many months in Abu Ghraib because his moderate religious teachings ran afoul of the U.S. military. While much of the performance is direct-address, the artists have also given us an invaluable character: their Iraqi translator, who gives the onstage subjects someone with which to interact, bridges the transitions between the vignettes with short anecdotes and jokes, and ultimately adds his own story into the mix (I'd never considered that a translator is the most necessary and least trusted of all the participants in these situations—how does anyone know he/she is being accurate or even truthful?). The stories Blank and Jensen have included are all compelling, and their script presents a dozen very diverse and vividly rendered characters—like the cocksure dermatologist who constantly leaves the interview for "five minutes" because he's seeing patients, and the theater director who flamboyantly reaches out to the visiting American artists while his painter wife requires more coaxing to participate in the discussion. Ultimately, though, the success of Aftermath can be attributed to Blank's simple yet concise staging and the extraordinary performances of the talented ensemble: they are able to use the silences, the characters' unspoken thoughts, to provide brief glimpses into greater depths that these individuals chose to leave unexpressed; their work injects the humanity into a production that could easily have been just another political screed.

New Island Festival
As part of the NY400, the Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands' celebration of "400 years of enduring friendship between the Netherlands and the United States," the New Island Festival has installed a variety of works by Dutch visual and performing artists around the former military base on Governor's Island. Catherine and I attended on Thursday—a day that began cloudy but transitioned very nicely into a breezy, clear fall-like afternoon. As the sun began to set, we were treated to an incredibly beautiful sunset over New York harbor:
The orange was actually much more vivid than this: my photo really doesn't do it justice.

We began the afternoon with a panel discussion on site-specific performance; the participating artists were interesting but their discussion was more philosophical than practical, which was disappointing—Catherine and I were more interested to hear how people work than in why they do it. Fortunately, there was an incredible array of art, installation, dance, theater and music events to see that day—so many that it was absolutely impossible to hit them all—so we got to spend the rest of our day with the artists' work (and seeing good art is always more fulfilling than talking about it anyway).

Our first stop that afternoon was the exhibit The Archaeological Dig, which told us the history of the recently rediscovered remains of a civilian settlement on Governor's Island, Goverthing, abandoned in 1954 and ultimately covered over by military contractors. The displays include the most extraordinary photographs, maps, items excavated from the site by Dutch contractors, who have meticulously researched this unbelievable settlement that we're told can be traced back to a member of Henry Hudson's Half Moon crew. Even more remarkable than the exhibition, though, is the dig itself where visitors are actually encouraged to touch and manipulate the incredible remnants of this strange community. It's going be on display through October 11 (the rest of the festival ended today), tickets are only $5, and the ferry ride from the Battery Maritime Building is free: you'll regret it if you don't check it out.

At sunset, we were treated to one of the more unusual site-specific performances I've seen in recent years: Braakland (Wasteland). The central "stage" in director Lotte van den Berg's massive work, inspired by the writings of South African novelist, John Coetzee, was an abandoned tennis court but the action took place anywhere an actor entered our field of vision: in many instances, they were 40-50 yards away from the audience. The characters inhabited a bleak environment, perhaps in a post-apocalyptic world or just one that has fallen victim to urban decay (the piece was performed without dialogue which is how van den Berg is able to use the enormous distances, of course) and they regard one another alternately with indifference and hostility. The ensemble all do a great job and this is a challenging piece for an actor: it's very physical and with such vast distances between them for much of the piece, cueing one another must be extremely difficult. Without giving too much away, I have to give a particular shout out to the guy who had to lie on the cold tennis court for almost the entire performance: I was chilly and I was wearing a jacket and jeans! I hope we'll have other opportunities to see van den Berg's work: she has an intriguing aesthetic and is creating work on an amazing scale; even when Braakland dragged a little (much of the traveling is done at a natural pace and I think they might have walked a bit faster occasionally and we'd still have had to wait for them to cover the distances), it was absolutely fascinating.

Our final event of the day (not counting the silent disco, which was pretty damned cool!) was a musical performance, Orfeo, which included a wonderful Mediterranean dinner by chef André Amaro. The work is very loosely adapted by the music theater ensemble De Veenfbriek from the Monteverdi opera and is sung by Jeroen Willems, accompanied by a musical group called Track. The musicians are all incredible and they create amazing and unorthodox sounds—every hear anyone play a xylophone with a bow?—and Willems has a wonderful voice and charismatic presence onstage. I was less intrigued by the libretto (mostly in English but some of it is, I think, Dutch and maybe Italian?), which I assume comes from the Monteverdi: there's an additional story line that follows Orpheus back to the human world after he loses Eurydice for the last time in the underworld that felt anticlimactic. However, as Catherine pointed out, if we didn't think of it as a story to be followed, it was a really great musical concert. And Amaro's entree, which we were allowed to see him create throughout the performance in an kitchen area at one end of the space, was a delicious yet very simple pasta dish of spaghetti, olive oil, parmesan and garlic tossed together with fresh arugula. A sample of the performance (and the dinner) can be seen here on YouTube.

The Confidence Man
Woodshed Collective has picked an amazing place to stage Paul Cohen's theatrical work inspired by the Melville novel of the same title: the Lilac, a decommissioned Coast Guard vessel what is now docked at Pier 40 along the Hudson River. The work has been divided up into four tracks and within each track there are some vignettes that are more closely associated with the source material and others that are updated variations on the theme of deception (in Track 1, which I followed, a con was perpetrated using an online chat). The scale of this performance is vast: it takes place in every conceivable space, of every size, onboard the ship (one stateroom was incapable of holding everyone in our tour), on all four decks, simultaneously. Each track had its own director (Lauren Keating, who's worked with Peculiar Works in the past, had the one we followed), stage manager and cast; from a producing standpoint, it's remarkable. Unfortunately, it was difficult to move very quickly through the ship—our tour group was by far the largest of the four tracks and there were a few people who had trouble navigating the narrow stairs and passageways... and I invariable wound up behind them, so I frequently arrived well after a scene had begun. The actors were difficult to hear many times: I think the intimacy they could enjoy with audience members standing closest to them made them forget that there were a lot of people who needed them to project their voices, just as they would in a theater, and especially when they were turned away from part of the group. Lighting designer Zack Brown has done an excellent job augmenting the instruments that were already in place; in many places, it's difficult to distinguish what he has brought in from the existing equipment. I heard so little of Cohen's script—both because of volume and tardiness issues—that I didn't take much away from it; he seems basically to be saying that there are now, and have been in the past, a lot of ways for dishonest people to take advantage of honest ones. That's true, of course, but not especially earth-shattering. Perhaps if the plot lines were simpler and clearer it might be more satisfying: I wasn't sure I was expected to follow every detail in a vignette or story line and yet I didn't feel I'd been given permission to let go of story and plot altogether. Still, there are magical moments in the evening—a scene in the mess in which Ben Beckley tells an excellent joke about an argument between two mathematicians in a restaurant is particularly well done—the Lilac is a pretty near perfect setting for a performance and the price is right (free). Tickets may be hard to get now but I'd say give it a try: just try to stay close to your guide and you'll probably have a much better time.

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