The state of the world can make it difficult to write a blog. Countless topics offered, but with all the heavy ones—the SCOTUS hearings, climate change, perpetual war—I fear that everything that can be said has already been said: to say more has merely an excretory function. Yet retreating to trivia—deciphering what an Irish supermarket means by “Sale on Washed Roosters”—seems a surrender to triviality. The compromise, perhaps, is to address a topic so foreign to anyone’s interest that it straddles that fine line between bloviation and the runs.
One such topic is theatre. This art has been the focus of my life since age 15—before I even thought of it as an art rather than just a neat way to meet girls—and it continues to torment me. For the 2.5 years we toured our KING LEAR, I thought, okay, this is our last piece, better to focus on the novels. Then came SURVIVAL, and now a new one in the early stages. No getting away from it, though by now I’ve met the girl.
I rarely go to the theatre, except periodically to our local small-town troupe. (I often don’t like the texts themselves, but their productions are astonishingly good.) Seeing a play, I’m unable to disengage my technical mind—the ten thousand things on which I’d give notes—and respond simply to what works. And to spend $25-35 to make mental notes is, to put it bluntly, a bit silly. Better a good meal of raw oysters for half the price.
And yet people do me the distinct disservice of producing—at rare intervals—truly moving theatre. “Disservice” in that it restores a faith that might prefer to die. Recently, two experiences.
In the Milwaukee Fringe Festival, our friend presented a solo show, a narrative of the life and rendition of the songs of Lorenz Hart. He’s spent many years with the American songbook of the 1920’s and 30’s; in that time his voice has matured, and he’s brought his theatrical instinct into the heart of the songs. A deeply felt, deeply moving piece—you could feel his unfeigned love for the work.
And last week in Dublin, we arrived after an eight-day drive around the western coast to discover there was a theatre festival happening. We saw three shows, and the first two—with rare little blips of enjoyment—were dogs. Well-produced dogs, but for me a waste of time except to exercise my diagnostic powers.
The third show (a Polish company), dammit, dispelled my nihilism. Bare stage, eight actors responding to a miked offstage voice. A litany of lines, all beginning with “Michael is playing a man who . . .” “Irina is playing a woman who . . .” Focus shifts to the appropriate actor . . . who does nothing. Or sometimes a shift of posture, sometimes a vague change of expression, rarely a gesture. Sometimes the narrative extends a few sentences, and at one point there’s a lighting change and a more extended story—then back to the litany.
There were structural things I’d change, and it seemed in post-show talk that the cast was surprised at the frequent laughter—a laughter of recognition at the incongruity of our inner lives and our outward concealments. But the great achievement was PRESENCE. They weren’t pushing energy out to us; they were drawing us in.
It’s a stock presumption among theatre people that our art is superior to film in that we’re in live presence with the characters and the story. But how rare tht is! Too much theatre—and I speak of “experimental” as well as conventional—is canned and bottled, would bebetter seen on TV where we’d have closeups and an editor could jazz up the rhythm.
Maybe it has to involve a sense of danger. The DVD of our KING LEAR is good, shows all the elements of the production, but there’s no way it can convey the sweat of two old actors tearing themselves apart for an hour and a half. The company in Dublin took the risk of being deadly boring, but they drew us in. It’s what “comic relief” does in serious work: it opens an aperture, it’s inappropriate, almost as if a raccoon appeared onstage at the climax of MEDEA. But it’s real. It jars us into presence.