Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Deck of Masks, Three Takes on Where Theater is in Columbus – Love Stories and Negotiations, Raconteur Theater, 06/06/09; God’s Ear, Available Light, 06/11/09; Blackbird, Catco, 06/14/09

Sometimes it takes me a while to catch up with and take the temperature of a theater company, with Raconteur I’m sorry to say it had been an entire year, so last weekend I trekked out to see their one-year anniversary show.  I like the theory that you can pay for one half or the other of this series of one acts (7 in total), and I like the space above Club Diversity, where I hadn’t been in quite a while.

The show is basically a series of cute comedy skits and it feels like it’s not sharp enough as comedy and not thought-through enough as theater.  “Plugged In” by David Grant is basically a monologue that’s all reactions to outside forces, characters unseen and unheard-from, showing how a modern college student is distanced from the rest of his life with electronic gizmos while still being a college student who wants to get laid and milk his parents for the money he can and you expect it to build to a punchline or, well, something, and it never does.”Roger’s Beard” by Jimmy Mak is two people about to go on a date with the married couple they’re both sleeping with, and ends in a reversal that has you going “Huh?” more than anything else.  “Forever Again” is about trying to move past the mistakes you’ve made and embrace the love you’ve found, with the personification of the two wronged-lovers interrupting an important moment and muddying the action as it happens, the kind of thing theater does great… but you don’t feel like you know the motivations that well.  “His Return” is about the return of a soldier but from which war?  His uniform looks like World War I or II, the clothes are Victorian, he mentions “joining up with the Canadians” which sounds like Spanish Civil War, and the fact that I’m thinking about all of these things means the text didn’t engage me (though having seen the latest revival of Mourning Becomes Electra with Lili Taylor probably made me judge this a little harsher).

Also, while I realize this wasn’t written for Club Diversity, and there’s a great diversity of ages and races among the characters, every single relationship we see depicted is straight.  Who in the year 2009 trying to write about the perils and pitfalls of romance thinks in terms of it being solely heterosexual?  In seven pieces?  Maybe they didn’t get any gay-themed submissions, but it feels like laziness somewhere.

The acting’s quite good on average in all the pieces, especially Sam Blythe in two pieces, Jennifer Nitri in “Forever Again”, Elizabeth Huff-Williams and Robert Foor in “Fast, Light, and Brilliant”, Heather Fidler in “Rock-a-Bye Bullet”, Shantelle Marie in “Walking Distance”.  And the direction of the individual pieces have a surprising amount of grace and creativity with the paucity of things the actors have to actually do, especially “Forever Again” and “Fast, Light, and Brilliant”.  But the overall direction seems weirdly sloppy in sequencing the skits, and is plagued with   loud, obvious pop songs (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”? “Find Me Somebody to Love”?).

But mostly you come out wondering what the point was besides having a night of theater for the sole purpose of having a night of theater.  I want to see something else they do, but hopefully with more thought to finding a script.

Available Light continues their trend of bringing emotionally and intellectually risky plays that no one else is bringing to Columbus and Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear is a home run, anchored by a heart-breaking performance by Michelle Schroder who spends most of the play trying to talk long-distance to her husband (Richard Furlong) who always seems like he’s on a plane to somewhere, could be Topeka or could be Purgatory. 

He’s collapsed in on himself after the death of their son by drowning, every person he meets also seems to have a dead son, the way when you have a “special circumstance”you suddenly see people with the same circumstance everywhere.  She’s coming undone and talking almost entirely in cliches, the ways you perceive the world that give soft comfort but don’t really say anything, they’re placeholders for content, and strung together, as in an amazing monologue, it’s like language is an ice-floe that’s cracking in the heat of her personality and the pieces are falling into the void of her mind, of the world.

By the time GI Joe and the Tooth Fairy have both shown up, the temptation would normally be to shout “Come on!” but it all feels like one mind busting open.  The feelings are an open wound and the surface is cracking day-glo, and it’s marvelous.  If you leave and you’re able to speak in sentences other than effusive fragments, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am, or you’re dead inside.

Catco this year had two plays I wanted to see, and didn’t make it to Sarah Ruhl’s the Clean House, but I made a point of getting out to see Blackbird.  the David Harrower play about the fallout of child abuse and the danger of trying to bury who you are.  It’s nice seeing this theater troupe do a piece on one set, with two actors, that’s all tension and ferocity.  The language, as everyone’s said, is derived from Pinter and Mamet, but it seems to be less interested in language as a tool to conceal and reveal the way those two writers are and more interested in the lies we tell about our past.

Anna Paniccia is terrific, stumbling over words and losing her nerve then exploding.  Jonathan Putnam is fantastic, every word and every nuance seems measured, like a man who’s been keeping everything about himself deep inside.  And the rhythms are perfect, especially culminating in the moment full of terrible ambiguity at the end.  But I don’t have much to say about this, it’s a good play, well-acted and well-directed.  It’s easy to see why Catco’s the gold standard for theater troupes in town, and it’s just as easy to see the joy of the risk=taking the smaller companies are doing.