Monday, September 28, 2009

Mephistopheles Leaves Through Another Door; “An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This, His Final Evening”, Theater Oobleck, 09/26/09

No epigram this time, I think the title of the play took up more than enough space, suffice to say I was in Chicago for a friend’s wedding and looking for some theater.  The Michael Shannon play was tempting, so was the Arthur Conan Doyle thing at Steppenwolf, but the early write-up of this promised just the kind of high=minded literariness and wackiness that I couldn't resist.

We all filed into two long rows of chairs on either side of the basement of the Chopin Theater, one man sitting at a chair on one end and another standing nervously, who then walks to the lounge we filed in from and pulls a heavy door shut so we’re in a dark room lit only by two globe lights and an Exit sign.  And we’re off.

For the next hour, Colm O’Reilly as John Faustus sweats and stammers his way through boastful justification and not-quite-belied regret, through flights of visual fancy, from Sisyphus tracing hash marks on the rock in mud until the mass is mostly the shell of keeping time to a world pouring out of the hump on the devil’s back like a piñata.  

Faustus works to get us on his side, but through it all, you get the impression that what he most wants is to evoke a reaction – something, anything – from Mephistopheles (David Shapiro) who holds all the cards and has nothing to gain or lose by giving in.  Shapiro is riveting in a role with one action and no lines, but it’s O’Reilly who keeps making you laugh (“I return with future beer and potatoes!” “I am a very annoyed person!”) and bringing you to tears with the wasted efforts and barely submerged regrets. 

Mickel Maher’s text is a wonder and by the time Mephistopheles turns off the lights and leaves through the other door you’re completely taken up.  Runs through October 24 at the Chopin Theater in Chicago.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Flickering Shapes, Grief, Rage; Luc Tuymans at the Wexner Center

"Knowing I am going away past the sharp edge of the world, she knows we need magic, we need magic stronger than words since just words cannot save us. I follow her to the place where the machines hum and draw blood since we need strong magic, need to rip the skin, let blood, and change the body for life, so it know."

-Daphne Gottlieb, "maps and legends"

When you see Luc Tuymans paintings they come up on you slowly, some vaguely impressionist techniques through a new sensibility, and then you start seeing them together and you get the patterns, the juxtaposition, and it all comes together when you see he was a film maker. He doesn't try to replicate stills, none of the photorealism of Marilyn Minter, he captures the velocity of film - establishing shot, close up, jump cut to the same shot from a slightly different angle, and not in an old-Hollywood way, all handheld Super-8 that blew their entire budget on a crane shot that makes that look even more devastating as in the shot - the painting - of a couple dancing at the Governor's Ball that's almost touching until you get the political implications and behind it the Presidential Seal seen so close it's blurry, looking new, looking freshly used. It's like you found a storyboard with half the shots missing and had to piece the story together from the faded, munged drawings.

World War II and the Holocaust deeply haunt his work, and the current specters of nationalism, jingoism and racism, with at least two paintings of gas chambers, one an interior with the showers as black uneven splotches, like sunspots, and the roof almost translucent, the sky seeping into this empty room The other looks like it could just as easily be a summer camp, as a companion to The Architect, which is a grey painting of Albert Speer having a skiing mishap, taken from home film footage of a vacation he was on, maybe the summation of the whole retrospective. Banal, and interesting just for the way he uses color, and then the audience says, "Oh, that architect. Damn."

Tuymans uses color in a very subdued way, but that doesn't mean he uses less of it. He has an amazing eye for seeing all the colors in a suit coat, or a sky at ease, reds and blues figure prominently in everything and most of the time they don't draw attention to themselves, just shoot their acid into the veins in your eye and sink in so you start seeing them three or four paintings later, unless something is done for sheer effect, like the strawberry blonde hair of the paratroopers that makes more apparent they don't have any faces.

If you're within a hundred miles of Columbus before January 3, go see this. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Church by Young Jean-Lee, Available Light, Riffe Center; August 20, 2009

"I beg for haven: Prisons, let open you gates-

A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.

Damn you, Elijah, I'll bless Jezebel tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don't let us be broken;

Only we can convert the infidels tonight.

Has God's vintage loneliness turned to vinegar?

He's poured rust into the Sacred Well tonight."

-Agha Shahid Ali, "Ghazal"

I've always loved old gospel music and Renaissance religious art, but the religious expressions that really move me or raise my hackles are plagued with doubt. Like they're working through something to convince themselves. Current 93, Leonard Cohen, and now Young Jean-Lee's new play, Church. Young Jean-Lee has said she tries to make whatever the last show she'd like to make is. It's like she's writing herself into aesthetic corners and trusting that the truth of her approach and the truth of the performances will carry her out. And Available Light, I believe doing the first performance of this not done by Jean-Lee's own troupe, shows up again as one of the most interesting, provocative theater companies Columbus has or has ever had.

The play is about working through her lack of belief, or lack of concrete belief anyway, and it's structured like a televangelist/mega-church's service I used to grow up listening to because I fell asleep too late with the TV on, with gentle words in soothing cadence that explode into almost baffling anger and then recede but somehow feel like they never lost control, never lost the arc of the message. It opens on a darkened stage with Reverend Jose (Ian Short) saying in an even tone that gets progressively more and more of an edge, as it calls out the audience for grasping for tiny things, and talking about our attempts to quit smoking, quit drinking, quit bad relationships and "that's what you talk about when you're trying to be deep." When the lights come up there's Reverend Kate (Kate Watts, so good in God's Ear as the couple's almost-oblivious daughter) asking the audience questions and turning somewhat ludicrous, mocking "prayer requests" into things that aren't so ludicrous.

And it goes through sermons from Kate, rambling and surreal but periodically stabbing you in the heart, Reverend Eleni (Eleni Papaleonardos), working through her addiction to be loved and exploding in an indictment of those who would use religion for bigotry or exclusion, and Revererend Jose bounces off the good will he's already built up and then comes back out and starts discussing mummies and mummies are real and god and the devil are both mummies until he breaks down. Then there's dancing which is perfect, unforced, but well-choreographed, and sone group harmonies by Reverends Kate, Eleni and Casey (Acacia Duncan), and ultimately a choir comes out and takes the stage.

All of the Jean Lee plays I've seen seem to rotate around what you think, what you feel like you should think, what you say and what you're trying to avoid saying, both publicly and privately. This makes no attempt to hide the surface absurdity of some of these concepts (translated as chicken blood and mummies, using the old Bunuel surrealist technique of horror images to hint at a deeper psychological interest), but it flashes back and forth between these and totally rational words and explanations to create this dichotomy and draw you in. Maybe this is a little slighter than The Shipment or Dragons Flying to Heaven, but it might be more moving than either, at least for me.