Sunday, February 13, 2011

“Hum” by Sebastian Hawkes Orr, Available Light Theatre, 02/13/11

"I’ve felt so singular,
so importantly sorry for myself,
or so exquisitely stilled, attuned,
that I knew there were night truths
unavailable to lovers or the loved
thought I might be close to them,
and have put off sleep because sleep
is social, intrusive…
-Stephen Dunn, “Night Truths”

“Hum” is the first theatre of the years to move me to tears more than once.  I don’t normally talk about marketing here – at least in part because I don’t know anything about marketing – but this had one of the smartest, most intriguing marketing campaigns in recent memory.  Websites appeared to have gone dark, video clips, tiny excerpts of dialogue, all incredibly well-chosen and really got me excited to see the play without telling me what it was going to be about.  So I’m going to try to live up to that and not give much away, there isn’t a lot of plot in this but the revelations are big, or want to be.

First off, Eleni Papaleonardos’ direction is sharp and manages to pull off an incredibly difficult balancing act. With four characters on a small set consisting of three chairs, a chalk board, and one table, where each character has long stretches just shifting in position, in the shadows and not interacting with the others at all, she keeps our attention, frequently keeps us riveted. The play uses the other movement just enough to keep us on the person speaking at the time but we never feel like they’re accenting the speaker, it doesn’t feel obvious.

And the acting is perfect. Tim Browning, who I haven’t seen since he played Macbeth a few years ago in Schiller Park, comes across almost as an homage to the late musician Peter Christopherson but that works beautifully with his character’s growing self-awareness and rambling gravity-weighted monologue about infidelity and a creature that shows up in dreams.  Elena Perantoni is hilariously unhinged and keeps peeling away the layers of personality even while getting more laughs than anyone else, as a woman struck by a horrifying image on her way to work who visits the Ohio Caverns and her father. 

Jordan Fehr hits the ball out of the park with a role that’s the weakest of the lot, a self-obsessed bookstore clerk who gets a letter from his ex-girlfriend that doesn’t really provoke self-reflection but he thinks it does.  Acacia Duncan really shines in this, with her character Calan who gives basic math lectures that veer into discussions of proofs of God and the prisoner’s dilemma and finally the key to the whole piece; hilarious and intense, and among the performances that made those tears spring to my eyes (the other was Tim Browning). 

The play has some speeches that are breathtaking, and the overall message of dead people returning to tell us to change our ways and think outside of ourselves is inherently spooky (credit to A. for that line) and a great framework to hang this kind of idea play on.  The trouble is, it’s way, way too long.  At least a third too long.  It uses repetition in this sort of post-Mamet way that turns irritating well before the play thinks it does.  Also, being structured as four looks at how people deal – or don’t deal – with the void and including almost no physical action robs the audience of the joy of watching people interact on stage. 

With that length, I started looking for logic where I don’t think it’s meant to be, there were a lot of conversations with my faithful companion after that went “Wait, so what about this?  Did that make sense?”  or “Do you understand what this was doing there?”  When that much is thrown at the audience, even when what’s considered important is bolded and underlined,  it’s easy to get lost in the swarm of ideas. 

It’s a great effort that almost completely overcomes the weaknesses in the material.  In five years I want to see a new draft of this play that I'd lay odds is going to kick my ass.  Until then, thanks to Available Light for taking a chance on developing work even if it didn’t completely work for me.

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

‘L’effet de Serge by Phillipe Quesne, Wexner Center, 02/03/11

“… And what poet ever sat down
in front of a Titian, pulled out
his versifying tablet and began
to drone?  Don’t complain, my dear,
You do what I can only name.
-Frank O’Hara, “To Larry Rivers”

L’effet de Serge unfolds more gracefully than a clockwork rose and the fine tuning is so precise that even in surface randomness it feels like a fire-born distillation of the audience’s life.  Better, of course, but purer and while in the vein of the mumblecore filmmakers – Swanberg, Katz, Bujalski – it reaches for emotions they’ve only barely begun to work with, and hits and hits again.

Phillipe Quesne and Vivarium Studios with one set – the living room of an apartment, with glass patio doors and a door on the side, a ping pong table half covered in amateur special effect, magic tricks, and other detritus – conjure a rich inner life and what seems like a pretty thriving social life, and draw a map that show how the two feed each other.  The principal actor Gaetan Voruc’h enters dressed as what a child thinks an astronaut looks like, a thin suit of gray and an enormous fishbowl helmet that looks like Pac Man with a light in it, and addresses the audience directly, “Each play ends with a preview of the next.  In the last play there were five astronauts, of which I was one,” but also seemingly indifferent, laying the ground rules for the play while roaming the set like some lost alien architecture. 

What unfolds is a combination of the physical lovable-cipher comedy of Jacques Tati and a little Samuel Beckett (almost an alternate history Krapp’s Last Tape that shows the character a way out) and a meditation on art that’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before.  Every Sunday, Serge’s friends come over and he presents a carefully conceptualized very low budge performance – choreographing a (borrowed) car’s lights and exhaust to Wagner; a remote control car moving behind the audience members to Handel; setting off two bright red flashpots through a complicated balancing act – and says thank you, graciously but a little uncomfortably accepts their compliments, and then says a quiet “You can finish your drink” and leads them out of the house.  Even the ritual of bringing them in and finding seats is carefully considered, only certain doors can be used, and handled very politely but also with this quiet reserve. 

Between the performances we see him working with the gadgets, coming up with new shows, playing with what he has until an idea strikes -  a flying helicopter that’s more metaphor sitting on the table and pure joy when it flies; a hilarious, gorgeous dance with glowsticks done as glasses and a rope set to a melancholy cover of “Billie Jean” – and engaging in the rote physical activity to distract the brain when ideas don’t come that anyone who’s tried to create something is familiar with, in this case playing ping pong by himself. 

The way the process and the product and unformed play all feed each other is the perfectly groomed frosting on this piece, and the spongy cake is the way art connects you to people but also keeps you at a distance.  People show up more than once, and clearly like Serge very much, but there’s more small talk amongst themselves than there is with him, and while the effect of the title is bringing people together and into his orbit, even the woman clearly sticking around wanting to know him is led out of the apartment and the world of the play before it’s over.  Also key in this piece is the indescribability of art – I’m deeply conscious that the descriptions of Serge’s little shows above doesn’t sound like much, I was conscious of it at a party as I was gushing last night – and you see the audience try to articulate what made their heart sing because it never really works out. 

At best, the talk intrigues you enough to see something for yourself.  It doesn’t ever replace seeing it or reading it or hearing it.  And I hope if anyone reads this, people take another look and see if the schedule can fit a performance of L’Effet de Serge into their weekend (runs through Sunday) because it’s that pure, pure, un-stepped-on theater shit.  It’s right in your veins and keeps you up at night and makes you love the world a little more.

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