Anyone who’s read this blog even glancingly over the years can probably tell Available Light’s John Cage 101 had a particularly hard row to hoe for me because I’m such a fan of Cage and that whole ‘40s and ‘50s New York milleu. While the new show – written by the company and directed by Matt Slaybaugh – isn’t entirely successful it reaches in a way you’re lucky to see a theatre company even attempt once in its day. In a season – except for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – that has so far felt a little more like regrouping and circling the wagon, this grappling with a past that so infuses modern culture it’s like oxygen but is still rarely acknowledged and often scorned firmly replants their flag in front of the other theater in town and replants it in my head.
The four actors ingeniously billed in the program with the musical instruments they play instead of characters alternate as Cage (through a dark blazer passed among them) and everyone else who appears. This is mostly successful and particularly good is that it doesn’t feel like each actor is meant to be a particular static aspect of Cage’s art or life – while I’d most enjoy watching Ian Short (who is phenomenal, getting the warmth that always comes through in interviews or footage of Cage and beautifully under-playing the humor so it never feels like a joke) for a whole play in the role, within a couple of scenes I felt like it moved beyond being a gimmick and just accepted it. Of course, in a show about a composer and with a lot of motion and sound, the sound design’s important and Dave Wallingford outdid himself here.
Also good is the use of an overhead projector to show characters that appear for greater or lesser periods of time, it gives the supertitles a physical connection to the action, characters ripping transparencies off and replacing them. In general, the physicality of the show is a strength, especially Meghan Durham-Wall’s dancing, she plays dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham (marked by a pale jacket in contrast to the dark jacket that shows Cage) and Marcel Duchamp marked with a bubble pipe (I assume a riff on the pipe he carved for Donati). For her first acting appearance, she’s striking – I might have wanted an interpretation of Duchamp that was less kitten-ish and less equally in awe, but her Cunningham is a marvel - and having someone who clearly, really knows dance and has lived with those techniques immeasurably adds to the verisimilitude, when she dances under Carrie Cox’s pitch-perfect lighting (going from sharp to soft exactly when it needs to but never drawing attention to itself) everything on stage reads truer.
One of the strongest elements of the play is the heavy emphasis on the first Cunningham group (with Cage acting as their road manager) West Coast tour, apparently adapted from Carolyn Brown’s terrific memoir Chance and Circumstance. These four dancers are the perfect humanizing point of view, true believers who were rooting for these new concepts at the start of a new age of music and dance but still coming across as people. These tiny sketches are also the best showcase for Acacia Duncan, better than fine as Cage but really shining in putting across the glee of being in something new. And the era – the very early ‘60s – coincides with enough early mainstream recognition for Cage and Cunningham to be able to book a solid month of performances and lectures.
What doesn’t work as well is the occasional bursts of the ensemble being a large group of people. The other artists from his scene get the biggest shaft – there’s a dinner room conversation that’s frankly the only moment in the play where I cringed, with Rothko’s cartoonish coke bottle glasses and Franz Kline’s obviously fake mustache and Pollock showing up drunk, but Robert Rauschenberg came off even worse. He’s used for one sight gag set up through a variant of scenes and has one scene on stage and is barely addressed – especially for someone who stage managed the Cunningham dance company and can be argued helped them found the company. There’s a really lovely scene where Cage acknowledges 4’33” was inspired by Rauschenberg’s white paintings and I understand being loathe to reduce his contribution to just that but also not wanting to tack 45 minutes onto the play, but it’s the biggest thing that’s bugged me in the most-of-a-week since I saw it. Last significant complaint: having modern fans/commentators/college students/whatever worked beautifully in AVL perennial Pride and Prejudice but here it’s distracting and feels a little desperate, saying “See? No, he is important.” The play hedges its bets in those scenes and it does more to throw cold water on the audience than the “improvisations” with various instruments. The music doesn’t have that intricate beauty of the Cage compositions I know, he didn’t seem like he was prizing amateurism with indeterminacy much less equating the two.
All of that said, I’m glad I saw this and anyone I know with an interest in new music, modern dance, or theater I highly encourage to see this show and support the only company in town right now who cares enough about the art to make this from scratch and hit as hard as they do.
John Cage 101 runs through April 6. Tickets available at http://avltheatre.com/1011/blog/category/shows/jc101/