Sunday, June 22, 2014

Field of Gemstones Reflecting a Far-away Flicker - Leaving the Atocha Station by Matt Slaybaugh adapted from the novel by Ben Lerner; Available Light Theatre, 06/14/14

“And it looks like I’ll be losing myself again tonight
Caught between what’s real and what just rhymes”
-Eric Taylor, “East Texas Moon”

“I asked the painter
Why the roads are colored black.
He said, ‘Steve, it’s because people leave
And no highway will bring them back.’”
-Silver Jews, “Random Rules”

If I had to pick one reason I go to see art it’s because I want to be set on fire.  Sure, I don’t want it every night – I’m a big proponent of Kafka’s only looking for books that crack you like an ice axe, but I like popcorn and I like a Pabst Blue Ribbon, so I never fully committed to that – but it’s very sweet to get to dig into something that’s not comfort food.  Something that reminds you what can be at the end of all those nights.  While not perfect, Leaving the Atocha Station, is one of those somethings.  One of those shows that makes you see stars.

The plot could be a million first novels – a writer, Adam Gordon (played by Ian Short) screws his way – or tries to - across a foreign country (in this case, Spain) and tries to hone his talent into art while ostensibly studying.  The juice here is less about the story and more about what the play says about the shifting faces we all wear, how hard it can be to gain perspective, the risk of not engaging with the world, and the difficulty of getting out of your own way to make some damn art.

The structure is fascinating.  Adam presenting a sardonic look back at his travels presented in the form of giving a lecture or perhaps delivering a paper at a conference but told like a man sifting through his past to try to make sense of it.  As the lights dim and he starts, we’re greeted with Adan (played by David Tull) in a long wordless sequence we’re told is how he begins his days: coffee, weed, pills, the museum.  Through the next two and a half hours, including one intermission, we follow Adan’s blithe trip through a panoply of astonishing scenery and meeting but not ever really connecting with a variety of people (astonishingly played by Rudy Frias and Amy Rittberger).

His constant foil is Eleni Papaleonardos playing, alternately, Isabel (his occasional lover) and Teresa (a translator and poet working with him) in the best performance of the show.  Papaleonardos packs a tremendous amount of nuance and contradiction into these roles.  There are two distinct inner lives suggested and while the casting brilliantly hints that, to the character, they’re variations on “hot Spanish lady” neither the performance nor the play gainsay the character’s subconscious take there.  There are so many fascinating subtleties, such a sure hand with joy and knowing here, that her performance goes a long way to fleshing out the world here and providing some perspective without which the taste of being in the principal character’s head for almost three hours could turn sour.

Rudy Frias and Amy Rittberger play everyone else Adan meets, of greater (the man weeping in the Prado whose potential “profound experience of art” is the inciting incident for the whole piece; Isabel’s flirtatious mother; the woman in charge of the foundation that brought Gordon to Spain; the gallery owner who lets Adan stage a reading) and lesser (a waitress; a security guard; the other poet giving the reading) importance to the narrative.  They’re both terrific.  Frias in particular has a succession of quick change moments, not just costuming but age, class and emotion, and he pulls them all off with ease; I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen him in and he delivers again here.  One of the actors I most want to see what he does next.  Rittberger not only provides that glue that adds verisimilitude to the proceedings but does it with an incredible amount of charm, she’s not showy but she never just fades into the background.

Tull and Short as shades of the same character are a joy to watch.  Short is clearly the more adult looking back but also, it seems, the version in America and so tethered to his own responsibilities.  Tull is adrift, questioning, everybody (including myself) I  knew in my twenties who thinks there’s talent there but is finding the process of doing the work harder and less immediately gratifying than he thought.  There’s a frenzied energy I remembered to an extent and an almost cartoony quality that definitely jibed with the way I remember my 20s but also a very clearly delineated darker edge under the surface.  Short’s more nuanced portrayal is the perfect counterpart here – with an economy of movement he suggests that mania and comments on it in a way that avoids seeming too judgmental or too forgiving. 

The moments where we see Adan breaking rank with his far-away self or addressing him directly and conspiring with him are a joy and contain a lot about the way memory shifts on us and even the nature of free will.  The creation and the creator are linked but each is just a little different than the other thinks.  There is also one shocking moment where Short steps into the “as it’s happening now” narrative and the audience realizes it’s because he’s calling home – he picks up his home-voice – and the heavier realization (for the purposes of watching the play): the two actors playing “one” character isn’t a gimmick, it’s not going to be shifted willy-nilly.  There are some glimpses of Short in a photo montage that again echo the transitive quality of memory.

In addition to how well this play speaks to the youthful difficulty of making art as good as what you’re absorbing, it also handles mental illness as well as anything I’ve ever seen.  And it does it without direct comment.  We watch Adan self-medicate and self-adjust and as it shifts into a mildly destructive manic episode the line between “this is a great party” and “holy shit” is pretty clear but just like many friends I knew growing up, you notice that in hindsight.  Obviously for a play you notice it minutes after, not months, but it also does a good job of showing how perspective gets lost and how you are having fun until you’re not.  Until there’s just guilt and cover up. 

There’s also a provocative link between that zone where you’re making something and the art is clicking or the zone where your brain is demanding more energy and pumping more chemicals than you know what to do with.  This is, perhaps, clearest when the backdrop used for the rest of the show drops away and beneath a projection of a night sky all of the cast speak overlapping fragments of sentences and move in a cycle of small movements.  A cut-up half-sensical aria that’s hands down the most beautiful moment I’ve seen in a theater the first half of this year. 

The trouble is, there’s more plot business to wrap up so the show goes on for another 20 minutes after that jaw-dropping sequence. Those remaining minutes just can’t match that glowing, glittering energy and the remainder feels too long a dénouement so restlessness sets in.  That’s the biggest flaw of the piece – it feels too long and the plot detail isn’t as interesting as everything else.  The attempts to recreate the pacing of the novel (what Sheila Heti called, in her review for London Review of Books, “like childhood summers, or stretches of unemployment, those times when one day seeps languidly into the next coloured by the awareness that this time will eventually run out”) sometimes succeed beautifully and sometimes feel stretched out by force.  Matt Slaybaugh’s adaptation keeps so much language in and is brilliantly done and most of his choices as director work so well that the moments when the whole thing feels slack are doubly disappointing.

This is a remarkably ambitious piece covering at least six locations in Madrid and brining in huge protests and the terrible Atocha Station bombing, so the technical aspects are key and executed amazingly. 

Carrie Cox’s lighting doesn’t draw attention to itself but is so perfect it’s almost a character in the story – the light of a dingy apartment and the light of a well-windowed apartment and the light of a party and the light of a gallery and just the light of youth and the light of experience are all distinct enough they do a large, large amount of the work in keeping the audience from getting lost in the more convoluted moments.  Plus, it’s beautiful – everyone looks even more beautiful than they usually are; sometimes it mimics that perfect summer day walking through the park where everyone is suffused with light and it rains down on them like Joyce’s line about sun being flung like coins through the trees.

The projections (by Video Director Matt Hermes with Dave Wallingford, Brad Steinmetz, Matt Slaybaugh, Michelle Whited, and Ben Jones) also do a lot of heavy lifting and do it in a way that the audience doesn’t realize how strong it is until afterward.  It’s so convincing that you just assume you are there.  A. and I talked afterwards that when we saw the Sunday in the Park With George Broadway revival right after we were dating it used very similar digital effects and it’s amazing to see these techniques deployed just as beautifully on a smaller scale a number of years later.

So while I had a couple of quibbles, this was a fine capper on a fantastic return-to-form season from Available Light.  Onward to 2014-15.  Runs through June 28th.  Tickets available:


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