MAGELLANICA // ARTISTS REPERTORY THEATRE

Eight strangers are wintering over at the South Pole in the name of science. It’s 1986. They’re researching known and unknown phenomena. Some are researching in established fields, others fighting to prove their version of the truth, and all of them facing down complicated revelations about themselves and the world they’re all trying, in one way or another, to preserve. They have eight months in sub-zero conditions to prove their hypotheses. Or change their minds. Or save the world.

This is the kind of period piece that, wonderfully, shows when it was written more than when it takes place. With the advantage of watching from thirty years in the future, we already know about the ozone hole and the melting of polar ice and the thousands of ways we’ve destroyed our generous planet, but the moral and philosophical struggles of this little international crew are the same difficult questions we’re facing down today. How do you build trust with someone whose country (and perspective) is at war with yours? How do you take on a problem so large it might swallow the world whole? How do you continue to choose to be brave?

An important part of understanding this play is that this “you” is distinctly American in perspective. For all of its many cultures (and, wonderfully, its many languages —there is a long, glorious stretch of largely untranslated Norwegian that is simultaneously one of the funniest and most heartwarming things I’ve ever seen on stage), this is an American play. And I mean that in the best sense of the word! E.M. Lewis’ writing is beautiful and the scope of her themes appropriately epic — much like The Kentucky Cycle, or Angels in America, both marathons Magellanica has already been compared to.

(Though its Americanness also presages an ending that is a little too tidy and uplifting for the reality we can all now see for ourselves, inside the theatre or out. I guess that’s another question: how do we, as Americans, hold onto hope without blinkering ourselves?)

Also, for what it’s worth, there’s something especially thrilling about seeing a new Oregon play with an almost all-Oregon cast at one of the most established Oregon theatres. Some parts of it are more successful than others — there are plotlines that could do with a little less air, and Dámaso Rodriguez’s determinedly literal direction has an unfortunate tendency to squash some of the text’s potential poetry — but when it works, it really works. Over the course of these long winter months, these five hours, we watch these eight characters bloom into full, complicated people. We huddle in together to listen, and learn, and wait for the sun.

 

photo via Artists Rep

Advertisements

WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT // Nassim Soleimanpour

In order to get to White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour — as much as we can, that is — we need to start here and now. For me, here and now means sitting in front of a computer at my day job at 8:44am on April 13th, 2018, trying to rewind to where and how I was last night in seat 44D, watching Susannah Mars slit open a white envelope, lean forward, and begin.

Here and now for you is something else. You are somewhere, too, reading these words that I am typing and deleting, typing and deleting again, trying to distill a wild tangle of thoughts about performance and politics and ostriches into what is, at the end of the day, a collection of pixels on a screen. I don’t know where you are, or when you are, or even if you are. Do we have anything in common? Is when you are anything like when I am? Despite the superficial differences that are sure to exist between us, there are some things that don’t change. More importantly, in this moment of me writing, which is my present and your past, and your reading, which is your present and my future, we are connected.

This is only the tiniest fragment of what makes White Rabbit Red Rabbit special, and there is only so much I can say about how and why it works before it feels like a betrayal of the piece, not to mention of both the Nassim Soleimanpour who wrote it in 2010 and the Nassim Soleimanpour who, we assume, we hope, is still out there writing in 2018. The set-up is deceptively simple: every night, a different actor takes the stage (in this run, as part of the A.R.T. Frontier Series: Susannah Mars, John San Nicolas, Ayanna Berkshire, and Darius Pierce). In the room are a sealed envelope containing the text, two glasses of water, a ladder, a group of individuals who have decided to become an audience. Crucially, the actor has never seen the text before, and together with the audience, they plunge blindly into a tale that slips from broad, comedic allegory to presumed autobiography to a subtler critique of the many visible and invisible systems that have convinced us we are under their control.

It would just be a clever gimmick, except that the precipice this mechanism strands the actor and the audience on, together, is what creates its power. It’s also its greatest weakness, a intentional duality of form that’s reflected throughout the piece’s many narrative strands. The success of this show is inseparable from the particular give and take between that night’s actor and that night’s audience, which is an electrifying prospect; however, on the night I saw it, the vocal overconfidence of a few, scattered audience members pulled focus in ways that deflated moments I would have liked to have seen breathe, and overall made for an experience that was more uneven than I would have liked. But I want to be clear that, in this, my disappointment might very well have been someone else’s delight — any frustrations or false starts are also very much the point, and I’m tempted to think that Nassim Soleimanpour would actually be thrilled.

After all, there is no real way to prepare for whatever will happen next. There are no rehearsals for choosing to trust someone, for making up your own mind, for doing the right thing. Over 12 hours later, here in my present that is also your past, sitting in front of a computer at my day job, I am also still frozen in seat 44D, my stomach knotting as Nassim Soleimanpour, with the skill and cooperation of Susannah Mars, and the attention and cooperation of April 12th’s audience, slowly twisted a rhetorical knife that didn’t seem dangerous until it was too late.

UNCLE VANYA // PETE

I once took a directing workshop where the facilitator’s approach to Chekhov was to have actors physicalize their characters’ subtext and then cram that sensation back into the translucent container of the lines. It’s an interesting exercise, but it begs the question: why the extra step? Why not just let the subtext lead the charge? Why not shake it up like a bottle of champagne and let it explode all over everything?

PETE’s Uncle Vanya does exactly that, and it’s glorious. All the little kinks and complications of plot are there too, if you want to look for them, but this production does something braver and more beautiful than just retreading the events of the play — it stages the heart beating under the text. Every word that isn’t straight from the heart is a smokescreen, and both Štěpán Šimek’s translation and Cristi Miles’ direction know it. (Adjectives fail me here, for their contributions as much as for the staggering work of all the designers, actors, and musicians combined: vivid, sharp, wild, brilliant in every sense. “Loose” feels somehow right, too, but that would deny the precision and clear intent every component of this production radiates — loose in the sense of having room to breathe, to really laugh, to take a shot and shimmy across the floor if that’s what the moment needs).

It works because so much more than writing about country estates or samovars or strategically placed firearms, Chekhov writes about being human. About pettiness and stuffiness and snobbery, sure, but also about the deliciousness of inopportune fits of longing, or the burst of giddiness that comes with an epiphany. His characters are always trying desperately to be alive, and always blind to the fact that trying so hard defeats the purpose.

Sometimes you go see a show and you come out entertained. Sometimes you come out energized, or outraged, or weeping. I left thinking that this is what theatre should always feel like — slipping in through the back door to a party in full Technicolor swing, with tears woven in through every laugh, and the reminder that being our most human is the best we can hope to be.

 

photo by Owen Carey

CORBEAUX // BOUCHRA OUIZGEN

We (the audience) are standing in a loose circle in a big open warehouse space (corrugated walls, concrete floor, fluorescent work lights). It doubles as the late-night bar/venue/dancefloor for the TBA festival, and so it feels a little bit like a nightclub with all the lights turned on — landmarks that should be familiar are made unfamiliar again without their usual dressing. There is no pretense of hiding the unused late-night stage, the bar menu painted ten feet high on a back wall, the backstage area built out of pipe and drape.

The particular patch of floor we’ve gathered around isn’t much different from any other patch of floor. Some people stand with their arms folded, some chat quietly with their neighbors or fiddle with their phones. Others post up on the runway that’s been built for the drag extravaganza later that night, treating it like one long bench. One man sits crosslegged in what might be considered the front row, arms extended with his palms face-up on his knees. Festival volunteers, myself included, hang back as the circle forms, expands, adapts.

So we-the-audience wait, and then they are there: a shoulder-to-shoulder silent pack of women, walking calmly to the edge of our audience circle. They are all dressed head-to-toe in different shapes and textures of black. A span of ethnicities, a far greater span in ages. Each woman has a white kerchief wrapped around her head and knotted in the front.

One by one, walk in among us: slowly, calmly, focused. Blank, almost. They find their places, facing us and each other at angles. It takes a while but soon they are all stationed exactly, a pattern of women.

All is still, and then it begins: half the women throw their heads back, half throw them forward, chins to chest, and with this movement the group lets loose a cry/yell/grunt in a steady rhythm. Forward, back. Forward, back. Sharp and precise like chopping wood. They are loud in ways women are not often seen to be or allowed to be loud in public, and it is thrilling.

This kind of noise takes effort. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes in, and we (the audience) can feel it. The performers are sweating. One or another falters just a little, her cry a half-second behind, but the others’ voices buoy her back into the rhythm. Some have balled their fists. One woman’s kerchief loosens and slips down. It obscures her face entirely for a few cries before it settles around her neck for the rest of the performance. The rhythm never once falters.

We (the audience) stand still. Some people are moving a little bit, consciously and unconsciously. I see one woman with tears in her eyes and her hand pressed over her heart. Still the women in the middle of the circle press on, their feet rooted and solid on the ground.

And then suddenly it’s twenty, twenty-five minutes in. In groups, they fall silent. Only one woman is left, rocking back and forth with her cries. So many voices, whittled to just one in all this space. And then it is still again.

Neatly symmetrical.

Except.

Now they are throwing their hands up in joy! They are clapping, they are whooping with happiness, they are wheeling around the circle and straight-up busting a move — not in any choreographed sense, in a hello-we-are-alive way. Alive, and what a marvelous thing that is. Young and old. Red-faced and grinning. At their clear and delighted invitation, we the audience clap and whoop along with them. They dance and dance and run and dance. We dissolve into them, or they dissolve into us. We, all of us, in a circle, alive and cheering.

some feelings about “mother!”

First, a few words about what this is not:

  1. This is not a review. There are plenty of good ones out there, if that’s what you’re looking for.
  2. This is not an essay on what the movie is About. Plenty of excellent folks jumping on that as well.
  3. This is not an indictment (or a pardon).
  4. This is not spoiler-free! Turn back now if you want to see it for yourself first.

Most importantly, this is only nominally about mother! — it is one movie of many, and this is less about what the film is doing (or attempting to do) and more about what I brought to the table when I sat down in that theatre, and what I am taking with me now that I’ve left.

I felt useless. The credits rolled and I felt utterly depleted. Not in a good, sexy exhaustion kind of way, not in a cathartic and-now-I-am-reborn-from-the-ashes way, in an all-I-want-to-do-is-leave-but-I’m-too-tired-to-stand way.

I am tired of the abuse of women being aestheticized. I am tired of male artists justifying the suffering of others (but very often: women) as a necessary sacrifice for their Art*. I am tired of abusers getting to walk away and start clean, while the people they’ve abused (very often: women) are left shattered. I am tired that the work women do has been and continues to be undervalued, under-appreciated, underpaid. I am tired of the outdated and offensive definition of women as bodies-with-uteruses. I am tired of this fight my grandmothers were fighting and that my granddaughters, should they ever exist, will likely be fighting too.

Mostly, I am so, so tired of women being metaphors instead of real fucking human beings.

I should also say: there was so much about this movie that I was ready to love (not really the right word, but it’s as close as I can get right now) — and I’m not convinced that Aronofsky doesn’t want me leaving his movie outraged by the cruelty it contains. It did, at least, make me feel something. Maybe the allegorical cleverness of it all will, with some distance, outshine the knot in my stomach. Maybe my outrage and exhaustion will crystallize into something more useful. I don’t know.

 

 

 

 

*To be clear, I am talking specifically about Javier Bardem’s character, not Aronofsky

Guest Post for RISK/REWARD 2017!

Twenty minutes is nothing, and forever.

At Risk/Reward, twenty minutes is an entire ecosystem. A planet that unfolds itself, envelops you in its particular air and quality of light, and then—with varying degrees of gentleness—spits you back out into the stars for the next planet to appear out of the darkness and pull you in. Two hours later, walking out after the last piece, I felt like examining myself for passport stamps, skinned knees, seasickness: any lingering sign that my heart and mind had just been whirled into and out of six stunning and gut-busting and gloriously difficult worlds.

read the rest over at the Risk/Reward blog!

RODNEY KING // Roger Guenveur Smith

Rodney King is the most profound solo performance I have ever seen. Roger Guenveur Smith is a jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly incredible writer and performer. Three days on I am still reaching for words that will fit the enormity and depth of the experience. I don’t know that they exist. Even if they do, my voice really doesn’t matter much in this conversation: I’m a middle-class white girl. With a show like this, with history like this, it’s my job to show up and listen.

What I can tell you is, whether you too are a middle-class white girl or not, listen to what Smith is doing, and listen hard. From the moment Smith appears, words already rolling out of his mouth at a steady, studied clip, until the last, slow-motion second as he disappears from view, he pulls the audience to him. We are, instantly, in his world. He moves, constantly and with complete control, riding out invisible shifts in the ground that are one moment waves, then a Los Angeles freeway, then the swimming pool where Rodney King was found dead, then waves again. Though his narrative meanders, it circles itself with precision: there is not a word or a motion wasted, and it is utterly mesmerizing.

The picture that starts this post contains almost every “design” element of the piece: a rectangle of white paint on the floor, surrounded by a moat of matte black, a corded microphone snaking up from below. A black baseball jersey with Los Angeles across the front, black pants, no shoes. All that’s missing is a mad collage of music and TV reportage that ushers the piece in (and, artful and helpful in equal measure, grounds it in its specific space and time), a spotlight that sometimes forms a smaller cage inside the rectangle’s limits, and the awful, blaring red and blue of police lights. Signs and symbols stripped down to the essentials, creating space for the looping, interconnected web Smith is always, always weaving.

In the end, Rodney King is about a lot of things. It’s about justice in America, and how often and horrifically our justice system falls short. It’s about three horrifying, confused days in L.A. in 1992. It’s about the deep, undeniable wounds that racism and violence have torn open (and continue to tear open) in our country. And it’s about Rodney King and his complicated humanity, and the complicated humanity of Smith, too, standing before us with only a microphone and his heart and a story that demands hearing. It is a truly remarkable thing to be present for such generosity of spirit, and I will forever be grateful to have cried and breathed and learned together with that audience.

This weekend, Rodney King comes to Netflix. I am sure it will be a different experience, because these things always are, but watch anyway. It is too important to look away.

 

 

 

Picture by Patti McGuire

YOUR NAME. // Makoto Shinkai

Mitsuha and Taki are, for all intents and purposes, normal teenagers. They have loving, complicated families. They have supportive friends who know when to crack a joke and when to reach out with comfort instead. School isn’t amazing, but isn’t wholly terrible either. Their worries are worries we have, or once had: schoolyard embarassments, menial after-school jobs, family obligations. Dreams of a different, adult life surely waiting in the next town over. And then, just as a rare comet is set to streak across the sky above them, this normal boy and girl begin waking up in each other’s bodies and living one day at a time in each other’s lives.

For Mitsuha, so bored of her quiet and traditional mountain village she’s about to burst, intermittently waking up as Taki in his life as a Toyko schoolboy is a chance to explore the world she has always wanted to belong to. Taki, set loose in a world he couldn’t imagine would hold any interest for him, develops a deep appreciation for the natural world and the traditional religious rituals preserved by Mitsuha’s grandmother.

And so there are all the charming misunderstandings and mortifications you could hope for — they scribble earnest and admonishing notes to one another to explain the rules of their lives, they learn which clothes to wear and which crushes to impress, and, though there isn’t really much critique of gendered expectations per se, they stumble their way through which gendered rules could do with some bending and breaking. Of course, as is inevitable in a story like this, they come to depend on each other, and gradually develop a close bond that overshadows the connections they have with the people physically in their lives.

So many other movies would throw in the expected, last-minute revelation, slap a kiss on the end, and then call it a day. But in Your Name., the (immensely enjoyable) fluff of the first half is merely set-up for the real heart of the story, where the cuteness and the humor fade into the background as the story instead asks a deeper question about our responsibilities to the ones we love and about the threads of time that connect us all.

The animation itself is like the best of Studio Ghibli (a tender attention to the details of otherwise ordinary objects and lives, a grounded sense of place laid out in gorgeous watercolor, a reverence for and understanding of the rhythms of the natural world) and also the best of serial anime romances (a truly wonderful title song sequence with all its non-sequitir foreshadowing, daydreams as hilarious alternate realities, crisp comedic timing that snubs the laws of physics). And it is also its own self, gentle with the desires and doubts of its characters and sympathetic to their dreams. Both the city and the countryside are illustrated with the same golden glow: both are places of goodness and beauty, if you know where to look for it. When the story takes a turn for the serious, the animation style does too — including a breathtaking sequence that calmly rewrites the visual and narrative rules of the story we’ve been seeing so far as it transports us into the fabric of time itself — giving the bigger arc of things the weight and importance it deserves.

It’s a little long — the pacing in the last act is not as sharp as it could be, especially given the spot-on rhythms of the first half of the movie — but the story and its visuals are so beautiful I almost didn’t care. These characters are so dear to us, the worlds they inhabit so welcoming, and their sweet, half-remembered longings worth cherishing.

BRIDGE OVER MUD // Verdensteatret

Bear with me, as this might make very little to no sense at all.

In the beginning of Bridge over Mud, the great mechanical mechanism that is both the evening’s skeleton and its heartbeat is largely shrouded in shadow. The house lights, too, are low. Then, without any overt markers or ceremony, a projector stutters to life and Verdensteatret’s equally evocative and inscrutable audiovisual symphony begins.

Calling it an “audiovisual symphony,” a descriptor straight from the program notes, is only the beginning; it is not the only appropriate lens through which to understand (or, barring understanding, at least engage with) the piece. The idea of there even being a single appropriate lens is anathema to the openness with which it’s constructed. All the same, thinking of it as a symphony makes a welcome amount of sense, in the way that what’s happening in projected visuals and mechanized shadow puppetry is responding to what’s happening physically and aurally, and then how their interactions create a new, continuous and combined element for individual audience members to construct meaning/feelings from, much like the interplay of melody and harmony in a string quartet.

Onstage is a mechanical universe, which both enables and is in and of itself the performance: the floor is mostly model train tracks in a vast, spidery network, in front of two staggered projection screens. There are humans in this landscape, too, mostly at its edges, though they come forward to play musical instruments, manipulate the technology onstage, and sometimes enter the shadow scenes with their bodies like giant puppets.

(Speaking of which: talking about the onstage environment as a “set” or even a “design”  feels inadequate, and though I’m tempted to call its components “characters,” that implies that there is even a “story” for them to belong to. But they do have relationships, as much as a valve has a relationship to the bell of a tuba, or the piston of a train wheel has a relationship to a railroad tie. Anyway.)

It is, if you haven’t already noticed, exceedingly difficult to talk about with any kind of coherence, or without having to create an entirely new vocabulary. Suffice it to say: what’s going on is technologically stunning, breathtakingly innovative, and formally audacious.

Like a lot of formally innovative work (or symphonies of any kind, for that matter), not all of its sections are equally compelling. But the sections that did resonate with me are still looping in my head, open visual metaphors that I find myself diving deep inside of again and again, days after the performance. The sound of a street, stuck like a skipping record on a megaphone yell as a writhing white mass crawls across the screen. An almost-face made of distorted light like little amoebas under the microscope, attempting expressions. Little plastic periscopes rising from the tracks to scan the sky and transmit their tinny messages into nothingness.

There is very little in this piece that tells you what its creators were thinking when they made it, and even less that tells you what you might want to think about that. For me, as the trains circled around to take their final approach and as essential components of the machine were finally revealed, I was left thinking about how the things that have brought us wonder have also brought us death. But I couldn’t tell you what was running through the minds of the people on either side of me. Clear as mud, maybe, but maybe that is in and of itself enough.

 

photo from Verdensteatret

HADESTOWN // Rachel Chavkin & Anaïs Mitchell

I know I’ve said it before, but I’m just going to keep saying it: Hadestown is miraculous.

The foundation of the show is the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but the folk opera retelling that director Rachel Chavkin and songwriter/writer-writer Anaïs Mitchell have so exquisitely crafted at New York Theatre Workshop reaches beyond the boy chases/gets/keeps girl plot shenanigans we often expect from love stories and creates something much deeper and more profound. But it is still a love story — it’s just that the romance in Hadestown is only a little sliver of the love that the show contains. Instead of lionizing beginnings or perseverance to agreed-upon milestones in the continuum of time, it reckons with those moments as they are: in eternal counterpoint to endings and disappointments that are equally as important to how we live our lives and love our loves, and equally as worthy of recognition for the roles they play in the shaping of our world and ourselves.

Every voice in this show knocks you flat, from the earthquake rumble of Patrick Page’s lowest register to the fierce, roof-busting roar of Amber Gray, the jaw-dropping delicacy of Damon Daunno’s falsetto and the way Nabiyah Be manages somehow to be rooted strong in the ground and soaring through the air at the same time. Jessie Shelton, Lulu Fall, and Shaina Taub bring a brilliant, beautiful clarity to harmonies that twist and tangle every which way, and all you can do is dance when Chris Sullivan’s bluesy carnival barker growl gets in under your skin. There is little separation between the actors and the (incredible, no-holds-barred virtuosic!!) band, and for good reason: the music is not merely a vehicle here, it is the very fabric of this world. Each individual performance, soaked through with personality and guts, lights up the night — as an ensemble, they set the air on fire.

Sitting very nearly in the round, under the spread-open arms of a colossal tree, the audience is given the gift of being there for one another throughout all of this. We get to see Orpheus’ idealism sweep through the crowd, we all get to groove together when Persephone says the word. Our hopes and our fears (for these two sets of fictional lovers, for our ever-changing country, for ourselves) are magnified and reflected back to us at every turn.

The way things turn out might not be golden perfection, but that doesn’t mean the hopes we held at the start aren’t worthy of celebration, or that the pathway forward isn’t worthy of us hoping once again. It may be, as Eurydice says early in Act I, that only the gods can change the world, but it is only human to try. We raise our cups, we drink them up, and we keep on singing ourselves whole.

 

(Quick disclosure: I have not even the slightest pretense of objectivity with this show! I was an intern at NYTW through its rehearsal period and on into the run. But I love it too much not to write about it — and these thoughts are, as always, strictly my own. Photo up top by Joan Marcus.)

theatre, etc.