Sunday, July 24, 2011

On the Summer, and Other Seasons

Most major theaters take something of a respite—if they don’t go totally dark—at this time of the year. Perhaps it’s more challenging to lure audiences into a darkened box when the sun stays out longer? Or maybe theater folk, like teachers, need a summer vacation after dealing with grumpy, demanding groups of people for nine months? Whatever the case, many theaters seek to make up for the perceived lack of activity and remind us that they still exist with deluges of press releases, often about their upcoming seasons, those 3-10 shows that they intend to put up in the coming year.

Having surveyed many Bay Area theaters’ 2011-12 rosters, I’m left only with a feeling of blobby sameness. Perhaps it’s true that any press release only knicks the surface of what a theater is all about, but at the same time you can tell a good amount about a company by the kind of work it chooses to put on. Unfortunately, many mixes this year (and every year?) comprise the same components: The classic. The moneymaker. The token experimental piece. The play by a member of a historically disadvantaged community, usually about identity.

Obviously, whether a theater likes the production concept and thinks it would make a meaningful and timely statement are only a couple of the concerns that go into its decision to produce a show. Others include

  • How much does it cost?
  • Which copyrights can we get?
  • Which artists are available?
  • What does our board of directors support?
  • How does this show relate to the other slots we’ve already got filled this year and to what we did last year?

But I wonder if there’s any way a season could be more than an arbitrary, ad-hoc jumbling of the projects that happen to be available at a given time and, in sum, check all the required boxes. Alex Ross writes of similar dreams for the classical music world, albeit on a smaller scale—he speaks of the way different pieces in a single evening, rather than over the course of a year, might be in conversation with one another, but I think his logic can be extended:

The average orchestral program presents a familiar configuration of familiar works—an overture, a symphony, a new piece here and there—with no obvious intellectual goal. The mechanical reshuffling of canonical repertory creates the impression that classical music is an all-purpose fabric that can be cut by the yard…The typical season is a catalogue of missed opportunities. Great programs create a kind of invisible drama, establishing narrative connections between pieces that may or may not be directly related.

I’ve spoken with a couple of artistic directors—Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, at Sleepwalkers, and Kat Owens, at the Undermain (in Dallas)—whose solution is to eschew the season model altogether. For them, when you have a season, all you get is subscribers, a dubious benefit when you aren’t obsessed with growing, particularly when considering the potential cost to the quality and integrity of your work: Some productions become slot fillers, diluting the strength of your season and distracting you from the work you care about.

I’ll be on the lookout for more radical season/non-season models. (Sleepwalkers has devoted its entire year to a trilogy by one playwright, J.C. Lee, the conclusion of which premieres in August. Info here.) In the meantime, perhaps I’ll continue adhering to the critic’s version of a non-season: Only covering the shows I care about (at the expense of developing consistent relationships with theater companies).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Metamorphosis, at the Aurora

Once in a while, a theater company mounts a play that makes you think, “Now why can’t every other show I see be like this?” The Aurora’s production of Metamorphosis, adapted from the Kafka novel by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson was just such an experience, and you only have one more week to catch it.

The book, as you may recall from required reading of years past, begins with one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic vermin.” (That last part is also translated as “insect,” “cockroach,” or “beetle.”) Up ‘til then, Gregor (Alexander Crowther) had been a traveling salesman who worked long hours to support his father (Allen McKelvey), mother (Madeline H.D. Brown) and sister (Megan Trout), all of whom, in this production, hail from 1950s America (rather than early 20th-century Germany), an interpretation that makes the oppression Kafka loathed all the more real for contemporary audiences, helping us understand why no one ever asks how or why but just tries, unsuccessfully, to move on and ignore.

(Alexander Crowther, as the man-cum-insect. All photos by David Allen.)

Let’s be grateful to director Mark Jackson, who, among other outstanding choices, decided not to render Gregor’s transformation with a ridiculous costume. Instead, it is Gregor’s movements (Crowther manages arthropodic jumps with an acrobat’s agility) and his family’s horrified reactions that make Gregor into a bug. They are also helped, however, by the show’s impeccable design. Set designer Nina Ball situates Gregor’s bedroom upstage and upstairs from the family’s living room, raking it at what appears to be almost a 45 degree angle, which literally prevents Gregor from moving the way a human does, while also suggesting the pressure that was on him even before he became a bug. Sound designer Matthew Stines overlays two recordings of string instruments—one in which they scream out the chilling sound of insects in flight, another in which they play a plaintive classical quartet—masterfully capturing the way the family’s terror and sadness intermingle.

No one in the family ever says he or she misses Gregor. More often the members are simply so tense that you expect their tightened smiles to suddenly contort into something that faces can’t do—especially when a potential boarder (and income source), played by the delightful Patrick Jones, surveys the lodging. In this scene, each member of the cast excels; the cancerous burden the family bears makes them hopelessly awkward in their desperation. You hold your breath, hoping they can just get out a sentence that makes sense but knowing they won’t be able to—a scene simultaneously at the height of both humor and pathos.

Farr and Gardarsson’s script is exemplary adaptation. They have streamlined the play into a drama of territory—who is allowed into what space?—and a drama of secrecy. And the tension rarely wavers under Jackson’s well-choreographed staging. In this world, the mechanization of modern life infects the human body; not a footstep, pivot or smile—even in the privacy of the home—is immune.

But Jackson still finds beauty in this cynical statement on modern life and family. In the show’s lovely final image, Jackson assures us that a compassionate gaze can look in on a cruel world and still maintain its integrity. Perhaps we must then ask ourselves whether we can see the beauty and goodness in our own.

Metamorphosis continues through July 24. Info here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Critical Criticism, and Other Tautologies

In this week’s review, I struggled anew with an old issue: how critical ought criticism be?

The show in question, OMFG! The Internet Dating Musical, at ODC Theater, had a lot of problems (which I won’t be so vicious as to enumerate again). But in writing a review of it, I had two conflicting responsibilities: to let readers know what I really thought, but to express those thoughts professionally—i.e., by citing specific moments in the show to support my assertions as opposed to making broad claims.

(The cast of OMFG! Photo by Margo Moritz.)

Of course, an artist doesn’t have to be overly sensitive to take issue with a negative review; someone will always disagree with what I write, which is part of the joy of writing. What’s more, some of the most memorable, effective and influential criticism is venomous in its snark. So if my soulless desire is to excoriate or ridicule, why hold back?

Maybe because it’s too easy. I’m pretty sure I don’t always successfully resist those urges—and I’m curious to see what my hindsight will tell me about this particular review—but I know I feel like I’ve given a hardworking theater company its due when I at least try.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bridesmaids and The Tree of Life

Sometimes I wonder why I’m so drawn to theater as opposed to the other arts, especially film. “You love movies,” I tell myself. “Movies have performances and (usually) narratives and… so many of the things you love to talk about in theater. So why not?”

Seeing Bridesmaids and The Tree of Life helped me answer that question. I walked away from both films feeling so beaten over the head with Hollywood gender stereotypes that I could not fully appreciate what the directors—Paul Feig and Terrence Malick, respectively—did accomplish. One could rebut, especially re: Malick’s film, with its expansive subject matter, that my standards are too high, my mind one-track. But I question whether my inability to access the films is wholly my fault. Part of the blame surely lies with the lack of women directors and writers involved in both these films and the medium as a whole.

Granted, two women—Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumulo—did write Bridesmaids, which follows Annie (also Wiig) as she’s asked to be the maid of honor at her oldest friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding. You see Wiig and Mumulo’s influence most in the unusual degree of nuance with which they imbue the female leads: the way Annie avoids her passion, baking; how Lillian tries to conceal her hurt as she forgives Annie her various faux pas.

But even as some of the film’s relationships transcend stereotype, others are steeped in it: cattiness, the film suggests, dominates female interaction, most notably in Annie’s rivalry with Helen (Rose Byrne) her competitor for the title of maid of honor (and that of Lillian’s best friend). Fat jokes abound (heroically weathered by Melissa McCarthy), and, just for the lowest common denominator, an episode of explosive bathroom humor is sure to titillate. (David Denby reports that this last scene was added only “at the insistence of Feig and the producer, Judd Apatow.")

What’s more, even as the film purports to center on female friendship, it still implies that a woman is not complete until she has snagged a man, hence the obligatory male binary of the sleazy dickhead (Jon Hamm) and the too-accommodating puppy dog (Chris O’Dowd). Even as Annie inevitably makes the obvious romantic choice in the end, she has to suffer through demeaning sex and even more demeaning pillow talk to get there. “It’s always difficult to watch a woman debase herself,” my mom said as we were leaving the theater. The film doesn’t condone the debasing, but it doesn’t condemn it either. Its attitude is more one of resignation—and for me, that’s even more difficult to watch than the debasement itself. “What saves Bridesmaids,” David Denby writes, “is Feig’s love of performers—in particular, his love of actresses.” I’d argue that it’s the other way around: It's Wiig and Mumulo’s writing that (tries to) save us from Feig’s “affection.”

While the women in Bridesmaids keep themselves impeccably put together (or squeezed into molds), aided by the latest in cosmetic technology, the women, or should I say, the woman in The Tree of Life unfurls, billows and wafts. Always framed by her windswept hair, rustling curtains or ballooning skirts, Jessica Chastain, playing the film’s mother character, is the picture of nostalgia, Oedipal desire, idealized femininity—a characterization that makes sense, given that the film is less a narrative than a visual exploration. Not that it doesn’t have a plot, per se: the film follows a family in 1950s Waco, Texas, from the point of view of its eldest son (Hunter McCracken), as he is perilously on the verge of growing up.

Malick’s compositions are exquisite; watching each frame ooze mesmerizingly into the next, I was reminded of the hypnotic power of a lava lamp—a comparison I felt silly making until lava actually appeared. The Tree of Life includes a history of the earth (digitally rendered, somewhat abridged), from its formation at the beginning of the solar system, through its molten, Jurassic and icy phases, and into the present. It takes a while to get into, this digression of titanic proportions—until, in fact, life appears, in all its unicellular glory. Creation is a miracle, Malick reminds us—but so is the everyday. Malick’s eye is an outsider's: every shot, be it of a toddler’s hand gripping the edge of a bathtub or a dinosaur-annihilating asteroid plunging into the ocean, is wonderful, strange and always limned with foreboding. For him, our cosmological history informs, enriches and dignifies the banalities of domesticity.

Though it’s pretty, the film isn’t perfect. As others have written, the pieces with Sean Penn, as an older version of the young protagonist, detract. Endings proliferate. And the voiceover feels superfluous, even silly and trite. Malick doesn’t need to go to such lengths to reveal his characters’ thoughts. His family conflicts are at their most interesting and tense when he keeps things quiet, allowing a look or an averted one to do all the talking.

But what transcends the flaws is not the film’s aimless beauty but Malick’s deep understanding of childhood: how truly terrifying an angry parent (Brad Pitt, as the loving but volcanic father figure) can be, how you get yourself into trouble and want to get out of it but, not knowing how, must learn to stand your ground, too firmly—a troubling vision of what it means to grow up.

But Malick’s portrayal of womanhood also comes from a child’s point of view: His women exist on a spectrum of maternal to sexual. Even as their world, with its shut drawers and closeted thoughts, is eminently unknowable, the women themselves are always good, pure, turning the other cheek to physical and emotional abuse, from husband or son.

Carina Chocano wrote in the Times recently that she’s tired of “strong female characters” in movies:

What we think of as “virtuous,” or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. "Strong female characters," in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out. This makes me think that the problem is not that there aren’t enough "strong" female characters in the movies—it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones.

She mentions Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids as just such an example of a realistically weak character, and I guess for her Chastain’s in The Tree of Life would count as an unrealistically weak one.

But I think this discussion of strong vs. weak female characters misses the real problem. Screen actresses seem either simplified (Chastain) or oppressed (Wiig), and they’re going to keep being that way until more female artists author the works, a problem well documented by Manohla Dargis, also in the Times:

From now through August, American films will again be almost all male, almost all the time… There are 130 or so movies opening in New York between now and September, about 20 by women, half of them documentaries.

Those other ten women, she goes on, even if they aren’t working in chick flicks, a "genre ghetto that has helped entomb careers and contaminated the very idea of the woman’s picture,” just don’t make work that’s as bold as that of female filmmakers in other countries:

American women working in the commercial field, both studio and independent, tend to skew softer and safer, quirkier and cuter, and, really, considering how tough a sell that women’s stories are, it’s no wonder.

I don’t know whether women suffer from more or less stereotyping in theater than they do in film. But I do know that, once the curtain goes up on a theatre performance, it’s the actresses (or actors, if you must) who call the shots. Actresses in film sacrifice that power from the moment they hear, "Cut!"