Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Our Town/Speech and Debate

So here's the scoop -- I've figured out how I think of what's going on on the blog: not reviewing or critiquing so much as analyzing. The what will definitely come up, but the driving force is the how and the why. As such, spoilers are bound to occur. Many apologies, but I'm severely limiting myself if I have to tiptoe around major plot points or staging techniques as I figure out why things worked and didn't. And I'm not going to worry about writing out a warning in all caps every time I'm revealing something, so here's the official catch-all warning: if you're particularly spoiler-wary, don't read my blog until after you've seen the show. From here on out you're on your own.

Our Town and Speech and Debate: what a fascinating double feature! I'll run down Our Town first, then toss in the compare and contrasts...

I hung around after Our Town specifically to stop and thank David Cromer but also to let him know that the show was one of the most frustrating theatre experiences I've had, in a completely complimentary way. The first two acts were finely acted, intimate, heart-shattering theatre. Heart-shattering because, like most people who have or will see this show, I was playing towards the end. Heart-shattering because I knew that Emily was going to die and that I knew that nobody I was watching was realizing life to its fullest - every, every minute. Which allowed for the tragedy of the everyday to sink in. There was no melodrama, no over emoting; Cromer (in a Stage Manager turn every bit as great as his direction) and his cast (especially Jennifer Grace, who it turns out I have a total crush on, as Emily) play this honest to the teeth. The understatement couldn't be better handled -- Cromer knows that 99% of his audience is already familiar with the script, and the lack of build allows us to set ourselves up for the rug that we know is about to be pulled out. I was crying by the wedding scene (and I certainly wasn't alone), partially because of the bittersweet beauty, but just as much because I knew how important this minute (every, every minute) was within the world of the play.

And then the infamous third act hit. And Emily arrived in the graveyard. And all was a hush and subdued. I hadn't had the third act spoiled for me, but I had read the reviews, so I knew something big was about to happen. And so, when it did, I wasn't taken aback so much as instantly in the game trying to figure out how this was going to work within the show as a whole. Cromer pulled back the curtain revealing the fully stocked kitchen and Ms. Webb started actually frying bacon and Emily realized her mistake in going back and all I could wonder was why I wasn't more emotionally enveloped. I was aware of just how perfectly everything was working on a technical level and how great the concept was, but I, who had just been crying at the end of Act 2, was suddenly not emotionally invested at all during what I knew to be the most gut-wrenching part of the play. I was confused and frustrated (more with myself at this point) and so I tried to parse out exactly why this was happening -- because the full kitchen was placed so distant from most of the audience; because it was also awkwardly placed within the basement, requiring many (including myself) to lean in order to not have the view be completely blocked by a column; because it was so strongly backlit, not allow for me to register any faces; because it was going so damn fast.

Then, by the time I had made these realizations, Emily was back in her grave, George was crying, and Cromer, quickly and with no fuss, was bidding us good night into the first blackout of the evening. And that's when the frustration transferred from myself to the production and negative to positive. Two seconds in black made me realize that Cromer had effectively pulled that rug, the one I thought I was so aware of, from under my feet anyway. I had become so engrossed with the emotional core of the first two acts -- the emotional core that I only knew because I was living a show I was familiar with over again -- that I was, in essence, viewing it as a surrogate Emily from the grave. And when I expected more of the same from the third act, it was purposely distanced from me, denied from me, and continued on without allow me to readjust. By the time the show was so abruptly over, I had missed my opportunity to 'live' the third act because I spent so much time trying to align it with the experience of the first two acts.

Even more devious, and what I hope is a sly, knowing wink from Cromer, is the fact that the act I was too caught up in to actually 'live' is the one that was only a step or two away from real life. Despite the fact that there was actual bacon, eggs and coffee being cooked and a full set and exterior constructed where there had merely been tables, I was unable to appreciate what was happening because I had forced myself into such a limited pattern in such a short amount of time.

It's a horrible trick, and a masterful one, a way of being affected as an audience member that I hadn't received before -- not necessarily superlative, simply alternative. There's something genius lying in there in regards to playing off not only the audience's preconceived notion of a piece, but also simply their knowledge. And something about not playing towards the end, but not playing against it, either -- simply playing into it. And something about not cutting an audience any slack: the greatest respect you can offer to an audience is to trust that they will keep up, even when you know they won't.

That's the feeling that led me into Speech and Debate, and I don't know that I could have found a show more removed from Our Town. Speech and Debate falls in that genre of art that shows adults how, despite their best intentions, they just don't understand adolescents. You know, one of those works that also happens to be written and performed by adults that, despite their best intentions, just don't understand adolescents.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great show (more on that in a moment), it's just not at all what it's pretending to be. The three high schoolers this show revolves around aren't going to give Generation Anything any true insight into today's teenagers because these aren't today's teenagers. They're plot movers, characters written to drive a story, characters whose every action is in place to play to the curtain, after which their lives will dissipate. Which is all fine and good -- it's the same vein of realism that holds the majority of 20th century playwrighting: realism that allows us to compartmentalize the real, without actually representing it. And once I gave into that fact (and it didn't take long, it's a very strong production), I was absolutely on board. But that's what makes it such an interesting double bill with Our Town.

I hear it said quite frequently that the story is what theatre (and other forms) boils down to. That a good story can overcome many other lacking aspects, but rarely can other aspects overcome a lacking story. It's a line that's never sat well with me, but I've held my tongue, as I couldn't completely determine why. Well, I've determined why. It's a line that only applies to Kitchen Sink Realism and the like (never genres that have been terribly high on my list). The story is the cornerstone if the play is about the story, and if the play is about the story, then it's not about real life. It's the 'realism that's not real' thing all over again. Speech and Debate is about the story: the weaving in and out of these characters, the coincidences, the secrets, and the actions taken act as another tie on the railroad speeding towards the conclusion.

Our Town, on the other hand, has a shit story: menial as all hell. But that's not a problem for Wilder, because his show isn't about the story, it's about the importance of the lack of a story (or story within the lack of a story). What actually happens to the Gibbs and Webb families in the first two acts doesn't matter a lick. What matters is that they weren't paying attention while it was happening. And, as witnessed by George's unspoken, uncertain, undefined crying at the end of the show, they will keep on not paying attention, and what they actually keep on not paying attention to still doesn't matter a lick.

So why does this all sound so negative towards Speech and Debate if I claim to have enjoyed it? It's not really a major problem, and it has nothing to do with the production itself. It's more the genre I'm interested in -- "What Teenagers Are Really Like" is a common theme, and it's almost universally bullshit. Speech and Debate has adults playacting at teenage tropes that have a few moments of uncharacteristic behavior to throw in a "never know what's gonna happen with those wacky teens" feeling. And aside from a few overplayed 'adults are so out of the loop' in-jokes towards the end, it does what it does tremendously. All three teens are great, with Sadieh Rifai's Diwata leading the way and offering the production's few moments of true glimpses into adolescent life: moments like her hopeless denial of having had an abortion or a podcast sequence that, on occasion, steers into the joyous naivety of (or apathy to) the truly wide snatches of the digital age. But it doesn't do what it tells us it's doing -- when Solomon stands alone at the end of the show, staring at a computer screen devoid of any responses to his question, "Is anybody out there?", we aren't seeing an adolescent dilemma, we're seeing a human dilemma, and trying to paint it any other way only cheats both sides.

P.Rekk
2008

10 comments:

Laura said...

Hey, Paul. Your post made me think of something I read in the Guardian the other day about reviewers. Apparently, some European reviewers feel it is more valuable to analyze a show then to actually critique it. Which is an intriguing conceit. Although I think I like your approach, including a little bit of both. If only all reviewers were without editorial constraints. Anyway, I'm just curious to hear your feelings about the different European reviewing styles.

Tony Adams said...

If the story of Our Town doesn't matter a lick, how can the rug have been pulled out in act three?

I'd submit that it is very much about the story, or more aptly how well the story is told.

Food for thought?

Paul Rekk said...

Laura-

It's an interesting debate. I tend to fall more on the side of interpretive criticism than qualitative, simply because the idea of multiple interpretations of a single piece is kind of a pet subject of mine. My interest in the traditional (American?) critic is less about whether they've given a thumbs up or down and more about how able I am to discern their tastes and read the reviews through that bias.

A perfect Chicago example is Justin Hayford. It's not infrequently that I disagree piss and vinegar with the man (internally, that is), but I respect his work immensely, and based not only on what he recommends, but also why he recommends it, I can usually garner a pretty good idea of how I'm going to react; even if it doesn't line up with his reaction in the least. And that's a measure of a very good (traditional) critic, in my humble opinion.

Paul Rekk said...

Tony-

Food for thought, certainly, and I'll gnaw on it, but I don't think that I agree.

I would suggest that the rug that gets pulled out is not a plot-based rug. Sure, there's the slight twinge when we discover that it's Emily that died, but the true climax of the piece isn't a climax at all, but a halt. The play simply stops, offers us a glimpse on the futility of trying to go backwards from the halt and then ends, leaving us to continue to go forward on our own, without the help of Wilder.

The rug that gets us going (especially in the Cromer production) is the forced realization that we are the people we are watching -- somewhat of a constant presence in the nature of theatre, but something thrust in our face here.

As far as not mattering a lick, the events really don't in my mind. Take note of the people you see around you this evening. Anyone of their lives could be transformed into the exact same play. From their life select an average day, a day of importance and then fast forward to their death, insert 12th birthday. Or do it, as I assume Wilder would suggest, for your own life. Simply keep the Stage Manager. It's the same message. And just as affecting.

Hence the title -- this is Our Town, for some in more direct ways than others, but the time within passes just as quickly for everyone, regardless of their story.

Tony Adams said...

Are plot and story one and the same?

Paul Rekk said...

Hmm. Potentially. Or potentially not. I tend to think yes, but I'll throw that aside for a second.

If we approach plot and story as two different things, and story is no longer subject to the trappings that we require of a 'good' plot, the big question I have is this: on what tenets do we judge a story, and what could possibly constitute a poor story?

Bil said...

The difference in story and plot may be that plot is confined within the pages of the script, whereas story is not. I have to go to work right now, so unfortunately I don't have time to get into it any deeper, but for now that's my one and a half cents.

paul, not paul said...

@ Tony:

I'd say no. One is a running series of actions, one is why those actions have any importance being told together in this chosen manner.

Daily I flip between which is which, but I don't think it's simply a mental construct I've built -- they're separate and equally important.

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