Friday, May 23, 2008

Pt. 2/As Told by the Vivian Girls

How art has destroyed science, example 2:

If you can't beat 'em, co-opt 'em:


At the risk of sounding like a broken record: go see Dog and Pony's As Told by the Vivian Girls. As of right now, you only have three more chances. I saw it again last night and witnessed an entirely different show -- and one that was just as affecting.

The concept, for those uninitiated: Dog and Pony has put up a show not at but throughout Theatre on the Lake. Henry Darger's fantasy world of child slaves, the army that keeps them, and the creatures living without is recreated (along with Darger himself) in the space as a whole, with the audience left to their own devices to go where they please and follow who they please in what is being billed as a sort of 'choose your own adventure' theatrical experience.

What this translates to is a piece which, when approached with a game and enthusiastic mind, provides infinite returns. A piece in which it is not only impossible to see everything on one go through (or even two, as I can attest), but in which every audience member sees (in the most basic, physical sense of the word) an entirely different show with different character hierarchies, different emotional inlets, and, to be utterly reductive, different points of view. On top of that fact, the entire audience also wears simple paper cut-out little girl masks throughout the show -- which is so very much more effective than it might sound.

The only way I feel I can truly approach this is to begin with my first experience and slowly incorporate the second.

The audience last night was about three times the size of the audience I saw it with the week before. (The concept allows the show to basically play to mass capacity of the building, meaning no worries of selling out -- I heard tell that the audience topped 150 this past Wednesday.) This kicks a lot of ass for Dog and Pony, but is a little unfortunate for the show itself, as the more packed the space gets, the trickier it is to navigate in some of the smaller upstairs areas.

The audience present at the first showing was about ideal, probably in the 30-40 range. This allowed for both a true sense of discovery and at other moments a sense of audience community. Before the story is set into motion, there is a 15 minute "prologue", which is basically the performers keeping time to allow the audience to get their bearings within the space. The wonder starts immediately. As I was trying to get the lay of the land, I wandered up to a crow's nest/queen's box area overlooking the main space, I found who I would later discover to be Penrod (Jamie Abelson, in a breathtaking 180 from his force of nature work in Raven's columbinus) sitting all alone, weeping. I'm fairly certain I was the first person to come across him (I was quite proactive in my exploration), and I sat there watching him spell out 'ALL ALONE IN THE WORLD' from shreds of newspaper and weeping silently. And in those quiet moments, the beauty of the conceit fully sank its claws into me -- to the point where I'm actually getting a little teary-eyed just reliving the experience right now. There was the understanding that this, like so many other things in the theatre, had been and would continue to take place with or without me. And there was the beauty of the intimacy between just the two of us, me behind my mask as observer and he, completely and truly all alone in his world: audience immersion in a fourth wall setting is a strange thing, both unsettling and endearing in its voyeuristic nature. And then there was the thrill in knowing that, among these 30-40 people, I was the only one who would be able to witness the rest of the show and, eventually, leave the theatre that evening with a knowledge of these moments.

I left again before anyone else came, but by that point the game was on. I was connected to the story and to these characters and weaved in and out of scenes, stopping to take in the moment, picking up on snatches of information and realizing in turn that meant that somewhere else something I wanted to see was about to or already happening. Moments such as the realization that every character was accounted for except for Penrod (who for the rest of the show felt a little like my secret), leading me to head back to his queen's box to check up on him. Moments such as arriving at the queen's box and having Penrod nowhere to be found. The shock was instantaneous. This character -- the one I had discovered -- was somewhere in the building, and I didn't know where. At that moment, nothing was more important than finding Penrod back. I shot down the stairs and across the main (now empty) floor at almost a sprint, only to head to the second level and find him, and a good chunk of the audience, in the process of freeing the Vivian girls. And suddenly my secret was their secret instead.

By about a third of the way into the piece (and right around the first of two major battles on the main floor), I started to get a feel for the place and suddenly found myself, along with a couple of other anonymous masked individuals, preempting the action. If a couple of soldiers were going upstairs, I'd find myself hurrying to the less used spiral staircase to get there ahead of them; even more so if I knew there were Vivian girls already upstairs, to ensure I was there for the conflict. If I heard Penrod talking about how a couple of the girls had gone out to spy on the soldiers, I found myself scurrying off to find them with an uncertain urge that this is something I might want to see. There was a point last night when I saw my roommate sprint across the space -- it was the only moment I noticed him all night -- and a smile flashed across my face, because I knew it was working for him as much as it was for me and because I also really wanted to know who or what it was that he was so invested in. (It turned out to be a story thread that I didn't see either night, making me all the more jealous.)

And then there's the X-factor: Henry Darger (Greg Hardigan in another shining performance in a uniformly excellent cast). Darger spends much of the time in a small stand-alone mock-up of his apartment constructed to allow easy access viewing from all four sides. He narrates the action in the building, creating it on his typewriter as it takes place elsewhere. After a while he comes out spends some time in the space as well, operating on in a simultaneous but freestanding plane from the rest of the cast: not necessarily interacting with them, but working in unaware tangent as their actions emanate from his mind. Darger is also the character that lifts the show from brilliant immersive theatre to transcendental immersive theatre in one fell swoop at the climax of the show. It's the only moment aside from curtain that all of the characters are in one place at one time and it is the single best representation of the mind of the artist that I have ever had the privilege to see. Its unerring depth and spectrum of emotion had me sobbing openly behind my mask both times, and led to the following conversation after last night's show, which I think is about as succinct a representation of the show as one is likely to find.

Referring the scene in question, one of my friends said, "It was so...", followed by a slight pause, "...sad."

Her boyfriend responded, "Really? It made me feel kind of...", followed by a slight pause, "...warm and fuzzy."

And I knew not only that they were both right, but that they knew that they were both right.

And I knew that in those slight pauses lie everything in between -- an entire world of personal experience and association and history that led to that reaction on this one particular evening. A beautiful world unto its own, beautiful in its uniqueness, beautiful in that nobody else would ever truly experience life in exactly the same way.

And I knew that Henry Darger lived his life in those slight pauses. As Told by the Vivian Girls had simply laid it out for us; saying everything, but saying nothing. And that was all it needed to say.



Nick Keenan said...

What gives me hope, Paul, is that although in the meta conversations we often universally disagree with each other, when it comes to the work itself, we agree when we find a treasure:

Vivian Girls changes the game. It's kind of what we both were waiting for.

I found Penrod alone when I saw the show as well. I'm glad you found him. And it's not just the girls doing the spying... It's amazing to see a show where half of the excitement of the show is trading notes and building a complete picture of the show with others long after you've left the building.

Oh, and did you know your buddy Steve Ptacek did the sound? Can you believe they didn't even get Jeff Recommended? There's a story there, I'm sure...

Paul Rekk said...

Universally? Goodness! I had no idea it was so extreme, Nick!

Mostly kidding, but you're right: the beauty of practice is that it can take theory and turn it on its head.

I did manage to get a quick 'hey' in with Steve before the show -- I had no idea we had such a Dog & Pony tech crew for Faster. We had the privilege and the pleasure of Cathy's costumes and Matthew's lights as well.

I kind of just assumed that Vivian must've been Jeff-ineligible for some arcane reason. I've known people in shows that have had that happen before (two one acts with different directors, that sort of thing). I guess I just don't follow the Committee enough -- if this was a simple non-recommendation, it's borderline cause for outrage. I'm glad they're packing them in regardless; a big success for word of mouth (and Time Out).

Nick Keenan said...

It was a non-recommendation. See Devon DeMayo for details, I won't post the story online. Because I believe it IS cause for outrage.

I think ultimately word of mouth is the only hope for shows like this, which is one reason I do pound the "let's-all-self-promote" marketing pavement so very hard. It's not that I want to water down the material... on the contrary, I want to provide sharp material like Vivian Girls and Faster with the teeth and food they need to thrive. And yeah, other than TimeOut, I don't see that happening without a freaking strategic uprising.

And as far as the Dog & Pony crew thing... Actually, there's a ton of creative overlap between Side Project, D&P, New Leaf, and a great number of theaters. Steve's simply a freelancer, so he happens to float back and forth. I think we keep theater companies separate on paper so that they retain distinct identities, but half the beauty of this town is that we shuttle back and forth and get to play in a number of different environments. I think the natural tendency towards artistic cross-pollination is the coolest thing about doing theater in this town, bar none.