Friday, August 1, 2008

The Birthday Party

Well, there's still a bunch of things I wanna talk about: soundtrack design and the use of contemporary music references thanks to Victory Gardens' long closed Relatively Close, some thoughts on Oracle's recently closed Termen Vox Machina, the groundwork for a massive theatrical undertaking I am in the process of beginning, some elaboration on ideas mined from Dave Hickey's Air Guitar brought to my attention by one Ms. Kerry Reid, other inanities and general claptrap.

Instead, I'm going to talk about Signal's production of The Birthday Party. I'm owning up to that bias: it jumps to the front of the line because these guys and gals have their lovely claws in me and I have many, many reasons for wanting many, many people to go see this show. My typically closing weekend (or post-closing weekend) write up just won't cut it. So this is the part of the blog where I try to mix business and pleasure. Let's see if I can safely navigate that little minefield we affectionately call "conflict of interest".

To be perfectly honest, of the Big Five (as defined by Martin Esslin) of the Theatre of the Absurd, Pinter is possibly my least favorite, depending on which Genet we're talking about. Granted, that's praising with feint damnation -- I'll still take him over Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller any day, but I digress. During a conversation with Aaron Snook, director of The Birthday Party, on opening night (this is the problem with blogging, I usually just end up rewriting things I've said to other people during the week), I mentioned that of the Absurdists, Pinter is the one that I tend to forget is absurd. He reads so naturalistic that the only thing that seems to instantly stand out on the page is the infamous Pinter pauses -- which, far too often ridiculously overblown, seem to actually serve to encompass the natural world in the midst of everything else going on in Pinter's work when they are effectively staged.

Snook, unlike me, gets Pinter to the core. I know this not because Signal's production is grade A (it is), but because when I am watching this production, and then again postshow, I get Pinter, too. That this is successful has nothing to do with Snook's answers and decisions being right -- that's beside the point. It has everything to do with the fact that he has answers and decisions that are right to him. In staging them as he sees them rather than as he wants others to see them, he not only opens the door to allow the audience into his own vision, he opens it to allow them into any vision they may encounter for themselves. I've heard a lot of different theories about what exactly The Birthday Party is about since this show opened -- a lot, a lot of disparate interpretations. Me? I personally don't see a lot of purpose for background in this piece. I don't need to know who McCann and Goldberg are or work for exactly or what Stanley may have done in his past. I do know who they are now and what is happening to/because of them now, and that to me is what this play (and much of Pinter) is about: the now. Leaving questions unanswered as a playwright can force an audience to do one of two things: answer the questions themselves or stop asking and allow what is happening to happen partially undefined. Each has its place, and to me, Pinter falls in the second category.

Not that it matters, because I'm no more correct than those answering every question themselves. We're all making the show work best within our own frame of reference. It's about the best thing a director can hope for and, in an ideal world, the exactly what an audience would ask from him.

But there's a second part to that: allowing for the audience to interpret only works when the director has a firm grasp on his own interpretation. And I've never been extremely clear on how that success is verifiable outside of a "this show works/this show doesn't" type of snap judgment. But after my third time with this production (it'll probably be four before I actually finish writing this), I started to notice little details, lines in particular, that seemed to transcend a little. Moments in which the full extent of Pinter's ability, which I was heretofore not fully linked in with, became evident. Simple lines, such as "You find a resemblance?", which despite being unassuming, could not be replaced by a better, more fitting grouping of words. And it's a hopelessly pretentious, hoity-toity idea on my part, but I can help but think that this is the byproduct of a level of understanding and complicity among the cast that emanates from the, for lack of a better word, direction in which the, ahem, director has chosen to point.

Another quality, perhaps the strongest, is simply truth in advertising. This, with the possible exception of The Weir, has the most lateral sense of an ensemble (by which I mean technical as well as performance ensemble) that I've seen from Signal, who are no lightweights when it comes to ensemble work -- the word's not in their name for nothin'. This realization actually came to me when I found out the show hadn't been Jeff recommended. It almost makes sense that it wasn't: you don't leave The Birthday Party with thoughts of how great the performances or the set or the costumes or any other aspect were, not because they weren't great, but because none of them took focus. There was no element outshining any other, because nothing was in the spotlight. Which is simply another way of saying everything was in the spotlight. When you leave a well-pieced ensemble work, you remember the effect of the whole, not the individual aspects. And therein is what I know I can always expect from Signal.


So, it's been a while, and I never gave proper notice of last week's schedule. For the sake of inclusiveness, it was a Factory double feature of Ren Faire! A Fistful of Ducats and Shameless Shamuses on Friday night. That was it.

As to next week, it's looking like Comic Relief's The Return of Tony Clifton and his Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra on Friday (I'm going based solely on Chris Jones'... what would you call this? disclaimer? apology? walk of shame?), and both Walking With Dinosaurs (fuck yeah!) and WNEP's Metaluna and the Amazing Science of the Mind Revue (for real this time) on Saturday. I'm also working box for The Birthday Party a couple of nights, so come on out and get a little Paul Rekk with your show! Remember, every night's an industry night...



Kerry said...

It was nice chatting with you pre-show. I hope you enjoy the Hickey book. I think I'll be using a couple of those essays for my class at Columbia. I don't always agree with him, but I like the fact that he makes the big bold leaps between cultural artifacts and movements, and that he seems to relish arguing for the sake of arguing -- and manages to do so without being quite so sourpuss as latter-day Mamet.

isaac butler said...

i love dave hickey, and i love that book, although like Kerry I disagree with it frequently. I just got Luc Sante's new(ish) book of essays, can't wait to see what is discovered therein...

isaac butler said...

oh ps... part of the problem with mamet's essays as well is that his essays about theatre are filled with profound SOUNDING things that actually don't communicate much while his essays about everything else lack clarity, structure, cohesive arguments or well thought out points (See: Bambi Vs. Godzilla)

Dianna said...

cannot WAIT to see what you think of Metaluna - I won't be there Saturday to say hello, unfortunately.

Kerry said...

I confess I haven't managed to read Mamet's "Why I Am Not A Liberal Anymore" thing yet. I know I should, but I just haven't felt like it, though I realize that's a fairly juvenile excuse.

I think his essays in "Writing in Restaurants" are pretty great for the most part, but somehow I think he started buying into his Greasy Eminence role in an unhealthy way a few years back. Hickey has ego a'plenty, no mistake, but at least in his writing, he imagines to come across with such rambunctious enthusiasm that his less-convincing arguments still have their charms. Or perhaps it's that very enthusiasm, that absolute naked lack of faux "objectivity" that makes it easy to engage with his arguments and disagree with them simultaneously.

That probably makes no sense whatsoever.