Thursday, March 04, 2010

Recovering Work for a New Generation

I had the privilege of attending the newest production at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge (MA) last night, a new staging of Clifford Odet's play, Paradise Lost, directed by Daniel Fish, who splits his time between New York City and Berlin. I left the play thoroughly intrigued by Odet as a playwright and curious to learn more, but this curiosity could have been sparked by an article about the play, and I could have that 2 hours and 40 minutes back.

There are many reasons the ART's production fails so miserably, so tragically, but I'm afraid I have to put this one on the director. Maybe I'm wrong, but the articles the ART put into the press pack mention plenty about Fish's vision, and it seems to be this vision that took the play from being powerful and honest into being vague, messy, illogical, and downright awkward.

I'll say now that my partner - who shall hereinafter be referred to as A - read this turn away from the political voice toward a messy and ill-conceived supposedly more modern artistic vision to be a reflection of this director and possibly others' inability to deal with social realism and the powerful political vision behind this play. A is a cultural historian and has more resources to draw on to make this case, so I won't go on about it here, but I found it a compelling (and disturbing) point. My problems with this play certainly overlap with this point.

But for this blog's sake, I will take issue in particular with Fish's use - or misuse in fact - of video in the play, which was covered a bit by local media. Now a few years ago, the ART brought in Canadian director Robert Lepage to stage and perform a powerful play titled the far side of the moon, which used video in a way that was inventive, that really added a fantastic dimension to what we were watching on the stage, so I know this can be done well. The way Fish chooses to use video felt to me as if someone was thinking about how boring a play is - a bunch of people talking = snorefest - and decided they could make it interesting by projecting random things behind the actors. The audience will love moving images, from off stage. The video footage, in fact, was stale and confusing at once; rather than adding value, it seemed to tell the audience, "fear not, you are NOT in the 1930s, when this play was written; you are not watching something realistic but rather this is A-R-T."

Fish also chose to use video when action took place in the corner of the stage, at which point the technology failed in this opening night production. Someone came on stage - admittedly in all black - to fiddle with the camera, standing between the audience and the actors. At another point, the video failed again, not going up when it was meant to.

Similar to the video clips, there were times when the actors picked up microphones (one of which, again, failed during the production), speaking into the mics as an audience member at a daytime talk show. I have no idea what this served, except again to remind us we were at something.... new? different? A felt it was a backlash against the feared preachiness of a play written and set during the Great Depression by an openly leftist writer. I can certainly appreciate that reading.

But again, to try to tie this into the blog, I saw these "value added" techniques as patronizing gestures to an audience that would have heard the message of the play a lot louder if the director had not used this technology - which failed repeatedly - to dress up the play itself. It brought to mind our supposed need to incorporate video and audio and more into books. The mentality is that readers want all the bells and whistles, and some might. But I can't help but think many of us are being told we want the bells and whistles. Seeing this production of a 1930s play, a play that is undoubtedly an outstanding piece of writing, I wanted to strip out all this crap, as it faltered (along with faltering actors, sadly), there on stage. In fact, the most powerful moments of the play were straight forward monologues, or one particularly shocking act that was the level of "special effect" one might find in a high school production.

Included in the press materials is an article by Linda Matchan from the Boston Globe about Fish and video projections. Matchan writes,

Though the Odets play was written in 1935, Fish thought that the story - about the struggling American middle class, set vaguely “in the present’’ in an unidentified “American city’’ - was timeless and universal enough to warrant an abstract video treatment to add dimension to the play.

I'm no theatre director, admittedly, but this really strikes me as a simplistic way to "add dimension," and once again calls to mind attempts to dress up books. I wish my viewing of the play were not interrupted by badly produced video, just as I don't want to suddenly have a film clip on page 63 of an e-book I'm reading. I know we all like going to the movies and sometimes watching youtube clips, but film clips do not then need to be inserted into art to make it palatable.

The most frustrating part for me was when the actor playing a homeless man in the final scene of the play speaks to the middle class family who is losing everything. It's a powerful moment that, despite Fish's efforts, does speak to our current times while also reminding us of history. (Fish is quoted in a Cambridge Tab article by Constance Gorfinkle as saying that if audiences see the point of this production as being that nothing has changed since the Great Depression, "Then we've failed.") Fish, though, staged the scene so that the actor again pulls out a black cordless mic and speaks into it, in a kind of monotone. It renders what is clearly colloquial language into something wildly and unnecessarily alien, and removes his message from the everyday tragedy we are seeing unfold before us. The character in the play actually cuts off and mocks a fellow homeless person, and rather than again humanizing the pair, it makes this character seem like some larger voice, silencing the other character and speaking to the main characters from on high.

In this scene, the homeless man calls the middle class Gordons out as thinking they're above failure because of having read a book - sorry I can't quote directly. But he's making a point about education that echoes a point by the character Kewpie earlier, that education isn't enough to save you when the economy is this bleak. It's a troubling, very honest moment that could generate an interesting discussion, especially in a place like Cambridge, Harvard Square more specifically, where 75% of the people seem to have graduate degrees of some form. The discussion was stopped before it started due to this inventive staging that deadened the point.

As we rush into our digital future, it's worth slowing down what one academic referred to as "men and their toys" - simplistic but amusing. Not everything needs all these bells and whistles. Sometimes a book is best as a book, and the "value added" elements only take away from the power the original author invested in that book.

I guess the ART did more than just give me Clifford Odets to think about, but also helped me think through another reason I'm troubled by the growing movement to take books into a place where they will not all benefit.

Now off to find an Odets bio....

1 comment:

Brian said...

More the same, from renowned Boston Globe theatre critic Louise Kennedy: She makes strong points, including: "Odets always grounded his big politics in real human characters; if he was talking about “the little man,’’ he never belittled that man by reducing him to a prop on a larger stage."