Saturday, March 14, 2009

Strange Interlude, Cont'd: Sharing

Ecstasy aside. What was it about the Neo-Futurist Strange Interlude that I loved so much? First, it was a production that shared. When people talk or, I guess, write about Neo-Futurism, something they like to say is that it is “meta.” This is stupid.  And “metatheater” or the “metatheatrical” are two of the stupidest words in the world. Even worse than blogosphere. These words presuppose that theater in some sort of pure form is ignorant of itself, which is absurd. Anyone who has ever paused for the laugh to die down, or watched an actor do this, knows this deeply. So the idea that we would even need to differentiate something like “straight” theater that presents a pure narrative disinterested in its spectators, from a “metatheater” that acknowledges itself is a sort of dizzying, reactionary madness.

So what I mean by sharing is that the whole production of Strange Interlude invited the audience to actively witness theater production in an honest way. Sharing the stage directions, those amazing character descriptions, even O’Neill’s novelistic instructions on how each line should be read (“protesting feebly”) — these are all worth sharing. When Joe Dempsey, for example, walks onstage and Jeremy Sher reads his character description, the audience watches Joe build his character from the ground up. As Joe. As Joe pretending to be Marsden. You must know this is in fact what is happening. And Joe is having a good time. Mugging, preening, advocating, apologizing even for the person he is constructing. The person we are all accepting him to embody, to present, and to represent.

But that isn’t enough obviously. It would not really be remarkable to watch Mr. Dempsey walk around onstage for 6 hours rolling his eyes and ironically insisting he is so totally Charles Marsden. That is high school theater, college theater at its worst. Look at him, the popular guy, pretending to be Rapunzel’s Prince. Who but his teammates could possibly care? What is there to learn from that? What does that say about being alive?

Rather, in the Neo-Futurists’ hands this becomes a real monument to brilliant acting, because although we watch Joe and all the actors pretend to be their roles, “see” how they get where they get in terms of their embodiment of their roles, see them turn it on and off whenever they want, see them bring out certain characteristics to evident absurdities for the sake of a laugh, we are also utterly moved when they mean us to be. Because their craft is so precise and our attention is so acute. A friend of mine who saw the play with me kept remarking how surprised he was at how moving the sixth act was when the preceding had been so funny. But really, why would that be remarkable, except that it is so rare? In their utter control, the performers fluctuated freely between comedy and tragedy and the active audience was never behind.

This sharing, then, is a profound honesty about the theatrical experience that is partly moving because it is tied so directly into another brilliant aspect of the production: virtuosity. Everyone involved in the production was simply brilliant, brilliant in that way that makes the evidently difficult apparently easy. This smooth, storefront comfort with such grandiose material humanized, owned, and shared the text perfectly.

This is the first of what is likely to be several installments thinking about the excellence of the Neo-Futurists' Strange Interlude at the Goodman Theatre.  For my original response see here.

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