Unlike these tracks - which are abstract, evocative, fantastical - when playmakers set out to speak to today I think they too often resort to Naturalism, the ouroboros of the stage. We think that theater, because it can depict humans and their behavior literally, can achieve a kind of nirvana of perfect unaffectedness, and that that would be good, that only that would hold a mirror to ourselves. This is delightfully untrue. And I have proof.
I had the overwhelming pleasure of seeing three plays this week, all of which engaged in and deliberately diverted from naturalism. First, Backstage Theatre Company's production of Orange Flower Water, directed by Jessica Hutchinson. This show found a great balance between writerly naturalism (even soliloquies, for instance, were always the text of letters to absent characters), naturalistic acting, and a handsome and evocative abstract staging that kept the piece rooted in and honest to its own theatricality.
SEMI-TANGENT: The work of art historian Jas Elsner has interrogated the moment of Naturalism of Greek sculpture ("Classicism"), as opposed to the earlier dominant mode ("Archaism"), as a difference between the direct "gaze" of Archaic statues (here) and the "glance" of the classical style (here). The point is, for some reason, not looking at the beholder, came hand in hand with a new attention to really capturing and recreating the human form in a natural way. That is, the invention of the "fourth wall" is a kind of necessary or at least attendant invention with naturalism. Part of what makes it seem like life is that it doesn't know or doesn't care that we exist!
Hutchinson's staging in the round capitalizes on this glance in the most unpretentious way I've ever seen. Depending on where you sit in an early scene of seduction in the play, you are either treated to the singular journey of a man seducing a woman (whose face and indeed nudity are obscured) or the journey of a woman succumbing to an insistent lover (whose face and intentions are unseen). Fantastic. Moreover, since the set consists wholly of a bed that is rotated and locked into place by actors who sit in chairs onstage when not in scenes, even when we are drawn into naturalistic scenes it is always amongst the frame of a company of actors at work telling us a story. They never look at us or acknowledge us in the room, but they are not hidden to us as actors. So when their struggles are precisely the kind of quotidian, slice of life struggles of a thousand naturalistic plays, the content hits home much harder because they are shared by their presenters.
The second play was Mimesophobia in its Chicago premiere with Theatre Seven, directed by Margot Bordelon. This play by Chicagoan Carlos Murillo is ostentatiously presentational. Replete with two announcers/narrators, footlights, and actors who we are (with one fantastic exception) introduced as "not the real" character they are portraying. Part of the joy of this show which cleverly paints the struggle of depicting death through academia, Hollywood hackery, and its own ingenious theatricality is the fun the actors are having, but part of it is the way we see a complex intellectual concern that is entirely of our moment.
Lastly, this afternoon I saw Young Jean Lee's The Shipment. This breathless phenomenon is structured in three powerful and divergent acts that combine to evoke an unmissable statement about the African-American experience. The show is contemporary, magnetic, and its excellence is partly founded by the audience's ability to believe in and overlook the identity of its performers.
So. Recap. A completely amazing week on the theater front, bolstered by the certainty that life and living are more complicated than literalism demands. We don't need a "Long Day's Journey Into Hydrate" we just need to be cognizant of who directly we're engaging, not just the material, not just the matters, but the audience: why it matters now. There is an abundance of fresh genius for our stages. Enough even to compete with Beyoncé.
That's right, I brought it all home.