Friday, September 29, 2006

Two Stories for the Price of One

Tonight's play, "The African Company Presents Richard III," had a killer premise, a flawless production, and an unfortunately weak script. This sort of thing can be frustrating for me, but it's still quite worth seeing. And the story- about a company of free blacks mounting a production of "Richard III" in New York, 1821- is based on fascinating historical events.

The first act was bogged down by blunt exposition and a tacked-on love plot. (There was also a bit too much of mustache twirling theatre producer/McOppressor Stephen Price.) But the second act hit the meat of the story- these nominally free black performers trying to define themselves, keep their dignity, and avoid epic-scale freak-outs in front of an inescapable white audience. There was this gorgeous moment where, as Price plotted with the town constable to shut down the production, the five company members dressed themselves and assumed their roles. (Admirable clever costume work, by the way. A single piece transformed each 19th century domestic's outfit into the clothes of Shakespearean nobility.)

Anyway, just before the play-within-a-play began, one of the characters speechified on the doubleness of their enterprise- the many audience members who were coming not just to see the show, but to see the show fail, or devolve into riots and arrests. "Now," he said, "The African Company present two stories at the same time!" Luckily, theatre just isn't that dangerous any more, but for those scenes, Caryle and Congo Square revived a moment when it was, and damned if it didn't blow my mind.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Action Corner!

This week, I started off the fall season with a bang. Several bangs, actually, and a lot of heartrending whimpers. "King Lear," followed by "The Pillowman" and "Hatfield and McCoy." If there are any bloodier plays up in Chicago right now, let me know, and I'll see them, for the sake of completion.

I'd been warned about all of these plays in advance- especially "Pillowman." But the only one that actually bothered me was "Lear." I got out of "Pillowman," which is famous for its twisted violence against children, feeling moved, but not particularly shocked. There was horrible stuff in it, but it didn't go beyond the pale, for me at least. It all had a purpose. "Hatfield and McCoy" had plenty of deaths, but you know, not too many deaths for a story about an incurable feud. It's not always golden statues and handshakes, folks. In fact, it usually isn't.

Lear, on the other hand, had many violent episodes that seemed tacked-on. And while it had a slightly lower death-count than "Hatfield & Mccoy," and far less perversion than "Pillowman," it had an abundance of gratuity. You see, you have to tell the story. If you need to knife someone, you need to knife someone. If you need gunshots, and stomach-turning anecdotes, you need them. When you don't need it, and you did it anyway, then, and only then, have you gone too far.

Enough philosophizing and onto the shows! "Pillowman" is a lovely piece of work, one of those plays that seems like it must be the most important story the playwright has to tell. It also has this bit where a policeman tries to force a suspect to eat some severed toes. It drew some of the weirdest audience reactions I've ever heard- no straight out laugh lines to speak of, but a constant smattering of loud chuckles as various individuals found certain words irresistibly funny. Envision an insane post-modern Law and Order SVU thought experiment that eventually breaks your heart. Also, Tracy Letts is pretty spectacular.

"Hatfield & McCoy" is quite intense and quite beautiful- especially its juggernaut of a second act. The (historically-based) plot sort of bridled against "Romeo and Juliet" in a lot of cutting and interesting ways. Lovely songs, a teenage heroine so vivid I think I might have had her in a class once, and bleak, unending death. I particularly liked the stately gentleman who played the McCoy patriarch, and the McCoy matriarch (Stacy Stoltz) devastated me (as usual.) Also, who knew Nate Allen could preach?

N.B. for Hatfield and Mccoy. Certain seats are not for the faint of heart. If you want bodies to fall at your feet, and Ma Mccoy's tears to fall in your lap, get there early and plonk your butts in the front row seats side-audience seats closest to the entrance.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The burden of high expectations....

...or, please stop adding rape to everything, Robert Falls. I just got back from King Lear at the Goodman, which was alternately quite good and quite annoying. Since this was a high profile, big-budget production of an absolutely devastating play, that means on balance I disliked it. I know this isn't fair to the poor high-profile, big-budget productions, but try as I might, I can't stop expecting them to be amazing. Especially when, you know, King Lear. I can't even read that play without having a total breakdown.

Falls has set Lear in a former communist kleptocracy, complete with track suits and too much gilt on everything. It's the kind of country that seesaws between conspicuous consumption and extended bombing raids, and the setting goes a long way towards contextualizing Lear's tacky behaviour. So, this allows for a lot of neat stuff, but also a lot of stuff that's just... not needed, or is in fact distracting, as if the play is smugly pointing out how cleverly it's been updated. Drive a car on stage? Reason not the need! And, you know, this is pretty common with Shakespeare. I'm getting to the point where the most shocking thing would be if, during their first scene together, Oswald and Goneril were NOT engaging in a sexual act. Please stop doing it during plot points, y'all.

The biggest problem, for me, was all the added rape. I find depictions of sexual violence pretty rough to sit through, and if it strikes me as gratuitous, I'll turn my anger against the artist, and not the fictional attacker. Also, why are the good guys suddenly rapists? I'm all for introducing moral ambiguity, but it can go too far, to the point where I'm perfectly happy to let you all rot in your former communist kleptocracy.

I'd like to point out though, that I'm not a strict textualist. I don't mind additions and departures as long as I love them. I won't spoil any of the good bits, but do watch out for the deaths. Cornwall's and Edmund's were super.

There were also some killer performances. Headliner Stacy Keach did beautifully as Lear, but Edmund and Regan really caught my eye. Regan had this wonderful, dead-on, stupid-girl whine of a voice, but she was still perfectly comprehensible, and in command of the language. Edmund looked like a Daily Show correspondent- not any one in particular, an amalgamation- reptilian, smug, very unsettling.

To sum up: strong reactions, often negative, expectations for this sort of thing are always going to be high. Like I said, this is Lear. I can't read the last scene without crying. But at this end of this production I was distracted, and angry. And dry-eyed. But perhaps that's what they wanted.