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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know what the "shock" moment of act 1 was in the Pillowman? All of the reviews I've seen of it from NY and London are like "and there's a shock moment". Chicago seems to have played it so much lighter (I loved Steppenwolf's interpretation though) that I couldn't figure out what would have been so shocking.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Reina said...

Hmmm. I'm afraid I don't. I just read the Trib's review, and it pointed out that Steppenwolf's version was less of a horrorshow than NY/London- meaning that my... I wouldn't say let down, so I'll say "non-shocked"... reaction was probably more due to the production than my own jaded nature. So thanks for bringing it up.

But as for you question- in act one there were plenty of reveals, but nothing that stood out as the gross-out "shock moment" for me. Anyone else out there know? Also, does anyone know how you do effective non-stylized stage violence with children? I mean, really little ones?

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only possibilities for shock in Act 1 that came to my mind were Katurian's murder of his parents or the fact that Michal was the object (as was Katurian) of his parent's frightful experiment. However, reviewers of the NY production may have thought that it was shocking for Katurian to murder the brother he cared for and loved, although technically this is in the middle of Act 2 but right before the intermission.

In terms of Reina’s final question, I’m not sure you can do it without a lot of criticism. I don’t think theaters want to risk the potential bad publicity of exposing a child to such realistic violence. It’s hard enough to use a child when the show has foul language. Just look at what happened with Pain and The Itch, which played at Steppenwolf last year.

I’m not saying child actors and their parents are not willing to perform in roles with realistic violence. In fact, my daughter is currently performing in The Pillowman and we were a little surprised that Steppenwolf was not interested in going further with her role. Their experience last year may have been a reason why.

We were willing to go further if necessary because our daughter has been doing this for several years and understands that this is entertainment and that they are just doing what Katurian says, ‘telling a story’. Everyone at Steppenwolf has been wonderful. Amy Morton and Rob Saterlee made us feel very comfortable with what they were doing in the show and make sure to keep our daughter tucked away during the rest of the show. Abigail does her part and then retreats to the green room. I don’t think realistic violence with children is a risk that theaters want to take.

David R. Droeger

3:11 PM  
Blogger Reina said...

Thanks for commenting, David. It's great to have your unusual inside perspective. I'm not certain which actress was performing the night that I saw the show, but I can say, with 50% accuracy, that your daughter did a wonderful job. I can also say that, at her age, I would have had a blast doing the show.

I'd never considered that the flap over "The Pain and the Itch" (which I did not see) had a bearing on Steppenwolf's choice to go lighter with "Pillowman," but you may very well be right. It's certainly as plausible a reason as a desire to differentiate the Chicago production from the premiere.

But my question was less from the director (or PR flack's) perspective than from the fight director's. I don't really know enough to judge, but my instinct is that something like a realistic whipping is both difficult and a bit dangerous- something that, from a purely technical perspective, you wouldn't ask a young child to sell every night. It just seems safer and more reliable to make the violence stylized. Of course, I don't know how old the actresses in the production were- there's a big difference between seven or eight and eleven.

It just occurred to me- in terms of trauma to the kid, there really shouldn't be any difference between realistic and stylized violence. Either way, the child is staying safe while pretending to be hurt, so that the thinking about being hurt is the only conceivable problem. The difference is solely in our perception of any trauma.

p.s. The girls I've taught are addicted to stage violence (we bring in a qualified instructor for them). But they do prefer to dish it out.

9:31 PM  

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