Monday, September 26, 2011

Detroit – A Play by Lisa D’Amour – Book Review

The intrigue and genius of this play begins for the reader/audience , like it does for all great plays, with its title. Detroit as a title, as simple as Hamlet and slightly less poetic than A Streetcar Named Desire, has a suggestive nuance that begins its deceptive hypnosis on you before you know anything else about the play itself. Detroit is a national icon of the American Dream gone wrong. Its had its ups and downs, mostly more downs in recent decades, but, in our current economic climate, Detroit has a great deal to say about how capitalism has evolved/devolved in our country, and, in a fossil fuel warring world, just naming a play after the motor city seems to suggest the author has something significant to deliver.
Add to that equation that Detroit takes place in a “first ring” suburb of any mid-size American city and its “I am a play about the America you live in now” factor goes up quite a bit. This is one of those plays that dares (and succeeds) to bring into focus the blurry and ill-defined raw nature of the American experience, boldly articulating it for its contemporary audience as well as documenting it for future generations.
Set current day in the backyards and front porches of two neighboring homes, the houses built in the 1950’s, where Mary and Ben, a paralegal and a recently laid off bank loan officer, both in their mid-thirties, begin to get to know their recently moved in neighbors, Kenny and Sharon, a warehouse manager and a phone bank worker, also in their mid-thirties, Detroit is a play that, from the start, shows itself to be an insightful and useful anthropological yard stick. The goals and futures of these two couples, even in their first scene, all of them non-committal in their jobs (jobs specifically, not careers), are a dramatic unstated contrast to the legacies of the people who built these 50’s homes, and first created this neighborhood. 
Even on their first meeting, where Mary and Ben have invited the newly moved in couple, Kenny and Sharon, over for dinner, things are not going well. Kenny and Sharon, it turns out, have met in rehab and are really just out and just attempting to start a new and hopefully clean life for themselves. But, due to their sorted pasts, neither has any fiscal resources and the house they are living in, Kenny’s recently deceased aunt’s house,  is bare of any furnishings save for a mattress on the floor of their bedroom.
Yet Kenny and Sharon come off, early in the play, as the two that are more centered and focused on moving forward and doing better for themselves in life. Mary and Ben, while currently situated a bit better (they of course have furniture and, despite Ben’s recent lay off, are able to shop at Whole Foods and buy caviar to serve to their neighbor guests) , seem to be on the edge of a cliff that has a much deeper drop off than any they have encountered before.
As the play progresses and we see the neighbors visiting back and forth, Ben and Mary’s heavy drinking stands out in stark contrast to Kenny and Sharon’s newly found sobriety. Soon, however, Kenny and Sharon both slowly begin to slip. One beer then another are had. Stories about shooting up and meeting strangers become less guilt ridden accounts of a regrettable time in the past than entertaining anecdotes that seem to display a longing for a world not that far out of reach.
As Ben’s enthusiasm for his entrepreneurial venture into a self-authored credit score repair website dwindles and Mary’s patience with Ben’s failing plan dwindles as well, the couple’s joint and individual compass’ directs them gradually toward their new neighbors who are loosening up more and more as the play continues.
When, late in the play, the four of them spend the better part of the night, drinking, singing, and dancing on Ben and Mary’s front porch, the boundaries of neighbors and spouses and recreation and abuse begin to go up in flames. The selfish and desperate devastation that the couples wage on themselves and each other is an unsettling snap shot of contemporary unease.
It would have been easy and tempting for the author to make this a play just about the challenging road to recovery of substance abuse. It would have been just and easy and tempting to make Kenny and Sharon into the carelessly corrupting influences on otherwise marginal do-gooders of Mary and Ben. But neither is even remotely the case. We, at various times root for each of them while D’Amoure constantly forces us to reevaluate our choices as to who deserves our sympathy, concern and understanding.
The physical world of this play truly sets the stage for the emotional and psychological journey of its characters. Everything here is broken, damaged, or collapsing under their feet. The opening scene has a patio umbrella that won’t open properly and eventually closes unexpectedly leaving a gash in Kenny’s head. As we watch while a character’s leg breaks, a car gets a flat, patio furniture falls apart, it is as if the suburb itself is a character that is unsettled, angry and lashing out at its inhabitants.
Playwright Lisa D'Amour

Detroit received its debut at Steppenwolf in Chicago a year ago, and by all accounts was a knockout of a production. Its was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize this year and is scheduled to have a Broadway production in 2012. I assume the impending Broadway run precludes the availability of rights for a Seattle production, at least for a while. I hope that Seattle theaters are keeping an eye on this one and will jump at the opportunity to stage it here when the time comes. In the meantime, maybe they will join me in hunting down Lisa D’Amour’s earlier works. She is clearly someone we are going to be hearing a lot more from.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Lie of the Mind - Theater Review

I applaud the newly formed theater group Collektor for taking steps that are challenging for any artist. First, the boldness, audacity and focus to start a new theater company.  Their proclaimed aim as a “New Seattle Art Collective” is provocative enough and undefined enough to suggest both potential greatness as well as potential lack of focus. As with any newly formed artistic endeavor, however, it’s more worthwhile to focus on the product than any boasting claims (Collektor is admirably modest in this regard). So that leads me to my next nod of recognition to this group, for having chosen a play that in itself makes a statement about what they are about.
Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind is a big, rough edged, overpowering,  grizzly-bear attack of a play. It’s linguistically and symbolically charged. It’s unrefined in the best sense of the word. It dares you to dive in and find meaning in its murky waters and then mercilessly holds you under, refusing to let you see the surface again.
The play is an ensemble piece in which each role is as important and demanding as the next. Artistically this is a play that actors, designers, and directors can stick their teeth deeply into and be sure to have enough meat there to provide them and their audience a rich experience.
Why does a new group choose a play like this? I would assume that the large cast (9 very significant parts)  the depth of language, big emotion and the surreal nature of the play seemed like a strong showcase piece for what this new group wanted Seattle to know about them. It’s a bold choice, but it’s not worth embarking on a venture like this if you are not willing to take big risks.
The play tells the story of Jake and Beth. But not quite just Jake and Beth - Jake and Beth and their families. As in most Shepard plays, family is a character unto itself, and in A Lie of the Mind , there is more family than most people can take. The opening of the play Jake is calling his brother Frankie in violent hysterics because he has, yet again, beaten his wife Beth and, this time, probably killed her. In these opening scenes Ray Tagavilla (Jake) is at his best as his explosively punctuated rage, palpable potential danger and physically draining inner turmoil is on full display as he tries to gain sympathy, help and guidance from his brother Frankie, played in perfect pitch nervous angst by Tim Gouran.
Beth, meanwhile, is not dead but is recovering from her brutal beating with severe brain damage. Beth is aided by her brother Mike and eventually her mother and father Meg and Baylor. While none of these roles are easy, Beth’s part is particularly challenging for both the actor and the director. Shepard doesn’t not give a lot of description as to how Beth speaks. He simply has her speech, the words, speak for themselves. It is abrupt, staccato-ed and takes philosophical and linguistic bridges that we usually don’t allow our non-brain-damaged minds to journey upon. He does not, however, discuss the physicality of her speech. This production has chosen to have Beth’s physical act of pronouncing word be part of her impairment. I cannot say whether this is inherently a right or wrong choice, only that it didn’t fully work in this production. That said, Aimee Bruneau (Beth) gives herself fully to this role and plays the speech impairment of her character to almost unsettling effect. I am sure, however, that the production  would have been better served if she just struggled with the mental thought process of constructing her thoughts into sentences, rather than adding the physical handicap of restrained speech on top of that.
There are a couple suggestions from the text that would seem to support this idea. First, Beth’s other physical ailments, having trouble walking, etc., get better as the play progresses. It is unclear and distracting then why her physical speech would not as well. Secondly, there is a scene later in the play where Beth is talking privately to Frankie, where she says two complete sentences in row, rather than the 3- 5 word fragmented sentences she speaks in most of the time. The only indication as to how she should say these new lines is Shepard’s stage direction (Quick) and the only indication as to how they are to be taken is Frankie’s next line “I thought you couldn’t talk right or something. You sound okay to me.” Yet in in this production Beth completely drops the strained vocal production of someone who has had a bad stroke and speaks her lines, temporarily, in perfect understandable crisp speech. Then quickly goes back, unexplainably, to the previous afflicted condition. Beth did this once earlier in the play on a line I can’t remember (at the time I thought it was an actor’s mistake, stepping out of the accent so to speak). I assume that the Rob West (the director) and the Ms. Bruneau thought there was some added layering of the mystery of the play through this. To my ears, however, it just didn’t work. Ms. Bruneau clearly possesses the talent to have played this part in a different direction. I wished she would have let Shepard’s poetically charged language guide her part more than the layered on physical handicap she chose.
As Jake and Beth both retreat to their parental homes to recover, Beth physically and emotionally while Jake is trying to deal with the fact that he still believes that he killed her, the two families of this mismatched couple slowly begin to invade the play, eventually to a degree, not uncommon in a Sam Shepard play, that the identities of the characters begin to wash over one another and blur the lines between them.
Before that fully happens we meet Beth’s parents, Meg and Baylor, who are played in the stand out performances of the evening by Sally Brady and Joe Ivy (respectively). Both are clearly concerned and worried for their daughter but both in very different ways. Meg wants to nurture, baby and soothe (she doesn’t, not does Jake’s mother, Lorraine, even remember that her child was married, let alone to someone who beats her) while Baylor is ready to get her swiftly back on her feet, to let her do something for herself, yet shows dramatically little concern for any kind of justice or revenge regarding Jake who put his daughter in this awful state. This is where Beth’s brother Mike comes in. He seems like a natural good brother at first, helping her recover, looking out for her peace of mind, but slowly, as no one else seems to be bothering with it, he begins to take the role of the protector/father and is the most interested in making Jake pay in some way for his crime.
All three of these are subtly complex roles that carry a multitude of nuances from scene to scene. While I pretty much fell in love with Meg’s character the first time she stepped on stage in act I(Sally Brady inhabited the world of this play to its fullest), there is a scene late in the play between the husband Baylor and the wife Meg that physically deals with the taking off of Baylor’s boots, but emotionally and philosophically delves into the nature of human companionship and the very nature of our place on earth, that is acted with such majesty, grace, restraint, and honesty that it has made Ms. Brady and Mr. Ivy two of my new favorite Seattle actors.
Eric Riedmann as Mike, played, as the rest of the cast did, with full conviction, emotionally honesty and utter purpose that it is hard to state any fault. Yet as the play and most of its characters begin to verge away from what most of us would recognize as reality, it is too easy to play Mike as the last sane one of the bunch who goes into histrionics because no one understands him, which is what it feels like happened here. Mike is no different from the rest. They are all longing for understanding. But they are also, all, following, in some loose way, the pre-determined paths that their destinies/genes/families/role models have carved out for them. In simple acting terms, Mike peaks too early, but underneath that generality there is a wealth of life left unexplored.
Macall Gordon as Jake’s mother Lorraine and Maggie Tatone as Jake’s sister Sally share the ensemble dedication of bringing this monster of a play to life. Yet neither one seems particularly well cast in their parts and makes for their scenes together, as well as their solo scenes with Jake, drag a bit. Mr. Tagavilla as Jake, despite such a strong start in the more emotional and realistic parts of the play, has a difficult time keeping his character’s inner life alive for the audience when Jake turns into more of a surreal vessel for his dead father, his absent brother and his possibly dead wife.
The physical production values of the play were quite a mixed bag. There was gorgeous and affecting live music throughout from Sean Patrick Taylor. The brutal effects of violence were shown in astonishingly realistic gashes, bruises and scars by Jodie Knowles’ make-up (especially impressive in such a small space so close to the audience).  Yet other aspects did not quite make for an artistic whole.
The set in some ways follows very closely the description set forth in the script – two platforms, one for each home, with a gap of space between them, big enough for scenes outside the homes to be acted. Yet in the Bullitt Cabaret Space at ACT these 2 platforms were so small they barely fit the furniture that was placed on them, let alone gave enough space for actors to move around.
Then there was the issue with the soup. There is a scene where Jake’s mother, Lorraine, is trying to feed a nonresponsive Jake cream of broccoli soup while Jake is lying in his childhood bed. After a bit, Jake knocks the spoon out of her hand, snatches the bowls, turns it upside down and then stomps in his bed until he is exhausted. In this production, however, there is no soup. They mime it.
If nothing else, Sam Shepard plays are big and messy. There are dead animals (many), blood (tons), broken bottles, broken bones, gun shots, fist fights, and plenty of food thrown about (soup included). On some level, this production didn’t reach its full potential due to some physical restrictions. In numerous scenes the actors looked like they had to slow down and step out of character (just for a second, these are all solid actors) simply to maneuver in the cramped space. If there was a reason you couldn’t spill real soup or something that looked like soup and let Jake stamp around in it for while (there are reasons, the audience, like I said was very close to the action – I saw a production of Shepard’s True West years ago in a very small space where a metal key from a typewriter came flying past my head after an actor had taken to the typewriter with a golf club – it was in the script - but I still didn’t appreciate it) then you need to cut that part of the play, or replace it with something else. Why go to the trouble of having some of the most realistic make-up work I have ever seen done and then mime soup. It was inconsistent and threw us out of the play, as did the unrealistic partial deer carcass and anything that directed our attention to the paper backdrop that extended to the floor and you could hear the crinkle of actors stepping on as they exited the stage.
Yes, it might seem easy and arrogant to Monday morning quarterback this, but I believe it is important to point out that all these elements are part of what make a great production. Overall the artistic vision here was not entirely cohesive. A set that does not fit the space and mimed soup in an otherwise relatively physically realistic set are just symptoms of a larger artistic miss.
Despite any of this, Collektor’s statement with this first production is clear – they are a fully engaged, fearless, dedicated group that aims on doing great work. While this first outing might have missed the mark on some points, I hope they will be back with something else to challenge us with very soon.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why Does Seattle Need a Theater Blog?

I have been attending, avoiding, appreciating, despising, embracing, and coming to terms with the Theater Scene in Seattle for the past 20 years. While much has changed in that time, much has remained the same. The scene still struggles to provide an adequate economy to employ a healthy number of artists who proudly call this their home and don’t need to look elsewhere for work. It struggles to be a fertile breeding ground for new work and talent that would make it a destination for theater lovers and practitioners from around the world rather than a way-station. It struggles to grow its audience  and have the theater that is done here enter the mainstream cultural dialogue of the city.
Obviously, some of these issues are an inherent challenge of producing live theater in the world today and Seattle shouldn’t be singled out as somehow failing in these areas more than any other city. Yet, I don’t want to have to continue to travel to see some of the best theater there is. With the venues this city has and the artistic talent available, there is no reason why Seattle can’t be the place where others come to see the best there is.
One of the things any healthy arts community needs is active dialogue. Seattle theater coverage has always been spotty at best. Even when the Weekly, the PI the Stranger and the Times were all running regular reviews in their print editions, the restrictions of space rarely allowed for the critique of work to enter a level that could engage further discussion about the quality of the work in the city in general.  Now that most of the coverage is more online than in print, the general readership of the city is not even noticing that theater is happening here, let alone whether it is good or bad. While reviews are important, the aim of most coverage that happens seems to be too limited in scope.  Limiting the discussion of a play to recounting the event and suggesting whether its worth going to see the show or not, is only part of the job of criticism. Any decent show that is put on is an opportunity to discuss why we go to theater, what we want from it, what is succeeding, what is missing and what we would like to see in the future.
My hope is to create a forum where a vibrant dialogue about our theater scene can begin. Here is what you can expect from this blog and how you can participate :
-          Seattle Theater Scene will provide an ongoing series of essays about the current state of the art of live theater in Seattle.
-          Seattle Theater Scene will reach out to its readers and ask for comments and feedback so the site is a dialogue and not a monologue.
-          Seattle Theater Scene will provide lengthy in-depth reviews of plays produced in Seattle that will aim to discuss the work in a way that can in turn inspire and inform future work in the city.
-          Seattle Theater Scene will engage other theater writers and critics in the city by writing about and commenting on their reviews, articles, blogs, etc.
-          Seattle Theater Scene will happily link to and promote any reviews, articles, blogs that contribute to the a greater discussion about theater and its relevance to the residents of our city.
-          Seattle Theater Scene will accept guest articles and blogs that share the aims of this site.
To get things started, let me know what you think. What would you like from this site? What topics about our theater scene should be discussed more broadly that are not currently part of the larger dialogue?
I look forward to engaging with all of you.
PS - Keep posted, I will have a review of Collektor’s production of Sam Shepard’s A LIE OF THE MIND very soon.