Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thinking About Spalding Gray - A New Book and Film

I was extremely heartened to see that Stephen Soderbergh's documentary about Spalding Gray, And Everything is Going Fine (I finally caught  it streaming on Netflix), included one of the final moments from his monologue, Morning Noon and Night, where Spalding, a relatively new and late-in-life father, after a long day, is at home with his family and is slowly swept up into an impromptu dance with his wife and kids to a song from Cumbawamba. It is a goofy and wonderfully uninhibited moment. I remember seeing this monologue when he performed it in Seattle over twelve years ago and this moment of freedom, joy and optimism that he captured as he took a rare step out from behind his wooden table to gyrate in front of us with a boom box in his hands was a much needed tonic for a long time fan like myself.

Gray's previous monologue (which I saw a few years before in Seattle), It's a Slippery Slope, discussed some extremely personal issues (affairs, infidelities, etc) and was one of his darkest pieces to date as it displayed a worn out, depressed Spalding Gray who seemed to be having a hard time finding even a hint of silver lining in any aspect of his life. As Gray's work progressed through the years the time frame between the events he discussed and the monologues he preformed grew shorter and shorter. Its possible that he didn't have the distance on this darker personal material yet, but went ahead and put it into a show anyway, as that is what he had trained himself to do. Whatever the reason for this unrepentant and humorless public baring of his soul, it was he first time that many of us looked back on his earlier topics of self-doubt, sexual experimentation, self-loathing and suicide and thought twice about the Spalding Gray we thought we knew.

What that joyous moment and the end of Morning, Noon and Night seemed to confirm was that he had come back, He had gone to a dark place but had returned. After all, that was the great appeal of his performances. He would discuss the most humiliating, awful, silly, horrific and mundane aspects of his thoughts and experiences and show an ability to have gained perspective on them; to have learned a bit from them; to be able to laugh at himself; to be able to wish optimistically to be a better person tomorrow. We lost that in It's a Slippery Slope and got it back like a warm hug in Morning Noon and Night

After his death in 2004, we saw that the glimpse of the darker and less filtered side of his psyche we witnessed in It's a Slippery Slope was a lot closer to the private Spalding Gray than many of us wanted to imagine. The release of The Journals of Spalding Gray and the Soderbergh documentary only confirm this fact.

These two important compositions of archival material are as rich and satisfying as they are incomplete and frustrating. Both aim to and succeed in giving us a piece of the man we were all denied when he was alive. That we might not have wanted to get to know that piece that much better is an inevitable regret.

Editor Nell Casey's work on The Journals is accomplished and thorough. She digs deep and provides wonderful context to these random entries from Gray's personal writings. The anecdotes she provides between the journal entries act as the beginnings of a biography of Gray, one that I hope she or another equally fine writer continues someday. Yet the journals themselves show a less confident Spalding Gray; a man who is at war with his place in the world. They give us access to extremely intimate aspects of his thoughts and life that are as uncomfortable to read about as they clearly were written as a personal self-therapy session, not as a vehicle to share himself with a wider public.

The film And Everything is Going Fine has no voice over or any other context providing device. It is composed entirely of footage  (all archival - none from his major films) of Gray's monologues and interviews the performer gave over the years. The focus here , however, is really less on the evolution and career of an artist but an attempt at a biography of the personal man. All the clips really focus on the timeline of Gray's life. The result is at once a welcome additional piece to the complex jigsaw puzzle portrait of Spalding Gray we have been trying to complete ever since his death, yet also an almost claustrophobic portrayal, in its refusal to step outside of the man and show the impact of his work on others.

What I missed most from both of these works was the joy and inspiration that Spalding Gray's art brought to my life. Great live theater is a transcending and cathartic experience. Spalding Gray understood that and in the majority of his pieces wrestled his most personal excursions and philosophies into artwork that made his audience laugh, cheer, 
squirm, gasp,sit and think. 

I suppose its inevitable that I wanted so much more from these two pieces. Loss does that to you. I miss Spalding Gray and I continue to wish that there was some way that the moment of carefree dancing to the ridiculous Chumbawamba could have sustained him and kept him with us for further tales. I assume this is merely the first wave in what will be a healthy ongoing retrospective of the man and his career. I hope that someone can create a piece that honors all that he gave us and not just the sadness he left behind.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Corliolanus - Theater Review

When my kids were in preschool, there was an open house once a year where parent were invited. That event was called "soup night." To prepare for soup night every family was asked to choose a vegetable, dice it and have their child bring it to school. Then the teacher would take all the little baggies of vegetables and throw them in a pot and make vegetable soup out of them. The soup was served at the open house.

What was the result? Well, it was certainly food. It was edible. But, of course, it was a mess. It was a well intentioned exercise to bring cohesiveness to a group, to provide a tangible product that symbolized our community and to emphasize the shared role we have in helping to raise all of our children. It was a fine vision with a misguided method to accomplish it.

I thought about this bad soup as I was leaving the Seattle Shakespeare Company's latest production of Coriolanus. Not to belabor the metaphor, but the vision here was not bad and there were certainly plenty of good vegetables that were used in the making, but the final dish we were served was ultimately flawed.

I have to say I was a little shocked at how bad this production was. It began with what was one of the worst stage fight/battle sequences I have ever seen. It looked like it might have been closer to a symbolic pantomime ballet where we weren't supposed to even venture the mildest belief that these people could actually be hitting each other. But such a ballet would be graceful even in its brutishness and certainly not have the grunting and histrionics associated with professional wrestling. It would certainly not climax with a cliched giant silhouette of Caius Martius (later Coriolanus) back lit like a foreboding villain in a cartoon.

The overacting of the players engaged in battle was so extreme that during an early scene shift, after a moment of quiet, when I heard a clearly fake, pretend, unauthentic, actor-ly growl coming from off stage, I almost groaned to myself that we were about to endure another round of horrifically stage-y stage combat. Yet, to my surprise, the sound was not coming from one of the posturing men who had just left the scene, but a young boy (Jack Taylor) playing Young Martius (Coriolanus's son). The boy was entering the scene pretending to fight off invisible make-believe enemies.

This may have been the most demonstrative display of the difference between good acting and bad acting I have seen on the same stage in a long time. The boy's action was to pretend. So he did. He grunted and howled, thrust his wooden sword and charged his foes. It sounded and looked perfectly like a boy pretending. He was perfect. Yet it also looked just like the men  who had been on stage before him. But they weren't supposed to be pretending. They were supposed to have been fighting a life or death battle. Unfortunately the audience didn't see a life or death battle. The audience saw a mediocre version of an event akin to an amateur Renaissance fair.

The juxtaposition between the young Jack Taylor's acting and the rest of the cast is not the only inconsistency. Both Peter Jacobs as Menenius Agrippa and Therese Diekhans as Volumnia, each who had some of my favorite moments in the play, seemed to be struggling to slow down and be clear in their actions and speech in what was an otherwise a noisy, cluttered and unnecessarily messy production.

The design of the show was unbalanced throughout and certainly did not help guide the actors or the audience through the story. The costumes were the worst kind of undefined eclectic mishmash of periods and styles that the apocalyptic film The Road Warrior made popular and dramatically acceptable. But the combination of Home Depot purchased knee pads with authentic looking Roman Helmets made some of the cast look ridiculously comical in scenes that called for gravity. The washed out paper-mache  look to the set did not do anything to evoke time, place, mood or feel (sets need to do one of these at minimum). The stark white light that was used on many scenes, casting large awkward shadows on black walls that were clearly painted black so as not to be part of the set and illuminating elements of costume and set design that are better left a little mysterious to the audience, was a continual "last call" alert on a play that had hardly even got going.

All this, of course, to me, points to a lack of clear and focused direction. The director, David Quicksall, clearly had some big ideas with this production. His use of the crowd scenes to reflect contemporary urban unrest as we have seen in the last year with the "Occupy" movements, seems on the surface like a sound idea. Yet the scenes he created on stage did not contain a fraction of the intensity, seriousness, silliness, audacity, charm, or absurdity of the events that happened during Occupy Seattle. Instead these actors looked like a predictably unified unthinking mob who cared more about making intense facial expressions than changing the world around them.

I will grant that there was one moment of directorial genius in the evening. As the conclusion of an fight between Coriolanus (still Martius at this moment of the play) and Tullus Aufidious draws the two fighting actors upstage, we suddenly have Volumnia (Coriolanus's mother) and Young Martius (his son) run slowly across the stage in a playful mock sword fight, while the two men continue their more savage battle upstage. It is a beautiful piece of stage juxtaposition and even more interesting in adding some theatrical nuance to the fact that Volumnia made Coriolanus into the brutal warrior that he is. Here, then, even while the elder Martius fights for his life in a battle that will eventually lead to his exile, his young son is at home, playfully being taught the same lessons by the same mother.

Unfortunately, this moment was a but that, quick, fleeting and not to be repeated or matched for the rest of the evening.

I labored over writing this review. I want to support and help strengthen our local theater scene, not tear it down. Yet, there must be a place, besides whispered conversations at a late night bar, where dissatisfaction with our local theaters can be expressed. I was not satisfied with this production of Coriolanus. It represented to me why live theater is not more popular and why Shakespeare, in particular, is often avoided. Seattle Shakespeare Company can do and has done much better. I look forward to returning to their theater to have a markedly different experience next time and writing a very different review.