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sleepnomore

If you live in the Boston area, DO NOT miss this: Sleep No More, at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline. It runs through January 3.

And if you have a nature that is excessive and appetitive like mine, you might need to go twice. (I’ve already purchased another block of tickets to go with a gang of friends and my children.)

There are lots of reviews of this installation theater production, links to which I have included at the bottom of the post. But let me just share the essentials: The production is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth and is the work of Punchdrunk, an enigmatic theatrical troupe from the UK. This is their first foray into U.S. territory and they are here in Boston by way of Diane Paulus, artistic director of A.R.T. Paulus saw Punchdrunk in action when she was in London a few years ago. After that initial exposure to their work, Paulus said she could not view any subsequent theatrical event without the overlay of that experience.

Paulus is a seasoned theater pro, but her comment made me think about “never the same” theatrical milestones in my life as an audience participant. Living in New York City in the 70s and beyond, I was altered permanently by a number of theatrical experimentalists:

Robert Wilson. The 12 hour production in Brooklyn of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. A Letter for Queen Victoria. And then most memorably, Einstein on the Beach in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera.

Lee Breuer and Mabou Mines. The Beckett projects and the Shaggy Dog Animations, productions that explored how symbols become characters. And then the unforgettable Gospel at Colonus.

Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Where do I start? His performances were almost impossible to describe but I returned again and again.

Andrei Serban at La MaMa. The Fragments of a Trilogy (composed of three plays: The Trojan Women, Medea, and Elektra ) where the audience becomes the Greek chorus and the proscenium-centric format is annihilated. Greek tragedy is us.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Esoteric Mormonism was laced throughout the story line, so watching the two plays was like stepping into a highly personalized archaeological dig of my tribal past. Most of those references fell outside the expertise of reviewers, but it was clear Kushner had done some deep research into the psyche of this very American religious tradition.

Tom Stoppard. Anything by Sir Tom, but most unforgettably, The Coast of Utopia 12 hour marathon at Lincoln Center in 2007. At the end of the three play performance, I just wanted to do it all over again.

Should Punchdrunk and Sleep No More be added to that list? I want to go again before I make that call. Does the magic wear off with over exposure? (Does anything survive that most difficult of tests?) Will those haunting rooms feel as imbued with magic as they did last week?

Some of these concerns are captured in a review of the production by Frank Rizzo in Variety:

Shakespeare is not so much spoken as gleaned, and if something is lost in the translation, something else is gained in the experience. This, after all, is not “Macbeth” — it’s a very different theatrical animal with its own agenda, not the least of which is to attract adventuresome audiences in search of what’s new and hip. The production abandons text, poetry and linear structure to create a more engaged audience dynamic. But one can also ask what does that experience add up to: a richly imagined reality or just a fleeting dream?

Whether this type of production becomes more than a novelty will depend on one’s nature, sensibility and endurance. Certainly, those without a fundamental understanding of “Macbeth” — and even those who know the play well — might be lost in the maze (in several rooms that possibility is literally true). For the enthusiastic crowd the show attracted in college-crammed Beantown, it is drama as digression, theater as the latest app, and Shakespeare presented in visual tweets.

Will the next production be as gripping or will it just become the old same-new, with better bar selections? (There’s a lounge in the center of the building where a jazz singer and combo perform for those who need a break, or a good stiff drink.)

As for its possible future in the U.S. after A.R.T., the production would be a staggering challenge logistically and financially to duplicate — load-in time alone was said to be months — and would need a market of young auds to support the endeavor. But in the right environment, it could be just the thing to reinvent and enliven a theater community.

Whatever one’s aesthetics, just be sure to bring comfortable shoes. As the old joke about the aging hooker goes, “It’s not the work but the stairs.”

Reviews of Sleep No More and Punchdrunk:

Variety
Edge Boston
Boston Herald
Boston Globe
Arts Boston
Guardian

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stoppard

Tom Stoppard in Manhattan! Here, there, everywhere. This update on several of his sightings was filed by Terry Teachout on behalf of Gwen Orel. For readers of this blog, it would be the ultimate in redundancy to say that Stoppard is my favorite playwright, bar none. So redundancy be damned. What a guy.

Worth the quick read, here’s the posting from About Last Night:

Tom Stoppard, who might just be the greatest living English-language playwright, is in Manhattan on business, and made a couple of public appearances last week. Alas, I was unavoidably elsewhere, but my friend Gwen Orel, who writes about theater and Celtic music for all sorts of publications on and off line, was present on both occasions, and filed this report.

Back in the twentieth century, around 1989 or so, some Serious Theatre People averred that “Tom Stoppard is over.” The Real Thing was his Tempest, they said, his farewell to the stage. Fast forward to Rough Crossing, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia, and Rock and Roll. Some farewell! By now Stoppard, who’s in town to rehearse his new adaptation of The Cherry Orchard at BAM, has morphed into a sort of playwright-rock idol. Accordingly, he appeared in pale (though not blue) suede shoes at two public talks last week, both of them quickly overbooked. Though he was funny and charming as usual, it was fascinating to observe what a difference a moderator made.

At CUNY, Stoppard was joined by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Derek Walcott for a Great Issues Forum moderated by David Nasaw, the university’s Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of American History. The topic was “Cultural Power,” and the press release said that Stoppard & Co. would be exploring “the power of culture and art in a globalizing world.” Instead, they considered the Impact and Influence of Art. Yep, said Walcott, art’s impact cannot be easily counted and measured. Yep, said Stoppard, culture is what distinguishes us as human. All interesting, but…power?

The professor was smart but all too clearly awed by his celebrated guests, who seemed in turn to adore one another. He began, promisingly, by considering the way “the world changed last Tuesday,” showing a slide of Barack Obama with a book in his hand, which turned out to be Walcott’s Collected Poems, 1948-1984. Then the poet read us Forty Acres, his new poem about Obama, commissioned by the Times of London: Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving –/a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,/an emblem of impossible prophecy…

Asked for his reaction, Stoppard said that the poem “silenced” him–but, of course, it hadn’t, and he self-deprecatingly remarked that he could go on “speaking like a wind-up toy.” At one point he mentioned a recent New York Times article about the New York City Opera which pointed out that the Paris Opera’s budget is larger than that of the entire National Endowment for the Arts. Provocatively, he then suggested that the patronage of the rich American may “get the government off the hook.” This was power! This was culture! This was another ball dropped.

The next day, Stoppard was interiewed at BAM by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and author of Lenin’s Tomb, who may be the only editor in New York who hadn’t rushed out to read Isaiah Berlin just to prepare for The Coast of Utopia. Remnick actually out-Stopparded Stoppard with his wit and erudition, and the result was a chat that unlike its predecessor was fascinating, insightful, and over too soon. When Remnick said “For our last question…” Stoppard looked at his watch and looked truly disappointed.

The topic was Chekhov, but the conversation managed to get somewhere near…well, cultural power. Asked what niche his new version of The Cherry Orchard would fill, Stoppard said that directors like to have a new text in rehearsal: “Theatre is a storytelling art form–plays are palimpsests of maps on different scales.” He was “constantly looking for that elusive place where the natural utterance functions as a narrative utterance.”

Gracefully segueing from a consideration of Solzhenitsyn and Stalin to literary influence, Stoppard described his aesthetic response to newsprint and his early ambition to be a foreign correspondent and live a glamorous life. “It can be arranged,” Remnick murmured. For once Stoppard was speechless–briefly. Remnick added, “There’s a 10 p.m. to Kabul.” Then Stoppard recovered. “The St. Tropez kind of correspondent,” he replied.

Asked how working in America was different than at home, Stoppard admitted that he was less comfortable here, explaing that there was “more a sense of heavy pressure to succeed–perhaps there’s more shame in failing than there ought to be.” (Maybe that’s because they don’t publish the West End grosses every week.)

What next? Stoppard said that he’d had just about decided to start working on a screenplay for Arcadia that he would then direct when the BBC came up with the idea of adapting some novels from the nineteenth century and the Twenties–something he says that he really wants to do. Me, I hope it’s Waugh. I can’t imagine anybody channeling the glamorous war-correspondent author of A Handful of Dust better than Tom Stoppard.

Tom Stoppard and Conor McPherson each hold pole positions in their respective areas of expertise—Stoppard is the master of idea-driven theater and McPherson is the feelings first guy. In the production of Shining City currently playing in Boston, McPherson’s characters carve out a reality driven by the way it feels inside rather than some rational, linear external version of the story. McPherson has an ear for language of the human heart the way Stoppard has a mind that can constellate powerful ideas into drama.

Here’s a brief overview from critic Albert Williams:

When Shining City made its Broadway debut in 2006, its author, Irish playwright Conor McPherson, candidly discussed his painful journey toward sobriety after years of alcohol abuse—an addiction that nearly cost him his life in 2001, when at the age of 29 he was hospitalized with pancreatitis. “In going to therapists, I realized how many crazy people are in that job,” McPherson told a New York Times writer. “To want to do a job like that, you have to be very attracted to dysfunction.”

The same can be said of most playwrights. And McPherson is a very good playwright. In Shining City—now receiving its beautifully acted Chicago premiere under the direction of Robert Falls, who also staged the New York production—McPherson fuses extraordinary skill at shaping language with an aching awareness of the difficulties of communicating. His characters are remarkably real, and the psychological and spiritual journeys they take are readily recognizable; McPherson has clearly invested himself in each of them.

When McPherson wrote about Samuel Beckett, theater god and fellow Irishman, he holds up a mirror for his own work’s power:

Each one [of Beckett’s plays] is a beautifully honed, determined, focused world unto itself…I believe that his plays will continue to echo through time because he managed to articulate a feeling as opposed to an idea. And that feeling is the unique human predicament of being alive and conscious. Of course, it’s a very complicated feeling (and it’s a complicated idea), but he makes it look simple because his great genius, along with his incomparable literary power, was the precision and clarity he brought to bear in depicting the human condition itself.

“I’ve always had an existential darkness,” McPherson says…”An awareness of the predicament of being alive. We’re alive in this cold and mysterious universe, and we’re only very small. That seems to me to be a stunning predicament.”

It IS a stunning predicament. But when McPherson crafts characters who can speak with such strange and sometimes mad clarity, I am reassured to know that angst is not a solitary journey.

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What is it that Tom Stoppard does that moves me so deeply? Rock ‘n’ Roll was as intoxicating an experience as Coast of Utopia had been the year before. In many ways it is a continuation of many of the same themes, just brought forward 100 years and closer to home. (The play takes place in England and what was once Czechoslovakia, the bloodlines of Stoppard’s own identity.) We are still struggling with how history unfolds, how any one person can stand up, with honor, to the inexorable thrust of politics, of grand scale human folly, of historical precedence replaying itself over and over again, of disastrous conceits and misfired intentions.

In both Rock ‘n’ Roll and Coast of Utopia, Stoppard arcs his narrative out over many years and several generations. His voice does not speak to the concerns of his particular cohort group. Rather he traces the fractal pattern of how ideas grow, from what is frequently an inauspicious and unintended germination to historic unfoldings that explode with little regard for extenuating circumstances like truthfulness, appropriateness, or the achievement of any modicum of long term human benefit. The threads and leitmotifs in these plays are complex, provocative and interconnected, yet they are not delivered with anything approaching resolution. Stoppard poses profound questions about human existence that do not have answers. Intimations and flashes of possible resolutions come and go, but those moments are fleeting, a glinting parsec vision of what might have been.

An unforgettable experience.

Here is an excerpt from a review by Neal Ascherson of the Guardian, written when the play first opened in London in 2006:

stoppard.jpg
Tom Stoppard in 1967
(Photo: Jane Brown)

“Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a subtle, complex play about ways to resist ‘systems’ and preserve what is human. At its core is a succession of arguments between two Czech friends, Jan (who holds some of Kundera’s attitudes) and Ferda (who more clearly represents Havel, and borrows lines from some of Havel’s famous utterances). Jan, forced to work as a kitchen porter, at first despises Ferda’s petitions against arrests and censorship as the self-indulgence of an intellectual clique. A devout rock enthusiast, he sees the persecuted rock band the Plastic People of the Universe (who actually existed) as the essence of freedom because they simply don’t care about anything but the music. They baffle the thought police because ‘they’re not heretics. They’re pagans’.

Ferda at first dismisses the Plastic People as long-haired escapists who have nothing to do with the real struggle. But later, when they are arrested and imprisoned after an absurd trial, he comes to understand that the heretics and the pagans are inseparable allies.

Leaving the band’s real-life trial, Havel famously said that ‘from now on, being careful seems so petty’. Soon afterwards a few hundred brave men and women signed ‘Charter 77’, the declaration of rights and liberties which earned them prison sentences and suffocating surveillance but which was read around the world.

Stoppard is fascinated by the Plastic People, by the idea that the most devastating response to tyranny might be the simple wish to be left alone. In Prague he met and talked to Ivan Jirous, their founder, whose long hair enraged the authorities. ‘I always loved rock’n’roll,’ Stoppard says. ‘And what was so intriguing about the Plastic People was that they never set out to be symbols of resistance, although the outside world thought of them that way. They said: “People never write about our music!” In the West, rock bands liked to be thought of for their protest, rather than their music. But Jirous didn’t try to turn the Plastic People into anything; he just saw that they were saying, “We don’t care, leave us alone!” Jirous insisted that they were actually better off than musicians in the West because there was no seduction going on. There was nothing the regime wanted from them, and nothing they wanted from the regime.’

There is dissent which wants to substitute one system for another. And there is dissent which simply says: Get off our back, scrap all the guidelines and controls, and humanity will reassert itself.

Patiently, Stoppard explained to me how historic disputes between Kundera and Havel were reflected in the play. Kundera, in the first confused year after the invasion, had hoped that the experiment could still continue, working out a society in which uncensored freedom could co-exist with a socialist state, a new form of socialism which still needed to be devised. ‘Havel said that it wasn’t a question of making new systems. “Constructing” a free press was like inventing the wheel. You don’t have to invent a free society because such a society is the norm – it’s normal.’

I asked if this notion of freedom as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’, something which doesn’t need designing, wasn’t close to the anarchist vision But this was not what he meant, it seemed. Stoppard’s trust that ‘people’ will behave well when left on their own has its common-sense limits. In “Salvage”, the third play in the “Utopia” trilogy, Stoppard makes Herzen puncture the exuberant anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in a needle-sharp exchange:

Bakunin: ‘Left to themselves, people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they’d create a completely new kind of society if only people weren’t so blind, stupid and selfish.’

Herzen: ‘Is that the same people or different people?’

I’m off to New York for a few days. I want to see the Mannerist drawing show at the Morgan Library, most particularly out of respect for my daughter Kellin who is a Mannerista fanatic now that she is living in Florence. (To read an excerpt from the New York Times review of this show, see this Slow Painting post.) I am also eager to satisfy my perpetual longing for real time Stoppardian word magic, delivered up through a viewing of his latest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll.)

Here’s another memorable poem from Young Smith’s volume, In a City You Will Never Visit (for more information, see my posting on this poet earlier this week):

The Properties of Light

vii. the many worlds interpretation

A quasar,
so the musing
physicists suggest,

is a siphon
breathing light
from another

universe beyond
the distant borders
of our own.

Just as black holes
are also siphons,
breathing light

from our own stars
to burst as quasars
in other distant

realms. Therefore,
it seems, the “causa
causans” is a mind

whose fiery
thoughts unseal
the sky. Whose

desires, like its
dimensions, can
bear no human

scale or story–whose
musing only light
itself describes.

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