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The Internationalist at convergence

December 2nd, 2011 No comments

Gunplay in a strange land

Gunplay in a strange land; photo Cory Molner.

I went and saw The Internationalist (Anne Washburn) last night at convergence and was quite happy with seeing it. I was a bit worried initially as I read a New York Times theater review of the play and, while the reviewer was clearly interested in the play it was not favorable review. In fact, it put a bit of fear in me that I was going to endure yet another evening of theater that was so-so. But, as I mentioned at the outset, I was happily surprised and engaged by it.

The plot loosely follows the character Lowell (Tom Kondilas) who has come from the United States to a strange and unknown/undisclosed country on business. Lowell is suffering from jet lag, cannot speak the language in the country, and suffers certain impudent assumptions about his character based on his being from the ole US of A. While the plot follows Lowell’s experiences, many of which are strange, the plot also dallies with the sexual relationship between Lowell and Sara (Laurel Hoffman). In many instances the play takes on a sort of Noir detective feel that is pleasantly enhanced by Laurel Hoffman’s costuming, Clyde Simon’s set design, and certainly Lisa L. Wiley’s light design.

Much of my concern at seeing the piece was over the various “rumors” I had heard all over the place describing the unintelligible sections/swaths of text. The sections are provided when the “natives” are speaking their language. When talking with Clyde after the show, he spoke of how massive the swaths of this text are and how there is no stage direction provided as to what to do with the text. Given this fact, I can say unabashedly the Clyde did a fantastic job in directing the piece as he turned these huge chunks of strangeness into very meaningful sections: sections with grace, urgency, energy, even genuine emotion and longing. Laurel Hoffman did, predictably, a fantastic job with her role and is always worth seeing. The massive sections of glossolalia that she has to spit out are spit out with an astonishing fluency. God knows how much time she spent working it out and my mind laughingly speculates on Laurel and Geoff at home of an evening speaking this language together around the fireplace. (Congratulations to them on their marriage as well!) But, in truth, every one of the actors did a fantastic job with the gibberish that Washburn crafted, as did Clyde. Especially Clyde. I have not read the play so I do not know what is or is not in the stage directions, but according to Clyde there is nothing to give direction to the massive swaths of foreignness that reign on stage. Clyde does a great job with providing not only an interpretation of the text, but offering the audience an opportunity to understand it. These sections prove again and again that theater is a visual medium as much as an aural and logically crafted one. Much of what is understood during these strange sections is understood by watching the physical interaction between the characters/actors and how they physically manifest the text. Handled poorly, these sections would become a real drag. They were NOT handled poorly. Ray Caspio, as James for instance, does a masterful job telling a story/joke in Washburn’s gibberish, gesticulating all the while to make it clear what is going on. Caspio is equally worth seeing in his role as the Ancient Bartender, in this role I took no end of delight in watching his rickety tottering, the manner in which he meticulously maintained the lanky rigidness of the aged Nazi-poisoner.

The play itself consists of a thin plot about the goings on in a foreign company which Lowell has come to work for/with. His relationship to the company is unclear, but he seems to be some sort of financial manager slash troubleshooter. The goings-on in the company are complicated by his sexual tryst with Sara, who announces herself as a “colleague” when she picks Lowell up at the airport. This turns into trouble later when Lowell discovers that she is a secretary rather than “an equal” in terms of position, salary, etc. Interspersed with this story are various episodes, the strangest of which is Lowell’s encounter with a prostitute on the street. Some of these episodes are not materially relevant to the plot, perhaps, but add significant texture to the play. I say “perhaps” because it is not clear precisely what the plot of the play is. This is where, I think, the New York Times review was the toughest on Washburn, and perhaps rightly so. Is the story about Lowell’s experience in a strange land? Is it about the company that Lowell is working for? Is it about his relationship with Sara? Is it about his strange experience in a foreign land? In the end, it is likely about all of these things, but I believe Washburn is aiming mostly as the sense of strangeness that comes with being out of place: locations are disjointed/distorted, cultural practices are distorted, language is distorted, and even scenes are oddly shaped and distorted. Having read Washburn’s play Apparition: An Uneasy Play of the Underknown in New Downtown Now, it is clear that she likes to experiment with what is vague, indistinct, and unclear–as well as what may be eerie to some. In The Internationalist, Washburn explores this region again and places the audience in a location where nothing is ever explicit or certain as demonstrated by the conclusion of the play (which I won’t spoil here).

The cast of The Internationalist at concon is fantastic, including Laura Starnik, Geoff Hoffman, and Robert Hawkes, who is wonderful in his dual roles as both Simon and Paul. The play is definitely worth seeing and runs through Saturday, December 17.

Say you Love Satan

September 30th, 2010 No comments

Went to see this at convergence. It was a good time.  Funny play, hits the notes that a funny play should hit.  Not much in the depth department.  Quick story line: guy meets guy in a laundry mat; guy and guy become sexually involved; guy finds out that other guy is Satan (Jack–Lukas Roberts); Satan wants to steal other guy’s body (and ‘hit the gym’) but can only do so by getting the body from a willing partner and by killing an infant (‘they’re like olive oil in Italian cooking: you use them in everything’).

The play has a very droll sense of humor and some very funny lines (per the above). It shoves two stories together to allow for contrasting visions of meaning: the story as described above and the story line in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  I’m a great fan of Crime and Punishment as well as Notes from Underground; but have never read Karamazov, so I don’t know how well the contrast of content works.  I can say from a viewer’s perspective, it does not work as effectively as it probably should, as I was unable to clearly see the parallels.

According to Wikipedia (the source for everything, right?), Karamazov is a “spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason” and I can certainly see elements of that in Satan.  Obviously, if you’re not a believer in anything and find that you suddenly are dating the chief antagonist in one of the oldest stories in Christendom, then you need to re-think some things.  Themes are balanced as well by difficulties that the main character, Andrew (well-played by Scott Gorbach) has in dealing with his own insecurities and relationships with others (including a fantastically aggressive Bernadette–Laren B. Smith and a saintly Jerrod–Stuart Hoffman).  I also have to give a shout out to my Ranger, Tyson Rand, who kicked ass and stole scenes as the burly bouncer and answering machine (with a phenomenal ponytail).

On the whole the play is fairly flimsy and the seams are visible, especially the moment where the play shifts gears and pushes toward a conclusion.  This is a common problem though with comedies, as one of my friends likes to point out, as there really is no cause for an ending at all but there must, by convention, be one.  Thus, as my friend points out, the true success of Monty Python in avoiding any contrived ending in its work and just ratcheting up the absurdity.  With theater, it seems, the path to contrivance is inevitable, and was the case in my own play when it was staged in 2008.  (After all, the play has to end somewhere, right?)  Satan is a play that makes one laugh as it slings mild criticism at certain aspects of how we relate to each other in our society as well as the things we place value on, but it doesn’t go beyond that–nor do I think it was meant to.

As usual, Clyde and convergence re-imagined the space of The Liminis in a wonderful way, transforming the space into a gay dance club.  Added to this is the comic story recounted by Clyde about the opening of The Liminis (nearly 10 years ago).  The space had been a bar named Club Juana Diaz, and when it re-opened as a theater a Tremont resident, who noted the “change in clientele walking toward the newly-opened Liminis, asked one of the passersby, ‘So, is the place now a gay bar or what?’”  The space had a functioning bar for the performance, a cage area for intimate dancing, a dance floor, and, of course, the light design (Cory Molner) accounted for that most excellent of dance club features.

There are some strategies that I noticed with interest including the constant narrative voice over used by Andrew’s character. So, as he is in action he narrates his inner thought processes to the audience. I don’t know if that technique has any resonance in Karamazov, but would assume it does.  I think the notion of narrative/monolog while the character is in motion doing something else is an interesting strategy to keep the forward movement of action in what would normally be a static section (given more traditional approaches to monologic moments). Narrative is one area in which I am particularly interested right now as my thesis play will use characters who often engage in direct address (I like the notion of polyvocality as a method of decentralizing “authority” in the text of the play as much as possible). So, aspects of how to handle narrative sections are of interest to me. In most cases I like the fact that direct address breaks the wall and calls attention to itself a la Brecht, and Jenkins, and Overmyer, etc., and the interactional effect that this has on the relationship with the audience.

Another strategy I’ll comment on is that Aguirre-Sacasa’s script must leave blank space to allow for the staging company to “insert here” whatever local setting is desired.  Over lunch at the Dramatists Guild daylong event several of the playwrights were discussing this strategy for “localizing” a script and whether it had the intended effect.  For instance, there is a moment when Andrew flees Jack and ends up walking home through a bad neighborhood wearing only a towel.  In this instance, the proper name “Kinsman” was inserted to provide that local flavor–essentially pointing to a “bad” area in Cleveland.  There were other instances of this as well.  Is this an effective strategy?  Some playwrights found it to be contrived, obvious, and pandering.  One playwright felt that it threw him out of the play, drawing an awareness to external reality of the viewing location.  I’m sure there were audience members who felt that it was “neat” and had a comic effect.  One playwright was reminded of the openings of stand-up routines or rock concerts where the refrain is: “Hello, Cleveland” or whatever city.  I personally feel that if you can make it as generic as possible and yet retain the essence of the thing, that is a better way to go, rather than localizing it in such a way.  In life there are enough archetypal elements that they can be applied regardless of the locale: all cities have “bad” areas, hospitals, laundromats, etc.  Making them overtly local is just being cute.

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