Posts Tagged ‘Laura Starnik’


March 16th, 2012 No comments

Will Eno's Middletown at Dobama

Went and saw Middletown by Will Eno last night at Dobama. It was a strange show. First, given the nature of the play (life in a small town) and Second, the varied cast of characters and events (being somewhat eccentric, etc), and Finally, the epic sweep of the thematic content (life, death, love, the universe, our place in it, etc.) there are obvious parallels to Our Town by Thorton Wilder.

The play is engaging, for the most part, and the first act is filled with a strangeness that is difficult to describe: things, events, characters, and ideas (statements) are juxtaposed with other things, events, characters, and ideas and the clashing of the two creates a dissonance that is abrupt and sometimes very comic. The statements from characters and language used is equally abrupt and strange and it is clear that Eno is playing as much with words and how they mean and just the raw sounds of words, as he’s playing with big ideas. If you, dear reader, are like me, occasionally you’ll say a word and the word will sound so strange in your ears that you’ll repeat it again and again until the word itself loses meaning and just becomes this guttural sound that is disconnected entirely from anything. Some of this is at play in Middletown. This notion of the strangeness of words and their association with concrete things in the world is one of the arguments, often, for learning to speak a second language or even a third, because learning another language is learning to see the world in a different way, for instance, the Spanish language associates all nouns with gender. So the moon is “la luna” a female object. The sun “el sol” is a male object. And virtually everything has this gendered nature. This causes one, I think, to experience the world differently. For an example of the dissonance and clashing I mentioned above, early in the play, I’ll go with the librarian example (having been one myself and being always interested in the stereotypes of the profession), one of the “main characters” Mary (Carly Germany) goes into the library to request a library card. This request is met positively by the Librarian (Laura Starnik) who says, “Good for you dear. A lot of people figure, ‘Why bother? I’m just going to die, anyway.’”

What makes for strangeness and good fun does not, however, make for good “deep” connections with characters. This sort of strangeness and light-hearted non-committal to characters in any meaningful way results in a very surfacy attachment and interest in them, and, as with may Eno plays, there is a tendency to just sit and think and try and keep up with his use of language and the strangeness of his ideas. I saw Thom Pain at Dobama several years back, and it was the same thing. Except there you have an exceptionally intimate encounter with one man who is baring his soul, or trying anyway, and periodically covering it over with neurotic defense mechanisms to keep you away from his soul. It is a passive agressive experience of the highest order and equally fascinating to listen to and contemplate as fast as you can. What works well in Thom Pain, though, does not work as well in Middletown. With Middletown there genuinely feels, at times, as if there is an earnestness to the attempt to reveal something beautiful and terrible and deeply real about the human condition, and I would say that on a few occasions this succeeds. But for the most part it does not, simply because there is so much of the Thom Pain cynicism and comic clashing happening. There are moving moments with the Police Officer (Jason Markouc) and the Mechanic (Fabio Polanco) when they reveal their inner demons and troubles to the Librarian–who has known them since they were little boys (again, small town angle); but most of it gets lost amidst the easy laughs and verbal gymnastics that are Eno’s trademark. Like his play Tragedy: a tragedy, there is something smug about the sorrow, something removed and distant–sort of a “I know you’ll think this is moving, but I don’t, in fact, I’m more entertained by your thinking this is moving than in really moving you.” It’s like psychologist sitting behind a one-way mirror to observe the suffering and distress of another person, but not really empathizing with it or feeling it himself–perhaps even joking about it.

I do like Eno’s work as he is truly a remarkable thinker and his use of language is stunning; and Middletown is no exception. There were points in the play where I felt that longing and epic reach of Our Town–that sense of individual isolation, even in the midst of others–that makes Our Town so powerful. But, as Mike Geither and Chris Johnston noted, whom I went out with after the show, there is a deep earnest sincerity in Wilder and a genuine love of people and their weaknesses that comes through in Our Town that does not come through in Middletown. The only question is, what is Eno’s intent? Maybe he doesn’t want you to connect at all. Maybe he wants the audience, which the play engages frequently, to be removed–a la Brecht–to not identify with or emotionally connect with the characters. The only question that remains then, is “to what end”? Eno could be saying something about the disconnected nature of our modern society, compared with Wilder’s society. Given his outstanding thrashing and skewering of the local news media in Tragedy: a tragedy, that just might be the case.

The set for this play at Dobama was fantastic, so hats off to Laura Carlson. And the cast was fantastic for this production as well, including Robert Hawkes, Tom Woodward, Emily Demko, Mark Mayo (who was performing after surgery, no less), Maryann Elder and my former MNO classmate, Dianne Boduszek.

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.

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