Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Play: Theatre in the Abstract

Medea/ Macbeth/ Cinderella Adapted by Bill Rauch and Tracy Young from Euripides' Medea, Translated by Paul Roche, Music and Lyrics by Shishir Kurup, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Bowmer Theater.

Short Version: A Brief History of Theater. I think.

This is a mystery basket of a play. No, really, like when you’re watching Chopped, and they open the basket for the appetizer round and the chefs are given watermelon candy, Brussel sprouts, and reindeer meat and given twenty minutes to come up with something? In this case, the basket contains The classic Greek play Medea, Shakespeare's Macbeth, and the Broadway version of Cinderella. You have three hours. And your time starts - now.

And the result is sort of like watching three televisions tuned to different channels. Sometimes the connections of there (the overlap of conversations answering questions asked in another dimension), and save for the three are protagonists, there isn’t a lot obviously binding them together.Our entry character into the play is an usher (Mark Bedard) who finds himself impressed in a number of minor roles through the play, shoved out to be a servant or a herald or some necessary piece of exposition, but he is more framing device than viewpoint character. He pitches down this rabbit hole and is soon as lost as the rest of us. And while some characters do flip over (Banquo's ghost dances with the Ugly Stepsisters at the Prince's ball, The Fairy Godmother (a sparkling K.T. Vogt) transforms to Hecate to speak with Macbeth's Witches), most of them stay in their dimensions, acting out the play in parallel dimensions.

Deja Vu: Lady Macbeth at the Tate
They run at the same time, the conversations of one supposed to be overlapping the others, creating noise from which you can pick out the plots. At first I thought it was a microphone problem, but soon you succumb to the cacophony and get to an initial first point - its not about the words. Instead you start following the general arc of theater as a performance in itself. Here is exposition. Here is rising action. Here is the first crisis point. Here is the initial decision by the protagonist. Here is the big number before the intermission. Here is the complication. The exact nature of these developments are different for every play, but they are still there - we're showing off the integral building blocks of a play.

Another thing happens as we progress - we start deconstructing the actors themselves. The Medea cast is female and masked. The Macbeth crew is decked out in Modern Regulation Shakespearean and mostly male: Lady Macbeth (Christopher Liam Moore again) is wearing the green Ellen Terry dress that John Singer Sargeant painted (and I saw a month ago at the Tate in London). Cinderella has all the costuming gewgaws of Broadway. But as we move to the final resolution (Macbeth fights Macduff knowing he will lose, Cinderella agrees to try on the slipper, Medea confronts Jason), the masks and costumes are shed in a slow striptease that leaves the actors in their basic black shirts and slacks, their characters themselves peeled away from them.

So this is a comparative history of theater, taking three examples, running them over each other and looking for commonalities. The true interweaving the the characters happens at the 11th hour and may not make sense if you've been thrown earlier on. It is a play with a lot of words, but the words are not important, actions but the actions are deceptive, characters where characterization is ultimately secondary, where knowledge of the source material both helps and hinders (I never had seen the R&H Cinderella and thought it the Disney version initially, while the Lovely Bride says that she has spent thirty years trying to forget the "Impossible" song, only to have it be laid on her brain anew). It is an abstract approach to theater as a whole, which is good, but like abstract art, can completely throw the viewer.

At heart, I liked this play, but it is a tough, uphill sort of affection, more applied after the fact than when you're trying to come to terms with it in its midst. I have bagged on traditional theater for not reaching more. This one does, but it is wobbly about whether it achieves it.

More later