Monday, February 11, 2008

Performances: One-Two Punch

By The Waters Of Babylon by Robert Shenkkan, Directed by Richard Sneyd, Seattle REP, through 2 March.

How Theater Failed America by Mike Daisey, Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, Feb 8, 9, and 10.

Through strange turns and schedules that are nearly too arcane to describe, the Lovely Bride and I attended two plays yesterday, separated by a few miles, a generation, a pizza and a glass of wine. And what was wrong with the first play was addressed by the other, which leaves me with a strange feeling of both frustration and hope.

By The Waters of Babylon was a well-produced, tidy little package of guaranteed theater-grade-product, shaped into a comfortable form with a two-person cast, a neat little set design that captures Texas suburbia, and a compressed plot, all fashioned into a 2-hour block that left one with the feeling that one had experienced one's monthly allowance of art, cut into a meal-sized mental serving and not bad but nothing to rave about. As theater, it was about as threatening and edgy as a plastic spork.

The plot is ... not much. Neurotic Austin widow, victim of spousal abuse, hires Cuban gardener to clear out the back yard, discovers him to be a writer who escaped the island at the price of his ability to write. The two reach out, pull back, argue, make mojitos, have sex, break down and finally break out - she learns to no longer to fear the sea and he regains his muse.

And the acting wasn't bad - in fact it was pretty good, the script allowing juicy chunks of self-exploratory exposition for the actors to dive in on, only afterwards reminding us that there was someone else in the room when they were done revealing themselves (they were doing, in effect, monologues, each with the other character present). Suzanne Bouchard catches that Austin twang perfectly, and Armando DurĂ¡n as Arturo grows through his role from monosyllabic gardener to spirit guide. But in the end, the lights come up and we all leave. A good meal, but nothing worth enthusing about. Nothing that makes me want to run out into the street and drag others in to witness it.

Indeed, our discussion afterwards was chiefly about time compression in the play, and how things had to happen in a particular clockwork order to make it all fit together, and why the gun had to be there. The LB was particularly disappointed - for a show about people connecting, it failed to connect ultimately with its audience. If it was a TV show, it would be a "bottle show" - one that doesn't require additional sets or locations that can be filmed on the cheap.

With all this hanging over our heads, Banquo's Ghost at the theatre, we headed to Cap Hill and Mike Daisey, who've I've talking about before(here, here,and here, among other places). The rest of the world is discovering him, but as far as Seattle is concerned, we're latecomers, and in the lobby I kept hearing people challenging each other as to when they first attended a Daisey monologue.

And the drill is familiar with this one-man Repertory. Table. Glass of water. Neat pile of yellow legal sheets. Lights go down. Daisey enters, takes a long sip of water (he will not finish the glass), the lights come up, and he starts talking and you are immediately swept into his world. The comparison with the stilted, fumbling opening of Babylon is marked.

And the subject is theater, or rather American Repertory Theater, and why it sucks - a counterpoint to the Country Kitchen Buffet of a play from the afternoon. The basic theory offered is that regional theater sucks is that, well, because they found a self-sustaining model that would not permit grand successes, but would prevent horrible failures. In doing so they ultimately abandoned the repertory model, the friendly faces that would show up in new roles, and with it the sense of continuity and community through the season, and in doing so allowed themselves to be increasingly held hostage to an older, greyer, wealthier, and ever-increasingly smaller crowd.

And in writing the above paragraph, I see a lot of what happens in my own world, in publishing of both books and games.

It is cheaper to keep on three marketing guys to feed the beast of promotion that to keep on three actors full-time, so the actors are all piece-work, freelancers, migrants that come in for the show, then leave for the next. Suzanne Bouchard, as far as I can tell, an exception, like Lawrence Ballard, who seems to have disappeared, but many are just in for the show and then gone. Those we do see repeatedly form a tenuous thread, and there are fewer all the time. A running gag the Lovely Bride and I have engaged in is determining how much of the cast for any production have an episode of "Law and Order" in their program bios.

But back the heart of the matter, this feels a lot like the world of RPGs and shared-world novels. The hands-on creators are strangers in the office section of the business where the decisions of what and where and how are being made. There was a bit of golden age (as all golden ages, recognized only in retrospect) at TSR where the upper management was caught up in a series of internal conflicts and external lawsuits, which allowed the inmates a little more leeway in running the asylum, resulting in Dragonlance, Marvel Super Heroes, and Forgotten Realms. Then the world returned to normal and we saw an ever-increasing drive to freelance, with all the challenges that this posed.

And this is not to say that the commodification of theater happens in a vacuum. The audience itself - older, greyer, wanting what it wants, is equally culpable in creating this rest state. When a production wanders too far off the reservation, it gets hustled back into the safe, risk-intolerant boundaries. The Lovely Bride still grouses about the "puppet shows" the Rep experimented with a while back, where the living actors themselves were outsourced to bits of wood and felt. There are theater grognards just as there are gaming grognards, and even though they are getting older and fewer, they just as intolerant of the threat of the difference.

And yeah, the two crowds were very different. I was one of the younger faces in the afternoon show, one of the older ones in the evening show. And it is Daisey' hope that the next gen finds its own level in the theater, which may survive whatever extinction event claims the older, more comfortable Reps and established theaters. But success, regardless of type or generation, holds within itself the poison needle of safety, and while theater may continue to transform, it only does so with the passing of its more secure predecessors.

So I've had a lot to think about, but not necessarily in the way the REP would be happy with. But I do want to go out into the streets, and drag people back into the darkness of theater, and say "Yeah, there's hope."

More later,