The Playgoer: Some Quickie Reviews

Custom Search

Monday, February 11, 2008

Some Quickie Reviews

Falling way behind in my "free time" (i.e. nonpaid) reviewing, here are some dispatches from 3 recent prominent productions that I was fortunate enough to be invited to, and do want to (albeit belatedly) hold up my end of the bargain.


Church by Young Jean Lee
Having missed this last year at PS122, I was eager to catch up with this piece, and with Ms. Lee in general, whose work I haven't seen yet. Church is an odd play--oddly structured, that is--even for experimental work. Which this is not. As a collection of "sermons" in an imagined generic middle American service, it works well as a monologue play. The interspersing of pseudo-sprirtuals, dances, and, at the finale, a full choir are nice ideas, but in the staging at the Public (directed by the playwright) they seemed so incidental as to be immaterial to the proceedings. (That collection of 30-40 "extras" for the choir seemed a particular waste of everyone's time, for no particular effect--satiric or otherwise.)

The main buzz coming out of this show from its premiere was the question: is it mocking of religion or not? Obviously the 1st question that occurs to a downtown hipster audience. But it's clear within minutes what Lee has maintained herself--having grown up attending such services, she was more interested in turning the finger at the secular audience itself for a change. And that is the best thing by far about Church, even though the Public staging only gave glimpses at it. The lead preacher (the actor's name and the program currently escape me, sorry to say) was particularly effective at this; with the charm of a Mike Huckabee, he could switch on a dime between gladhanding the crowd and denouncing them for their self-indulgence.

Lee's ultimate challenge to us (yes, you and me) is to examine the potential moral smugness of self-empowering modernity against the bedrock Christian principles and community building. Are obsessions over smoking, diet, and dating really leading to a better life, we are asked. In these confrontational moments--some subtle, some unpolitely direct--Church provides a good much needed jolt. But whether it was an inherent lack of craft or a shoddy festival-remount execution, the performance itself did not do justice to the concept.

Terminus by Mark O'Rowe
I have been hearing much about O'Rowe's US debut Howie the Rookie (and his screenplay for the Irish film Intermission). So I was eager to check out his latest, Terminus. In an Irish dramatic tradition that dates at least back to Brian Friel and continues strongly in Conor McPherson's work, this is essentially a monologue play, split three ways. O'Rowe ups the ante by writing in full-out rhymed verse. (The meter and rhyme scheme escaped me.)

I've made clear here previously how my guard is always up against monologue plays. Here the script was certainly helped by the original trio of powerful Irish actors from the Abbey Theatre premiere. But to me this was purely a listening experience. A stunning initial tableau of the three ghostly figures (one that got printed in every review) was ultimately deceptive; after that initial "woah" moment, the visual picture was as static as, well, a train at the end of the line. Each actor in succession would pop up when it was their time to deliver their 15-20 minutes of spinning locutions--often clever, with lilting cadences, but also often just sensationalist to my mind, with easy attention grabbing images of sex and violence.

To those listening more closely, I'm sure there were some interesting narrative twists and turns. But after the effects of atmosphere and the charisma of the actors wore off for me after the first 20 minutes, I would have preferred to sit in bed and read it on that cold night, rather than watch a recitation.

Oh, the Humanity, and other exclamations by Will Eno
at the Flea Theatre
Yet another example of catching up with someone's work I had been embarassed not to know.

I never saw Thom Paine, and so could never weigh in on the "Is Will Eno All That Charles Isherwood Says He Is" question. And I still don't feel I can, since the recently closed Oh the Humanity was nothing more than a collection of five flimsy sketches.

They could not have been rendered better by Brian Hutchinson and Christina Kirk. (I indeed felt fortunate to see the always marvellous Kirk, who replaced the more marquee-worthy Marisa Tomei after the run's extension.) Both actors have the requisite deadpan and offbeat likeability to put over Eno's peculiar brand of deadpan absurdism. I wish I could remember other examples, but the line "I am a girl who likes music, and who doesn't like a girl who likes music," stands out as typical of his sometimes-amusing gift for capturing inane emptiness in solipsistic mock-aphorisms.

But that trick wore fast on me. Especially when it seemed in the service not of any social commentary or Beckettian philosphical rigor--but merely whimsy. The darkest piece, by far, is where a hired pr spokeswoman tries to do "damage control" for an airline after a major crash. I could have dealt with the bad taste of the joke...if only it made me laugh. Hovering in between that awkwardness and a half-formed character study, it seemed no less exploitative than a weepy movie of the week on the same subject.

There's a strong dose of Thornton Wilder, I feel, in Eno's writing here, and that's a good thing. (Wilder being probably our original great homegrown absurdist.) But again, without the breadth and ability to strike existential terror, the way even Our Town at its best can. Without that, Eno's sketches just come off as so...well, white. Insular, complacent characters, with not a material care in the world, disappearing into the circular locutions in their heads. I sense Eno chooses such subjects deliberately, with social awareness. But neither he nor we ever get out of those annoying heads. At least not in these slight toss-offs.

No comments: