The Playgoer: 365 Days/365 Plays

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

365 Days/365 Plays

I went to the Public Monday night to check out the launch of Suzan-Lori Parks' year-long mini-play project.

I have trouble working up much enthusiasm for this whole thing, despite my admiration for Parks as a playwright. It's kind of weird to get worked up over the mere fact the plays exist rather than more basic questions like what's in them? and are they any good?

Basically all the publicity surrounding them (and quite a lot has been drummed up in our little world) treats it as a stunt. How does someone write a play a day for a year! Indeed, as the playwrights out there would know, it's no small feat. And having seen seven of them now, I can attest to admiration for the dilligence and creativity it takes to come up with a totally new and distinct 10 minute play every day. Even writing one such scene well can be challenging. Writing 365 of them without stop is very impressive stamina, if nothing else.

But at some point we have to get around to--what are these plays? If we are to take them seriously, that is. And Parks is a writer we should be taking seriously.

Also, the excitement at the Public Monday seemed to be all about how so many theatre companies are collaborating to present the whole cycle. And good for them. But is that going to make for any more enriching experience for the audience watching these sketches?

The hype over the stunt of it all will inevitably drown out any criticism or meaningful discussion of the work, simply because it will be impossible to take in the work. Folks will catch a snippet here, a snippet there, maybe and say they saw some of it. But what will they have seen?

So how do we assess such a project? Are we to consider these finished works? I find it hard to believe Parks spent much time laboring over revisions of all 365 scripts, since she was probably done to be with one and onto the next. In which case, I guess it's brave of her to put such "journal work" in front of an audience.

The format of the whole presentation of this saga will be that each theatre company will present 7 playlets over a week. Which allows you, I guess, to view each theatre's contribution as its own mini-production. What makes the Public's installment successful, I felt, was that they hired an accomplished director, Michael Greif, who played up the roughness of the whole thing. Staged basically as a cabaret evening, with a piano at the side, the seven bits whooshed by, aided by the barest of props and drawn curtains, achieving an informality that doesn't come naturally to the Newman Theatre, the Public's larger venue.

What were the plays like? Some were allegorical, like "Window of Opportunity" which began with the comically mundane image of a red & white checker-curtained window out of Mayberry, and a sentry standing at attention beside it. He draws the curtains. Stands guard. Then closes them. A young man comes running to look at the window, but alas it is shut. The End.

Some were more comical and chatty. "Veuve Cliquot" featured the terrific veteran actor Reg E. Cathey as the most snobbish death row inmate since Hannibal Lecter, intentionally pushing the prison kitchen staff to the edge in meeting his exorbitant last meal order. Some were just silly revue sketches, like "Fine Animal" which sets marital relations back in the middle ages to show that men always would have preferred porn to their wives.

The best thing I could say about the whole presentation, though, is that it was fun! Greif was smart enough to realize that only in a cabaret/revue setting (and for free!) could you get away with presenting such deliberately slight and fragmented work.

So if you can get in, I do recommend it. Details for the remainder of Week 1 at the Publc are here. Again, it's free, with RSVP. And hence worth catching some great actors like Cathey and Joan Macintosh clown it up.

As for the whole "365" hype, though, let the proof be in the pudding.


Jaime said...

I don't know what to make of the whole 365 endeavor because, from the inside, as a participant (third week of July! see you there!), I am so damn excited and inspired by it. The trouble is that I don't know how to translate that to the audiences.

To steal/mangle words from Oskar Eustis, it's about creating something new, doing something that's never been done before. (In that all theatre is, or should be, about that ambitious newness.)

The magic of the project isn't isn’t contained in any single evening’s performance, but is something of which every single performance is a vital part. At the Public's meet & greet for all the companies, the sense of all these companies and artists coming together to create was very powerful. I do think the first week's plays (and their presentation) convey that. Keeping that awareness in the audience, of being a part of something big, is incredibly difficult, but if possible, is incredibly potent as well.

Aaron Riccio said...

I too am a little skeptical about 365 Days/365 Plays. There seems to be a glut of stunt plays lately, and when we couple that with the seeming lack of depth on Broadway, I worry that we're struggling so hard for things that are new more than simply things that are good. I would rather see a rip-roaring revival than a plodding premiere.

Take, for example, the recent arrival at Barrow Street Theater, which I'm anxious to hear about from other people on the Blogosphere -- not just because it's different every night but because I'm curious as to what I'm missing. The show, An Oak Tree has attracted some big names to it, from Urbaniak to McDormand, but as far as I'm concerned, the whole show falls somewhere above a cold reading and behind a staged reading. There's the heart of something there, but it's hard to see under all the dressing up of the hypnotist's glitter.

I think innovation is good, and I can't really fault the pricetag for Suzan-Lori Parks' cycle: at least she's not charging audiences for this broad experiment. I admire the ability of The Public Theater to sponsor this. An Oak Tree, on the other hand, is a $45 gamble...

I'd like to hear from other people!