Saturday, March 31, 2012

theatre notes. torso.

It was impulse, an impromptu night at the theatre, the second-to-last showing of Printer's Devil Theatre's Torso, at Theatre Off Jackson. It's a small space tucked into the basement of what used to be the old Wing Luke Museum, down in the International District. In the early 90's we had season tickets there; I remember most clearly the production of The Skin of Our Teeth, and another play about the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Some years ago the theatre was resurrected, and I had been hearing good things about them and about this latest production. The deciding factor was the presence of Sarah Rudinoff, who I loved in Cloud 9 last summer.

Torso surprised me. It was so much funnier than I had expected. (You could tell which members of the audience were theater people by when and how loudly they laughed). I had expected the searing anger of loss, but a thread of comedy runs through it, springing from a bad blind date told in flashback, which continues on as the relationship grows. The story splits into two jaggedly parallel lines, leaping back and forth in time, four of the five cast members switching characters and costumes in a blink of an eye. The heart of the play is Daphne, crippled by the grief of her sister's death, four years before, and struggling with the news that her childhood friend, Marlo, has been charged with the murder of her own brother. One thing about Sarah Rudinoff, who plays Daphne: she is quite extraordinarily beautiful, especially when a fleeting moment of joy lights up her face, like the last bright glow of sunset before nightfall. She has this openness of expression, of anger or fear or pain or disgust or laughter, the emotions passing as swiftly as the dialogue.

I can't stop thinking about Torso, about whether Daphne will cross that same line as Marlo and Dom have done, whether her need for justice will lead her to her brother-in-law's door, gun in hand. Whether killing her sister's lame-ass husband who let her die will give her any kind of peace, or only haunt her more. These questions remain unanswered, as they do in real life. The questions that remain are: how do our lives spiral so quickly out of control, and what separates those who have murder in their hearts from those who cross into action? I walk away with these human stories and turmoils going round and round in my head.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

make art.

A poem by the artist Tim Etchells in answer to the question "What can art do?" has been circling around and around in my mind for well over a year now. It says, in part, "I wanted to tell you that art is loved as a hammer/because of how well it breaks lies and speaks truths/knocks down obstacles/the Incredible Hulk it is or the Superman, a good thing to have on your side…"

That poem came into my mind as I was thinking about why I chose to support Jessica Martin's short film For Patrick through Kickstarter last week. The reasons are many and yet simple at the same time. I thought about what a joy it is to watch young actors grow over the years, evolving, learning and stretching themselves, daring to do things ever more new and different and difficult. I thought about what brings me to live theatre, the passion of it, the electric thrill of watching people doing what they love, night after night. For a moderate bit of money you get to spend a few hours inside someone else's head, inside a world that has been weeks or months or years in the making. I thought about a note tucked into my program at a play produced a few summers back at Strawberry Theatre Workshop that said something like "You eat local food. Why not support local theatre?" If I support local theatre, why not support local film?

For Patrick, as Jessica tells us, is a local film, made here in Washington state by homegrown talent. For twenty years I've watched recent graduates from the acting programs at the University of Washington or Cornish College of the Arts find their footing on Seattle stages before heading off elsewhere. It is a continuing joy to see some of them stick around and make art here. Jessica Martin I've seen several times in the past year, in some of the Pinter Fortnightly readings and in Double Indemnity at ACT. Her costar Aaron Blakely was in Seattle Rep's production of How to Write a New Book for the Bible a few months back (a co-production with the Berkeley Rep, who premiered it last fall). Their short film was made last winter, I think, with barely any money. Not so much a shoestring as a piece of thread and a bent safety-pin, I reckon. Here is a chance to give them this encouragement: keep making art. I took it. Wouldn't you?

The Kickstarter page for For Patrick is here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey.

Alls I'm saying is, art doesn't require falsehood. In fact, it depends upon perfect honesty. Art doesn't cover lies. It exposes them.*

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.**

Much has been said about Mike Daisey (liar, fraudster, and "fucking sociopath" are some of the harsher terms) and his stage work The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs after This American Life retracted an excerpt that aired recently. I'm sure all the arguments from differing sides have been put more intelligently than I ever could. I haven't heard the original interview, or the subsequent one explaining the retraction. I haven't read many of the reactions, either. I can only go by my own memories of seeing Agony and Ecstasy last spring at the Seattle Rep, and what I took away from it.

You go into a Mike Daisey monologue knowing that ultimately the story is about Mike Daisey, no matter what else he talks about. I said this last time. You go in knowing some details are altered by memory and time and artistic license and anonymity. Think of Minna Pratt's mother in The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, who has a piece of paper pinned above her desk which says "Facts and fictions are different truths." Think of how Minna's mother once asked her, "Is that the truth?" ("It's one of the truths, Mama!").*** There is the expectation that this is a work of theatre, not journalism, but the line got blurred, or crossed, somewhere along the way.

There are two Mike Daiseys. One is the storyteller, and he is an amazing storyteller, always has been. He talks with his eyes and his hands, and he is funny as all hell when he isn't breaking your heart. The other Mike Daisey is more complicated. This is Daisey the crusader, with the glint of zealotry in his eye, who is willing to make up details and events to drive home an argument that could been made with only the bare facts. Or maybe they wouldn't have. Maybe we wouldn't have woken up to the truth that our electronic toys are made under terrible conditions by actual people who are treated like machines without his stories. Or would we?

I think that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs became bigger than anything Daisey had done before, and it swallowed him up, Jonah-like. We wanted every detail to be true. We needed it to be true. We wanted the excuse to knock down the juggernaut of Apple, to look down our noses at the shiny beautiful objects that taunted us, gleaming, in their white or black boxes within white or black boxes. (This disdain lasted about two weeks, or until the next iPhone or iPad came out). Our need became his One Ring, and it made him Gollum. Knowing that some of the story we believed so readily was beyond exaggeration and pure invention feels to many people like a kind of betrayal.

A few nights before I saw The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Seattle Rep last year, Mike Daisey gave a performance of How Theatre Failed America to benefit the recently closed Intiman Theatre. He referred to the Tony Award won by Intiman some years before as the "One Ring," which had brought about their downfall. It is hard not to see that he is currently self-destructing in the same way. I said, last year, that all of Mike Daisey's works are in a way love stories, the kind that are about love and disillusionment. There is a poetic irony in our own disillusionment, now.

*Martha Plimpton, via Twitter, March 16, 2012.
** Pablo Picasso. Epigraph to The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt.
***MacLachlan, Patricia. The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt.  Harper Trophy, 1990. pp. 65-66.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

theatre notes. holy days. 

I think I first encountered the New Century Theatre Company through ACT's Central Heating Lab program. I'd missed their first two productions - they only put on one play a year - and found them in their third year, with On the Nature of Dust. Then, last year, came O Lovely Glowworm, which I saw twice because it was so moving and enthralling (and confusing). They are a company of actors, who get together once a month for readings at a bar in Seattle's theatre district. The brevity of their one-play-season is mostly due to economics, probably, and perhaps time - whatever can be fitted in between other projects. But they are very clearly an ensemble, a repertory, a close-knit company within the already-close-knit theatre community that is Seattle.

Holy Days is a quiet story that takes place in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, when you could either leave and face the great unknown, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, or you could stay on and hope for things to change. Two brothers and their wives are struggling through the dust storms that are sweeping their land, the black dust that seeps through every crack and corner. There is the unbearable weight of grief that comes with the loss of a child, and there is the waiting for a new life to be born. It is a shockingly tender play, and it says something about the closeness of the four actors onstage (two of them are married to each other in real life) that it almost feels like it was written specifically for them.

It's with some surprise I realize that this is the first time I have seen these four members of NCTC together, although I have seen them all so many times before, Amy Thone and Darragh Kennan in particular. They and Hans Altwies and Jen Taylor feel so much like a real family that I can hardly believe it when we are told that Holy Days was produced with just two weeks of rehearsal, tech included. (I gather that this last detail is a big deal). I think this is what happens when you go in with a group of people who really know and love each other and have worked with each other before (and Hans admits that they may have snuck in some reading time beforehand). This is what you get with a repertory company, with a tight circle of people who really love what they do.

There was talk of doing more productions like this, in the future. Sort of "pop-up theatre," with barely any sets or costumes - although they were pretty fully costumed and made-up and the set was pretty detailed - and a very short rehearsal period, with only three performance nights. It is more polished than a staged reading, but with a few bumps and stumbles that might be otherwise smoothed out with more preparation time. It could work, too, with such a intimate theatre company and a more minimalist play. You couldn't have done it with, say, O Lovely Glowworm with its complicated sets and cues, but a simpler work like this one works perfectly. I am so looking forward to more.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

theatre notes. Red.

A passage from The English Patient runs through my head during the opening scenes of Red. Almasy was talking about the painter Caravaggio and his painting of David with the head of Goliath. I think he meant this famous painting, a double-self portrait done near the end of Caravaggio's life, showing him in his youth (David) and then in old age (Goliath). Here, too, we have the aging Rothko and his assistant, himself a young artist, in that shifting dance between past, present, and future. The Abstract Expressionist - if we can so describe Rothko, as much as he disdains the label - stands on the bodies of the artists that came before him - the Cubists - planting his paintbrush as if it were a stake marking new territory, or a sword in Picasso's heart. He is not ready to concede that the next wave will do the same in turn.

Red is, like one of Rothko's paintings, more of an abstraction than a play with a clear story. It takes place in a very specific point in time - the years when he was working on a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City - and yet it feels like something fluid and undefined. The two men are like the two Caravaggios in the painting of David and Goliath. It's a wonderful thing to see Connor Toms as the assistant and Denis Arndt as Rothko, both of whom I know from other plays here in Seattle. It's a wonderful to recognize a face, a way of moving and talking, to see someone grow and evolve as an actor, whether they are in the early years of their career or at the height of their powers.