Tuesday, May 26, 2015

new city theater.

The other night I went to see MUD at New City Theater, a play they had first commissioned and performed in the early 90s. It is a startlingly beautiful work, spare and haunting and mysterious, starring Mary Ewald, one of my favorite actors ever. The director, John Kazanjian (who happens to be Mary Ewald’s husband), has set up the room - the theatre is one long room, raw brick along one wall - with the stage in the middle and a single row of 26 seats (the box-office website tells you there are only 20 seats, but I counted 26). The “stage” is a curtained cube, veiled with a sheer scrim that lets you see the actors inside, but creates a separation between you and them that is contrary to all our preconceived notions of what theatre is: that, unlike a movie, there is no impermeable membrane between the viewers and the actors. It is unsettling, but then, it is an unsettling play.

A few weeks back I had a couple of different people ask me, “Why do you see so much theater?” And I came up with an answer, sort of, but I didn’t really manage to say all that I really wanted to say. The short answer is very simple: I grew up in Seattle, I had an enormously privileged upbringing by parents who were passionately interested in the arts, and who took me everywhere with them. The long answer is more complicated, and it is tied up with two things: the end of Intiman Theatre, and the death of Mark Chamberlin. Nobody tells you this, and you have to learn it the hard way: you have to tell people when they matter, when they are doing work that matters, when they are creating something that means something to you, because when they are gone it will be too late. And also, this: you have to believe in what you are doing, and when it turns out that even this isn’t enough, you have to get back up and try again.

I keep coming back, again and again, to the night that Mike Daisey gave a benefit performance of HOW THEATRE FAILED AMERICA, that spring when Mark Chamberlin died and Intiman closed, only one show into their 2011 season. I keep going back to Jerry Manning telling everyone that they should go see Elizabeth Kenny’s SICK at New City Theater. I keep trying to remember what made me listen and go home and buy a ticket. I wasn’t a Rep subscriber yet. I had an ACTPass that I used maybe once a month. I hadn’t reached the point where I went to so many plays that even the actors started recognizing me. All I know is that I went to see SICK at New City Theater, and I kept going back, again and again, and I kept my eyes and ears open, when J. told me to go see STUCK at WET or when R. told me to go see TORSO at Theatre Off Jackson. It was like being swept along in an avalanche, or a tsunami.

One thing I told V. a few weeks back, when he asked me why I see so many plays, is that very quickly I began to see them as forming the arc of a body of work, not just for a playwright, but also for a director, for an actor, even for the sound and set designers. For the way a theater builds a sense of identity, an aesthetic that transcends the individual artistic director who may embody it for a period of time. The art is what remains. But, paradoxically, it is people that matter the most. Their voices hang in the air, like the last notes of a song vibrating in your heart before they dissolve into nothingness. This is what Jerry Manning seemed to understand better than anyone: It is the people who matter, and as E. M. Forster said, a hundred years ago, we need “only connect.” I saw him all the time, all over town, tiptoeing in the back door of his own theater, seated in the back row at Strawshop, walking down Broadway with Gretchen Krich, one of his closest friends and another one of my favorite actors.

I remember SICK as being a free-flowing narrative, broken up by a friend of Elizabeth Kenny’s, who would hit a buzzer when she thought the anecdote had gone on long enough. She would give Elizabeth another cue card, and the story would continue from there. It felt improvised, but in a controlled way. Much later, several plays later, I would see more clearly the level of precision and uncontrolled control executed in all of John Kazanjian’s work, Sometimes it felt like every single molecule of air in the theater belonged to him. There isn’t any other way to explain it. There isn’t anyone else who makes me feel this way.