Monday, June 27, 2011

Local Productions of New Plays

In the past couple of weeks I've seen two new plays performed in town. The first is Ponzi by Elaine Romero and the second is The Shipment by Young Jean Lee.

Ponzi is the story of a wealthy young woman who becomes friends with a couple, then lovers with the husband and a kind of mentor to the wife. Katharine never wants to be seen as a fool, and she guards her money and her heart carefully; she reminds me of a Moliere protagonist, although the play isn't a comedy. Perhaps it might be called a serious coemdy of manners. The contemporary setting means that one cannot but think about Bernie Madoff and other recent financial scandals. But Katharine is fooled, because while she wants to be smart she also wants to be loved, and her desperate neediness enables her to be tricked by the charismatic husband.

This play was a commission, which means this was its world premiere.

In this case, I don't think the production served the play as well as it could have. I actually found the directing, the casting, and the design distracting me away from the plot itself. The actors playing Katharine and the husband were simply more experienced and therefore smoother onstage than the actress playing the wife; the wife is described as "naive," but instead she came across as not very smart. Her worship of the off-stage financial guru Jack was a huge red flag in the plot and never convinced me: why, again, was he so inspiring? But I was also unconvinced of the husband's necessary charisma: it is obvious that he has the looks, charm, and "sincerity" to get Katharine flat on her back in a hotel bed in one scene and rethinking her financial choices in two... didn't see it because the actor didn't sell it.

I also think the play moved too fast, so that the interesting moments of silent connection were cut short, mostly by the directing. The actors also rarely touched each other with meaning, and I never felt either of the two women were comfortable in their bodies--which they should be at the top of the play. Perhaps it was because of the costumes and shoes, which distracted me over and over.

Ponzi has a lovely three-hander possibility--which means productions!--but needs a little more nurturing and some serious attention from a very good director to reach its potential.

I was also curious about the Tarot designs built into the scenes' titles and projections. Nothing in the play itself reached out to them, but the significance was somehow very clear to the author. How tarot reading/layout/meaning connected to the notion of ponzi games or these three people, I don't know. I know a lot about tarot, so I appreciated the meanings, but they would have been opaque to most viewers, something pretty to see rather than something necessary, another layer of meaning.

The Shipment was curious as well. With a cast of five young Afrian-American actors--including two students from our department--it is a play that centers around race. One of its central messages is that here in 2011, even with Obama as President, Americans have not resolved race.

No fooling.

Or gender, or class, or nationality, or anything else that divides us.

I'd like to meet the people who think we have resolved or solved these things. Talk about naive.

The Shipment seems to present a series of episodes, unrelated one to another, that enact different racially-loaded actions (I don't know really the word: events, moments, positions?). The play opens with one young man, in a tuxedo, dancing. A second young man joins him, also in a tuxedo, and at first they "compete" in the dancing, then pair up, then return to battle. The moment was contradictory: at once charming and well-done because of the performers, behind it winked the memories of black dancers tapping in films (Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Bojangles Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers) and the whole host of blackface performers from Daddy Rice to Fred Astaire. That was followed by a DJ/hip-hop dancer, again both male, in tuxedos; the dancer's movements and gestures are overtly sexual, evne sexual positions, as he makes eye-contact and grins at the audience like the tap-dance duo.

Then came a stand-up comedian, with the same contradictory/two-faced message: one, a sharp, funny "routine," wherein he talks about wanting to docomedy about poop but having to talk about race because he's black, and two, again the winking image of Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and the "stereotype" of the foul-mouthed black stand-up guy. The language (and some of the imagery) is in-your-face dirty (sexual, scatological), but the ideas embedded in it should catch a corner of your brain. This seems to be the "Theatre of Cruelty" segment, where the audience is abused, but given flashes of insight--if you can hold on--that suggest something worthwhile, deeper in the message.

One of the problems here is that this is not a stand-up routine, per se. It is an actor playing a stand-up comedian who is performing his routine--a routine which has become a problem for him (the stand-up guy) while still being successful as a stand-up routine. The moment calls for the actor to present the comedian and the routine as two separate things that are constricting and destroying each other--a complicated piece of performance the young actor I saw was not able to pull off.

This is followed by segment done in a deliberately simple style--with no emotional affect, though lots of drama--about a young man who wants to be a rapper but becomes a drug dealer instead; and finally by what seems to want to be a "realistic" sequence about a party of friends and co-workers. Unfortunately, again, the young actors played the final two sequences in a very similar style vocally and physically (creating two-dimensional allegories, rather than full-bodies characters), and the result, for me, was few moments of not feeling absolutely shoved back by the production--Brecht's "alienation" rendered one direction--which left me too distanced by the parody and politics to connect to the message.

I kept thinking The Shipment was deliberately trying to evoke a "minstrel show" air, but one turned on its head by a Korean-American female playwright and an African-American cast. If this is a kind of  new minstrel show, one that parodies the stereotypical parodies that the white-performer minstrel show developed in the 19th-century (which are perhaps some of the roots of the dancing, foul-mouthed, drug-myth narratives of contemporary American regarding blacks, generated both by African-American and white American actors, writers, and spectators), something missed. The young actors didn't seem to grasp the notion of playing characters and stereoypes/situations simultaneously, in a Brechtian mix--but that is a difficult feat. And the playwright too often left it to me, the audience member, to say, oh, this is like a minstrel show! this is a parody turned on its head! she is playing with race humorously! in other words, to get the message by extension.

The actors did an amazing job--all very young, they stepped up to the challenge of this piece as an ensemble beautifully. I suspect they didn't grasp the deeper nuances of this complex piece, and frankly even if they had, it would be hard to make it all work. The play, too, was interesting, but the structure was what was supposed to carry the bulk of the message and it isn't carrying the weight. There are no layers underpinning her humor and insight. The playwright wants to confront and disconcert the audience, to make them uncomfortable, but she also wants to entertain, as well as diffuse the blame (who is to blame for continuing stereotypes and racial inequities? she winks both ways, but never comes right out with it).  The production was definitely successful in its design and in making me think about it for the last few days (like Ponzi) off and on, about what I liked and didn't get, etc.

Untimately, both productions made me think about various aspects of playwriting (always good) and new plays in production, and our relationships with the audience. So that's all good.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for commenting! Come back and visit often.