Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Tag: Woolly Mammoth

Stupid Fucking Bird

Woolly Mammoth‘s jaunty staging of Aaron Posner‘s rejiggered Seagull is enormously entertaining. It’s like—

Well, at times the actors have scenes together that are kind of…borrowed…or lifted…or cribbed or whatever…from Chekhov’s original, and at other times they…I don’t know, they—

Actually what they do is they address the audience like they…well, you know…

So there’s these seven actors, see. And they each play a role in the basic story that Chekhov wrote. And there’s tons of love on stage. Yeah, that’s what Chekhov himself said in 1895 while he was writing The Seagull: “tons of love.” Except it’s all…what do you call it?…blown off…rebuffed…unrequited or whatever. And so the actors are all really fun to watch even when their characters are bummed and very sad. Just very very sad because…I don’t know they—

Know whud I mean?

My point here is that Posner has taken Chekhovian subtext—unspoken charged emotions below the surface of what characters say aloud (Chekhov’s signature dramatic technique that famously influenced theatrical history)—and traded it for unfinished thoughts and dangling utterances that litter his script with ellipses and em dashes at line endings. This textual stunt is tons of fun, especially when Posner has characters say the filler words whatever and fuck. The voices on stage sound contemporary, not nineteenth century at all. Posner captures precisely how people communicate in real life these days—in fumbling, incomplete fragments groping for expression and hoping for comprehension. That’s what’s expected and accepted. In fact in this era of inarticulation, there are certain social circles (for instance among the young) where someone who articulates clearly, who makes real sense in complete syntax, is regarded with suspicion and even derision.

Know whud I’m sayin’?

The only other time I’ve seen The Seagull on stage was in London. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed production, directed by Trevor Nunn with Ian McKellan, was wrapping up its international tour. And that was the point in my life when I understood why theater folks revere Chekhov. The language on stage was so rich, the acting so emotionally resonant, the characters so hilarious in their melancholy, that I finally got it: I got why Chekhov deemed The Seagull a comedy. The human-all-too-human kind. The kind that keeps your eyeballs really moist.

The snippets of the Seagull story that Posner has plugged into his script are unsustained; the actors regularly break character, unsentimentally. The rollicking waves of humor come mainly from Posner’s clever colloquialisms and anachronisms and interactive bits with the audience. And it’s indeed a hilarious crowd pleaser, like watching actors improvise on the edge. But to the limited extent it’s Chekhov, it’s a Cliff’s Notes version for those more familiar with Chekov from Star Trek.

The effect is as discombobulating as it is entertaining. We are drawn into a scene fraught with emotion, then suddenly yanked out. Over and over, again and again, as if everything is in air quotes, bracketed in ironic detachment. So after a while, we learn we dare not care too much about the lives of the characters on stage. We literally learn not to trust our own empathy, because to do so is to be set up to be a little bit betrayed by another bait and switch.

Now, I know that Posner can write one hell of a full-fledged play. His adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen at Arena was utterly gorgeous. I was moved beyond words. Changed too, actually—I left that theater experience different from when I went in.

The earnest young wannabe writer in Posner’s riff on The Seagull declaims early on that there must be new forms of art, creations that change us. By the end the lovelorn lad (actually the out-of-character actor who plays him) is searching aloud for the catharsis. Where’s the catharsis? he laments. Where is it?

It’s a very funny joke. But it also exposes Posner’s own grasping for authentic emotional content inside his trickster technique. Which can sometimes feel, you know, like he’s run out of ideas…or at a loss for meaning…or drawing a blank…or whatever.

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American Utopias

Hugely entertaining theater isn’t usually also profoundly political. Authentic political theater is supposed to be self-important and polemical, right? Like earnest agitprop, loaded with Brechtish messaging and echt alienation. It’s not supposed to embrace you magnanimously in hilarity. So after laughing  so hard throughout Mike Daisey’s not-to-be-missed exuberance of humor now at Woolly Mammoth, you don’t expect to walk away later so transformed, strangely contemplative, and pondering your own place on the world stage. Which in the case of American Utopias is of course just fine, because it tickles us astonishingly…and then really catches us unawares.

Mike Daisey is riotously funny but he doesn’t do standup (see my previous post about his work). Mostly he sits, at a table, and, with a boundlessly playful stage presence, tells stories. In the case of American Utopias, they coalesce into a thoroughly absorbing, two-and-a-half-hour monologue about his trippy journeys to Burning Man and Walt Disney World and his more sobering reflections on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

The thing is, once we start laughing, we are already players in Daisey’s game, because we are laughing, almost always, in recognition of something. Something Daisey has held up to view for us. But it’s something we hadn’t looked at before, or something we hadn’t seen quite like that before. Something he wants us to see—through his extraordinary probe-through-culture-fog eyes—because once we see it, once we are awake not asleep (as he puts it)…we might, just possibly might, be changed.

It would be reductive to summarize what Daisey opens our eyes to in American Utopias. It might also be a spoiler. But I’ll give a hint: Now that megacorporations are officially persons (per the U.S. Supreme Court), they also get to be among Daisey’s dramatis personnae. Turns out they’re actually the off-stage protagonists, propelling and influencing every tale he tells. Which makes Daisey and the rest of us…what? The pawns? The peons? The antagonists? Eeek! But if we’ve been awakened by American Utopias, we might well find ourselves asking ourselves that question.

Mike Daisey

In an ideal world, one should know as little as possible about a Mike Daisey performance before attending. Just know you’re going to be enthralled by a solo storyteller/raconteur who is without peer in contemporary American theater. And maybe know the topic.

That’s how blank of expectations my brain was when I saw two prior Daisey monologues, The Last Cargo Cult and How Theater Failed America, both at Woolly Mammoth, both of which knocked me out. The staging didn’t vary much. He sat behind a table. He began to spin a tale. And that was it, I was hooked—in a way that can’t be compared to any other live-performance experience I’ve ever had.

This week I saw two more Daisey pieces, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure) and The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. And both times I went in knowing what felt to me like way too much. For ever since the veracity of some of Daisey’s Agony and Ecstasy narrative was notoriously called into question by NPR in January, there has been a glut of press about what turned into a certifiable scandal.

NPR—which sanctimoniously fancies itself America’s keeper of journalistic conscience—was all in a tizzy because some of what Daisey said about a site visit to where Apple computers are manufactured in China never actually happened. What Daisey described about the deplorable and deadly working conditions, documented by other news media, was not at issue—just his embellished telling of how he learned about them.

Well, geez, I thought. How did Daisey’s theatrical artistic license suddenly get to be an issue of state when most Americans are still clueless about the sprawling history of U.S. government-sanctioned lies and coverups—for instance the utter fabrication upon which was based our going to war in Iraq? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up Curveball, the nickname for the “informant” whose concocted story of mobile biological-weapons labs snookered U.S. intelligence and Secretary of State Colin Powell and was just what President George W. Bush needed to justify the war he’d already intended to wage.)

I mean, really. Some perspective, please.

Still, as I kept following the Daisey debacle, something in me was a little troubled. His embellished storytelling was being touted as a breach of trust with his audience. Was it? And was that how I felt too?

Fact is, I finally realized, at some level I did feel a bit betrayed. So I was not planning to see his controversial Agony and Ecstasy when it returned modified to Woolly Mammoth. No hard feelings. I just wasn’t up to having my aficionado emotions toyed with.

Then I learned about a new piece Daisey was developing that he was going to perform free, one night only, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure). Advance press said that in it he tackles the Agony and Ecstasy scandal head on. OMG. I had to be there.

I don’t want to give anything away, but with Value of Failure Daisey does something that is to my knowledge unprecedented on stage in the personal-ethical arena of honesty and accountability and in the public-political zone of belief and bamboozlement. If it comes to town again, just see it.

That redemptively transformative theatrical experience under my belt, I was ready to see The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. It turned out to be the very best I’ve seen Daisey do.

And he’s a very hard act to follow.