Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Death of a Salesman (NYC)

Death of a Salesman.  Thanks to a generous donation by the Daddy foundation, I was finally able to see this show. 
Here’s the thing, I LOVE Miller – probably more than a single human should.  I love him for reasons I will talk about later in this blog even.
It should come as no big surprise then that I LOVED this version of it.  I mean, I’m not gonna say Miller is easy, because I don’t think he is.  However, when he is done well, it is effortless to watch the story unfold on stage.  Miller believed this story to be a layer cake of time (his analogy, not mine), and this version does that brilliantly – moving through walls in the past and obeying them in the present – subtle but effective.    Honestly, my big problem with the show was Phillip Seymor Hoffman.  I really wanted him to use his mouth more so I could understand him more.  I thought Andrew Garfield held his own with PSH and Linda Edmond though.  (Though, to be honest, my date had to tell me that Garfield was famous…  I’m bad at that game.)  I do think that this production did an interesting thing by making Biff’s character far more central to the story than I think I have ever seen or read it as.  To be honest, I loved it and re-read the script to see what I had missed in my prior readings to miss that.  I’m not saying that Biff isn’t always important, I think he is.  But in my head, and when I read it, this is Willy’s show, and the other characters support Willy.  In this version, however, Biff’s story was just as important by itself as Willy’s – willing to admit this might be a fault in the way I was reading it, but this is my third production of it, and my first to have the realization, so I feel confident that it isn’t just me.
And now we get to why I love Miller so much. 
In undergrad, I had a WONDERFUL prof, Doc Berger, and he taught me many things.  One that we totally disagreed on was Miller.  We fought about it on more than one occasion.  And the basic fight was this:  Doc believed that there were no playwrights as great as Shakes since that time, because, he said, no one was universal or as timeless as Shakes is.  I disagreed.  I say Miller has hit upon some very universal truths of his own.  As proof, I offered The Crucible and Death of a Salesman.  One of the longest debates the two of us ever had was over Death.  (Made all the more ironic because he directed Death the next year.) (Also, The Crucible?  Because what is less universal across the ages and globe than a small group of people holding a larger group of people hostage through fear?)
One of the amazing things about this show was that it reminded me of this old debate, and, I think, helped prove me right. 
All shows should speak to the audience that watches it.  That’s what it means to be universal.  Watching a show and seeing what the society that produced it might have thought, and what the society (or part of it) who is currently watching it is thinking, I think, is the pentacle of the universal timeless play.  To me, this production speaks of a world moving on without the older generation, of a world that cares more about fancy toys than human beings – in modern terms, Willy Lohman is the 99%. 
More than economics,, this show speaks to what it means to live your dreams, to understand what your dreams are.  Miller asks us to be honest with ourselves about our past and what it means.  I mean, everyone polishes up their past; everyone is the protagonist in their own story; everyone wants to believe the best in themselves and those around them, those they love.  But Miller reminds us that those of us who are strong enough to see who we really are, what we are really capable of, what we have really want, what we have really done, who we have really hurt, who we have really helped and what we really are the ones who walk away with the ground firmly under our feet and an actual chance at happiness.  Miller reminds us that it is by putting your brain and it’s false beliefs and remembrances aside and listening and accepting the truth of your soul and heart that you find where you are supposed to be.  Thank you for that universal truth Arthur Miller.  It means as much today as when you wrote it.  And I feel certain that it will mean just as much in 100 years.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Strange Interlude (Washington DC)

I had the opportunity to see Strange Interlude at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washing DC. 
Strange Interlude, for those playing the home game, is O’Neill’s attempt at creating a stage version of an inner life.  The script, therefore, has lots of idiosyncrasies in which the characters break from the scene to talk have these sort of soliloquies while everyone else on stage ignores them.  Interesting in concept.  Super intriguing for when it was written and first performed.  I would even say it is something I would love to play around with now. 
A couple of things though, first, if it is a character’s internal world, why not let the audience in on it.  Instead of it being a monologue to some made up point in the sky, why not take it to us.  Draw us in as the inside of the characters mind.  Good literature already does this.  Well, at least well written first person literature.  Think of how you felt when you read, say The Lovely Bones, or The Great Gatsby, or almost anything by Kurt Vonnegut.  Heck, even Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy does it.  When done well, attaching the audience to a specific characters point of view brings the audience into the story, invests them with the power of “I” instead of “they”.   I would love to see contemporary theatre tackle this idea (and if you know anyone who is doing work like this, please let me know – I would LOVE to see it!)
Also, today I want to talk about pace.  Ok, those who know me, or read this blog lots, know that I have a huge issue with what I call “butt in seats time”.  For the most part, I think almost all shows longer than 2 hours can and should be shortened.  (Some of the time, without even cutting text.)  I mean, not always, St Joan was def over 2 hours, and Iwould not have changed a single thing about that show. 
But back to Strange Interludes… it was 2 hours and 45 mins.  Yep, that’s right.  I mean, on the plus side, it did have two intermissions, which helped.  However, that is just too long really.  I mean, the story itself doesn’t need to be a 3 hour story.  It really doesn’t.  But most upsetting about the show was not just the time, but also the pace. 
I’ve had several conversations recently in which I have talked about, what I felt like, was a need to pick up the pace.  And each time I realized that what I meant, and what was being heard were not the same thing.  So let me explain myself before I go any further.   When I say something needs to be faster, or the pace needs to be picked up, rarely do I mean that the actors need to speak faster.  Mostly, because that is rarely the problem.  In fact, that is probably the biggest misconception about pacing – that pacing means talking faster or slower. 
My mentor, Lanford Wilson, once said in a rehearsal “Dear God this show is too slow.  Pick up the cues.  Stop thinking and then talking.  People don’t do that.  You don’t think before you talk, you think as you talk.”  This is what I normally mean when I say pick up the pace.  There are rarely reasons to have Mac Truck pauses on stage.  And when there are, they need to be earned.  Pauses become meaningful when they are rare.  Think about the last time you had a conversation.  Or raise the stakes, think of the last time you had an argument – when you were really mad.  How many pauses were in that moment?  For most people, the answer will be very few.  The argument occurs at the rapid pace of thought.  When the silence comes, it generally represents a point won for someone.  Either one participate has been so hurt that they can’t process, or one participate has just realized that he/she is wrong, or one participate has come across a topic so painful that they cannot skip blithely into it without re-centering themselves.  That is life. 
However, in theatre, we are often subjected to moments of thought before the line (which, to be fair, is totally ok in rehearsal as actors and directors are trying to find the reasons that this line must be said at this moment).  In performance, however, it is killer.  In performance, it can take what could have easily been a very good 2 hour and 20 min play, and turn it into a very slow 2 hour and 45 min play. 
When the pacing is off at this level, I find it hard to concentrate on what is happening on stage for long periods of time, because I don’t care.  If everything is given the weight of a pause, then nothing actually matters.  When I was in undergrad, I once had to do a directors book for a scene I had directed, and in it I had to make a temporal graph of each moment of the scene.  In the end, it kinda looked like a crazy bar graph or a line from a lie-detector.  And while I don’t physically do that anymore, it was an invaluable lesson for me in what pacing really means.   Life doesn’t happen in the same pace, so neither should theatre.   Theatre, I think, should happen at the pace of life – the life of the character, the life of the story, the life of the show, and the life of the performance.  And yes, there will be a little variation across the board on that.  (Though, I tend to agree with Peter Brook when he said something like – good work runs the same time while bad work’s time varies extremely.) 
Anyway, that is my two cents for today.  Thanks for listening!   Feel free to let me know what you think too!