Saturday, September 08, 2012

Democrats and Republicans at the theatre: 
Dueling manufactured dramas

I have written nothing thus far about the political spectacle that is the American quest for the presidency. Compare with the large amount of time and energy I devoted to the subject four years ago, when I was trying to figure out who Obama was by
 looking at
 his performance
through  the lens of  literary metaphor!

 I think I more or less understand this president now; the flatness and predictability of the character makes me feel those attempts were a bit silly. Mr. Romney, on the other hand, such an upright and tight citizen, doesn't inspire curiosity, so there's one reason why I'm not as engaged with the subject as I used to be.

But one can't keep mum about the two spectacles that dominated the news in the last two weeks so I'm posting here a long comment I read on The New Republic from a poster called eMish, in which he analyzes with a wry and keen observation the two conventions for what they are: pure theatre.

Read and enjoy.


At The Theater / Review by eMish

A Tale of Two Conventions: two oppositional plays presented in cycle

Both of these productions are set almost entirely in America, with few foreign characters to consider. Those that do appear, with one exception, are relegated to either minor roles or nebulous vagueries.

The physical accouterments of the stages were unmemorable, with these differences: set designer R had either not gotten the digital memo or was intentionally trying to evoke some past period. That constant stage decoration - semi-circular tri-colored bunting hung from the balustrades and balconies - was made of textile, which nobody uses anymore. Set designer D took the more contemporary approach of LED's, used to good effect to heighten the action on the stage. They shimmered electronically, casting their own glow on the audience below.
Lighting technique also differed. R is illuminated subtly and statically as an Ibsen play. When the applause lines came, it was a simple order of "house lights up" to showcase the theater-goers' reaction. I say "reaction" in the singular purposely--part of the aim of both these vehicles is to display only one unified expression of the crowd--huzzahs for heroes and hisses for villains.

The pulsing, rotating lights scanning the crowd at D were more akin to a rock concert, and like the LED bunting, served to propel the narrative to its multiple climaxes.

D contained many elements of the rags-to-riches trope, scrappy characters battling up from the bottom in order that they may distribute their hard-won sagacity outward as communitarians to lift up the bedraggled.
One cannot say this of R, in which a rich man inspires by virtue of his example. Each one of us individually can rise according to his own aspirations, and when we arrive, can serve as pathfinders for those that wish to follow.

The Casts

In R, a memorable performance by C, playing the portly, bare-knuckled man from Jersey. He has a commanding stage presence by virtue of his sheer physicality and no-nonsense attitude. So much for the good. His portrayal was so self-serving (not even mentioning the main character until late in his soliloquy) that it undermined the main theme of the whole piece. He seemed to be auditioning for a better role in a future production. He deflected his tepid reviews by calling the house "flat."

Mrs. R (as played by AR) turned in a warm if somewhat confined portrait of the supportive wife and mother and adequately evoked that standard character in a way that successfully communicated the traditional mores of the archetype. Still, one has to say this type of performance sometimes seems a bit antiquated when presented as it was here, without irony.

R (as the lead role R) had obviously studied his part well, knew his lines, and delivered them accurately, if somewhat perfunctorily. The essence of being an actor is to disappear into the character, so the crowd suspends disbelief and is unaware of the artifice. Mr. R. is not practiced enough in his craft to pull this illusion off, and his performance, while earnest, disclosed this fact. He may have been miscast for this particular production. In any event, some time spent in summer stock may improve his ease with future roles. His portrayal was by no means the strongest of this piece, and his character's primacy was achieved only by virtue of arriving at the reveal, the pinnacle of the narrative, as if deposited there.

The most interesting character by far, the one the crowd no doubt left the theater chattering about, was the buffoon, exquisitely rendered by E. His twelve minute solo was equal parts improvisation, avant-garde, and surreal non-sequitur. It created quite the stir, though it again side-tracked the narrative, as in C's turn. On the other hand, his creative visualization of the invisible villain O may have in fact been the main focus of the entire production. If so, I must admit I missed the point.

There were many strong performances in D. Among them was M, wife of the main character. Her costume was gorgeous, reminiscent of the style and grace exhibited by the late great JO. Gleaming smile, an athletic and dignified carriage, a direct and competent gaze. She was able to convey an emotional immediacy of connection supporting the main character. I don't mean to suggest that this character is any less circumscribed by the iconic wife-and-mother meme--but it is a contemporary type, a more youthful one, better turned out and better suited for our contemporary theater of the moment.

JB, as the loyal aide to our hero, conveyed a down-home earthiness, a man-in-the-street sense of commonality while extolling his knight. He ended with an entirely believable endearment to his wife, and when he teared up and his voice broke, the illusion was so complete I felt myself swept along. Bravo.

The odious villain BL must be mentioned. This character had the advantage of being based on the truly evil actions of an historical figure, and so possessed a reality of maleficence lacking in the invisible villain in R. One could not ask for a better antagonist, and the hero O's destruction of him continually punctuated the narrative--a bit too much. We got it already.

O's performance was more mature than much of his previous work, deliberately structured to convey the gravitas the character requires, holding back a bit on the insurgent zeal with which he first played this role. The play describes serious times, and a certain restraint is indicated.

But the kudos belong to BC, who stole the entire show with his blend of wit, folk wisdom, and simple storytelling. He is one of the finest actors of our time, beloved by the American Theater, his checkered accomplishments rendered hazy by the affection that comes with time.

The aim of a critic of theater is to critique theater qua theater--whatever connections or applications an audience may make to their own visceral lives or topical events is their own business. This is illusion, after all. Therefore, I limit my commentary here to which show was more effective at entertaining the crowd, we groundlings--for in these sorts of spectacles, the vicarious thrill and confirmation and release of all our most fervent affective desires may be achieved, whatever those desires may be. We come to have them stroked and to realize a catharsis.
Substance is never the question in these sorts of programs. That is not their purpose. Facts diminish in importance. Contrary to the popular saying, we seem entitled these days to our own. These are not weighty dramas or high comedies. They are equal parts melodrama and light farce and romance which nevertheless enrapture millions, for that is the popular taste, as can be observed in many other media besides theater.

The pity is that we are so eager to embrace the romance of belonging that we have exchanged critical thinking, which demands specifics, diligently ferrets out facts, weighs substance, and arrives at a determination, for the ease and vicarious satisfaction of the ecstatic thrall or the easy enemy, both the domain of all who are confident in their own righteousness, the righteousness of the crowd.

The play has indeed become the thing, but not as old Will meant it.

Given all that, these shows are produced by Parties, and I wanted one. I enjoyed (virtually, of course) dancing to Springsteen under the swirling lights more than sitting through the drear and doom of Nordic shadows.

And that's entertainment.