Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Warped Time

Anyone who has watched an instant replay in slow motion -- or seen a film in which slow motion was used for dramatic effect -- knows that there are moments when every second counts.  Lately, Bay area filmmaker Shireen Pasha has been asking people a tricky question: What Is Time?

In her new documentary -- that will be screened at the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (Third i) --  Pasha interviews relief workers, stilt fishermen, and government officials in Sri Lanka who tell her that:
  • Time is money.
  • Time is the speed of life.
  • Time is how long you sit on a stilt pole until your butt hurts.
  • Time doesn't matter to someone with no possessions.

But why is Pasha asking this question of Sri Lankans? On December 26, 2004, a 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra generated a tsunami which took the lives of more than 230,000 people in 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

The Onges (an indigenous people native to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal) saw the ocean receding from the shoreline, knew what was coming, and headed for higher land. They were all saved because of warnings about tsunamis that had been handed down through an oral tradition over nearly 1,000 years. Unfortunately, more than 35,000 people living along the Sri Lankan coast were washed out to sea.

Many of the Sri Lankans who watched the ocean recede prior to the tsunami coming ashore made the fatal mistake of walking out toward the ocean, curious to see what had previously been hidden from sight. As Pasha searched for the island's mythical "Coconut Man," she encountered many people who had lost their homes, their families, and everything they owned within a matter of hours.

In her documentary, Pasha also interviews foreign donors and government officials who are trying to help Sri Lankans rebuild their lives. After asking people in all walks of life to define time for her, it becomes evident that the fewer material possessions a person has to lose, the less important it is for that person to worry about trying to measure or define time.

Nevertheless, there are moments when chronological time takes a back seat to dramatic team. Earlier this year, footage of a tsunami hitting the Tohoku region of Japan left many people speechless. The following video clip of a medium-sized cruise ship encountering rough seas many only last about three minutes but, for the people who were on board that day, the experience must have felt like a never-ending nightmare.

The element of "heightened time" presents a stiff challenge for any stage director. While all kinds of technology can be used to create suspense and intensify a dramatic, if the underlying text does not create a sense of urgency, it's hard to keep an audience involved.

* * * * * * * * *
Hans Christian Andersen's short fable, "The Emperor's New Clothes," tells the story of an Emperor who is hoodwinked by two weavers into believing that his expensive new outfit is made from a magical material that is invisible to persons of lesser rank or wisdom. When the Emperor appears in public, a young boy cries out "But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

Gertrude Stein once described her childhood home in Oakland with the famous words "There is no there there."  Over the years I've had the misfortune of listening to someone wax rhapsodic over a new boyfriend whose personality could make Mr. Potato Head seem charismatic.

Like most people, I've occasionally attended a show that others have raved about, only to find myself, like Peggy Lee, wondering "Is that all there is?" Having attended numerous revivals of long-neglected operas that faded from popularity (Saint-Saens's "Henry VIII." Massenet's "Le Roi de Lahore" and "La Navarraise," Zandonai's "Giulietta e Romeo," Rossini's "Bianca e Falliero," Mozart's "L'Oca del Cairo," Chabrier's "Gwendoline," Verdi's "Giovanna D'Arco," Delius's "Margot La Rouge," and Hermann's "Wuthering Heights"), I understand that an artist who was wildly popular in his time can fade into obscurity.

I also seem to have had particularly poor luck with Maurice Maeterlinck's 1893 Symbolist drama, Pelléas and Mélisande. Maeterlinck (who received the Nobel Prize in 1911), may well have been the most famous playwright of the Symbolist school, a literary movement that began in the mid 19th century. Today, as playwright Bennett Fisher notes, he is "quite possibly the most famous and influential writer you've never heard of."

The few performances I've attended of Debussy's opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, have bored me to tears. Nor did I feel an ounce of sympathy for any of Maeterlinck's characters. However, those performances took place in a huge opera house without any Supertitles to make the work more accessible.

I have no problem accepting the fact that Maeterlinck's play has a strong following among academics and musicologists. Alas, its appeal may be far too esoteric for me (I recently found myself wondering if the story could be more interesting if Peter Griffin were cast as Pelléas with his drinking buddy, Glenn Quagmire, as Golaud).

Caitlyn Louchard and Joshua Schell are the young lovers in
Pelléas and Mélisande (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

What continues to stubbornly elude me retains a fierce and mysterious power over those fascinated by Maeterlinck's writing. As Rob Melrose (who recently translated Pelléas and Mélisande for a new production by Cutting Ball Theatre) notes:
"He was one of the most respected writers of his time. There is something about his world view that is truly unique. It is at once modern and medieval. It is a world of essences that is concerned with the soul and what is eternal.  Maeterlinck's dream-like symbolist theatre gave way to realism and now, with film and television, realism has declared total victory and the mystical world of Maeterlinck has faded into the mist. In our busy modern lives, there is something very refreshing and eye-opening about spending some time in this world."
Derek Fischer appears as Golaud with Caitlyn Louchard as his wife in
Cutting Ball Theatre's production of Pelléas and Mélisande
Photo by: Annie Paladino

As dramaturg for Cutting Ball's new production, Fisher explains that:
"In Pelléas and Mélisande, the attention paid to this seemingly benign but laden language gives the play a certain stillness that amplifies the slightest action. A glistening object, an acrid smell, a sudden silence, and a moment of touch all carry tremendous significance that would be lost in a more frenetic tragedy. More than half a century before Absurdists like Samuel Beckett internalized this same stripping away of superfluous noise to get at the simple core of human existence, Maeterlinck does away with the hyperbolic to preserve the fundamental. While it is imperative that any production stay true to the soul of the piece, perhaps the best way to honor a revolutionary writer is with revolutionary staging."
Caitlyn Louchard and Joshua Schell are the young lovers in the
Cutting Ball Theatre's new production of Pelléas and Mélisande
Photo by: Annie Paladino

After years of resenting people who claimed to "hate the sin, but love the sinner," I find myself in an artistic pickle. I have yet to feel the passion which grips so many others -- or come under the supposedly magical spell of Maeterlinck's story.

While this does not prevent me from appreciating the creativity behind this staging of an unbearably tedious drama that has been stretched out to run for 100 minutes, it does mean that I am only able to comment on production values rather than the play itself. The lead actors in Cutting Ball's production (Caitlyn Louchard as Mélisande. Derek Fischer as Golaud, Joshua Schell as Pelléas, Gwyneth Richards as Genevieve, Paul Gerrior as Arkel, and Jessica Jade Rudholm as Yniold) have all been carefully directed by Melrose and choreographer Laura Arrington.

But the evening's magic is not coming from Maeterlinck. Whatever impact Melrose's new translation has on Cutting Ball's audience is largely due to the impressive contributions of composer Cliff Caruthers, set designer Michael Locher, video and projection designer Wesley Cabral, and lighting designer York Kennedy. Their work has transformed the Exit on Taylor (a black box theatre) into a runway that becomes the foundation for radiant moments that are far more interesting than anything Maeterlinck could have imagined. Here's the trailer:

Pelleas & Melisande Trailer from The Cutting Ball Theater on Vimeo.

No comments: