Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Don't Be Absurd

Some things just don't compute. When someone finally introduced me to artichokes, I quickly discerned that he was getting much more satisfaction from the noise he was making showing everyone at the table how much he loved nibbling at each leaf than I was getting from their actual taste. What's more, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the flavor I was tasting came primarily from the melted butter or the dip (and that I could eat those without the time and effort necessary to deconstruct an artichoke).

As I started attending opera, I began to realize that the works everyone touted as the perfect introductory repertoire for newbies (Mozart's The Magic Flute and Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier) were far less comedic and far too long to be pushed as gateway operas. To everyone's surprise, I had no trouble wrapping my mind around Strauss's Elektra, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, and Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes.

To this day, the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitri Kabalevsky, and Hans Werner Henze leaves me absolutely cold. Being asked to listen to works by  atonal composers feels like being told to eat my vegetables. If I never attend another performance of certain operas, my life would not suffer in the least. These include:
I often find myself having the same reaction to certain plays from the Theater of the Absurd that many people love with a deep and unflinching passion. They leave me cold. Some people have studied these works quite intensely (either for professional purposes or while in college). Some know every line of the script; others are drawn to the inherent symbolism and nuances in stagings they have seen.

To my mind, some of these plays are shown off to their best advantage in small theatres. Regardless of how well respected they may be, I find some of them to be intolerable bores. Perhaps they're too esoteric for me to appreciate (I tend to side with the sentiments expressed in the title song for Cole Porter's 1936 musical, Red, Hot and Blue).

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A perfect case in point is the American Conservatory Theater's recent double bill of two absurdist plays by Samuel Beckett. In Play, Beckett has three people (supposedly trapped in urns) who are commenting on their intimate relationships. On one side of the man is his wife; on the other side his mistress. Beckett's stage directions contain very specific demands for the play's lighting (as each person speaks, a spotlight is trained on their face).

Perhaps due to the fact that I've had three surgeries on my left eye, watching Play started to become physically painful. For much of its length I simply found it easier to close my eyes and concentrate on listening to Beckett's script.

I did not miss much. Under Carey Perloff's direction, Annie Purcell, Anthony Fusco, and René Augesen were trapped in what looked like giant beehives, dutifully reciting their lines with admirable devotion. Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

Annie Purcell, Anthony Fusco, and Rene Augesen in
Samuel Beckett's Play (Photo by:  Kevin Berne)

The main draw for the evening was the casting of Bill Irwin in Beckett's Endgame. A beloved clown who is hailed far and wide as one of the world's great physical actors, Irwin points to Hamm's opening line ("Can there be misery loftier than mine?") as the key to the play's absurdity.

Blind, and confined to an elaborate wheelchair (with his usually expressive eyes hidden behind sunglasses), Irwin uses every tool in his artistic bag of tricks to portray the selfish Hamm who, convinced that he is dying and aware that no more painkillers are available, appears to believe that when he dies, his whole world will die with him.

Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel in Endgame (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The great irony of the evening was that Irwin was confined to a chair while one of A.C.T.'s most brilliant young actors, Nick Gabriel, was cast as Hamm's servant, Clov. With his slow, pigeon-toed walk and hangdog face, there were moments when Gabriel reminded me of a loyal, aging basset hound walking on its hind legs, eager to obey his master's commands yet barely having enough strength to do so.

Giles Havergal and Barbara Oliver in Endgame
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Although Giles Havergal and Barbara Oliver made periodic comic appearances from nearby trashcans, Endgame struck me as the kind of absurdist play which, although revered by academic minds, is hardly an audience pleaser (several people walked out during the performance I attended).

If those who worship at the shrine of the Theatre of the Absurd want a real challenge, let me recommend Something Different, the only play Carl Reiner ever wrote for Broadway. It's a real doozy that will keep the audience in stitches

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Last year, when the Bay One Acts Festival presented Megan Cohen's absurdist romp entitled The Three Little Dumplings Adventure, the dumplings turned out to be three obnoxious, hyperactive young girls eager to work their parents' nerves to the bone. At the time I noted:
"The problem with Cohen's play is that, while it is filled with moments of hilarity and absurdity, it doesn't really know where it's going. As a result, it staggers around the stage -- most rambunctiously -- in search of an ending.  This play obviously needs some trimming, but where does one start to make cuts when nothing makes sense?"  
Cohen returned to the Bay One Acts Festival this spring with Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas, directed (as before) by Jessica Holt. In trying to describe her creative process, the playwright  (who admits to being heavily influenced by television) states "I write like I'm screaming one last message out before being hit by a truck."

Sarah Moser as the First Dumpling in
Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas
Photo by: Chris Alongi

I found both Dumplings adventures exhaustingly energetic, screamingly irritating, and way too long. However, if you're so inclined, you can watch the first installment and download Cohen's e-book containing both scripts at this URL.

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All this could make it seem as if I'm allergic to absurdist pieces of theatre, but I'm not. Sometimes I run across a play that skips and dances across the footlights. In the case of Ignacio Zulueta's Meet The Breeders, a 10-minute mini-musical included in the Best of PlayGround Festival, there was plenty of easily digestible absurdity to be savored.

Alex (Anthony Williams) and Beatrice (Roselyn Hallett) are a young couple who have not yet had children. They are about to be visited by Alex's sister, Carla (Lisa Morse) and brother-in-law Don (Gabriel Grilli), two perfectly obnoxious breeders who have recently had their first child.

Carla and Don are the type of young parents that need to be slapped silly. They can't stop speaking in baby talk and are eager for everyone around them to get impregnated as soon as possible in order to share their joy (Carla and Don probably look up to the Duggar Family the way many people idolize Martha Stewart).

Hilariously directed by Tracy Ward (with music by Don Seaver), Meet The Breeders is a tidy little package of lunacy that has been brilliantly conceived and executed to a fare-thee-well. Here's the trailer:

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