Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sisyphean Challenges

Some dramas begin with a great deal of promise but slowly lose their direction. Others implode under their own weight.

For actors and directors involved in bringing these stories to life, the challenges can be daunting, intoxicating, even terrifying. There's supposed to be a big payoff in the script, but where is it? How can they find it?

Even more important: How can they successfully communicate the story's payoff to an audience?

In Greek mythology, a crafty, greedy king named Sisyphus dared to consider himself on a par with the gods. Although charged with the role of hospitality, Sisyphus often killed his guests and wallowed in the sadistic pleasures of exerting his dominance over travelers and unsuspecting victims. A murderer and trickster who  managed to outwit even Thanatos (death) temporarily, Sisyphus was given a punishment to fit his crimes.

Forced to keep pushing a huge boulder up a hill, each time Sisyphus neared the top of the hill, the boulder would break loose, fall back to its starting position, and force Sisyphus to start all over again. Talk about a "never ending story"!

Two recent dramatic outings left me wondering about the willingness of talented and willing actors to embrace scripts containing Sisyphean challenges. As the old saying goes, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

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The most important thing to understand about Barney's Version is that Barney Palofsky is a total schmuck. A friendly schmuck, to be sure. And at times a cuddly, lovable schmuck. Sometimes Barney resembles a good-hearted schlemiel who honestly tries to make the world a better place.

But no matter how you look at things, Barney remains a classic, free-wheeling schmuck who thinks with his dick. He's the kind of schmuck who, in an inebriated act of self-indulgence, leaves his second bride at their wedding reception to chase after a woman he just saw across the room and impulsively decided he must have as his third wife. He's that kind of a schmuck.

Minnie Driver as the second Mrs. Palofsky in Barney'sVersion

Based on Mordechai Richler's last novel, the audience watches Barney's life unfold as he progresses through three marriages and finally ends up emotionally numbed by senile dementia. Along the way we see Barney with Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), the tough as nails beauty he knocked up and married in Rome. We see him succumb to the sexual and financial temptations of his second wife (Minnie Driver), a wealthy Jewish-Canadian princess whose obsession with shopping is matched by her family's horror at the antics of Barney's father (Dustin Hoffman), a retired police officer who gives his favorite gun to his son as a wedding present.

Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in Barney's Version

The two most important figures in Barney's life are his third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), and his former drinking buddy, Boogie (Scott Speedman), who allow the painfully average Barney to bask in the shadows of their physical and intellectual beauty. After Barney walks in on Boogie screwing Barney's second wife, a very drunken argument leads to Boogie's untimely demise. But since Barney was far too drunk to remember what happened, the mystery of Boogie's death remains unsolved until the very end of the movie (by which time no one really cares).

A great deal of Barney's Version unravels with the messiness of a chronic drunk's weaving footsteps and staggering gait. Although the film is brought to life by some wonderful character actors -- ranging from Paul Giammati's Barney to Dustin Hoffman's Izzy -- the film is as messy as Barney's life (which does not mean that it is anywhere near as entertaining or interesting as it might seem to the person who drank his way through it).

As layered and complex as Giammati's acting may be, he is left eating the crumbs left behind by Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, and Minnie Driver. Dustin Hoffman gets one of the funnier death scenes in recent years. But even such a grandly ironic scene cannot hold the rest of this rambling script together. Here's the trailer:

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Bone To Pick and Diadem are two one-act plays that draw their inspiration from the myth of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete and sister to the Minotaur (who, for the sake of argument, we'll call Bruce).  The ravishing young bride of Theseus, Ariadne was humped and dumped on the island of Naxos during her honeymoon. After the opening night performance of the Cutting Ball Theatre Company's double bill of monologues by playwright in residence, Eugenie Chan,  I found myself wrestling with a curious enigma: 
  • Can a monologue be too wordy? 
  • Can a monologue contain too much text and too little drama?  
  • Can a playwright load a monologue up with too much background information for an audience to digest in a short period of time?
Put more simply: Can a monologue drown under the weight of too much exposition?

Paige Rogers as Ariadne in Diadem (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

A controversial figure who also plays a key role in Richard Strauss's opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, the princess bride of Crete (who told Theseus how to defeat the Minotaur) comes turbocharged with enough back story to tempt any playwright. After all, if your father is busily sacrificing beautiful young Athenian boys and girls to the angry monster that emerged from your mother's loins, bestiality might put a whole new spin on the question "Am I my brother's keeper?" Consider these salient points from dramaturg Megan Cohen's program notes:
"We know that Ariadne's mother Pasiphae was the daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perseis. We know that although Pasiphae was an adulteress who lay with a bull, she would not tolerate any infidelity from her husband Minos; she bewitched him with an herbal potion which ensured that if he lay with another woman, he would ejaculate serpents and scorpions who would slaughter his paramour from the inside out.  We know this is the woman who raised Ariadne, who set her expectations for how men and women treat each other."
Having embraced the challenge of such rich source material, the real test lies in choosing what to use and what to exclude. That, I fear, is where Ms. Chen may have bitten off more than the folks at Cutting Ball could reasonably chew.

After the initial success of Bone To Pick (at 2008's Avant GardARAMA!), Chen was commissioned to write a prequel (which could show how Ariadne ended up stranded on Naxos). The result (Diadem) is meant to form a double bill with Bone To Pick (which shows Ariadne, some 3,000 years later, stuck in what seems like a diner in the Deep South where the gods are still crazy).

Paige Rogers as Ria in Bone To Pick (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

About 15 minutes into each piece, I had the strangest reaction. Seduced by the magnificent soundscapes created by the brilliant Cliff Carruthers and appropriately awed by Heather Basarab's brilliant lighting, I found myself losing interest in Ariadne's story.
  • This was in no way the fault of Paige Rogers who, in addition to memorizing a tremendously complex text, gave her all as Ariadne in the first piece and Ria in the second. 
  • Nor was it due to any problem with Michael Locher's brilliant unit set.
  • Nor could I pinpoint any problem with Rob Melrose's direction.
Paige Rogers as Ria in Bone To Pick (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Mae West liked to claim that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." Sometimes it can simply be too much.

Whereas there are some lovely moments of writing by Ms. Chen, they tend to get smothered by a huge retelling of Greek mythology that has less to do with action than it does with a recitation of blood lineage and past history. Much of the writing, though it may be clear to those working on this project, remains quite confusing for the audience.

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