Saturday, June 18, 2011

Thinking Way Outside The Box

When creative types are urged to "think outside the box," the temptation to "go for it" is irresistible. But when they produce something that goes far beyond "edgy," it can scare the shit out of some people. To some minds, the challenge to create something new and daring means "the kind of stuff I like but in a new and pretty color."

Not everyone is comfortable with artists who push the envelope. Some people like their art pretty, even slightly challenging. But daring? Invasive? That's a more specialized audience segment.

Three recent dramedies took audiences outside of their comfort zones. While these productions might have induced cringes and squirms from some onlookers, they also produced guffaws and applause.  As Prince Orlovsky once said: "Chacun à son goût!"

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Some people remember Scott Thompson as one of those wacky Canadian actors from The Kids in the Hall. One of his best comic creations was the bitchy queen, Buddy Cole, who stars in the following collection of video clips.

One of Thompson's latest comic gems appears on the Fun in Boys Shorts program at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.  Simply entitled "52," it deals with one man's anxiety over growing old.  Director Josh Levy explains that "this short film riffs on mortality, aging, lust, and mangoes. We aim to keep the audience guessing by playing with their perceptions of what is real and what is a dream."

Scott Thompson stars in 52

For anyone living in a youth-obsessed culture, the fear of getting old can become one's greatest phobia. In 52, Thompson keeps awakening from one nightmare after another, always only to discover that he's turning 52. The film is short, biting, and often hilarious.

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As part of Fury Factory 2011, the Pig Iron Theatre Company brought its production of Chekhov Lizardbrain to Zspace. Founded in 1995, this Philadelphia-based ensemble describes itself as "dedicated to the creation of new and exuberant performance works that defy easy categorization."

The cast of Pig Iron Theatre Company's Chekhov Lizardbrain

There's no doubt that Chekhov Lizardbrain defies easy categorization. As directed by Dan RothenbergChekhov Lizardbrain is described on the company's website as follows:
"A lonely, mildly autistic botanist conjures up a parade of unsettling and comic recollections in an attempt to shape his fractured memories into a comforting fiction. Pig Iron's virtuosic physical performers spin a web of memory, vaudeville, and the impossible task of telling a story straight."
A moment from Pig Iron Theatre's production of  Chekhov Lizardbrain

Much of Chekhov Lizardbrain goes beyond the Theatre of the Absurd into an area where the skill and concentration of Pig Iron's talented ensemble (Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Geoff Sobelle, James Sugg, and Dito van Reigersberg) becomes more noticeable than the script. While there are some wonderfully wry moments and delicious Chekhovian references, they were not enough to turn this into a very satisfying experience for me.

Anna Kiraly's unit set and Olivera Gajic's costumes create a circus-like atmosphere that sets up the audience for a fairly raucous piece of entertainment. But I came away from the performance severely doubting its merits.

In far too many ways, Chekhov Lizardbrain seems like a seven-minute skit from academia that got blown up into a 75-minute show without much dramatic justification. Taken during rehearsals, the following clip demonstrates the highly stylized speech and performance styles used by the cast throughout the show. If you think the text falls flat in a rehearsal room, let me assure you that its success rests on the goodwill of the evening's audience.

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Something strange happened after I arrived home from a performance of Metamorphosis at the Aurora Theatre Company.  As I was reading the dramaturgical notes about Franz Kafka (and looking at a picture of him as a handsome young man), my gaydar alarm went through the ceiling.

Never having even wondered if Kafka might have been a closet case, I did a Google search for "Was Franz Kafka Gay?" which led me to this fascinating essay by Orrin Judd on his blog.
"Two things strike me about Franz Kafka. First, the almost complete absence of ideas in his work. Second, how obvious it is that his work is fundamentally about either repressed or closeted homosexuality.
First things first; reading these stories and comparing what's actually on the page to the central position that Kafka holds among critics in 20th century literature, I couldn't help thinking of Chauncey Gardiner. He, of course, is the simple minded hero of Jerzy Kozinski's great book Being There. Having spent his whole life within the grounds of a mansion gardening and watching TV, he enters the world completely unprepared to interact with his fellow man. But the people he meets inflate his non sequiturs into faux profundities and he is soon advising the President of the United States. He is a blank slate upon which other people scribble and then interpret their own ideas as genius. In much the same way, Kafka wrote a series of completely autobiographical tales, and an unpleasant autobiography it is: grown men living at home with their parents; working menial jobs in huge bureaucracies; terrified of marriage; bullied by overbearing fathers; plagued by illness, nightmares and feelings of alienation from all around them except for one loving sister. This was Kafka's own life and these are the common threads that run throughout his work. But add them all together and what you get is a situation, not a set of ideas. Kafka endlessly rewrites the situation that he found himself in; noticeably absent are any thoughts about the origin, meaning, or alternatives to this situation other than killing off the character who finds himself stuck therein.
Second, I guess the discussion of Kafka as a 'gay' writer is fairly recent, but I'm not sure how else he can be read. The very lack of socio-political meanings in his work, the degree to which it is situation based rather than driven by ideas, leaves you with only the elements of the situation to interpret and they point inexorably towards a conclusion that his heroes are isolated by their homosexuality. Just take Metamorphosis; here are the elements of the plot. A grown single man who still lives with his family wakes up one morning to find that he has become a bug. This leads to his being isolated from his shamefaced family. His father drives him out of a room by throwing apples at him. One lodges in his backside and rots there; the resulting infection kills him. Well c'mon; this just isn't even subtle. A family ashamed of their single son. He's a dung beetle for cripes sakes. The apple (sin) infects his posterior. I mean surely we've all got the picture by now. Why go on?" 

 A photo of Franz Kafka taken in 1906 (when he was 23)

"All of which leaves us with an interesting question, does the fact that his stories may not have meant to him what they have come to mean to different schools of critics in some way diminish his stature as a literary figure? Or does the fact that his intensely personal story can be read in a universal manner to apply to (1) the Jewish experience, (2) the epoch of totalitarian regimes and (3) the dehumanizing age of bureaucracy in which we all live, actually demonstrate just how great a writer he was?
I'm inclined towards the first view. I think that the situation that he reiterates in his work is so specific to him and has so little to say about the world most of us live in that it is hard to justify his lofty position in the literary pantheon. As I read, I found myself thinking, 'This author is a troubled boy' more often than 'This is a troubling society he describes.' In a perverse way, it seems likely that the best thing that ever happened to Kafka was the rise of totalitarian regimes in general and, specifically, their banning of his works. It is noteworthy that he died before the long dark night of Nazism and Communism descended on Europe. It is only retrospectively that his work came to be read as a gloss on these regimes. And had they simply ignored him, it's hard to believe that he would have come to be so closely associated with their machinations. Return him to the time and place that he wrote and take his work at face value and I think you're left, not with a writer whose work defines and illuminates the 20th Century (a la Orwell, with whom he is often unjustly paired), but with merely the mildly intriguing tales of an unwell man."
Alexander Crowther as Gregor Samsa in the Aurora Theatre
Company's new production of Metamorphosis
(Photo by: David Allen)

Directed by Mark Jackson, the Aurora Theatre Company's production of Metamorphosis marks the American premiere of a new adaptation of Kafka's novel by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson. Jackson has updated the action to the 1950s, and staged the play on a unit set designed by Nina Ball with costumes by Christine Crook that allow for a broader comedic stroke. But it is mostly in the reactions of his family, his employer, and a potential new tenant where Jackson's directorial gifts shine (I loved the moment when Grete walked into a wall).

Grete (Megan Trout) dances for the Samsa family's guest,
Mr. Fischer. (Photo by: David Allen)

In addition to the eerie sound design by Matthew Stines, what really makes Jackson's production crackle are the almost cartoonish characterizations he has developed for his actors. Madeline H.D. Brown's Mother seems like she was the model for a Disney audio-animatron while, as Fischer, Patrick Jones delivered a portrayal of someone whose preening pride in his austerity, once shaken, revealed him to be a frighteningly insecure man.

Alexander Crowther gave a fascinating and grotesquely athletic performance as Gregor, the young man who wakes up to discover that he has been transformed into a cockroach. So much of Metamorphosis rests in the audience's willingness to believe in Gregor's transformation that Jackson's touch is at once an enabling and disarming factor.

There is some fine ensemble work in this production, which also includes Megan Trout (Grete) and Allen McKelvey (Father). Performances of Metamorphosis continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through July 17 (you can order tickets here).

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