22 January, 2011

Who Knew Nihilism could Be So Gracious?

If theatre, both the comic and the tragic, is supposed to be cathartic as I think it should be, then the Paper Lantern Theatre Company’s production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days falls hopelessly flat. To be fair, it’s more a fault of the playwright than the cast and crew. While quite funny at some points, End Days ultimately fails in its attempts to put a hopeful spin on modern man’s devil-may-care tragic metaphysic by presenting us with a family’s almost farcical process of healing after the events of September 11th. But characters stripped down to the single dimension of their reaction to the tragedy and Laufer’s hapless slapping of band-aids on bullet holes can’t fool the audience into believing that nihilism is okay.

Arthur Stein, who worked in the World Trade Center, is paralyzed with survivor’s guilt and hasn’t left the house in a year. His wife, Sylvia, having succumbed to the fear of losing her loved ones, “found” Jesus and the hope of the Rapture as her cure all. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Rachel has turned into an angry, hateful goth chick, searching for meaning while rejecting everyone else’s answers. Enter Nelson Steinburg, a borderline-autistic, borderline-stalker with an omnipresent Elvis outfit and an unstoppably sunny disposition, despite his tragic past. Nelson’s optimism pulls Arthur out of his seclusion, Rachel out of her selfish hatred, and Sylvia out of her fear of the future almost all in the space of one, 24-hour vigil for an apocalypse that never happens.

As I said, the fault does not belong to the actors. Lee Spencer as Arthur comes as close three-dimensions as a good actor can and the emotional honesty of his cereal box-breakdown in the grocery store is easily the most moving portion of the show. And the brilliant physical comedy of the young actor who plays Nelson kept the audience from getting too lost in the dysfunctions of the family as a whole. In addition, the cardboard box set brought a focus to the characters as a family in transition from sorrow to joy.

Despite all this, there is a problem. And the problem is not that happy endings are can’t be cathartic. The problem is that the ending isn’t truly happy. There’s a sort of repentance and reconciliation, but it’s at the expense of the truth. All the playwright can give us is, “In the end we all die, but that’s how it is, so it has to be good enough.” A nihilism that prides itself on its gracious acceptance of the supposed facts is still nihilism. And a gracious nihilism is still a false reality.

END DAYS by Debora Zoe Laufer; produced by the Paper Lantern Theater Company; January 19-22 & 27-29 at 8pm, 23rd & 30th at 2pm; adults $18, students and seniors $15; at Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret, 232 South Elm Street, Greensboro, NC 27401; 336.272.0160

19 October, 2010

Isn't It Rich?

A Little Night Music is an excellent musical, but it's not true. That is, it moves us most when its existential nihilism causes pain, but the supposed happiness of its leading characters in the end must, by the very nature of its philosophy, be tinged with hopelessness. It is a story that longs for eucatastrophe. We see its hopelessness in miniature during Petra’s breezy "The Miller’s Son." She sings of her inevitable marriage—whether to a miller’s son, a businessman, or a prince—but insists that, in the meanwhile:
There are mouths to be kissed
Before mouths to be fed,
And there's many a tryst
And there's many a bed,
There's a lot I'll have missed
But I'll not have been dead
When I die!
Because life is just passing by and we should celebrate while we can. The result is a stage full of fools—fools that move us, but fools nonetheless.

The entire musical, as one-woman Greek chorus Madame Armfeldt prologues, is about the follies of mankind. For someone with a deeply comic outlook on life, such follies can and should be funny (cf. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but the nihilist can only say with Fredrika, "I think it must be worth it. […] It's all there is, isn't it?" This outlook on life is nothing short of discouraging and turns hope into a mere childish fancy. So even when Desiree rescues Frederik from "renewing [his] unrenewable youth" and he rescues her from her endless series of liaisons, we can only look upon them sadly, as we might a desperately poor child waiting up for Santa on Christmas Eve. After all, "love's disgusting, love's insane, a humiliating business" and Desiree has already branded herself and Frederik as the fools in the farce that is their life. Tragic fools, whose comedic timing is on the fritz.

And yet, Stephen Sondheim has an unmatched gift for seeing truth. The hopelessness of such nihilism is impossible to miss. Each couple is struggling to choose between seeming opposites: renewing one's youth or surrendering to the effects of time, prudence or passion, freedom or domesticity, and that perennial choice, love or money. But Sondheim, as ever, holds on to the tragic metaphysic of the classicists before him, certain that we must choose between the opposites rather than live in the paradox of the Cross. But this is not syncretism or any sort of attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. It's the struggle.

It's Pascal, it's Eliot, it's Christ.

13 April, 2009

How could something go wrong that I can't see?

What do you love about this character?
His sense of purpose and his devotion and commitment to Diana [played by Ripley]. I’m a hopeless romantic myself and I love my wife tremendously, so I understand his desire to make his wife better. Most husbands, whether the issue is depression or an accident or illness, whatever the circumstance may be, want to be the knight in shining armor, to push a button and make it better. Dan is so adoring, and yet there’s something very naive about him. Because it’s not that easy. He has hidden in the shadows of denial for too long in his marriage and his life. And yet the thing that’s so beautiful about the show is that by the end, he has that moment of understanding and more importantly, acceptance.
- J. Robert Spencer on his character, Dan Goodman, in the new Broadway musical Next to Normal

21 March, 2009

"[The stage] demands a special discipline, a raft of technical skills that cannot be mediated by the ministrations of directors and cinematographers."
~ Charles Isherwood

23 September, 2008

Process and Processed

Another article for Patrol. This time on what theatre's got that film don't got.

04 July, 2008

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Or, Why In the Heights Won Best Musical and Passing Strange Walked Away with Next to Nothing

The 2008 Tony Awards renewed my hope for the future of musical theatre and it wasn’t simply the fact that the Tony voters actually selected the best in each category this year. It was the spectacle of The Lion King’s opening performance, the indomitable Patti LuPone garnering a standing ovation for her performance of "Everything’s Coming Up Roses," the reaction of generations of theatre people to RENT’s farewell performance, and the large number of winners who stood on stage expressing their sincere gratitude for just being allowed to work in theatre. But, most of all, it was the fact that the Lin-Manuel Mirandas took the night with barely a glance back at Stew and his attempt at the autonomous musical.

Just looking at Stew, the creator and self-styled star of the mostly autobiographical Passing Strange, is enough to see how full of himself the man is. Sporting ever present sunglasses, a bright wardrobe, and an irritating take-me-as-I-am personality, Stew announced to the New York Times, as if it were a badge of honor, that he can count the number of times he’s been to the theatre on one hand. He speaks about musical theatre as if it were the most inferior of art forms, in need of his vulgar, over-loud version of reform. "In high school," he said, "when you're a rock 'n' roll stoner, your mortal enemies are the thespians. We thought that musical theater was the dorkiest thing in the world and had nothing to do with the music we listened to. And quite frankly we still feel that way." With all his talk about being an "outsider," one gets the overall impression that the man enjoys being on the fringe and will do all he can to remain there, as if appealing to a wider variety of people were some form of selling out.

Then there’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Being a Latino on Broadway, Miranda is also a minority; what Stew would call an "outsider." But where Stew harbors this not-so-veiled dislike for Broadway, Miranda is a Broadway baby. He may have grown up in the mostly Latino community of Inwood at the top of Manhattan, with all its hip-hop and salsa influences, but just watching his reaction to the RENT tribute performance is enough to see how much he adores musical theatre. Like many Broadway fans his age, his first show was The Phantom of the Opera and his first Broadway obsession, RENT. It was only right that this theatre fanboy took home some of the biggest awards of the evening. Upon winning for an original score riddled with homages to shows like West Side Story, he burst into an unrehearsed rap and gave some love to Sunday in the Park with George, exclaiming, "Mr. Sondheim, look, I made a hat where there never was a hat! It's a Latin hat at that!"

Miranda did what every good creator does: he loved what came before. In bringing that love together with his love for the present, he created an old-fashioned show that nevertheless "illuminates the stories of the people in the street."