The Bard in Bushwick and other Theatrical Adventures

So first off I have been a little behind in posting on what I’ve been seeing. I saw The Walworth Farce at St. Ann’s, which was really fantastic. It really makes you wonder how people can sit through predictable, boring, conventional Irish plays like Seafarer. Enda Walsh’s claustrophobic and unrelenting tale of an extremely dysfunctional family is compelling theater. The show is reminiscent of Pinter’s The Homecoming: the set is similar to the recent Broadway production, the story is one of a hermetic all-male family upended by the intrusion of a woman, and the ascerbic dialogue and taut writing style all hearken back to Pinter. But Walsh finds new ways to create unease and discomfort, to explore the “weasel under the cocktail table” as they say. Also, Walsh seems to be making a comment about the conventional, hide-bound Irish drama. The family in Walworth Farce is Ireland, is Irish Culture, trapped in retelling the same story over and over again, trapped in its myths and lies and self-deception, scared of walking away from its dysfunctional history and crimes, scared of re-imagining itself. Walsh is using the convention of the dysfunctional, drunken Irish family to take the piss out of the myth, to tear down the veneer of romance. Its ballsy and the effect is stunning.

I also had the good fortune to go see God’s Ear again, this time at The Vineyard. God’s Ear as it was presented by New Georges at CSC was easily one of my top five plays of the past season. I thought it was stylistically innovative, the writing poetic and meticulous, the story heart-rending and, well, the whole experience was just like theatrical heroin, it made you feel totally good and deeply sad all at the same time. I’m glad to say that the new production at The Vineyard is equally good. Of course, the audience I saw it with was a lot of alte kakers who didn’t really get it. It was a Friday night about a week ago and I think people were tired and distracted, the audience was pretty subdued. But that doesn’t change the essential awesomeness of the show.

In between the good shows there are always a few clunkers, some of which had been widely praised by everyone else on the planet. Doubting my sanity, I was starting to feel a bit of burnout and it was with some trepidation that I embarked on a journey to Bushwick to see MacB@McK, billed as “a Macbeth event, after Shakespeare’s Scottish Play.” I had received an email several months ago from the director, Gordon Walker. We met, chatted, I told him to keep me posted, and though our conversation had been thoughtful and promising, still, the title had me worried. The fact that the 6 train wasn’t running and the L train was running in three different sections had me daunted; once I arrived at the Montrose stop (45 minutes from midtown east!) I wandered several blocks through what had once been totally deserted projects and warehouses (except for a few hearty pioneers) and now seems to be a thriving industrial bohemia. I walked into a loft and into a surreal moment of temporal dislocation. Oh the kids these days! There were maybe a dozen young people in their early twenties hanging out, of whom most were handsome young men who, with their stovepipe pants and striped shirts, looked like they had stepped out of Warhol’s Factory circa 1965. I was both delighted to encounter the dewy optimism of youthful bohemia and freaked out to realize that my own loft-living, bohemian youth was now some 15 years in the past.

I had arrived on time, however the sun had yet to set and many of the invited guests had yet to arrive, so I drank some wine, tentatively mingled, and waiting nearly 45 minutes for the performance to begin. I’m glad I waited.

Long story short – I’m not terribly gifted at architectural description, so I can’t really describe the production in a way that does it justice. Mr. Walker is an extraordinarily imaginative director who has a gift for both painterly and cinematic composition. This production, using one microphone, clip lights and a stereo, probably had a total budget of about $50. Yet it is a better rendition of Macbeth than the bloated, overblown, gazillion-dollar version of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart. And even though The Wooster Group used actual film and billions of projections and computers and gizmos in their most recent staging of Hamlet, I would say that Mr. Walker used his cinematic references to better effect. With a simple sound cue reminiscent of a Vincent Price movie, or by playing visual games with the depth of field, or by simply arranging his actors in interesting ways, Mr. Walker managed to convey the menace of the story, to use the tropes of cinema and the tricks of theater to create an immediate and contemporary rendering of a classic play.

There were so many striking moments. Our first introduction to Lady Macbeth (played with steely reserve by Mark Jaynes), seated at the foot of a staircase, in profile, was stunning. All the actors gave great performances, far beyond what one would expect of such young performers. Seth Miller, a rumpled glasses-wearing nerdy-seeming guy, was a really unexpected and adventurous choice to play MacBeth, he did a great job. And Zach Harvey, was a joy to watch playing all three witches – and a host of other characters. And I’ve never enjoyed the cauldron scene as much as I did here. It was a perfectly timed comedic break in the action.

I have some questions about text edits – the production ran about an hour – and I’m not sure exactly what was cut, changed, etc. In this production Macbeth personally kills Lady Macduff and Macduff’s son. It was totally creepy and fucked up. I don’t remember whether that happened in the original. But that is a discussion for another time.

A quick side bar: generally I’m suspect of people taking on the classics, especially younger directors. These endeavors are so fraught with pitfalls – the yucky hippie “open theater” puppet pitfall, the dark robes and depressive theater major pitfall, the techno-geek pitfall – that I find it best to avoid them. That being said, sometimes really good directors are well-served by approaching a well-known text. It allows them to demonstrate their vision, style and presentational aesthetic in a way that takes the pressure off of the work in its entirety. We know the script is good, let’s see what you can do with it to make it yours. For instance, my favorite Jay Scheib show, to this day, is the adaptation he did of Our Town at MIT. Using MIT students and his wonderfully techno-messy aesthetic he ripped that show open and brought it back to life in a way that was completely surprising and delightful and heart-rending and moving. He demonstrated his pure imagination, his skill at textual analysis/manipulation and dramaturgy, his gift for post-modern storytelling in a way that hasn’t been as vividly present in his other works like Desert and Mars. Maybe he’ll revisit the Our Town again, with a new group of non-actor students, I think it would be an amazing project.

The point being that while I’m normally suspicious of young directors doing classics, I think this was a good choice for Mr. Walker. His ability to take this iconic and in some ways threadbare classic and breathe life into it, to put his creative stamp on it, was impressive. Yes, he’s young. But he’s one to watch. The few “oh you’re really young” moments were not enough to detract (or distract) from the overall artistic achievement. Gordon Walker is a director to watch.

The long story short (I guess its too late for that now!) is that this production gave me hope for New York Theater. There are still young people moving here with dreams, passion, intelligence and vision. They haven’t all necessarily gone to grad school and learned Viewpoints, and not everyone making innovative theater is mired in despair, nihilism and the willful rejection of meaning. There are still young folks out there who will make magic with $50, a box of wine and a loft full of friends. God bless ’em!

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