A Supposedly Fun Elephant Room At The Opera [or Andy’s Week in Review(s)]

Heavens To Betsy what a week!! Things have been crazy busy here at Culturebot HQ as we get ready for our show at Exit Art, our trip to Austin and, you know, seeing shows, writing essays and doing all those other things we do.

The week started off on Tuesday at St. Ann’s Warehouse with Elephant Room. Back in January 2009 I wrote up a workshop of this show that was presented at HERE when it was called Amazingland. In September 2011 Culturebot’s own Mashinka Firunts wrote it up when it was at Philly Live Arts and now, finally, I got to see the full-fledged version with own two eyes. Totally worth the wait!  Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford (together known as rainpan 43) have been making imaginative and surprising physical theater work together since 2003 when they rocked NYC with all wear bowlers. Steve Cuiffo – magician, actor, Lenny Bruce channeler – has been a downtown fave for years, but I kind of mark his big breakout moment to the Foundry Theater’s production of Kirk Lynn’s Major Bang at St. Ann’s (also directed by Paul Lazar). So here you’ve got a veritable supergroup of creators working together to make magic.  And the magic is pretty amazing. There is levitation and sleight of hand, there is mental trickery and illusion, a new variation on sawing a woman in half and much more.

Intertwined in the magic is a vague outline of a story of three misfit magicians in Paterson, NJ – overblown egos and delusional dreams of worldwide acclaim, we are here in the Elephant Room, a basement room, probably in a mall, somewhere undistinguished and undistinguishable, where prestidigitation provides a window into what might be possible somewhere else, anywhere else, but here.

It is a great collaboration – Cuiffo brings the magic chops and glitzy showmanship, the illusionist in-jokes that put every trick in postmodern quotes; Sobelle and Lyford bring the clever choreography, stagecraft and banter. Together under Paul Lazar’s steady direction they dodge and weave, allude to pasts only half-remembered and even less willingly acknowledged, they are a trio of amateur superheros, like a much funnier and smarter Mystery Men.

I’m not going to give anything away, you should see it for yourself. But I will give you a few hints of hilarity to come: a skilsaw, a trucker hat,  a late night phone call with the Dalai Lama, a drunken epic tale of magical temptation, a name transmitted telepathically from the audience and maybe, just maybe, an elephant.

Wednesday night I had to work.

Thursday night my folks were in town and took me to see Macbeth at The Met. Orchestra seats, row P. Awesome!! Believe it or not, in all my years of going to the performing arts (and nearly 17 years in NYC) I had never been to a big, fancy opera, much less The Met. Sure I’ve been to downtown, avant-garde, experimental opera – lots of them, actually. But this Met thing, it is a whole other kettle of vichyssoise and I must now do penance for all my years of mockery and disdain. It was incredible! It is like Broadway for smart people. I was sitting there just being overwhelmed and delighted by the luxurious surroundings and the big moon with the cool lighting effects that was suspended in front of the curtain pre-show, when the lights go down, the curtain goes up and there was a chorus of, like, 100 women acting as the Witches! Wow. Throughout the show I kept being blown away by the grandeur of the whole thing. Huge crowds of people, beautiful booming voices, gorgeous sets: it snows, it rains, a jeep drives on stage accompanied by a platoon of soldiers. A jeep! Crazy. And the music is really wonderful. I guess there’s a reason that everyone talks about Verdi when they talk about opera.

As for the show itself, I think it was good that this was my intro to opera as I already knew the Macbeth story and could layer my previous knowledge on top of what I was seeing. The libretto, by Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei, uses snippets of the original Shakespeare as signifiers to establish a specific scene or interaction, but mostly they use Shakespeare’s story and text as a starting point. In this rendition it is not just about the temptation and downfall of Macbeth himself, but about the impact of his actions on the people. Act IV, Scene 1 in particular was breathtaking – the curtain goes up on a sea of refugees making their way downstage as Macduff (played with wonderful emotion and stunning voice by Dimitri Pittas) wanders through them, lost, his family destroyed by Macbeth. So powerful.

I’m told that Verdi was an important figure in the Risorgimento and Macbeth, among many of his works, were very political. It brings about a certain cognitive dissonance that opera was once a popular, money-making form of entertainment that could spread deeply populist messages and now, well, its pretty expensive and definitely not popular in the current sense of the word. But if you’re going to blow big money on a show and you have to choose between Broadway and The Met – I choose the Met. Plus the show is 3 hours long so on a dollar-per-minute ratio it is probably cheaper. I will definitely be trying to add this to my culture palate on a regular basis.

Consistent with the inconsistency that is my life, I went from a three-hour high-production value 19th-century opera on Thursday to an almost-three-hour, low-production value, late 20th century avant-garde theater piece on Friday, Daniel Fish’s A (RADICALLY CONDENSED AND EXPANDED) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN (AFTER DAVID FOSTER WALLACE) at The Chocolate Factory. Jeremy saw it earlier in the week and I think we’re going to do some kind of a group iChat discussion thing about it this week, so I’ll keep my comments to a minimum for now.

I’m a big fan of Daniel Fish. I think he’s a very talented and idiosyncratic director. We also went to Northwestern together, he was a Performance Studies major a year ahead of me, so I kind of know a bit about where he started out aesthetically. Watching A Supposedly Fun Thing… I definitely remembered why we used to jokingly call Performance Studies “The Department of Reading Out Loud”. Fish has five actors all wearing headphones and (I have to check this) it appears that he is mixing their text live. A sort of mash-up of the book, interviews with DFW and people who knew him, over the course of the 2.5 hours we are given the experience of being inundated with his words, thoughts and world. Fish has his actors dressed really casually, and there is something about the big headphones that conjures suburban living rooms. The actors are in the room together but they are in their own worlds, they are unable to get out of their heads but desperate to connect. They are overwhelmed by information and words, desperate to get them out, to make sense of them; they are in thrall to the words and at the same time being ground down and destroyed.

The first half hour was fascinating, then it got boring, then it got frustrating, then we had a two minute pause to stretch while Big Star’s awesome song Thirteen played, I think possibly in a version by Elliot Smith. Never heard it? Listen here:

[audio:http://www.culturebot.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/14-Thirteen.mp3|titles=14 Thirteen]

After the break we came back and it was fascinating again, Jenny Seastone Stern starts a story about a boy on a diving board. There’s a story about 9/11 in Bloomington, Indiana. This is it, this is America, this is who we are, this is who he was. DFW had too many words, too many ideas, too much sensitivity and awareness and was probably, also, from time to time, a major asshole, aware enough of his own dick-hood to be pained by it yet unable to stop. The actors trade lines, trade stories, trade movement, the dialogue mixes and re-mixes across them, the room starts filled with tennis balls, at the end they are shoved into a corner, it is a desolate post-modern suburban rec room, it is us, it is who we are, it what we are trying to escape and who we might become.

I liked it, though I’m not sure I’d be up for the 5 hour version they’re planning on doing this Friday, starting at 7PM.

Saturday night, after a day of mostly sleeping and writing to try and recover/catch-up from the week before, I headed out to [the end] in Greenpoint to check out Sarah Cameron Sunde’s new outfit Lydian Junction and their experiment in immersive, environmental performance, UNTITLED #4”.

Sarah and I hung out a few months ago and she was talking about how this project grew out of her desire to break from the assembly line of mainstream play production and explore something interdisciplinary, non-narrative and different. In the show she used source materials ranging from the Persephone myth to Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger” combined with elaborate multimedia elements – video, audio, projection, live-mixed –  choreography and visual art to create an experience. She’s got an interesting and talented group of collaborators and while this first experiment seemed a little unstable, there’s definitely something there. The collaborative model of creation is very interesting, and the live-mixing of sound/video in multiple spaces is very promising.

There seems to be a burgeoning field opening up here of theater artists working in immersive, environmental ways and it merits further examination. It is more than site-specificity (that is a whole big conversation unto itself, for another time), it is negotiating narrative, negotiating how much structure is required, how much presentation, how much guidance. On the one hand you have the meticulously designed and lavishly produced Sleep No More, that builds an environment that you explore entirely at your own pace without any guidance whatsoever, on the other hand you have promenade or alternately-sited projects like Hotel Savoy or Elective Affinities that adhere more closely to a guided form.

UNTITLED #4 is still in development, so it is not really appropriate to comment in too much detail. I think it is kind of hovering between worlds, between directing the audience and giving the audience agency to engage at their own pace, on their own terms. You could wander through it casually, but then a cast or crew member would come along and direct everyone to go to a specific room or place to watch the action. It got a bit confusing. Also, the performativity of the actors varied. Early in the evening I saw a very young, attractive, girl with blonde Botticelli ringlets huddled in conspiratorial confidence with a much older man on a couch. I was hoping it was her father but it looked like something else. Were they actors? It turns out they were – but I’m not sure if this incidental scene I witnessed was planned or by accident. When the “performance” started it became very clear who was an actor and who wasn’t, and something of the mystery blurring fiction and reality was lost.

A few weeks (months?) ago I saw Theresa Buchheister’s Gradient Haircuts at Housing Works and she employed some really interesting staging and strategies. When the show started it was really, really hard to tell who was just browsing for books and who were performers. Little scenes and dialogues erupted all over and it was disorienting and cool. Eventually all the “environmental” actors gravitated towards the chairs in the cafe and it became very clear. They then led us down the stairs and into the basement for a clearly guided promenade show. Gradient Haircuts was super low-tech. UNTITLED #4 was very high tech. Both had thoughtful staging and engaging performative interventions. It’ll be interesting to see, as this field evolves, how artists negotiate these challenges and balance performance with environment, the audience’s desire for autonomy with the desire to be led through a surreal and mysterious experience.

Which leads, tangentially, to my closing thought. Of late we’ve been hearing a lot about audiences wanting to “curate their own experience”. This is bullshit. Making your own playlist of music you know and love is completely different than curating a new experience from material of which you have no prior knowledge. There’s a difference between wandering independently through the carefully curated environment of a museum or a show like Sleep No More and being asked to “choose your own adventure”.

The internet and its tools  – facebook, twitter, tumblr, etc – are different from dance and theater, with different strengths and weaknesses. I think the question is less about how to integrate these tools into performance – or migrate performance into these media – then it is about what the sociological, psychological, linguistic and semiotic implications are of horizontality. As performance makers we need to be thinking more about context and presentational aesthetics working with the tools we already have than trying to integrate these tools into our work. At least in the short term.

Like I said, I could be wrong and I put it out there for you to discuss.

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