Monday, October 25, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W43: Girl From The North Country, Caroline, or Change

What: A transfer from The Public Theater, a new jukebox musical using the songs of Bob Dylan, about an assortment of personalities in and around a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934.
And? I have so many questions. And, since Conor McPherson both wrote and directed this show, I'm directing them all to him:
  1. What did I just watch?
  2. Why don't you establish the language and structure of the show and how the songs work (or don't) in conversation with the dialog, so we know how to listen? I was desperately looking for some character depth or emotional dilation in the lyrics and was lost so quickly.
  3. Would I have minded this less if I knew Bob Dylan's music better?
  4. Why does each scene feel like an excerpt from a different play? Why do you introduce characters, conflicts, or the idea of an arc, only to never return to them during the next 2.5 hours? 
  5. Why are you so afraid of writing scenes that reveal character, that you have a periodic narrator to explain things instead?
  6. Why are the majority of songs so dramatically inert and disconnected from their adjacent scenes?
  7. Why is there so little coherence among the various elements telling this story?
  8. Why are scene transitions such a bland inactive character drop that distract from the scene that hasn't yet ended? (except Jay O. Sanders, who valiantly holds character even to carry a chair across the space as he exits)
  9. Speaking of Jay O. Sanders, I understand you are making some kind of statement by having Nick, the center of the story, have no music, but since you never explained to me how music functions in this play (and really, it's a play with music, right? not a musical? I mean?), I don't know what that statement is intended to be. John Doyle's revival of Company this is not.
  10. Also what is up with those scrims? Why do we have a view of an empty road behind an interior scene?
  11. What is the point of the radio mics? The performers address most of the songs straight out to the audience regardless of the presence of one, like this is a concert and not a story.
  12. Why do you put the band onstage but not light them? Also why do you have a band onstage but ask your actors to handle the drum set (and then not light them)?
  13. Speaking of not lighting your performers, why don't you light the face of the character with the final emotional beat? Hasn't she earned that?
  14. Why do you include a song with the slur for the Romani people? Is that vital to the story you're telling? Is it? I know that we have a number of classic musicals which use that word (including "Anything Goes" and the Sondheim-Styne show whose title is the word itself, and that's something we need to grapple with), but this is a new show. You get to make choices. You chose this.
  15. Why are you contributing to the harmful narrative that people with mental illness are a danger to those around them?
  16. Why do you ask me to have empathy for a character that, one scene earlier, called a grown Black man "boy"?
  17. Why does the ghost of an implied murderer get the one song of lightness and joy?
  18. This show got good reviews in London. What got lost in translation?
  19. Who is the Girl from the North Country?
Jay O. Sanders and Todd Almond and Mare Winningham are great. Most of the cast is good. The vocal arrangements and orchestrations are beautiful. But what was that, Conor McPherson?

The cast of Girl From The North Country. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Margin Notes: Assemble

Seen on: Saturday, 10/15/21.
My grade: B

Plot and Background
A return engagement of Flying Leap LLC's immersive audio journey about Jane's 40-year crisis during a pandemic.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew it was immersive, audio, and choose-your-own-adventure. Beyond that I tried to avoid reading as much as possible, for my first return to immersive theater since the shutdown.


Preface: I'm going to avoid major spoilers here, since the location of Assemble is part of the secret and the surprise. The production (performance? experience?) is an interesting idea, simultaneously isolatingly private and completely exposed. It's a promenade experience, with the audience on their feet and moving. Each audience timeslot has only four attendees (each set of four staggered at twenty-minute intervals across a two-hour span), with audience members clutching their mobile, earbuds in. You are alone. You are surrounded by people. You are surrounded by people who don't realize you're having an experience. You are surrounded by people having their own experience. No one is looking at you but you're in everyone's way. And -- yes, that's someone else in your timeslot, sharing a conspiratorial grin before returning their attention to their phone.* As you follow Jane on her journey, making choices in the app, reliving the tedium of isolation at home and the anxiety of growing older without hitting the milestones everyone told you to hit, you and Jane both begin to realize your choices were wrested from you the moment you hit play.

Parts of this experience worked very well for me, immersion-wise. I felt enveloped in the moment, in the choices, in the world being tapestried around me. But too often I was pulled out, either for fear of being in the way of someone who didn't realize they were part of the show, or trying not to overlap too heavily with my fellow time-slotters, or--frankly--window shopping. I got lost a few times. I couldn't do precisely what the app requested, for reasons outside my control. And pretending you're doing a thing for an audience of zero, as you wait for the next step to prompt, is its own weird dissociation. Especially when I wouldn't go with option A, B, or C at times.

That being said, I like the bones of this experience very much, and wouldn't mind seeing what comes next from this group. Maybe next time I can latch into the story better, and disappear for a few hours into somewhere else (though traveling between Brooklyn and Queens on a weekend is rough y'all).

Monday, October 11, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W42: Assemble, Oedipus

10/16/21: Assemble
What: An immersive audio adventure in a secret location (Brooklyn).
And? Full review here.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Weekly Margin 2021, W41: Thoughts of a Colored Man, Chicken and Biscuits

What: Playwright Keenan Scott II makes his Broadway debut with a play about what it means to be a Black man in the 21st century, spending one day with seven men as they pursue their hopes and grapple with their demons.
And? I loved it. I loved it so much. Dynamic and poignant, deeply personal and universal, heartbreaking and uplifting. All the goodies. It's such a potent mix of naturalistic dialogue, slam poetry, and even music, and each character is painted so carefully. Even with each man's name in the program listed as representing a core emotion--Love, Happiness, Wisdom, Lust, Passion, Depression, Anger--they none of them feel like symbols, but like real men trying to be the best versions of themselves. Add this to your must-see list.

What: Circle in the Square hosts Douglas Lyons's comedy about mourning, a take on "Guess Who's Coming to Dad's Funeral."
And? It was okay? It was nice to be in a theater full of laughter again. But a lot of the jokes or please-clap lines sound canned, like they could have been lifted from any sitcom script. And anyone who reads my blog knows I have strong opinions about the virtues of an arena or thrust stage, and how they can expose a director's weakness. Zhailon Levingston is working hard to keep the movement kinetic, so that no part of the audience is stuck looking at the back of someone's head for too long. But too often this movement feels like wandering rather than purposeful, and leaves actors who normally fare well on a proscenium looking a bit lost. Ebony Marshall-Oliver and Aigner Mizzelle are delightful as a mother-daughter team who can't help but speak their mind.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W40: Is This a Room, Dana H, Badass Galboss Power Hour (Mandatory Meeting - 11/18/2020), The Sitayana (Or How to Make An Exit)

What: The Broadway transfer of the celebrated Vineyard production, taken from the actual transcript of the interrogation of Reality Winner regarding an information leak.
And? I'm still puzzling through what I actually thought of this play. It's for sure an interesting experiment, including the slightly tinny sound design by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada, to remind us that this is taken from a transcript of a recorded conversation. Further verisimilitude is achieved by the inclusion of random asides that go nowhere, sudden topic shifts and non sequiturs, and other conversational sandpits that occur in real life but less so in structured drama. So it's interesting, and strange, and unnerving, especially as the two interrogators shift from friendly chat to frightening threat, as the two men tighten the net around Reality, boxing in a young woman in cutoff shorts and a loose white shirt. I was also especially excited to see former classmate Emily Davis's much-lauded performance, and she did not disappoint. She's so good at sinking into the role that you forget she's acting.

10/01/21: Dana H
What: Another Vineyard transfer, running in rep with Is This A Room, Lucas Hnath's newest work is a documentary play about the harrowing events in his mother's life in 1997.
And? My initial impulse was to go back and rewrite my Is This a Room section above, knowing now how these two plays are not only in rep, but also in conversation with each other, but I decided to let it stand, as an unfiltered reaction to the first show on its own. What's interesting about how these two plays work is they're both somewhat deconstructed attempts at documentary. While Room takes every line from the transcripts of the interrogation of Winner and plays with our senses to ratchet up tension, or to disassociate with Winner out of the reality she is trapped in, Dana comes from interviews conducted with Hnath's mother by his friend Steve Cosson--and uses the tapes of the interview for the play's audio, with actress Dierdre O'Connell lip-synching to the tape. It sounds limiting but it's instead quite liberating (as well as shutting down arguments against Samuel Beckett's prescriptive stage directions as being too confining for individual artistic expression). O'Connell's precise fidelity to Dana's words, inflections, and pauses create just enough dissociative distance to protect (in my interpretation) both performer and Dana herself from fully living in the reality of her horror twenty years previously. They also make that reality inescapable for the audience. We must sit in silent witness. We are the attention finally being paid. It's harrowing, it's devastating, and I'll warn you now it's not exactly healing. But as she speaks of her work as a hospice chaplain, of standing witness to people as they slip away from life, of the importance of her work, of the extreme empathy it demands, she asks without asking that we offer her that same empathy. She is still alive as she tells this story, but the woman she was before 1997 is gone, and this is how she died.

If you were to pick only one of the two Vineyard/Lyceum plays to see, I'd say Dana H is the one, BUT I would also say that I think both plays are so much richer for seeing them in each other's context. Room primed me to see Dana; Dana taught me how to revisit my night at Room. [Warning now, I kept my review vague, but the content of Dana H contains discussions of abduction and assault, both physical and sexual. Please take care of yourself and decide what you feel safe experiencing.]

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched