Last week i had the honor of participating in this amazing and wonderful multi-company production of King Lear. I also had the somewhat less amazing experience of seeing the world premire of Tony Kushner's new play. The contrast of these two experiences offers insights on the future of theatre. These insights are based on my impressions and limited experiences, they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else involved in the Lear project, or even my other company members.
1. The spaces. Bedlam is a building on the West Bank, surrounded by muslim immigrants on one side, public transit train tracks and a bike path on the other. Every inch of this building is used and almost all of it is completely accessible to audiences. The kitchen, the backstage, and the offices are the only off-limits places, but the offices are mostly located behind a transparent open wall, and the "boardroom" seems to be an open lounge with thrift couches and boardgames and a huge cardboard wall that says "DIY plan for world domination!" and holds the mission statement, long term plans, production proposals, and everything else that normal companies discuss behind closed doors pinned to it or scrawled on it. This building completely integrates a bar, a restaurant, and the grease-pit, which is a bicycle shop. The Guthrie, on the otherhand is an imposing complex, it's huge and beautiful, very modern, overwhealming even, but sometimes feels more like an airport than a theatre, and certainly feels absolutely nothing like an open transparent community space.
2. The productions. King Lear gave 5 companies from accross the country 2 rules: make it 20 minutes long, serve a desert. They trusted us to do whatever we want, risked any of these companies dropping the ball, and presented the most diverse, incongruous, radical and bizarre shakespeare i can imagine. Kushner? He was tweaking and editing the play through the preview performances, making the ending more accessible, invited and then disinvited national reviewers because he didn't want to risk premature judgement of an unpolished play. "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with References to Scripture" does take some risks (including it's title) but it has clearly been created under a much more closed, stifling, high pressure (with the pressure coming from marketing concerns rather than artistic concerns) process than our Lear project.
3. The audiences. Bedlam's bar/lobby filled with incredibly diverse, informal raucous and lively audiences every night. These audiences hung around to talk with the performers, watch aftertainment, and socially integrate with the theatre event however they wished. At the Guthrie, David Bohn looked like the youngest member of the audience, and our group was pretty much the only ones who didn't feel compelled to dress nice for the occasion. Granted, this was a saturday matinee, but if more than half of the student rush line has grey hair, then the Guthrie isn't attracting enough young people to sustain itself (expecially with its astronomical infrastructure costs).
4. the plays: King Lear was one of the most exciting theatre events i've seen, let alone participated in. It was done promenade style, with a group of talented folk-singers (posing as life insurance salesmen) guiding the audience through the various spaces. Each act was radically unique, but they tied together into a wonderful whole treating the audience with great acting, stunning visuals, and dense concepts in quick succession.
First, Bedlam's act 1 stayed faithful to the text (but edited it down to 20 minutes) led the audience from the bar to the grease pit to a bicycle-powered shanty, back to the bar, and then to the sidewalk to watch the final action take place on the roof. It emphasized Lear's violence and childishness, had audience members play France and Burgeondy, cobbled together hilarious almost post-apocalyptic costumes and imbued every possible moment with wonderful physical comedy.
Second, trutheater theater put act 2 through a mystical prism aided by blacklight, elaborate puppet costumes, strobes, fog machines, video projection, vocal processors, shadows and psychedelic music. They present a Shakespeare in which a tenticaled one-eyed Edmund hides Edgar inside his head, where Kent carries his stocks as part of his body, Lear wears his crown upside down on his face, Regan and Goneril appear as an ornate two-headed multi-eyed riddle telling creature and Edgar does not merely disguise himself as Mad Tom, but is mystically transformed into a terrifying lunatic.
Third, Nonsense Company started act 3 with an anthropomorphised first folio on the witness stand of a trial, proceeded into an extensive and hilarious examination of the history and study of insanity and it's treatment and ended it with a frantic attention-deficit pop-culture-on-speed eye-gouging. There is much more to say about this brilliant and bewildering act (the music, the haunting children's voices, the sodomy, the sly references to modern politics) but you really should just join me in seeing their extended version of it in the Minnesota Fringe Fest this August instead of trying to imagine what i'd describe of it.
Forth, the "loosely affiliated with puppet uprising players" approached act 4 almost text-less through paper cuts, overhead projector slideshow, actor tableaus and awesome experimental music. Their act ended with lear as a wooden puppet / pinata that the audience was invited to break open.
Fifth, was our meta-theatre interrogation of Shakespeare-as-cultural-institution. For more on that, join us June 20th at the Alchemist, where we'll re-present it.
I went into the Kushner play ready for dissappointment. Any mainstream corporate play that uses the words "intelligent" and "socialism" should rouse suspicions of false advertising in anyone who's studied these things. But Kushner delivers. The play IS intelligent, and talks meaningfully about capitalism and socialism in today's world. As a result, i love and hate it. First, i hate it because it is a well-made family drama, it's all about catharis and narrative and big sets and character development and blah blah blah. This counts against it, because plays of this sort fail to get beyond shallow entertainment. On the other hand, i love it because the catharsis is aimed at characters that i'd never expect a modern american playwright would dare attempt to elicit sympathy for. Kushner also takes exciting risks like depicting multiple complex top-of-their-lungs arguments all happening at once and trusting the audience to choose which to focus on, enjoy the sounds of the competing voices, and fill in what they can't hear. This is probably what earns the play reviews of being confusing or disorganized, but i see it as one of the most exciting moments of the play, a time when the play becomes what it elsewhere describes (cramming in as many distractions complications and tangents as possible out of fear for it's own completion). To some some degree the family drama is exploded here, the exposition is wrapped up so abruptly at the end of act 2 that it's hard to not read as being intentionally dismissive of the form it knows it has to take to appease Guthrie audiences. Also there are some obvious overt theatre references (Doll's House, Major Barbara, Cherry Orchard) here that verge on meta-theatre for the informed audience member.
Overall the play was complex and open enough to afford the following interpretation of it's themes: Communism was a worthwhile (actually THE ONLY worthwhile) project, and it failed due to a combination of compromises (unions, labor laywers) metaphysical excuses and ideological escapes from the hard truths of dialectical materialism (christian science, mysticism, existentialism etc) and distracting "liberation" movements that actually provided new generations raised in radical settings with petty distractions (or sexual fetishes) from the class struggle. I get the sense that Kushner (or at least his central protagonist) is blaming the emotionally devastating and highly dysfunctional, but also totally petty and often self-created (or at least self-aggrivated) family dramas for a missing the historical opportunity to create a fundamentally new and improved society for all of us.
In short, the play seems to be saying: "a revolution was possible, but we fucked it up and now it's too late." I love the play for saying this, at least for saying it to me and hopefully a few others. But i hate it for not saying something like the following: "We know it is too early and also that it is too late, that is why we have time. We have ceased to wait" or even "Communism is possible at every moment." But, can i really blame Kushner for not having read or accepted the obscure anonymous tracts of the insurrectionary communists? I guess not, since if he had he'd surely not be working with anything like the Guthrie.
In conclusion: The Guthrie is in many ways leaps and bounds ahead of other regional or corporate theatre companies (most anything we've got here in Milwaukee) but they also seem ages behind Bedlam. If The Guthrie and Kushner are the corporate regional theatre system's best bet at investing in the future of theatre, then it's no wonder these traditional theatre people are preoccupied with death and contemplating suicide. Working with Bedlam on the other hand has got be totally inspired and optimistic for the future of theatre as an art form.
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