03 April 2007

an army of one

This year I keep seeing plays I first saw years ago in Boston. I’ve also seen a few better known as operas: first Salome and then the Cutting Ball production of Woyzeck. I attend and generally love all the Cutting Ball shows, even when I’m feeling a bit out of it and drugged on allergy medication as I was last Thursday. The set (by Melpomene Katakalos) and sound (by Cliff Caruthers) are both excellent, as is usual for this company. The set covered the length of the stage with a series of compartments containing various items relevant to the different scenes; everything was white, which gave it a Louise Nevelson look. (It was reminiscent of the set for I Am My Own Wife, only less cluttered and all one color). The cast is strong, though I wasn’t as satisfied with the female performers. Most of them are minor except for Marie and I really just wanted more depth from her -- she seemed to have a narrow range of expression. Woyzeck is an actor new to me, Chad Deverman, and I really liked him; he walked the fine line between being believably crazy and too obviously so. Ryan Oden was the doctor and he's also very good -- I'd seen him in other Cutting Ball shows. The Drum Major could have had a little more swagger. And I'm not sure I have this guy's name right, because he was in a variety of small roles with generic names, but I think John Russell is the one who impressed me with his few lines.

Adriana Baer did an excellent job directing, but there is one huge miscalculation: when Woyzeck shaves the Captain, the latter smokes the whole time. The stink just brought me totally out of the moment. I realized from the coughing and rustling around me and from conversations afterward that I wasn’t the only one bothered by this. My point here is not about any miniscule health risks (it wasn’t even a tobacco cigarette but an “herbal” one, whatever that is) but about semiotics and practicality. On a practical level, that theater (the Exit at Taylor) is just too small for the stench and smoke, which lingered into the next scene. On the semiotic level, smoking is just too complicated these days to be done on stage casually – it ends up being a “thing,” which makes it a distraction. I know people bitterly divided over tobacco addiction who can share a laugh over the way only evil characters on soap operas smoke on-screen. On a more ridiculous level, sometimes we’re told that characters smoke to establish that they’re independent-minded – I’m sure Big Tobacco is thrilled that its advertising dollars are not being wasted, but it should be obvious that you can’t symbolize independence with an addiction. Besides, I always get the impression that people juvenile enough to believe that are probably also going to make a big deal about not going to the prom when they get to high school because it’s full of phonies. Anyway, back to Woyzeck -- why is the Captain smoking while being shaved anyway? The dialogue already establishes that he is rude and self-centered and a bit crazy, so smoking seems like one of those redundant flourishes that make the subtext too obvious. Also, thanks to the hilarious novel My Search for Warren Harding, I automatically assume anyone smoking on stage is a bad actor (because they don't know what else to do with their hands). I know David Sinaiko (the Captain) is a good actor because I've seen him in other things, but during the entire scene, which is pretty important, I was barely paying attention to him -- I was too annoyed by the smoke, wondering when he'd flick the ash, wondering when he'd put it out, wishing I hadn’t worn my contact lenses which were starting to burn, and so forth. I was surprised to see such a distracting cliché in an otherwise excellent production. This is a lot to say about a fairly minor matter, but then again it's a short play and the cigarette really pulled me out and it takes a while to get back in (which is why I don't much like intermissions, which fortunately this show lacks).

I stayed for the talk-back afterwards, and was reminded once again that I assume a certain level of knowledge about the work that maybe I’d be better off not having. One guy said he was sympathizing with Woyzeck until he killed Marie. It honestly didn’t occur to me that anyone who would go to see Woyzeck wouldn’t know what happens. I also know that a lot of people feel the need to sympathize with a protagonist, but I’ve never really understood this exactly – I want them to hold my attention, which isn’t quite the same thing. I did walk out feeling uncomfortably close to Woyzeck, so maybe I’m just supposed to sympathize with myself, which is hard enough to do most of the time anyway.

Anyway, it’s playing for another week, and is well worth seeing once you brace yourself for the smoke.

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