02 April 2011

Will Eno plays at the Cutting Ball

My earlier plans to see the Will Eno trilogy at The Cutting Ball had been derailed by sickness, so I finally got there last night. I had seen their earlier production of Thom Pain (based on nothing) and enjoyed it, though looking back at what I wrote about it I was apparently less convinced at the time. I think it was the comparison to Beckett that I found a bit off, though oddly I was reminded of Beckett last night, particularly during Lady Grey (in ever lower light) the first of the evening’s three short plays. I was also reminded of Thom Pain, and thought maybe the pieces were a bit too similar in mode, mood, and method, but apparently that was the author’s intention (see here for Marissabidilla’s reaction to an earlier performance and for her report of the talk-back with Eno in which he mentions this). In any case the other two plays (Intermission and Mr Theatre Comes Home Different) were different enough so that I could see he had more than one way of playing.

These plays are all about theater (or performance) in various ways, so the whole evening takes on a meta-theatrical cast that makes it difficult to tell sometimes if something is just happening or scripted to happen: when actor David Sinaiko introduced himself right before the show to audience members on the left, and then started introducing them to each other, was that part of the performance or not? It was pretty funny – “Hey, Chris! Look, here’s another Chris!” I was on the right so he did not speak to me. I did not feel excluded by this.

The first play starts with an empty chair in a bright pool of light, situated off-center, to the right (from the audience’s perspective). Lady Grey is the only character. She enters in darkness and when the lights go up she is off to the left; the chair remains empty until towards the end of the piece. Her monologue, like Thom Pain’s, jumps back and forth in time, returning to a traumatic childhood incident, to periods of severe but strange illness, to nature, and always to the awareness of being observed, to the nature of observation, and to the slippery nature of the words we use to define the things we try to say. Her story involves a school show-and-tell from her childhood, during which she stripped naked.

I’m assuming this is how she felt – naked, exposed, sort of baffled and humiliated. Perhaps I’m being too literal here but I can’t imagine a girl stripping for show-and-tell and not being stopped by the teacher well before she exposes her genitals (about which the boys ask her questions), even in the 1970s. It’s always interested me how people need to retain certain elements of reality in order to sustain a fantasy, and this particular incident (for me; others might feel differently) crossed over into the territory of the unreal, so I had to read it as emotional.

There is a hint that the girl had been sexually abused, but I find child sexual abuse as a plot device sort of hacky (overused and oversimplified), so I was glad it was only a hint. Danielle O’Hare was Lady Grey. It was an interesting performance; I often felt she was reciting (rather than embodying the character and saying things because that’s what Lady Grey would say) but that may have been a deliberate choice, heightening one’s awareness Brecht-style of the performance as a performance, which would fit with the play’s own refracted perspectives on performance.

Then there was a fairly useless intermission. The intermission was followed by Intermission, in which two couples during the intermission of a play called The Mayor, about a mayor dying in a hospital, end up in conversation. Danielle O’Hare returned as Jill, the younger woman, with her partner Jack (Galen Murphy-Hoffman). David Sinaiko and Gwyneth Richards play Mr and Mrs Smith, the older couple. It was a quartet of fine performances.

Sinaiko has been with the Cutting Ball from the early days (as have I, on the other side of the non-existent proscenium) and for a long time I felt his performances relied too much on sheer manic energy. But around the time they did Endgame (which was, honestly, one of the few times I have ever left a theater thinking, “that was perfect”) he started giving much more modulated, subtler performances. So it’s not meant as a criticism of him when I say I thought there was too much of Mr Smith.

Mr Smith is a somewhat cranky and condescending man, who lectures the younger couple on the moments that make up life and so forth. “How many intermissions will you sit through” was a line that struck home with me. His lengthy story about having his dog put to sleep did not. Friends and family members of mine have had this experience recently, and I know it’s very painful, and I am very sympathetic, but I am sympathizing with a friend’s pain rather than connecting with the particular situation, if you see what I mean. This might be clearer if I discussed my general feeling about dogs, but I think I’ll avoid that digression and just return to the play by saying I wanted more of the other characters, particularly the young couple.

I was very amused that Jack took his cell phone out several times, because of course that had just happened in our actual intermission – it had only been about thirty minutes since the cell phone reminder, people are sitting there with friends and partners, and yet they immediately pull out their phones to check messages. Is everyone waiting for a kidney or something?

But maybe I was just having a weird connection with the cell phone thing, the way I did with the dog thing. I couldn’t quite tell if we were meant to find Jack callow, and it was perhaps Murphy-Hoffman’s charm that made him otherwise – the amount of time given to Mr Smith lecturing him makes me think maybe we were meant to find Jack unsympathetic, but honestly I would have been rolling my eyes long before he did. I would have liked more about Jack, and also would have liked more from Jill, who clearly had powerful emotional reactions to the theater that she couldn’t or wouldn’t quite articulate.

There are poignant indications that the older couple has settled into the sort of semi-bickery comfortable familiarity in which they stop thinking about what the other one feels. The lines we hear from the play are hilarious parodies of an earnest drama about “issues.” I wanted more of all that and less of Mr Smith’s patronizing speeches about life and its representation, speeches which are true and beautiful (and therefore worth saying) but, frankly, not all that original or striking (and therefore not worth saying at such length).

Mr Theatre Comes Home Different, the final piece, was a scene for Mr Theater (David Sinaiko) who, in the space of about ten minutes, both conjures up and parodies the magic of theater – the creation of a whole outdoor setting just by speaking a few words about a forest, the attempted recreation of the outdoors by having stagehands toss fake snow from the rafters, the real creation of a Lear-like storm just by speech, the concentrated emotional intensity spun out of nothing but speech and belief. We go from farce to tragedy to love story to death scene in no time. It was a dazzling tour de force for Eno and Sinaiko.

The show runs for a couple more weeks and I’d recommend catching it if you can (check the Cutting Ball website for information). I do have to say that if the three plays were done without an intermission (which I would prefer) the performance would be slightly over an hour. It’s not that I felt I didn’t get my money’s worth (and besides, with their season membership I could go several times and get a reserved seat, so it’s a bargain). It’s that I get off work at 5:00 and the show doesn’t start until a bit after 8:00, so I had to kill slightly over three hours for a show that lasted only a third of that time. I find the Union Square area, a visitor-packed shopping district, fairly unpleasant to walk around in. And my one sure-fire refuge there is going; I realized last night that it’s not only the Borders in the Westfield Mall that’s closing, it’s the big store right off Union Square as well. It was, at least, a fairly congenial place to waste time before the theater opens. Oh, I bought some heavily discounted books (some plays by Aristophanes in a translation I didn’t have and Berryman’s Dream Songs, because I really need more books to read) but increasingly I wonder whether it’s really a good idea for me to squander that much time. Maybe if they’re not going to start earlier I will switch to Saturday shows; even getting to the theater insanely early will waste less time than wandering unproductively. I would do that for Cutting Ball shows, but I’m just less inclined these days to fit my schedule and preferences around theaters that don’t have their track record. This is all part of the meta-theatrical theme perhaps.

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