Monthly Archives: September 2009

Operetta at the Wilma Theater (2009 Live Arts Festival)

Well. After a brief respite being a theatrical performer (Preparations for Departure just closed our 7 show run at Power Plant in Old City), I am back to being a plain old theatrical go-er. As with most post-show experiences, I feel both relief and emptiness at the closing of my show, but I christened my newfound freedom (apparently the sun shines…everyday…hard to tell when you’re spending 15-20 hours in a basement for a week straight) with a trip to see Operetta, the landmark work by Witold Gombrowicz, directed by premier Polish theater director and Swarthmore Alum Michal Zadara, performing just a few blocks from my new place at the Wilma Theater.

I went into the show with zero expectations, which can be either a blessing or a curse in the world of unknown theatrical experiences. I tend to think I’m harder to please if I’m not “looking forward” to a particular aspect of a performance, but it also means it’s harder for me to be caught off guard by what a show “winds up” being. In the case of Operetta, ┬áhaving no expectations was the perfect attitude to have for what wound up being one of the strangest, quirkiest shows I’ve ever seen.

Yep. That's Operetta for you.

Yep. That's Operetta for you.

I know – that’s a big statement. I’ve seen a lot of shows in my time (something I say with neither pride nor shame: just fact. As long as I live, I will spend my money seeing theater – something I accepted about myself about 5 years ago). But despite the abundance of theatrical productions on my audience resume, Operetta was something special. “Something else” as my grandfather used to say. The three act, 3.5 hour production was, (I think), ultimately a scathing, parody-filled satire of all things class relations, picking up themes of appearance, politics, performance, reality, and falsehood along the way. Of course, when I say “I think” that’s what Operetta was about, I really mean it. If you told me Operetta was a three and a half hour allegory about the benefits of eating muffins, I’d probably believe that, too. The show was so ridiculous, so unpredictable, that it had a degree of inaccessibility that was striking even to myself, a self-described theater junkie.

To be fair, I knew nothing of Gombrowicz or the play beforehand. A little study might have helped. But let’s face it: sometimes you want to study, other times you just want to be entertained. Bonus if you learn something along the way. And boy, was Operetta entertaining. Because of its length and scope, it seems a bit ridiculous to attempt to describe a “plot” here. As one friend put it “If I’d gone to the show to figure out what it was about, I would have been disappointed.”

I’m not sure when I quite realized Operetta was always going to elude me. Possibly during the opening number – a sort of muzak-esque elevator ode to a man named “Count Charm” who, entering in a full ski suit (the “upper class”, a prominent feature of Operetta, spent the first act lounging around what could only have been a ritzy ski resort), proceeded to croon about his success with women into a microphone provided by a bevy of overall-ed workers while getting repeatedly injected with drugs by his manservant. Or, I might have realized Operetta was its own special something in the second act, when, with no warning, a full-sized camel corpse was dropped from the ceiling, followed by about 10 gallons of sand. (You think that’s crazy – I spent at least 10 seconds convinced it was a REAL camel corpse. Disturbing). By the time the punk rockers rolled out a wooden coffin in the last act, I was almost nonplussed to see the topless woman burst from it and sing a song about her nudity.

Yep, that was Operetta in a nutshell.

Oh, and there was also the fact that, as a Polish transplant, the entire production was performed in Polish with English supertitles.

Sometimes I think this whole genre, which, to an uneducated theater goer feels a whole lot like “art for art’s sake” or “weirdness for weirdnesses sake”, is just a waste of time. Pretentious doesn’t even begin to describe it for me. (Don’t even get me started on Robert Wilson…) I’m almost surprised, then, by how much I enjoyed Operetta. Despite it’s inaccessibility, I wasn’t frustrated watching it. I was always entertained (I laughed out loud a whole lot more than I normally do watching a theater performance), and at times I was even made to think: there were many brilliant, thoughtful, intellectual moments.

Course, I’m trying to remember one of them right now to use as an example and all I can come up with is the hilarity of the “Professor”, who spent most of the play vomiting on his peers.

Why? No idea. But it was freaking funny, I’ll tell you that much.

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Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

Random musings at 3:14 a.m….never really a good idea, i guess. Unfortunately I’m completely wired: chalk the dearth of recent blog posts up to the opening of my own show: Preparations for Departure, created by Matchbox Theater Company, a 6 person theatrical collaborative formed just a few months ago. It has been a wild, wild, (mostly sleepless) ride, and we are now 3 performances into our 7 performance run.

Anyway, I had a really interesting experience tonight, and it made me think of what I’m doing with TheaterJunkie. Basically, my goal for this blog is to see shows, write about my reactions. Never before have I ever questioned the validity of having real (often negative) reactions to pieces of theater– That is, until today, when, for the first time, I was on the receiving end of one of those pseudo negative reactions.

Preparations for Departure has been nothing but a labor of love. I’ve never been so intimately involved in a show, not even when I wrote my thesis production, Pop Out, at the beginning of my senior year. The 6 of us have been involved in this show in every capacity, as writers, performers, producers, crew, designers, technicians: you name it. (PS – you can follow our progress at http://matchboxtheater.wordpress.com !). Sure, I’ve done theater in college. But never like this. And sure, I’ve received “bad press” in college (a couple of iffy reviews in the school newspaper, gossip, opinions shared in the cafeteria…). But never like this.

Browsing through twitterfest, the Philadelphia LiveArts/Fringe festivals collection of 10 or so tweeters who see fringe shows and write blurbs with their opinions, I came across this doozie:

“Preparations for departure: maybe overresearched. Love to see what those actors could do with something less pageanty.”

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. My first official bad press.

And, let’s put all our cards on the table: it’s really not even that bad. I mean, it sounds like she was into us as actors, at least. No mention of wanting to throw fruit. She didn’t walk out… Regardless, though, when I read this little blurb, my jaw dropped and my stomach sunk: a rush like I haven’t gotten since I rode my last rollercoaster during our Senior Week trip to six flags. I a little bit wanted to vomit, and I a little bit want to find this elusive tweeter and punch her in the face. What the fuck does she know?

However, I keep telling myself this is just an instinctive reaction. It’s ridiculous for me to be blowing up like this. For so many reasons. Just a few of them are:

1) Two months ago, I started a BLOG whose sole purpose was to critique theater. And I’ve done way worse than “overresearched” and “pageanty”.
2) I am completely and absolutely positive that the bulk of the people who see my work do not react to it as favorably as I would like. It’s insanity to assume that mystery tweeter was the first person ever to have a not-glowing opinion about something I created. So, what: just because hers is out in the open I’m going to have a conniption fit?
3) Theater=reviews. One cannot exist without the other. Every brilliant theater maker in the WORLD has had to deal with bad, lukewarm, horrible, you-name-it reviews.
4) Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

So sitting here at my computer, just twenty minutes ago, I attempted to reason with myself. Calm down, Bear, I said: not a big deal. Happens all the time. Look at you, in the big leagues now: a twitter review. 150 characters or less: you know it’s legit. Don’t let it get to you.

But then, it all came rushing back to me: the sleepless nights as we worked beyond the limits of our capacities preparing our set. My hundreds of pages and hours of writing. The tears shed in frustration. The financial hit that we’re all taking to make this production. The essentially three months of my life that I have committed, heart and soul to a project that, unavoidably, I have come to love like a family member. The image of the six of us, everyone in tears, holding hands before our first performance, unable to do more than just look each other in the eye, amazed by our own dedication to something so delicate and beautiful.

So whatever. My delicate and beautiful is someone else’s overresearched and pageanty. Life is about opinions. Hopefully there’s at least someone who found what we found in it. I’ll move on. Grow a thicker skin. Learn to really appreciate the compliments, and separate the fakeness from the sincerity.

But regardless, it felt important to post this. Because before I rush back into the crowd of critics, I want to send a shout out to anyone who’s ever made themselves vulnerable and shared their art with a crowd of strangers. Because that is love, no matter what people’s opinions on it. And as I go forth and continue to hypocritically blog about my own insignificant opinions re: other people’s work, I’m going to do it with a little more care than before. Because really: anyone can be a critic. It takes a whole lot more to be an artist.

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