Category Archives: Le Avant Garde

In Masks Outrageous and Austere at Culture Project

So, you know when you’re a kid, and you have that one grandparent.  We all know what I’m talking about here.  That one that sort of spouts nonsense but everyone kinda puts up with it, cuz hey, he’s old.  But then like, the older you get, the more uncomfortable it gets – because turns out grandma’s stories are not just crazy, they’re also kinda racist, and everyone shares an uncomfortable look around the dinner table when she goes off?  And like, you could say something, but what purpose would it really serve, because well…you know.  She’s old.  And kinda funny.  Like, when you don’t think too hard about it.  And every once and a while she hits on something actually profound, so if you listen to the stream of word babble long enough you might actually get something out of it?

Basically I had the theatrical version of that experience this past Saturday night at Culture Project’s production of In Masks Outrageous and Austere, Tennessee William’s final play, “completed” shortly before his death in 1983, and unproduced until now.

Why, you ask?  Such genius as Tennessee Williams – why in the world would any theater company not jump on the chance to produce his final work (excuse me, according to the promotional materials, his final “masterpiece”)?

That was the predominant question in my mind when I attended Saturday night’s show, one that was quickly and efficiently answered.  By 20 minutes into the show, it was clear – In Masks Outrageous and Austere is truly a Crazy Grandpa of a play.  This is no Streetcar Named Desire, people.  Nor is it a Glass Menagerie.  If we’re to assume all playwrights go through some evolutionary process as they move from work to work across their careers, then In Masks Outrageous and Austere marks, for Williams, a solid evolution to Boozeville and Crazytown.

I’ll admit – I was seriously psyched when we entered the theater on Saturday night.  The space is set up with the kind of theatrical presence that makes your stomach tighten and gives you goosebumps – it’s clearly installed, it is something, it promises a journey of some kind – good, bad, or indifferent, this play is gonna take you somewhere.  60 LED panels line the walls of the theater – mirrored walls and numerous actors dressed like 80s versions of futuristic secret service agents patrol in dark sunglasses, while funkazoidal music plays.  One of the actors speaks into a microphone, repeating, over and over, that they are “Gideons, here for your safety”.  Only the white sand along the aisles gives any indication of organicism; otherwise, the entire space feels futuristic, but in exactly the “1983” sense that crazy old Tennessee Williams would have been picturing it.  (“Crazy” and “old” meant with only the greatest affection, people.  After all, if the play is a grandparent, Williams feels like another one.  Or at least a kooky great uncle).

And then the play starts.  Quickly, I realized that with Masks, Tennessee Williams has taken the types of characters his always writes – deeply  disaffected yet deeply passionate, deeply drunk yet deeply verbose, and oh so Southern, and in this case also made them rich and put them in the world’s most bizarre setting.  Babe, a rich old heiress, and her younger husband Billy (and his lover Jerry), have been mysteriously kidnapped by the mysterious, taciturn “Gideons”.  Not entirely clear on who they are, although they work for some mysterious, powerful organization.  And they call themselves Gideons.  They did that a lot.  I spent a while thinking they were gay robots.  But now I think they were real people, and maybe…bisexual?

Robert Bietzel, Shirley Knight and Sam Underwood: Billy, Babe and Jerry. Just yer classic love triangle.

Anyway, Babe and Billy and Jerry are alarmed by the fact that they were kidnapped, and have turned up on a mysterious island, but only insofar as it gives them something to talk about sometimes.  Other times they talk about themselves, and their agony, and sex, and the love triangle that is old Babe, young Billy, and younger Jerry.  Also on the island is the opera singing Matron and her (maybe???) mentally challenged masturbating son who gets sodomized for gumdrops.  Course, I’m describing this play before it really got weird in Act 2, when the Matron’s ex-husband, a “big Black man” who literally cannot speak but grunts his feelings instead, shows up, with his – yup – dwarf translator.  Who he often lifts in the air, grunts to, and sets down to translate his frustrations.  And, oh yeah, SPOILER ALERT, at the end the Gideons kill Jerry and Billy for…some reason… and Babe kills herself by walking in the ocean, which she was terrified of before then.  For some reason.  And it turns out the Gideons were all “acting”? Although if you ask me, it seems not so much like acting if you murder people.  But they announce they were acting, so that was a big take-away for me, at least.

some people, doin some stuff

It was a big ol’ WTF.  According to the director’s note, in a 1981 interview, Tennesse Williams described the play as “important”, “extremely funny” and “bizarre as hell”.

Ummm, OK.  1/3, Tennessee.

Or, oh, I dunno.  Maybe 2/3.  Because when you write A Streetcar Named Desire, you’re basically earning yourself the right to be produced indefinitely, right?  Including the real cray-cray stuff that you write when you’re in your old, crazy, racist days?  It’s hard sometimes to take a play like this in as a young playwright in an MFA program, because I know that if I or any of my classmates were to show up with a draft like it, we’d be told (politely, but firmly) to come back when we had our heads on straight.  But then again, none of us are Tennessee Williams so…touche there.

And of course, the play is not without theme, poetry, and moments of insight.  The man was a genius, regardless of his mental state or crazy ass ideas.  And god bless the actors – they worked their butts off.  Shirley Knight, the famous stage actress who worked pretty extensively on Williams’ plays when he was alive, takes the role of Babe, and the scenes between her and the Matron, played awesomely by Alison Fraser, while long winded and seemingly random, do achieve moments of profundity.  And I mean, I’m always gonna give a touch more leeway to a play that drenches attractive men in water and sends them out on stage wearing nothing but speedos.  I mean, a girl’s got less to say when she has something nice to look at.  Just sayin’.

Shirley Knight and Alison Fraser at the show's opening

Clearly, death and government and love and homosexuality and definitions of madness are all themes in this strange, weird play.  And, honestly, for all accounts, I should hate it a lot more than I do.  Everything I’ve thus far described was maddening in its randomness; unsatisfyingly bizarre and kind of offensive – in terms of its attitude towards race,  physicality, and mental illness, for sure.  But the more I think of it, the more it reminds me of a crazy ol’ grandparent – nonsensical but never boring, cringe-worthy but entertaining as hell and hey, you gotta give it credit – entirely confident in its crazy.

My favorite sentence from David Schweizer’s Director’s Note was this one: “Though our production of In Masks Outrageous and Austere might seem like some kind of “take” on the play, I assure you it is not.”  It gave me a clear picture of Tennessee Williams – who, in all seriousness, suffered from depression and drug addiction in his final years – typing away excitedly, and perhaps finding some kind of legitimate respite from his challenging mental state in this work.  “There must be a translator, and he must be a dwarf!” Tennessee declares in my head, possessed and buoyed by a new sense of purpose.  Very good, Tennessee. Write your crazy play, and guess what?  We’ll produce it.  Why the fuck not.

Did I think the play was good?  Wow, no.  Not even a little.

But am I glad I saw it?

Yeah, in a way, I kinda loved it.  The same way I love my own crazy family – with a great deal of frustration, yes, but ultimately…hell, I’ll say it.  Love.

Oh Tennessee. Gotta love ya.

PS – Culture Project has a great flickr photostream of production photos – that I was somehow not able to leech for this article.  So check it out here, instead, if you’re interested!

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The Ugly One at Soho Rep

I am going to start this post by doing something ever-so-slightly out of character*:  Imma quote someone else’s article. Is that just too gauche? Well, regardless, when I was doing a bit of internet browsing to find good pictures for this post on The Ugly One, which opened February 1st at Soho Rep, I came across this great NY Times article about the show, which had a fantastic quote from director Daniel Aukin. When asked about The Ugly One, he said the following:

“This is not a play you would watch and say, ‘Oh, this should be a movie,’ ” Mr. Aukin said. “He’s playing with so many things that are unique to theater, that aren’t available in other media.”

For those of you who don’t know (who am I kidding…there can’t be many of you who don’t, given that I’m fairly certain the population of my readers is composed entirely of friends), I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 6 months thinking about plays and movies. Individually, as separate entities, sure, but also together. As in, what defines them? What makes each its own unique art form? What does each have to offer the viewer/spectator that the other cannot? Has the sudden prevalence of one (film) in culture made moot the longer standing, and some would say, now archaic and inaccessible existence of the other?

It’s very hard to want to be a writer. It’s also pretty stupid, given the insane challenge that playwrights face, as well as the cuthroat nature of the film industry. And yet, I and a couple dozen other passionate idiots just couldn’t leave well enough alone, and find ourselves knee-deep in the challenges of a 2 year dramatic writing program in the fantastic city of New York. What’s great about this program is that we get to write all the time. What’s terrible about this program is that we have to write all the time. While the program is 3-fold, teaching and refining skills in writing for TV, Film, and Stage, it’s film and theater that most often come into conflict with each other, given, I guess, the inherent similarities between the two. And even as a die-hard theater nerd (till the day that I die, yo!), it’s hard not to see the appeal in film as a medium. For one, there’s its seemingly limitless visual potential and uh, OH YEAH, there’s also the fact that sometimes people give you money to write movie stuff. Or so they tell me. And then you can use that money to do things like pay your rent and buy food. As someone who’s sunk more of her own money into self-made theatrical creations than I’d care to admit, the idea of a writing career in which the writer is PAID reaches the realms of Xanadu-like fantasy.

And let’s face it – film is affordable and accessible in a way that theater simply isn’t. Those who call theater a dying art, while officially and forever my worst enemies, aren’t coming up with this hateful theory out of thin air. Theater’s appeal is…sometimes harder to grasp, let’s say, than that of its sister, Film, or its super cool cousin TV.

And that, my friends, is why when a show like The Ugly One comes along, which, as Mr. Aukin so eloquently describes, so perfectly grasps onto those urgent, fabulous things that make theater theater, I get happy. Just…happy. Happy that plays like this are being produced, and happy that people are paying money to see them. Because those people are in for some of the most delightful treats theater has to offer.

Wit and Follies this was not. (Yeah, I just linked my own posts again. I’m classy like that). Soho Rep has, well…a “rep” in this city for performing on the more cutting edge of the theatrical spectrum. They’re a “leading hub for contemporary theater in New York City….producing some of the most groundbreaking theater…a “hot house” for daring, intrinsically theatrical excellence.” (from their website, if you hadn’t guessed). For those of you who like your theater on the experimental side of things, this is a great place to check out…regularly. (I recall a performance of Sarah Kane’s Blasted there that was the Oscars of disturbing. Is that a coherent analogy? Probably not, but let’s put it this way: it was very, very, VERY disturbing. Like, a dude sucked another dude’s eyes out and then this person ate a baby disturbing….Whoops. Should I have said “spoiler alert”?)

the red "ugly one" is the ugliest one...

Anyway, as far as plays go, Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One is a very simple enterprise. It’s the kind of “story” that can be told in very few words – an “elegant” concept in that regard, almost fable or parable-esque. At the play’s open, the main character Lette discovers that, much to his surprise, he’s crazy ugly. He’s spent most of his life unaware, but when he’s denied the opportunity to present his invention at a conference, his boss is forced to admit to him that it’s his hideous looks that are holding him back. So, he does what any reasonable human being who just found out they’d spent the bulk of their life living in ignorance of their grotesque face would do – he signs up for dangerous, experimental facial reconstructive surgery. And it goes well! He’s super hot now! And yet – here’s the rub – turns out it goes a little too well. He’s so very good looking that men all over start electing to have the (his?) same face put on them, and suddenly he finds himself well, everywhere. And…hilarity, or chaos, or tragedy, (depending on your perspective, I guess), ensues. (Personally, I’d go with a bit of all three.)

It’s a simple enough concept. Done with four fabulously talented actors and one fairly stark set, in a fairly small theater. Period. Done. End of story. And here, my friends, is where the production values end and the theatrical magic begins.

Only in a space that small with a cast that small and a script that straightforward could such magic happen. And magic it was – Alfredo Narciso, who plays Lette, starts and ends the play with the same face. And, oh yeah, it doesn’t change in the middle, either. And yet, here’s what’s SO FREAKING AWESOME about theater (note to self: WHATS SO FREAKING AWESOME ABOUT THEATER = New blog title??) — we bought it. When Lette wraps his face in gauze while the doctor and his assistant, neither of whom actually act out “surgery”, but who rather stand by microphones, commenting as though they were performing surgery while hyper disturbing “surgical sound cues” play, the audience is there. We flinch at the trill of a hacksaw, even though there is no hacksaw to be seen on the stage. And, a scene later, when Lette finally removes the gauze, we sit on the edge of our seats, curious to see his “new face” even though logic insists – correctly – that it looks exactly the same as the face he’d wrapped up a moment before.

This dude: grotesque monster or the height of attractiveness?

But, because his wife and the doctor were besides themselves with joy, it was handsome. The same way we accepted it as hideous only a scene before when the rest of the actors said as much. Not because we’re idiots (well, OK, can’t speak for everyone in the theater), but because in theater, a good audience is fucking involved. Present. Active participants in their own experience. A good audience will work with the actors, with the playwright, with the director, to create whatever fantasy has been suggested. Such is the ritual of theater, of a bunch of people in a room sharing something with a bunch of other people. Such is its magic. And such is why, for me, theater can never be obsolete.

In a way, The Ugly One was the perfect show for me to see after Wit. To compare the two is to compare fire hydrants to lampshades (don’t ask, just the nouns that came into my head when I got to that part in the sentence), and that’s not my goal. Rather, it was a friendly reminder that even without the budget and the big names and the bright lights of Broadway, magical stuff can happen and is happening in small spaces with groups of people enjoying stories told by other groups of people. And to repeat: it makes me happy.


*Yes, I appreciate the irony of having a blog “character” when I have less than a dozen posts.

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Untitled Feminist Show at Baryshnikov Arts Center (Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company)

Some genius once said that it’s not experimental theater if you’re not feeling at least a little desperately uncomfortable. Full disclosure: that “genius” was actually just me, but the statement, while slightly reductionist, effectively communicates what I find most titillating – and terrifying – about the more avant-garde productions that I see.

Terms like “experimental” and “avant garde” get thrown around a lot. Like most theater-goers, I’m not entirely sure of the precise definition of either, but would be loathe to fully cop to that fact. However, I think at their best, such productions are unique, surprising, and a little scary.  They push the boundaries of theatricality in exciting ways. At their worst, however, they are pointless spectacle that verges on the unnecessarily lewd. They quite literally create their own parodies, and are the reason theater is branded pretentious, elitist and inaccessible.

Essentially, it’s hit or miss.

However, I’m as easy a target as the next girl, so when you tell me of a feminist theater show featuring 6 naked performers, uhm…I’m in. And that is how I found myself, just last week, part of the sold-out audience at opening night of the New York premiere of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s Untitled Feminist Show at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. (phew! That’s a mouthful!)

[Another full disclosure: Basically, if a show has the word “feminist” anywhere near it’s title/description, I’m pretty much predisposed to love it, but I attempted to maintain an open mind for the sake of, oh…let’s say… journalistic integrity.]

According to its website, in Untitled Feminist Show: “six charismatic stars of the downtown theater, dance, cabaret, and burlesque worlds come together to invite the audience on an exhilarating, nearly wordless journey through expressions of a fluid and limitless sense of identity.” Which, had I really been paying attention, has a few serious gives that would have let me know what I was in for — see, “wordless” and “fluid”.

As in: dance. Yep, dance.

Now, quick word on my relationship with dance: I have none. Beyond a very traumatic winter-long course in Ballroom Dance in elementary school (what 5th grader wants to be told that the evening is “ladies choice”??! My choice of partners was quite literally limited to a series of bros who had inevitably flashed their boogers at me the day before), I have never attempted the art form myself. Maybe it’s my own complete and utter lack of rhythm, but I really – REALLY – struggle to make heads or tales of dance. Watching gorgeous people spin around in tandem, while aesthetically pleasing, doesn’t make me “feel” much beyond envious and befuddled. And while I hate to use the “b” word – sacrilegious, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to the arts – with dance, I can easily get (yikes)…bored.

It didn’t take long for me to suspect/fear that, beyond the initial shock of 6 naked performers, Untitled Feminist Show is more straightforward dance concert than avant-garde play. In fact, the show, which runs a gaunt 55 minutes, felt at first like a dance recital, broken up by songs, where various permutations of the 6 dancers would writhe and gyrate and spin and do all those dance-y things that lovers of dance are much more poised to appreciate than uncoordinated duds like me.

However, simply and totally because of its spectacle of nakedness (and probably also, because the 6 performers in question are possessed of, although it pains me to say it, “normal”(??) bodies), Untitled Feminist Show will forever enjoy the designation of “avant garde” and “experimental”.

Now, a word on the nakedness: my fear with this kind of stuff is that it never rises above the level of “gimmick”, and although I spent a bit of time inwardly giggling behind my hand at the sight of boobies, I’ll admit that ultimately it did exactly what I imagine it was trying to – it was aggressive, confrontational, disconcerting and unabashedly beautiful.

it's EXPERIMENTAL cuz they're NAKED

But, of course, nakedness alone does not make an avant garde play. Although I spent the first 10 minutes or so of the show feeling victimized by a cruel bait-and-switch (promised: cool experimental theater, delivered: mostly conventional dance), I must now cop to being pretty darn wrong. Yes, the performance style of the show was much dancier than narrative-ier (official theater terms, by the way), but once I got my head out of my ass and stopped mentally bitching about it, it turns out that Young Jean Lee was actually saying things that even an idiot like me could digest. Yes, some of the dances went waaaaay over my head, and I recall them now only as a blur of spinning and pirouettes (not totally sure what those are, but they sound dance-y…). There are clear highlights, though.

One, about halfway through the show, involved the dancers, who made copious eye contact and often smiled warmly at us, the Super-Eager-To-Prove-How-Comfortable-We-Were-With-Nakedness audience, beginning a series of synchronized choreographed moves that, when I actually studied them, turned out to be inspired by/based on a series of traditionally “female” activities – ironing, weaning babies, cooking, cleaning, etc. Done to some sort of agonizingly awesome hip-hop song, by dancers who performed their choreography with such mother-fucking coolness, it essentially took my breath away. To me, this was reappropriation at its absolute best.

Another memorable scene, and one of the piece’s few obvious non dance-y bits, involved a single performer, who started what I can only call “militant flirtation” with certain male audience members – pointing one out and miming sexually suggestive behaviors re: said audience member’s penis, which quickly became sexually grotesque and violent suggestions.  I watched this, growing increasingly more uncomfortable along with the rest of the audience, who tended to display its discomfort by laughing more loudly and obviously. It was an interesting moment – god knows, anytime the house lights go up in a show like this EVERY audience member feels a pang of dread in his or her heart of hearts. In this case, the moment was made all-the-more unnerving by the proximity of the performer, her nakedness, and the creepy way she smiled while miming sticking her hand up an audience member’s you-know-what. The group of men in front of me were laughing so loud and with such false heartiness at this point that I really wanted to take their hands and tell them to take a deep, cleansing breath: it was going to be OK.

The “point”, from the performer’s perspective, seemed to force our discomfort as quickly and urgently as possible – the kind of shameless confrontation feminism does so well/terribly (depending on your perspective). In this case, though, the audience, which seemed to be entirely filled with theater insiders and Enlightened, Artsy Folk, responded uniquely. It was one of the stranger confrontations I’ve ever witnessed: rather than sit back and take our misogynist spanking, this audience (which perhaps wanted more credit for having found, sought out, and Behaved Completely Properly during the strange, naked show), was more-or-less unwilling to suffer such punishment. Instead, the chorus of self-aware laughter was as much a retaliation as I’ve ever heard – a vehement insistence to the performer that We Were In On It Too. Ultimately, it was a stand off: one that was one-part uncomfortable, one-part exciting, and one-part confusing: in other words, everything I could have asked for from an Avant Garde show.

There were other moments like this, too – during the show’s climax, wherein the dancers began shaking and jiggling their bodies to pounding techno music, basically shoving gyrating boobs and bellies in the faces of the closer audience members (I was not among them), the audience burst into a spontaneous round of enthusiastic applause (we were determined to get an A+ on Audiencing, it seemed). It was infectiously thrilling to be surrounded by such approval of such a primitive, aggressive confrontation with the female body.

Untitled Feminist Show was a lot of things at once: sometimes embarrassing, sometimes boring, sometimes scary, sometimes profound, sometimes ridiculous and always surprising. When it comes to Avant Garde, you really can’t ask for anything else. (Well….whatever “avant garde” means, anyway…) If you want to get your naked dancing on (that’s a lie, those of you who are stripping and running for the door — only the performers are naked in this one, I’m afraid)…run, don’t walk to the Baryshnikov Arts Center – the show only runs thru Feb. 4th.

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