Wednesday, April 16, 2014

And you thought a Tea Party was absurd...

Absurd.  That’s a word you don’t hear too much anymore, and when you do it usually serves to mock an overly critical (and usually overly British) person.  That being the case I did not know what to expect when I went to see my first “absurdist” play this weekend – Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party.”

The show, directed by Matt Davis and staring many of the finest actors the UA Theater department has to offer, was an absolutely gorgeous piece of art and I could go on for hours about how incredible every single piece of the production was.  However, since we don’t have hours, I shall stick to discussing this production (and absurdism in general) instead of reviewing it.

When I first heard of the term “absurdism” I immediately thought of abstract art with color, shapes, and movement that, while often beautiful, followed no kind of linear thinking.  While that might be the template of some absurdist pieces, “The Birthday Party” showed me that sometimes everyday life can be frighteningly close to absurdism.  In fact, every single piece of “The Birthday Party” was fairly ordinary and made sense on its own, given a different context.  However, what made this show so hauntingly absurd, is that there is no context, and the pieces, while simple, don’t quite fit together.

I say “haunting” because that is honestly the best way I can describe this show.  It definitely wasn’t scary, not like a monster is scary.  One could call it creepy, like a psychopath is creepy.  But most of all its haunting, like a sad ghost who warns you that there is evil in the world, and then weeps at your inability to see it.  However, aside from haunted, there are a multitude of other emotions that come from seeing “The Birthday Party.”  Most of the people who I talked to about the show used the term “uncomfortable” because the writer draws out strong emotions and then gives the audience nowhere to put them as he offers no closure.  However, I didn’t feel uncomfortable as much as intrigued.  I spent the entire show trying to force the pieces together.  Obviously I was not successful, for the show was built to not fit, but to me that made the experience even grander because it means that my mind can continue milling over this unsolvable puzzle for days.

From an actor’s perspective I can only imagine that an absurdist play would be dauntingly difficult to perform because most the written lines are utterly devoid of context, and yet you must play it as if it’s as natural as can be.  In fact, I would call that the cardinal rule of absurdism: nobody’s allowed to notice how absurd their lives actually are.  Every moment is played honestly and with absolute devotion, and it is only from outside that the true absurdity is visible.

Watching an absurdist piece is no picnic either.  The casual observer will quickly become confused and dismiss the show as pointless and idiotic.  Instead, the audience member, like the actor, must completely commit and follow the story down every rabbit hole, regardless of what absurdity lies at the bottom.  The audience must not allow themselves to get hung up on tiny inconsistencies, but instead accept that they will never understand everything.

But whether you’re observing a world of absurdity or performing within it, I can imagine no greater reward than reaching the end of an absurd production.  Of course, by “end” I don’t mean that an absurdist play need have anything resembling closure, indeed, “The Birthday Party” ended without answering any questions.  But when the performance stopped, I didn’t feel emptiness, in fact I felt exactly opposite.  I left the theater feeling like I’d been given a gift, but one that required more than simple reception.  To fully appreciate this gift I had to give time meditating on it.  But every second I sacrificed in thought was well spent.  For while I couldn’t put a put a price on such an experience, I can assure you that its value is, well, absurd.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Broadway Back From The Dead!

Over spring break I had the incredible experience of going to New York for the first time and seeing my first ever Broadway show: Pippin.  Now, Pippin is amazing for several reasons including a Tony Award winning director and actors, an incredible Steven Schwartz score, and some death defying circus feats.  But what struck me about the show the most is that it’s such a good example of a Broadway revival.
                For those of you unfamiliar with this terminology, you must first understand that there are two types of shows on Broadway: Original productions and revivals.  Original shows have usually been in development for years and have played tryout performances all over the country, but this is their first ever run on a Broadway stage.  Conversely, a revival is a show that had opened on Broadway before, subsequently closed, and then came back.
                There are several reasons to bring a show back from the depths and some are better than others.  Generally speaking, the most common reason for a revival is a group of producers who think ticket buying tourists would want to see an old award winning classic when they come to New York.  Tourists who come to the city like to see shows that they know, or at least heard of, so classic crowd pleasers like Fiddler on the Roof (which has been revived 4 times on Broadway with one more in development) and Les Miserables (which just opened its second revival) are popular choices among producers.  While I realize that there is nothing wrong with making money and I love to see a classic revived, I don’t usually care for this kind of revival because it usually fails to surprise me.  As a self-diagnosed Broadway-aholic, I’ve memorized every nut and bolt these classics and, since the producers aim is to give the people something they know, the revivals tend to be carbon copies of the original production.
Another common reasons old shows (especially old plays) are revived is to provide star vehicles for big name actors.   Most of the time when famous Hollywood actors come to Broadway, such as Denzel Washington and James Franco, who are each currently working on the revivals of A Raisin in the Sun and Of Mice and Men respectively, they prefer to do so in a well-known classic instead of take a chance on a new show.  While this is a good way for Hollywood stars to make Broadway debuts, it’s also a good opportunity for big Broadway names, such as Alan Cumming and Sutton Foster who are current staring in the revivals of Cabaret and Violet respectively, to remind New York audiences why they deserve to be known as Broadway greats.  Now it’s difficult to make any generalizations about these kind of revivals because it includes probably 85% of all revivals.  Personally I love the idea of the best actors in the country taking on the greatest shows of all time so these revivals are usually very fun and fairly successful.  However, often times either the actor has other commitments and so the show is not able to run for more than a few months, or the performer uses his/her name to “buy their way” onto the stage and end up performing in roles that they don’t deserve, in which case the show’s life is, again, cut prematurely short.
The third type of revival that we commonly see on Broadway is what I like to call “lost treasures.”  These are shows that have been off the stage for years, usually because they were financial flops even if they earned great respect and awards amongst the theatrical community.  Because of the lack of monetary incentives, these shows usually sink to the bottom of a producer’s list until some inspired artist plucks it from the vaults and gives it a new life on Broadway.  More often than not, these revivals still don’t bring in big  box office numbers, but I think it’s import that old classics stay current and fresh in the mind of every generation so I support this brand of revival.
                The final type of revival often seen on Broadway is my personal favorite: The re-envisioned.  This comes about when a brilliant writer or director is inspired by a piece but wants to make it their own so they add in some to make a completely new show that just happens to use the old script.  That’s something that Pippin is a pristine example of.  Whereas the original show was set around a band of traveling thespians putting on a show about an ancient prince, director Dianne Paulus looked at it she decided to add a whole new element and transform it into a band of circus performers complete with jugglers, lion tamers, and trapeze artists.  This kind of re-envisioning can transform a familiar story with familiar music, into a whole new show.  To me, the best revivals are the ones that re-envision old works because I consider that the pinnacle of innovation.  Art is impressive, but recycled art is ingenious and honors the old while celebrating the new.  And, in my opinion, that is what Broadway is all about.

So what about you?  Do you agree with me that re-envisioned revivals are the best or do you prefer another type?  Also, what do you think are some of the best/worst revivals in recent years and why?  I'd love to hear your thoughts and I will personally respond to anything you write in the comment section below.  Thanks for reading!