Monday, 20 July 2015

Postcard from New York, Minneapolis and Chicago

The Sound and the Fury (Elevator Repair Service); Macbeth (Public Theatre Mobile Shakespeare Unit); Wise Blood (The Soap Factory/Walker Art Centre); Moby Dick (Looking Glass Theatre)

It’s almost six weeks since I arrived in New York to begin the fourth month of my Fellowship, after spending the first three in the UK and Europe. So much has happened since then – in my personal life as well as in terms of the performance training and research that’s been at the core of my itinerary – that I’ve had neither the time nor the mental space to write. The next few Postcards will I hope make up for my long silence, at least in terms of the theatre I’ve seen, the context in which I’ve seen it, and the reflections it’s inspired.

I initially touched down in New York for a mere two days, before continuing on to Minneapolis for a two-week workshop with physical improvisation company The Bodycartography Project. On this first brief stopover in Manhattan, I stayed in a small shared apartment on the Lower East Side overlooking 2nd Avenue, just around corner from the heart of the Off-Broadway theatre scene. My Airbnb host was a nervy young guy who was keen to show me his business card, which declared him to be in the Bedbug Detection industry – a thriving concern in New York apparently. He then introduced me to his business partner and chief asset, a friendly and rather excitable beagle whom he’d invested a great deal of time and money in training. He insisted on demonstrating the dog’s prowess by hiding a small plastic vial of bedbugs in the living room and then encouraging her to sniff them out, but after a cursory search she seemed more interested in joining me on the sofa.

Only in New York.


The day after my arrival I stroll a couple of blocks across town to The Public Theatre to see a three-hour matinee performance of The Sound and the Fury: a restaging by experimental ensemble Elevator Repair Service of the first chapter of William Faulkner’s great modernist novel; the production originally premiered at The New York Theatre Workshop in 2008. The chapter in question is a stream-of-consciousness narrative recording the sensations and memories (the various strands being interwoven and often barely distinguishable) of an intellectually disabled thirty-three-year-old man with a mental age of three who belongs to a declining aristocratic Southern family which includes his hyperchondriacal mother, his two surviving but unstable brothers, and his sexually wayward sister, as well as the struggling family of black servants who support them. It’s an almost impossible task to stage it – and in a way that’s the whole point.

I’ve seen two other productions by ERS that have toured to Australia over the years: the monumental Gatz, a seven-hour verbatim rendering of The Great Gatsby, which was read aloud by one of the cast, while he and the others also took on roles in the story; and The Select, a more playful (and more play-like) staging of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The Sound and The Fury completes the company’s ‘American trilogy’, which by no means exhausts or even defines their repertoire or focus, as their work has ranged from stagings of court transcripts to original commissioned plays. If anything, I’d describe them as an ensemble company with a special interest in the suspension of disbelief – that uniquely theatrical gap between form and content that lies between what’s seen and heard onstage and what occurs in the mind’s eye of the audience. Hence their attraction to staging works of literature precisely as ‘impossible tasks’, an approach which resembles less a conventional process of adaptation than an expanded notion of verbatim theatre.

They’re led by director John Collins, formerly an associate with The Wooster Group, with whom he worked primarily as a sound designer, and whose directorial approach is primarily task-based rather than prescriptive. Productions are developed over long periods of time by allowing the cast to solve problems and generate material themselves in response to proposed texts. In other words, he creates the conditions of possibility for them to make their own performances, which he then shapes and edits in production. This permits a sense of ownership and freedom on the part of the performers which is immediately evident when watching them onstage. It’s like watching kids playing in front of your eyes, in a state of focused flow.

In the event, The Sound and The Fury is a much more demanding production (and novel) than Gatz or The Select.  If perhaps it doesn’t quite realise itself as completely or successfully as its precursors, this is arguably also true of the sprawling, incomplete and patchwork nature of Faulkner’s novel, in comparison with the gem-like perfection of Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s respective masterpieces. That said, I loved it; but then, I love the novel; and in both cases, it’s the magnificently quixotic failure of the exercise that’s an essential part of what I love about them; whereas the incredible feat of Gatz in particular was precisely the fact that it completely succeeded – and in doing so staged The Great Gatsby in a way that was far truer to the form and content of the novel than the excruciatingly sentimental and glamourized film versions.

As with Gatz, there’s no attempt with The Sound and the Fury to turn Faulkner’s novel (if it can even be described as such) into a play. A copy of the book gets passed around the stage and is sometimes read from (and sometimes not); the text is read or spoken more or less verbatim, including the words ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, which are hastily appended to lines of dialogue; actors play multiple characters, and (perhaps more confusingly) the same characters are played by multiple actors; the cast are diverse in terms of age, gender, appearance and cultural background, but there’s often a deliberate disregard and even tension between this and the characters they play. Some actors use ‘Southern’ accents, others not; costumes vary between contemporary streetclothes and makeshift signifiers of role; the set is a highly detailed, naturalistic and cluttered living room which in no way attempts to reproduce any literal setting from the novel, although the mélange of old furniture and family heirlooms evokes the echo-chamber of memory which is arguably its proper mental space; and there’s a similarly detailed use of sound (and sound effects) which resembles radio drama and is at times almost comically mimetic but at other times only tangentially related to the narrative.

Despite and even because of all this, the novel emerges for me with all the force and clarity of a hidden image in a picture-puzzle. In fact I’ve never experienced such a vivid rendition in the theatre of the imaginative process of reading itself – and reading this novel in particular. The slippages of time, place, character, memory and sensation correspond to those in Faulkner’s writing, and to Benjy’s consciousness (the title is of course a reference to Macbeth’s lines about life being ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’). No doubt, there’s a very New York tendency towards irony and intellectualisation in all this; in a way, ERS remains me of a smart, cool band like Talking Heads or Television in their heyday; but like those bands, their work is also edgy, funny, captivating and at times filled with a sharply aching sense of yearning. One would be hard pressed to find theatre of this intelligence and sophistication anywhere else; nor a genuine ensemble company like this, led by a director who knows how to throw his actors a bone and then let them go for it.


That night I return to The Public Theatre on impulse, to see an in-house production of Macbeth by the Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, which creates and tours work to prisons, shelters, recreation centers and other community-based sites. Running at about 70 minutes without an interval, it’s a lean, mean, heavily edited version of the play, which suits Shakespeare’s most episodic and randomly structured tragedy (especially in the later Acts, where whole scenes and characters can easily be cut without loss).

The production is lively and simple, and the performances have an engagingly natural sense of vernacular speech and body-language which is generally absent in Australian versions of Shakespeare, where actors often seem either trapped in a dated notion of ‘Englishness’ or equally artificial notions of ‘Australianness’, both of which are abiding symptoms of the cultural cringe that still afflicts us back home. The actor playing Macbeth is compelling, although I can’t help sensing a degree of self-involvement which gets in the way at times of the character and the verse; there’s a lot of extended pauses, eyeballing of the audience and other actors, and interpolated extra-syllabic grunts. Perhaps it reflects the intended performance context and audience for which the show was devised; or perhaps it’s flip-side of the vernacular quality I mentioned earlier – Macbeth meets On the Waterfront, so to speak. In this respect, perhaps there’s an American version of the cultural cringe, too, which manifests itself in the inverted form of a perpetual posture of rebellious defiance, as epitomised by the most famous graduates of The Actor’s Studio, from Brando and James Dean to Jack Nicholson, Pacino and De Niro. To be sure, the play is at least in part about disloyalty, but making its titular lead a rebel without a cause somewhat short-circuits the journey of his character.

In any case, something essential about Shakespeare gets lost in translation. I think it’s the heightened externalization of character, action, cosmos, and the language that expresses them – which is precisely what speaks to us across time and space. This is a play about witches and kings, ghosts and visions, heaven and hell, and ‘Pity, like a naked newborne babe, striding the blast’. If we don’t hear and see these things as if they were real, and not just the trappings of history or rhetoric, then in the end it’s all just ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.


I left New York the next day, for two weeks in Minneapolis, where I spent my time in the workshop with Bodycartography. Here I experienced the best of ‘Minnesota nice’, staying in a charming sloping-roofed house with my delightful host and her daughter in the suburb of Longfellow, on a peaceful street lined with maples and populated by rabbits and squirrels hopping about on the front lawns and darting up and down the trees. My host lent me her bike, and I rode each day to the Tapestry Folk Dance Centre where the workshop was held. On weekends I made good use of the bike paths and greenways that traverse the city, and visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Centre, and closer to hand in Longfellow, the mighty Mississippi and Minnehaha Falls. I was in the Midwest all right.

I didn’t see any theatre – apart from an ambitious but disappointing opera based on Flannery O’Connor’s cult Southern Gothic novel Wise Blood. Actually it was more of an immersive-promenade site-specific installation-performance, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Centre and staged in the haunting environs of The Soap Factory, a rehabilitated found-venue in downtown Minneapolis.

As is often the case with site-specific theatre, the existing architecture and visual design were the outstanding features, with one of the show’s creators, Chris Larson, constructing an intricate set within the space for the audience and performers to wander through and inhabit. I was less impressed by the work of his co-creators: composer and librettist Anthony Gatto, and director Michael Sommers (who also performed in the show). The score was woefully uninteresting and (dare I say) one-note in mood and tempo (which is to say, relentlessly dirge-like, and utterly unsuited to the spiky and unpredictable nature of O’Connor’s writing); and the libretto was a clumsy attempt to foreshorten and reshuffle the structure of the novel, which lead to an incoherent Frankenstein’s monster that could satisfy neither newcomers nor afficionados. As for the direction: it failed to grapple with the elemetary challenge of immersive-promenade performance, which is both to justify and facilitate the audience having to remain on their feet while continually being herded around. 

I’ll have more to say about immersive and participatory theatre in the context of other shows I saw on my return to New York. Suffice to say that it’s become something of a craze at the moment, for reasons that I suspect have a lot to do with the influence of virtual reality and so-called reality TV (I say ‘so-called’ because of course the ‘reality’ in question is anything but real). This is not to gainsay the potential of the form; but without sufficient motivation in terms of content or craft in delivery the result can be little more than an elaborate gimmick, and this felt like the case here.

In sum: despite some outstanding work from the singers, actors, musicians and scenic artist, the creative minds behind Wise Blood left the unfortunate performers and audience high and dry – in other words, unable to connect with each other, or the story itself. Of course we all applauded dutifully at the end, with a sense of having been present at an important artistic achievement and cultural event; but I doubt whether anyone got much pleasure or enlightenment out of being there.


A week later, my workshop completed, I took the train back across the Midwest from Minneapolis to Chicago en route to New York, feeling a little like Nick Carraway at the end of The Great Gatsby, only in reverse. I decided to break my journey and spend a night and a day in Chicago: a city which struck me as kind of playground for architects, especially when it comes to skyscrapers from every era and in every conceivable style imaginable over the last century or so. I stayed in a hotel housed in a slender 1920s neo-gothic example sandwiched between two multistorey carparks on the Chicago River in the heart of downtown, directly opposite the glass-and-steel monstrosity of Trump Tower.

That night I went to hear Ricardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony. It was an all-Russian program: Tchaikovsky’s ‘Manfred’ Symphony preceded by Scriabin’s ‘Poem of Ecstasy’. Personally I found the Tchaikovsky a bloated and meandering work with some beautiful melodies but long stretches of uninspired histrionics, despite Muti’s best efforts to keep me focussed. The Scriabin on the other hand was wonderful: Debussy meets Richard Strauss, with a large dollop of Russian mysticism thrown in for good measure. I had a cheap seat up in the choir behind the orchestra, and the final climax (eight horns and an organ) almost blew the top of my head off (as Hemingway might have put it), as well as threatening to cause several coronary infarctions among the senior citizens of Chicago sitting alongside me.


The following morning I explored some of the architetural delights of the city, including the Chicago Cultural Centre (formerly the Chicago Public Library), an impressive late-19th Century neo-classical structure which is open to the community with an ongoing program of free exhibitions and concerts. Walking up the marble stairway into the vast hall where people once collected their books – surrounded by walls decorated with elaborate tiled mosaics under a huge Tiffany coloured-glass dome – was like entering the Mermaid’s Palace in Hans Andersen (or perhaps the Doge’s Palace in Venice). Upstairs was a (for me) revelatory exhibition of paintings by Jazz Age black artist Archibald Motley, who lived and worked in Chicago, Paris and finally Mexico, featuring vibrant and provocative images of street life in the black neighbourhoods of Chicago and Paris in the 1920s and 30s. They reminded me a little of the post-Expressionist ‘new objectivity’ and social caricature art of Georg Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann in Germany around the same time.

That afternoon I went to see a new stage version of Moby Dick, adapted and directed by David Caitlin for Chicago-based company Looking Glass Theatre. The performance went for about three hours, including two intervals and lots of gymnastics, aerial and trapeze work on ropes and swings, and climbing up and down a framework of curved metal scaffolding which was arched over the stage like the ribcage of a whale. Melville meets Cirque de Soleil. I wasn’t convinced. Performances from most of the cast (the men in particular) were disappointingly hammy. Much of the time, it felt like watching a Classics Illustrated comic-book version of the novel. The whales themselves were rather intriguingly represented by the women in the cast, variously singing, being hung upside down and having their long fabric dresses unwound and stripped from them like blubber (revealing the whalebone corsets beneath), and finally taking their revenge by dragging the leg-strapped Ahab offstage in a disappointingly lame climax (if you’ll pardon the pun).

It’s too bad the film of Orson Welles’s Moby Dick – Rehearsed hasn’t survived. Welles approached the adaptation of the novel as a metatheatrical exercise in representing the unrepresentable, using the framing device of an imaginary theatre company who stage the book using minimal resources (and casting himself as the Actor-Manager who takes on the role Ahab, needless to say). I can imagine seeing a compnay like Elevator Repair Service take a similar approach today.

Reflecting on the experience of seeing this and other literary adaptations on my travels, it struck me that the first thing to acknowledge about the task of putting works of literature onstage is what Freud (in relation to the work of dreams) called ‘considerations of representability’. In the case of Moby Dick, this means recognising that the whale is first and foremost a being of language – a figure of speech, so to speak – and perhaps even an instance of what Lacan would call (with no pun intended) ‘a floating signifier’. In short: the whale represents an idea in Ahab’s mind: a 'fatal image', and perhaps even an obsession, driven by what Freud called the death instinct. As such, it surely belongs offstage – a literally ‘obscene’ object of desire (from the Greek ob skene, meaning ‘off-stage’) that can’t appear or be represented directly, much like Macbeth’s ‘dagger of the mind’ (a symbolic phallus if every there was one: ‘Come, let me clutch thee; I have thee not, and yet I see thee still!’). Perhaps it's this dimension of the off-stage, the absent, the Symbolic, which makes the staging of literature (and indeed everything else, including desire itself) possible: in the theatre, in our dreams and fantasies, and even in the unconscious acting-out of our lives.

That night I boarded the train again, feeling more and more like Nick Carroway, to continue my long journey east: back to New York City, where more thrills and spills – theatrical and personal – awaited me.


Humph’s second Postcard from New York follows next week.

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