The Woman in the Wall: Review for Stage & Cinema
The Woman in the Wall: Review for Stage & Cinema
In my summer of excessive theatergoing, I have learned a few things about my theatrical tastes. Specifically: I am not in love with the genre of musical theater as I once thought I was. (Gasp!)
I am actually in love with the art of listening.
My interest in sound and the art of listening must stem from my own training as a musician and composer. I listen to music less frequently than some might expect, because I have a constant soundtrack in my head – familiar and original tunes, winding their way through my skull, often making unexpected connections. I read an article a few months ago about “musical hallucinations,” which suggested that the fullness of sound in my head could actually be considered a psychological disorder. But I suspect most musicians have this constant aural activity, and it doesn’t interfere with our everyday lives (too much). In fact, it comes in handy. I don’t know how I could compose without musical hallucinations. When I was bored in middle school, I could mentally start up a CD and tune out the teacher. Sometimes when I am sitting in a restaurant with a friend, I will point to the ceiling and identify a song playing on the radio. Following a confused look, my friend usually takes a few seconds to tune in to this alternate wavelength – then she hears it. What is background noise to others often occupies a central place in my soundscape. Are you listening?
Sound is something too often marginalized in theatrical productions, hence my affection for the genre of musical theater where sound occupies a central and privileged position. I have written before about the dynamic range of a musical that absolutely captivates me: the ecstatic shift from book scenes to musical numbers, from everyday speech to heightened song and dance. Within a musical number, I love how voices harmonize and bodies sync. Musical numbers require intense listening across the ensemble. Musical numbers also temporarily banish the constant soundtrack in my head: I became wholly absorbed in listening to – or, rather, listening with – the ensemble. I bob my head or tap my foot along with the beat. If I know the songs already, you might find me playing piano on my knee. I am not bored: my body is engaged in musicking along with the actors. The boundary between us is porous. I will leave the theater with their songs incorporated into my mental soundtrack; I will sit down and play them on the piano; my friends will sing along.
“Straight plays” can have this captivating, dynamic range of sound too. On my recent visit to Chicago, I saw 8 plays in 6 days — and the musicals (The Adventures of Pinocchio and The Original Grease) were actually my least favorite of the lot. From Collaboraction to Abraham Werewolf, from Steep Theatre to Steppenwolf, I was continually impressed with the vivid soundscapes of the “straight plays” I saw. Collaboraction’s 1001 and Abraham Werewolf’s One Night Only relied on familiar musical strains, such as Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score and classic Hall & Oates, to explore the self-conscious storytelling that constitutes our lives. The subway trains running beside Steep Theatre made for a chillingly atmospheric soundtrack to Pornography, a play set around the London tube bombings in 2005. Steppenwolf’s Middletown was concerned, in both content and style, with communication: the construction of language, the gaps and distortions, the meanings of sound and silence.
In LA, I recently caught the first preview of Stranger Things by Ghost Road Company. What drew me to this production in the first place was sound. This show wasn’t even on my radar until I read Steve Julian’s LA Stage Alliance article, which had me at David O. From Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands to the Blank’s The Cradle Will Rock, David O is one of the most eager and innovative musical collaborators in LA; I actively seek out productions with his music direction. The same goes for Gregory Nabours, who played the delightfully sarcastic accompanist in Celebration Theatre’s [title of show]. I am fundamentally opposed to song cycles, but his own song cycle The Trouble with Words washed away all my usual qualms about the form. Gregory is MD’ing Third Street Theater’s Falsettos next. I’m there.
Yes, I follow gifted music directors as much a I follow companies, directors, or actors. But really, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a hybrid graphic novel play with music? A good mystery is all about the timing, and Stranger Things still has a few plot twists to be ironed out. But many moments are positively chilling – and the immersive soundscape holds the audience captive for the duration of this spectacularly layered tale. David O has crafted sparse and spectral underscoring, in addition to a hauntingly simple waltz and a few piercing songs. The songs are fragmentary and Brechtian, cold and isolated, like the frigid environment in which the play is set. David O is himself a dead and ghastly figure, hunched over the keys, invisible to the characters in the play. (“In a perfect world of endless budgets,” O imagines, “my character would be the invisible ghost piano player Irma at the Magic Castle [in Los Angeles]. It would work well in the story if the piano could play itself.”) His underscoring sweeps seamlessly into Cricket S. Myers’ soundscape of whirling winds, haunting whispers, and gasping breaths that still echo in my head today. The creaking boards of Maureen Weiss’ set, the crisp flip of a page of sheet music, Helga’s stilted and unaffected speech … sound is style and substance in this show. Are you listening?
Back to Chicago: It was at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass (The Last Act of Lilka Kadison, my favorite) that I particularly grasped the dynamic power of ensemble – the power of listening – in a non-musical. Over and over again in my Chicago reviews, I point to the ensemble as engaged listeners, palpably aware of one another’s presence at all times. The actors were not grounded in themselves, but in one another. Their work was not a self-serving showcase, but a long-term collaborative effort built on communal process as much as product. I believe that when the actors are so palpably engaged, the audience is likewise engaged. After every performance at Steppenwolf, a company member leads a talkback. This is not a Q&A with the creative team, but a chat among audience members about the themes and questions that the play brought up. On the night I attended, 25 or 30 people stayed: enough to foster a dynamic discussion.
I find myself drawn to theater companies that emphasize the art of listening both onstage and off. These companies recognize their audiences not as passive spectators but as active and engaged collaborators, an integral part of the theatrical exchange. My Name is Rachel Corrie, which recently opened at Theatricum Botanicum, featured a rousing post-show discussion that almost the entire audience attended; even after the formal discussion had ended, audience members lingered to further discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Coeurage Theatre Company recently kicked off a very cool post-show entertainment called Live Theatre Blog, 20-minute “monthly blogs […] written to be plays performed onstage and streaming online for who ever wants to listen.” This crafts a space for the audience to linger after the performance, to extend the show beyond the curtain call. Gedaly Guberek introduced himself after The Trouble with Words the other night, and we had a great chat before the first installment of LTB. I was a little astonished that Gedaly recognized me from the online LA theater community. But he was listening …
How can the LA theater community better engage in the art of listening, onstage and off? How can we broaden our range of theatrical possibilities? How can we expand our audiences? The alternate wavelengths are, no doubt already there. Are we listening?
Marc Blitzstein created a musical that paralleled real-life union struggles amidst the larger theme of metaphorical prostitution and selling out in The Cradle Will Rock, which, when banned from its theatre for its uncompromising leftist leanings in June 1937, made front-page news in its own time and inspired a popular political movie in ours.
– Geoffrey Block, The Cambridge Companion to the Musical
Most musical theater history texts offer up such an intriguing little blurb on The Cradle Will Rock. (Wait, you mean musicals can be political – and even banned from performance? Gasp!) Unfortunately, most texts discuss the historical event with little to nothing about the musical itself. Musical theater fans can tell you the context of the 1937 production, but very few have read the libretto or listened to the score – and even fewer have ever seen a production. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the work itself deserves some attention, in addition to its incredible historical context.
Enter Blank Theatre Company’s revival of The Cradle Will Rock. Daniel Henning first directed this musical in 1994, and he revisits the landmark piece with playful panache in the Blank’s 20th anniversary season. The Cradle Will Rock features some of LA’s best musical theater talent, who embrace the presentational, Brechtian text with contemporary verve.
After all, The Cradle Will Rock is far more relevant than we would like to admit: archetypal characters such as Mr. Mister, Dr. Specialist, Reverend Salvation, and Editor Daily have their undeniable counterparts in 21st century capitalist society. Although the show’s design places the musical in the 1930s, protest posters in the musical’s final moments – and the show’s logo – point up contemporary relevance by attacking Enron, Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, etc. Henning couldn’t have chosen a more fascinatingly disjunct location to perform this show: the Stella Adler Theatre is tucked away by Hollywood and Highland – one of the most touristy, consumer-driven districts in the city.
After the original 1937 production was banned, the producers “invited the cast to show up wherever Blitzstein was performing Cradle, and to rise from their seats in the audience to play their parts. Some conservative cast members bowed out, as did others afraid of losing their relief-work pay as their only means of support. But by and large few defected from the ranks” (John Bush Jones, Our Musicals Ourselves). One of LA’s most accomplished musical directors, David O takes on the role of Blitzstein in the Blank’s production: he introduces each scene and accompanies, exploiting the full dynamic range of the old upright piano. The bare simplicity of the production is truly staggering. Rather than relying on special effects and elaborate designs, The Cradle Will Rock thrives on the dynamic range and political possibilities of the collective. Actors move through the audience, their powerful, unamplified voices joining in song from all sides of the theater.
I saw both The Cradle Will Rock and The Mercy Seat on the same day. The juxtaposition was a provocative reminder of why I generally prefer musical theater: the dynamic range of a musical and the emphasis on ensemble. This is not to say that “straight plays” or “legitimate drama” can’t achieve a sense of musicality or a sense of ensemble. To be sure, there are countless playwrights with rhapsodic style, whose words are like music; their language can crescendo and diminuendo, overlap in poetic and playful ways. And many plays cultivate ensemble. But the American stage is still dominated by psychological realism, which tends to privilege “natural” conversation and self-enclosed individuals. I don’t generally want to go to the theater to see and hear something “real.” I want to see something imaginary with a more metaphorical, open relationship to the “real.” Or maybe more accurately, I want to consider the possibility that the “imaginary” could one day be an alternative “real.”
Whether it’s obviously political like The Cradle Will Rock or “pure, fluffy entertainment” like a Golden Age hit musical, the musical’s anti-realist imaginary – often placing an emphasis on dynamic range and ensemble – is important and political in its own right. In fact, I left the Stella Adler Theatre that afternoon basking in the glow of an entertaining and political show that had drawn together an alternative theater-going community … in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard.
The premise of Song and Dances of Imaginary Lands is simple: when Tom (Jason Adams) and Sue (Jamey Hood) lose their identities, they seek a social service officer’s help to recover their past. But after a quasi-realist film introduces the characters’ quest, the curtains part – and Tom and Sue enter a worm-hole of living memories, a stunning constellation of pasts that can’t be reduced to simple facts and figures.
A collaboration among dozens of composers, librettists, performers, designers, and other creatives, Overtone Industries’ new opera left me with an almost childlike sense of wonder and awe. The audience takes part in the embodied experience of memory-making by traveling in trains or carrying their chairs from one imaginary land to another throughout a vacant car dealership in Culver City.
O-Lan Jones’ direction and choreography embraces the distinct sound of each composer/librettist team’s imaginary land, ranging from spoken word to traditional opera. Snezana Petrovic’s scenic and costume designs astonish in their diversity – and in their creative use of recycled materials, appropriately reflective of Tom and Sue’s recycled and re-embodied memories that linger larger-than-life. Dressed in contemporary realist attire, Tom and Sue’s interwoven memories thrust them into stunning ensemble performances of dancing office desks and sandmen, in lands ranging from Ent-like trees to frigid Alaskan snowscapes.
Perhaps most remarkable are the nearly-seamless transitions among the diverse lands. As the lights rise and music strikes up in another space, dancers and unobtrusive guides light the way from one vivid, dreamlike memory to another. David O’s traveling music direction is quite a feat, as the live ensemble moves from site to site – and pre-recorded sounds fill the gaps – to provide nearly continuous accompaniment.
Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands stuns in its ability to continuously engage the audience with the contrasts and connections among such vibrant sites, sounds, and dances. Interweaving fact and fiction, dream and reality, performers and audience, this new opera becomes a living part of the audience’s own kinesthetic memory. I know I will be sharing this experience for years to come.