AISLE SAY New York

STOPGAP ROUNDUP #3

(Posted late January, 2018)

HINDLE WAKES
DISCO PIGS
JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES FROM THE HEART
A CHRONICLE OF THE MADNESS OF SMALL WORLDS
THE THING WITH FEATHERS

Reviewed by David Spencer

 [Continuing the series of off-standard-format reviews, keeping Aisle Say active while the site undergoes renovation.]


It’s fascinating to think that a stage drama that has been adapted for the screen (big and small) four times should be “forgotten,” but in America, Hindle Wakesa 1912 play by British dramatist Stanley Houghton, it has been. One can only theorize about why a dramatic work fails to hold a place in cultural history to which it seemed destined, but I think that most times, it comes down to a variation on this theme: as the dynamic between society and the artistic response to it changes, a work dramatizing mores and attitudes that have no immediately recognizable contemporary parallel will tend to get sidelined—even if, by the end of the play, the author proves to have been prescient.

Indeed, Houghton’s light drama—arguably a comedy-drama—seems to be simply about attitudes and expectations in a small town when it is learned that the son of a rich industrialist and the daughter of one of the millworkers have had a weekend fling in the big city. It’s not until the play’s lengthy final scene that you realize Houghton was an advocate for the liberal view and making a clear case against provincialism, and in optimistic terms.

What brings plays like this renewed attention? It varies from play to play. In the case of Hindle Wakes, the Mint Theatre company, who specialize in forgotten works, may have found the right time for it — that of a polarized society in which, incredibly, women’s rights we had begun taking for granted are now again challenged, and there’s a “Me, too” movement blasting those challenges apart.

Houghton’s play, to be sure, doesn’t give us an event anywhere near so cataclysmic as to create a brouhaha; rather, he dramatizes the futility of brewing a tempest in a teapot, via how doing so affects three families in father-mother-offspring configuration respectively: that of the free young woman (Ken Marks, Sandra Shipley, Rebecca Noelle Brinkley); that of the young man (Jonathan Hogan, Jill Tanner, Jeremy Beck) and that of his fiancé (Brian Reddy as the father, Emma Geer as the daughter); and tacitly suggests that letting young consenting adults be young responsible adults on their own is as good a way of making societal inroads as any.

The design is straightforward and clean; the direction by Gus Kaikkonen is to the point, sensitive and unobtrusive; the casting is impeccable; and the case made for the play’s renewed life…well, I’ll put it this way. It hurts nobody having it on the radar.

******

At the Irish Rep, you’ll find a 20th anniversary revival of Disco Pigs by Enda Walsh, imported from guess where, by the Irish Rep. I’m not so sure that this one transcends its cultural settings. A piece for two actors that is episodic, somewhat abstract, elliptical, and deliberately a little chaotic, it follows the developing relationship between two renegade kids, a boy and a girl (Colin Campbell and Evanna Lynch), starting with the advent of their mutual birthday, and speeding fairly quickly into their teenage years, which are filled with rebellion, random violence, and amorality… until the day when one of them starts maturing past the point of no return. In director John Haidar’s stripped-down production, the actors are energetic and fearless, but the portrait of disaffected youth seems likewise disaffected by a point, other than being an exercise in stark theatricality. Or perhaps the portrait itself is the point. As a plea for understanding? As a social-historical snapshot? These things can be in the be of the beholder, of course. All I can say is I wish I had beheld more.

******

Also fascinating is the way certain cultural things can occur at the same time. For example, both John Lithgow: Stories from the Heart and A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, which opened with approximately a week of each other, feature actors performing prose short stories, and each evening contains two stories.

The Lithgow, at the American Airlines Theatre via the Roundabout is somewhat sentimental in its framework, in which Lithgow expounds upon the power of storytelling, and talks specifically about how reading aloud to his father when his health was failing triggered a return of his father’s spirit that brought him another several years of life. He then goes on to perform two of the stories—drawn from a favorite family anthology—one per act, by, first, Ring Lardner (US) and then PG Wodehouse (UK). The first is a darkly humorous tale about betrayal and infidelity and worse in a small town (related by a barber to a customer, don’t think Sweeney Todd); the second the lightest of light comedy satires about class, a drawing room farce, if you will, with a con man uncle and a haplessly caught-up nephew at the center (related by one member of a gentleman’s club to another).

There’s a certain convolution to each of these stories. Both are related by narrators who are themselves characters, not within the story proper, but of the community in which the story takes place; observers if you will. So Lithgow dons their personalities first, and achieves all subsequent characterizations through the filter of their perception, which, in a certain sense, is the prose styling of each author. Thus the storyteller portrays the storyteller telling the story. So to call what Lithgow does here a tour de force puts it mildly, if for nothing but the achievement of clarity. The physicality, voice and attitude of every character is so meticulous that you’re never confused at the switch between one and another. If there’s a down side, this also makes you very aware of Lithgow’s technique, however pristine; because, this being a theatrical event, he’s giving you a visual accompaniment to an audiobook. So how completely one is drawn in may vary from viewer to viewer. But it’s certainly worth seeing as a tacit essay in reading aloud and thespian craft. (For an interesting contrast, though, Lithgow as a reader without the visual, the curious might seek out an almost infamous 1985 audio abridgement he recorded of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s an absolutely brilliant and breathtaking performance, but it’s also absolutely an interpretation. But that one, working solely on your mind, is so completely seductive, that Lithgow’s same extreme particularization of character and narrative imprimatur reportedly became a huge influence [some claim an unfortunate one] on how the director and screenwriter of the film decided to approach their adaptation.)

Downtown on 4th street, at a studio space I’ve never before visited, Next Door @ NYTW, which, just as it says, is next door to the New York Theatre Workshop’s main space, and that’s where the second of these “audio book on stage” shows resides. A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, though featuring the work of theatre dramatist Mac Wellman, known for experimental stage work, actually draws from that writer’s prose material, in particular a collection of science fiction short stories bearing the same title. (Mr. Wellman is not to be confused with another, unrelated science fiction veteran of a previous generation, Manly Wade Wellman.) It’s something of a challenge to describe what you’re in for, and what these stories are about and try to do, coherently—so let me borrow excerpts from Stephanie Sobelle in Bookforum, followed by Nicholas Birns in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, who have conveniently done it for me:

Sobelle: “A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds is a collection of short stories or, as the author would have it, an interconnected series of planetoids that, while comically inventive, rings with the sound of our contemporary moment. Add the alchemical wordplay of Lewis Carroll and the satiric geometry of Edwin Abbott to Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, and you'll have some idea of what Wellman has done here. Chronicle is a daunting and subversive rumination on the relationship between how we live and the language we use when we do so.” 

Birns: “[the book] provides a series of narratives discontinuous in both subject and meaning, yet undergirded by a vertebral jauntiness in the ability of language to still matter after all its customary props have been denied it. By writing coherent sentences that yet use phony, concocted, or deliberately absurd referents, which in turn do not carry over even from paragraph to paragraph. 

Imagine now the sonic bed of these worlds made via musical score—that hews to no particular genre but might be most easily described in shorthand as jazz fusion—played live by its co-composers (Anna McClellan, Daniel Ocanto, Sean Smith, Graham Ulinny)…and then the inhabitants of two of these planetoids made manifest by first man, then a woman, each of whom, for the length of a story-act, will occupy an elevated platform with a mic, and there simply provide the rest of the worlds, woven by words.

 Given this material, which has a certain Samuel Beckett quality, you’d think that the more conventional narratives of the Lithgow show would require less consciously applied concentration, but not so much. The spell woven by verbal tapestries from places of abstraction and/or universes that seem to employ other dimensions than just our familiar three, suggests states of being that envelop the narratives (as opposed to narratives enveloping their universes); and that carries you in what I can only describe as the theatrical equivalent of as dreamscape. There may not always be a linear path to follow between beats, but somehow you create your own, in a theatrical black box of the mind. 

Timothy Siragusa, in a colorful bow tie and loud jacket, performs the first story as if in the grip of dementia rendered sane, citizen of a society that condones things like patricide as a mark of maturity’s next step, on a planet where everybody of every gender has the same name: Mary Carnivorous Rabbit. Anastasia Olowin, tall, willowy, in a flowing silk dress, is almost the opposite: her rendering of her worldlet performed as if she has a constant need to deconstruct it, balancing a state of precision with one of bewilderment—a bewilderment occasionally punctuated by a syllable that has no explanation or context (at least not when removed from the entire collection of published stories): “Bupbupbup…”  Both performers are excellent, but for me, Ms. Olowin has that extra, alchemical, indefinable insistence that marks a potential star. At any rate, the evening is highly recommended (though not for the unadventurous), and both actors, if there’s any justice, should be able to carve out second careers as brilliant readers of audiobooks. Audio publishers take note.

******

Finally, The Barrow Group is presenting Scott Organ’s The Thing With Feathers. It’s a disquieting play that seems at first merely to be about a smart teenage girl of 17 (Alexa Shae Niziak), who is potentially about to be the victim of an online predator (Zachary Booth), even under the watchful eye of her mother, a career teacher (DeAnna Lenhart) and her fiancé, a veteran cop (Robert Manning, Jr.).

An arguable problem with the play is that all through its first act, you may well think only that is going on, and steel yourself for a ride that can only move from apprehension-filled to unpleasant—despite being very well acted by the cast, under the unobtrusive but sharp direction of Seth Barrish. But in fact, there are deeper layers, and what appears at first only to be a story about an incident, turns out to be a plotted tale heading somewhere unexpected and ironic. 

I’m not sure this is a play one can ever like…but it’s certainly one that earns its keep by never letting its grip on the better part of humanism succumb to hovering darkness. In spite of everything, this is not boilerplate territory. And in a grey-area way, that which its title alludes to (look up the quote if you don’t know it), is what it leaves you with.

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