Towers of Techno-Babble

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


through Aug. 1 at the Signature Theater, 555 W. 42nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 244-PLAY.

Towers of Techno-Babble 

The theater has a troubled relationship to new technology. Not that most of its practitioners are particularly conservative—quite the contrary—but there is an abiding conservatism in the form itself. The technical advances theaters have incorporated over the centuries, such as steel rigging, gas and electric light and hydraulic lifts, have invariably enhanced the art as it already existed. They didn’t change its basic anthropocentric, language-based storytelling nature, and the same is true of most of the practices co-opted from the avant-garde through this century.


The marvels of the media age are completely different, though: video and digitally altered video and sound, large-screen projection and holography, to name the most obvious examples. Like an Elvis lookalike at a bar mitzvah, such accouterments tend to take over the theater experience, asserting themselves over all mundane human content. As Marshall McLuhan warned more than three decades ago, new media don’t merely carry messages, but tend to displace them. They’re like robotic egomaniacs that resist being used merely to supplement or embellish stories enacted by living people in real time, despite the existence of a few brilliant exceptions, such as Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group, who understand the intricate tightrope game of balancing live and mediated humans.


The prevalence of multimedia theater groups today has less to do with public demand than with the fact that new technology has become a winning grant-application strategy. The dominant ”oh wow” school of reviewers also stands ever eager to hail anything electronically mediated as “cutting edge.” The quick celebrity afforded mixed-media artists—and art critics are greater culprits on this score than theater critics—conveys the impression that human-scale storytelling skills, usually honed over years in the past, are no longer necessary at all as long as the expensive electronic toys are themselves entertaining enough. Besides, no one in the info age has time for apprenticeships. This is why it sometimes seems as though there’s an abundance of work of the caliber of the Wooster Group out there when, actually, there’s almost none.


I go avidly to see John Jesurun’s pieces whenever they appear, because he always seems capable of achieving the tricky balance mentioned above, usually falling just short. Most often, though, I come across vacuous and self-important spectacles of carts pulling horses, such as GAle GAtes’ Tilly Losch, Robert Lepage’s Elsinore and La Fura dels Baus’ F@ust: Version 3.0 (performed at last year’s Lincoln Center Festival)—to mention only a few recent banquets that neglected to provide real food. Such events always remind me of wannabe novelists with expensive computers but nothing to say, or kids who can’t pass algebra walking around with calculators capable of 50 advanced math functions.


3-Legged Dog is a New York-based multimedia theater company founded in 1994 by Kevin Cunningham, Mike Taylor and Jill Szuchmacher. I haven’t seen their work before, and I try not to prejudge
anyone. I did grow pretty skeptical, though, after reading in the program to Automatic Earth that the company considers line-production of (not participation in) the New York State Governor’s Conference on Art and Technology to be one of its major credits. It also didn’t help to learn (from a 1998 article in The Villager supplied with the press materials) that the origin of the company’s name is a mishap suffered by Cunningham’s pit bull Sid, who lost a leg while chasing a car. Sid’s accident might strike some people as a sign that the dogged pursuit of technology can be harmful; Cunningham saw it rather as “a metaphor for the artist, and what’s needed…persistence in the face of adversity.”


Happily, Automatic Earth, written by Cunningham and directed by Rick Mordecon, isn’t entirely vacuous. It has an interesting premise, snatches of lovely writing, at least two excellent actors and captivating 16-by-24-foot video images that actually illuminate the enacted story at times. Those times, alas, are much too fleeting and scattered to save the images from seeming arbitrary and trivially rooted in science-envy (fast-action weather-satellite pictures, for instance, and moving graphics supposedly based on chaos theory), and the well-written speeches (spoken mostly by a brain-damaged central character) are surrounded by thudding cliches and glaring narrative oversights.


The first live tableau, which follows contemplative preshow footage of rushing clouds and the sound of wind, is savagely comic: a man (P.J. Sosko) quivering on the floor with a pitchfork through his head. This is Vining, it turns out, victim of a horrible farm accident who is taken to an upstate New York mental hospital where callous doctors, thug-like attendants and a crowd of inmates who mill about, occupied with various bizarre and disgusting obsessions, erase with triteness whatever interest the harsh comedy had to begin with. Vining is (of course) a poetic soul whose complexity the institutional yahoos can’t fathom, but as he slowly regains language—incessantly writing and then speaking in aphasic jumbles reminiscent of the patients in Arthur Kopit’s Wings and Susan Yankowitz’s Night Sky—he briefly touches souls (and bodies) with a fellow inmate named Cabid (C.P. Thornhill), a pathological “biter.” Then he’s thrown out into the cold, cruel world.


The show establishes a parallel between Vining’s journey (from accident to recovery to post-hospital wanderings) and the development of a category-five hurricane (from the belch of a cannibalistic frog in Mali to various air currents it affects to continent-sized cloud-swirls and tornado-force winds). Trouble is, the often stunning weather footage and scientific graphics, some beautifully altered, are described and discussed exclusively by an anomalous, techno-babbling female narrator (Vera Beren) who strips down to ever sexier clothing while perched on a spiral staircase to the side and seems much less intent on clarifying causes or principles than on proving that she too has a poetic soul (after all, she’s wearing a slip!). At one point, for instance, she speaks of the hurricane’s “harsh spirals of auto-cannibalism along its inner eye wall,” a facile, undigested reference to the frog’s and Cabid’s cannibalism (it seems), which clunks inertly like the dozens of other wooden nickels she drops.


With the hospital inmates remaining inexplicably onstage the entire time, Vining has a short affair with a drifter and former stripper named Chester (Sara Parry), whom he meets on the road—a sequence so touchingly acted by Sosko and Parry that it briefly made me think the whole show-offy, half-understood science pageant might actually transform into a play. Then the plot utterly degenerates, as Chester leaves him, he befriends a stereotypical junkie-artist named Jerry (Stephen Payne) in Houston and almost finds Chester again while manacled Cabid is seen receiving copies of Vining’s cryptic poems. The ending is a digressive hodgepodge of handwringing by Chester and Jerry and a long, impossible-to-follow monologue by Vining about a perfect landscape. No question of patching things up here with revising and editing. The very basic problem is that Cunningham never really thought through how all his nifty weather videos, digital effects and technospeak could form
a meaningful backdrop to any volitional human journey.


The playwright Max Frisch once quipped that “technology…[is] the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” For two and a half millennia, good playwriting has been the knack of so arranging stories about human life that even the most thick-skinned can’t help but experience them. The battle lines have long been drawn, and the enduring multimedia artists, like all successful peacemakers, will be those who listen respectfully and imaginatively to the demands of both sides.



Freedom of the City 

Aristocrats by Brian Friel


Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov adapted by Brian Friel
Lincoln Center Festival (closed)

Three out of four of the theater offerings in this year’s Lincoln Center Festival were packaged as a “Brian Friel Festival” and consisted of imported Irish productions of plays by the Irish playwright. My own reaction to Friel’s work over the years has been mixed, but my memories of Molly Sweeney and Dancing at Lughnasa were fond enough to make me curious about these Gate and Abbey Theater productions of works rarely produced in the U.S.


The two early plays, The Freedom of the City (1973) and Aristocrats (1979)—both done in wholly competent productions—turned out to be (on the one hand) dated and painfully obvious and (on the other) touching, if a bit windy and obviously imitative of Chekhov. In Freedom of the City, a protest against the injustice of Bloody Sunday and its biased investigation by the British government, three
civil rights protesters in 1970 seek shelter in the Derry Guildhall after British soldiers attack the crowd. Friel treats the protesters, who are mistaken for armed terrorists and killed, as utterly innocent victims, and the soldiers, investigating judge and an “expert” sociology professor as wholly duplicitous or clueless—the most boring recipe for a drama I can imagine, regardless of the truth about Bloody Sunday.


In Aristocrats, set in the mid-1970s, a similar oblivious professor visits an aristocratic Irish Catholic family in decline and misses what’s really important in their fantasies, lies and quirky personalities because he’s preoccupied with such factual questions as “What political clout did they wield?” Aristocrats has exactly the assets and drawbacks I’ve come to think of as typical of Friel: thoroughly engaging characters involved in a plot that often feels derivative and undermines its potentially strong emotional impact by dotting every “i.”


The surprise of the festival, for me, was the strength of Friel’s adaptation of Chekhov himself. His new version of Uncle Vanya was smoothly clear, appropriately acerbic and eminently actable. He made a few unfortunate choices that broaden some of Chekhov’s economical details, such as expanding the role of Telegin into a clownish fool who harps on his own perspiration and makes idiotic jokes about Germans. In general, though, Friel was obviously guided by his good sense of speakability and the steady build of the characters’ disappointments and heartbreaks. The Gate Theater production, directed by Ben Barnes, was somewhat cold, as widely reported, but the chief reason for that seemed to me a dreadfully miscast Elena (Susannah Harker), whose stiff, phony gestures and utterly uncompelling inertia made nonsense of the men’s attraction to her. Vanya (Niall Buggy), Astrov (John Kavanagh) and Sonya (Donna Dent) were all deeply original and wholly convincing, though, and the very memorable evening almost made up for Freedom of the City.

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