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Anne Bogart's SITI COMPANY
Death and the Ploughman
June 15-19, 8pm

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Monday, June 20
    READER COMMENT: Anne Bogart

    Bravo to OtB for taking chances.  It’s important to present a range of stuff even when elderly neuresthenic types like me find some of it unbearable.  It’s all for a good cause. 

    If I had seen this show in 1987, I’d have thought it dated.  Anything you see here has been done at OtB in a few decades of dance, movement, theater, NWNW and 12MM shows.  The difference is that this goes on for almost 90 minutes with no intermission and is billed as an innovative and bold exploration.  If you liked the self-important Robert Pinsky rewrite of Dante’s Inferno declaimed by New York actors a few years ago, you’ll love this.  If only I had known.  I was with a party of 5 people including some goodhearted artists who’ve seen tons of performance of all kinds.  I was really looking forward to this based on limited other experience with her work.  I felt trapped within the 1st minute with worst fears realized:  This dissociative yelling and old-hat poses; this is the show.  That guy in the bowler and umbrella supposed to be from Magritte?  No, it couldn’t be that obvious... And so utterly humorless.  Can I sleep?  For once I’m wide awake.  Can I zone out into some reverie?  No, the show is too relentlessly loud, grating, demanding.  Looked at the Indiglo on my Timex: 85 minutes remaining.  If only I still smoked pot!

    One of my companions went instantly to sleep for the whole show.  How I envied her!  I looked but there was no acceptable escape.  But this is already torture!  After 5 minutes I plugged my ears, closed my eyes and counted backwards from 500 or played alphabet games in my head.  I stifled yawns as tears rolled from my eyes.  327, 326, 325... Finally it was over.  Some people rose in the profligate standing O that Seattle audiences are noted (and ridiculed) for.  Otherwise, applause was muted.  Perhaps people were so moved or thoughtful or blown away.  I think people liked it.  Nobody in our party did

    I had my eyes closed for most of it, or tried to, sometimes checking in to see if anything on stage has changed stylistically (it hadn’t), but from what I saw and heard, characters take turns declaiming dense overwrought text at the audience without context or relationship to one another.  When not shouting, they strike poses or move benches on the minimal set.  The content has vast potential but without emotional meaning, it’s merely intellectual which is great for many people.  For the Post-Modern Subject, it’s probably satisfying unsentimental or emotional; for the Romantic Individual, it’s stultifying.  The excellent, highly trained and educated  performers start at a shriek and sustain this tense, high key tone for the entire show.  When you start at a scream, what do you build to?  How long can a device work before it wears out?  Nontraditional (non naturalistic) theater can tell a story wonderfully.  This was pure head at work.    

    If you’re a “heady” person, you’ll love this.  If you’re new to this stuff, you’ll get an authentic “performance art” experience to talk about with some really smart people.  If you want to get lost in a story rather than being forced to notice extraneous nuance the artist has added as intellectual constructs, you’ll see through it in a minute – or less.  If you’re lucky, you’ll sleep.  If not, try counting backwards from 500 (ca. 20 minutes per round) or counting sheep or Method actors.   Whatever your bent, pee first.  Choose your seat carefully because it can get hot in there.  Good luck!


    posted by sara @ 10:20 am | Permanent link

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Friday, June 17
    By Allan Goldman

    I would have ultimately been much more satisfied if the sound at the end had contrasted with the prayerful ending....  grating, rasping, ugly sounds.  This would certainly give the show a different shape --a much more modern shape-- without conflicting at all with either the production style or even the play itself.  It would, in fact, have matched the production style.  The ending as it is I found very treacly and unsatisfying, left with a bad taste.     

    posted by sara @ 10:23 am | Permanent link

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Thursday, June 16
    Death and the Ploughman
    By John Farrage

    This show blew me the fuck away.  I have never seen a SITI company piece but have heard and read so much about them that my expectations were very high.  The performance I saw on opening night exceeded those expectations in every way.  I have had some limited experience with viewpoints and the theories of Anne Bogart, and slightly more experience with the techniques of Suzuki but none of that prepared me for this!
    The setting was simple and immediatly made me think of "working on the grid" in Viewpoints. The actors entranced me from the moment I walked into the theater.  I kept finding myself lost in the arch of a foot or the way that one characters subtle gesture would create a ripple effect that surged through the others. 
    As the show began and the dialogue began to flow I was caught up in the discussion between Death and the Ploughman.  The Ploughman's lament (or plaint) was so familiar, so completely understandable and human.  Why must we die?  Who is death to decide when and where that should happen?  Where is God?  Why? Why? Why?  The responses of Death were, though fully expected and completely reasonable continued to be unsatisfying and frustrating.  The text wound around itself and the repitition of the dialogue between the two was endlessly facinating and consistantly relevant to the human experience.  The character of the Woman was a facinating mixure of the tangible loss of the Ploughman and the voice of Death.
    The three actors were absolutely spellbinding.  Each and every movement and sound that came from them touched my heart and spirit.  It was an almost overwhelming experience for me.  I have personally had a rough couple of years greiving the deaths of a few people who I was very close to and the recognition I felt while watching this piece, the deeper understanding I gained of the grieving process and the unanswerable for every human being throughout time strengthened me...I'm still buzzing today.  The sound and especially the lighting were truly amazing.
    I had a transformative experience while watching this show, and the ending image of a lone man speaking, grieving, lamenting and pleading with God is burned into my minds eye.  
    Thank you. Thank you to On The Boards for presenting this piece and my heartfelt gratitude to the actors of the SITI company for bringing this relevant ancient text alive to remind us that art can illuminate life.

    posted by sara @ 4:47 pm | Permanent link

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    Death and the Ploughman
    By Matthew Richter

    This show hits every avant-garde contemporary performance cliché that those who dislike avant-garde contemporary performance fear; an obscure 600-year-old text, an abstracted and impenetrable gestural language, a character called “Death”, dialogue that’s really just a series of paired monologues, and 90 minutes of it without an intermission.


    The Ploughman’s wife is dead. He complains to Death, saying (I paraphrase), “Hey, you butcher, you took my wife.”


    “Yes,” Death responds (again I paraphrase), “But I take everybody.”


    “But,” the Ploughman argues, “you take only the best and brightest.”


    “No,” Death responds, “I take everybody.”


    “But,” the Ploughman tries again, “I loved her very much.”


    “Yes,” Death responds, “And I take everybody.”


    An angel (or is she a judge?) steps in and reminds both the Ploughman and Death that in the end, it’s all about God’s glory anyway.


    Curtain call. Applause.


    What makes Death and the Ploughman so intriguing, and so watchable, is that you’ll rarely see this style of performance (a weird mix of Suzuki movement training, vaudevillian showmanship, modern dance, and presentational pedagogy) executed so flawlessly. The performers are simply razor-sharp, the choreography clean and fluid, the geometric lighting and minimalist scenic designs are perfectly in sync, and the often difficult text is both translated and delivered in a way that both reminds us that it’s 600 years old and that it’s personal, topical, and always relevant. There is a crispness to the whole aesthetic at work here, a sharpness, a shine, that demonstrates the lifetimes worth of work, of training, of technique that the ensemble has devoted to the project. There is a buy-in evident here from all involved, from the performers to the designers to the director, that carries the audience along for this exploration of a theme.


    Interesting too was the opening night audience’s reaction. It’s not the type of show you can simply set down or shake off at the curtain call. Sarah’s and Lane’s introductory note in the program makes reference to the show’s “weight” three times in a single paragraph. And the show is heavy, it’s dark, and it’s dense. Yet at the end of the show the crowd was almost exactly evenly split between thoughtful, seated applause and a rousing standing ovation. The mark of a great work…well, one of the marks of a great work…is that it is going to land differently with different audiences. We all saw the same show, we all come from the same general “I love OtB and contemporary performance” perspective, yet half of us reacted so differently from the other half of us; handled the weight of it so differently.


    I am unfortunately highly allergic to post-show question and answer sessions, but the chance to hear Anne speak about her work on Saturday (at the Children’s Theater) and contextualize the performance and the style would be a great counterpart to the show itself. You should go to both.

    posted by sara @ 2:33 am | Permanent link

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    By Bret Fetzer

    First there is the text, then there is the treatment of the text.

    Anne Bogart, in her notes, wants to relate Death and the Ploughman to the Renaissance, but it’s smack in the medieval theatrical tradition, what with the personification of Death and not much plot, just an extensive debate---the philosophical content is more nuanced, at points, than most Mystery or Morality Plays, but not a radical departure. A ploughman who has just lost his wife curses death; Death takes umbrage and, through various rhetorical approaches (some quite elegant and lyrical), tries to persuade the ploughman that his fury is misdirected. The ploughman petulantly rebuffs each riposte, holding his personal pain to be more significant than the workings of nature. The ploughman makes some jumbled and not wholly coherent arguments that, somehow, cause Death to lose his temper---it’s not entirely clear if we’re meant to agree with the ploughman, though certainly the author (Johannes von Saaz, who wrote the play in response to losing his wife) identifies with him emotionally. God finally intervenes, puts both parties in their place but also gives each point of view some credit, and the play concludes with a lengthy prayer by the ploughman. Death’s arguments are particularly intriguing---the ploughman’s repeated “I hurt” grows a bit tiresome---but as dramatic material...well, though we’re dealing with tempestuous emotions, there’s really no suspense, as Death is, you know, Death, and the wife is not going to come back. The prayer achieves a wee bit of poignance, but despite histrionics from the actors, the narrative is a bit cold.

    Anne Bogart’s stylizations, regrettably, exacerbate this coldness. The set is a white square, a backdrop depicting some Gothic arches, some black metal benches, and a black briefcase. The curtains are gone; the rest of the stage is bare and black. Death wears a black suit with a black bowler hat and a black umbrella; the ploughman wears dun clothing suited to a manual laborer; a woman, who is partly the ploughman’s wife, partly Death, and partly God, wears a white dress. Their movement is not natural, but you couldn’t exactly call it dance---though it’s certainly choreographed to the nth degree. There are a few moments of physical spectacle that I much appreciated, but most of it is expressive in an unspecific, not-very-expressive sort of way. What it largely serves to do---along with the background music, which ranges from a mosquito-like buzzing to snippets of Nino Rota and movie soundtracks---is to squelch any sense of immediacy or spontaneity from the performance. This isn’t so much of a problem for the actor playing Death; in fact, his cool, sly, implacable tone suits the staging well and he comes across both engaging and often funny. The the actor playing the ploughman, who is meant to be tormented with grief, really has to work at it, and his most fervent efforts don’t get very far.

    Now, were I myself Christian, I might have found the ploughman’s arguments---many of which depend upon faith in God---more involving, and the debate might have seemed less one-sided. But as I view Christianity much the same way I view Communism (beautiful in theory, brutal in practice), the ploughman’s point of view felt more and more foolish and blinkered as the play progressed, particularly in light of Death’s rather lucid points.

    Despite the skill and commitment that went into this production, it was lifeless.

    posted by sara @ 12:17 am | Permanent link

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Wednesday, June 15


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