Friday, October 21
Theater. Straight forward, dialogue-driven theater. An incredible cast, effectively making literal the words of this story. Rebecca Brown's words, dilaogue and character's are full of range. Like music at times, each character had a pace and rythmn different from the other that creates a tempo, much like instruments in an orchestra having completely distinctive sounds alone and then shifting, evolving to another sound when played together.
When reading a book we're free to allow images, characters, environment to form as mental pictures. In a performance this information is given to us. Had I been reading "The Toaster" rather than watching it, I wonder how differently I would have imagined the characters, their clothing, their ages. Specifically the brother and sister whose behavior, even their dialogue seemed more suited to adolescence rather than adults. But this added a layer of distorted time. Were they recalling what is was like as children to lose a parent,or was this in fact something they were trying to cope with in their adult life. They looked like adults, yet their behavior seemed more suited to adolescence.
In a play so driven by text, there is however a moment without words. A moment unique to the stage rather than the page. A profound visual moment punctuates the end of act one.
Rebecca Brown's words have huge life and liveliness to them. Having now been introduced to her words I look forwad to reading them and allowing the richness to come to life in my mind's theater.
Can't I just say "'The Toaster' is good and you should see it"?
No, I guess that would not be very informative. Unless, of course, you trust my judgment and are trying to decide whether to see it. In which case: it's good, and you should see it. For those who need more...
I been to "The Toaster". I said, I been to "The Toaster". Hey, mister, I been to "The Toaster".
Rebecca Brown's "The Toaster" is, like Edward Albee's "Zoo Story", a thematically large people-sitting-on-a-bench play. I can easily imagine it becoming as much of a standard acting-school-compulsory theater piece, and even after just one viewing, I'm pretty comfortable in saying that it is a better play than "Zoo Story": less schematic, and two out of "Toaster"'s three roles give the actors more scope than "Zoo Story"'s.
Let's start with the role that does not. Susan Corzatte plays B, an old woman who has made her peace with things and is ready to die. She plays it well, but the role is mostly about being a calm center. This is not the kind of role any actor craves. She does a perfectly fine job with what is not so much a character as one of the play's two MacGuffins (the other being a trunk whose contents are simultaneously mundane and magical).
At the other extreme, Mary Ewald exhibits a massive theatrical repertoire of neurotic quirks in the role of A (presumably B's daughter), a barely contained, twitching, explosive yet repressed mess of a human being trying to do the right thing as if one could learn to do so from a manual (and as if it wouldn't count if she did it without reading the manual). One does not like this character, though perhaps one can pity her. Or laugh at her. Why not? In fact, I defy you not to. A is certainly at once the most pitiful and the most comic character in the twisted little comedy that makes up much of "The Toaster". It is not, ultimately, a mean play, but playground nastiness is one of its engines.
Between these poles is Tim Hyland as A's brother D, a fumbling, well-intentioned lout, who consoles himself far more effectively with happy childhood memories than A does with visions of dramatic suicide. Hyland plays this character far more naturalistically than Ewald plays hers; that there is room for two such contrasting styles speaks very well of the play. Whereas the role of A is a chance for an actress to show "what she's got", the role of D is an exercise in restraint, in holding something in reserve and only letting it out when it is needed; Hyland's is as much a theatrical feat as Ewald's.
While Brown's dialogue is on the stagey side, is very self-consistent. There are no clunkers in this play (something that is definitely not a given for new plays on the Seattle stage), and there are some brilliant monologic passages.
I like the fact that the play does not tie up all of its loose ends, but somehow reaches a certain emotional equilibrium at the end. Not everyone gets every big revelation at which the plot hints. The denouement is certainly big enough, but not so big as to feel unearned. Something is kept in reserve, but, conversely, not so much that one feels deprived.
(By the way, am I allowed to write about Rebecca Brown this month without using the word "genius"? There, I've used it. Sorry, it was compulsory. It's in the manual.)
The usual kudos for lighting, sound, etc., and more than usual kudos for John Kazanjian's always brilliant direction.
Oh, did I mention: "The Toaster" is good, and you should see it.
Wednesday, October 19
The Toaster - You can't go through life without getting a little crispy around the edges.
Rebecca Brown has written a play. But you already know that. If you’re reading this, I hope it means you’re already planning on going, for it’s a beautiful and moving play, and you deserve to see it. But it is helpful to keep in mind that this is a first play written by a writer who, I am lead to believe, is accustomed to writing novels. For me, this is one of the aspects of this production that makes it feel right for OtB, a company that I count on to show me challenging and utterly contemporary art, to be presenting this work. The other reason that The Toaster fits my OtB mold is that it is unflinchingly about death – the most certain fact of life that our American culture seems so unwilling to accept. It was a bracing, and for many teary fellow audience members, including my wife, powerfully emotional exhibition of that ultimate passage and the chaotic opportunity it affords those of us left at the dock – those of us calling bon voyage and other, deeper hopes for communication with our loved ones that we wish had not come so late.
Do remember it was written by a novelist, though. At least that fact helped me adjust to the odd feeling of being presented with a very familiar, typical set of familial relationships between mother, son/brother, daughter/sister while being bombarded with an unnatural volume of words. The very talented and imminently watchable trio of performers behave in ways that anyone with a mother and at least one sibling will have no trouble empathizing with, but the number of words used to elucidate the specifics of their situation begs the question of whether elucidation is the goal at all. In fact it is, ultimately; but The Toaster is a piece that addresses head-on states of being and non-being not commonly spoken about so baldly in public, and in order to do so articulately and effectively, many words are needed.
Truthfully, the words are so finely selected and delivered that the first act seemed like poetry, not least thanks to the graceful portrayal by Susan Corzatte of the mother in her final moments. Her character spoke the least and was the surest about where she was coming from, the most at peace with who she was, and the most comfortable with where she was going. Mary Eweld’s daughter character was at the other end of the spectrum, talking almost non-stop, throwing out the words like bricks in order to keep a wall up, keep from facing the reality of her impending loss. Tim Hyland’s son tries with all his might to stay grounded, though he acknowledges that he doesn’t do it very well or even know why half the time. There’s some good shtick between these last two – thankfully pain only hurts when you’re on the inside – when you’re watching from the audience it can be laugh out loud funny.
In act two, once these two offspring have lost their matriarch to the ever after, the poetry vanishes into the prose, and the grieving siblings are awash in a flood of language, attempting to find any sensible reason to keep moving forward in this world. Though there is a death, the play is not a tragedy, more of a cautionary tale. I did see a glimmer of hope for the surviving pair, enlightened for a moment by the wisdom left them by their mother. Whether they, or we, will go forward from the confines of the play having taken full advantage of the wisdom of our ancestors, able to build confidently upon the foundations of the past, or whether the constant stream of premasticated pablum in our world will ultimately extinguish that glimmer – the balance of this question remains to be seen. It is clear that they, as we, must continue to work to earn whatever bright warmth we can from one another in this world. Brown does give us one hint that sometimes a rusty old work horse can still satisfy more than the gleaming new widgets constantly rolling off the line. And the surest way to receive that glowing, rewarding feeling from life, as any good mother will tell you, is to give of yourself fully and honestly, without any expectation of return.
Okay, so that’s a nice, hokey wrap up, but it’s there in The Toaster. Sometimes there’s nothing nicer than a freshly sliced, toasted and buttered piece of toast. Entertainingly, in the play there’s also some good clowning of the type that would be at home in a Sam Beckett play, wonderful expositions on the way memory acts upon us, and a breath-taking, wordless shared-moments-before-death passage between Corzatte and Hyland. But enough reading about the live performance, go out and see it already!
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