Results tagged “Public Theater” from critical difference

Not even a half hour into the 80-minute performance, much of the row behind us gave up and left, clumping and clattering out of the theater. A short while after that, more of the crowd fled, the wood of the risers amplifying their every footfall. Those of us who remained were quiet, whether out of absorption, puzzlement or indifference. I couldn't detect the tenor of the audience, or even the reaction of the good friend beside me. Occasional sparse laughter aside, the spectators at yesterday's matinee of Richard Foreman's "Idiot Savant," at the Public Theater, were so subdued as to seem unresponsive.

But would we have been so at the curtain call? It's impossible to know, because there wasn't one. Instead, the disembodied voice that had spoken to us and to the actors at the beginning of the play ("Message to the performers: Do not try to carry this play forward") spoke again at the end to tell the audience that the performance was over and we were to exit now. The applause that came anyway from those who were not immediately out the door was befuddled, and consequently muted: Are we really supposed to leave without saying thank you?

It's the actors who bow at a curtain call, but it's not only their performance that we're applauding. It's also the writing, the direction, the design -- or, in the case of Foreman, more likely those same three things in reverse order, language being the least of it with him. Nearly everything psychological about his voyages into the imagination is perceptible in his weird, sometimes hallucinatory stage pictures, so vivid that knowledge of English is probably not a prerequisite for viewing. The delicious set of "Idiot Savant" is like a shoebox diorama made human-scale (and, for what it's worth, the best spatial use of the Public's difficult Martinson stage I've ever seen); the actors, the costumes, the scores of props are objects Foreman moves around his diorama. What he's creating is spectacle, and we are spectators. Which is a step removed from being a true theater audience: We're observers, not crucial participants.

And yet when my friend and I walked out onto Lafayette Street (he said he loved it, by the way; so did I), I couldn't help feeling a little bit bad for the actors. If I hadn't been able to gauge the audience's response, had they? Some of the best curtain calls come after performances like that, when a seemingly tepid crowd turns out to have been with the actors all along. If our audience was -- and maybe they weren't; maybe it was mostly a crowd of "Spider-Man" fans who'd come to see Willem Dafoe, mixed with white-haired matinee-goers who are Foreman's contemporaries but not his peers -- the cast will never know it.

Americans are notoriously stingy with their applause, so it may be a little weird that I'm bothered, as an audience member, by the lack of a curtain call. Nonetheless, I am. The absence of it fits the form of the piece, but it doesn't quite fit its spirit, which is nothing if not generous. There's no quibbling with the rest of "Idiot Savant": From Foreman's overflowing imagination come a giant papal stigmata duck and a spotted spider, too; it's simply ungrateful to complain. But amid all that bounty, he leaves us hungry for the chance to give thanks.
November 9, 2009 4:13 PM | | Comments (6)
My friend Tim keeps a spreadsheet listing the details of every concert he's been to since the early '80s -- or is it the late '70s? Either way, it's very "High Fidelity," but with an emphasis on the Grateful Dead that Nick Hornby's own spreadsheet probably wouldn't own up to.

When I find myself at a concert, it tends to be with Tim, and it tends to have been his idea. Likewise, when he finds himself at the theater, it's because it was my idea.

So there we were the other night at the Public, for a LAByrinth Barn Series reading of Padraic Lillis' "Lights Up on the Fade Out," when we spotted a woman in a fuchsia "Where the Wild Things Are" t-shirt, Maurice Sendak's characters swinging in a line across her chest.

I confess that I was not a huge fan of "Where the Wild Things Are" when I was small. It didn't take up residence in my heart until I was older, in high school, babysitting for Stephanie and Billy, my favorite little kids down the street. Once I'd roared my terrible roars, gnashed my terrible teeth, rolled my terrible eyes and shown my terrible claws along with a couple of spectacularly adorable moppets doing the same, I couldn't not love Sendak's book.

I almost wrote "Sendak's tale" there, but it truly isn't the tale as much as it is his telling of it, in words -- which repetition soldered into my memory decades ago -- and pictures.

So Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers' movie adaptation? Not so attractive to me. I feel about it the way I feel about the movie of "Atonement," which I haven't seen and won't see: I don't want a movie to mess with what's already in my head. If the Narnia movies had come out back when I was nine years old and as enraptured by the books as I was unaware of their Christian imagery, I wouldn't have wanted to see those, either.

And the Variety review of "Where the Wild Things Are" that just popped into my inbox? I don't even want to read that.

My militant opposition to the very idea of this movie is monstrously closed-minded, I know, and maybe intellectually inconsistent, too, given that I once owned a Max doll and a couple of Wild Thing dolls, and have been known to give Maxes and Wild Things (and the book, of course) as gifts to children in my life. But the dolls, three-dimensional though they are, are faithful to Sendak's drawings. The faces, the legs, the toes: The details are from his pen.

Still, at least the movie was made with Sendak's blessing. When Tim and I noticed the woman in the t-shirt the other night, he told me a story about a Dead show years ago, where he'd run across a guy selling "Let the wild rumpus begin" shirts. "It's 'start,'" Tim told him. "'Let the wild rumpus start.'" No, no, the guy insisted; it's "begin."

Sigh. People who trample on intellectual property: You just can't trust them with the details.

If nothing else, Jonze and Eggers will get that line right.
October 11, 2009 9:37 PM | | Comments (3)
Sitting in the audience at the Public Theater is different from sitting in the audience at nearly any other theater -- and not just because the rumble of the subway intrudes into some of the performance spaces. What's most distinctive is the scope of the assembled: Young, old, gay, straight, male, female, the crowd spans races, ethnicities and economic classes. Even in New York, that's an aberration, and an invigorating one.

To someone who believes "diversity" is merely a buzzword, not a key to people's understanding each other, there probably isn't much significance to a theater's drawing people from so many walks of life to sit and breathe together in the darkness, watching and listening to a story enacted before them. Maybe finding beauty in that is a question of ideology, of belief systems. I come down firmly on the side of diversity as a social good, a sign of health, and something to be actively sought -- not by lowering standards, and certainly not by enforcing quotas, but by casting a wide net and keeping the goal of diversity in mind at all times. That's as important in seeking artists as it is in seeking audiences.

So when I wrote yesterday that Oskar Eustis' male-heavy programming at the Public is disappointing, I was not suggesting that one of the American theater's most activist-liberal artistic directors, or anyone else, ought to be subjected to quotas. I simply meant to say that the Public's audience, the bracingly varied audience Eustis inherited, deserves subscription-series programming that better reflects its makeup. To achieve that, female playwrights and directors need to be working at the Public in greater numbers.

Assembling a season of good plays is a delicate balancing act. There are innumerable factors to take into account. Diversity is only one of them -- and the sex of playwrights, directors, actors and other artists is hardly its sole measure. No single season can be taken as representative of the whole, either. But over time, it's been strange and striking how very often Eustis' choices have favored the guys.
July 7, 2009 12:36 PM | | Comments (3)
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