This week I saw two shows by two different companies whose work I admire. They couldn’t have been more different from each other, but both were thoroughly enjoyable. The contrast was striking.
Thursday night after the show, talking to a few of the cast and the producers I expressed how I thoroughly I enjoyed this naturalistic, realistic, down to earth story and people. The whole play took place over a cookout in someone’s back yard. If permits had allowed they’d have been able to actually turn that gas grill on and cook the food. (If permits had allowed and I were directing it that’s what I’d have done.) It was that kind of kitchen-sink realism.
I feel as if I don’t see that kind of stuff often enough. Watching the delicacy and detailed elements of the actors’ work was a real treat. I love nothing more than watching actors enliven their characters so thoroughly. At one point at the beginning of what would be a long story-telling monologue the actress blanked. You only knew because the pause was just a tad … too …. long … to be anything else. But she remained perfectly in character. There was no deer-in-headlights. The beauty was that her husband’s character was sitting right next to her and we knew that he knew the story she was about to tell, so that actor simply prompted her by starting the story himself, and allowed her to take over. They were like a married couple finishing each other’s thoughts, which they were. And it worked.
Later, when the actual climax of the play hit it was real, it wasn’t forced, it was genuine, and it took your breath away for the slightest of moments. Because it was so accessible and so complete. And the play didn’t end completely tidy and neat, wrapped up with answering every question. Like life, you couldn’t be sure about what would happen. And that’s ok. Sometimes neat isn’t interesting.
Twenty four hours later I was finishing up seeing another show, at the other end of the spectrum of realism (if it really is a linear spectrum) and again spoke to a cast member and producer and said how I had no idea what it was that I had just seen, but my mind was reeling. It was an original, company-created completely experimental piece, based on real people: essentially a one time successful writer who has become a shut-in (along with his sister, and they live like hoarders) struggles to continue writing or rather to stop the stories in his head. I’m not sure which. Possibly both.
There was nothing straightforward about this piece, and it’s stuck in my head since I left the theater Friday night. Nothing about this was realistic, even when it contained naturalistic acting styles at moments; it was pure absurdism, or more truly perhaps expressionism.
This was a company I’ve watched and admired several times before. They have a unique process for creating their scripts which are done virtually from scratch as an ensemble. There are pitfalls in this kind of work, the primary one being not able to get the story over to an audience or being able to draw them in emotionally. This time, for me, I was pulled in and fascinated by the people and story and where it was or wasn’t going. I may have left with many questions. And that’s ok.
There were many fascinating things visually, including little details like a dirty line on the wall going up the steps where clearly someone has spent years slowly traversing them with a hand on the wall for stability. With that simple design element I formed an image of someone before the character even appeared at the top of those steps. One of the true elements of expressionism was this group of characters who first appear in one scene and then became at the end of that scene these people who secretly inhabited the house and that the main character had to essentially keep under control, and from whom he had to protect his family or hide from his family.
I’m not sure which or if it matters.
So many things are sticking with me and I can’t even articulate it.
The one thing these two shows had in common was that moment of reality, that wasn’t forced, that seemed truly genuine which took your breath away. In this case it was shedding the layers of absurdity like some fog clearing for just a moment in Don’s mind long enough that he could see and respond to his sister—who may, in fact, be normal after all.
Or perhaps not.
Neat and tidy isn’t very interesting.
One side note: Sandbox is all about experimental, company-created theatre and it’s striking to me that they’ve produced this and previous shows at the Red Eye, a company which many years ago built its national reputation on experimental theatre. It’s as if a torch has been passed. Or, at least, shared.