On the myths and purposes of playing in Krannert’s “Polaroid Stories”

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.

–  Hamlet, Hamlet

I am on my way to Idaho as I write this review, and I can’t help meditating on the striking difference between the hard reality of the cool northwestern mountains and the bizarre unreality of the corn desert that is Illinois. I mention this because I feel it is as apt a description as I can come up with for the jarring juxtaposition between a piece of theatre that has “presence,” that seems to be participating in the concerns of the time in which it is performed, and a play that does not. This sense of presence is one of the things I, and many others, love about William Shakespeare’s works: although written for and of a culturally-specific time and place, those plays seem to uniformly share an uncanny capacity to be imbued with a sense of presence.

SKINHEADboy (Ryan Leonard) and SKINHEADgirl (Kara Satokoun) contemplate their labyrinth.

I think we often confuse what I am calling presence here for “relatability,” which earlier this summer Ira Glass rather infamously accused live Shakespeare, New York’s Shakespeare in the Park no less, of lacking. Different than say exigency or presence, relatability bothers me as a rubric for aesthetic value for a couple of reasons. First, it exclusively privileges the individual subjectivity: I see a character that resembles my self on stage, and the more that character holds a mirror up to my nature, the more relatable this piece of art is. There is no way to find a communal aspect to this decadently narcissitic theory of processing a theatrical experience. And so second, this presumes an excessively shallow capacity of audiences: they either see something that looks like them and derive pleasure from the substitutional spotlighting of their identity, an identity that already exists. Thus, theatre is rendered incapable of saying anything new or illuminating, but as a form relegated to purely derivative and mimetic methods of meaning-making.

When Hamlet discusses his theory of acting, what he calls “the purpose of playing,” he speaks of a moderation and balance through which theatre is capable of showing “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Shakespeare is careful to make the distinction that theatre’s ability to mirror is not to reflect us as individual playgoers but rather the aspect and problems with which our society grapples. Another way to say this is that theatre is political in that it stages problems, sometimes offering a menu of solutions we might imagine, but doesn’t necessarily a) make claims for a single answer, nor b) simply reflects society as it already exists. By saying that a play, Shakespeare or otherwise, is successfully embued with a sense of presence is to say that we collectively as a multitude of playgoers see within its reflection a problem, tension, or debate with which our time grapples.

Orpheus (Shawn Pereira) and Eurydice (Alexis DawTyne) sing empty words of love to one another.

But why this discursus on Idaho and relatability? When trying to come up with a way of approaching a review of Illinois Theatre’s production of Polaroid Stories, all I could do was come up with a list of details and choices that I disliked that didn’t amount to anything. A list of critiques that go nowhere is the worst kind of review, at least in my opinion. I just felt so belabored as an audience member on Krannert’s opening night, watching so much effort on the part of the actors and in the set design that gave way to frustration to make a coherent sense of the action and the words in players and playgoers alike. Polaroid Stories is one of a string of plays Krannert has staged in recent years that takes mythic abstraction as its central conceit. Like medieval morality plays, characters aren’t so much versimilitudinous as they are embodiments of virtues, vices, concepts. I’m thinking here of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, O BeautifulIphigenia and Other Daughters among others. Mice and men and gods are collapsed onto the same plane of existence, but in all of these the actors have been directed to act as if individual subjects rather than as universal concepts engaging with one another. How does one uncover inner motivation for Self-Love, for example? Again, like relatability, the point is not individaul subjectivity as such, but the collision of emotions, affects, concepts and the tensions they produce.

Let me explain by way of example. In Polaroid Stories, the gods are brought down from Olympus and placed in the bodies of disaffected and self-destructive urban youth culture: sex and drugs without the rock n’ roll. Theseus and Ariadne are skinheads wandering the labyrinth of speed and cocaine: a thread of “fuck yous” leads not to a minotaur (arguably that would be the drugs themselves) but to their mutual self-destruction. Orpheus is trapped within a cage for much of the play into which a ladder descends that he never takes out. This would suggest that the play world, our world, is the hell he descended to bring back his beloved. We are then a prior damned. But why? Eurydice dances, taunts, and tramps about his cage, egging him to violence, insisting she would rather forget, insisting she would rather remain in Hades. The yarn of “I love yous” she and Orpheus weave builds only to a mutual self-destruction as well. Both love narratives imply that love is not a desire universally shared: she/we do not want rescue, but love is the only tempting (although ultimately failing) distraction from that self-annihilation.

Orpheus (Shawn Pereira) can’t help but see his beloved in every woman, including Persephone (Martasia Jones).

What are we to do with a play like this? On the one hand the direction valorizes the individual crosses we have to bear that condition subjectivity. On the other hand it wants to make claims for self-destruction as a fundamental and universal truth of the human condition: as if to say destruction, nor survival, is our basest nature. I’m not saying you can’t have your cake and eat it, too; what would be the point of cake. But theatre as a form seems fundamentally at odds with this attempt to make two claims without fully staging the problem, the tension, the source from which they derive. Is it the drug culture and the urban poverty we allow? If so, this barely registers as a concern of the play—partly because the dialogue is flat, unimaginative, full of platitudes and fuck yous. This makes me wonder who this play is for, exactly?

This weekend the MFAs are doing a table reading of Lizuka’s newest play, to which the audience was invited to get a first-hand look in on the creatve process of an up-and-coming, cutting-edge American playwright. I’ve mentioned this in several reviews of Krannert productions, but at times I think with plays like these Krannert is doing a disservice to its students actors and student audiences—its core constitutencies, at least in theory—by wanting to be a nationally-renowned theatre. The commissioning of new work through the Sullivan Project is admirable, and the performance exchanges with England and Japan indeed incorporate the actors into the production process more deeply as they expand their toolbox. But content, a content that is capable of presence, is what matters at the end of the day, I should think. It doesn’t have to be relatable theatre, but it should have the potential to be relevant, if at least cogent. At intermission in the women’s restroom the only conversations being had were “is that it?” and “do you get what’s going on?” The play, not of its own fault but perhaps rather in those who selected it, willfully ignores its context. Like Campbell attempting to render an aesthetic like Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for classical mythology, it misses the point that the MTV generation is about to move into their 40s. What does this play present for the Millennials, accutely globalized in their interests, politcs, and consumption practices? And these college kids made it to university, even if it is wedged in the corn fields. What is the point of depicting a self-destructive urban-youth culture except to preach to their own naivete? I thought theatre was about revelation rather than making one feel like an idiot; with rampant impostor symdrome in undergradute and graduate students alike, that is an emotion we are already far too familiar with.

Eurydice (Alexis DawTyne) finds a moment of authenticity with G (David Monahan).

I feel like Artaud in the vitriolic temperament this review is taking, as when we decries “An idea of the theater has been lost. And as long as the theater limits itself to showing us intimate scenes from the lives of a few puppets, transforming the public into Peeping Toms, it is no wonder the elite abandon it and the great public looks to the movies, the music hall or the circus for violent satisfactions, whose intentions do not deceive them.” What I mean to say here is not quite so dire, is not how the play fails at its own asprations, but rather how Polaroid Stories is a symptom of a theatre culture that doesn’t know how to be present for its changing audiences as the baby boomers and octogenarian subscribers literally die out. I like a big-budget musical as much as the next person, but surely our theatrical landscapeis capabale of more than comfort food and shock treatment? Have we given up on theatre as a form of political thought? An experience in which our very presence renders up political and politicized subjects? I hope not, nor do I think this has come to pass. For one, I would turn you to my review of Sean Graney’s All Our Tragic, the 12-hour mythic marathon that has sold out in its final month and received funding for a remount in 2015. That is a work day and a half of abstractionist theatre, and midwesterners are eating it up! Without the financial motivation of having to sell seats being a university theatre, I think Illinois Theatre has become complacent in their season choices, less concerned with doing actual ideological service to ad engendering a theatre-going base regularly habituated to performance. What are they training these actors ofr anyway, if not for making a living in the theatre? Or has that aspiration gone the way of Olympus, in the clouds, as well?

A vexed “Iphigenia and Other Daughters” at Krannert

In the university’s latest theatre department production, Iphigenia and Other Daughters, the only one who isn’t irrationally upset is Iphigenia herself. Ellen McLaughlin’s play recoups the statuses of several women from ancient Hellenic tragedy who are only referenced by the storytellers, and do not have voices of their own in the great arch of ancient epic. This seems to be the narrative kernel: the marginality of women, especially daughters, in the classical texts mirrors the actual marginality of these women in the lives of their husbands, fathers, and sons.

The difficulty with a work like this is to strike a balance in emotional display, to find an emotional temperature that will still resonate with the audience despite the archaic source texts. Perhaps due to the playtext itself or to the fact that director, Robert Quinlan, is male, the play turns on a very angry feminist bent–something certainly encouraged textually but unproductively overt in the execution. We have four main actresses that are the strongest women in the MFA graduate program at the moment. Despite their strength in previous productions, here they are angry from beginning to end without variation or crescendo. Their anger (at being women but also for the things their status has forced them to commit) is flat in its one-dimensionality, which they all replicate. Even Carley Cornelius (Chrysothemis), who brought her “A-game” to both He and She and The Crucible last year, seemed to be still looking for a sense of her character.

All four seemed to bleed together, indistinguishable in their performances, and the only thing that seemed to set them apart was the most effeminate thing on stage, Samuel Ashdown (Orestes). His meditation on trauma and its reenactments in the guise of revenge was far more interesting than the heavy feminist angle of the ignored domesticity of women. However, this element of historical social trauma is introduced late and goes by so quickly that you can hardly catch that the topic of revenge killings has become much more nuanced. There seemed a greater interest in portraying Orestes’ status as a victim of masculinity.

The set was truly beautiful and the actors engaged dramatically with it by pulling, tearing, or completely moving the giant swaths of white cheesecloth-like material and reshaping their own hyper-domestic spaces for each act. The costuming of the four main women were disparate, ensuring that the audience would be completely disassociated from any specific time or place. This was perhaps a good move considering our own historically disconnected relationship with the ancient Homeric epic. I have seen more bad Sophocles and Seneca performed than good, which perhaps reflects a general performative problem we have: we simply don’t know what to do with Hellenic tragedy anymore.

The dissociative dress and copious dramaturgical notes served as an appropriate comment on this, intentionally or no. A good example of this was the depiction of the chorus of girls, priestesses to the goddess Artemis. The excessive girlish signs, in unison, were so disingenuous and served no noticeable purpose but to represent complicity in the cycles of revenge. They worked to provide Iphigenia with a secondary audience to the one she was already performing. Instead of moving and meditating on the plot and theme of the play, the chorus simply worked to further alienate me from the subject matter. As a playgoer, as a woman, the predominate emotion I felt throughout the play was that of alienation, culminating in a profound sense of emptiness by the end. The production ends with Iphigenia poised as a statue being held up by red ribbons symbolic of blood and restraint. She is a literal pillar of peace, and Orestes lies unrequited in anything at her feet.

In a positive light, this play is interested in the hopeless unproductivity and waste of revenge, that kind of malice that has no end. That I should walk away feeling empty was appropriate, being made to mimic the emotions of waste and emptiness that the play was itself dealing with. The characters speak in narrative paragraphs rather than engaging with one another; instead of watching three acts it felt more like each character was performing their own micro-drama but sharing the same orbit.

Domesticity generally suggests a sense of closeness and interdependence between females, left alone in a homogeneous environment, but here they rend each other apart for things they did for one another. However, it was not the subject matter or the text that I think I was responding, too, but the stilted and over-angry representations. I didn’t know with whom to sympathize or what I was supposed to be angry about, especially since all of the men are dead before we ever meet them. Revenge is not an emotion everyday contemporary playgoers deal. Trauma, on the other hand, certainly is, and would have provided a far more productive emotional anchor. The playwright and performers seem to equally complicit in this militant need to comment on the void of representation of feminine domesticity. McLaughlin is so entrenched in the Homeric genre, and the performers were not–perhaps by no fault of their own, but by virtue of being so out of time and out of reach.