I am sitting in the Fort Worth Amtrak station waiting for a transfer that will take me to Austin. I’m headed to my last academic conference of the semester. We’ve been rolling through Texas landscapes since about 8:30 this morning; traveling through state a that struggles with its religious conservatism and desires for expansion had me reflecting on the last two Illinois Theatre productions I’ve seen, Kingdom City and In The Blood. The former was a metatheatric revision of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the latter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.
Both plays offer a meditation on the ways in which our Puritanical roots are meted out in present-day society, with the Evangelical pastor as the central figurehead of the corruption and hubris American religious conservatism evokes. Kingdom City gives us the initially benign youth minister, Luke (Jordan Gleaves), who counsels the town’s children on sexual consent with an eye towards abstinence. He uses his own, albeit vague, story of redemption to both offer humility and establish ethos—he’s been there, he knows. Pastor D (Janjay Knowlden) uses a similar posture to curry backers to build him a new church in In The Blood, all the while ignoring, sexually assaulting, and eventually physically hitting the neediest in his community, the mother of his child, Hester (Maya Prentiss). Knowlden gives us a powerful performance of the allure of the evangelical spokesman who is himself unredeemable. Gleaves, on the other hand, is able to curry some sympathy in relation to the loud-mouthed New Yorkers who come to his Missouri small town with some bigoted baggage of their own. Ultimately, both pastors are unsympathetic in their respective plights because the advice they offer doesn’t truck in reality, ultimately restricting the speech of their parishioners to interpret God’s plan for them on their own.
Both plays also tangle with questions of sexual consent and violence, entwining them with that of sexual awakening and the silencing of women. In Kingdom City, the rape victim is forgivable and recuperable because she is still a minor, a victim of the poverty in which she lives. For In The Blood, however, it is more complicated. Hester is continually referred to as both a simpleton and a goddess in the sack. The implication is that to be a sexually compelling and somehow complete woman, one has to return to some kind of Noble Savage status in order to validate female agency. While this does highlight the inequity fundamental to our biology—women show and give birth while men only contribute to the recipe—it offers a very narrow definition of acceptable female identity. Two models of womanhood excluded from both plays include the woman who chooses not to have children and the woman for whom an abortion is a healthy option. We are horrified at the forced hysterectomy Hester undergoes, but the play doesn’t entertain abortion. It comes up in a conversation with her former lover Amiga Gringa (Alexis Dwayne), but quickly batted away.
I am dealing primarily here with the content of both these plays and how they figure in the theme of censorship for Krannert this season because the performances were all strong. More importantly, these functioned as ensemble pieces cast evenly and colluded to produce a coherent aesthetic experience. Kingdom City turns in on itself in the end: instead of picking sides between the progressive, non-religious New Yorkers and the suffocating, conservative Missourians, the children rehearse lines from the play the church would have banned to free themselves from their community’s hate. Ultimately, the play backtracks from the issues of religion and region that had been at the forefront to make an argument about what theatre is good for. For In The Blood, A is for abortion: the play wants to validate female agency and procreation, but does not want to validate the science and sociology behind female independence in this century. It may be impossible to stage a woman comforted by an abortion option. Where would the drama be in that, perhaps more common, experience?
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.
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.
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 Beautiful, Iphigenia 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.
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.
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?