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?

Illinois’ “O Beautiful”: More than a few missed notes

It is rare that I write a review that merely scathes. That mode is not really my point for this venue. I am more interested in unraveling the different things drama is capable of, what vision a particular production has, and whether they make good on that vision. With that said, I have never been more uncomfortable and upset at the unproductivity of a theatrical event as I was this last weekend. I have written previously on Krannert’s seeming new mission to take a social justice approach to its theatre—namely, taking account of its primary audience: UIUC students. Presentism has been one of the ways. They have featured productions in the last two years having to do with the current political milieu and election cycle, as well as the intersection of race and class in gentrification, a particularly exigent topic in the Midwest. However, O Beautiful, in attempting to cash in on the presentism of education censorship (especially concerning Arizona’s recent legislation) and playwright brand name recognition forgot the most important ingredient to making a production a hit: a playtext worthwhile.

O Beautiful is a bad play. I am saying this not according to my own aesthetic values, but rather that the play fails according to its own rules. It is set up as a satire, taking all the core values of American extremism and suggesting they will be lampooned with the use of a Bill O’Reilly/Glen Beck parody tv show insterstial to a small-town suicide. Public education reform, race, feminism, cyber bullying, gun violence, abortion and rape are all added to the mix as related symptoms. With so many issues at hand the play doesn’t do any individual one justice nor does it convince us of their codependence. The mother of the boy driven to suicide by cyber bullying knowingly erases the text messages, the only evidence of the guilty parties to her son’s death who happen to be the children of her friends. The one witness, a young girl, isn’t qualified to speak because how dare she be raped by one of the bullies and abort the pregnancy. And Jesus—an actual character in the play of the beatnick prophet variety out of a bad pop song—exonerates them all. The play meets with pat amelioration hate, violence, xenophobic exceptionalism and racism. No one is punished nor requited. In the end, the production suggests none of these things, not even a human life, are stakes high enough to care or hold someone responsible.

Part of the issue seems to be a misunderstanding of how satire works on the part of the playwright, Theresa Rebeck, a long-time stock writer for the Law & Order franchise as well as NBC’s lukewarm attempt to cash-in on the television musical fad, Smash. In satire there is a satirical target, an institution or idea that is taken to task for the faulty assumptions on which it is based or clings to for cultural authority. Through the shaming ridicule of its foibles and abuses in literature, we as an audience come to a two-part experience: (1) that we are made aware of the false logic and authority underpinning that institution, and (2) are partly implicated in giving that institution power over our social norms and cultural values. It is a powerful genre because of the complex result of its virulent criticism, which in other formulas just falls flat in one-dimensionality. In her play, Rebeck puts on display all of the varieties of militant extremism in our culture without addressing or even diagnosing the false logic or nefarious assumptions on which they collectively rely.

If there is a critique embedded here, it would seem to be one about our collective passive consumption practices. Linking and dividing the play formally and morally is the hyper-conservative parody TV program. The host intones a revival rhetoric of fear-mongering and firearm propaganda that holds up the constitutional “founding fathers” as America’s saviors. (This idea is not a new one, and dealt much for deftly and smartly in the recent gaming hit, Bioshock Infinite.) The adult characters in the play comment on how awful the program is with a smirk and a laugh, but like sheep passively watch while cooking dinner or as a distraction from the boy’s suicide. Several Continental Congressman are trouped onto the program; We are never sure if these are supposed to be allegorical embodiments invading present day like Jesus, or actors (played by actors) hired for the program. In the darkness of the Studio black-box theatre, we as an audience don’t turn away from the extremism on display, nor do the parents within the action of the play. We passively watch on, waiting for it to come to something meaningful while the extremism over time slowly becomes normalized, and we, morally anesthetized.

Upon arriving to a new state built on zeppelins, your character in “Biosock Infinite (2013)” is baptized in a cult that literalizes the “founding fathers” and venerates pre-Civil War militant federalism.

The play never meditates long enough on this issue for it to be clearly made the satiric target and its fault-lines revealed. Rather, much exposition is spent in teenagers bemoaning the confusion of their personal bildungsromans and their parents fixing marital problems by sharing milkshakes. Without any artifice or tact, the play falls flat of any coherent meaning, leaning on its presentism to create some semblance of traction. This is what is most nefarious to me. By giving all of the “air time” so to speak to the extremisms with which we contend, the assumption becomes that these small radical voices have equal weight, that these opinions based on blind belief and fear rather than critical reasoning are valid and reasonable positions. They get no counterweight, no political, critical, analytical, or moral opposition. These extremisms of suburban wasp culture are the only voices we hear in the play, without even the slightest hint otherwise to cast a shade over their privileged assumptions. Darkest about this play is not that it gives air to conservative extremisms in this country, but rather that it posits that we are not capable of and entirely without social debate.