Sunday, April 02, 2006

Celebrity Row

Portland Center Stage
April 2, 2006; closes April 16, 2006

A crashing wave of intellect; a living dossier flooding audiences in artform where demanding ideas often take backseat to emotional manipulation. Garrulous, near-plotless, captivating intersection of character, manifesto, culture. Expert performances from full-service ensemble. Exacting lighting by Daniel Ordower. This is the kind of work that could become PCS brand.


Anonymous said...

Though significantly improved from the JAW West draft last summer, this play is still a string of disjointed spectacle skits in search of a story line.

I emerged at intermission wondering: Why? Why are you telling us this story, in this way, at this time? What are you trying to say? “Doing time is tough?” “Stuff happens?” “Maximum security prisons are full of complicated security gizmos?” “Even criminals can wisecrack like standup comedians?”

In an interview in the program, playwright Itamar Moses puts his finger right on the issue:

"I was reading an article about Timothy McVeigh...and it mentioned in passing that his neighbors in prison were the Unabomber and the 1993 World Trade Center bomber. Immediately this suggested a play to me, but what play?"

"The problem is that that bit of knowledge isn't a play. It's just a fact: those guys were in prison together.... The question becomes: what is the spine of dramatic action that will pull an audience along, and dramatize all of the ideas that fact evokes?"

Exactly. Seems like we see a lot of this today - plays based on famous events or people we know, sensational situations or notorious scandals – just “stuff” that happens to be lying around close at hand and is easily scooped up.

Shows like this leverage something the audience already knows about but do not add much in the way of heft, interpretation, or filtering. After the initial buzz of recognition passes ("Look! It's Osama Bin Laden on stage!”), audience members (and playwright) eventually come face to face with the same old dramatic challenges. Is this interesting? Is this dynamic? Is this holding my interest and going somewhere? Am I invested? Am I there with the characters? Am I learning something?

Later in the interview, Moses admits:

“So much about these people is so horrifying or fascinating or both that you’re tempted to include more than is reasonable…a big part of writing a play like this is being willing to leave out as much as you possibly can.”

Amen. Again I completely agree but feel the principle was not applied here. We listen to all sorts of info about this and that – but where’s the editing? What specifically is it about McVeigh’s personal story – or Kaczynski’s or Yousef’s – that throws dramatic sparks?

One after another, characters turn to the audience and begin the “I was born in…” monologue. Awkward exposition at best. Put the action in what the characters say to each other.

The irony, of course, is that these people’s lives were FILLED with fascinating detail! But none of it comes across in the play. McVeigh seems a good-natured, peppy vet who – you know – got a little carried away with a car bomb. Ted is the mad scientist who has a gripe with modernity. Yousef prays a lot and carries a business card that says “International Terrorist”. Their lives on stage have been drained of drama somehow - or simply turned into slapstick.

Did not return for second half, but by intermission I was not aware of the linking dramatic thread Moses refers to in first quote above. Scenes could have been rearranged in almost any order with no real loss of meaning.

Aside from story problems, the acting was fabulous - everyone was top notch. The writing was the problem. Like the characters on stage in Colorado’s maximum security prison, the actors were doing hard time in an airtight box, and try as they might with the material at hand, there’s no getting out of this one alive.

Follow Spot said...

Excellent comments, Anonymous. I agree completely, and yet, as a whole, the show rose above all that to sweep me away. But what’s more interesting than my opinion on this one show, I think, is hearing what might be a trend out there – and therefore a good topic for discussion.

It seems that my theatre friends aren’t so crazy about “Celebrity Row.” Yet, my non-theater friends LOVED it. What’s more is that I've been hearing the same division about at least one other show that’s playing now. Which makes me wonder -- who's rutted in tradition here? Patrons or practitioners?

Anonymous said...

Hey there Followspot - I'm curious, which shows have you heard the schism about? It's often easy for theatre people to dismiss non-theatre response as "un-educated" (disclosure: I am a theatre person). Which is ridiculous of course and not good for the future of theatre...this seems like an interesting thread...I hope there will be further discussion.

Follow Spot said...

Well, "Celebrity Row," "War Project," even "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" and "The Mark" it seems ... though it's not like I'm keeping statistics ... just anecdotal ... I think the commonality might be when the structure is nontraditional … anyone else notice this and can give other examples?

ornamentalmind said...

As one of the “non-theater” attendees of this play, even though in my youth I dabbled a bit as many are apt to do, Moses simply and deftly blew any complacency I had reached when it comes to equilibrium around the topic at hand.

For those who ask ‘What is being said?’ I can only suggest following such inquires all of the way down the rabbit hole into one’s own psyche. I for one was extremely satisfied with the entire experience…from the set and lighting to the performances and especially the script.

Talking with Moses afterwards confirmed his extensive research and accuracy in preparation for such a tour into the given Zeitgeist.

It has been about 4 years now since I had the pleasure of seeing this performance and I’m still ‘moved’ by it in the sense of retaining a disquieted feeling of not having all of the pat answers necessary to see the world in a black and white way.

I welcome nights at the theater where I can become so deeply involved in an ethos… taking away the gift of not having life tied up neatly with ribbon and bow.

Thank you Itamar!