Tag Archives: criticism

Theatre Review: LONESTAR at The Wild Project, NYC

Lonestar
By James McLure
Directed by Pete McElligott
Nine Theatricals
The Wild Project

While the plot of Lonestar is fairly cut and dry – sixty minutes of two brothers coming to terms with secrets and their relationship with one another – this production truly shines in the performances by each of its three cast members.

As Roy, Matt de Rogatis (previously reviewed in The Collector) opens the show surrounded by beers and scattered junk food packaging. He’s back from Vietnam – has been for some time, we learn – and has taken to spending his nights getting drunk on Lonestar beer behind the local dive. His brother, Ray (Chris Luopos) joins him and they relive old memories; we get a feel for the dynamic between these two easily. A third character, Greg Pragel’s Cletis (aka Skeeter), provides us with a glimpse of how Roy and Ray relate to the world outside their brotherhood.

The show’s unpretentious and simple design allows – wisely – the characters to carry this sixty-minute piece. Adhering to a strict economy of props and set, this means that de Rogatis, Luopos and Pragel are charged with bringing images of the scene to life in our minds – something the manage easily.

The greatest strength of Nine Theatricals’ Lonestar is in its performances, and the control over which all three actors – particularly de Rogatis and Luopos – are able to exert over their portrayals of their characters. From casual joking to intensely physical fury, each character is brought to life in these full, emotionally nimble performances that drive the narrative ever-onward.

Lonestar has completed its run at The Wild Project; information on additional performances can be found here.

 

Theater Review: “The Collector” at 59E59

You know that logline for “The Wizard of Oz” that circulates Facebook from time to time, about Dorothy killing a woman and then banding together with friends to kill again? Frederick Clegg (Matt de Rogatis) opens The Collector by pleading for the reverse shift in perspective for his narrative: self-pitying rich man in a position of ultimate power begs us to feel bad for him and blames everything but himself for his circumstances for 2½ hours, while we in turn watch him kidnap, torture and kill a young woman. Who he supposedly loves.

The source material, John Fowles’ novel of the same name, is thick with symbolism. It it would be easy to spend this entire review digging into the parallels between the butterflies Clegg collects and Miranda (Jillian Geurts), who he has kidnapped. But given that the book has been around since 1963 and the play was staged in Edinburgh around 20 years ago, I’ll set aside my desire to dig in on that side of things, and just talk about this production.

De Rogatis and Geurts achieve a deeply disturbing connection on behalf of their characters, one that develops and deepens over the course of the film. Of course, the question is always whether or not Miranda’s feelings are genuine – and Geurts’ accomplishment here is that there are times when Miranda’s attempts to escape shock even the audience – despite the fact that she has been straightforward with both her captor and with us: she will make the attempt every time she gets a chance.

While his accent initially seems unspecific, over time that becomes less distracting and de Rogatis’ real talent shows through: his ability to draw the audience into complicity through connections with individual audience members – some of whom I observed nodding and smiling as de Rogatis delivered a line to them here or there. What initially seemed like an awkward presentation became artfully intentional as the play progressed, transmuting the voyeuristic qualities of the audience into moral support for the monster at the center of the play.

Attempted, but flawed in its execution, is the horrific naturalism of novel and script. 59E59’s Theatre C is small, but the layout of the set and the script’s specific instructions regarding how to achieve its intentions mean that the weight of the set and action often felt imbalanced. Without enough space to really separate each level either physically or with laser-focused lighting changes, there were times when the sharply defined limits of Miranda’s world were blurred, lessening the transfer of her claustrophobic surroundings to the audience and intensifying the effect Geurts needed to have to keep the audience feeling that level of tension. While she more than made up for this loss of energy with one intense exchange with de Rogatis after another (and certainly it was helpful that in many of these exchanges de Rogatis was able to contribute physically to a claustrophobic atmosphere), the play requires the audience to watch a young woman’s terror and pain and take it in as entertainment. The script demands our complicity in its violence, with its treatment of Miranda as a character who wants to break out of the limitations and definitions imposed on her by others, but who is never able to transcend the boundaries and demands placed on her (as the damsel-who-can’t-quite-get-herself-out-of-distress) to achieve true personhood. We’re allowed glimpses into her life – she has a loving upper middle class family, a sister, some friends, a lover/teacher – but we have a far more specific picture of Clegg’s pathetic existence. Which is probably exactly as it should be, given that – again, requiring our cooperation in the narrative – we’re listening to Clegg’s side of the story.

As audience members, we are the reason for the theatrical snuff film that unfolds over the production’s two and a half hours (which, it’s important to note, doesn’t feel overlong at all). In any theater, after the play concludes and the lights come up, we reflect on what we’ve just been a party to. In the case of a production like The Collector, those reflections will be vast and sometimes disturbing.

The Collector plays at 59E59 in New York City, through November 13, 2016, and is presented by Nine Theatricals & Roebuck Theatrical.

The Revenant Recap/Review: Someone Give Leo His Oscar Already

revenant

“GIVE ME MY OSCAR ALREADY!” — the dialogue that goes along with this image, in my head

Just got back from seeing The Revenant, and the last thing I’ve seen that was that brutal might have been…well, I don’t even know. Mild spoilers below. You’ve been warned.

I spent most of the movie thinking it took place in Alaska, either because I didn’t read anything about it beforehand or because I associate Alaska with the man-versus-nature conflict. (Thanks, Jack London.) But it doesn’t – it takes place in South Dakota and Montana. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in films before but holy crap talk about natural beauty. No doubt assisted by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography (though I did see some lens flare there for a second, let’s not go all JJ, now), the setting is most definitely a character in this one. A brutal, unforgiving character. 

Most of the characters in The Revenant are brutal (not the last time you’ll see this word in here, sorrynotsorry) and unforgiving, though, and those who aren’t don’t come out of things too well…or sometimes at all.

As the film opens, we get some smoky memories/images of Leo — sorry, Glass — and his Native American wife, and their young son, and the camp/community they’re living in. Then we see a lot of burning structures and hear a whispering voice recite the theme of the film – while you still have breath, keep fighting to survive. (Not a direct quote.) Next, we flash ahead to Glass and a group of fur trappers. He, his son (Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck) and another member of the group (possibly Will Poulter’s Bridger, though honestly I have a hard time remembering faces the first time I see them so it might have been another member of the expedition) are hunting, trudging through ankle-deep watery swampland. They kill an animal and we head back to the fur trapper’s camp. We quickly meet our supporting cast: the captain, a bit naive and idealistic, with a father who apparently bought him his commission; Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who is a bastard (we know this because he cares more about money than people, makes a bunch of racist comments about Hawk’s parentage, and eventually leaves Glass in the middle of the woods to die.

They’re attacked by a band of Pawnee, and the entire sequence was chilling and ghastly and bloody. We don’t know it as the attack unfolds, but the leader of the group is seeking his missing daughter, Powaqa (later played by Melaw Nakehk’o), and has decided that she must be with the Americans – only ten of whom (out of forty) manage to escape with their lives. Glass, Hawk, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and Fitzgerald are among them, as is Bridger, as well as a half dozen other men of varying importance. Henry and Glass quickly decide that they have to abandon the few furs they’ve salvaged, leaving them behind for later retrieval, and that they need to ditch their boat as well. (They escaped on the boat, but staying on the river will leave them open to the Pawnee group.) Fitzgerald and a few others are upset by the thought of leaving a fortune in furs behind, and when a few of the men are assigned to set the boat adrift, they instead stay on it and float off down the river. Not sure we ever found out what happened to them. Given the rest of the film, I somehow doubt it was anything positive, unless by “positive” you mean “a quick and relatively painless death.”

The men who stay behind – Hawk, Bridger, Glass, Henry and a few others – stash most of their furs and set out back to their fort*. As their scout, Glass goes ahead to make sure their path is clear. Just as we, the audience, are getting past the opening slaughter…Glass gets between a mother bear and her cubs.

In a three-stage attack that left me covering my eyes with one hand and my mouth with the other, Mama Bear rips up Glass’ back, then rips up his front, then nips him in the neck, then for a minute it looked like maybe she was going to use her teeth to sever his spine, she dislocates his ankle…it’s ten or fifteen solid minutes of watching one of nature’s most frightening predators do her thing. Every time she starts to move off, Glass tries to breathe through the pain and finish her off, but this just provokes her to come back and keep tearing chunks off him. Finally, he stabs her repeatedly with a knife, then they both end up sliding down a hill into a valley, where the fight finally ends.

When the other men find Glass, they tend to his wounds and try to make him more comfortable, but ultimately the prospect of carrying him all the way home on a stretcher proves impractical. A few of the men say they ought to put Glass out of his misery, but the captain prevails and offers a reward to anyone willing to stay with him. Presumably, it will only take a day or two for him to die, then they can bury him and be on their way to the fort as well. Finally, Hawk and Bridger both offer to give up their shares of the reward money if Fitzgerald will stay behind. I was a confused as to why the captain would put the guy who just wanted to shoot Glass like a wounded horse in charge of the rescue mission, or why he’d trust the man’s word, but I’m hoping there was some other reason for that and maybe I just didn’t catch it. Clearly the captain shouldn’t have trusted Fitzgerald, because by the time another twenty minutes go by, Hawk is dead, Bridger is cowed, and Glass is resting half-covered and not actually dead in a shallow grave.

I could go through a play by play – the deceitful French trappers/rapists, Glass’ arduous experience in the wilderness, a number of encounters with other Pawnee, how everything pans out – but what’s more interesting to me is the way this film portrays an ordeal of superhuman determination and vengeance. We’ve been seeing a lot of “lighter Leo” the last few years – The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Gatsby – and the heaviness of this story stands in strong contrast to those roles. There’s very little (if any) humor to be found here (not that the script calls for it), but between the story and the characters and the acting, the film is still riveting.

From avalanches to mountains to frozen wastelands and eerie forests, every single setting is shot with an exquisite eye. From one moment to the next, you’re either rapt in wonder at its beauty or else you’re overcome by the idea that this man is trying to survive in this wilderness, sustained only by his desire for revenge. More than once, I thought, Damn. I don’t think I could do this. I’d lie down in the snow and be done by now. And yet Glass kept going. And kept going. And kept going.

One of the turning points in the film comes after we and Glass watch a pack of wolves bring down one Buffalo out of thousands. As Glass stares at the scene unfolding before him we can almost see him salivating. At the same time, with no real weapons, he has to hold himself back from surging forward – and the tension is palpable as this takes place. He sleeps, and when he meets a Pawnee whose village has been massacred by Sioux; the man takes pity on Glass and carries him, treating him when his infection rises and building him a shelter and fire where he can heal. Almost as mysteriously as he appears, the man is gone, leaving only a few words of wisdom behind: “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands” (in the hands of the creator? Not sure.). It’s a message Glass takes to heart, as we learn later. Abandoned by his savior, Glass wanders smack into the village of French trappers. He goes to steal a horse, but stops when he sees that the Frenchmen have a Pawnee woman captive and have been repeatedly raping her since her capture. He goes into action, first taking the Frenchman by surprise then allying with the woman – who we assume, then later confirm, is Powaqa. They both escape, though separately.

As he’s riding away from the French, the Pawnee warriors attack again, and this time Glass and his horse try to outrun them and end up running off a cliff. You know how it felt when Buffy killed off Ms. Calendar? Like nobody was safe anymore? Well, when your hero is mauled by a bear in the first act, you can be pretty sure that’s not the worst thing that’s going to happen to him. Time and again, Glass overcomes the odds. He keeps fighting to survive.

After the massacre of the French camp, as Glass lies inside his horse like Luke in a Tauntaun (sidenote: Google Docs appears to recognize Tauntaun as a word, whoa), one of the Frenchmen turns up at the fort – which we now learn is only about 13 miles from Glass…and said Frenchman is carrying a water flask that Bridger had left on Glass’ chest with a weak apology, earlier in the film. Assuming that the flask was dropped by Hawk, the Captain offers ten dollars to any man willing to head out with him on a search. They find Glass. Fitzgerald catches wind of it, and knowing his lies are falling apart, he takes off. The captain and Glass head out to find him, there are confrontations, and then another brutal battle where both Fitzgerald and Glass leave blood-covered chunks of the other in the snow. With Fitzgerald almost dead and taunting him about how he hopes revenge is enough, as it won’t bring Glass’ son back, Glass looks up and sees the Pawnees on the other side of the river. Remembering the words of the man who saved him, he pushes Fitzgerald into the river, where the current carries him to the Pawnee leader. Who kills him. As the band of Pawnee walk by on their horses, we see Powaqa, which is presumably the reason Glass is allowed to live.

Glass, left bleeding and weak by the side of the river, turns to look directly into the camera. Without a word, the screen fades to black.

There are a few things I want to look into: first, the film fails the Bechdel test with spectacular aplomb, so I’m curious as to whether there were women who worked as fur trappers (kind of like I’d never heard of lady pirates until a former roommate revealed her slight obsession with them). I want to know what Native American groups think of the portrayals of both the Pawnee and the Sioux. I want to read a bit more about the time period when the story takes place in general, to have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the entire unfortunate event. I appreciated that the film makes mention of things like “company store” contracts, and that it relies so heavily on imagery over dialogue (a good portion of which is subtitled). I’m curious as to other work by the director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who wrote the piece with Mark L. Smith). And I might even want to read the book, if I get through my current “to read” pile any time soon.

Mostly, though, I want Leo to finally get his Oscar. He does a riveting job of bringing Glass to life, of showing the man’s depth of feeling and the range of emotions that shut down, one after another, as his desire for revenge overtakes everything else – and how letting that happen to him allows Glass to survive long enough to avenge his son’s death.

I’m not usually one for Westerns, so I’m not well-versed in the contrivances of the genre, but one thing that stands out to me as particularly smart was how Inarritu and Smith turned the convention of the kidnapped woman on its head. In something like The Searchers, and throughout Western (genre) literature, the idea of “the Indians” capturing the innocent white girl is pervasive; here, and perhaps in a more historically appropriate setup/synechdoce, it’s the white man who have kidnapped and brutalized a Native American woman. I don’t adore that the one named female character was basically there as motivation for the opening brutality, nor that she’s being repeatedly raped – that one hits a little close to truth, given national statistics about sexual violence against Native American women – but in terms of genre convention it was certainly a twist. 

Much like how I’m not a fan of car chases yet thought Mad Max: Fury Road was freakin’ amazing (another Tom Hardy flick, funnily enough), I highly recommend seeing The Revenant on the big screen in order to appreciate just how stunning the scenery really is – and to give you the best view of Leo’s raw emotive power during this two-and-a-half hour experience.

The Revenant is currently in theaters.

“Encouragement” With a Side of Tone Policing

By DB Photographs on Flickr; used under Creative Commons. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/demibrooke/2336528544/)

By DB Photographs on Flickr; used under Creative Commons. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/demibrooke/2336528544/)

Women’s bodies, their size, and how well they fit within current fashion expectations have long been a part of a debate around the place women occupy in our culture. There are articles that link sizeism to the idea that women are taught, from a young age, to take up as little space as possible – both emotionally/psychically and physically – and that those women whose bodies take up more size than the minimum can therefore be categorized as less than. An excellent example of this is the yearly debate on “bikini bodies,” and as my favorite saying goes, “Want to have a bikini body? Take your body. Put a bikini on it. VOILA.”

Recently, a writer on The Huffington Post posted a piece titled, “I Wear A Bikini Because F*CK YOU.” In it, she writes things like:

 

 

1. I don’t give a sh*t.
I actually do not exist for your viewing pleasure, and your ideas about who should and should not be seen in a bikini are zero percent my concern.

She goes on to talk about teaching her daughters body-positivity, how her ex-husband was a douchebag who thought certain items of clothing shouldn’t even be made in sizes above what he deemed acceptable, and more. For those of us who’ve been told not to wear sleeveless shirts because of our fat upper arms, or that a piece isn’t “flattering” (i.e. it shows off the curves you love, regardless of how others feel about seeing some cleavage), the article is witty, funny and on-point. One comment, which I ran into on Twitter, surprised me:

As one friend pointed out when I mentioned this to him, this reminded him of the network guys from Sports Night. “We love what you’re doing with the show, but the audience…”

If the writer in question wants to write with anger, that’s her prerogative, and it strikes me as concern-trolling for someone to say that while they personally enjoyed the piece, her “anger” (as they perceived it) a) is unnecessary and b) might make people less receptive to her message. From scanning the comments (my eyes, my eyes!) I can say, with assurance, that there are people who either get it or don’t, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of folks falling in the middle. Nor do m/any of the comments seem concerned with the emotions her piece conveys.

Why does the commenter – a well-known individual whose words no doubt carry some weight – feel it necessary to give this kind of backhanded compliment to this woman via Twitter at large. If the Literary Type likes the article and recognizes that the writer has valid points, why not let readers decide for themselves whether they “hear” the writer’s message? If the comment is meant to be constructive criticism (a fully valid defense, particularly given Literary Type’s career and influence), why not aim it at the article’s writer – whose Twitter handle is at the bottom of the article – instead of the reader who tweeted the link (and, by the inclusion of the “.” prior to his response, his entire list of followers)?

Because: Tone Policing.

That wonderful silencing technique whereby someone lets you know that your “tone” is upsetting or otherwise unsavory, and maybe you ought to moderate how you express your distaste for the status quo in the hopes of making a more palatable argument. Except – and here’s the thing – asking someone to write or discuss an issue in a more “acceptable tone” is a bog-standard silencing technique when it comes to discussing issues faced by women and minorities. From Jezebel.com:

Tone policing is the ultimate derailing tactic. When you tone police, you automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what you or someone else did that was wrong, and onto the other person and their reaction… 

I am responsible for making my life better for me and for the people who are similarly oppressed. I give no shits how recognizing your complicity in an oppressive system makes you feel, and I don’t have to. No one gives a shit about how it makes me feel when I am told that things would get better if I just “asked nicely”. You don’t think I’ve tried that? The reason I’m angry is that I tried playing by your rules of niceness, and you ignored me.

Given the Literary Type’s stature in the industry, I find it hard to believe actual constructive criticism wouldn’t be welcomed – but this isn’t constructive criticism, it’s a derailment of what a body-positive woman is saying about her lived experience of society’s policing of women’s bodies. Her body. And other than the use of profanity scattered through the article, it actually doesn’t even read to me as particularly angry. Comics lace their work with profanity all the time, and while some comedy does in fact come from a place of anger, they’re rarely told, “Hey! Be less angry, or people won’t listen to you!”

Next time, I hope the Literary Type takes his considerable expertise in the world of writing and publishing and brings it directly to the article writer, offering legitimate criticism rather than trying to de-legitimize her point – that women should be able to wear whatever they like in the pool or on the beach, regardless of their body type – via a watered-down, backhanded compliment.

Somebody Out There Hates Your Writing

There are a lot of articles about “coping” with negative reviews. One-star, zero-star, slams and takedowns can make even the most confident writer go through a moment of self-doubt. As a writer and reviewer, I’ve been on both sides of this equation. One time, an offended writer even came to my blog to object to my review in the comments. Which, I think we can all agree, is never a good move for a writer.

But I understand that it can be upsetting, particularly for new writers, when someone gives their work a negative review online. As an editor, I’ve even had writers who’ve even been upset by less-than-effusive (and I don’t mean negative, I mean less-than-effusive) comments made about their own work in reviews of larger collections.

It’s a big bad world out there, and not everyone is going to adore every word that comes off your pen (or keyboard). So here are my tips for quieting the “OMG I’m worthless!” voice that might pipe up when someone says something unflattering about your writing.

1. Any review is just one person’s opinion.

Find out who that person is, and see what other kinds of opinions they’ve shared. For example, the other day I noticed that someone had slammed one of my early plays with a 1-star review on Goodreads. Since the previous review had been much higher, it was a little annoying to see it fall by several stars with one fell swoop. But when I clicked on the person’s profile and checked out their website, I found out that not only was their independent review site dedicated to slamming books “so bad they couldn’t be unread,” but they also took issue with the work of writers who are widely acknowledged as leaders in their particular fields. Realizing you’re in good company definitely helps get rid of the bitter taste of a negative review.

2. People have different tastes.

Not every piece of work is going to connect with every reader. And you don’t necessarily want it to.

When another piece of work was reviewed with one star, and I started doing my digging, I found out that the reviewer’s single favorite line in all of literature was from…50 Shades of Grey. Not to knock EL James, her work, or her readership, but it seems to me that someone whose tastes run so intensely to that particular piece is unlikely to be looking for, or interested in, a book of social-issue themed science fiction. In this case, I doubt very much that the reviewer in question would like any of my work. No harm, no foul.

3. Bad reviews lend credibility to the good ones.

Particularly since the rise of self-published fiction, there has been controversy about how authors acquire reviews. I often provide review copies to serious reviewers, and they note this in their reviews (and I do the same when reviewing the work of others – it’s called disclosure, and lets your reader know why your reaction to a piece of work might differ from that of the general paying public). But there has been a lot of discussion of authors paying for reviews, or recruiting friends to pump them up, and I’ve even seen some readers who say they don’t believe a book is good unless it has a range of reviews at different star levels. While you might lose a few stars early on in the game, keep drumming up reviews and eventually the law of averages will start to reflect a more balanced image of how readers are reacting to your books.

4. Take it as feedback, figure out what’s really being said, and use it to  make your work better.

Recently, my play Ace In The Hole had two scenes read aloud at a “scratch” night in Newcastle, England. After the performance, audience members were encouraged to write their reactions on cards and tack them up for the companies who had presented to read and learn from. When the company forwarded the comments to me, I was thrilled that, for the most part, people seemed to have engaged with the play on its own terms – but as with any group, there were a couple of people who hadn’t liked the work as much as others. Now, theater is a little different from fiction, since there’s usually an opportunity for development of work after an initial presentation to an audience, but the same rule holds true: when an audience member takes the time to review your work, no matter what they say, take it as an honest reaction. If you’re unhappy with what they’ve said, consider whether they might have a point.

In the case of Ace in the Hole, one comment that gave a little sting was that the piece might be better as a radio play. Now, one way to take that is, “This play sucks, it’s not visually interesting, cancel the production.” But if someone took the time to give the feedback, it’s probably because they think there’s something there worth developing. In this case, my interpretation of the feedback was that the action of the play was too static, not physical enough. After all, in a radio drama you only have the medium of sound, whereas on stage both the dialogue and the physical movement of the actors need to contribute to the overall dramatic action. As I redrafted and rewrote the play to its rehearsal draft, I took this as feedback and looked for natural opportunities to make the play more physical. The final draft features a lot more necessary physical action than the first one, and it’s all because someone was thoughtful enough to let me know what part of the play they found lacking.

5. Sometimes, you just have to ignore it and move on.

As part of the same session, one piece of feedback spoke about how the company’s mission was to engage young women, but the play itself seemed like it would speak more to the young men in the audience. There’s not a lot that can be done about that. Ace in the Hole is a science fiction play, set in space, featuring three female characters fighting for survival. To my mind, that feedback speaks more to the audience member’s presupposed notions about who likes science fiction in general, and military-themed science fiction in particular. Since I know plenty of women who enjoy those genres, and since the remit of the commission was to write a play with an all-female cast, set in space…this wasn’t a piece of feedback that I could let lodge in my head.

There are other ways to think about criticism – for example, my home town newspaper has one critic who I love to read because I know no matter what he thinks of a piece, I’ll think the exact opposite. That’s one reason why I’m a big fan of critics who let you know their bias when they’re writing – if you know someone swings for experimental poetic fiction, for example, you might take their thoughts on a historical bodice-ripper differently than if they exclusively review the romance genre.

While we’d all like to think that everyone who picks up our book or buys a ticket to our play is going to love it, writers shouldn’t be afraid of someone out there disliking their work.

After all, in art, as in life – if you’re not pissing somebody off, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Have you read my work? If you have a moment to give it a review – or even just a star rating on Amazon – it would be very much appreciated. Rather leave your mark over at Goodreads? Consider this your invitation! 

NYC Theater Review: GORILLA by Rhea Leman (Scandanavian American Theater Company)

In the Scandanavian American Theater Company’s production of Rhea Leman’s Gorilla, five businessmen and their HR director navigate a weekend seminar on expression and trust. In what is revealed to be an evaluation that could cost them their jobs (and in some cases, far more), the characters’ relationships, personalities, histories and sex lives are laid bare, pride is chucked out the window, more than a few punches are thrown and questions are asked about the role of masculinity in the modern professional world.

We never get a solid sense of what Owen (Albert Bendix), Stephen (Oliver Burns), Robert (L.J. Ganser), Ernest (Alfred Gingold) and Lawrence (Khris Lewin) do for a living, only that for the past year they’ve been doing it rather badly. Their team has had the poorest performance in the company in a year of economic distress (the play is set in 2009), and now they’re at the last of a series of teamwork workshops designed to help them work with more trust and intimacy.

Dragging them down this path of corporate and personal enlightenment is Lillian (Jennifer Dorr White), from the company’s HR department; midway through the play, they are joined by their boss, Thrasher (Tullan Holmqvist), who makes it clear their suspicions of future firings are well-founded. Some murmurs of the role played by sexuality and gender make their way through the blend of analyses and posturing, and it’s in her sexual and animal metaphors that Leman’s play shows both strength and depth.

Gorilla never breaks the fourth wall, maintaining a setting within the walls of a single conference room in sanitized, businesslike shades (to call the pale tones “colors” seems over-ambitious). There are moments, such as one where Owen and Stephen negotiate a possible transaction, where the characters show how deeply imperfect they are – in one particularly insightful speech, Stephen describes his wife and her lack of confidence and her need for affection in a way that makes one wonder if he isn’t, in fact, projecting his issues onto her.

One nitpicky point regarding the translation: midway through Gorilla, Owen explains the meaning of the word to Stephen. Something – I’m not sure what – is missing in the exchange that takes place around the translation of “Gorilla” itself; maybe translation from Danish to English has dulled the comparison’s point? It’s frustrating that it isn’t clearer, since Leman can be assumed to have been making the connection to her play’s title in that moment. Addressing this point more clearly could have heightened the title’s impact for English-speaking audiences.

The individual characters are as specifically drawn as their roles require; while Ernest and Thrasher seem to have limited arcs, the others are more active. One feels as if there should be more weight to Lillian’s inability to make a tough choice, near the end of the play, particularly given the knowledge we’ve already attained via audience privilege.

This is a satisfying eighty minutes of theater, a naturalistic play with a story that gets you somewhere – even if, as the lights fade to black, you’re not exactly sure where you’ve ended up.

 

Rhea Leman’s Gorilla is playing at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, www.theatrerow.org. For the curious, here’s the production company’s page on IndieGoGo: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gorilla.

This Is Not A Movie Review Of “Safety Not Guaranteed”

“It’s about a time, and a place…do you have a favorite song? …. It’s that time and that place and that song and you remember what it was like when you were in that place and you listen to that song and you know you’re not in that place anymore and it makes you feel…hollow.”

doyouhaveafvoritesong

I’m watching Safety Not Guaranteed and there’s a conversation about how people feel about memories and favorites, and I think, I don’t have the same favorites now that I used to..

Favorites are useful shorthands to have. We ask people their “favorites” as if we can divine from their personality the things that will define them, define their character. It’s convenient to have favorites.

Favorite movies, favorites bands, favorite songs, favorite television shows, favorite restaurants, favorite foods, favorite drinks, favorite beers, favorite wines, favorite actors and actresses, favorite books, favorite writers, favorite animals, favorite colors, favorite memories. Favorite jokes. Favorite achievements, favorite opportunities and lenses through which to experience the world, favorite nights lying out on the dock staring up at the Milky Way and favorite theater productions you did with your cousins when you were eight. Favorite nights up wandering the city streets, favorite mornings when you woke full of peacefulness and warmth.

Favorites are naturally transient. I used to tell people my favorite song was Mysterious Ways, by U2, and the reason I knew that was because I had never fast-forwarded past the song when it played. But shortly after this observed fact, reality changed: now conscious of the song and my proclaimed affection for it, it no longer seemed boundless and limitless and full of infinity. By framing the idea for someone else, I limited what, in expression, it could be. And Mysterious Ways by U2 was no longer my favorite song.

Life changes, inevitably, and the favorites most worth having are the ones you never anticipated in the moment. Favorite afternoon with sun on your face among the springtime flowers in Green Park.

Favorites are full-body snapshots of a singular moment in time and space; reflecting snowglobes within neurons.

Favorites are moments, precise and crystallized.

Easily shattered, growing with geological constance.