Theatre is Dead
Upon first hearing about Stolen Chair’s latest production Theatre is Dead and So are You, I couldn’t help recalling that twenty years ago my old schoolmate Adam Gertsacov presented a little thing entitled A Cabaret on Death. Of course, he had earlier trod the stage with the handle “Kafka the Clown”. To the young, there is something precocious and attractively “intellectual” and even Brechtian about marrying our nightmares to the pleasant dream of show business.
The concept has its allure. It is an aesthetic problem that may even be solved, thought it would take a Brecht or a Beckett to do it. Come to think of it, they already have. But, as the Senator from Minnesota Stuart Smalley used to say, “That’s okay.” Stolen Chair’s business is form. They have previously “done” their own versions of silent melodrama, film noir (by way of Ionesco), Elizabethan drama, and even a swashbuckler. Here, they present a vaudeville – a loose concatenation of entertainments provided by a fictitious company whose leader lies dead in a casket throughout the entire performance. They sing, they dance, they act, they do a little puppetry – all of it revolving around the unavoidable reality of Death.
This is a big subject. In fact, it’s so big it isn’t even a subject. It’s one half of everything that is. It’s the period at the end of every sentence – and it’s a mighty short sentence. One enters this territory at one’s own risk. You do it justice or you don’t do it all. (You can see where I’m going with this). This production feels sort of like a gang of illiterates had blundered into a storeroom filled with crates marked “explosives”, hung out for awhile, and then left the storeroom. No one is any the wiser, but we’re definitely two hours older. And in the meantime, we were awfully close to some explosives.
The problem, you see, is that this isn’t really a production about death at all. It’s a production about “death”. This is the sort of death play someone would write and present who hadn’t given a minute’s thought to the reality of death. The evidence is palpable in the director’s notes in the program: “After public speaking…death is the greatest fear of all Americans.” Well, actually dying is one’s greatest fear, but aside from the grammatical nicety, all Americans? What about all human beings?What about all life forms who struggle against it with every ounce of their being? The note of hysteria you feel in my commentary is not only real but appropriate – and should have been part of the flavor of this production, if it were really about what it purported to be about. But I know it is not. Because so much in the production (and in this company’s work) is second, third, fourth, and fifth hand. Everything in the show is in quotes. The characters are all dressed in clown make-up, but they are not clowns. They are “clowns” – actors dressed as clowns. They self-consciously parade throughout this mature theme in a manner most artistic, only it is not art, but “art”. And the subject, as we have said, is not death, but “death”. It’s all a jolly game, a conceit.
It’s not because of the intellectualism. Samuel Beckett, without whom none of these death-clowns would have been possible, was the most abstract of all playwrights. In some plays he names his characters A, B, Y, Z, like variables in an algebra equation. He strips them down to human fractions: a pair of lips, a head in an urn, a voice in the darkness. He gives them fragments to speak. And still, STILL, humanity – pain, loneliness, fear – shine through. In Theatre is Dead, we get the arid experience of Brecht’s alienation effect, on top of no plot, on top of no decent vaudeville turns. Instead, the fact of our own mortality is offered constantly as a sort of mirthless punchline that neither chills nor amuses. What is there to do but pray that death will come – for somebody?
One walks away with the suspicion – and this is plausible – that the entire production is meant as an illustration of why the theatre is dead. The outdated jokes, the ironic performances, the scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire and Romeo and Juliet, all this and more provide evidence. If this were so, it would be little more than a prank on ticket buyers, and a cruel one at that.
The production’s one saving grace is the presence of David Berent, whom I have known and admired in many other guises, including his performance in The Accidental Patriot, (in which he was also the only saving grace). Every second of Berent’s time on stage is filled with something. Not just bits of business, although he offers plenty of that, but also – for god’s sake—a light behind the eyes. A vulnerability, a humanity, an interior life. Yes, LIFE! A play about death is meaningless, you see, Stolen Chair, unless there is something to kill.
Through January 31 at the ConnellyTheatre. Tickets and info: http://www.theatreisdead.com