Another sad passing today as we learn that Ellen Stewart, founder and artistic director of LaMama E.T.C. has taken her show heavenward. There can be no exaggerating her importance to the off-off-Broadway theatre community. Her passing away now at age 92 has a personal irony for me at this moment. Since moving to this city it has been a goal of mine to have a show at Lamama, the birthplace of so much I hold dear. A few years ago, after reviewing a couple of her Greek myth productions, she and I talked about my doing something there, and it’s finally coming to pass. My show opens there on March 17, but it looks now like it will be happening in an entirely different era. Still, there will be much of her in it, I think. The kind of work we’ll be attempting largely came into the world through her midwifery. She is a Godmother with many, many children.
Archive for indietheater
On Friday night, following our attendance at the wretched Gob Squad’s Kitchen, the Countess and I had our faith in the world restored by attending Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell at P.S. 122’s Coil Festival. I always felt a special connection to Mr. Gray’s work, seeing as how he was born on the other side of Narragansett Bay from me, spoke with a thick Rhode Island accent, and like me was of Scottish decent and a WASP ancestry that, I believe, like mine, went back to Colonial times. His father was one of the honchos of the firm of Brown & Sharpe, which was headquartered one town over from me when I was growing up. And let’s not forget his roots in experimental theatre. And, uh, the genius of his art — a comic voice as strong and universally beloved (by those exposed to it) as Will Rogers’ or Mark Twain’s.
Stories Left to Tell is a testament to Gray’s brilliance as a writer — and an instructive revelation about the writer’s art. For those who might imagine that Gray’s unique autobiographical writings depended on his own performance, this show will quickly put that notion to rest. Conceived and directed by Kathleen Russo and Lucy Sexton (the latter perhaps best known as one half of the performance duo Dancenoise back in the day), the writings are enacted by a quintet of performers, who simply and honestly deliver the pieces, allowing Gray’s consciousness to shine through. The merging of Gray’s words and the individual performances is like seeing a brood of children with one father and five different mothers. The cast was terrific. Four (Kathleen Chalfant, Hazelle Goodman, Ain Gordon and Bob Holman — distinguished artists all) are the same in each performance; the fifth slot is filled by a rotating celebrity. On the night we attended it was David Strathairn — a perfect choice, given the simplicity and honesty he always brings to his performances. The vivid readings (all done from Gray-like school composition books) seemed to bring the late Gray, so untimely ripped from us, back to life, and brought back fond memories.
Now the bad news. You only have one more chance to see this moving and hilarious show in its current incarnation — today at 4:30! If you can manage to get there, the ticket info is here. But the good news is that a new documentary about Gray is making the circuit. It’s called And Everything is Going Fine and info about where and when it’s playing is here. And, according to his web site, a boxed set of his monologue films is due out later this year.
I fully admit I’m a bit of a misanthrope. I detest opening nights, particularly ones for which some buzz has resulted in a packed house of noisy art sluts. During a quiet moment in last night’s American premiere of Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You Never Had It So Good), I whispered in the Countess’s ear “This sycophantic laughter makes me want to spray the audience with an Uzi”. She rewarded me with a sympathetic kiss, and that is why we are a couple. I can usually tell within 20 seconds whether the next 90 to 120 minutes are going to be horrible torture. It often begins with the question, “What the fuck are these people laughing at?” When I strongly suspect that the laughs are not coming from their bellies, but from the calculating part of their brains that wants to demonstrate to the others in the auditorium that they “get” this new thing, great waves of bile and contempt course through my body and spill out my ears, eyes and nose like cartoon choo-choo smoke. You might say that this will spoil my objectivity, that it will prejudice me against the piece at hand, but really the opposite is the case. ‘Cuz if it was funny, I’d be laughin’.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated this thing. Trying to begin is like trying to find a place to grab onto a greased medicine ball. It purports to be a reflection of Warhol’s first films circa 1963-65. The audience watches a triptych of live video feeds, one of which conjures the films Sleep and Kiss, another of which does the same with Kitchen, and a third which recreates the Factory’s famous screen tests. A quartet of fairly competent sketch comedians undermine the stillness and verite of Warhol’s original experiments by chattering endlessly and rather stupidly in a self-conscious fashion about what they ought to be doing. Their rather thin and lame shenanigans produced gales of laughter from the audience, although to my mind the performers were doing far too little to make it clear that their characters – and not themselves – were these vapid, empty, uninformed people. What was it about? Their press material says it was a “reflection” and a “deconstruction” but it certainly was none of those things. It neither deflated nor illuminated the work of Warhol, nor said anything about the human condition period. The creators – or the characters – seemed to know or care surpassingly little about Warhol or the age in which he lived and worked. Or this age. Or anything.
To me the key words that describe their work appear in the program notes: “culturally savvy” and “sharply ironic”. “Culturally savvy” I take to mean essentially “hip”. If that’s a virtue, their most salient virtue, it’s a rather dubious one, about as substantial as a soap bubble. I’m more concerned with this business of touting “irony” as though THAT were also some worthy philosophical stance to tout. Irony I designate to be the disease of our age. I’m guilty of it, most of us are, but I hardly think it’s anything to trumpet. It is a weak-sister substitute for having any REAL CONVICTIONS about ANYTHING. It is the philosophy reflected in the ubiquitous phrase “Whatever”. Nothing matters or affects me. Not art, not life, not emotions, not language, not you, not me. Certainly not the audience, two hours of their lives, or the money they spent on tickets. And so these performers just sort of fuck around for the duration, blissfully enjoying themselves, floating above us on this masturbatory plane of “whatever”.
The evening ends with some sort of statement about throwing out all old values, and people looking back in 100 years and realizing “this was the moment” when that shift happened. But they’ll remember nothing of the kind. The reason the “old values” exist is so that we have something to latch onto. Something. I’m not talking about Aristotle, okay? In punk rock there is anger at least. In the work of Young Jean Lee, as non-linear as it is, there are the playwright’s emotions, her concerns. Gob’s Squad’s Kitchen is so ephemeral that it makes no impression IN THE MOMENT, let alone tomorrow or in 100 years.
Certainly Warhol is largely to blame for the very plague of amorality and nihilism that this production exemplifies. But if the production is supposed to be a critique or “deconstruction” or “reflection” on it, I see no evidence of that. It is just more of it. As the show goes on, audience members (some of whom I suspect were ringers) are drawn into the show and given their own screen tests and 15 minutes of fame. If that is the show’s one stab at profundity, it’s a weak one. I see shows that offer that every week of my life. In fact, to my sorrow and regret, I could have been at one last night – Todd Robbins was packing the house at Play Dead. Oh, why, oh why, wasn’t I there instead?