27 March 2013

'The Mound Builders'

The Mound Builders, currently on stage in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row, is a relatively early entry in Lanford Wilson’s prolific catalogue of plays.  Written in 1975, when Wilson was 38, it was premièred at the Circle Repertory Company while the author was the company’s playwright-in-residence (1969-95), perhaps the eleventh script he’d written since his first works for the seminal Caffe Cino in 1964 (Home Free! and The Madness of Lady Bright, the Cino’s first popular success).  Wilson wrote about two dozen plays before his death in 2011 at the age of 73.  The STC revival of Mound Builders is the final production of the theater’s 2012-13 Legacy Program which has revisited the work of four artists who were previously presented as playwrights-in-residence at the theater.  Wilson was the subject of an STC residency in 2002-03 which included revivals of Burn This (1986) and Fifth of July (1978) and the New York premières of Book of Days (2000) and Rain Dance (2002). 

Less than a week after being at the Signature Center to see Bill Irwin and David Shiner in Old Hats (see my ROT report of 22 March), I was back again for the evening performance of The Mound Builders on Wednesday, 20 March.  Following its 1975 première, which won an Obie Award for Distinguished Playwriting, the Public Broadcasting System televised the play on Theatre in America in February 1976 (with much the same cast) and then Circle Rep revived the play in 1986 as part of a three-play repertory (with Albert Camus’s Caligula and Anne Chislett’s Quiet in the Land) at the Triplex Theatre of the Borough of Manhattan Community College in downtown Manhattan.  Other than that production, though the play is performed regularly around the country, the Signature staging is the only other major revival of the play in New York City.  STC’s revival started previews on 26 February and opened on 17 March; it’s original closing performance was to be on 7 April, but it’s been extended until 14 April.

Directed at STC by Jo Bonney, The Mound Builders is set in 1975 at the site of an archeological dig at Blue Shoals in southern Illinois.  A team of archeologists from a university (apparently U of I, Urbana-Champaign), is trying to save the artifacts of an ancient proto-Indian civilization known as the Mound Builders before a new dam causes the lake to inundate the site in Blue Shoals.  The play takes place in a house near the dig where the two archeologists, Professor August Howe and Dr. Dan Loggins, are living with members of their families, Cynthia Howe, the professor’s wife and the group’s photographer; their daughter, 11-year-old Kirsten; Dan’s pregnant wife, Jean, a gynecologist; and August’s sister D.K., or Delia, Eriksen, a globe-trotting erstwhile novelist who’s come to recover from her latest bout of substance abuse because the Cleveland hospital she was at couldn’t handle her.  A frequent, though not always welcome or invited, visitor is Chad Jasker, the son of the owner of the land on which the dig and the house are located who desperately wants to be accepted by the academics.  The scenes in Blue Shoals are introduced and interrupted by scenes set the following winter in Urbana during which August dictates into a tape recorder descriptions of the slides Cynthia had taken and narrates the events of previous summer. 

Neil Patel’s semi-realistic set is the living room, which is also the main work area for the scientists, of the house, furnished much like someone’s weekend or summer house at the beach or in the mountains—which is to say, rustically and, more to the point, sparsely so that there’s plenty of open space.  (New York Post reviewer Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote that “the place looks like a depressing modernist-rustic lodge.”)  Visible through a wide doorway upstage is the kitchen—the residents make frequent use of the fridge, which is all we see from our vantage point—and a long staircase comes down from the second floor at stage left at about a 30-degree angle.  The house is lit, by Rui Rita, in an often expressionistic style that can make it seem to be a break-away structure.  (The floorboards seem to almost disappear, and I couldn’t figure out how Rita and Patel accomplished that because the floor seemed quite solid when I looked at it under house lights at intermission.  I’m also unsure what this was supposed to indicate, on the assumption that it’s intentionally symbolic and not just an aesthetic effect Bonney liked.  Of course, the fact that it didn’t seem to me to fit is why I noticed it in the first place.)  And as long as I’m commenting on the physical production, I’ll say that Theresa Squire’s costumes were fine and both period and circumstantially appropriate without calling any special attention to themselves (except, perhaps, that young Dr. Loggins apparently favors shorts with work boots, a combination I never really understood—but then, I never worked a summer dig in southern Illinois).  One comment Mel Gussow made in his New York Times review of the Circle Rep première was that the set seemed cramped and “the projections are somewhat diminished.”  That wasn’t a problem in the Linney (although I’m not convinced that the slides—designed by Shawn Sagady and projected on the rear wall of the room upstage right—and the interruptions necessary to show them, are all that dramatic or even helpful).  The cast of seven is somewhat large by today’s standards, but even when everyone was on stage, which happens fairly often in Mound Builders, it never seemed crowded.  There were other problems generated by the number of characters—and their disparate needs—but crowding wasn’t one of them.

As I’ve noted before, the only review I read before I see a play is the Times because I subscribe, so I read Charles Isherwood’s critique two-and-a-half weeks earlier.  His chief complaint was about the directing and, particularly, the acting.  Now, I have serious objections to this play (which I’ll try to explain shortly), but it isn’t so much with the acting or the directing.  No one in the cast really stood out, but I don’t think Wilson wrote this play with star turns in mind.  (He apparently did write Delia for Tanya Berezin, the actress who was also a co-founder—with Wilson; Marshall Mason, the première’s director; and actor Rob Thirkield, who played August Howe—of Circle Rep, which is interesting but pretty much irrelevant here.  Delia’s a somewhat outrageous person, but she’s not any more important to this play than any of the other characters.)  There are characters whose importance I dispute—such as Kirsten, the Howes’ young daughter whom Wilson did cut from the ’86 restaging, and perhaps at least one of the two wives—but that’s not the fault of the actors or Bonney.  August’s dictation monologues are anti-theatrical, as I’ve said, but David Conrad did as well with them as any actor could have and Bonney staged them as strongly as I think is possible.  Conrad’s August is too much of a non-entity all through the play, but that isn’t his fault, either; I can’t imagine a way he or Bonney could have changed that, short of chewing the scenery.  In fact, Bonney kept the whole, meandering, amorphous blob of a play moving along for its 2¼-hour length (plus one intermission) in as lively a manner as she could have.

All the women—Janie Brookshire as Cynthia Howe, Lisa Joyce as Jean Loggins, Rachel Resheff as Kirsten, and Danielle Skraastad as D.K./Delia—captured their roles thoroughly enough, with Skraastad making a slightly greater impression because Delia has more quirks and a clearer intention, always much easier to play than a blank page.  (Delia has more heft as a character, perhaps, because Wilson’s original notion for Mound Builders was that the ad hoc “family” heals her over the summer and that she becomes the strong person in the group who nurtures the others in the end.  Aspects of this idea are left over, especially at the end of the play, but no longer have a rationale.)  The two characters with the most going for them (in terms of actability) are Dan Loggins, the younger scientist (Zachary Booth), and Chad Jaskers, the landowner’s ambitious son (Will Rogers).  Given more to play, these two actors attracted more of my attention than all the others (though, as I’ll try to explain in a bit, their roles weren’t any easier to figure out than the rest).  Booth made clear the youthful enthusiasm Dan has for the discovery of new facts, making the young Ph.D. seem even more like a brainy adolescent than he actually is, even if he was a little one-notish.  Booth’s Dan is an irrepressible puppy whose blindness to others’ perspectives precipitates the one actual act that comes at the play’s end.  Rogers makes Chad almost credible, another overgrown teenager (Chad’s in his mid-20’s), with dollar-signs in his eyes, but intellectual pretentions in his heart.  He also doesn’t see the point of view of the others and the lethal combination of him and Dan, who are as close to friends as any two characters in the play, ignites in the end, but Rogers may be a little too puppyish to carry off the emotional intensity that shows up at the end and his performance is a tad mannered. 

In 1975, Mel Gussow in the Times wrote that “Lanford Wilson’s multi-layered new play . . . challenges the actors and the audience.”  Gussow felt that this was due to the “weight and resonance” of Wilson’s subject, but 38 years later, reviewers of the STC revival gave a different evaluation.  In the current Times, Charles Isherwood complained that watching STC’s “slackly acted” revival “is like cracking open a time capsule that’s been buried for years.”  Its “contents,” pronounced Isherwood, “don’t prove as fascinating to us today as we had reason to hope.”  Wilson “gently probes” the “imploding American family of the late 20th century” with a blend of “lyricism and naturalism,” but the “understated emotional currents come through only hazily in Ms. Bonney’s production,” which “lacks the layered, resonant acting” necessary to bring them out.  “Too many of the performances here never suggest the reserves of feeling that are needed to give texture to the loose-jointed dialogue and lightly sketched-in relationships,” reported the Timesman.  Though I don’t categorically disagree with Isherwood’s evaluation, I find far more fault in the script than I do in the production which, I contend, has been ordained by the play that Wilson wrote.

Whatever errors Bonney and her cast made in mounting the STC revival of The Mound Builders, I found that the main problems were endemic to Wilson’s dramaturgy.  Three main faults seem insuperable to me: it’s endlessly talky without seeming to lead to an action; the various speeches and conversations all seem unconnected to anything, much less one another—each character has his or her own topic of concern; and the final, devastating event, which happens off stage, seems to come out of nowhere, as if Wilson were dropping a bomb.  It was as if Wilson had decided that at two hours the play had gone on long enough and he had to end it, so he slipped in a cataclysm to finalize the plot.  Now, possibly Bonney and the actors could have led up some to the explosion in the end, showing aspects of the characters and their relationships that might suggest that something was building up, but the other two script problems are pretty much outside their control.  (It may be significant that the video of the PBS adaptation of the play is available in a 90-minute version, suggesting that the play can be cut by three-quarters of an hour without serious damage, essentially turning it into a one-act.  At the performance, in fact, I said to my companion that the whole play happens in the last two, two-and-a-half scenes and could be a one-act.) 

Apparently Wilson, who reportedly regarded Mound Builders as his favorite among his own plays and possibly his best work, was trying to get at some thoughts about the nature of civilization, both the small, family-circle kind and the larger, historico-anthropological sort, as well as the way people can be so absorbed in their own worlds that they don’t comprehend or even perceive that others also have points of view that may not agree with their own.  The little society of the Howes, the Logginses, and Chad Jasker has fault lines in it and ultimately splits apart, leaving almost as little behind as the Mound Builders’ culture did.  The fault that causes the breach is the way the scientists, especially Dan, are so absorbed in the discoveries they expect to make, the preservation of the archeological evidence they’re finding that they have no concept that Chad and the people of Blue Shoals he stands in for (read: the “real” world) are looking forward to the big, new lake and the interchange for the Interstate that are going to destroy the dig site because to them, it means tourists, prosperity, and progress.  (The academics are looking for the past, but the locals are looking toward the future.)  There are hints, not all of them subtle, in the early scenes of The Mound Builders that this dichotomous worldview persists, but little is made of them either in Bonney’s production or, really, in Wilson’s script; they’re easy to miss if they’re not punched up in production.  While the play is unfolding, I never noticed them, leaving me with the impression, as I stated, that the climax comes out of the blue (until I thought it over afterwards, and, I confess, began to read some of the criticism of the play, both reviews and literary notes).  The actors didn’t have to hit these points with sledges, but a little tap would have been dramatically helpful; the cast, however, seemed to be intent on keeping all their characters playing on a single note. 

Wilson said that he structured Mound Builders the way archeologists uncover the history of a vanished civilization, by meticulously peeling away layer after layer of dirt to unearth the facts.  The play, which Wilson asserted was “one of the few real stories I've written,” was assembled “in pieces, bits.”  As the scientists examine the artifacts left behind by the Mound Builders, we’re supposed to be discovering their relation to ambition and the future.  But just as the artifacts of the ancient peoples has been interred over time by the remnants of later inhabitants, what Wilson wanted us to uncover is buried deep within a surfeit of what ends up sounding like aimless talk.  “[W]hy were the scenes so—what?  Fragmented,” asked Wilson as he rushed to compose the script by Circle Rep’s deadline.  Was he using August’s dictation and narration, a “common (and lousy) way of connecting disparate scenes,” the playwright acknowledged, as an easy solution to the problem of discontinuity?  The draft of the script had been full of the annotation “bridge to come” between scenes, which Wilson explained was “Circle Rep slang for ‘later.’” 

In the end, the dramatist decided, “It was not in fragments, it was in shards.  It was not a lousy way of telling a story, it was logical, it was organic.”  But my impression is that Wilson was simply mollifying his own concerns, putting aside his initial doubts in order to meet Marshall Mason’s rehearsal schedule.  (The production had already been postponed once and Wilson handed in the second act while the work was already underway and the actors were awaiting the new scenes.)  The scenes are fragmentary and the narration is undramatic and untheatrical.  The bridges never came. 

If sifting through the layers of earthen cover to find the revealing bits and pieces of the Mound Builders’ lives and culture is hard and painstaking work, sitting through more than an act-and-a-half of verbiage to get to the kernel of truth in Wilson’s play is hard work, too, and it defeated me before the payoff came.  When it did, it was a shock to me and I sat up, saying to myself, ‘What?  Where did that come from?’  If Bonney and the actors were supposed to fix that, I’m not sure it’s fair to blame them if they didn’t.  (From what I read of the ’75 and ’86 productions, neither did Marshall Mason and his casts.  Frank Rich, for instance, in his 1986 Times review, wrote: “Audiences who visit the Circle Repertory Company's new and revised revival of Mr. Wilson's 1975 play had better plan on doing some hard digging themselves.  There are some fragments of interest in ‘The Mound Builders,’ but they are buried beneath mounds, if not mountains, of talk.”)

(That revision Rich mentioned, by the way, was specifically undertaken for the ’86 restaging and never made it into a published edition of the script.  It included, among other changes, deleting the character of Kirsten and rewriting some of the text to make the play “more melodramatic, less metaphysical,” according to Newsday’s Linda Winer.  Though Gussow, re-reviewing the new staging, asserted that this “minor” reworking made the text “sharper,” Winer pronounced it a “no-more-popular version” than the short-lived 1975 première.)

Dubbing The Mound Builders “a complex play,” Daily News reviewer Joe Dziemianowicz observed, “It takes a fine-tuned ensemble to breathe believable life into” it but that the “actors relate to each other awkwardly and too loudly.”  The STC revival, an “aimless excavation,” wrote Dziemianowicz, needs a cast “who always seems to be thinking, not just saying lines.”  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli complained, “The archaeologists in ‘The Mound Builders’ spend a lot of time talking about their work.”  It’s a “meandering show” and “overly dour,” she observed, in which many of the elements “look good but . . . they aren’t strictly necessary.”  In conclusion, Vincentelli asserted that in the end “the show, like the archaeologists, has dug itself into such a deep hole, it can’t get out.”  Winer proclaimed in Long Island’s Newsday, “‘The Mound Builders’ always was one of Lanford Wilson's Big Question plays—easier to admire, perhaps, than to embrace.”  Winer found that “the revival at the Signature Theatre digs passionately for signs of what we've been missing after the loss of Wilson” but “still doesn't pull together the many exquisitely considered threads” of the play.

“Wilson's dark, down-home tragedy” which is “tossed at you in fragments,” observed Michael Feingold in the Village Voice, “infuses a puzzling form with a Chekhovian spirit.”  Feingold explained that “the play's jagged shape and overlapping dialogue make its narrative tricky to parse.”  Though the Voice review-writer felt that the production “lacks vibrancy,” he also declared that “the play, big, powerful, and quirky, demands to be seen.”  The New Yorker dismissed Mound Builders by declaring, “The cultural, historical, and economic issues raised by the play hit their targets, but the emotional ones misfire.”

In Back Stage, reviewer Erik Haagensen asserted that “the show takes too long to start cooking” because, though “the playwright’s subtle slices of exposition [need] to be delivered with maximum clarity,” that doesn’t always happen in the STC revival.  While he pronounced Mound Builders “minor Wilson,” however, Haagensen concluded that “even in a flawed production it packs a walloping final payoff.”  David Cote called Mound Builders “a fitfully compelling but schematic piece” in Time Out New York, but characterized Jo Bonney’s STC revival as a “warm, cohesive production.”  “Wilson’s careful mapping of his characters’ inner territories” is “impressive,” insisted Cote, but “the play wobbles between self-conscious poetics and highbrow soap opera.” 

On line, the reviews were mostly parallel to the printed press.  In the Huffington Post, however, David Finkle heaped high praise on the play, spending half his column on the play’s and Wilson’s virtues and the playwright’s and script’s history with the Circle Repertory Company.  Dubbing Mound Builders Wilson’s “best work” (alongside another neglected script, 1998’s Sympathetic Magic), when Finkle finally got around to writing about the STC revival, he stated, “it does very little to recapture Wilson's memorable achievement.”  He insisted that “the finesse required to maximize Wilson's manuscript is completely lacking” compared to the Circle Rep première, for which he blames a cast who “don't rise to the occasion.”  (Finkle actually ended by recommending watching the video of the 1976 PBS Theatre in America broadcast.) 

While Mound Builders does indeed contain a few glimmering gems,” affirmed Matthew Murray on Talkin’ Broadway, he added, “Good luck, however, locating meaning—or anything else—beneath the teeming excesses of this simultaneously overwrought and underthought production.”  Though Bonney “coaxed workable designs” for the revival’s physical production, she “hasn’t fused any of the other elements into an evening cohesive enough to bring alive either history or those seeking to understand it.”  Murray put some blame on Wilson because, the reviewer asserted, “[t]he play itself does [Bonney] few favors, wobbling as it does unconvincingly between” two disparate locations, but the production doesn’t help as “none of it has the impact it might because Bonney and the actors conduct the action as though they’re sleepwalking through a Bertolt Brecht rehearsal.”  Still, Murray conceded that Mound Builders is “still a well-rounded piece with plenty to excavate.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to imagine a flatter or more hollow rendering of it than this one.”  On TheaterMania, Brian Scott Lipton described the play as “dense and layered” with “many keen, lyrical speeches and the numerous inherent lessons Wilson wants us to contemplate.”  Lipton warned, however, that Mound Builders “can come off as talky, pretentious, and slightly perplexing.” 

Here's an odd conundrum: I generally don't like clowning, but I delighted in Old Hats.  I generally like Lanford Wilson, but I was completely put off by The Mound Builders.  Despite Wilson’s own putative devotion to the play, it’s generally admired for its intellectual ambitions but not beloved as a stage work.  According to several commentaries, the play is more highly regarded by readers of the published text than by people who’ve seen it staged.  As George Bernard Shaw said of democracy, The Mound Builders apparently “reads well; but it doesn’t act well.”

[STC's The Mound Builders is one of two Lanford Wilson revivals on the boards in New York City now.  The Roundabout Theatre Company is currently presenting Talley's Folley, Wilson's 1979 romantic comedy, at the Laura Pels Theatre on W. 46th Street.  The original Talley's Folly premièred on Broadway on 20 February 1980, won that year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and ran for 286 performances.  It is the second play in the Talley Trilogy which also includes Fifth of July (1978) and Talley & Son (1985).  I said that I liked Lanford Wilson’s plays; Talley’s Folly, which I saw on Broadway with Judd Hirsch and Debra Mooney (who replaced Trish Hawkins) in October 1980, is one reason I do.  The Roundabout production of Talley's Folly opened on 5 March and is scheduled to run through 12 May.]

22 March 2013

'Old Hats'

A dictionary will define the phrase ‘old hat’ as ‘uninteresting, stale, or trite from overuse.’  Another definition is ‘long-practiced, well-known, or conventional.’  Third, you’ll find ‘being experienced or skilled.’  Of these definitions, the first one doesn’t apply at all to the Bill Irwin-David Shiner performance at the Pershing Square Signature Center the two physical comedians call Old Hats, which I caught on the evening of Friday, 15 March.  In the hands of the two master clowns, the material can’t be overused and will never be uninteresting, stale, or trite.  The second sense is true: Irwin and Shiner teamed for Fool Moon on Broadway 20 years ago, so the gags are clearly long-practiced  and well-known—and they wanted very specifically to revisit conventional clowning and pantomime that harks back to old vaudeville and music hall standards.  It’s true, but the label’s connotation that the work is somehow over-familiar and unimaginative isn’t the least bit applicable.  Only the last definition makes real sense: Irwin and Shiner, both separately and in partnership, are immensely experienced and skilled, having practiced the arts of clowning, mime, and pantomime for 39 years, in Irwin’s case, and 34 for Shiner.  Irwin’s a certified genius, having won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1984, and Shiner has written and directed Cirque du Soleil productions such as 2007’s Kooza.  Of the title of their new production, which started previews in the Signature’s Irene Diamond Theatre on 12 February and opened on 4 March, Irwin himself said:

The idea of trying a new show feels old, now—like its practitioners—but Old Hats as a title, as the repository for the clown thinking of the last year—that feels new.  We tried for a name for a long time and just nailed this one recently, and I must say it feels like it may unleash some energy.  Old Hats.

Before I get too far into this report, let me cop to something moderately significant.  I’m not a fan of clowns.  I have nothing against them—I’m not coulrophobic or anything—and I don’t object to the people who play the clowns.  I’ve just never found clowning very funny, not in circuses or on stage and film.  I can admire the skill of Chaplin or Keaton, but I was never drawn to their movies; I wasn’t a fan of Gleason (I don’t like The Honeymooners even today), Skelton, Lucille Ball, or the Three Stooges, and I don’t much like Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell.  I also ought to admit that there have always been exceptions: the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields, Carol Burnett, Robin Williams—and Bill Irwin and David Shiner. 

I first saw both these guys individually—Irwin in The Regard of Flight (1982) and Largely New York (1989), and Shiner in Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouvelle Expérience in Battery Park City in 1990—and together in Fool Moon in 1993 (which won a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience in ’93 and was revived twice; in its second revival, it won the 1999 Special Tony Award for Live Theatrical Presentation).  I even got to kibbitz at a clown class Bill Irwin taught for an advanced theater program.  The man’s a terrific teacher, as you’d probably guess.  Irwin was the subject of a Signature residency in 2003-04, but I didn’t subscribe that season, so aside from his conventional theater and TV work, I haven’t seen him perform since ’93.  (He did a magical turn as The Flying Man in several episodes of the 1990-95 CBS series Northern Exposure in which he never spoke a word of dialogue.  Then he won a best-actor Tony for his performance as George in the 2005 revival of Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)  I’ve never seen Shiner in any other role than his clown persona, though he’s appeared in several films and on Broadway as The Cat in the Hat in the 2000-2001 musical Seussical.  (Shiner also teaches, at the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding in Munich.)

Longevity and the aging that goes with it are a part of the concept for Old Hats, another implication of the title.  Irwin is 62 now (his birthday’s in April) and Shiner’s 59; when they first did Fool Moon, they were 42 and 39 respectively and when they started developing their routines, they were in their 20’s or early 30’s.  “At a certain age, you’re not the young lover anymore,” noted Irwin in an interview, “and you can’t even sort of pretend to be the young lover.  You have to embrace the stage of life that you’re at.  So that’s—hence the title: Old Hats.”  This necessitated changes, at least in attitude if not in outright technique, to such bits as the two (now middle-aged) businessmen on a commuter-train platform and Shiner’s perennial sleazy magician who flirts shamelessly with the women in the audience.  (Irwin, as his once-sexy female assistant, is unabashedly annoyed, but this portrayal must also have been adjusted as well.)  Irwin acknowledges that “there’s a big ache and pain factor” to the work these days, and adds, “In my mind it’s a lot of reflection on getting further into life and, you know, getting to the end . . . .  So it’s a different vantage point to look at life from.”  Youth in Old Hats is provided by quirky singer-songwriter-musician Nellie McKay, 30 (her birthday is also in April)—but more about her later.

In their original Broadway pairing, New York Times reviewer Frank Rich, reporting that Shiner and Irwin should be added to “that short list of unbeatable combinations that includes bacon and eggs, bourbon and soda, and Laurel and Hardy,” concluded “that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts even when the parts are as great as these two beloved clowns.”  The two artists, however, come from quite different backgrounds.  Irwin was formally trained, graduating from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1974, though he didn’t join that circus.  Instead, he went west and helped found the Pickle Family Circus, a small, innovative troupe based in San Francisco.  He left the Pickles in 1979 and began his solo career, working on stages rather than under tents.  Shiner, on the other hand is self-taught, having begun on the streets as a mime and busker.  In 1984, he was discovered in Boulder, Colorado, by the Paris-based festival Cirque de Demain.  He went on to perform with several famous European troupes, including the Circus Roncalli and the Swiss National Circus. He joined the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil in 1990, becoming one of the company’s best-known performers.  Back Stage writer Lisa Jo Sagolla sees Bill Irwin, whose “body seems to transform into a gooey substance that gracefully stretches into all sorts of nuanced postures, gestures, and attitudes,” as “a dancer’s clown,” whereas David Shiner, whose “physical work is more about character, narrative arc, and the slick design of funny actions” that “targets our emotions,” is “an actor’s clown.”  Irwin, born in Santa Monica, California, lives in New York City; native Bostonian Shiner resides in Munich, Germany.

It’s probably out of order to do this here, but I will anyway: Watching Old Hats, which lists Tina Landau as director, I wondered how—or even if—anyone actually directs a show like this, by two (if you will) old hands who’ve been doing this stuff for so long—73 years between them by my calculations—it’s part of their nature.  What did Landau, a well-established director of Broadway and Off-Broadway plays and rep theater productions (she’s a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and worked extensively with New York City's En Garde Arts which specialized in site-specific productions), have to do while Old Hats was developing and rehearsing?  Obviously, she never had to stand in the back of the house and shout the famous direction attributed to George S. Kaufman: “Louder and funnier, please!”  “Louder” isn’t applicable since Irwin and Shiner don’t speak except in one bit, and they couldn’t be funnier.  I suppose she had to be the tech director, shaping the lighting and soundscape for the production, and the traffic director, keeping the performers from getting too far up- or downstage, too far right or left.  I’m not saying that Landau didn’t do anything—clearly Shiner and Irwin didn’t have to have a director if they didn’t want one (no director is credited for Fool Moon, for example), so they must have felt the need—but I just don’t know what she did do for Old Hats.

David Shiner says when they work on a new show, “We basically goof off until we find something funny,” and Bill Irwin says the work is “really a sort of doodling until you feel like you may have started to draw something.”  I suppose Landau could have been sitting in the room reacting to the doodles and the improvs; if she laughed, then the guys could feel they were on to something.  Shiner says they tried to follow the advice his wife gave him: “Just try to have fun in the studio and forget all the other stuff.”  I recently quoted (in my 17 March report on The Dance and the Railroad) my friend Kirk Woodward from a booklet he wrote on directing as asking, “Will this set be fun for the actors?  . . . .  Will they have a good time in it?”  For this kind of work, described by Irwin as “often a semi-improv process,” that atmosphere is pushed back to the rehearsal space, which is “like a big playroom,” according to Jeff Lunden, a radio reporter who observed a day of the work: “there are all kinds of homemade props littered about, just in case Shiner or Irwin want to try something new.”  Maybe Landau, whom I don’t believe ever worked with Irwin or Shiner before, could toss out ideas, but something tells me that not only don’t the two clowns need the input, but that they have their own (successful) gag-generator.  “It just starts with an idea,” explains Shiner, then, Irwin notes, “one of us does something and the other goes ‘oh yeah . . . well, what about THIS?’”   The inspiration can come from anywhere.  “I cannot now remember how we began on some of the bits and ideas that feel most promising in Old Hats,” confesses Irwin.  “Sometimes it’s because something is at hand—a prop happens to be there.” 

Much of the development of a new show like Old Hats is mysterious.  The prop that inspired a routine?  A happy accident, right?  “But then how did that prop happen to be there?” wonders Irwin.  “Better not to think about it sometimes.”  “No one ever knows how you make clown material,” Irwin reveals.  “Starts to feel and sound very silly when examined too closely,” he adds, and then repeats, “—that’s why we often don’t think about it too much.”  In a way, that’s how the two clowns came together, before collaborating on Fool Moon.  They’d seen and admired each other’s work and set up a meeting when Shiner was in New York City in 1990 with Cirque du Soleil.  The meeting didn’t really work—probably it was too contrived and deliberate.  Then they were cast together in Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue as two medicine-show clowns, and while filming in 1992, they began improvising together—and it clicked.  The next year, Silent Tongue was released in January and Shiner and Irwin opened on Broadway in Fool Moon in February.  Of course, none of this is really easy (dying is easy, as everyone knows, comedy is hard!).  Mystery or not, “It’s hard work,” points out Shiner.  (A little harder now than it used to be, according to the guys.)  So Landau could certainly have served as a sounding board, a friendly presence. 

We’re not supposed to see any of that hard work, of course.  “The last thing you ever want to do is show any effort,” insists Irwin.  “Even though there's a lot of work involved, and it's—you don't want to show any effort!”  Of course, that’s generally true of all performing, but when the effort is as prodigious as it must be here, the implication of such an axiom is major.  What we see is a seemingly effortless, smoothly presented, and seamless show, with the only hitches and accidents provided by the audience.  Set up like an old-time vaudeville evening, there are ten or a dozen separate routines of varying lengths, including interstitial mishegoss, over a two-hour performance with one intermission.  The bits, which are unconnected thematically to one another like standard music-hall entertainments, are separated by musical interludes by McKay and her band—Alex Davis on bass, Mike Dobson on percussion, Tivon Pennicott on sax and flute, and Kenneth Salters on drums; McKay performs either sitting at or standing by her upright piano—she also plays the ukulele for some numbers—on a little extension off stage right or before the curtain down front on the apron.  (G. W. Mercier, who’s also responsible for the costumes, included a replica of an old-fashioned proscenium arch with a gold-trimmed, red velvet drape in his scenic design for Old Hats.  The Diamond doesn’t ordinarily have either.)  Some of the routines are . . . well, old hat (not a negative) and others are obviously new or retooled, but they have two things in common: they’re all imbued with the irrepressible spirit and dynamic of Shiner and Irwin, an unmistakable characteristic, and there’s an element of competition running through the whole show.  “One of the primary ingredients is always competition,” asserts Irwin.  The competitiveness is a theme and it’s a structural through-line (and I’ll get to that shortly). 

At the stage-left edge of the platform is a signboard, just like in old-time vaudeville theaters, which announces the title of each bit (“The Businessman,” “The Debate”) and McKay’s songs (“Mother of Pearl,” “Bo De Ga”)—except that the sign in Old Hats isn’t a placard that a scantily-clad chorine comes out to switch between routines . . . it’s an electronic video screen, like a giant tablet or a TV monitor standing vertically, which magically changes graphics, still in an old vaudeville style.  I don’t know if that was meant to be important or just a convenient solution to a technical need, but it tickled me: a 21st-century update to a little bit of 19th-century pop entertainment tradition.  Just a tweak—harmless, but clever and kind of fun!  And I must mention, at least in passing, the opening sequence, which is a marvel of live actors playing off of computer-controlled technology.  It’s a little reminiscent of Indiana Jones (I won’t go into specifics) and many space operas, and it’s exhilarating.  The projection designs are by Wendell K. Harrington, who surely must be a genius in his own right, and the by-play between his creations and Irwin and Shiner, the way the two clowns work with the projections and the way the projections essentially pull them in (literally at times) is truly magical.  (I’m compelled to quote sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

The competition between the two clowns, as I said, is a theme of Old Hats, but it’s also a unifying element.  It’s an aspect of their creative process together, too.  “The one constant when David and I are working is competition—the utterly predictable idea of male competition,” explains Irwin.  “It’s like a fuel source—you can almost always make wheels turn with its power.”  When one artist responds to an idea of the other by exclaiming, “Well, what about THIS?,” there’s implied one-upsmanship in play—and that’s how the two come up with their gags.  It’s in the routines, too.  The most obvious application is “The Debate,” a skit about two over-earnest pols standing behind podiums as they vie unabashedly to sway the voters’ allegiance.  (Make note of the Mitt Romney-inspired wigs, designed by Erin Kennedy Lunsford, and the gleaming Jimmy Carter teeth.)  Not a word is spoken (and wouldn’t that be a boon!), but each time one candidate makes a point or scores one, the other comes back with a topper.  When Shiner’s office-seeker tries to reach out to shake the hand of a spectator, he can’t reach far enough.  So Irwin counters by sending a fake hand on the end of an accordion grabber that shoots out through the front of the lectern into the house!  The competition is measured by the two large arrow dials, one behind each candidate, that rotate up when one scores a point and down when he loses one.  In “The Encounter,” a piece that appeared in Fool Moon and has been adjusted to reflect the passing of years, two commuters meet on the platform as they await a train.  They argue and scold one another wordlessly, but with unbelievable physical control that’s perfectly matched between the two performers.  Eventually they compare ailments and pains and share their remedies and pills—and Shiner gives one to Irwin that gives him an instant erection, visible even though the two are wearing the world’s baggiest pants!  (One pill makes them larger—in specific ways, it seems—and one pill makes them small.  Ahem.)  Surely this is an allusion to the proliferation on late-night TV of ads for what Craig Ferguson, host of The Late Late Show on CBS, likes to call “boner pills,” something new (or at least more prominent) in our culture since Fool Moon. 

In “The Magic Act,” David Shiner plays a smarmy stage magician (with an act so old, it creaks) who flirts blatantly with the women in the audience.  His competition, in this instance, isn’t another magician (so don’t think of The Incredible Burt Witherstone), but his jealous assistant, played by Irwin in drag.  “She” shoots him looks that would wither an ordinary man and steps in to interfere when he gets too close to connecting.  But there’s implied competiveness in some of the solo bits as well.  In “The Businessman,” Bill Irwin is essentially drawn into a mortal struggle with his iPhone and iPad, which threaten to swallow him up.  The image on the tablet, which is ultimately projected on a giant screen upstage into which Irwin disappears, is Irwin’s own face, and the tablet and images become living partners in performance.  Irwin’s in deadly competition with his e-avatar!

Watching Irwin, open-faced, affable and innocent, and Shiner, spikier, edgier, and darker, play off and with one another is a wonder.  I saw Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy work together and, before that, Celeste Holm and Wesley Addy, two of theater’s best-matched acting couples.  This clown couple’s duo work is stunning in its coordination and near-telepathic communication, but their solo work is magnificent, too.  Irwin’s “Businessman” is not just a terrific commentary on personal technology but an impossibly clever and inventive performance in 21st-century theater: a live actor playing off of computers and technology.  The coordination of Irwin, the tablet, and the big-screen projection is astounding: the control alone, to keep things in synch, must have been daunting.  (“The Businessman” is one of the bits that was inspired by new cultural phenomena: experimental tablets appeared around 2005, the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad didn’t come out until 2010, over a decade-and-a-half after Fool Moon.  Irwin explains, “The place these things have in our culture is so fascinating and so potentially, eh, useful for a clown that I just said, ‘Oh, we have to have [a] piece in the show where a guy is totally mesmerized by his two pieces of equipment and then they take over his life, in a bad dream way, from thence!’”  The piece couldn’t even have existed without the proliferation of tablets since a smart phone wouldn’t have been visible from the stage.)

The most poignant and moving performance of the evening, a distinction all the greater because of the superlative quality of the whole presentation, is “The Hobo,” Shiner’s homage to Emmett Kelly.  “I've always wanted to do a hobo,” declares Shiner. “Always.”  And so, he presents his version of Weary Willie, a sad sack for whom nothing comes right.  He sits dejectedly on a park bench and rummages through a trash can.  He finds a lovely flower, which delights him briefly . . . until it wilts in his hand.  He finds a stuffed animal . . . but it’s broken and falls apart.  There’s a kitty . . . but, of course, it’s dead.  A jack-in the box looks like fun . . . until it opens to emit naught but a blast of dust in Shiner’s face.  A cell phone works . . . but it calls 911 to remind him (and us) that this world is fraught with unpleasantness.  Finally, he assembles from an old broom, a piece of discarded cloth, and an empty liquor bottle, a female companion—the best he can do and, sadly, it’s enough.  For a funny man, Shiner sure knows how to tug the heartstrings!  (I’m desperately trying to provide an idea of Old Hats while at the same time not giving away the wonderful surprises and turns the gags all take.  The show, which was originally scheduled to close on 7 April, has recently been extended until 9 May, allowing plenty of time for ROT readers to catch it for themselves, and I don’t want to spoil it.)

Shiner’s signature gag is to get the audience to work with him, as anyone who’s ever seen him will know.  He does it in every performance.  First, he goes into the audience and essentially annoys some select spectators.  (My mother was one of his targets years ago when she saw a Cirque du Soleil production in Washington.)  “I love going into people’s private space without being invited,” he admits.  Every time I’ve watched him do that—he actually used to climb into the audience, over the seats and through the spectators sitting there—I wondered how he managed to get away with that without someone hauling off and slugging him!  In Old Hats, Shiner doesn’t climb through the house, he goes up the aisles and gets to people seated along the edges of the auditorium.  Maybe that’s another concession to age (or the Signature nixed the idea of climbing over the brand-new seats in its two-year-old home).  Nonetheless, he still gets away with it, and the viewers all howl, even the butts of his tomfoolery.

Shiner also confesses, “I love bringing people up that are unprepared and don't know what they're getting themselves into and pushing them to the limit,” and he proves it with his other signature piece, the “Cowboy Cinema.”  If you’ve ever seen a David Shiner performance, you know that he goes into the audience and shanghais three spectators to appear in his silent western, and one to be his Cecil B. DeMille.   He gets his “villain” to grab the “ingénue” he’s never met before and kiss her and throw her onto the bar; he gets the “hero” to pretend to ride a horse like a little kid playing Wild West and throw a temper tantrum before he gets shot a dozen times and has to jerk about with each bullet strike until he collapses on the floor.  Meanwhile, “C. B.” (who on the evening I saw the show was David Cote of Time Out New York and New York 1) has to scratch his butt and grab his crotch in front of 300 or so total strangers each time he comes out to slate the take with the clapperboard.  And they do it every time—with a little prompting and several “retakes” as everyone, including the “actors,” belly-laugh all through the proceedings.  (Some commentators I read suggested that these volunteers might be ringers, pros planted in the house for Shiner’s benefit.  Unless Cote has a Doppelganger who’s an actor—and not an especially good one—I don’t buy the contention.  Remember, I used to be in that line, and no actor can act that badly on purpose.)

All these scenes are enacted without words—and very few vocal sounds.  (There are other sound effects, principally those handled by Mike Dobson, the percussionist, who’s also credited as the Foley artist because he makes the non-musical sound effects that punctuate some of the gags.)  Between the gags, Nellie McKay covers the costume and set changes, and she occasionally interacts with Shiner and Irwin (as when she and her band come in late to the performance), but while McKay speaks, the two clowns don’t, responding in pantomime the way Harpo Marx played off of Groucho or Chico.  But in the second half of the show, McKay encourages the guys to speak—and the dam bursts briefly as Bill Irwin breaks into a rendition of “Oklahoma!” and David Shiner, one-upping his partner again, spews out Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.  For a while, we get to hear all the things the silent clowns keep bottled up all their performing lives: lines from every imaginable movie.  Needless to say, it’s a godawful mess, and finally the genii is shoved back in the bottle, but not before McKay, Shiner, and Irwin get together for one of her off-beat numbers.

McKay, by the way, is a trip all by herself.  I can’t say that all her material dovetails with Irwin and Shiner’s hijinks; some of it seems to be in the wrong key for this show.  For the most part, however, her interludes are off-center and skewed, especially coming from a petite blonde pixie who looks like she ought to be going off to the prom with the captain of the baseball team.  As Bill Irwin characterizes McKay, who joined the ensemble in 2011, “She is as wild and eccentric as any of our work is.”  In “Mother of Pearl,” for instance, a song opposing women’s activism, the refrain is “Feminists don't have a sense of humor," and it ends with the declaration: “I’m Michele Bachmann and I approved this message.”  In “Won’t U Please B Nice?” which sounds like a sweet ’30s ballad, McKay sings lyrics such as: “If we part / I’ll eat your heart / So won’t you please be nice.”  (McKay won a Theatre World Award for her portrayal of Polly in the 2006 Broadway revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil’s Threepenny Opera.  She’s released five albums, wrote and recorded songs for the 2005 film Rumor Has It . . . and appeared in the 2007 film P.S. I Love You.)

The press, as you might guess, was ecstatic nearly across the board.  (Bill Irwin and David Shiner are like puppies in a way: how can anyone say anything bad about them?)  Since I’ve already mentioned the Times, let me start there.  Charles Isherwood was positively giddy, calling Old Hats an “ebullient new show” in which the “supremely talented performers display the bubbly energy and shining vitality—not to mention amazingly elastic faces and limbs—of men half their age.”  In conclusion, Isherwood asserted, “Inspiration almost never flags in ‘Old Hats.’”  Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News described the show as a “comic tasting menu,” which I think is very apt (and not a complaint).  “The goal here,” he affirmed, “is simply to make you smile and laugh for 110 minutes,” to which Dziemianowicz correctly declared, “Mission accomplished.”  The clowns’ performances, the News reviewer wrote, are “supple and elastic,” and so are “their creative brains and body language.”  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli called Old Hats “one of the funniest shows of the past few years,” pointing out that “not many can pull gales of laughter out of thin air the way Irwin and Shiner do.”  Newsday’s Linda Winer characterized Old Hats as a “delirious joy of a show” which Landau “directed with helium-weight virtuosity.”  (Of McKay, who got great notices in all the press, Winer said, “If Nellie McKay did not already exist, Bill Irwin and David Shiner would have had to make her up.”)

Old Hats is “a vaudevillian lark that's all pleasure,” said Alan Scherstuhl of the Village Voice, and “every bit as funny as a charitable theatergoer might hope for.”  Marilyn Stasio described the performance in Variety as “a brilliant oddball of a show” and a “comic puree of ancient vaudeville routines, traditional circus acts, and classic mime pieces” which have been “overhauled with biting wit for a modern-day sensibility.”  “[S]martly staged by Tina Landau,” affirmed Stasio, the show is “loaded with sly insinuations about who we are and how we live today.”  In Back Stage, Lisa Jo Sagolla characterized the performance as “[a]n uproarious comic revue” which “make[s] us laugh hysterically.”  It offers “something for everyone,” the Back Stage reviewer asserted, “no matter your clowning or musical tastes.”  Describing Old Hats as “an evening of deliciously absurd skits,” even though “some of the skits are more sobering; even melancholy,” Jan Rosenberg of Show Business warned that “some of the clown humor does get tiring after a while, and some acts meander on for a bit too long.”  The Show Biz writer does conclude, though, that “overall, it’s quite impossible to sit through Old Hats without laughing.  Unless, that is, your funny bone is not in tact [sic].”  In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman wrote of the two stars that “their polymorphous complementarity leaves the audience buzzing with joy.”  (I just had to put that in!)  He summed up by stating, “If you let yourself miss this marvelous diversion, the more fool you.”  Hear, hear!

In the cybersphere, reviews mostly were along the same vein as the printed stuff.  Deirdre Donovan on CurtainUp pointed out, for instance, that “Old Hats is . . . loaded with laughs” even as it “adds new-fangled material.”  “The light-hearted show has its sobering, and even tragic-tinged, moments,” remarked the cyber-reviewer, however.  Old Hats is “a brilliant new piece that has one foot in the past, one in the present,” concluded Donovan, but “[t]here's nothing stale here.”  On TheaterMania, Kimberly Kaye asserted, “We laugh, inexplicably and uproariously” at the “parade of vignettes and musical interludes.”  Of the clown pair, she wrote,Their ability to defy and exceed expectations simultaneously is the magic trick that dazzles most, and lingers.”  Finally, Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray struck the only generally negative note.  Having extolled the wonders of Irwin and Shiner’s gags, Murray added that they “don’t need any additional help—yet they receive it anyway.  It comes courtesy of Nellie McKay and her band.”  While he didn’t object to the songs themselves, he complained that “so many such additions (there are seven full-length numbers), which receive so little participation from the ostensible stars, quickly spoil the flow and flavor of the proceedings.”  Then Murray noted that “[director Tina] Landau has apparently not entirely decided whether this is supposed to be a rebirth of a moribund form or an elaborate comment on it,” observing that there was a lack of coordination among Mercier’s costumes and sets, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, and Harrington’s projections with respect to the tone.  In the end, Murray insisted, “no point beyond the resiliency of the practitioners is ever made.”  (I’m not sure what he expected from a clown vaudeville.  It isn’t Ibsen or Chekhov he was seeing!)  Murray’s final comment?  “The biggest flaw of Old Hats is that not enough people involved have seen that they can, and should, leave Irwin and Shiner alone far more often than they do.”  (By the way, how come all these cyber-reviewers have double initials: DD, KK, MM?  Is that a job requirement?)

Look, I said I’m not a big fan of clowns as a rule, but I enjoy Irwin and Shiner thoroughly.  I don’t find them so bereft of import as Murray apparently does—it’s just subtler than straight drama, and it’s couched in clown terms, so you have to suss it out a little.  But it isn’t supposed to be so laden with social commentary that the silliness is overwhelmed—that isn’t clowning.  Do people go to ballet to see social commentary?  Not much, I wouldn’t think.  They go to see superb physical control and graceful, powerful movement expressing emotions and thoughts.  Well, that’s what Irwin and Shiner do—with an emphasis on humor rather than grace, perhaps, but with the same display of bodily control and expressiveness.  It happens that these two go beyond mere expert physicality: they’re immensely clever, inventive, and creative, so that what they do isn’t just well-executed, but often surprising and astounding.  That’s way more than enough to make good theater—and good clowning.  To demand more strikes me not only as excessive, but arrogant as well. 

17 March 2013

'The Dance and the Railroad'

As I did in November for Golden Child (see my report on 9 December), I picked up an individual seat for David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad at the Signature Theatre Company.  I’ve known about Hwang by reputation for a long time, but the only play of his that I’d seen before this season was the Broadway rendition of M. Butterfly back in 1988-90 so when STC announced that Hwang would be the occupant of its Residency One for 2012-13, I decided to try to catch the three plays on the bill.  (Kung Fu, the writer’s new play, will première at STC in September.)  So far, I’ve been intrigued and thrilled with the plays (and their productions) and I feel I’ve successfully introduced myself to an artist about whom I’ve read for many years but haven’t really experienced.  Hwang has proved he’s one of those playwrights who always has something interesting and worthwhile to say and a wonderfully, idiosyncratically theatrical way of saying it.

When I write my performance reports for ROT, I include a survey of the press responses (and I will in this case, too, before I’m finished), but I make a point of not reading the published notices before I see the performance.  The only review I read ahead of time is the New York Times and that’s only because I subscribe and it comes to my home.  So I was a little disheartened last month when I read Charles Isherwood’s rather wan appraisal of the STC revival of Dance.  Now, I know not to invest too much in the opinions of other theatergoers, and there are some reviewers with whose assessments I’ve had repeated disagreements so that I discount them until I see for myself.  But I’ve often found that I agree with Isherwood’s estimation of a performance (though not always, as witness my bitter dispute with him over his review of the Atlantic Theater Company’s staging of What Rhymes With America last December: he loved it, I . . . well, I didn’t; see my report posted on 3 January).  What the reviewer did this time was contrast the performances of Ruy Iskandar and Yuekun Wu at STC with the work of Tzi Ma and John Lone in the roles they originated in 1981 (and for whom Hwang named the characters). “Absent performances of memorable intensity and lyricism ,” declared Isherwood, “the Signature revival . . . exposes the play’s thin texture.”  Because I was as interested in seeing the play as in enjoying the production, I wasn’t too trepidatious, but I was taken aback.  I’m pleased to report, though, that in my estimation, the Times reviewer was wrong.  I never saw the 1981 production and can’t make the judgment Isherwood made—actually, Isherwood didn’t see it, either, it seems—but I didn’t find the “thin texture” of which the Timesman complained.  Indeed, I found the play richly textured and, for a 70-minute one-act, chock full of ideas and themes.  I’ll get to the specifics in a bit, but I was delighted with both the play and the staging.

Let me get the facts out of the way.  I saw the performance under the threat of a nor’easter predicted to hit New York on the evening of Wednesday, 6 March (which ended up not striking the city at all that night).  Staged in STC’s Alice Griffin Theatre, the little proscenium space in the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row, the production has been extended one week through 24 March.  (The show began previews on 5 February and opened on 25 February.)  The Dance and the Railroad premièred in a production of the New Federal Theater at the Henry Street Settlement (not coincidentally, an organization for immigrant Americans founded in 1893) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on 25 March 1981, having been commissioned by, of all agencies, the federal Department of Education.  It moved to the Public Theater in July and ran there until December.  Since then, the play has been periodically revived at such regional theatres as the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco (1983-84) and the East West Players of Los Angeles (1992-93).  The STC production is the first revival in New York City since the 1981 première. 

Performed without an intermission on an expressionistic set, The Dance and the Railroad is the tale of two Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad, 20-year-old Lone and 18-year-old Ma, who, during the Chinese Railroad Workers’ Strike of 1867, form a unique friendship on a California mountaintop in the Sierra Nevadas.  The two, along with their unseen co-workers below, struggle through poverty, loneliness, cultural separation, and hunger to reconnect with the traditions of their homeland, symbolized by Lone’s devotion to Chinese opera.  Lone was an acting student of great promise (“I was one of the best in my class,” he tells Ma) when he left the training academy and his homeland two years earlier to make money for his family and Ma asks the older man to teach him the art.  Through the exploration of the demanding techniques of Chinese opera, an ancient art form that requires discipline, focus, patience, and devotion—none of which the impetuous, mercurial Ma seems to possess—that Lone and Ma learn not just about one another and their shared heritage, but their current lives on Gold Mountain.  (Though many Chinese in North America in the 19th century worked in domestic service, ran laundry services, and, as Lone and Ma do, helped build the transcontinental railroad, most came here to dig for gold in California’s gold rush, 1848–1855.  The colloquial name of California among the Chinese, here and at home, was Gold Mountain—though it sometimes also referred specifically to San Francisco, the port of debarkation for passengers from Asia.  In Hwang’s play, Gold Mountain is the mythical California of abundant gold, limitless opportunity, and potentially vast wealth that the Chinese expatriates planned to bring back home.)  I’ll try to illuminate how Hwang has used Chinese opera not just as an element of the story, but as an integral part of the structure of The Dance and the Railroad as I get into more detail, but it’s not by accident or casualness that the "dance" in the play’s title refers to this complex Chinese art form.  It is, I think, a mark of just how imaginatively talented Hwang is as a playwright and artist—and that makes his plays add up to much more than the sum of their components.  As you can tell, I’ve become very taken with this writer’s work.  I hope I can articulate why.

According to Hwang, he was inspired to write Dance to accommodate the talents of actor John Lone.  Hwang, Lone and Tzi Ma had all worked together in 1980 on Hwang’s first play, FOB, and the playwright had begun to learn about Cantonese opera from Lone “who was raised in that form when he was a kid in Hong Kong.”  (Tzi Ma, who was not trained in opera, knew a great deal about Chinese dance.  Lone directed and choreographed Dance when it was staged at the New Federal Theater and the Public.)  Hwang also wanted to write a historical play and the transcontinental railroad seemed an accessible subject; then the author discovered the strike episode which depicted the Chinese immigrants in a light counterintuitive to the general impression of them as “subservient and victims.”  The play, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education as one of four plays, was originally written for young audiences who would be brought in from their schools for daytime performances; but the company gave one evening presentation which Frank Rich attended.  The Times reviewer praised the show (“Stage: ‘Dance, Railroad,’ By David Henry Hwang,” New York Times 31 March 1981) and Joseph Papp, impresario of the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater), transferred the production to the Anspacher Theater.  (Lone won an Obie Award in 1981 for his performances in Dance and FOB and Hwang won one for FOB.)

I only know a little about Chinese opera, but there are several strong similarities with other traditional Asian theater forms, including Indian kathakali and Indonesian wayang oreng, and I have read some about all of those and seen performances on video.  (I’ve only seen one live Chinese opera performance, 30 years ago in the People’s Republic.  There are several regional styles of Chinese opera, of which Beijing, formerly Peking, opera is the best known.  In the play, Lone was a student of Beijing style.)  I do know something more about kabuki and that 17th-century Japanese theater is a derivative of Chinese opera with which the Japanese art shares many parallels.  All of these performance forms are highly stylized, relying on abstract presentations of actions and even objects over literal representations.  Elaborate costumes and makeup, much of which is also very symbolic, take precedence over sets and props (which are often represented by simple objects such as fans and staves), and all of these arts combine singing, dance, and acting in equal measure (along with music and sound effects).  That the Chinese form is called opera and kabuki is often described as dance drama only shows how, unlike western performance, theater in many Asian cultures never fragmented as it did in Europe.  Chinese “opera” is no more a singer’s medium than kabuki is a dancer’s—the artists in those forms and the others I named do it all with equal skill and accomplishment.  It therefore requires decades of dedicated study and training to become even a journeyman artist in those theaters, and most performers begin working on their skills at very early ages (much younger than the 18-year-old Ma in Dance) and continue to train with masters in all the arts (acting, singing, dance, musicianship, martial arts, speech, acrobatics, and several more) all their performing lives.  (Hwang acknowledges that one point he’s making in Dance is an acknowledgement “of what it is going to mean to live that life [of a theater artist], to have that experience.  The things that are gained and the things that are lost and the things you have to sacrifice and the things you have to work for—all of that became part of the relationship between Ma and Lone and what they teach each other.”  He was thinking of himself as well as artists like Lone.)  At 18, after eight years at the academy, Lone tells us he was still in training in China; despite his apparent talent, he wasn’t yet ready to appear on public stages.  (A contributing factor to the length and rigor of the apprenticeship is the fact, as demonstrated by Lone’s exercises in Dance, that all the movements, dance steps, and even vocalizations are artificial—they’re not natural physicalizations.)  In kabuki, an 18-year-old might be doing tertiary roles in productions with his father or grandfather in leads, but he—all these theaters were traditionally all-male forms (though women performed in Beijing opera from just before the foundation of the Chinese republic in 1911)—wouldn’t graduate to star parts until he was well into his 30’s or even 40’s.  The training is rigorous and takes all day for students.  Working actors will take a class in dance or martial arts or some other skill between performances, rushing off to the master’s studio or the training academy and back to the theater for the next show.  Even when they become established and recognized actors, a kabuki performer might grab a class once a week or more if he feels he needs to brush up or work out a problem.  It quite literally never ends: it’s not a life for the dilettante or the weekend duffer. 

The playwright has said that he’s “always been attracted and continue to be attracted to a formal challenge” such as offered by Chinese opera.  “I want to do something new with the form of theatre,” Hwang says. 

And, I started to realize that I was writing Chinese American stories.  It felt to me that it wasn’t sufficient to put that within the same forms as traditional western naturalism.  . . . I had to find an Asian American form, which is how I began to incorporate Chinese Opera.  . . . But this was my way of trying to find a form that fit the content.

In Dance, Chinese opera serves as a metaphor for the cultural heritage Lone and Ma and the other ChinaMen (as Hwang’s characters call each other—they stress the second syllable: chinaMAN and chinaMEN) have left behind in Fujian province and are starting to lose the longer they stay in America.  Lone has separated himself from the other ChinaMen, much to their displeasure, so as not be sucked into the identity-obliterating quicksand of the half-assimilated, half-alien émigré world; his cultural anchor is his opera training, which keeps him connected to home but also makes him different from his countrymen.  They spend their time gambling on dice games, drinking, singing songs (and one can just guess what kind), and telling stories (and lies).  Lone spends his up on a rock outcropping dancing and practicing martial arts.  (Is it a coincidence, given the origin of the characters’ names, that his name is Lone?  Maybe, but it sure is appropriate.)  Ma climbs up to join Lone in his aerie on the excuse of warning him that the other workers don’t like him because they think he feels he’s better than they are.  (He does, in fact, he admits.)  They plan to punish Lone, Ma tells him, and perhaps even hurt him for his arrogance.  Ma then asks Lone to teach him the opera.  With all the bravado and impetuosity of a teenager just beginning to feel his sap rising, Ma bargains and badgers Lone and eventually convinces the dancer to become his master, even showing Lone that he can conquer his quicksilver attention span.  As much as Ma wants to find a connection to something beyond the dreams of Gold Mountain, Lone clearly needs to connect to another person.  Lone, after all, is only two years older than Ma, though he seems decades more mature—but he’s still really only a boy himself.  It really doesn’t take Lone long to agree to train Ma, as if he just needed someone to talk to and spend his isolation with.  The opera is the means for him to do that, for both men to reach out and connect and hold on to something Chinese. 

But the opera becomes something else, too, in Hwang’s hands.  It’s part of the story, it’s an element of the play’s theme, but it’s also part of the play’s dramaturgy.  First of all, Hwang has stated that “I’m very driven by form,” and points to his new play, Kung Fu, which “is not a musical but has dance and live music.”  The Dance and the Railroad isn’t a dance play or a ballet, but it has dance and movement at its core.  Further, aside from the exercises Lone and Ma execute as they debate their lives as laborers and outsiders, Ma enacts an opera about himself (self-absorbed teen that he still is!), his life and his future as a rich and powerful man back in China, and Lone joins him in the impromptu performance.  Like Ma’s fantasies themselves, Chinese opera is not only highly symbolic and stylized, it's impossibly romanticized.  An opera hero isn’t even a Hollywood hero—he’s a full-sized version of a children’s-story hero: he’s invincible, he’s unbelievably powerful and clever, he’s unflinchingly brave and loyal, and he can do things no human could ever do.  (Think Chinese martial arts movies only with fantastic makeup and live.  Opera battle scenes are amazing feats of acrobatics and martial arts!)—and though Ma doesn’t get to go that far, his impulse is to portray himself as the greatest opera hero in the literature, Gwan Gung (a role it would take a real opera actor decades to be able to play), whom Hwang calls “a really great super hero.” 

The aesthetics of most of the highly conventionalized theaters is complex and esoteric, having been refined over centuries of practice.  Put simplistically, however, Chinese opera emphasizes beauty and stylization over psychological truth and imitation of life.  So, while Ma values how his co-workers feel about him and whether they win their strike against their American bosses, Lone is only concerned with his own integrity regardless of how others see him and how the striking men face their commitment, not whether they win in the end.  Daily reality or eternal values—popular songs and stories down in the camp, or the aesthetic rigors of opera dance and the discipline of martial arts up on the mountain?  Impetuosity and impatience or control and inner strength?  Wealth and twenty wives, or the richness of ritual and the beauty of tradition.  The surprise is that this seems like a set-up for Lone to vanquish and humiliate the naïve and gullible Ma or for Ma to become a disciple of master Lone.  But what Hwang does is let Ma’s innate strength—the callowness is a mask, the way he meets the world in contrast to Lone’s aloofness—win Lone over.  Lone never entertained the possibility that a man can be all that Ma seems to be and still have the fortitude to have the drive to endure the demands of the opera.  

Directed by May Adrales, whose previous work I haven’t seen, the STC revival of The Dance and the Railroad is presented in the little Griffin on a set designed by Mimi Lien as an expressionistic rock outcropping high above the workers’ camp.  Lit abstractly by Jiyoun Chang with washes of multiple hues, the large, brown sculptural slabs, like something abstracted from the old 1960’s Star Trek, a kind of alien landscape of stark levels and planes, serve as a kind of jungle gym for the performers as they climb, hop, and slide around the several levels and surfaces.  In a guide for directors written by my friend (and frequent ROT contributor) Kirk Woodward, he advises: “[A]sk yourself outlandish questions like these: Will this set be fun for the actors?  Will it be a space that will inspire and challenge them?  Will they have a good time in it?”  Lien’s set for Dance certainly answers those questions in the affirmative.  (Kirk’s book, “The Director’s Book of Weird Ideas,” will appear in ROT in a four-part reduction entitled “Reflections on Directing” in April.)

The abstract setting contrasts nicely with the realistic costumes of Jennifer Moeller, based obviously on the stereotypical 19th-century garb of the Chinese immigrant—both men even wear their hair in queues, Lone’s beneath a skullcap.  The expressionistic set also compliments the stylized movements of the Beijing opera dance and martial arts gestures Lone performs through much of the play as he teaches Ma his art and his discipline.  While the set is mostly jagged edges and flat surfaces, Chinese opera stresses curves and arcs, avoiding sharp angles.

There’s another contrast, one which Isherwood noted in his review, that I think is theatrically interesting.  The play is set in 1867 and, along with Moeller’s costumes, the content of Hwang’s dialogue is perfectly in line with the time.  This isn’t a play with a temporal disconnect—what we know and believe now put into the mouths of characters living almost 150 years ago.  But Lone and Ma speak in a colloquial style more like today’s youth.  It’s not intrusive or emphatic, and it’s handled unselfconsciously by the actors, but it is noticeable.  My sense was that what we were hearing was a “universal translator’s” rendition (think Star Trek again) of the conversational Chinese Lone and Ma would actually be speaking to one another, rather than a stilted English or even an approximation of 19th-century English (as heard, perhaps, on screen in Lincoln).  I imagine Hwang used this convention deliberately, and it worked fine as far as I was concerned.  (I’m not sure Isherwood’s observation was really a complaint, but he did make a note of it.)

Isherwood’s main complaint, as I noted, was the difference in stature between the performances by the original Lone and Ma (John Lone and Tzi Ma) and Yuekun Wu and Ruy Iskandar at STC.  Since, as I said, I didn’t see the 1981 performances, I can’t really make a comparison, but I can’t offer any complaints about the work of the two accomplished actors I saw.  I’ve never seen either man’s work before, but I had no problem believing the circumstances in which their Lone and Ma were supposed to be existing or the unique relationship the two actors develop between them.  Iskandar, whom I suspect is a few years older than Ma’s 18 (he finished NYU grad school three years ago), captures the younger man’s loose physicality and eager demeanor with conviction—helped, in no small measure, by his baby face.  Iskandar’s Ma is a thoroughly charming adolescent naïf.  I don’t know how much previous experience either actor had with Chinese opera (there’s a credited Chinese Opera Consultant, Qian Yi, to whom I give great acknowledgment), but Iskandar displays the kind of determination of a novice at a not-quite-learned skill—concentration and tenuous physical control he struggles to maintain.  His dialogue betrays a boy trying to seem like a man, and the actor embodies this trait thoroughly, an eager puppy trying not just to please his master but to impress him—“A child who tries to advise a grown man,” Lone calls him.  Though it’s never certain that Ma will succeed, Iskandar demonstrates his resolve time and time again, even as the character complains about being made to endure meaningless drills. 

As Lone, Yuekun Wu, though only a few years older than Ma is supposed to be, comes off as the grown-up.  While Iskandar moves with the loose and casual physicality of a contemporary teen, Wu’s Lone is more formal, both in speech and movement, the result, I imagine, of Lone’s traditional opera training.  As with Iskandar, I don’t know if Wu had any previous training in Beijing opera, and there was an occasional tentativeness in his movements, but the actor manages to be convincingly expert in the context of the performance.  At least Wu made me believe he knew what he was doing and he projects an air of self-confidence and poise.  While I could see Iskandar’s Ma watching his own moves, like a tyro dancer learning new steps, Wu’s Lone is sure of himself, at least in the presence of Ma.  Still, Lone is only 20 himself, not so much more of a grown man than Ma, and he seems to need a companion, someone with whom he can share his solitary devotion to the dance, and Wu lets us see his suppressed pleasure at having Ma come along, even as Lone berates the younger man.  As much as Lone sets himself up as the father to Ma’s son, Wu occasionally lets us see—a brief hesitation to criticize, a fleeting smile at an accomplishment—that it’s really closer to two adolescent friends, one a year or two older but not yet beyond the need to be part of a group—even a group of two.  Maybe what I witnessed was the result of two actors having come into their roles more completely than they’d been at the critics’ preview Isherwood saw.  It happens. 

Since I’ve already cited some of Timesman Isherwood’s remarks, I’ll let him lead off the review wrap-up.  He called the STC staging of Dance a “tepid, almost soporific revival” which “gets mighty thin as this short play ambles along.”  In the New York Post, however, Frank Scheck declared that “Hwang’s moving drama” is “worth the journey.”  He issued the caveat that the short play “is more of a vignette than a fully fleshed-out drama” and that “what we see” is more important that what we hear, but acknowledged that director Adrales “fully mines the play’s emotional richness.”  Joe Dziemianowicz of New York’s Daily News wrote only that this was a “well-acted” performance and implied that Dance is a lesser Hwang work, but gave little more of an evaluation.  Neither did Linda Winer, who commented in the Long Island Newsday only that “[t]he dialogue is jarringly modern and a little dull,” but that she could “watch [Yuekun] Wu dance all night.”

The New Yorker dismissed the production by declaring that “Hwang’s cerebral dialogue rarely moves from the head to the heart, so the performances at times seem self-conscious and wooden.”  In New York magazine, Scott Brown observed that the STC revival of Dance possesses “sparkling charm and flawless comedy” and pronounced the play “perhaps the purest, most poetic distillation of Hwang's wry lostness and dislocation.”  Helen Shaw in Time Out New York asserted that beyond the Signature Theatre, “this elegant two-hander wouldn’t get a hearing, since its tidy rewards do not outstrip its compact size,” but continued that “this production sets off the small jewel [of the Griffin Theatre] perfectly, so we can consider its frequently affecting facets in proportion and comfort.”  Shaw noted that “Hwang didn’t always balance his fable structure with thematic complexity,” but insisted that the “graceful, extended climax,” the opera improvised by Ma and Lone, “deepens the piece immeasurably” and “creates the sense that an epic—tragic and globe-spanning—has been folded infinitely small, and we have stumbled across it, curled up and hidden inside a short story.”  (Of all the critical comments, Shaw’s captures my response the best.)

The “elegant and disciplined revival” of Dance at STC, wrote Erik Haagensen in Back Stage, is “an unlikely but fascinating mixture of Chinese opera staging techniques and a naturalistic drama.”  “The simple but gorgeous physical production,” declared Haagensen, “is a stunner.”  Complaining that the play’s occasionally “a bit intellectualized” making it seem distant, the Back Stage reviewer concluded that “the play always recovers quickly.  Inventive and deeply felt, ‘The Dance and the Railroad’ is memorable theater.”  In the cyber press, Zachary Stewart declared on TheaterMania that “Hwang takes a big risk by employing such an idiosyncratic form, the combination of naturalism and Cantonese opera—and it pays off.”  Dance, which Stewart observed “still feels fresh” even after 32 years since its début, is “formally innovative, crystal clear in its story-telling, but not overly-simplistic.”  The play is “brief but impactful,” said Matthew Murray on Talkin’ Broadway.  Comparing this 1981 drama with some of Hwang’s recent plays, Murray noted that Dance “captivates as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does . . . trusting you—like the characters—to develop your own perspective and point of view.”  Murray voiced some significant reservations, too, however: the play’s short length “is not quite sufficient for exploring all the complexities Hwang introduces” and Adrales’s staging “does not contribute much additional weight.”  The acting, however, compensates for many of the deficiencies and the play still provokes, Murray affirmed, because it explores significant questions.  On CurtainUp, Deirdre Donovan pronounced that STC’s production is “a bang-up revival” which has “struck gold with two talented young performers.”

Almost all the review-writers mentioned the truths Hwang explores in Dance, the sociological and historical values it incorporates as the writer tells his tale.  Even the reviewers who had little to say about the quality of the script or Adrales’s revival paid at least passing notice to Hwang’s content.  This is what has grabbed me in Hwang’s work so far.  In addition to his distinctive use of various kinds of theatricality, drawing on both western and eastern elements, Hwang wants to explore ideas.  “I need to have a question” in order to write, explained the playwright.  “There’s something I don’t understand, and I write the play to find out how I feel about the issue.”  I can’t imagine a better impetus to write—plays, stories, essays, whatever—and a dramatist who has something he or she wants . . . no, needs to explore is well on his or her way to becoming an important writer.  If he’s also theatrically clever and inventive, if he’s also good with words and characters, he’s going to get my attention sooner or, as with Hwang, later.  I can’t get to an allusion to Shakespeare or Chekhov (actually, I suppose Ibsen would be a better icon to invoke here), which is what people like to do with serious dramatists, but when Hwang speaks, I want to hear—and see—what he says.  Maybe that’s not enough, but it’s a hell of a start.  I may have come late to this party—but I’m mighty glad I got here in the end.

[I don’t usually add a note to the end of one of my performance reports on ROT, but this post comes out near an auspicious date for the blog.  Yesterday, 16 March, was Rick On Theater’s fourth anniversary.  According to the tally, this will be my 308th post as well—not that I wrote all of them.  I have selected them all, occasionally asked friends and colleagues to write one (or more in some cases), and I have added introductions and exit comments to most of the articles that I haven’t composed myself.  I named the blog Rick On Theater because I expected it to be a home for my performance reports, but I knew I’d be filling the gaps between plays with other articles on topics I thought would be interesting—at least to me.  I’ve covered other performing arts (“Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time” by Kirk Woodward, 1 November 2011) and the visual arts (“Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit Artist,” 28 September 2009); I’ve published on many culturally-related subjects (“Susanne Langer: Art, Beauty, & Theater,” 4 & 8 January 2010), often expressing my own opinions (and sometimes those of other people), but always intending to inform.  The same has been so of the articles I’ve posted that bear no relationship to the arts or culture, like the personal reminiscences (“The Berlin Wall,” 29 November 2009) and articles about curiosities (“Crypto-Jews: Legacy of Secrecy,” 15 September 2009) and interesting historical oddities (“Guy Debord & The Situationists,” 3 February 2012).  I hope I’ve hit the target more often than not, but I’ll keep on going in the same direction in any case, because it’s all I know to do.  I read all the comments and reply to most of them, but in the end, I’m the editor and publisher of ROT, as well as its principal contributor, so I only have my imagination on which to rely.  I’m pretty much a geezer now, but I’m not doddering yet.  Being a geezer has its benefits, too: it means I’ve been around the block a few times.  Maybe I’ve seen a thing or two en route.  Meanwhile, I plan to keep on truckin’ for at least another year and a couple of hundred more posts.  Join me—and tell your friends.  ~Rick]