03 April 2017

'Awake and Sing!,' et al.

[Back on 16 March, I posted the first of two parts of “From My August Wilson Archive,” a collection of old reports on Wilson plays I’d seen before I started Rick On Theater.  (In fact, I posted Part 1 on the blog’s eighth birthday.)  In that post, I made passing mention of a production of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! that I’d recently seen at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage because the production of the Wilson play, Seven Guitars at the Signature Theatre Company, contrasted with the Arena production in one very significant aspect.  I said of Awake “that the cast didn’t seem to be living in the play’s world.”  I’ve decided to post the Awake and Sing! report, written on 13 February 2006, to illuminate that remark.

[The original pre-ROT report contained discussions of several events from around the time I saw Awake and Sing!, and I’ve elected to leave the additional material in this post—all except the evaluation of another Arena production I saw then, the staging of Damn Yankees, which I used in Part 2 of “Faust Clones,” posted on 18 January 2016.  I’ve left the other discussions in this post for the curiosity value.].

There have been a couple of things on stage worth noting that I missed, but for the most part, the 2005-06 season in New York City doesn’t seem to have offered much of interest.  The Brooklyn Academy of Music didn’t even have enough things I wanted to see to warrant a subscription.  (You need four “events” to constitute a subscription; otherwise, you have to buy individual seats, which are often hard to score.) 

I’ve had to be in D.C. twice this winter, however, and I did catch a show at Arena each time.  Arena used to be a pretty exciting place, presenting new plays that went on to become important additions to American theater (Moonchildren, Indians) or productions that bordered on the experimental (Andrei Serban’s Leonce and Lena—one of his first gigs in the States, Yuri Lyubimov’s Crime and Punishment).  Since Zelda Fichandler left to take over the graduate acting program at NYU in 1984 and after Doug Wager, her successor, was replaced by Molly Smith in 1998, it can still be a pretty good regional company, but its selection of material is often more on the side of audience-pleasers than experience-stretchers.  (My mother, a long-time subscriber to Arena, has complained about Smith’s choices since she took over and has threatened to drop her subscription altogether.  Mother has cut back and no longer subscribes to the company’s entire season—there’s a four-play subscription available, instead of the whole six-play bill.)  So, along with several movies during the holidays (Syriana, Pride & Prejudice, and Munich), we went to the Arena on New Year’s Eve to see Damn Yankees.  (As noted, see Part 2 of my article “Faust Clones,” 18 January 2016.) 

(By the way, I don’t normally do film commentary on ROT, but I’ll say now that I found Syriana, despite all its good reviews and Oscar buzz, to be confusing, disjointed, and unintelligible.  Maybe a reel was missing.  Munich was pretty good as a film—as opposed to history—if a little simplistic.  The scene in Brooklyn, near the end of the movie, that put the World Trade Center in the background across New York Harbor, was a tad obvious.  Though I do wonder how that was filmed—computer-generated imagery, I guess.)

I did a few other things of interest in D.C. over the holidays.  I finally got to the new National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall and we went to a somewhat related exhibit at the Renwick Gallery (part of the Smithsonian devoted to American art and crafts) of the Indian portraits of George Catlin (1796-1872).  The Corcoran (which used to be housed in what is now the Renwick—William Wilson Corcoran built the building originally to display his art collection) had a retrospective of the D.C. artist Sam Gilliam who is a friend of my mother’s and several of whose works we own (I have one; my mother has three).  My mother had been to the opening Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective on 15 October 2005, but I hadn’t seen the show yet.  (We also paid a visit to G Fine Art, the new gallery Gilliam’s wife, Annie Gawlak, has just opened on 14th Street in the Logan Circle neighborhood, a newly-gentrifying section of the city—but she happened to be out that day.)  Oddly, Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective didn’t include any works that resembled any of ours.  (The one I have is a mate to one my mother has, but her other two are vastly different from each other and from the third piece.  Gilliam is very prolific and innovative.  He experiments with lots of media and varies his application as the medium demonstrates its properties.  [I have a later post that discusses Gilliam’s art in more detail: “Picasso, Bearden, Gilliam, and Gauguin,” 26 June 2011.])  I maintain that a show can’t really be a true retrospective if it omits several examples of the artist’s stylistic experiments.  (There were other kinds of works I know Gilliam did that weren’t represented as well.)  Still, it was a very interesting show, with lots of works that I didn’t know about.

The NMAI, which I’ve mentioned before (I saw an exhibit, The First American Art, in May 2004 in New York City at what is now a satellite museum of the one on the Mall but was the original—and originally private—Museum of the American Indian before the Smithsonian took it over and then built its new facility), is a fascinating but difficult place.  As many of the critiques have suggested, the building and its surroundings are perhaps the most interesting part of the museum, but the exhibits are oddly organized and laid out.  I understand from reports I’ve read that there are continuing disagreements about how to display and even select what is exhibited about native cultures—different tribes and different representatives have dichotomous agendas—but the result is that there are a lot of things displayed and lots of text that make following a strain very hard in any kind of limited time.  It’s obviously the kind place that demands several visits to get even a handle on the material.  On the other hand, if you just wander through the place, looking at the items not so much as artifacts with explanations but as art, taking in the aesthetics of whatever catches your eye, there are lots of things that are truly beautiful. 

Of course, you understand that Indian art, especially the art of the Pacific Northwest, has always appealed to me tremendously, so I’m prejudiced going in.  But when I go to a museum, I like to read the panels and try to put the exhibits into a context—even if it’s not a PC one—and that’s hard at NMAI because there are so many individual items and so much text, and the texts are often multi-topical.  (The major exhibits are separated into themes, but to me they are hard to distinguish and isolate which makes finding a through-line difficult and, ultimately for me, unsuccessful.  What, for instance, distinguishes “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World” from “Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories” from “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities”—the three permanent exhibits when I was there?  Not only do they seem to overlap a great deal, but each section of the exhibit, devoted to one tribe or people, interpreted the theme differently from the others.  If you ignored the exhibit title/theme, and just looked at each display separately and learned what was interesting about that part of one tribe’s world, it was really interesting, though.)  This doesn’t mean, however, that the museum isn’t a really interesting addition to the Smithsonian complex and well worth spending time in.  I think it’s worth acknowledging that the American natives want a chance to tell their own story instead of turning it over to a bunch of Anglo anthropologists to do it for them.  [My brief report on The First American Art predates ROT, but I’ve posted one other pertaining to NMAI: “Fritz Scholder” (30 March 2011), which covers an exhibit that spanned both the New York branch and the now-main museum in Washington.]

George Catlin’s Indian Gallery at the Renwick, opened on 24 November 2005 for permanent display, is the bulk of his original collection of Indian portraits and western scenes from the early 19th century.  Determined to record the “manners and customs” of Native Americans, Catlin, a lawyer-turned-painter, traveled thousands of miles from 1830 to 1836 following the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  I don’t believe he had any formal art training, and his paintings are all a little on the “naïve” side—although some of that impression may be due to the style of the period, which wasn’t long on perspective or proportion, as I recall.  Catlin was convinced that westward expansion spelled certain disaster for native peoples, so he viewed his Indian Gallery, as he called his portraits, as a way “to rescue from oblivion their primitive looks and customs.”  He visited 50 tribes living west of the Mississippi River from present-day North Dakota to Oklahoma. 

Caitlin displayed his Gallery as what we’d call an “anthropological” exhibit today or as a kind of educational entertainment (P. T. Barnum was a promoter at one time), and he hoped that the federal government would buy the portraits as a collection and preserve them for posterity.  After Catlin went into debt (he was actually imprisoned), he sold the collection to a businessman who donated the Gallery to the Smithsonian after the artist died.  The Renwick exhibition included Native American artifacts collected by the artist that have not been shown with the paintings in more than a century.  I guess it’s no surprise that the pictures are better as artifacts than as art, and there are hundreds of paintings arrayed along all four walls of one gallery at the Renwick, four rows on each wall, reaching all the way up to the ceiling, so it was hard really to look at each frame as a painting anyway.  It was more like examining a “rogues’ gallery”—it got enervating after a short while.  Let’s just put it this way: I was glad to have seen the exhibit, but I don’t feel the need to see it again.  The NMAI is a different story—I would like to go back when I can take more time in each section, maybe doing one section on one day, and then returning some other time for another part of the exhibit.  [I have, in fact, been back to the Heye Collection, as the New York City branch of NMAI is called, numerous times since 2004.]

Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing!, directed in the Kreeger (the proscenium theater) by Zelda Fichandler in her first return visit in many years, was another play I’d never seen, though I’d read it.  It presents a couple of basic acting problems which Fichandler didn’t get her cast to overcome entirely.  First is the time-and-place milieu—the Bronx of the Depression ’30s—and the second, intricately tied to that, is the immigrant-and-first-generation Jewishness of the play’s atmosphere and characters.  I’d have thought that Fichandler would be the director to get these underlying dynamics into her company, since she lived in that world herself as she notes in her essay in the program.  We saw the show on 1 February [2006], and maybe the cast hadn’t had enough time to really absorb the whole milieu since the production opened on 20 January, but they all seemed to be playing at it rather than in it.  It wasn’t really part of what the characters were living—it was like a costume they had put on, as opposed to clothes they wore every day.  Old hand Robert Prosky, also making a return visit to Arena to play family patriarch Jacob, came closest—but he was more like an old-world East European than an old-world East European Jew.  (His socialism was more convincing than his Jewishness.  I don’t know if Prosky’s Jewish—I recall that he’s not—but if he is, he’s like me: a secularized, totally assimilated Jew.  I was once fired from an acting job because I wasn’t Jewish enough!  Oy.)  [Both Fichandler and Prosky have died since I wrote this report: Fichandler in 2016 at 91 and Prosky in 2008, just shy of 78.]

My response to the play as a whole was that it was nice to get to see it on stage, but that the theatrical experience was less satisfying than the socio-historical one.  I got to see an Odets/Group Theatre classic from 1935, but I didn’t get to see a vibrant evocation of a particular 1935 Bronx world that has disappeared.  It’s the difference between going to the Thorne Rooms at the Chicago Art Institute or the Period Rooms at the Met and traveling back in time.  It wasn’t that the actors weren’t trying, or even that they didn’t understand—at least I don’t think so.  These were all good actors, even excellent ones.  They just didn’t get it.  It wasn’t inside them, somehow—and it needed to be.  That’s what actors do in period plays.  The cast has to find what Uta Hagen called a “substitution,” which is a pretty standard acting technique for most Stanislavsky-based training.  Of course, it isn’t the “era” itself that the actor absorbs, but the adjustments people make, the individual choices they make, for which each actor must find personal and contemporary substitutes, that come together to give the audience the impression the cast has “recreated” a milieu.  But you have to understand the period and place in order to find those adjustments.  I think the cast of Awake and Sing! did the first—they understood the time and place—but they hadn’t found the individual adjustments that made the behavior real.  That’s my take anyway.

I was reminded of a scene I remember an acting-school classmate doing in one scene study class.  I don’t remember the play, but it was a contemporary piece back in the mid-’70s, and the character the actor was working on was a college student in the late ‘60s.  One of his concerns was the impending draft—the Vietnam war.  Now, I was older than most of these guys, and I’d gone through that era.  I knew that for us, the draft was a Damoclean sword, hanging over us all every day.  Especially for us guys, it was ever-present and colored every thought, every move, every decision.  This actor, barely into his 20’s, didn’t get that.  In his head, he understood, but not in his gut.  That’s what was missing in Awake and Sing!.  It wasn’t a bad production, or off center or misdirected.  It was just a little more Epcot Center than Old Europe.  As some publicist used to say in another context:  It wasn’t real, but an incredible simulation.

Before I left New York City the second time, however, I did see the latest work of a young director, Erin Woodward, I’ve been watching.  She’s the daughter of my college friend Kirk (who’s contributed hugely to ROT) and I’ve said I always make it a practice to see shows by people I know.  I also think Erin’s shaping up to be an interesting director, so I want to watch her progress.  In this case, Secondary Education was the first production of a new company Erin assembled back in October 2005, DramaticAmbush.  She said back then that “DA will focus on cultural and social questions in our communities” and she developed the troupe’s first piece with New York City public high school kids—as the title suggests.  It was an assemblage of short scenes all evoking moments out of their school lives—some funny, some Kafkaesque—including a biographical monologue each cast member delivered.  (The actors all played multiple characters in the various scenes, even crossing genders, but the monologues—called “Confessionals” and using the actors real names in the titles in the program—were apparently based on their actual experiences, each one focusing on a specific impact the episode engendered.) 

Secondary Education has obviously been developed by improvisation and ensemble play, but it is rehearsed and choreographed in performance.  The performance, though, maintained a sense of improvisation.  I was especially taken with the ensemble physical work in several largely-wordless scenes, especially “Overcrowded” (about . . . well, just what the title says it’s about) which looked like a mélée, with each actor doing whatever came to his or her mind, but was actually carefully choreographed or it would have been total chaos.  It had to be choreographed or the actors wouldn’t have been able to do the intricate work with each other so smoothly otherwise, though it still looked like “accidents” and unplanned contacts were going on.  (Individually, an actor who did a bit with a shoulder bag that seemed to have a mind of its own, Missaelle Morales, accomplished an inspired physical comedy gag—in the vaudeville tradition.) 

As a début effort, Secondary Education was a wonderful theater experience.  It had a roughness (à la Peter Brook) that was genuine and exciting—as if it was all happening right in front of us.  I assume the company didn’t know each other from before, so the creation of such a cast that worked together so well and seemed to feed off one another was a great coup.  I liked that none of the characters were “types,” that this wasn’t just the “Sweat Hogs Live On Stage.”  Neither was the perspective on the world of high school clichéd even though some common encounters were portrayed.  Perhaps some of the actors could have differentiated some of the characters they play a little more—but not if that means they become “stagy.” 

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