Wednesday, April 7, 2010

2010 Humana Festival, Part 3: Memory, Method and Madness

This year's Humana Festival featured two free-form, ensemble pieces performed by innovative theatrical troupes. And, no, neither of them involved Anne Bogart or her SITI Company. A third show also involved an ensemble, although it was a different sort of group, and much more traditional story-telling.

First up was “Fissures (lost and found),” a moody little piece on the nature of memory, created by a whole team of playwrights, including Steve Epp and Dominique Serrand, former co-Artistic Directors at Minneapolis’ Theatre de la Jeune Lune. That theater’s influence (including a vibrant performance by Serrand) is written all over “Fissues,” with its spare, poetic movements and surrealistic style.

There isn’t much to “Fissures” in terms of character or action, but what it has is mood and emotion. Memory is a tricky thing, after all, with remembering and forgetting hidden in dark corners of our brains, resonating in both sad and happy ways. Reflecting that, “Fissues” includes some beautiful, poignant moments, as the white-clad actors wander in and out of the all-white set, sticking Post-Its hither and yon one moment, marking out the lines of a forgotten street in black marker the next, or just sitting down to talk to us about the ghosts in our collective memory.

The Actors Theatre of Louisville production, also directed by Serrand, got a little repetitive, a little too artfully quirky for me at times, but the overall evocative, contemplative mood has stayed with me, and I suspect that was the whole point. I keep thinking about one particular speech delivered by Emily Gunyou Halaas, telling us how memory is like a folded and unfolded map, illustrating how points in time can overlap. Terrific writing, perfectly delivered.

“The Method Gun,” a product of an Austin Texas troupe called the Rude Mechanicals (Rude Mechs, for short) is an animal of an entirely different color. In performance, this one was brash and silly, lampooning the techniques of an acting guru named Stella Burden who supposedly disappeared in the 70s, leaving her actors, a gun inside a bird cage, a soapstone tiger, and some very strange acting exercises behind. After their mentor departed, “The Method Gun” tells us that the Burden disciples kept rehearsing the piece they’d already started – “A Streetcar Named Desire” without Blanche, Stanley, Stella or Mitch – for nine years, until they finally managed one performance.

The Rude Mechs’ take on Stella Burden’s “Approach” is highly theatrical and a little crazy, showing us some of the bizarre exercises Burden put her actors through. If any of this really happened. I honestly have no idea if Stella and her Approach are real or made-up. And maybe it’s better that way.

I found “The Method Gun” and its hippy, dippy nonsense entertaining throughout, but everything that came in the first 3/4 was trumped by the absolutely breathtaking ending sequence. It involved swinging lights, the iconic, oddball “Streetcar” we’d been promised, and then a small homage to teachers and mentors everywhere. I found myself unexpectedly moved by that ending.

Again, I am guessing that was the intended effect – to demonstrate the power and beauty that can lurk under even the most misguided, out-there kind of theater.

Like “Fissures,” “The Method Gun” has no hope of being produced by anybody else anywhere else. Both pieces were inextricably tied to the collaborative process and to the performers who lived, breathed and moved through the words.

And now for something completely different... The third ensemble piece of the weekend, “The Cherry Sisters Revisited,” looked a lot more like a standard musical comedy at first glance. As the lights came up on the nifty barn set designed by Scott Bradley, former scenic designer at U of I and the Station Theatre, “Cherry Sisters” seemed as if it might be some pseudo-“Annie Get Your Gun” romp.

Instead, Dan O’Brien’s script tried to be a ghost story, a comedy, and a look at the delusions of fame, with a few songs and “fruit and veg” thrown in for good measure. A kitchen sink, what appeared to be entrails, and a wooden leg were also thrown on stage to express the audience’s displeasure with the sisters and their terrible, terrible vaudeville act.

Although I can’t say for sure that Stella Burden existed, the Cherry Sisters definitely did. They were five Iowa farmgirls who leapt onto the stage in the 1890s. They couldn’t sing or dance, they weren’t good-looking, they showed no evidence of talent whatsoever, and in fact, their performances were dreadful. But audiences came out in droves to see (and throw things at) these delusional vaudeville “stars.”

How could these women not know how bad they were? Were they fully aware of their own shortcomings, cynically pocketing the public’s cash and laughing all the way to the bank? Or did they tromp out onto the stage every night, blissfully unaware of the reality?

It’s a fascinating premise, directly related to the William Hungs and other talent show caterwaulers of the current age, but none of that really comes across in O’Brien’s script, as directed by Andrew Leyne. O’Brien messes with history a little, although those changes don’t matter all that much. But playing it as a ghost story or some vague dreamscape where Effie (here the youngest sister, although she wasn’t in real life) remembers how it used to be, good and bad, doesn’t really work, either.

Renata Friedman’s Effie was certainly sympathetic, but also a bit too twitchy and gloomy to seem related to the others. I loved Cassie Beck’s warm take on Ella, the “slow” sister, and Katie Kreisler, Kate Gersten and Donna Lynn Champlin provided sharp characterizations as the other sisters. But their drunken lout of a father and fast-talking agent, played as comic caricatures by John Hickok, seemed as if they belonged in a different show. “Paint Your Wagon” by way of “Cat Ballou,” maybe?

It was that uneasy mix of pop culture hijinks with a psychological study of the fame bug that made “The Cherry Sisters” falter for me. I love the idea. I wanted to love the play. I didn’t.

I do find myself wondering what O’Brien might do to further develop this work, however. Michael Friedman’s songs were fun and fizzy, and went fine with that half of the story. If O’Brien can get the unwieldy book under control and find a narrative thread that showcases his premise better, “The Cherry Sisters Revisited” will really have something to say.


  1. Verrry interesting.

    Maybe I am spoiling what is supposed to be a deadpan put-on by everybody, but surely it's obvious that Stella Burden and her troupe are fictional? I mean, Stella BURDEN in place of say, Stella Adler (or Uta Hagen, of course), working for 9 years on Streetcar without the principals, and especially the "Approach" standing in for the "Method"... right?

    It does sound as if they pulled off one coup that hardly anybody ever manages (even Noises Off isn't quite as wonderful as I hope in Act III, after the perfection of Acts I and II): making the whole play build to a promised theatrical debacle -- and then living up to the hype and actually being funny and absorbing when the "play" happens. Kudos to them for that.

  2. That's the thing -- at the time, it was presented as completely real, and I accepted that. It was only after that I started to wonder if it was all a gag. They even gave us a hand-out on her "Approach." I googled Stella Burden and the Rude Mechs did make a webpage where they asked people with memories of her to post to help them in their research, but the responses are equally bizarre, and I don't think they shed any light one way or the other. The only other mentions seem to be related to this show, including an Austin article about the creation of The Method Gun that treats her as real. But a different article calls her "faux legendary" and "meta-fictional," which would seem to indicate she's made up for the purposes of this script.

    I should also note that this play is absolutely, positively nothing like Noises Off. Not even a little. This is a funky discourse on this (fictional?) person's acting company and the crazy things they did (like a crying exercise where they all stood there and tried to cry for ten minutes). We see them rehearsing pieces of their proposed Streetcar with no Blanche, Stella, etc., and the highly stylized movements they are rehearsing, such as the woman upstairs getting hit by her boyfriend or the men playing poker. At the end, what they perform is not some comedic Streetcar without the main people -- it's the movements we already saw them rehearse, without the words, but all the way through their Streetcar without the main people, with lights attached to long cords swinging through the action. I believe those were also the only lights on. And I should tell you that this was staged in a small black box theater, so the swinging lights came in through the aisles and somewhat close to the audience. It had to be choreographed perfectly so that nobody got hit by a swinging light, and yet somehow, bizarrely, it worked to create a highly theatrical moment.

    I didn't even mention the naked guys walking across the playing space with helium balloons tied to their genitalia to the tune of "Dancing in the Moonlight." But that wasn't part of the ending.

    After the swinging lights and Streetcar/movements/no main characters, the actual, real ending was an overhead projector thing. At the very beginning, they had us each write an important teacher's name on a piece of paper and turn it in. During the show, somebody backstage must've been typing in all those names, because after the swinging lights thing, they projected a scrolling list of our names on the wall. That theater seats 160, so I suppose it would've been a max of 160 names. But it was very touching to glance up there, have a realization moment that those must be our teachers, and then see the name I wrote down. I don't know why -- he wasn't even that good a teacher -- but I got a little choked up to see his name on that list.

    Upon reflection, I feel sure Stella Burden was made up. At the time, she seemed real, if incredibly self-involved and ridiculous. But there were acting gurus around who were just as ridiculous. It fit like what I remembered in the 70s.

  3. Naked guys with balloons "attached"? I am SO there!

  4. Well, after we saw the "This play contains nudity" sign outside the theater, Steve told me he looked at the cast milling around and thought that those were really not people he wanted to see naked. I kind of thought the same thing. No offense to any of them or anything! But no Daniel Sunjatas in the cast.