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.
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.