Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Greatest Play I’ve Ever Seen

Three and a half years ago, I started writing a blog post about the greatest play I had ever seen. But I kept putting the draft aside because I couldn’t figure out how to explain what made it special. I hadn’t yet “gone over the mountain,” as Thoreau would say. I’m still not sure I’ve gone over the mountain, but I’ll consider this a continued ascent as I shine my little lamp on a corner of the arts that has gotten scant attention on this blog: the theater.

It’s actually the silver screen that brings my attention back to plays today. As I flipped through articles about Tony Scott’s apparent suicide a few days ago, I came across other, lesser Hollywood news about Gary Ross, director of the sublime Pleasantville, now perhaps better known for directing the Katniss movie. It was announced that instead of helming the next Hunger Games movie, Ross’s next film project will be Disney’s Peter and the Starcatchers, based on the series of tween novels that were previously adapted into, yes, the greatest play I’ve ever seen.

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A little background . . .

In my youth, I fancied myself clever for quipping that plays had been superseded by movies. My Shakespeare ardor morphed into a kind of revisionist fantasy as I pontificated to my fellow groundlings, “If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be making movies, not plays.” I had seen engrossing, artful film adaptations of Shakespeare (Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Branagh’s Othello, the Ethan Hawke Hamlet made some joy out of a play I never cottoned to), and if they were already pretty good, imagine what the Bard himself could have done.
It’s not that I don’t like plays. I can’t remember ever coming out of a play or a musical thinking ill of the experience. But I have many reasons for thinking that the movie is the superior form of thespian entertainment.

First of all, movies can do so much more than plays can. The combination of computer technology and a nearly unlimited range of physical spaces for shooting seems to shame the relatively limited stage into submission.

Beyond this, when you examine those shows that have both stage and screen versions, I’ve never known the screen version to suffer in comparison. Watching the stage adaptation of The Lion King, I was mildly amused at the mechanical masks that the principal actors wore, as well as the novel way that, say, a giraffe neck was integrated into a human actor’s costume. These are technical achievements to be sure, but there was nothing in the stage show that suggested that it had accomplished something the movie could not have, aside from a few gimmicks, like “animals” roaming down the audience aisles (and perhaps The Lion King 3D rerelease successfully challenges this advantage). The difference was costuming versus animation; otherwise, the show played out just like the movie, and ended up feeling unnecessary.

To go the other direction, when The Phantom of the Opera was adapted into a film in 2004, under the guidance and production of Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, the look was beautiful and the music just as thrilling, but if anything, you could say that the filmmakers didn’t do as much with the technology as they could have. As with The Lion King, the two versions just looked a little different, but it’s the movie versions that would seem to have more potential. The Lion King on stage looked like a static version of the film. Phantom, having originated in a more static medium, felt a bit uncomfortable on the screen, if only because we are accustomed to seeing constant, sweeping movement on a movie screen.

I’ve already mentioned Shakespeare, but even looking at the plays in themselves, I have rarely felt that the staging and performance were necessary. I’m sure I’m not the only person who gets more out of reading the plays than seeing them live. The most necessary Shakespeare production I’ve seen was Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and that’s because it was set in the 1920s and had an original ragtime piano score and songs. It seemed to make more out of the source material, and thus made it worth putting down the book and buying a ticket.

And that brings me to another crucial reason for preferring the cinema. Given the bourgeois nature of the stage versus the more democratic playing field of a movie theater, it’s hard to sympathize with what the dramatists are peddling. I just paid $20 to see The Dark Knight Rises on the IMAX, and I considered this a gross extravagance. Until I reminded myself that $20 would not have gotten me a seat of any kind at most of the playhouses in town. And no, most theaters don’t actually welcome groundlings.

At the Las Vegas production of Phantom at The Venetian, the overture is accompanied by a fine special effect that you couldn’t experience in any movie – the epic vision of a gargantuan chandelier above the audience, breaking apart and swaying with spectral malice above our heads. Neat trick, I thought. But then when I considered that I had paid $85 to watch a giant chandelier sway about, I didn’t think it was so neat anymore.

One of my local multiplexes is at a shopping mall next to Ruby’s Diner, which is a mid-range hamburger chain that offers movie ticket discounts if you show your dinner receipt at the theater. Now, I never heard of anyone offering discounted tickets to see Desire Under the Elms with the purchase of a hamburger. And for that matter, isn’t it strange that it’s virtually mandatory to treat your date to some kind of swanky Waldorf salad and duck confit bistro for dinner before heading to a performance of Hedda Gabbler, even though all you can afford after buying the tickets is McDonald’s?

The difference between plays and movies is the difference between theaters that are named after some hoity-toity personality (Goodman, Ethel Barrymore, Brooks Atkinson), and theaters that are named after the number (and sometimes size) of their screens (AMC 20, Edwards 18 IMAX).

It’s the difference between “theatre” and “theater.” 

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So much for plays, then. After all, what could possibly redeem this bastion of privilege and obsolescence?

In February 2009, the La Jolla Playhouse premiered Peter and the Starcatchers, a play written by Rick Elice, and directed by Alex Timbers and Roger Rees (yes, that British guy with the recurring role on Cheers, and a small role in The Prestige). It was adapted from the series of novels written by Dave Barry, the humorist, and Ridley Pearson, and published by a Disney subsidiary firm. The story is billed as a prequel to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, which was originally a play before Barrie himself turned it into a novel called Peter and Wendy, and before Disney rendered it as its fourteenth “animated classic” in 1953.

Three years later, I don’t remember many of the details or plot points (another black mark against plays – where’s the commemorative DVD?), but I do recall being impressed at how Peter and the Starcatchers succeeds as creation myth behind the already well-known Peter Pan myth. We learn how Captain Hook (or the Black Stache, as he is known) lost his hand. We watch as Tinker Bell comes into being. We see Peter earn his “Pan,” and are treated to one interpretation of the name.

But what I remember most was what took the play beyond the boundaries of any movie – the conceit of having the actors play not just characters, but also props and sound effects. The most memorable special effect was the simplest and most frequent – the actors would transition seamlessly from playing orphan boys and pirates to playing doors. One actor would literally swing another actor open as though he were a door.

This and other flourishes, such as having actors play parts of a ship, or becoming a chorus of dripping water sounds, relied on the sharpest acting, and the cast was more than capable. The effect was somehow elegant and rustic at the same time, like the rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or perhaps something like Cirque du Soleil as performed by Monty Python.

This effect, actors playing props, is not unprecedented, but the execution was so smooth and realistic that it erased the barriers between actors and objects. It also created an exciting fluidity and enforced the expectation that anything could happen, any actor could potentially be anything on stage at any time, so there was no waiting for the lights to go down so that black-shirted stagehands could rush in and whisk away a table and bring in a park bench or something.

The play successfully erases the barrier that I’ve always felt existed between the stage and the audience, so that nothing compromises the illusion of being in Peter’s world.

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Writing about the play now feels like being in that scene in The Prestige, when Hugh Jackman watches Christian Bale perform The Transported Man for the first time. The magic trick isn’t even shown on screen, but you see Jackman’s reaction and the life-long obsession it engenders in him – “the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen.” Likewise, you may feel like my story is missing something, namely – the trick. Can no-tech effects and virtuosic acting really explain what happened on that stage that enraptured me and separated it from other plays? Wasn’t it just more expensive gimmickry?

It may seem counterintuitive, but for me, movies have a monopoly on verisimilitude. Immersion is more natural at the movies; I feel like the movie is really happening in the moment, whereas plays seem, frankly, as staged as the moon landing.

Peter and the Starcatchers was the first time I ever went to a play and forgot for a moment that it was a stage. It’s as if they invited me in, told me that the story was to be a simple one that I had heard before, told me the stage was just wood and steel, and yet when they started performing, they still somehow got me to believe in it. Transforming the inherent fakeness of the stage into something real is the magic – the kind that every play aspires to conjure, but which I had heretofore found almost exclusively in the movies.

Indeed, the play has much of the vaunted Disney magic that seems increasingly rare in Disney’s animated pictures these days. (And please don’t bring up Pixar. Their movies are enjoyable, but Pixar specializes in high craftsmanship and cleverness, not magic – floating house notwithstanding.)

Though I’ve experienced more capacity for transport in the movies than in plays, it doesn’t mean that it happens often. But high-concept magic guided the modernized morality of Gary Ross’s Pleasantville, and Ross also wrote the screenplay for Big, the seminal magic movie for boys growing up in the 1980s, so perhaps he and his team can summon some of that classic magic for Peter and the Starcatchers as well.

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My experience with Peter and the Starcatchers doesn’t change my belief that movies can do so many things that the stage just can’t. But at the same time, the stage is capable of things that movies wouldn’t dare to attempt.

But having said that, there is one final damning trait exhibited by even the finest play; in fact, it is especially the finest plays that are most beleaguered by this trait.

The greatest play I’ve ever seen is one that you will never see, unless you and I attended the same show.  I’m being a bit dramatic, for even if we attended different performances, you probably saw more or less what I saw. But as the production moves from place to place, as the cast gets jiggered, and the staging is updated, and sets reconstructed, and lines rewritten, and concepts reconceived, and even the title tweaked (by the time it hit Broadway and started winning Tony Awards, it was called Peter and the Starcatcher), eventually, though you may see the play, it will be a different experience. 

And I think it’s this unbearably ephemeral nature of a great play that tears me up inside and makes me want to do away with the theater entirely.

I am reminded of these lines in Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Languages”:
Sing – and singing – remember
Your song dies and changes
And is not here to-morrow
Any more than the wind
Blowing ten thousand years ago.
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So I ask myself that question now: what would Shakespeare do today, plays or movies? I’m not sure. Maybe a little of each. But surely, what with juggling both stage and screen, he wouldn’t bother writing sonnets. Right? 

1 comment:

Henry said...

Instead of The Lion King, can we get a stage adaptation of Pocahontas? I always thought that movie had way better songs. And I can already picture all the red-painted savages and tree-face old lady dancing around the aisles.