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Archive for October, 2008

The Caroline set is being struck.  Kushner & Tesori are back in NYC (their presence at the second-to-last performance, which you may have seen on Chris Jones’s blog here, was a complete surprise to the cast and staff–everyone but Charlie, who was sworn to secrecy).  The cast is moving on to other shows, middle school, or childbirth.

And here in the office we are getting ready to welcome SITI Company back to Chicago.

The last time SITI was here was exactly two years ago, when they brought Hotel Cassiopeia, a gentle and moving exploration of the effects of deceleration, quiet, stillness, and non-narrative emotional storytelling disguised as a biographical play about Joseph Cornell.  Not every audience found a way in to the piece, which opened with Barney O’Hanlon softly reciting a list of sugary foods while a Satie Gymnopedie unfolded underneath his voice.  I saw Hotel, I think, seven times.  Something about being asked to slow myself down, to contemplate images instead of following events, and watching SITI’s peculiar performance style (characterized by the performers’ extraordinary physical control and spatial awareness) was an aesthetic palette cleanser for me.  I was engaged, yet calm, and my mind was given plenty of room to wander around the space while I watched.  It reminded me that “Twice as fast, twice as loud: twice as good!” is not actually an immutable rule of theater (though it is an immensely useful note under some circumstances).  Every time I saw Hotel I left refreshed, like I’d meditated or taken a bath.

Radio Macbeth isn’t going to be like Hotel Cassiopeia.

For one thing, instead of the curious, wandering, everyday poetry of Charles Mee, the text is entirely Shakespeare’s.  What SITI brings to the text (beyond the de rigeur and aforementioned physical control and awareness derived from their unique training method), and what makes it “Radio” is a new staging that emphasizes not only the play’s spooky horror elements but also its history as theater.  Because unlike, for instance, Orson Welles’s “voodoo” Macbeth or any number of other high concept productions that layer the trappings of a particular world onto the play, Radio Macbeth works by appearing to strip the play down, removing the theatricality, and showing you a group of actors, in street clothes, in a theater.  Except not really–there’s still a set, and a costume design, and the world isn’t our own, nor is it Shakespeare’s.  It’s a world where all productions cohabitate, where the thousand versions of Banquo’s ghost sit on top of each other and watch the play, comparing notes.  What’s it like for an actor to step into four-hundred-year-old blood-sogged shoes, aware of every Mackers before him, but unable to change the story’s course for all his knowledge?

Because most of us have seen it before, many times.  Why bother pretending it’s all happening for the first time right now, like we don’t all know exactly how it ends?  Do we need another Macbeth like that, even if the soldiers are carrying guns or their uniforms are vaguely Nazi or the witches are made up like (scary nurses/prostitutes/schoolmarms/fill-in-the-blank)?  By acknowledging the play’s history, SITI Co. are actually asking a bigger question, one with more immediate implications than “Can Macbeth murder his way to the throne?” or even “To what lengths will unchecked ambition drive a man?” or whatever other dramatic question you want to make the spine of your production.  They’re asking “Why have we been watching this for all these years?  What is it in this brutal, insane play that we want to see so badly?  What is it in us that wants to see it?”

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Caroline, Or Change is going strong! While reviews and audience comments have been pretty focused on the spectacular voices and engaging performances by the cast and band, I think it’s worth taking a second look at the visual components of the show–the designs and staging–and how they contribute to its extraordinary effect. (All photos by Michael Brosilow)

JFK

JFK

Above we’ve got the “JFK” sequence, when Stuart’s parents come to the house to announce the President’s death. Upstage is the Moon, harbinger of chaos and change, in a pool of blue light that spills out onto the stairs. Notice that Charlie has separated Grandpa and Grandma Gellman on either side of the basement square, even though they arrived together and are ostensibly in the same room. Abstracting the space this way allows for heightened moments like Dottie delivering her lines to Grandpa Gellman, as you can see here, even though there is no diagetic reason for the two of them to be interacting.

Introducing the Washing Machine

Introducing the Washing Machine

This shot is from the beginning of the show, when we first see the Washing Machine doing her work. The text on her dress is ad copy from 60s washers–the dryer has similar text on his costume. The references to early-century work clothes are contrasted with the color choice–a 60s-ish pale green.

Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole

And here we have the first moment of really heavy theatrical lighting–you’ve probably seen this picture on ads or in e-blasts. The dryer is doing his thing–a gesture with a much bigger footprint than the relatively compact movements of the Washing Machine. The Dryer’s ability to take over the environment of the basement with heat and humidity is his major feature in the text.

Why you like me?  I ain't never nice to you.

Why you like me? I ain't never nice to you.

Caroline and Noah can’t help thinking about one another–in this scene they share an imagined conversation, each of them in his or her own house, late at night.

Have you seen the show yet? What did you think?

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