Thursday, January 22, 2009

No Dice

No Dice - Photo by Peter Nigrini


Firstly, this is a show that was only $25 a ticket.

Secondly, it was according to my booking agent sold out.
Thirdly, this meant I had to rise at 5.45 am to get myself to Martin Place and wait for the TIX FOR NEXT TO NIX booth to open at 8am.
Fourthly, as you can tell I got tickets.
And now... Fifthly this is the best show I have seen in this festival so far.

NATURE THEATER OF OKLAHOMA. The odd name for this company comes from a quote from AMERIKA by Franz Kafka. They are actually a New York based performance group formed in1995 under the direction of the founders Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. Both trained at Dartmouth. Mr Liska studied further with Richard Foreman and Ms Copper went on to work at La Ma Ma. After several false starts in their career journeys they came back to the theatre. Their work began as re-makers of classic dramatic literature: Chekhov, Shakespeare etc, but finally began to create new material of their own. The company is very physical in its approach. The piece prior to this, "POETICS; a ballet brut", was apparently a movement based work constructed by gestures decided upon and then dictated by the random throw of a dice. It was exploring John Cage's ideas of Chance in Art.

The source of NO DICE was from 70 hours of taped phone conversations Mr Liska conducted with friends, relatives and the cast about their jobs and personal problems. Conversations about the demands of boring office work, dieting, dinner theatre, the Moscow Cats Theatre, SPACE ODYSSEY, 2001, etc. Instead of memorizing the text, the cast acts out the conversations while listening to the original recordings from iPods in each performers ear. The conversations do not necessarily have a sequential order but it is the job of the actor to make a connection. There is no story guide in the heard conversations necessarily, the work "prefers to let the audience form its own narratives out of trivial, meandering conversations." Sometimes the conversations overlap and the natural linguistics of real conversation is captured with all of the pauses, laughs, repeats of words and sentences etc. It is the language of everyday conversation. Just how odd is it when allowed to be heard under such scrutiny in the theatre? How funny is it? The actors are required to be "in the moment", their presence is extremely alert: "They're thinking." The accents they use are very exaggerated, it seems, and they are many and varied, connected to the originator of the taped conversation. Just how exaggerated are real people when studied so closely? How funny are we, if we could minutely find the time to observe ourselves?

The actors have also developed a vocabulary of physical gestures and movement that are weird. (Anne Bogart and Viewpoints??!!) Unlike "POETICS" where the movement choices were dictated by the throw of a dice, NO DICE movements "were put together using a deck of cards with each suit representing a different set of movements-one set inspired by disco moves, another by the gestures made by Mr Liska's non-english-speaking mother as she was trying to tell a story to the non-slovak-speaking cast." Whether this is true or not is conjectural. Supposedly this was originally an 11 hour show - Mr Liska says maybe not. He says it is 4 hours long, but that isn't true either, it is only 3 and a half hours. A clock on the back wall of the setting keeps us informed of how much we have seen and how much is left to go. It all goes to create Myth. Myth is of interest to this company.

The cast of seven are dressed in inappropriate and amateur costumes. Anne Gridley in very tight high riding male black shorts with a string shouldered singlet and a truly ghastly copper coloured longish wig. Zachary Oberzan in jeans, no shirt, a cowboy hat and a fake moustache that definitely has a life of its own. Robert M. Johanson in jeans - ill fitting and short in the leg, a yellow long sleeved shirt, to be stained darkly by sweat, a multi-stringed necklace, a pair of no lens heavy black-framed glasses that have on either arm a long black hassidic curl attached, whilst on his head is a three cornered pirate hat. The other cast members are also erratically and idiosyncratically dressed, as if they have a clothes trunk and dived into it and thrown it on for fun and disguise. A mad delirious escapist dress-up game.

The performance in Sydney takes place at the Abraham Mott Hall in Miller's Point, a Community Hall, and much as it was found is it used. No set design here (apparently!!) This is a community theatre?!! The lighting is the fluorescents available in the space (to be truthful there is a small bank of white theatrical support) (The design is by Peter Nigrini) The audience are mostly lit equally in the fluorescent spell. There is no division here of who is performing. Them or us. The sound is created by one of the performers, gingerly at an electronic keyboard - it is the one tune over and over again. Sometimes ominous and otherworldly, sometimes melodramatic and eerie. A piece of recorded Satie is also beautifully, appropriately used.

In the first act the exaggerated physical language both in the body and facial muscularity, combined with the weirdly exaggerated accents and, at first, the random order of the taped conversations and their interaction, make it disconcertingly difficult to know how to respond. Ultimately one laughs. One plays a game of comedy with the cast and sometimes they respond to your laughter with a direct stare. It is not hostile, rather I had the impression of a startled animal looking for validation and reassurance. An intimacy was unspokenly attached, or was I just projecting. Empathetically giving my own life-love to strangers to help make their lives ok. My own world of growing up in outer Sydney suburbia and visions of my family and the extended family floated back at me. The material although funny begins, because the actors are so in earnest in their delivery, despite the extraordinary mode of expression, to reflect a sense of the ordinary person who has aspirations and dreams but no real ability or sense how to break away from their lives, to fulfill aspirations. They are unable or just plain content with their limitations, accepting them as their lot in life. The ordinary divinely created person who are at constant but failed attempts to explain the world in language of the everyday. Whilst talking of a dinner theatre experience that one of the characters has seen, a pertinent and poignant sentence seizes my attention and compassion as well as my humour: "the actors try really hard but, uh, will never achieve greatness - they achieve a very friendly mediocrity". A VERY FRIENDLY MEDIOCRITY. (One of my great fears, I acknowledge to myself.) This is a world I know. The actors in front of me are playing unselfconsciously members of my family who I grieve for, (what bourgeois arrogance, I think now) but there is such valiant humanity in their jaunty world: speaking, moving dressing and enjoying their habitat (the fluorescent, community hall) with a seemingly content level of acceptance and just as I begin to become melancholy, the lights become theatrically artificial and in a spot light appears a suburban vision of my "mother" or "Mrs Cowley" next door, on their way to a dance class at the local tech night school, in a bouffant coiffed look, crowned by some peacock feathers, in an emerald green cocktail dress who gives a monologue in what seems to be her own voice, of her dream in life, which is just, once, to have in life, a dramatic entrance in a spectacular manner and outfit. Just to only make an entrance, there is no necessity even to have lines, just that one moment of being the centre of attention. I begin to recognise the lady who made me my ham sandwich with mustard before the show in the improvised foyer of this community hall. She has this dream. The lady helping out in the "tuck shop"has this dream. A pause in the action. The lights crash back to fluorescents, one of the characters runs out the crash door exit into the visible real world outside, waving their hands in the air, in the sense of a cartoon character in distress. The cartoon character in the real world!!! Me, real in a cartoon world. The company then begin a dance of such ludicrous gesture and choreography, like the inspired jigs of Shakespeare's clowns, may have been, that I am rescued from pity (even self pity) and go happily to the foyer, after an address for money support from the actors to buy sandwiches, or drinks or tee-shirts to help raise funds for the Nature Theatre. Life and fiction. A joke or true?

After interval and a short interaction with the director, the actors re-appear. The material begins at the same level of commitment and understanding. But subtly, tonally the playing changes. A growing sense of melodrama of afternoon television reality begins to permeate the expression. Scenes and speeches from the first half repeat, but this time one of the other characters is speaking that particular text. Meaning changes, the world of my reading the material begins to be altered. I have to re-think the context and consequences of these conversations. As in THE FAITH HEALER the layering of the texts become vital and moving. New contexts give me new knowledge and perspective. The actors begin to remove their crazy costume, the vocal and physical exaggerations are pared back, and gently some of the actors come into the audience and squat down beside one of us and begins to talk quietly and calmly and gradually one realises that all the actors are speaking in unison the same re-assuring speech. The ordinary person-character, this now "glorious" created suburbanite has given me their life-love advice to assure me. An unreal character speaks to me a real person!!!? One on one communication. I have been valued and individualised. I have been given an importance by these very ordinary people who I had even laughed at. Even pitied. Of course what a splendid person my "mother was. Was Mrs Cowley" - here is there entrance, their moment in the centre and of course it is selfless, it is an act of generosity, of caring. The actors move back to the stage and sit to the side. The lights dim and a scroll of the text is projected onto the back wall accompanied by the two voices of the recorded conversation, between the director and his mother -- We are shown the humble origins of all this creativity -- the human voice in halting, real conversation, mother and son...... There is no laughter at the revelations of the conversation now, just a feeling of respect and humility as we overhear the confidences and aspirations of a mother telling her son of a recent night of dancing, one in a wheelchair, her partner standing beside the chair and ecstatically sharing abandonment in some bar or club or Community Hall!! A simple theatrical gesture that strips back the theatrics of the performance even further to the origins of its observations. A truly brilliant 3 or 5 minutes in a performance that once sometimes looked like organised mayhem but now reveals a real method to its madness. A significant journey. And once again they begin a jig, a dance of life. It is as if Zorba has inspired these people. The dance is not Greek but it has a tribal joy of reckless abandonment that transcends into comfortable joy and confidence about being in the world. No matter how disappointing it may be.

The performers especially the remarkable Anne Gridley, Zachary Oberzan, Robert M. Johanson are wonderfully supported by Jarid Rychtarik and Kristin Worrall (virtually mute observers, although Ms Worral is the musician), assisted by appearances by the conceivers and directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. The precision of the diction, movement expression and timing is extraordinary. Here is a company where skills are highly employed and valued. It certainly has a class of technique superior to a lot of the so called avant garde theatre that I usually see.

Conceptually daring and brilliantly executed The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma "knows how to inspire a willing suspension of linearality." Unafraid to seriously address the multiple levels of everyday disappointments. Unafraid to use the theories of theatre history's thinkers and adapt it to what a contemporary audience can bear. Respect for the audience but challenging them to have to work just as hard as the company. This is a successful completion of the circle of creative experience, where both sides of the theatre space are mutually engaged and rewarded. There is no ego here, it is the full fledged generosity of a shared experience.

If you didn't catch this production you missed an experience of some note. Thank you Sydney Festival.

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