Saturday, February 27, 2010
ORESTES 2.0 by Charles Mee. Presented by CRY HAVOC & GRIFFIN INDEPENDENT at the Griffin/Stables Theatre.
In the experience of my American life, in the theatre (over there), three of the most challenging writers that I saw and were memorable (for one reason or another!) were works by Richard Foreman, Mac Wellman and Charles Mee. All three write in structures and forms that we, in Australia, hardly ever see explored by our own writers or on our own stages.
Although, Richard Foreman has had several outings over the past few years in Sydney (including: my head is a sledgehammer; Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty!), I have never seen a Mac Wellman here or even ventured (and having seen his work in San Francisco, it is a venture), and I have only seen one Charles Mee piece, and that was at NIDA : “Big LOVE” , directed by Lee Lewis a few years ago.
Charles Mee is an historian of some note and Charles Mee, in his other guise: the playwright “has sought not so much to explain historical events as to show the inattentiveness of those who make history.” (Refer to THE MARCH OF FOLLY by Barbara Tuchman). With ORESTES 2.0 Mr Mee has taken the story of Orestes and Electra and the aftermath of the Trojan Wars from the text of Euripides as an inspiration, and Mr Mee offers "a devastating portrait of cultural and social life in Regan’s America." In the preface to the published collection of some of his plays, HISTORY PLAYS (1998) Mr Mee writes: "I don’t write political plays in the usual sense of the term, but I write out of the belief that we are creatures of our history and our culture and gender and politics – that our beings and actions arise from that complex of influences and forces and motivations, that our lives are richer and more complex than can be reduced to a single source of human motivation. So I try in my work to get past traditional forms of psychological realism, to bring to the frame of the plays material from history, philosophy, insanity, inattention, distractedness, judicial theory, sudden violent passion, lyricism, The NATIONAL ENQUIRER, nostalgia, longing , aspiration, literary criticism, anguish, confusion, inability."
He goes onto say, "I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world." ORESTES 2.0 is all of the above on the page.
When reading the play, recently, I thought, as a result of my having seen his work staged before that it would be textually more difficult to comprehend than had so far being my experience of Mr Mee. But, happily, I found the text lucid and exciting, but, warningly, challenging. I was pleased that I was reading the play because the demands of Mr Mee, in his indications for direction, presented a set of problems that would need careful and detailed solving as a director. For instance, during the “trial” scene Mr Mee asks for “two levels of text, one in the foreground, one in the background, sometimes SIMULTANEOUSLY.” He goes on to give more elaborate direction. He presents the foreground text spoken by the trio of nurses and then he gives us the ‘Patients’ dialogue, and again later the “trial” text. How on earth does one orchestrate this? Simultaneously? The dramaturgical idea, intellectually reasoning it, is understandable. BUT. How does one stage it for an audience to participate with clarity? At the performance of ORESTES, that I attended as produced by CRY HAVOC under the direction of Kate Revz, I and many of my fellow audience "jumped ship" and "switched off" in this episode (if we hadn’t already, as it this sequence happens, latterly, in the play). It was an incomprehensible jangle of noise and even the dramaturgical sense of this being the Jangle of the Modern Media Bombardment of our contemporary lives, where the important competes and sometimes is drowned by the banal was not delivered to the audience. And most of us didn’t care.
Decisions by the director and designer (Costume & Set: Lucilla Smith) to have on the stage a pink and white distressed room with a filthy and broken gold framed bed, and astro turf and a half rolled carpet with a target design, in contrast to the original Mee concept: "a palatial white Newport – style or Palm Beach –style house"; to change the location of the set, in an interval not requested by Mr Mee who sees his work as a one act play, to white curtains and a stained floor but leave the bed present and central, unmoved; to have the character Tyndareus appear as a man with a television screen for a head, which the actor has to support with his hands, and have the text delivered via a pre-recorded video on the TV screen and thus obfuscate the comprehensibility of text and force the other actors in the scene to passive viewers instead of interactive participants; to have another actor who when able, as indicated by the writer, to break the bonds of a taped mouth to speak and then inflict upon the actor the necessity of a stutter and breakup of the text into a disconnected word by word delivery, (which even with my eyes closed, to help me focus, I could not decipher) cause both inaudibility and incomprehensibility of the text, seem to be, although intellectually "An idea" and feasible , practically and theatrically, disastrous. The desire to gild the lily that is Mr Mee’s play with the "genius" of the designer and director overwhelms the play as written. The play, as written, is already "broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, career into each other, smash up, veer of in sickening turns" without the director, designer and actors doing so as well. A plausible rehearsal process but a self-defeating demonstration in performance.
The talent of these artists is palpable but there seems to be a mistaken idea that risk taking and daring is enough raison d’être to present this work, this way. That, they seem to think that energy, whether it be PUSHED or not is the most suitable choice for communication. A play stacked with intellectual ideas and argument that is swamped by feeling, emotions so that the cool headed sensibility of a commentator (the writer) of history and mankind, Mr Mee, in the present era, is undermined. Mr Mee’s text is brave, daring and contentious enough with its own demands, let alone the extra layers of other febrile imaginations. CRY HAVOC is the company’s proud name. Its mission statement in the back of the program proclaims "CRY HAVOC is a revolutionary new theatre co-operative of emerging practitioners committed to the daring re-working of great classic texts for the contemporary stage. CRY HAVOC works in the pursuit of fearless interpretation, collaboration & re-birth of well known canonical texts of the human experience. We believe the canon shouldn’t just collect dust on bookshelves but bridge the gap between our theatrical past & our precarious future. Standing on the shoulders of the great. Developed by break through artists."
In the unfurling of this production this ambitious company definitely do CRY out: Pay Attention. And according to the definition of HAVOC in my Oxford Dictionary: "1. widespread destruction. 2 great confusion or disorder" are havocking. However it is hard to stand on the shoulders of the great, if in the scramble to climb up there, you demolish the edifice (the writer and his writing) that is the source of the "fearless re-working."
I am writing this not out of anger but grief that such enthusiastic ambition and obvious full blooded commitment, which I totally honour and wish to encourage, does not have yet the temperance of discipline and respect. Respect for the writer.
As to the undoubted talent on stage special mention must be made to Ivan Donato as John (once again impressing with theatrical intelligence and skill and judgement… that mighty word JUDGEMENT); Andrea Demetriades as William (supporting, admirably, her nomination for the 2010 Greenroom Awards as Best Supporting Actress, with clear centred work); Guy Edmonds, in a free and commanding performance as Orestes (the most impressive I have seen from him); Anthony Gooley as Pylades (when unencumbered with ‘acting’ twitches) and Elan Zavelsky in the doubling of Nurse2 and the Phrygian.
In an interview in the Metro of The Sydney Morning Herald (Feb 2- 18 2010) Kate Revz is quoted "You cant go: 'Oh let’s be dangerous.' But you do know when you’re being safe.... The minute you feel it’s safe or domestic…. you have to say: 'OK, what else could we do in this moment? How can we deliver that line so that it shakes people?'" Predicated to that should the question and demand on the solution to that moment is: "And make it communicable to the audience?" So that they are still with us and can be shaken.
I look forward to their "Next Up, Anton Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS." In my opinion, the world’s greatest play (no pressure). Hayloft in Melbourne, last year notoriously now had a go, so with hope but trepidation, I pray it goes well with CRY HAVOC, with all the respect that Mr Chekhov carries and demands.
Playing now until 13 March.
For more information or to book click here.