Sunday, December 7, 2008


I should clarify some of what I wrote at the end of the last post, which was composed in haste. In particular, I want to point out that I am not condemning the one-act play, wholesale, as a genre. Rather, I am suggesting that the contemporary one-act seems to have become a convenient economic expediency for playwrights and producers struggling to attract audiences raised on the 90-100 minute narrative film format. For the same reason it's increasingly rare to see new large-cast plays (too much money), financial backers of new work are loath to tax the patience (and attention spans) of their audiences by asking them to set aside three hours of their time to sit through as many acts and accompanying intermissions (where they'll be tempted to spend more money at the bar). To say nothing of the complexity (and expense) of having to squeeze dinner in before or after. The whole ritual of a languorous night out at the theatre has given way to something far more martialled in terms of time and expense. (The exception remains the big-budget Broadway musical, although I note that The Drowsy Chaperone was a compact, tight, and intermissionless 100 minutes--Man in Chair even goes so far as to forestall what might be most audience members' surprise at this by commenting that as a playgoer he himself disdains intermissions because they break the magical spell of the world created on stage with that mundane social reality he's always railing against.)  

The problem, as I see it, is that form necessarily affects content here, and in the contemporary one-act play I see a similar attempt to martial complex ideas, histories and moral questions into a conveniently digestible form. This is particularly true of the socially realist one-act play, the kind of work that attempts to wed topicality (sex, religion, politics) and naturalist acting to the slick pacing and crisply designed mise-en-scene familiar from television and film. In other words, Ibsen and Chekhov-lite (and I think it's significant, in this regard, that the recent, apparently anomalous success that was Tom Stoppard's large-cast, multi-part theatrical extravaganza, The Coast of Utopia, was set in Russia during the 19th century). 

This points, as well, to the fact that the modern one-act, as perfected by Beckett and Albee and Pinter, for example, lends itself far better to abstraction and allegory than to explication and literal representation. One thinks here of the recent success enjoyed by Caryl Churchill with Far Away and A Number. With these playwrights, working outside the constraints of realism, temporality conforms to the needs and form of theatrical expression rather than the other way around (some of these plays are only a few minutes long, after all). By contrast, one gets the sense that Shanley in Doubt (see today's New York Times for an interview with Shanley on the film version of his play) and Morgan in Frost/Nixon and Shinn in Now or Later started with the clock set at 90 minutes, and then worked to fit the idea of--and the ideas in--their plays into that time limit. With Shinn it's actually closer to 70 minutes, and his Oedipal drama about presidential politics, family dysfunction, and conflicting sexual and religious ideologies, actually relies on a clunky deus ex machina device (a call from the son's psychiatrist just as he's being strangled by his father, no less) to bring abruptly to a close what could have easily extended into full-scale Sophoclean exegesis. 

That's what we get in spades in Granville Barker's Waste, which over the course of its four acts reveals that one can be politically topical without sacrificing the subtleties of dramatic structure as they contribute to a play's meaning. Indeed, there is still something to be said for what one can accomplish, as a modern-day director, by employing that old-fashioned lowering of a curtain (or more often now a blackout) not just as a tactical expediency to signal a temporal/spatial shift in the world of the play, but also to symbolically foreground (and historicize) the various ideologies circumscribing that world. Thus it was that in the Almeida production directed by Samuel West this past October the play's gender politics were telescoped wonderfully by having Act 1 open upon the drawing room of Lady Julia Farrant's country house, around which the women of the play are variously assembled (all seated) listening to Lady Julia play the piano before speculating on how best to convince Frances Trebell to likewise convince her brother, Henry, a well-regarded independent MP, to join Cyril Horsham's Conservative government and see through the plan for disestablishing Church and State. Following the interval, Act 3, by contrast, opens upon Horsham's London house, with Cyril's cabinet assembled to discuss how to dump Henry following revelations that the married woman with whom he was having an affair, Amy O'Connell, died while seeking an illegal abortion. In this scene the men are all standing and the piano top is pointedly closed.

I'm not sure what my point is beyond lamenting, perhaps somewhat old-fashionedly myself, the seeming death of the well-made play. But I do think the trend towards the realist one-act speaks to a larger structural crisis within the theatre today.

Okay, now that I've wrapped that thread up, a final comment on Risk from last night. It wasn't perfect--Barton tried a bit too hard to telegraph the narrative through-line of her piece and the shifting relationships between her character-dancers. And in trying to choreograph to the individual strengths of those dancers (which are manifold, but also manifoldly different), there was at times a lack of coherence in the movement, an arbitrariness in those movements and sequences which were repeated, and a resorting too often to unstructured improvisation to fill the dead space between sequences. That said, the dancing was top notch (to be expected with Barton, Josh Martin, and Josh Beamish in the cast), and individual sections (especially the pas de deux between Barton and Martin) were spellbinding. I welcome the addition of The Response to the ranks of Vancouver's dance companies (especially given the uncertain future of Ballet BC), and look forward to Barton's next creation with great anticipation.


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