Monday, October 11, 2010

Torn Curtains

It was a gorgeous, sunny Thanksgiving Sunday yesterday, and I spent much of the afternoon in a darkened theatre. Not, as originally planned, at the Granville 7 watching another VIFF offering. Instead, I decided at the last minute to catch the final performance of The Electric Company's acclaimed play Tear the Curtain! at the Stanley, in a co-production with the Arts Club and the 2010 Cultural Olympiad.

My choice of live theatre over mediated film is of course the very subject of ECT's brilliant show. The piece is at once an historical exploration of the economics of entertainment specific to the Stanley's original construction--when vaudeville stages were being cast aside in favor of cinemas, which in turn had to be retrofitted to show the new talking pictures then eclipsing the theatricality of silent movies--and a philosophical meditation (mostly via Antonin Artaud) on both the power and the limits of each medium to awaken and engage its audience's senses. That the production itself, in form and content, seemed to make some very definitive choices of its own in terms of the prioritization of media surprised me.

First the praise: Vancouver audiences are unlikely to see anything so technically accomplished and intelligently conceived on local stages this fall (although I may eat my words after Brief Encounter at the Playhouse). The interplay between filmed and live sequences was literally seamless, and the sheer inventiveness by which the former were projected (on screens, scrims, and even David Roberts' magnificent set) kept astounding. Kim Collier's direction also drew out the site-specificity of the piece, using actors' entrances and exits, in particular, to play with the Stanley's proscenium, incorporating or excluding the live audience into the (mediated) mise-en-scène as the situation dictated. Finally, the entire company was in top form, equally comfortable on stage and on screen. Laura Mennell, as femme fatale Mila, and Dawn Petten, as loyal girl friday Mavis, were especially impressive.

Now the critique: Tear the Curtain! does not, it seems to me, challenge the binary between film and theatre (at least not in the way other ECT shows have, particularly No Exit). Rather it maintains, and even reinforces that binary--at times in some ideologically disturbing ways. Not only does the play's plot (which, for all the curve balls it throws us, is fairly conventional) resolve itself in favor of the soporific effects of Hollywood romanticism; its blending of filmic and live theatrical effects mostly unspools as a form of continuity editing, with progressivist and predominately linear match cuts between the two trumping those moments when their coming together was more engagingly juxtapositional (as when, in a favourite moment of mine, Mavis drives Jonathon Young's Alex across the stage in a makeshift Model T, while a projected rear screen backdrop moves behind them).

My bigger problem is that the case for the theatre--which, don't get me wrong, is there--is made almost as an inside joke, with winking references to Peter Brook (the Empty Space Society) and Philip Auslander (the television set's "liberation"/remediation of theatre in the end only a red herring) presented for the cognoscenti, but otherwise not fully elaborated in terms of a theory of either theatrical liveness or sensory and political "aliveness." A telling moment, in this regard, is when jaded theatre critic Alex, equal parts amanuensis and usurper of local artistic visionary Stanley Lee (James Fagan Tait), delivers his/Stanley's Artaud-inspired manifesto in favour of a new kind of total theatre. At the end of his oration, the house lights come up and Alex comes to the downstage lip, acknowledging the felt connection between audience and actor that can only come through live performance: "You are here," he says. "Here you are."

Too often, however, it felt like the audience's only available response to the material was "Where are they?," so relentlessly are we buffeted back and forth between virtual and embodied actors, not to mention the representational telos specific to each medium. For André Bazin, that telos in film has, ever since the camera began to move, been realism--but a realism that, in the words of another French film theorist (Christian Metz), is doubly imaginary (in the sense that what is imaginary masquerades as real). By contrast, even the "bourgeois" theatre that Mila and her revolutionary cronies in the ESS decry acknowledges its constructedness, makes visible in greasepaint and in costumes and in wires and in different-hued specials its status as a representation. For theorists from Plato to Michael Fried this very artificiality condemns the theatre to corrupting inauthenticity, and its audiences to slavish worshippers of false idols. But for artist-theorists like Brecht and Artaud, among other members of the European avant-garde who borrowed extensively from non-Western traditions, the theatre's codified and anti-mimetic properties also make it the ideal form to make an assault on representationality itself. (This included linguistic representationality, and a further irony of a play that takes Artaud, and his anti-textual bias, as a guiding light, is that it is incredibly wordy, Young and Kevin Kerr's script clocking in at well over 2.5 hours. I had the same complaint about Studies in Motion--it was just too long.) Moreover, they trusted their audiences enough not just to weather this assault, but to actually welcome it.

Would that ECT, in putting together Tear the Curtain!, placed more trust in their audiences to follow Alex beyond the threshold of the new theatrical experience he quite literally brings them to the very edge of. Instead, theatre is presented as a cordon sanitaire, a form of cultural capital that, as businessman and impresario Patrick Dugan (Gerard Plunkett) suggests, is meant to keep the riff-raff out. Whereas film emerges as the medium with which the masses can, again quite literally, most identify. Thus, the piece ends with Alex and Mavis, now a happy couple after the faithful secretary has helped the troubled critic find his "real" self, seating themselves amongst us in the audience, and then staring contentedly up at their screen surrogates.

Romantic, yes. Radical, no.


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