Humana Festival: Day 3, The One With the Intermission

Five of the six plays I attended during Humana Festival did not have intermissions. That was grand. I love it when my stories are uninterrupted (well, the ones delivered by a non-digital platform that I don't control, anyway). The final play of my festival, Dot, by Colman Domingo was the exception. In this case, the intermission was a matter of practical necessity. It took a large crew, augmented as always by the apprentices (pour one out for those apprentices, when you don't see them on stage in a show, they are almost certainly backstage in a different theater) . . . Where was I? Silly parenthetical. Anyway, it took about ten minutes for the crew to take us from Dot's kitchen and dining room, to her living room and, well, a different dining room. The scene shift was truly impressive, involving rolling walls away and replacing them with entirely different walls, moving a wood veneer wall like a pocket door, and many other theatrical parlor tricks. It was great.

I'm tempted to indulge in some hyperbole and claim that it was the best part of the play, but that would be wrong of me. Dot is a play about one, rather dysfunctional, west Philly family grappling with the mental deterioration of their mother, the eponymous Dot. The play stands out right away because it is about a black family in a black neighborhood. The history of American theatre is littered with family dramas like this, nearly all of them focusing on white people, often in Westchester or Orange County. It is pretty refreshing to see this subject tackled for and by African-Americans.

That having been said, this play did not work for me, mostly because it wasn't as focused on Dot and her struggles as I would have liked it to be. It meanders from child to child to Kazakh asylum seeker (curiously named Fidel, which doesn't strike me as particularly Turkic) to white girl family friend. The diffuse focus of the play made it difficult for me to concentrate on Dot's plight. It also spins its wheels explaining dementia to the audience in at least two ways that I did not find helpful. The opening of the play is strong, with an exasperated daughter dealing with a seemingly normal and docile Dot. But when Dot goes off to the bathroom, after an episode of memory loss, we get a long explanation of what it's like to deal with her, as if the good folks in the audience have not grasped the issue so vividly demonstrated on stage moments ago.

That moment of explanation is at least in the flow of the story. In the second act, there is a long sequence devoted to a role-playing game clearly invented by a family therapist to help family members "walk in the shoes" of their afflicted relative. The game forces a person to wear glasses to simulate glaucoma, headphones blasting with noise, gravel filled shoes, and gloves with fingers taped to simulate the experience of being old and suffering from something like dementia. That game method might work for someone who actually has to wear those things, but I did not find it useful for my understanding Dot's experience. I'm watching a play about a woman with dementia, which means that someone is already engaging in role play to show us what it is like to have dementia as an objective experience that we witness: that's what the actress playing Dot is doing. And now we have an actor playing a man who has to pretend to have dementia, but with props? It doesn't bring the audience into the subjective experience (which could have been done with lights and sound; that will be left to another production to attempt). And it is hardly the only way to bring Dot's son to the point where he can empathize with Dot. Lots of people manage that feat without the props.

The role-playing game leads to a panic attack, some lashing out, a moment of catharsis, and a lot of raised voices. Then almost everyone leaves the room. This act break ends with a great line from one of the daughters "We are ok, a bit raw and bleeding, but we'll survive." That's not the line, it's a weak approximation of the line, but you get the idea. Except that there's another twenty minutes left of the play, most of which deals with things that are not related to Dot. They deal almost exclusively with Dot's writer son and his husband and their respective mid-life crises. But the play is called Dot. They don't even talk about how seeing Dot like this makes them confront their mortality. The play lost me permanently at this point. It didn't end with this beautifully ambiguous moment after everyone had experienced crisis and damage and shown love and good intentions but no one had a solution (you know, real life). Instead the play carried on toward what I can only call the sit-com ending: everybody learned a lesson and they all the do the good thing they have been resisting since the play started.

There were people sniffling all around me as the lights come up at the end of the show. Dot connected with them. I think there is a great play about mortality, memory, and family in there somewhere. I understand their tears. But to me, Dot is a bit like the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota. You can see the shape of the image to come. But there's a lot of dynamite that needs to be applied to that mountain before it's truly done.

Humana Festival: Day 2, And Then Things Got Weirder

I forgot how loud the Pamela Brown Auditorium can be. It gets very loud during Chuck Mee's The Glory of the World.

In the spirit of the rest of this blog, I should note that the Pamela Brown is the largest of Actors Theatre's three stages. It might be what you would call, a main stage. It looks like a normal throscenium (mostly proscenium style stage with an apron that acts as a small thrust). It's get a main floor and a balcony level and sitting under the balcony level is generally suboptimal for shows that take advantage of the full depth of the stage, which The Glory of the World does not. But the Pamela Brown isn't quite normal. There are two voms, with very steep stairs. The thrust part of throscenium is small and curved. Everything about the space is kind of angled to the world and it messes with your sense of direction. The catwalks are topsy turvy, with three or four levels that give lighting and projection designers fits. You can do a straight play in here and no one would totally notice the peculiarities of the space. Or you can do The Glory of the World and let the unease of the space slide into the surreal madness and jangling juxtapositions of noise and silence that Chuck Mee gives you in The Glory of the World.

The play appears to be set in a large garage space. Well, it's an unfinished space with a garage door. Eventually, tools appear. The action begins with a solitary figure walking onto the stage, seating himself at a small table with his back to the audience and remaining perfectly still. There are projections to guide your thoughts over a long period of time, made longer but the complete lack of movement or sound. It's a neat trick because it begins to tame the normal restlessness of the audience. The silence is so long and so deep that the audience has time to cough, rustle, swallow, sneeze, settle, and finally attempt to still themselves. And then 18 men storm the stage.

The men have little distinction, though they are all different sizes shapes and colors. And they all have different opinions on Thomas Merton. They claim to form a society honoring Merton and we quickly get that everyone has their own agenda and then, after a long game of who can quote best, two men kiss for 7 minutes while the company dances around them. Is this still about Thomas Merton? I don't know. And then the dancing stops and we get back to some conversation. In the meantime, everyone has changed costumes. We get back to quoting, pay lip service to Merton, and then the songs and choreographed displays of manhood begin. 

The raucous fight that finishes the main action of the play is merely prologue to the solitary figure returning to the stage (in this case, it was Les Waters, the director of the play and the artistic director of Actors Theatre). He sits down, this time facing the audience, and we return to several long minutes of contemplating the prompts the projected texts are providing us. 

I don't know anything about Thomas Merton and I suspect few in the audience did either, which makes it difficult to interpret the completely manic interludes between philosophical, quote-laden toasts to Merton, and all of his contradictions. If there is a thread there, it is a secret one, or it is alien to me at any rate, which is fine. It is a surreal play that slips between toasts and slapstick set pieces that were wildly inventive and often hilarious, if totally overwhelming, without revealing the dream logic underneath. If there are transverse connections between the scenes, I could not spot them, which left me drifting away from the play, totally unconnected to the action of it. Some people were very into it. The bows featured a third of the audience jumping to there feet instantly, a third very enthusiastic clappers, and a dutiful third rewarding the hard work the performers had just finished. Your mileage, as they say, will vary.