Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Audience

I saw Misery at the Grand Theatre a couple weeks ago. I was disappointed. I was disappointed with the audience, for one. They thought the whole thing was funny. I was disappointed with the acting. Annie was nutty, not menacing, and considering the stories we've heard recently about people being held against their will (by their fathers, or by a government), that sort of geist should have been easy to muster. I was disappointed with the sound. There were cues that were spoonfeeding the audience, and I was insulted.

But the one thing that confuses my wife the most is that I was disappointed with the set.

The set was amazing. An entire farmhouse that could pivot to move focus to the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room, or the exterior, plus a second-floor staircase that as best I can recall was never used. The bedroom consisted of a bed and bedside table, a chair, a lamp, and some stained wallpaper. The living room was minimalist, the kitchen was kitschy. The stairs were there. Study and superfluous, but there nonetheless.

In my opinion, the whole thing was superfluous.

Sure, you need the bedroom, and one other room that Paul explores, but that's it. The stairs, the outside, the living room, the upstairs hallway, the bathroom, and the alcove were all unnecessary. The geography of the house is unimportant, and you don't need to build a house for the audience to know that they're supposed to be imagining a house. We've paid our price, and we're willing to work a little for the experience. The kitchen can have a medicine cabinet (and if I recall correctly, the medicine Paul sought was in the pantry in the novel), and it's not unreasonable to assume that the scrapbook might be in there as well (or near enough to make no difference). What is important is that Paul leaves his cell while the warden is out. Who cares where he actually goes? The set was an unnecessary cost. I can think of ways that money might have been better spent.

Last night was a good example. Last night I saw two performances, one a staged reading on an empty set, and another a performance involving a chair. That nearly empty stage was a kitchen floor, inside a wall, a Venetian canal, a bar and a mausoleum in Paris, a New York alley, a midway, a bathroom, a stoner's kitchen, a ticket booth, a barker's podium, a Ferris wheel, the scrambler, the merry-go-round, the caterpillar roller coaster and the fun house.

I don't recall ever thinking to myself, What the hell? The stage is empty!

Jeff Culbert used language and storytelling to evoke the scenes, focusing on character rather than locale. It was a wise choice, because the stories are not about Mehitabel's drowning lover or Archy's cockroach orators. It's about Archy and Mehitabel. Jayson McDonald gave a very physical performance, playing half a dozen characters at home, in line, on rides and on the phone. Powerful, and no doubt exhausting, it rendered the set moot. Again, the characters were more important than locale.

And honestly, that's why we watch plays, movies and television, isn't it? Why we read books and magazines and poetry? To hear great stories about people. Stories that happen in places, for sure, but usually stories about people (or roaches and cats). Not all the time, to be sure. Sometimes they are stories about places, too, but there are characters in those stories, too (think Hell House, Sin City, or Cabaret for examples), because stories about places aren't enough for people.

The Grand Theatre hosts some amazing, inspiring and enviable performances. But as long as they keep mollycoddling their audiences, I'm going to continue to feel a little insulted, and prefer alternative theatre, like the stuff we have here.

Come see archy and mehitabel and Fall Fair. You have to work a little harder, but you won't be disappointed.

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