Thursday, June 25, 2009

Impossible dreams

This weekend marks the last performances of Dream of Life: The Impossible Theatre of Frederico García Lorca from Imaginary Beasts, which is probably the most daringly literate theatrical outfit in town. Lead Beast Matthew Woods's last effort was a staging of late Gertrude Stein; earlier, he mounted a personal fantasia on Lewis Carroll. Dream of Life marks a return to obscure Lorca (above left) for the troupe, as Woods produced an adaptation of the playwright's farces in 2007. Which only points up the gently obsessional quality evinced by this local impresario - he's a theatrical outlier (based in Lynn) who has been pursuing an eccentric, personal vision for the last few years largely beneath the mainstream press's radar.

During that process, he's built a cult, but not really an audience - and that's likely to remain the situation as long as Woods stays faithful to the kind of text that leaves the average Globe (much less Herald!) reader scratching his or her head. But what can one say before the face of honest obsession, especially an obsession as charming and intelligent as this? Like earlier Beastiaries, Dream of Life offers high-quality design (on a shoestring) and inventive movement, and ponders the intersection of life and art with a seriousness that's all the more effective for being lightly rendered. But again as usual, it somewhat subsumes the distinctive atmosphere of its putative author in a generic whimsicality that has become the Beasts' trademark.

In a way, this is integral to Woods's technique, which is one of pastiche. It almost doesn't matter which author he chooses (Carroll, Stein and Lorca are hardly comrades-in-arms), the collage he comes up always seems to play at about the same level, and to the same end. This is partly because, no doubt due to local casting exigencies, he's generally working with a new ensemble of actors with each production (and he gets them to nearly the same place each time, but no further). And in Lorca's case this effect is more pronounced than it was with Stein and Carroll, because the Spanish author doesn't entirely share their affinity with the innocent children's theatre in which Woods sources most of his work. Lorca is simply more sexually lyrical (at left, with Salvador Dalí during their affair), with more of a sense of death's impending presence, than Woods or the Beasts seem to realize.

What's more, the evening feels particularly bumpy because the source material is fragmented even by the Beasts' usual standard. The central text, Play Without a Title, is also a play without a second or third act, and the performance's "coda" is a brief scene pulled from the likewise-incomplete The Public. Written near the end of Lorca's tragically short life, these are at least aligned in their concerns: both are surreal, meta-theatrical debates about the meaning and responsibilities of theatre. In between these two conceptual puzzle pieces, however, are a series of poems, dialogues, and scraps of text, and the relationship of these experiments to the larger questions posed by Play and Public remains, I'm afraid, pretty murky. Still, they often charm, and Woods as usual conjures evocative images throughout. And there are at least two strong performances here, from Mauro Canepa and Tyler Peck, although generally the acting is less accomplished than in previous Beast productions. I must report, however, that the audience didn't seem to mind all this - indeed, they were clearly engaged by the Beasts and by Lorca, and almost everyone hung around after the show for one of the most thoughtful talkbacks I've ever experienced. Perhaps there is an audience for the Beasts' brand of theatre after all - and maybe they're finding it, show by show.

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