Thursday, November 5, 2009

Flight of The Sparrow

The "trailer" for the original production of The Sparrow.

The Sparrow, which closes this weekend at the Stoneham Theatre, posits an interesting problem for a critic. First things first: it's brilliantly staged; scene after scene takes sudden wing, with basketball games and even literal flight beautifully and simply evoked via simple props, clever choreography, and looming projections. And at a deeper level the production seems to provide an answer to the aesthetic question that has stumped many a Boston theatre (as evidenced by the ART's Donnie Darko or the Huntington's 39 Steps): how to actually translate the formal structure of film into the theatre?

For make no mistake, watching The Sparrow is quite literally like watching a movie on stage; pulling off that complicated feat is pretty much its raison d'ĂȘtre. (There's solid acting work in it, from lead Dillian Arrick as well as supporting players Jonathan Popp, Ilyse Robbins and Elizabeth Erwin, but the individual actors are overwhelmed by the staging.) When you add to that the interesting fact that the show began in the world of Chicago community theatre (at director Nathan Allen's House Theatre), an awareness dawns that this is a case in which an audience has set out to build, and succeeded in building, its own new theatrical model - entirely without the professors or the avant garde! So hurray for the good people of Chicago community theatre!

But then you're faced with the fact that what "the people" chose to build was a musical episode of Heroes . . .

. . . and you kind of go, "Hmmmm."

Not that there's anything wrong with Heroes, my young friends! Nor is there anything "wrong" with Carrie or The Fury, or High School Musical, or any of The Sparrow's other obvious sources (among which we must include, bizarrely enough, Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter).

But you see the trouble is that even as The Sparrow soars, it's running smack into an interesting aesthetic wall, indeed one that's central to what the theatre is all about.

But let's back up a minute. The Sparrow centers on Emily Book (Dillian Arrick, at left), who surprisingly enough is bookish, and like so many bookish teens, has awesome superpowers. Only not just in her own mind, or in Second Life; noooo - Emily actually sports a mean telekinetic backhand, and can also fly, and, we learn eventually, even raise the dead! So mooove over, Jesus, Emily Book rocks!

Now for most teens, you'd think, rad superpowers would lead to some truly awesome partying. But not with poor Emily! You see, there's this small matter of her sending the entire second grade to their deaths in a schoolbus a few years back, before she had all her telekinetic shit under control. (Don't you hate when that happens?) So now our heroine's literally doubled over with self-consciousness, and self-doubt, and other stuff that starts with self-, which means we should feel totally sorry for her 24/7, even though she's not doing serious time in juvenile detention.

And that's where I felt like picking up the remote and channel-surfing on The Sparrow's brilliantly-staged ass. Only oops - this was live theatre, so there was no remote, and I realized I was stuck inside the weepy narcissism of the average teen (yours truly included) writ large, as social statement, for two hours. Thus, since there was no real emotional or moral development in the script, I wound up pondering the differences between stage and screen at my leisure.

And what occurred to me was this: movies and theatre are different in ways that short-circuit, rather than expand, their respective forms. (And yes, I know, there are exceptions to every rule, but work with me here, okay?) A film like Carrie (or The 39 Steps) succeeds because of the famous powers of subjectivity latent in cinema: a great director (with the help of his cinematographer, designer and composer) can easily draw us into a dream-like identification with the main character's state of mind (indeed, if you ponder your own dreams, you'll soon realize they're hardly rendered POV; you can usually "see" yourself framed in scenic perspective, just like in the movies). In short, when we're in the hands of, say, Hitchcock, it's only a small psychological step to "believing" that we ourselves are actually dangling from a window, or dashing away from a plane, like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant.

But can the stage simulate "subjectivity" in precisely the same way? I'd argue no. Sure, theatre is capable of ravishing flights of fantasy, and intense outpourings of emotion - but sooner or later, theatre almost inevitably "frames" that content, and complicates, or even undermines, its characters' emotions through the evocation of a larger cultural space. We observe, and of course sympathize, but don't simply identify. Indeed, the Huntington's 39 Steps became a long goof on precisely this aesthetic gap; it conjured just about every chase and narrow escape of Hitchcock's movie, only the whole thing became an ironic lark in the process, because the aesthetic means of the escapades were always visible, and thus risible.

What's different about The Sparrow is that its actors simply refuse to admit any self-awareness into the proceedings (and they're helped in this by the cinematic, gigantically literal projections). And we sense that we'd better not do so, either. The cast utterly commits to the idea, for instance, that their story-theatre solution to the problem of a cliff-hanging rescue is as gripping as the climax of North by Northwest. When of course it's not. We admire the ingenuity of the staging, yes, but we're hardly thrilled when the poor maiden supposedly dangling from the roof of the gym is saved, thank God. Because we were never actually nervous for her at all. It seems odd that in our ironic age this silly derring-do should be treated so reverently, but that seems to be what's going on, and so we play along.

And why? If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the answer simply lies in the marketing of the piece, and our sense that this serves some larger social motion. One blogger associated with the Stoneham made this case directly, in fact - to all you kids who aren't interested in theatre, he said, this one's for you. And of course he was right; The Sparrow is for teens of all ages who aren't really interested in context or critique, or the social functions of theatre in general, but who are wondering instead how its conventions might be bent to their will.

Now again, as I said before, to each his (or her) own; but I have to point out as a critic that as a result of this positioning, The Sparrow is really neither fish nor fowl. It's "thrills" don't really thrill, except as a simulation of another art form's specialty; and the kind of truths we might expect from a genuine theatrical structure, such as some dawning sense of responsibility from our superheroine, never seem to be on the table; indeed, they are of really no interest.

Of course there's also no reason why the techniques of The Sparrow couldn't be applied to "genuine" theatre - but would the kids still come? I'm not sure, but it seems that many of these projections and effects could add a marvelous dimension to the "cinematic" aspects of a Shakespeare history, or Peer Gynt. (We've already seen them applied locally to opera.) But then again, in such cases said techniques would extend theatre, rather than subvert it. And I'm not sure that would be a selling point.

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