Saturday, April 9, 2011

On the twentieth century

Modernity runs out of control in The Crazy Locomotive. Photo by Meg Taintor.

Long-time readers of the Hub Review know that one of my ongoing concerns is the difference between the academic and the truly intellectual - a critical concern you'd think would be of paramount importance in a college town like this one. Or so an idealist might think. Realists, on the other hand, would be unsurprised to learn that our major universities are often more concerned with revenue generation than aesthetic advance.

Harvard has been the leader in this area - the A.R.T. is by now literally anti-intellectual, feeding the middlebrow masses a steady diet of pop "revolution" that might have been programmed by the B-school (all of it bearing the Harvard insignia, of course, much like a sweatshirt or a tote bag).  So the top of the academic heap is actually at the bottom of the intellectual heap, theatrically speaking.  This situation is perverse, but has its own Machiavellian logic; after all, in the new free-market consensus, universities must be popular to be good; ergo, the theatre at the greatest university in the world must sell the most tickets.  The fact that this formulation essentially contradicts the raison d'être of nonprofit theatre doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone around Harvard Yard.

Elsewhere the news is better, I admit, but still a somewhat mixed bag.  After a dismaying detour into the junky precincts of Pirates! and its ilk, the Huntington has regained its lost integrity, and is now our go-to house for high-quality, grandly-scaled production; but it's still prone to sugar-coating the content of its shows with sentiment or political correctness.  Thank God for ArtsEmerson, the local theatrical upstart which is currently the stand-out among our college programs - it's not producing shows yet (it's entirely a tour-driven operation), but it's probably our only university theatre that is actually devoted to the life of the mind.

But what do you do when ArtsEmerson is dark - or when the Huntington succumbs to the blandishments of another Pirates!?  Well, you could check out the opera or the ballet!  Or you could turn to our mid-level theatres - but you'd soon discover they're erratic, and that even the most consistent (like SpeakEasy Stage) are politely, but persistently, hostile to intellectual challenge.  Indeed, you'd generally have to drive all the way out of town, to one of Charles Towers's productions at Merrimack Rep, to find a small Equity production with brains.

Or you could turn to Boston's fringe, where a handful of companies faithfully keep the intellectual home fires burning.   Among these few - these happy few! - you'd have to count Mill 6 Collaborative, Whistler in the Dark, Imaginary Beasts and the seemingly dormant Rough and Tumble and Beau Jest.

Of these, Imaginary Beasts, led by Matthew Woods, is probably the most fearlessly eccentric.  Indeed, Woods stands out from the pack as that rare thing - a genuine original pursuing a unique vision; I really can't think of another director in the city making the kind of personal statement I'd ascribe to Woods.  He's half-director and half-designer, although he fuses those two roles into a theatrical style that's simultaneously charming and challenging, and always visually arresting.

On the surface, Woods seems devoted to an almost child-like sense of poetic nonsense (he's already well-known on the North Shore for a series of much-loved British "pantos," which I wish someone would bring to Boston).  Only in his more serious works, it's clear Woods views "nonsense" in the same way Lewis Carroll and Gertrude Stein did: as a way to poke around at the very basics of conceptualization.

That sense of intellectual investigation is probably what drew him to The Crazy Locomotive (which runs through next weekend at the BCA) by the painter-playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (who, in the best Imaginary Beasts fashion, referred to himself by the "nonsensical" name of "Witkacy").  Here the "nonsense" isn't that of a children's book - it's more like that of an eight-year-old's drug-induced fever dream, for Witkacy (at left, in a quintuple self-portrait) combines in his script a crazed expressionism with an unnervingly innocent egoism; imagine Lewis Carroll on speed as well as LSD, or a child Wittgenstein clapping his hands at the destruction of the world, and you've got Witkacy.

Like many of his works, The Crazy Locomotive is an ironic meditation on the forces of modernity running out of control.  The engineer and fireman of his eponymous train (which is really the play's central character) turn out to be two madmen, Travaillac (Mac Young) and Prince Karl Trefaldi (Joey Pelletier), who become bent on simply racing its engine faster and faster; they all but scream in sexual ecstasy as it barrels down the tracks toward its own destruction.  The train's passengers, of course, are screaming for a different reason, but there's no stopping the crazy locomotive, which eventually crashes in a singularly spectacular fashion, even as the play crashes through all semblance of conventional drama into a free-fall of dream-imagery and narrative shards.

That's the whole plot, such as it is - yet it's quite pregnant with symbolic and analytic meaning.  The locomotive itself is clearly a frightening metaphor for the mind-set of the earlier twentieth century - in which revolutionary technology seemed to be offering mankind thrilling new horizons of accomplishment, but was instead ushering in an era of horrific destruction.   Tellingly, Witkacy's engineers don't reach higher and higher levels of awareness as their locomotive goes faster - instead, they regress into deeper and deeper fantasies of power and isolation (eventually they're playing at Robinson Crusoe).  Compare and contrast with today's relentless promotion of digital technology and the Web!

Or don't, but simply enjoy the wild-eyed irony of The Crazy Locomotive; after all, we're all stuck on this technological train, we may as well enjoy the ride until the crack-up. That mood of ironic distance was re-inforced by the fact that Woods set the play in a kind of cinematic, rather than theatrical, space; Mac Young's scenic design recalled not a locomotive but a zoetrope, for instance, and it was operated by none other than Charlie Chaplin himself (Marlee Delia, in a surprisingly convincing disguise).  These whimsical ideas may have undercut the power of some of Witkacy's imagery (the locomotive is supposed to spew actual flame, for instance), but they wittily extended his metaphor.  Alas, there was a similar trade-off at work in the acting; Woods's brilliant costumer, Cotton Talbot-Minkin, clothed the play's victims (and made them up) in silent-movie conventions, and they performed in much the same manner.  This unified everything at the design level, but the sense of air-quotes around the performances kept a lid on the bubbling chaos Witkacy seemed to want to conjure.  And leads Mac Young and Joey Pelletier, two of the most accomplished actors on the fringe, brought plenty of gonzo energy to their performances, but never seemed to connect in that way that evil geniuses always do.

Nevertheless, Woods (and Young, and lighting designers Michael Underhill and Jenna Stelmok) scored a tremendous coup in their staging of Witkacy's bizarre finale, which takes place after the locomotive's apocalyptic crash.  Here a semi-transparent curtain descended over a single corpse (or perhaps merely unconscious body?), upon which fleeting, shadowy images played like memories, or echoes, or ghosts.  Where we in the subconscious - or the afterlife?  Or perhaps some sort of ontological limbo?  We were never sure, but the effect was grippingly poetic, and certainly one of the must-see theatrical moments of the season.

1 comment:

  1. "after all, we're all stuck on this technological train, we may as well enjoy the ride until the crack-up"
    I might take you to task for this comment - I would quote Dylan Thomas if I could. Yes, we may appear to be stuck on an accelerating train or bus careening out of control but we are not without the power to fight against it. Yet I suspect (fear, rather) that society may have lost sight of the war in the battle.