Friday, September 16, 2011

Does Values really add value?

Erwin E.A. Thomas does some moral accounting.
There's an odd moment early in the Foundry Theatre's How Much is Enough? Questions of Value (now playing at ArtsEmerson) which inadvertently touches on a central problem with the production. The entire evening, as you may have heard, is comprised of audience participation - actually, a series of probing questions asked by the performers, who are themselves on script (or something like a script, by Kirk Lynn of the Rude Mechs, in consult with Foundry director Melanie Joseph).

As you might imagine, these queries are offered in a soothing voice, so they don't scare anybody - and at first seemed gently anodyne, as in "Tell me your best childhood memory . . ."  (That's literally the opening gambit, from the evening's cutest actor.)

And why not tell us your favorite color, while you're at it?  I thought to myself wickedly.

Then suddenly the conversation took a surprising turn. The audience member in question - gray, poised, with a voice you might expect to hear on NPR - had been confidently opining in Garrison Keillor mode about the joys of growing up, when that cute actor told him that his girlfriend was expecting a child - congratulations! - but was now considering aborting the fetus.

"What advice should I give her?" he wanted to know.

You could feel the entire crowd pull back as one man (or woman); this was about as loaded as a question can get; indeed, it seemed to literally glimmer like a conceptual handgun in the theatrical air; who would dare to pull its trigger?  And yet  - what other question (save, perhaps, the question of suicide) could more eloquently encapsulate the thorny problem of one's "values"?  But on second thought, was the actor playing "fair"?  He was asking for honesty - but was he himself on script?  Did he have a pregnant girlfriend?  With all these very raw questions in play, the audience member stared into space for what seemed like minutes, blinking, looking as if he couldn't believe he could have been trapped like this; was this really what he - and we - had signed on for?

Of course you know me - I was suddenly leaning forward expectantly, thinking: Could this show really be about to get this interesting?

Well, no such luck.  The audience member, after that cliff-hanging pause, came up with something non-committal - not for nothing had he looked so poised! - and the actor withdrew the question, retreating from the precipice that for a thrilling moment he'd been dangling from.  And we all drew a collective sigh of relief.  Questions of life and death, of good and evil, right and wrong, etc. - they would be off the table.

Of course, that meant any real drama would be off the table, too.  We were safely in the realm of the HR team-building session, the liberal-arts-college conference table, and the Hollywood-Buddhist group hug.  The abortion question had just been a joke, a little feint to wake us up, a pop-up ghost that cried "Boo!" but then vanished.

Which was really too bad, I thought.  Then again - could you blame the Foundry Theatre for not wanting to instigate a moral, emotional and political free-for-all in the Black Box Theatre at Emerson?

But then again - wouldn't a moral, political and emotional throwdown have gone with the territory, if they were really honest about what they were doing?

I mused on this conundrum as the evening progressed, but I'm not sure I came up with a convincing answer to the problem.  It did occur to me, however, how useful the skeleton of traditional dramatic narrative really is when it comes to containing political and moral questions while simultaneously elucidating them - in fact, has anything ever really topped it?  By comparison, Kirk Lynn's rhetorical gambits felt like a fumbling attempt to break the conventional theatrical mold while at the same time hanging onto its inherent social security; an essential contradiction in terms.

Still, I have to admit that people seemed to like the show.  It's never what you'd call gripping, but it is kind of fun.  You get to talk about yourself in front of other people, which is pleasing in a genially narcissistic fashion. What's more, you get to talk about your values, thus indulging in narcissism disguised as altruism, the winning formula behind Oprah and Dr. Phil (and without which a large part of the current culture couldn't exist); thus while the piece claims to be dramatically innovative, it actually feels cozily familiar.  And since everybody gets their turn to talk, the ritual doesn't even feel all that narcissistic.  (For my part, I got to discuss my frustrated teen-age love life, and define capitalism, too!)

Some amusing disparaties between different portions of the audience did come clear over the course of the evening, particularly when the particulars of careers and cash were discussed (which was often).  The twenty-somethings, for instance, were shocked to hear the fifty-somethings peg a household income of, say, about $150,000 as really what you wanted for a family of three; one sweet young thing, with a $50 haircut and probably a $50,000 student loan, assured us that she and her family could get by for no more $60,000 (as her young friends nodded along confidently).  Oh, well - they'll learn.

But on the other hand, sometimes people froze up, and the show stopped dead - surprisingly, for instance, Larry Stark of the Theater Mirror couldn't open up about the minimum wage; and he wears rainbow buttons on his suspenders!  (Yes, like Larry, I went ahead and participated in the discussion - after all, how can you really review an event that's entirely audience participation unless you take the plunge?)  And sometimes the script seemed to close off exciting "found" opportunities; when one nice lady admitted her father kept a pistol in his underwear drawer, again my theatrical Spidey-sense began to tingle; but the actors didn't seem to know how to explore this intriguing side alley of inquiry.

There are clearly a few "signpost" moments that those actors pretty much control - there's an opening set of questions that you can tell sets up who will probably be called on, as well as quizzes and games like the one where you count up all your loose change (a gambit half-borrowed from Mike Daisey); so things never break down completely.  But at the same time things never quite cohere, either; we can feel Kirk Lynn's questions circling issues of money, versus issues of value, but those circles don't seem to get tighter as the evening progresses; likewise a vague sense that the script has been structured in a seasons-of-life style (with various "prayers" thrown in as a kind of sidebar) doesn't really yield a closing statement. Meanwhile the three actors asking all the questions - Mia Katigbak, Noel Joseph Allain, and Erwin E.A. Thomas - seem able enough, but not quite able to create their own profiles via what amounts to a questionnaire.

And sometimes whatever momentum the show has accumulated is dissipated by a curve ball out of left field (like the question "Would you like to have sex with me?" or a sudden slow dance, cute as it is, and welcome as it always may be to hear Etta James).  And at the finale there's no clever ploy in evidence to tie the script's competing strands of money and morals into anything like a bow, or even a slip-knot (after all, if the performance led to genuine self-knowledge, we'd realize we could have much more of what we "value" if only we were willing to pay for it).  Many of these issues could be ameliorated over time, I suppose; I got the impression Values may still be early in its development.  Still, we're seeing it right now, and it is being presented as a finished piece.

So . . . what can I say?  I think you'll like How Much is Enough? Questions of Value; but personally, I didn't think it brought all that much value to the stage.


  1. I wonder if the show creates a new definition for the necessity of a "good" audience. Whatever that means. I'm interested to see who my co-narcissists will be the night I attend.

  2. Well, a "good audience" certainly helps, but frankly, the text should have the kind of thoughtful structure that transcends the audience response, that is perceptible even when audience members aren't forthcoming with great material. And right now I'd argue "Values" doesn't have that - at least partly because it doesn't want to offend or provoke. But if your sole character is the audience, and drama depends on conflict, well . . . you do the math . . .

  3. Reading this was rather edifying, particularly since I am the dramaturgical adviser for the project and these are the very issues we are all continuing to wrestle with (it's not a finished piece yet, no) It was heartening to see those issues articulated so well, and strengthens our own thoughts and feelings about what still needs to happen - which is ultimately what the best criticism (in my opinion) should be able to do (precious little of that around - nice to find it here)

  4. Thanks for such a positive comment after such a mixed review. I wish I had a clearer road map of suggestions for the future development of the piece, but I don't. I do, however, feel that the development of a more pointed conflict between our "values" and our finances is the direction the production should take.