Thursday, April 25, 2013

Where the Wilder things are

Photo: Cotton Talbot-Minkin

Matthew Woods and his Imaginary Beasts are without question the most daring theatrical programmers in the city - and maybe the world.  Indeed, Woods seems innately averse to the known theatrical quantity; he has an almost relentless taste for the obscure - I can't think of anything I've seen by the Beasts (aside from their winter pantos) that has been anything less than a rarity.  A typical Beasts season will lean heavily on Gertrude Stein, or Witkacy, or Meyerhold - and not even on their best-known stuff.

It sounds like a formula for commercial suicide; and certainly the Beasts aren't yet packing in houses. But like many on the intellectual edge of the fringe, they have slowly built a following, largely because despite the incredible range of his projects, Woods finds in all of them a mirror of his own eccentric perspective.

Indeed, next to Woods, just about every director in Boston looks hopelessly derivative.  He may be the Hub's only theatrical original, and certainly the only local director whose work depends utterly on a literal vision: in a Woods show, the movement, staging, costumes and lighting coalesce with a rare unity. But how to describe the ethos at their core?  For an Imaginary Beasts production is indeed a curious thing; the tone is whimsical, but its underpinning is strict; the atmosphere is usually one of surreal, magically sublimated innocence, like that of a forgotten daydream from childhood - but a sense of formal inquiry always moves beneath the sophisticated "simplicity" of the action.  Lewis Carroll and Gertrude Stein; puppetry and nursery rhymes and pantomime; these are the lodestars of Woods and the Imaginary Beasts.

A portrait of the artist as a young man.
So it's no surprise that Woods' style would find a haunting resonance with the "playlets" of Thornton Wilder, who was the gay offspring of a raging Calvinist father, a teetotaler who described his second son as "the last word in high browism; a delicate, girl-playing, aesthetic lad . . . hopeless." Looking at Wilder's prim college-age self (at left), you don't doubt the accuracy of that assessment.  But they said the same thing about Proust, didn't they; and somehow both dreamy queens contributed something unforgettable to our literature.

You can feel that contribution gestating in "Little Giants," Woods' bestiary of some of Wilder's juvenilia (as well as a piece or two from the end of his life, which I guess count as senilia). The production wraps this weekend at the Boston Center for the Arts, and its enchantments are well worth a last-minute look, particularly for those curious about the mind behind the classic Our Town.

Judging from the evidence here, that mind was drawn (as Woods and the Beasts are) to the art of sublimation - as well as the sublimations of art. Those who have noted the strict denial of sex and other dark temptations in Our Town will be unsurprised to find the sensual impulse is relentlessly transmuted here into chastely florid musings on the likes of "Childe Roland" and Pietro di Cosimo (whose twisty imagery Woods has tapped for his publicity). Death and Mozart, mermaids and "leviathans," dark towers and young heroes fill scene after scene; you can tell much of this fantasy was dreamt up at Oberlin and Yale, but that doesn't compromise the poignant yearning informing it.  A prissy young man who writes of a lonely mermaid longing for a seaman is not too difficult to psychoanalyze, it's true; but that doesn't make these fables any less beguiling. A Wilder scholar might also be intrigued by the glimmers of later gambits that surface in the texts (I felt I glimpsed motifs from The Matchmaker and The Skin of Our Teeth), but what lingered the longest with this particular reviewer was Wilder's preternatural sense of his own importance, his struggle with the premonition that he was destined for something eternal.  At 20, I'm sure that looked more like self-importance than importance - but almost a hundred years on (Our Town is enjoying its 75th anniversary this year), I think we have a different perspective on his self-image.

Photo: Roger Metcalfe
To be honest, however, many of these dramas (like much juvenilia) aren't particularly dramatic. Still, the Beasts' poetic playing style makes the most of them.  Only the Beasts could conjure, for instance, a raging ocean - with a mermaid breaking from its waves - in the confines of the BCA's Black Box. And there are many such transfixing moments here - Death overcoming Mozart; the tentacles of the Leviathan; the starry night that guided the flight into Egypt (at top); these images, rather than the texts of Wilder's immature skits, are what you remember from "Little Giants."

This production seemed to mark a surge of fresh acting blood into the Beasts - but generally, those with more experience in Woods' eccentric modes did best. The exception was Gabriel Graetz, whose fussy clowning was a standout (indeed, his improv with Beth Pearson may have been the best "playlet" of the evening). Meanwhile familiar Beasts Molly Kimmerling, Amy Meyer and William Schuller (as the mermaid, at right) brought their customary skill to bear on the material, and newcomers Tim Hoover, Cam Cronin and Amanda Goble all had their moments.  As usual, the remarkable costuming was by the gifted Cotton Talbot-Minkin; Jill Rogati provided the evocative puppet design.  I could not pretend that "Little Giants" is for everyone; but I have a hunch it will build the Beasts' audience by at least a few more increments.

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