Friday, December 12, 2008
Naturalism is not what theater does best
[photo: Complicite's *A Disappearing Number*]
Carol Rocamora, "McBurney Meets Miller," *American Theatre* magazine, Dec. '08, pp. 32-35 and 87-89:
The current Broadway production of Arthur Miller's *All My Sons* (with John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson and Katie Holmes) runs through Jan. 11 and was directed by Simon McBurney of London's Complicite, a visionary theater company.
(See the Oct. 18 post on this blog for a link to the N.Y. Times' slide show.)
One of Complicite's most highly regarded productions was *Mnemonic,* juxtaposing the 1991 discovery high in the Austrian Alps of a preserved Stone Age man's corpse -- he's known as "Otzi the Iceman" -- and the sleeplessness of a man in a London flat. (Check the video.)
Ben Brantley said that he would never forget this production; Miller himself leaned over to his wife and said, "Only theater can do this."
So what innovations has McBurney used with Miller's 60-year-old *All My Sons*?
Bare stage. Hints of tree, chair, door frame, fences. Actors visible, sitting in the wings. Five added, non-speaking cast members: "The Neighbors." Continual musical underscoring, as in a movie. Video on a cyc: enlarges the context, shows World War II-era factories, planes and people.
See also an interview with Lithgow.
(None of this is intended as a criticism of last year's production at the Civic here in Spokane. Bobo's more interested in how naturalism doesn't necessarily have to be the default setting for the works of Miller or any other playwright.)
(McBurney has parts in *Body of Lies* (with Crowe and DiCaprio) and *The Duchess* (with Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes).
McBurney met Miller in 2001. Miller referred to the carpentry aspect of "play-wright" -- i.e., it's a craft. And of course Miller famously used hammer and nails to construct his own shed for the writing of *Death of a Salesman.*
McBurney claims that Miller's plays suggest that "America, especially in its heartland, refuses to criticize or look at itself, as if that's somehow un-American." (By and large, we distrust thought and introspection. Of course, this may be the flip side of Sarah Palin's implying that city folks and liberals aren't _real_ Americans: Liberals saying that country folks are stupid and lack self-insight. Over-generalizations aren't helpful.)
Miller says at one point in Rocamora's article that "when people do my plays in America, they are conventional about the staging and frequently the plays are hampered by the heavy hand of naturalism."
Instead, theater should concentrate on what it can do even better than movies: dreamlike, unexpected juxtapositions of images and sounds that are best experience by a live audience in performance and not just as photons dancing on a cinema screen.
The point, as McBurney says, is that the realism shouldn't be onstage, but in the minds of the audience.
Consider: movies didn't kill off theater, any more than photography killed off painting. (Marginalized it by comparision, and made it search for new ways of doing things -- but didn't destroy it.)
McBurney has further comments (p. 88) about acquisitiveness in America (we don't share much; our stuff belongs to US), and about Miller's vague opening stage directions ("on the outskirts of ... of our era") which seek to universalize (and not particularize) the Kellers' tale, and how *All My Sons* is NOT set inside near the kitchen sink but outside, in a garden with a symbolic tree where important moral decisions need to be made (as in Eden).
BOBO's MAIN POINT (thank God, at last): The logistical details of stage minimalism like this are within the budget capacities of local theaters. (Peter Brook's *Empty Space,* and all that.) Audiences AREN'T stupid, and they like to imagine things. It's child-like, this desire. Movies, in contrast, imagine stuff for us, then splatter the space ships and fireballs all over the screen for us — making us enthralled but passive participants. What McBurney (and directors like him) are doing, we could approximate here.