Before I describe the three shows Smoke the New Cigarette, Theater of the Arcade, Antrobus & Gone by three very talented writers and companies, I want to frame them within a discussion of the use of irony. So many performances these days protect themselves with a thin but impenetrable layer of irony, which serves as a kind of Kryptonite/Teflon shield, which deflects all criticism of “seeming like an asshole” (Smoke the New Cigarette) or any kind of accusation of sentimentality or emotionalism or whatever other dread thing one might be accused of, such as oh say vulnerability or failure. It also protects from taking anything like a real risk, while simultaneously – in the case of New Cigarette – appearing to be taking risks. However, as the artist/performer Robert Rauschenberg so aptly put it “You can’t have risk without risk.” In other words, risk of failure, risk of looking like an asshole, of falling flat on your ass, etc.
Sometimes a show steeped in irony is grappling with this very subject. The ‘new cigarette’ in Smoke the New Cigarette is meant to signify - from what I could gather from Kirk Wood Bromley’s very well-written mixture of cut-ups, nonsense and riffs, as voice-over and lyrics (both said/sung by Bromley) – a place wherein risk can happen and repetition cannot, a place that does not whistle a happy tune or protect itself. However, that idea itself is encased in irony, questioned, criticized and then ‘accepted’ but in quotes. So, there is a valid question left hanging: is there such a thing as a new cigarette or is this an old cigarette in new clothing? For putting that question in the air at all, the piece deserves credit. But, because it is not actually grappled with in the performance itself, it is lacking.
The two primary performers, Bromley and Leah Schrager, in character as two musicians who have formed the band The New Cigarette, kept themselves at an ironic distance from what they were doing. By maintaining this stance, the moments when one perhaps could believe they were actually exploring the potent provocation of the possibility of ‘the new cigarette,’ they instead were protecting themselves.
The piece is divided into five ‘songs,’ which are bracketed by a voice-over (also Bromley) discussing the merits and demerits of ‘the new cigarette,’ the band and the idea. The voice has tracked this band by recording them at ‘the house of’ in Gowanus, aside from the third one, which is a radio interview and the last one, the one and only public appearance of the band, which happened at The Bowery Poetry Club (the venue for the show). There is more situational irony in this of course, as each song is shown on the same stage.
The music was improvised, but according to the program, the lyrics were not. As there was a repeated aim to get past the repeatable, this decision again kept the exploration from going as far as perhaps it could have gone. According to lines from the play itself “repetition is the motherfucker of infection” but then clearly much was being repeated. Yes, I get the irony of that, but is that enough? I find myself asking that a lot these days, not just in relation to this play but to many performances, including the way we live our own lives.
Another telling line is Bromley as his fictional musician self reminding himself to “stick to the point if I want to appear like someone I want to copy.” Now again, there are multiple levels of irony to this line, which make it very funny, but it makes me wonder if the show then continues to run around, as he says “like a chicken with its head stuck on.”
There were some great moments in the show, however and given my predilection for real risk taking, the second song was my favorite, as there was an interesting vocal-visual-range between the words, piano playing of Schrager and her lovely video in relation to the action, including fingers playing at different speeds from her own live and views of ‘the house of.’ Also, it seemed as if Bromley and Schrager were riffing off the words more than simply reciting them. Even if this was not happening, they did create that illusion. I had a quibble with Schrager needing to be dressed in super-sexy lingerie, as this seems to be almost a cliché of female under-dress in male-directed so-called experimental theater, but it’s so common, most people would probably miss it as an issue. It is very ‘old cigarette’ however.
The “crashing musicians” (as referred to in program notes) were quite good – in the show I saw, they were The Broadcloth Trio. The fact they are different musicians on different days means that their section is not repeated. Their playing and presence did not seem ironic, as this is their world – that of improvised, new music – and they were not ‘in character’. They were quite happy to be there, and that element worked very well. However, the two dancers, Beth Griffith and Peter Schmitz, seemed somewhat out of place, as they looked like they were in a world of improvised dance/theater that was being ironized and so looked kind of awkward and lost in the 1970s. There were positive words about the ‘new cigarette’ at the end, but this did not stop these two from seeming as if they were from a different world, interesting referred to in the voice-over as being 16 year old kids, when they were clearly not.
This is a piece worth seeing, however, as Bromley’s intelligence is clear and the questions are real. If you want your story telling linear and your theater clear, give it a miss, but if you like to be challenged and engage in these questions about irony, do check it out. I only wished Smoke the New Cigarette asked more of its performer/creators and its audience rather than less.
Theater of the Arcade has a brilliant structure, which apparently owes as much to video games as to the five playwrights that are parodied in the five discrete sections. The actors, Fred Backus, Hope Cartelli, Stephen Heskett, Josh Mertz, Shelley Ray and Timothy McCown Reynolds, were all excellent. Jeffrey Lewonczyk’s writing was quite good, displaying an astonishing grasp of multiple styles of playwriting and Gyda Arber’s direction was strong.
Before I go on, I must make this confession: I do not know video games, have never played video games and therefore can make no comment as to the fidelity of each section to those games. According to those I spoke with afterwards who know these games they were quite accurate.
However, I did catch all the playwright references and will focus on each section in relation to its playwright and the way in which it succeeded as a parody or homage to that playwright. Again, the issue of irony becomes a real issue here, because, for instance the second section followed along the lines of a Tennessee Williams play, merging references to Glass Menagerie and Streetcar Named Desire. As the play works with working class motifs and the abuse portrayed was portrayed quite directly and without stylization (appropriate to the type of play it was meant to evoke), hearing people laughing at it made me uncomfortable. It felt very classist, like the well-educated New Yorkers laughing at the rubes on stage and/or anyone who likes Tennessee Williams. A bit like watching reality TV ‘ironically.’ I imagine given the video game references, the laughter was probably actually about that, but because I had no access to those references and because the acting was done in a straightforward manner, it felt quite dark and like laughter was not the appropriate response. This felt like an unintended consequence, not in any way on purpose, but still this was the effect.
On the other hand, the third section, which was a Brecht/Meyerhold homage, worked very well, because irony is built into that system, there are obvious distancing effects and therefore it can handle another level of irony on top of that. This of all the sections was the most successful, probably because Lewonczyk works in that register in his other work as a writer and director.
The Beckett spoof in the first section worked, but it’s quite hard to capture Beckett accurately while spoofing his writing. Near the very end of that section, Lewonczyk began to grapple with some of Beckett’s complexity within the gaming structure when the player (Reynolds) says “First many steps are right and only some are wrong, then only one is right and many are wrong.” This is the kind of lovely, simple, funny yet evocative writing that happened in moments throughout the evening.
The fourth section was a Mamet parody, which was very well done, and as Mamet is quite ironic and dark in his own writing, this held up without a hitch. I did wish it had felt more menacing somehow, but the structure, which was more important than any such consideration, demanded it stay at a distance. This also affected the Beckett section, as Beckett’s writing for all its dark absurdity also has a transcendent quality that could not be touched by this structure.
The final section, which in many ways was the most interesting, was the Shepherd inspired section. For all of its gaming references and the laughter it generated, there was a haunting quality to it that made me yearn for more.
Which leads me back to the issue of irony. This section, which evokes a world where mystery exists and certain ideas, even profound ideas, were broached, made me wish it were not in such a tightly controlled structure with such an ironic patina, so it could go further into those darker, murkier territories.
Theater of the Arcade as is, however, is definitely worth seeing, because this show, too, stimulates a lot of these questions, which would not be in the air if there were no work of quality to discuss. Also, it’s just plain fun, with very well executed moments, visual acuity and real wit.
The two one-acts Antrobus & Gone by Ian W. Hill for CollisionWorks at The Brick (which is not part of FringeNYC) offer a refreshing break from the reliance on irony to make contemporary work.
Antrobus, which like Theater of the Arcade refers to another play, in this case Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (in which the Antrobus family walks through many ages of human history, always about to die out, but somehow surviving). Like the Antrobus’ in one act of Wilder’s play, they are stuck in an ice age, but the implication is that this is one in the future brought on my global warming not an historical one with dinosaurs (as with Wilder). Another difference is that the ‘family’ is a reconstruction of a family wherein people have been given roles and have names such as Daughter and Grandfather.
They attempt each day to put back history, which is represented by pieces of paper strewn around the floor. Each member of the family asks the others questions such as “When did truth stop being important?” and someone else will answer something like “After history stopped being important.” I could not write down the before and after answers fast enough, but there were questions and answers about when did love, God, religion, gender, politics, and other such topics stop being important and answers about where to place them.
The Grandfather has been running this operation for a while. The gender roles in the house did lead me to question the notion that at any point gender had stopped being important, which leads to an interesting question that this piece evokes. In attempting to reconstruct a history after an apocalyptic past, how will the great man of history idea hold up? This is a question the Granduncle asks, so the question has not been forgotten, and it should be said that it is the Daughter who wants to go out exploring. Granduncle suggests perhaps they should be seeking “something less like history and more like nature,” which is an idea that points to something past irony as a response to our continual re-creation and re-presentation of historical periods and events.
The issue comes up as to who is destroying the history every night, with the Grandfather accused of doing it, but the Uncle saying he’s seen the papers fall apart of their own accord. It is unclear whether he is telling Sister this to appease her, continue a family legend or it is true. The ambiguity is lovely.
At the end of the play (spoiler alert!), when the Daughter and Grandfather go outside, they see the ice cracking, and the sense is there may be a new route out of where they have found themselves. Before they eat dinner, Junior brings out a piece of paper and says it got lost in the kitchen, and it represents Art. So he asks “When did art stop being important?” and the Grandfather takes the piece of paper and places it at the bottom of the pile, implying perhaps it has not.
While the end with the saying of grace may seem a little nostalgic, it nicely evokes Wilder while not destroying him or his vision, and giving an opening for the importance of anyone creating anything in these arguably dark times.
The actors, David Arthur Bachrach, Michael McKim, Patrice Miller, Victoria Miller, William Webber and Bill Weeden, all do a good job foregrounding the ideas of the piece while embodying their roles. Because of the loud air conditioning I could have used for their volume to increase, but got the sense they were directed by Hill to speak in a less obviously theatrical way. This works as it keeps the play from becoming histrionic, though at times a little forward momentum may have been interesting, too, but that is a tiny quibble.
Gone is a tour-de-force of language and movement between two actors, in this case the prodigiously talented Alyssa Simon and Ivanna Cullinan. I say movement, even though they were sitting in chairs for most of the piece, because they spoke and inhabited the text (which owes a lot to the Joycean riffs of Finnegan’s Wake), moved their bodies, voices and faces in such a way that they seemed to be dancing even when seated.
Hill wrote this text over 15 years and it shows, in a good way. It is somewhere between language games, stream of consciousness (but not in a sloppy way), cut-ups and grammatical confusions deployed to create a dense dialogue between two women that appear like two older ladies drinking tea.
While the piece is hard to penetrate at the beginning, as the language does not follow traditional grammatical strategies, as it goes on, it becomes easier to follow, if one allows oneself to stop listening for traditional language, but for meaning to emerge from the ways in which the words are assembling in one’s mind.
I did wonder for the first half why Hill had decided to have the two women speaking to one anther as if in a caricature of two ladies-of-a-certain-age gossiping and bickering with one another (I would have been interested to see something besides a strict 4th wall theater to allow another possible range of the meaning of the words to emerge), but by the second half when the two monologues emerged, I did not have this issue.
The first part of the piece leads up to these monologues and functions to allow us to get used to the varied use of language, which includes not only odd grammar but also sometimes made up words, anagrams and many kinds of word play.
When Simon begins her monologue, she seems to be arguing for a kind of life-affirming, joyful mode of being. Of the two, she has appeared to be the happier and more glamorous one of the two. Cullinan’s character has seemed sullen, worried and negative. She wears no make-up and looks beaten down by the world. Simon’s monologue sounds like an instruction to Cullinan to grab life and live it in a passionate way, as she herself as done. By the end, there is an electric sense in the air of possibility.
When Simon finishes, Cullinan begins her monologue, during which her entire face and body shift from beaten down to whole and serene. Her words, which are not said in a linear way but in the accumulation of images and phrases, justify her way of life, which embraces pain as part of life. She repeats (I think – as the words came fast and furious it was hard to write down anything) “I stand on my own two feet” and says that acceptance means a prison but fighting means a cot out in the open free air. She refuses to be ‘blessed.’ Cullinan’s physical transformation, which took place while she remained seated, was extraordinary.
During this, Simon gradually fades and as Cullinan’s monologue comes to an end, it is clear Simon has died. The refrain throughout the piece between the two women is the phrase: Gone. This word ends the piece, when Cullinan says it to the waiter who has been serving them tea.
There is a profound sense of sadness and joy in this piece, and I encourage you to go and see it, because it is not the kind of thing one sees very much these days, as it is not slick or marketable, instead complex, difficult and rewarding. Simon and Cullinan, too, are extraordinary to watch.
So, without the use of irony, Hill manages to evoke two complex, contemporary worlds and for this he needs to be commended.
My next post will be a review of Nils' Fucked Up Day, a dark, funny Romanian show, which uses situational irony in a deeply compelling and disturbing way, but then crucially throws it off at the end to great effect. So, I should add here that it is not irony itself that is the issue. It is using irony as a shield or a self-protective device that can be problematic, the assuring wink or fingers crossed behind the back that can let the audience and the show off the hook.
I would love to know anyone’s thoughts on this issue as I think it’s a deeply problematic one for our times.
And finally thank you to all the artists mentioned here who had the guts to make and put their work out there for scrutiny, for very little or no money but instead for love. I say that without any irony at all.
(click on these titles to see details of remaining shows and venues)