All A-Bored

15. February, 2013 Theater 1 comment

“Well, that certainly was what it was.”

That’s what I said to myself as I walked away from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum last night after seeing Early Plays, a collection of three of Eugene O’Neill’s one-act Glencairn Plays adapted and directed by experimental theater artist Richard Maxwell. The production isn’t just the West Coast premiere of this particular show, but it’s also the San Francisco debut of two major New York avant-garde theater companies, the Wooster Group and Maxwell’s own New York City Players, who collaborated this Obie Award-winning piece that debuted in Brooklyn last year.

Brian Mendes and Ari Fliakos in Early Plays. Photo courtesy of the Wooster Group.

Written between 1914 to 1917, the Glencairn Plays are a cycle of four one-acts about the crew of the S.S. Glencairn—a motley group of sailors from many lands aboard a British tramp steamer. Three of them are performed here without intermission, the show running about an hour and a half. In Moon of the Caribbees, two women in the West Indies smuggle rum aboard to sell to the sailors, prompting all kinds of misbehavior. Bound East for Cardiff is one long death scene for one of the sailors in his bunk. And The Long Voyage Home takes place on land, in a port town pub, where one of the sailors is drugged and shanghaied aboard a notorious ship that no one wants to crew. As the name of the evening indicates, these plays were written quite early in O’Neill’s career, before his early successes in the 1920s and well before some of his best-known classics of the 1930s and 1940s.

As a director, Maxwell’s trademark is affectlessness. The performers deliver the lines in a monotone, without nuance, varying in volume but without emotion of any kind. Their faces are expressionless, their body language flat. They may dance or fight or ravish each other, but everything is done is a matter-of-fact,  perfunctory way. These particular plays are written in thick dialect—Irish, West Indian, the broken English of Swedes and Dutchmen—and the dialect is pronounced very precisely without any attempt at an accent to match.

If that sounds totally fascinating to you, well, this show may be your cup of tea. If it sounds mind-numbingly dreary, it certainly is that as well. It’s interesting as an intellectual exercise, but it’s the sort of thing that requires advance reading and a heaping helping of faith that these people know what they’re doing in order to appreciate it. If you’re an aficionado of the avant-garde who believes art should be challenging and difficult, you may dig it. If you have a populist belief that someone shouldn’t have to have a bunch of prerequisites to appreciate art and that someone walking in off the street should be able to get something out of it without knowing anything about it in advance, it’s bound to be frustrating.

The acting is terribly wooden, because it’s supposed to be wooden, and you can certainly admire the performers’ dogged refusal to give you anything to latch onto to maintain interest in what’s going on. Someone like Wooster Group founding member Kate Valk can imbue her expressionless rum smuggler and compulsively bar-wiping barmaid with enough presence to make them fascinating without varying her listless delivery, but more often than not when a character exclaims in disgust or surprise without any hint of emotion, the incongruity of it is just mildly amusing.

Often the only thing that kept me engaged at all were the slight glimmers of character and subtext that some actors allowed to leak through their stony exterior, such as Keith Connolly’s braggart Cocky in the first play or Victoria Vazquez’s sad-eyed barroom temptress in the last, though at the same time I was aware that in letting even that much realism slip into the performance they were probably “doing it wrong.” But that tiny touch of human feeling had the effect of lending The Long Voyage Home a slight poignancy lacking in the cold flatness of the others. Bound East for Cardiff, for instance, could easily become sputteringly melodramatic if the actors were allowed to act; as it is, the interminable deathbed moans of burly Yank (Brian Mendes) attended by the stony reassurances of Irishman Driscoll (Ari Fliakos, speaking what’s clearly written as a thick brogue in a clipped American accent) are monotonous to the point of ludicrousness.

Yerba Buena’s press release for the show describes Maxwell and New York City Players’ shows as “rigorously stripped of theatrical artifice,” which doesn’t seem true at all. Although Jim Clayburgh and Elizabeth LeCompte’s gray box of a set is devoid of scenery aside from a few bits of furniture—some bunks for the second play, a bar counter and table for the third—its elaborate structure of cranks, bars and pulleys helps create the illusion of a ship. Stage fog fills the scene for Bound East, dimly lit by a few lanterns and the faint shadow of passing clouds in Michael McGee and Jeff Englander’s lighting design. Sound designer Bobby McElver has a low drone moas in the background during that play and a haunting spiritual audible from a distance in Caribbees. And the ensemble sings compelling deadpan songs between the plays, accompanied by castmates McElver, Mendes and Andrew Schneider on piano, guitar, accordion or harmonica. Every moment of the production is full of theatrical artifice.

And, of course, the entire conceit of this expressionless style is itself artificial, an antirealism that’s inherently, doggedly unreal. It’s not stripped of artifice; it’s artificially stripped of emotional content. I don’t know that it particularly serves the material or makes O’Neill’s juvenilia seem any stronger, but the cognitive dissonance of having the dialect so carefully and liltlessly enunciated certainly draws attention to some of the rich language in the plays. It’s not enough to make it a voyage worth taking unless you’re seriously jazzed by the whole idea of it, but it helps to pass the time once you’re aboard.

Early Plays
The Wooster Group/New York City Players
Through February 16
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum
701 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #17 of 2013, attended February 14.

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  1. sundari

    2 / 15 / 2013 2:58 pm

    As long as we’re rigorously stripping theatre of artifice, then I think during these shows we should be allowed to heckle, yawn loudly, walk around when we get bored, and leave loudly in the middle of the performance. Because sitting quietly in a theatre to appreciate whatever is happening in front of you is also a kind of artifice, if we’re going to be that way about things. I’m sure the director would LOVE that.





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