April 30, 2009

Fusebox/Forced Entertainment/"Spectacular"

Seen at the Fusebox Festival in Austin, TX. Four people actually walked out of this production by Forced Entertainment, described as one of Britain's greatest and most influential theatrical companies of the last 20 years.

The expectation that there might be walk-outs had already been worked into the script. I'm not sure if those who left would have done so without that suggestion, or if that was the intended result of mentioning the possibility, or if the walk-outs were faked by the company, which would be perfectly consistent with the concerns of the piece. Personally, I think it qualifies at least as a wonderful experiment. I haven't really studied the work, so would rather keep this short; but it's hard to explain without describing the piece a bit more [SPOILER ALERT: stop reading if you haven't seen the show and might have the chance.]

As the piece opens, a man strolls onstage dressed like "Death." The set is completely empty except for some red curtains at the sides, which are gathered and knotted, so they don't reach the floor or hide anything. The man's costume is not very impressive – a faded black sweatsuit with a rather inartfully painted skeleton on the front. He starts chatting lackadaisically (the following is a rough transcription), "[t]here are probably some people out there who don't think about death more than once a month. But I have to think about it every day, well, every day there's a performance, anyway. I have to go into the theater, stand outside my dressing room, knowing what's waiting for me in there, I have to go in, I have to reach up, I have to touch it, uuckh, on the hanger there . . . . And then I have to put it on, and then I have to go out and do the show." Looking around the empty stage set, he remarks, "[i]t's not usually like this. . . .

The man rambles on about the glitzier show that we're not seeing, audiences' reactions, what he likes or dislikes about it, etc. Before long, a woman comes out, interrupts him, and announces she'd like to do her big death scene now. The man says fine, and she proceeds with an incredibly long, histrionic performance that, off and on, continues through most of the rest of the production – throughout most of which the man continues his monologue, interrupting himself only when her agonized screams become too loud to talk over, or to make comments on her performance that sound like he's trying to be helpful but are mostly aimed at getting her to tone it down and stop upstaging him.

There's no suggestion that the woman is involved in the glitzier production the man "usually" performs in, and no other explicit explanation of their relationship is offered.

Meanwhile, the man's talk includes musings such as, why me, why was I chosen to play this role? how long can I keep this up? and theater in general, what's this all about, anyway? and how, although you're sitting right next to someone in the theater, fundamentally, you're alone with your own thoughts; and even when you're talking with someone, you're often not really paying attention to them, really focussing on them; it's very lonely. Among other things, he also mentions something along the lines of how just telling people things doesn't always make much impression on them, it's not "visceral" enough; so he likes to put things across to people by telling stories. But he never directly tells us any stories. His talk touches on some very important topics, but he never digs very deep; one presumes those who left were bored (although the characters and their interactions give rise to a fair amount of understated humor).

His remarks are often framed in terms vague enough to make it unclear what context or level of reality he's referring to, how literally – or not – he means them. In particular, it's not clear whether he realizes how some of them might apply in his own immediate situation, such as the fact that the woman's performance is extremely visceral and is really getting our attention, while his performance is driving some of us from the theater, or the fact of his own lack of attention to the woman "dying" behind him, while his bid for our attention, reinforced by the context of the theater, is ongoing. We don't know if he doesn't recognize his own inattentiveness and boringness, or just accepts them as given.

Schopenhauer wrote, "life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two [feelings] are in fact its ultimate constituents."* Each of the two characters in Spectacular may represent one of those two end-points rather literally; but in my view, the production as a whole offers enough humor and insight to show that, viewed from above or below, the pendulum may in fact swing in a circle.

Spectacular runs through May 2. More info at Fusebox and Forced Entertainment.

* [Sorry, I find numerous instances of this quotation online attributing it to Schopenhauer but no mention of what work it's from.]

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