Tuesday, April 24, 2012
A man with irregular features. Exit stage left. Curtain...
You wouldn't think stage directions would be particularly interesting fodder but to tell the truth, I've always kind of enjoyed them. Eugene O'Neill clearly enjoyed them as well since he would lay out copious, detailed, lengthy descriptions of what his characters should do - for example:
“She is slender, dark, beautiful, with large eyes, which she attempts to keep always mysterious and brooding, smiling lips, which she resolutely compresses to express melancholy determination, a healthy complexion subdued by powder to a proper prison pallor and a vigorous, lithe body which frets restlessly beneath the restriction of studied, artificial movements.”
How's that for giving clear guidance to an actor? So much guidance, in fact, that the New York Neo-Futurists (speaking of which, how's that for a name?) have pulled it all together to perform just the stage directions quite literally from a combination of Eugene O'Neill plays, playing as part of the Eugene O'Neill Festival at the Arena Stage.
This is a different kind of play - different is good. But it does take a bit getting used to. In the first few pieces you're getting used to the pace. The interpretations are comedic in nature, bordering on the absurdist most of the time, and as is my usual gripe, I found a lot to be over-acted. More can be more sure, but sometimes too much is flat out too much - I just wish the cast wou have a bit more confidence in the fact that they already are really pretty funny. And when the cast put on the stage directions to "The Web" they lost me altogether, but that's just because the play itself hits such a nerve since it marries up two of my biggest fears in one blow: incarceration for false accusation and abandoning a child - add the setting of a tenement house and the mother's consumption on the side and you have a real human tragedy that for me can never be funny, and I just couldn't get on board with the comedic treatment. But that's more of a me problem.
But by the last few pieces, they had me back. At that point the tone and pieces are lighter, and you're getting used to how it works and there are some bona fide laughs to be had. I think those with experience working in theater will laugh the hardest (and no joke, there was truly one guy just about falling out of his chair in a very exaggerated fashion). Towards the end, of the literal directions is for the theater to be darkened for three minutes. All the lights go off - three minutes can be a really long time. Three minutes in the dark can also be really funny - for no reason at all.
Photos 1,2, and 3 by Sarah Kruhlwich for the New York Times; Photo 4 by Anton Nickel for Washington Post; Photo 5 by Anton Nickel for Arena Stage via Washington City Paper.