12 September, 2007

Theatre Rant

People are often asking me about my theatrical tastes, the best theatre I have "ever seen." I have not had the privilege of living in a highly theatrical city for the majority of my life. Detroit leaves much to be desired in that area. New York, London, Minneapolis, Glasgow, to name a few, have a much higher density of theatrical ventures... But. I shall try to oblige.

Also note that many of my choices perhaps strike so deeply based solely upon my specific aesthetic tastes (I have a certain penchant for Carnival grotesques, and for physical theatre styles both classical and contemporary).

But before this list begins, however, I must add that without question the most impressive and viscerally engaging theatre I have ever witnessed has been from a Minneapolis-based company called Theatre de la Jeune Lune (Theatre of the New Moon). Here is there credo:


We are a theatre of directness, a theatre that speaks to its audience, that listens and needs a response. We believe that theatre is an event. We are a theatre of emotions - an immediate theatre - a theatre that excites and uses a direct language - a theatre of the imagination.


Our name - "Theatre of the New Moon" - reflects our commitment to finding theatrical sustenance by looking for the new in the old. The name comes from a little poem by Bertolt Brecht:

As the people say, at the moon's change of phases
The new moon holds for one night long
The old moon in its arms.

The strong and tender care that the future shows for the past describes the dialectic that informs all of Jeune Lune's work: striving to link a past heritage of popular performance traditions - from circus and classical farce to commedia dell'arte and vaudeville - to a present function within the local community and the larger international community of cultural production. While embracing the 'old moon' of theatrical tradition, Jeune Lune seeks to create an entirely new kind of theatre that is immediate, high spirited, passionately physical, and visually spectacular.

Now, without further ado, here are the few choice selections.
These are the best evenings I have ever spent in a theatre...or er, a warehouse....

1. Tartuffe
Theatre de la Juene Lune
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Religious hypocrisy, zealotry and absolutism underpin the story of Tartuffe. Wealthy Orgon is a good man who lives like an ascetic in a sparsely furnished but grand house. He is convinced that the erstwhile vagrant Tartuffe is a man steeped in pious devotion. Tartuffe has ingratiated himself and his two henchmen into Orgon's home and has so convinced Orgon and his elderly mother of his religious fervor that Orgon no longer makes any decisions without first consulting Tartuffe. Orgon, blinded by his absolute zeal for Tartuffe, inadvertently helps him at every turn. Everybody else in the household is acutely aware of Tartuffe's blatant hypocrisy, but they cannot open Orgon's eyes.

To demonstrate he is even closer in his walk with Jesus, Tartuffe labors under an over-size cross. But he puts it down when he tries to bed Orgon's wife. Such is the life of this most famous hypocrite, a self-anointed guardian of God's wishes on Earth. And with its awesome performances, magnificent stagecraft and contemporary resonance, Theatre de la Jeune Lune's "Tartuffe" created a theatrical masterwork of the classic comedy, and was told with fluidity and engrossing verve. It struck more strings than a harpsichord as it revealed, in its stylized ways, that a 17th-century cautionary tale about faith and fraud could be so urgently current.

In our time, when the mix between religion and politics has grown so increasingly volatile, David Ball's sharp translation cut like a paring knife. His writing sometimes bounced us out of the story -- for example when he used rhymed couplets in select parts of the play. The rhyming, which tuned our ears in anticipation, reminded me of the playwright's art, not Tartuffe's artifice. The net result was very moving, girded by deft direction and the masterfully-crafted performances.

2. Fuerzabruta
The Roundhouse
London, England

From the same group of ferociously creative minds that brought us De La Guarda, this was a jaw-dropping blend of aerial acrobatics, cutting edge performance, and dance. Fuerzabruta means ‘brute force’, and this sexy, playful and daring Argentinean production lived up to its name. In many ways an assault on the senses, it's unlike anything else you will ever encounter.

The performance oscillated between passages of tension and moments of release. A solitary figure in a rumpled cream suit, collar and tie, walked purposefully on an accelerating treadmill that advanced into the heart of the audience, bursting through the obstacles that appeared in his path. Later, a man and a woman clung to opposite sides of a vast, circular sheet that gyrated furiously overhead, at times resembling a giant sail, at others a lunar landscape. Then a huge transparent pool containing sportive water nymphs slowly descended on the audience.

There was nothing resembling a narrative. “No one knows the meaning of the work, because it doesn’t have one” assert its creators. But it was possible to discern a pattern. Stretches in which men and women in suits and skirts stoically engaged in seemingly futile, Sisyphean endeavours (the stuff on treadmills, for example) alternated with outpourings of elemental play as figures tumbling through the air or sliding through water. Was a point being made about the constraints of civilisation versus the freedom of nature? It didn't really matter when a show was as joyful and exuberant as this.

3. Lost Ones
Vanishing Point
Glasgow, Scotland

Lost Ones was a surreal, fantastical adventure about a man whose unusual past is coming back to haunt him. Strange creatures are emerging from his body and disappearing through a hole in the skirting board. Each carries a bag in which something valuable is being smuggled to the void on the other side. It all goes back to an incident at the top of a mountain, a class outing years before. A group of extraordinary children at the notorious academy, St Peter's On The Hill, are taken on a day out by their teacher. Only one child comes back, but what happened on that mountain? And why has it come back to haunt our hero now?
Based on a series of extraordinary short stories by Matthew Lenton, Lost Ones was a strange, beautiful and ever so slightly twisted piece of performance, with an extraordinary design and anarchic live music.

4. The Description of the World by Marco Polo
Theatre de la Juene Lune
Minneapolis, MN

Marco Polo's famous book The Description of the World is a fabulous monster of a book - a travel guide, phrase-book, meditation on nature, political tract, recipe collection and a wholesale pack of lies. Regardless of its truth, it opened spectacular new vistas to the medieval mind - and the mind of Kublai Khan, who was so enchanted by Polo that he held him a virtual captive for years, just to hear his stories. Polo's fabled tales of travel and adventure served as backdrop for this flight through sideshow oddity, visual splendour, and inventive cultural perplexities.

5. De La Guarda
Daryl Roth Theater
New York, New York

"De La Guarda" was more than a show...it was an experience. Upon entering the renovated Union Square Bank building, you were ushered downstairs to the social area for drinks, and a chance to check your coat and mingle with other guests. Five minutes before show-time, the staff gives a shout to head back upstairs where the festivities begin.

The lights go out and you are standing in a crowd of strangers when the show literally falls from the sky. De La Guarda has a certain rhythmic vibe created by the beat of the drums, the stomping of feet and screams as the cast flies across and down, to interact with the audience (which stands and moves throughout the 70 minute show). Performers run along the ceilings in unison and you cannot help but look up and follow them with your head cocked back. You got kissed, danced with, undressed, and even taken up into the sky for a ride. Amazing.

6. Pyrenees
The Tron Theatre
Glasgow, Scotland

In a nearly empty hotel a man who has lost his identity and a British Consular official try to work out who he is. He speaks a form of English. Anna a nervy young diplomat - not being an expert - isn't too sure where to place him geographically speaking. The Man hasn't the foggiest, he was found in the snow on the Pilgrims way in the Pyrenees. Using the infinitely talented David Grieg's sparse dialogue, on Neil Warmington's excellent louvered doored hotel balcony set, with beautifully toned lighting and Nick Powell's original sounds; this delicate and beautiful play explored identity seen through the fuzzy boundaries of relationships and nationalities.

Thoughts and comments welcome...


  1. no musicals? How interesting...

  2. A few people have pointed out that there are no musicals on this list... um, yes, I guess that is true... Many people forget that my background is not really specifically in musical theatre, nor do I necessarily always enjoy watching it. My passion is for live theatre itself, with or without music, good storytelling.

    However, I have seen some excellent musicals. These are a few that stick out in my head:
    - Sunday in the Park with George, 2006
    - Urinetown, Original Broadway Cast, 2003
    - Cabaret, 1998 Broadway Cast
    - Ragtime, Original Broadway Cast, 1998

    but it is worth reiterating that none explode out of my memory the way the six pieces above do.

  3. It is very very important that I add Shadowlands to this list. It has recently extended at The Novello Theatre in London until February 2008. See it. It is the best play I have seen in London.

    Charles Dance and Janie Dee star as C.S Lewis and Joy Gresham. With an outstanding visual and sound design, and finely detailed performances from the entire company. (I must mention a beautiful and touching performance from Richard Durden as Lewis' brother. A moment of his in the second act was one that made my inner ocean overflow quite memorably).

    See it. Words, as usual, fail.



Related Posts with Thumbnails