Monday, October 11, 2004

Life imitates Art
…or is it the other way around? (Part I)

Mixed bag
After a month-long series of posts centering mainly on the subject of friendship, I was rather in the mood to talk about something completely different, but life seems to be unwilling to allow me to move away from the subject. Things keep pointing me in the direction of pondering the gifts and the curses associated with the establishing and maintaining the relationships that add to the enjoyment and meaning of our lives on this planet.

A week ago last Saturday I had yet another moving experience that I initially received as one thing, yet upon delving deeper and searching my own heart about it, determined that the message said something else entirely different. The whole experience really gave me pause.

I’ve been sitting on this story for several days now, partially because of the shaking that I received from my little wakeup call. I took my first intentional weekend off from blogging and writing in general since beginning my new obsession nearly six months ago. It was good to get away from it for a bit, although I’m eager to get back into writing now. However from here I’m not quite sure which direction my blog will be taking in the short term.

But for now, this post will cover a number of topics, based upon a single subject, my daughter's play. This post will be nothing like I had originally planned when I began thinking of writing it over a week ago. However it was originally intended to be a tribute to my daughter Amy, and still will be. The difference is that her involvement in the events of this story have done a lot more than just making me a proud Poppa.

Cue me in, willya?
A week ago last Saturday Michelle and I traveled to Chattanooga, TN to have dinner with and attend the latest UTC Theater production with which Amy is involved. This would be her first major involvement in stage managing a play in college, and the first play we’d seen in which she was not an actor.

She has said ever since getting her first experience as a director’s assistant in her freshman year of high school that she enjoys the behind-the-scenes working of theater nearly as much as acting itself. I would be neither disappointed nor surprised if she ended up pursuing stage management or directing as her primary focus in the future. She is a tireless worker and obviously has the respect of all her peers in the department.

Until we got down there and spent some time talking with her, I never really knew much about what a stage manager did. I assumed it was someone who simply kept things moving behind the scenes and assisted the director.

Wrong, greasepaint-breath!

That which the title connotes is in fact the job description. The stage manager is the director during the play, communicating with the actors, as well as the sound, lighting and props personnel, and delivering them cues as to when to perform their functions. Amy explained that the actual Director of a play does all of their work prior to the production’s opening, and oftentimes, in professional theater settings, doesn’t even stick around beyond opening night. It is the stage manager’s task to take the feel and design the director creates for the production in pre-opening rehearsals, and put them into action during the actual performances of the play’s engagement.

So in other words, Amy was The Man for this play. And she did a phenomenal job.

The production was French playwright Yazmina Reza’s multiple award-winning Art, which in addition to garnering numerous European theatrical awards, in the U.S. won the Tony Award for Best Play of 1998. Being the theater maven that I’m not, I of course had never heard of it.

The play was very funny, uproariously so in some parts. It was a 90-minute, single act performance with only three actors and not more than three or four set changes. The minimalist set was altered only slightly to indicate a change in locale, usually with the switching out of a picture via a revolving panel on the main wall. So the effect of the subtle lighting and prop changes were very important in reflecting the shifts in mood and focus as well as delivering the impression that the scene has changed to another location. There are frequent points throughout the play in which the actors speak their thoughts directly to the audience beneath a spotlight. Amy’s crew appeared to be "spot-on" in all of those transitions. I was thoroughly impressed and proud of her as always — that, I rather expected.

What I didn’t expect was the effect that the play would have on me.

Being completely unfamiliar with the production I went in with a completely open mind — and proceeded to get it completely blown.

Art is a play about its namesake, or so it seems, until about sixty minutes in. It is set in modern-day Paris and centers around three 40something men, who had been lifelong friends until a certain divisive element is brought into their midst — a four-by-five-foot white painting. The play is regarded as and has won many awards as a comedy — much to the chagrin of its author I would later find out.

It has been said that art is akin to pornography in that while it’s impossible to completely define, people are confident that they know it when they see it. Art is capable of sparking such emotions that it rightfully should be added to the popular saying, along with politics and religion as one of the things that shouldn’t be discussed at the dinner table.

In the setting of the play, the definition of what is a “work of art” and what is “a piece of shit” is merely the surface decoration for the real subject at hand: “what is friendship?” and the proper expectations thereof.

After having spoken to someone who actually saw the Broadway production, I really wish now that I could say the same. The three actors playing the lead roles of the Tony Award-winning production were Alan Alda (of the M*A*S*H TV series), Victor Garber (noted character actor of stage and screen) and Alfred Molina (who brilliantly portrayed the tortured “Dr. Octopus in the recent Spider-Man 2 movie). It must have been spectacular. But that's not to diminish the performance of the three young men in the UTC production. They performed their roles extremely well — a daunting task considering the sheer amount of rapid-fire dialogue and length of scenes in a 90-minute one-act play. However it was difficult to watch three boys my daughter’s age and believe that they were forty years of age. Still, the job the UT Chattanooga drama students from pulled off was brilliant, and provided a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the audience.

The plot revolves mostly around two of the three men, Serge and Marc. Their friend Yvan (pronounced Ee-vaughn), the stationery store clerk, is the least sophisticated of the group. His lovable buffoon offers no pretense of class or position. His meek demeanor and comical quirkiness is a perfect counterpunch to the highly charged white-collar testosterone being spewed between the story’s other two characters.

The conflict between Marc and Serge centers on a painting by the renowned modern artist “Atrios,” which Serge has proudly purchased for the not-so-modest sum of 200,000 Francs (about $40,000 U.S.).

Serge, a dermatologist and nouveau aesthete claims that the painting “resonates” with him. He is obviously pleased with himself in making such a bold statement about his enlightened sense of sophistication.

Marc is an aeronautical engineer, a practical, down to earth man. As a traditionalist and not necessarily a fan of modern art, he initially thinks the purchase is a joke. Upon learning that it is not, he is incensed and can’t believe that his friend could throw away so much money on “this white shit.”

Yvan is caught in the middle as each of his friends individually attempt to win him over to their point of view. To make matters worse (and infinitely more humorous), he injects his own emotional meltdown into the mix, fretting over the crisis between he and his fiancée’s feuding mothers (and stepmothers) who are arguing over the wording of the couple's wedding invitations.

The spirited dialogue between the three rightfully evokes a lot of laughter from the audience. Everything is over-the-top, which is what makes it so funny. However I found that I was no longer laughing once Marc revealed the true source of his distaste for Serge’s decision. It was at that point that the play became much more than a comedic romp, suddenly morphing into a poignant study in human behavior.

In the lion’s share of the play’s dialogue to that point, Serge and Marc had engaged in a largely circular argument about the painting’s merits or the lack thereof, punctuated by the lighthearted diversion of Yvan’s melodramatic pre-marital crisis. However near the end we find out what it is about this whole episode that has really bothered Marc. The answer presents a darker side of friendship that many of us are guilty of if we’re honest with ourselves (and if you’re never felt this way, you’re a better person than I). As soon as I recognized it, I knew I wanted to write about it. I also knew that I wanted to know more about the playwright.

Reza’n my awareness…
In doing some research on the play and its author, Yazmina Reza, I found a lot of reviewers comparing the pace and humor of Art to that of Seinfeld. And while I agree that the play has a comedic bite reminiscent of the TV show, I would strongly suggest that the playwright’s intent is far different.

Seinfeld is a farce, and we gladly recognize it as such — that’s why it’s so funny. Co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David took all the foibles of pop-culture young America and beautifully exaggerated them to excess in the characters of the show. It’s hilarious. Why? Because everything that Jerry, Kramer, George and Elaine think and react to is an attitude with which most of us can identify. And because they’re so exaggerated, we can laugh at the comedic value for its own sake. After all, “I might be bad, but at least I’m not that bad, right?”

However something tells me that Reza isn’t a big Seinfeld fan. I was glad to have discovered a lengthy interview from 2001 with the playwright by an entertainment columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian. The interview was conducted in light of Reza’s current play of that time, which followed Art by five or six years. The columnist seemed surprised, almost devastated by the dark, brooding Reza, who has more than once expressed that she was disconcerted by reviewers’ characterization of her work as purely comedic.

“My plays have always been described as comedy but I think they're tragedy. They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy. Maybe it's a new genre,” she explained in the interview.

“Why is Art a tragedy?” The interviewer asked.
"Because it is a break-up of a friendship, a rupture between people ... it's a heartbreaking play if you read it," Reza commented.

Now I am hopefully a long way from being a culture snob, but that statement didn’t surprise me a bit. I completely “got” that Art is ultimately a tragedy. That the majority of ten or so reviews I read completely missed that point is just as tragic; perhaps even more so.

Next: The truth comes out
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