Monday, July 26, 2010

Pragmatic Aesthetics III: "Interpretation" Pt. 2

I wrote on Saturday a missive about interpretation after seeing a poor show that night. I'm glad I saw that poor show, because last night I saw a show which did everything right that the poor company did wrong: The Brick/Piper McKenzie's Theater of the Arcade (NYT review here of the festival it was a part of).

Well, not all of the five sub-plays did it as well, but the evening's three gems -- the Williams-style adaptation of Donkey Kong, the Mamet-style adaptation of Asteroids, and the Sondheim-style adaptation of Pac-Man managed to do these on key.
  • An "interpretation" is when you add something to the text that does not progress alongside the text.
Each of these "worlds" progressed in interesting ways. The best example of it was the Asteroids adaptation; ironically, the static-ness of the game it is based on (for God's sake, you just break up asteroids) became the core metaphor for how the characters have their world rocked to the very core.

Particularly, there's a central metaphor drawn between the way you have to break apart asteroids into smaller and smaller pieces until they break down into nothing, and the effect that the corporate/Wild West environment of the "asteroid demolition company" has on the people who work there -- they are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces.

One pilot is a star; like Glengarry Glen Ross' Roma, he's at the top of his game. The other pilot is an old hand, and is falling apart: like Levene, he's clearly falling apart, and he clearly has committed fraud (the crime being committed). The star pilot implicates the old hand, and eventually he's driven out -- leaving the star pilot in a position to blackmail his boss and begin to commit the same fraud himself. He too has been broken down into smaller and smaller pieces.

  • If you took away the text that you're working with, would anything be happening with the characters and world you've created apart from the text?
This was basically guaranteed by the fact that the source material (the games) had no words to begin with, so the playwright was forced to put the progression and change into the new world they were creating.
  • Only keep the elements of the outer world or inner text that support whatever goal you're trying to achieve with the work.
This was a little bit more tricky -- sometimes it seemed that the video game elements were kept in for a joke, but didn't necessarily move things forward. This was what made the last piece, a Shanley-style adaptation of Super Mario Bros., not nearly as effective as a piece. In order to include the fanciful elements of Super Mario Bros., the characters took magic mushrooms at the beginning, and elements of the game were introduced as hallucinations. It was the least true to the characters, the least true to Shanley, and the least helpful for the story at the center -- two brothers who put aside their differences to chase the girl they both desire.

On the other hand, there was something deeply hilarious about how the playwright managed to incorporate the wooden barrel into the world of the Donkey Kong world -- not just as a weapon that happened to be at hand, but as the cause of his downfall -- he's fired from a wooden barrel factory that is shrinking because everyone uses steel barrels now.
  • Figure out why your outer world needs your inner world, and why your inner world needs your outer world, and why the two of them force each other to progress.
The biggest success was here. Each play -- even the Shanley one, that didn't impress me as much, or the Beckett-style monologue about Frogger (that I think could have been shorter, but worked overall) -- managed to distill the game into a central existential message, connect it to a playwright that reflects that, and make that progression work. For instance, for the Pac-Man musical:
  1. Pac-Man is essentially something that eats, and tries to avoid ghosts.
  2. Pac-Man is greed incarnate -- unable to escape the race to eat as much as possible, although haunted by specters.
  3. Pac-Man is a wealthy bastard who does nothing but eat while he destroys the lives of others, who return to him as ghosts.
  4. Because Pac-Man is, therefore, essentially a grotesque morality play about the few who are rich and the many who are poor, it's basically Sweeney Todd.
  5. Pac-Man is a rich industrialist who must continuously consume to avoid the diseases (such as jaundice, which turns him yellow) -- making him a fat (round) character. In his greed, he has created enemies of those who have starved from poverty -- thus becoming ghosts -- and he is afraid of them.
  6. All of this would be funnier in Germany.
There you have the progression of how Pac-Man becomes a gritty opera about the working class.

All of this has made me rethink how I approach narrative, and I'll be rewriting the sections in my thesis about narrative to accommodate it.

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