Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: Shakespeare the Dead

Pipeline Theatre Company
In association with Theater for the New City and Dream Up Festival
upcoming performances:
Thursday - September 2 @ 9:00pm
Friday - September 3 @ 9:00pm
Saturday - September 4 @ 7:00pm

tickets available here

As a pragmatist, I try to look for a moment in a work of theater where a goal is articulated or at least is palpable. When Alex Mills (the playwright, performing in the role of The Stranger) declared, "Let's all stop worshipping the corpse of a dead man--let's start make a new classic!" I knew I was hearing not only the desire of a filmmaker in the world of the play, I was hearing his desire clearly stated.


Firstly, the play itself. The original work, crafted by Alex Mills, tells the story of a film crew gathered to a remote location to film an adaptation of Macbeth. Or so they think. Pretty much from the get-go, a mystery sets in as The Producer (Gil Zabarsky) is swept aside by The Stranger (Alex Mills), and the entire project is swiftly morphed into an homage to a man who died in shocking -- and mysterious -- circumstances.

Mills understands that the secret to a good mystery is not to be mysterious -- it's to present a few compelling facts and hide the rest of the information. At first, it doesn't even feel like you're watching a mystery -- you are watching a comedy, but you're sitting there wondering, "What the fuck is going on?"

In this atmosphere of secrets and confusion, the compelling rope that pulls us along are the vividly drawn, tenderly crafted characters. Willy Appelman as The Intern, in particular, paints a character who is largely incidental to the plot, but as a touchingly sympathetic character, we wind up following him along.

We watch repeatedly as characters dare to hope, and get their dreams torn apart by vicious, sharp cynicism -- The Intern is constantly mocked for thinking that an unpaid, full-time internship is somehow worth something, The Writer (Jessica Frey) is mocked for thinking that Shakespeare has some sort of relevance in this world.

The sharpness of the cynicism is actually sharp: when The Stranger gives a cruel, biting rant tearing into The Writer, the little sadist in us grins. But quickly, it becomes apparent that the world of cruel tearing anger and the world of innocent hopefulness are really the same world, are motivated by the same things -- and watching that emotional realization onstage is what draws the audience along, even as they try to untangle a dense knot of confusion.

For me, though, the production gave me a chance to ruminate on who exactly Pipeline Theatre Company is. They're a company I like, and I've seen plenty of their works before: their hysterical Psycho Beach Party, and their evening of short works Brave New Works, which I think is not only a good night of theater but a service to the community.

Who are these people, though? Their mission statement doesn't fulfill me: "Pipeline's mission is to simply tell excellent, entertaining, thoughtful stories that explore the many facets of humanity from our unique perspective." It's one of those mission statements that says, "We put on good theater." And, to be fair, it's one that they take seriously and do well.

But I've been watching them and I feel like there's more to what they're up to. There's something crafty in the broad, character-driven humor they're putting in front of the audience that's hiding a very intellectual and subtle aim. I haven't divined it exactly, but I hope their theater comes to more critical scrutiny in the future -- because I feel like they are almost done a disservice for being seen as just a funny evening. What I said above about the viciousness and the hope coming from the same place is a message that many may just walk on by, beguiled by the slapstick, the broad (if touching and sympathetic) characters.

I very much want this play to be put back into the cycle and put on again. There are a lot of chewy, engaging ideas that could be developed further -- in the design elements of the space, particularly the ritualistic chalk that divides up the space. The sense of ritual could heighten the world of mystery and suspense, laying the clues for the incredible ending (which I would feel criminal revealing here).

Furthermore, that fantastic ending could be sanded down a little, flowed more; it's incredibly ambitious in the way it destroys everything you were thinking about the show up to that point, but there are some moments towards the end where things have changed so fast that it feels like hitting a speed-bump; other transitions, however, are silky smooth and quite entrancing.

This, however, is nit-picking. Alex Mills' beguiling presence onstage and mental presence in the writing is a world that you could live in forever.

Go see it. Really, Alex Mills is one of the playwrights that you'll hear from again, a young Pinter with a broader sense of humor. You'll be rewarded for your time.

(Disclaimer: The FCC requires that I disclose that I was given a free ticket in return for my agreement to review this production.

The FCC doesn't require that I disclose that many of the people who are in the company are my personal friends, I have a crush on more than two of them, I consider Alex Mills to be a personal hero, my theater company has partnered with them before and will in fact be partnering with them in September on a short works festival (Brave New Works) and on a full-production that we're partnering with them with regards to space to get.

The FCC furthermore doesn't require that I disclose that people shared classes with many of these people, and have been given a bruise by one of the members of the cast -- she knows who she is.

The FCC is not interested in the fact that we all hold degrees from the same university, nor to the fact that I probably couldn't live without a hug from one of these fine folks. Or the fact that my theater company is jealous of their theater company.

I'm saying all this because I find it rather odd that the FCC doesn't require me disclose all of that, seeing as all of those things seem rather more important than the $10 that they waived me to see the show.)

(UPDATE: For some reason, I have repeatedly made the claim that Colby Day Productions' Ghost of Dracula was, in fact, a Pipeline Theatre venture. There is overlap in the two groups -- Daniel Johnson was involved, I believe, and played The Director in this production, as well as Alex Mills. However, I mistakenly conflated the two groups, and I have made the correction seamlessly in-line. My apologies to my former roommate Colby.)