Odin’s Horse and the Lehrstück ohne Lehre

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Fundamentally, theater is an act of gathering people together to tell a story. The $64,000 question is “Why?” Why bother gathering people together at all? With the diffusion of technology allowing people more and more never to have to experience art in the presence of another human being, one needs a compelling reason to work in an art in which the presence of another human being is essential.

A sensible reason is that one seeks to redefine how human beings relate to each other and help (or force) them to reconsider their relationships as part of a larger society. This is the heart of all truly political theaters. While the platitude about political theaters is that they exist only to preach to the converted or to bullyrag those who disagree, this is, of course, nonsense. Political theaters have offered some of the most radical innovations in theater, and nowhere was this more true than in the 20th Century European theaters, which gave the world Shaw, Piscator, Brecht, Eisenstein, Meyerhold, Joan Littlewood, Jan Kott, Ariane Mnouchkine–the list is long. As writer Richard Drain put it:

The notion that all they involve is plying the audience with harangues and messages can be readily dismissed. They have entailed an attempt to rethink the nature and function of theatre in the light of the dynamics of society outside it, and of audience involvement within it. This has led to new modes of acting, staging and playwriting, and hence new ways of representing life on stage. Political consciousness has sparked off a critique of theatre’s own structures and hierarchies, and brought about new working methods. It has energised the attempt to seek out new audiences,and has taken theatre, both literally and figuratively, into new territory.

Even in America where rabid anti-intellectualism, neurotic self-indulgence and political indifference guard the temple of conservative theater and its holy faux naturalism like the three heads of Cerberus, political theaters have laid siege to the gates for decades. Not only in straightforward agit-prop from the Workers’ Theater groups of the 1920s or the brusque anarchism of the Living Theater, but also in more subtle political work by the San Francisco Mime Theater and the Bread and Puppet Theater, politics have come to the fore and changed the way Americans think about theater and its role in society.

In our post-Bush era, political theater is increasingly rare. In our remote, cozy and often smug city of Seattle it is rarer still. Anything encouraging Americans to get together in a group to solve problems is a general anathema. Stereotypes have hardened. Dialogue is emotional and without sense. Issues are treated not as matters to solve by consensus but rather to be solved by fiat. It is no wonder discussion feels polarized.

Against all trends, Mirror Stage continues to believe in the theater’s power to teach and to change and to discuss. And I am glad they do.

I have not seen a fully-staged play produced by Mirror Stage in a decade but throughout their staged readings over the years, they have remained remarkably dedicated to their mission of “using the power of theater to challenge assumptions, bias and prejudice, while encouraging more thoughtful reflection on today’s issues.”

The “issue” at the heart of Robert Koon’s play, Odin’s Horse, is anything but topical. As a Seattleite, I have already lived through the most astringent times when logging was almost the greatest issue on the political table for Washington State. In that sense, the script might strike some as quaint. But the passage of time and topicality allows also for more thoughtful consideration of topics. Nothing has come along yet to “fix” the US timber industry. Nothing has stopped multinational corporations from ruining the blue-collar industries of America. There are no paperless offices, and most certainly there are no paperless toilets. The issue remains important and thoughtful discussion about it remains rare.

Astra and ArmanTo its benefit, the Mirror Stage production is compact and spare. It allows scenes to shift from the hermetically different worlds of the forest, the corporate office, the television podium and the writer’s desk with minimal invasion. Julia Evanovich’s costumes are flawless as usual and create a subtle symbolic context for the characters. The actors on stage are some of my favorite in the city. Daniel Christensen always shines and is solid. Stan Shields, Joe Ivy and Alex Garnett I have always liked and they perform exceptionally well here in supporting roles. I also like Anna Warren’s portrayal of the tree-sitter. Though I think she has a fairly limited arc, her attention to emotional moments is very sharp and only once did I think she went a bit too far. I am somewhat less enamored of Hannah Mootz as the corporate shill and dialectical counterpoint to the hero-boyfriend, Callie Stanton. Ms. Mootz has a very lovely presence and a steely voice that is sometimes sharp as a blade, yet her characterization here lacks a certain intimacy that would make two scenes between her and Mr. Christensen play more convincingly.

However, in this case I think the playwright here does not help Ms. Mootz, or the rest of the cast for that matter. Mr. Koon concentrates so much upon American-style naturalistic psychology and motivation that the larger political issue escapes. The lower class characters show no ability or possibility to change at all, only an acceptance of fate as though everything is simply natural, reminding me of Brecht’s poetic introduction to his Lehrstück, The Exception and the Rule:

We ask you expressly to discover
That what happens all the time is not natural.
For to say that something is natural
In such times of bloody confusion
Of ordained disorder, of systematic arbitrariness
Of inhuman humanity, is to
Regard it as unchangeable.

This is exactly the problem of a political play that aims for psychological realism. It becomes a Lehrstück but there is no lehren. Such a play emphasizes bourgeois “character” over the larger issues of social interaction, which is a grave mistake. The naturalistic approach of the script works against the actual political aim. In a truly socially conscious, intelligent theater, every single member has to be committed to the process not only as a “role” but as a function. In Odin’s Horse, the function of these characters is ambiguous. The lumber workers fill the role of struggling blue-collar workers caught in a system they cannot escape. They are individuals with problems, but are they not also members of an exploited working class? Similarly, Mr. Lopat is the head of a wealthy corporation that cuts down trees as a business. But is he not also an upper class, wealthy manorial lord who runs a company town just as surely as George Pullman or Clayton Mark? Arman and Callie are a couple of lovers but are they also not representatives of a conflicted middle class that has options for change? The realistic treatment of the piece often seduces the actors into portraying only the psychological level of their characters. Doing this, they often forget their social function is to illuminate, argue and convince.

Odin’s Horse has at its core the Norse myth of Yggdrasil. Mr. Koon is interested in how the fall of the World Tree causes the end of the world and seeks, I think, to connect this metaphorically to the end of the old growth forests and the timber industry. I am not certain it works. The mythic tree has its roots in Niflheim and supports all life from Midgard to Asgard. Within that mythos, the serpent Nidhogg that chews at its roots and the four harts that strip its leaves above are natural forces as surely as human beings are part of nature. The ancient Norse accepted this sort of doom as inevitable. The opportunity to connect the tale in this way is screaming out for treatment, but it remains more intimated than embodied.

Having said that, I can count on my hand the number of plays over the past year that dealt seriously with a social issue and encouraged thought rather than mere emotional reaction. On that level alone, Odin’s Horse is in a class by itself. It is a play that is worth thinking about, on a subject that is worth thinking about. I do commend Mr. Koon for not reducing the subject to platitudes. There are no easy answers here, and there is a fairness overall in the arguments. The weaknesses in the script might keep it from being outstanding, but while not a superior production, it is still a fine one. If any art is equipped to gather people together to reconsider and redraw social boundaries, theater is certainly it. That it rarely does so is typical but sad. Political theater these days is a little like the dancing dog. One marvels not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.

Filed under Politics, Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net