Saturday I saw a sold out performance of There, There at On The Boards. The developers of the show, Kristin Kosmas, Paul Willis and Peter Ksander have the star power, artistic clout, and gravity to do this several nights in a row. Impressive, surely, in the arts world.
I would like to think that I have nothing to prove by writing this, or any, review. Typically, I go into a play as an audience member feeling like I have nothing to prove by sitting there and being present. Yet, something about the way There, There is written and performed makes you feel that you DO have something to prove. And I mean that with a negative connotation.
Now, I’ve read Chekhov’s Three Sisters. My first language was a Slavic language. I have a degree in theatre arts, I perform on stage, and I direct for the stage. And I’m not scared to say what we all wish we had the balls to say: I don’t know what the fuck that “play” was about or, more importantly, why it was performed.
I most definitely didn’t walk away feeling profoundly different about the world. I didn’t walk away thinking I’d seen something that stopped my breath with beauty. I didn’t immediately go to my friends afterwards and say, “I saw something that made me see ______ in a new way.”
I fear that this play has gotten profound reviews because people are scared to say they don’t know what the fuck it was about. I fear there might be a large percentage of the audience that leaves On the Boards, walks to their cars in silence, waits till they’ve started said cars and finally states (in the privacy of their vehicles), “Did you get that? Cause I sure as shit didn’t.” People are embarrassed to walk away from a Kristen Kosmas/Paul Willis/Peter Ksander piece and say, “I did not understand what just happened.”
I didn’t understand why the audience was set up in a runway format and the actors almost NEVER used the runway space and no one has said, “That’s bad directing.” I didn’t understand why I had to crane my neck 90 degrees to my right to watch the majority of the action and no one has said, “Why did we have to be uncomfortable?” I didn’t understand why we heard anything about Christopher Walken falling off a ladder–it wasn’t important and didn’t matter to me and no one has asked, “Was that important to the overall story?” I didn’t understand why there were beautiful portraits of Russian Soldiers on the wall. I didn’t understand why sometimes the translator interacted with the actor, and why sometimes she didn’t.
I didn’t find any significance in these mediocre, easy conventions. I found them to be just that: mediocre, easy conventions that were used without specificity. To act outside specificity with experimental theatre is death to the genre. Without obvious specificity, your point is lost. And I found myself lost.
What I did understand, though, was the impulse to explore the way an audience reacts to hearing words in their own language and having them immediately translated into another language… and how the onslaught of that form changes you as an audience member. I really get that. But I guess I don’t think that particular form has enough meat to sustain an hour theatrical long meal.
What I did understand was how beautiful this play must be to read. To look at the punctuation on the page, to imagine the way those words in Russian fall out of the translator’s mouth, to sit with the imagery of each tangent and let it settle in, to think about the color of a Bartlett Pear without the restraint of time.
What I did understand was the undeniable impact that a stream of consciousness monologue has on an audience. Kristen Kosmas had some of the best textual arc delivery I’ve ever seen in my life. Clearly the woman is talented… and I so appreciated being able to shut my eyes and listen to her cadence rise and fall like an ocean until it was interrupted by the beach of her characters awkward impulses.
There was a lot to appreciate in this play if you disembowel the engine and sell its parts. As an entire piece I fear that it lacked something key for non-traditional performance: edge. I fear that the names attached to this piece have gotten too big for us to feel like we can be honest with them anymore. And if I were one of these big names? I’d want an honest opinion about it. I’d want someone out there to continue to push me to create art that moves people, changes their minds about something, or simply pushes an art form out of the familiar and into new territory.
Here I am Kristen Kosmas, Paul Willis, and Peter Ksander: I wasn’t moved, I didn’t change my mind about anything, and I didn’t see you do anything that tested the boundaries of theatre/performance art.
But, I can’t wait to see your next piece.