MIAF: Good Samaritans / Berggasse 19 ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 24, 2005

MIAF: Good Samaritans / Berggasse 19

Alison's Festival Diary #6

Good Samaritans, written and directed by Richard Maxwell, with Rosemary Allen and Kevin Hurley. New York City Players at the Malthouse. Berggasse 19 - The Apartments of Sigmund Freud, written and designed by Brian Lipson, directed by Susie Dee, co-designed by Hugh Wayland, with Brian Lipson and Pamela Rabe, Grant Street Theatre.

Over the past three weeks, Melbourne's self-designation as Australia's "cultural capital" has felt like more than an advertising slogan. It's had the air of a mini-metropolis: interesting things have been going on, and people have been discussing them with passion and vim and, sometimes, vehement disagreement.

Hey, something was happening here. And Melburnians were interested: all the theatres were packed, the queues outside the Art Centre stretched past the gallery, and the Arts Centre forecourt spilled over with people eating and drinking. Even the drab environs of the Flinders St Station concourse was infested with culture vultures.

More than a few people I've spoken to have dubbed this festival the best yet. I'm with them on that. Bouquets to MIAF Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds for putting together a program of such depth and range. Now I'm wondering if the excitement the festival generated will have knock-on effects. There is already a sense that Melbourne's theatre scene is shifting, with a lively, outward-looking and increasingly confident independent theatre scene underlined by the massive changes at the Malthouse, which are attracting younger and bigger audiences. It could be that Dame Culture is emerging from her long and disenchanted sleep. Fingers crossed.

But to the report on my final week of MIAF, which gave me two experiences which were at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum: they couldn't have been more different in aesthetic, philosophy or performance. And yet both of them left me with that indefinable lightness of being that I associate with excellent theatre: a sense that I have been prickled alive.

Good Samaritans by the New York City Players was one of the oddest theatrical experiences I have had. This is a theatre focused on the ontology of the stage: there is to be no illusion, no trickery, no falsity of performance. Richard Maxwell's script is written how "real people" talk, and he often works with people who are not actors: the woman in this performance was previously a nurse. It is, apparently, all artlessness.

The set is basically a large box, inside which is an entirely realistic set: the dining room of a shelter for the homeless, with plastic tables and chairs, fluorescent lighting, grim concrete walls, a mop and bucket. Upstage is a small, grubby looking kitchen, with a door opening into the dining room, and a short corridor through which we see a back door.

It starts modestly: a woman, Rosemary (Rosemary Allen) walks into the kitchen, then enters the dining room and turns on the lights. She moves around, taking notes on a clipboard, and speaking to herself in a flat monotone. She sings a song to the window (accompanied by a piano off-stage) in a voice which strains to reach the notes, and remains irredeemably flat.

Then there is a disturbance at the back door and a man enters and falls down, drunk as a lord, and pisses himself. It is Kevin (Kevin Hurley), who has been sent to the centre by the court, to be reformed so he can re-enter society as a useful citizen. He too speaks in an insistent, flat monotone. Rosemary welcomes him with a tirade of abuse and puts him to bed.

What follows is an unlikely love story between the two, punctuated by more badly sung songs. The script is at times of execrable banality. The lighting states remain static. It ought to be teeth-grindingly awful; and yet, for reasons that are quite hard to trace, it isn't at all.

For one thing, it is very funny. I did wonder, as the audience hooted with laughter at Rosemary's explanation of the evangelical nature of her mission, how different a Melbourne audience might be from an American one, reading different ironies into the flat presentation, but there's no doubt that its comedy is not merely inadvertent. And it's also surprisingly moving, culminating in a duet between the two lovers which is the one song which attains a kind of harmony. Miraculously, it teeters on the edge of sheer bathos without ever falling over the edge, and it never becomes boring.

Clearly, there's a lot of art in Maxwell's artlessness. As I watched this extraordinary piece, I wondered if Maxwell has drawn from Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysterical Theatre, which I labour under the disadvantage of never having seen. Despite the surface differences, what I've heard and read makes me suspect this is so, if only in the wholly focused insistence on the bare reality of the stage, the present being of both performer and audience.

What I do know is that this piece took all my assumptions about "good" theatre and turned them completely upside down. It is a mysteriously joyous experience which never tries your patience, even as it destroys all your prejudices about theatrical aesthetic.

Brian Lipson's marvellous conceit, Berggasse 19 - The Apartments of Sigmund Freud, couldn't come from a more different place than Richard Maxwell. Here all is artifice and trickery, starting with the set, co-designed by Lipson and Hugh Wayland, which must be the most intricate I've seen outside puppetry.

The play is a riff on the psychoanalysis of Freud, drawing especially from The Interpretation of Dreams and (surely) Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Berggasse 19 is the Vienna apartment where Freud lived until the rise of Fascism made him flee to London with his family.

The set is a cross section of the hallway: we see a bourgeois Viennese apartment from the early 1900s, with photographs on the walls, a pot plant, a dog asleep in front of a heater. To the right is the front porch, to the left the toilet. Underneath the floor is the cellar, the repository of the unconscious, full of forgotten junk: dolls, rocking horses, skeletons.

The endlessly ingenious set is as much as performer as the two actors, Lipson and Pamela Rabe. It is a kind of memory machine, a dreamlike representation of Freud himself, whose only other concrete appearance is as a dummy sitting on the toilet and reading a newspaper in a cloud of cigar smoke. The play is set in no particular time but, like memory itself, flashes back and forth from one time to another, and the set changes accordingly - the plant shoots neurotically up and down, photographs appear and vanish. Only the dog (a large stuffed puppet which the actors manipulate) slumbers unchangingly through everything, forcing the actors to step over him on the narrow stage.

The play mainly concerns itself with the women in Freud's life - his wife Martha, his sister in law Minna Bernays, with whom he is said to have had an affair, his daughter Anna, his analysand Emma Eckstein, who later herself became a psychoanalyst, Sabina Spielrein, another patient who became an analyst and who introduced psychonalysis to Russia - though there are guest appearances by Jung and the Kosher butcher who lives next door. All the characters are played interchangably by the two actors with no attention to gender, with some very snappy costume changes; sometimes the same character can be played by the two actors in the space of half a minute. Sometimes it is like a surreal version of Hinge and Brackett.

The text itself plays constantly on linguistic slippage, and is consequently full of appalling puns, small collisions of linguistic and theatrical realities, which are assembled and disassembled at an increasingly frenetic rate. When the actors ring the door bell, they make the appropriate noise - "brrring bring!" - to which the other character says, "bring what?" The initial conceit, which we accept - that the actor makes the noise of the bell - is immediately shattered by the other actor. This mantling and dismantling becomes more extreme as the shows continues; in the end, even the costume changes occur before us on stage.

However, underneath the linguistic and theatrical glitter move darker shadows, which become more insistent as the show progresses; the unconscious is, after all, a gruesome place. There is an eerily beautiful monologue by Anna Freud (Pamela Rabe) speaking as an illuminated face from a mirror while her bisected body - her upper body simply cut off, so we can see the bones and flesh of her thighs - sits primly on half a chair beneath her. The monologue is pre-recorded, exaggerating the dislocation, while the live face in the mirror creates a kind of counterpoint of expression to the words. And the play finishes with a scene between the new Aryan occupants of the house, now its Semitic occupants have fled.

The complexity of the show, and of the ideas behind it, didn't stop my 17-year-old son - who asked nervously beforehand what psychoanalysis was - from hugely enjoying it. As much as anything, its charm lies in the ebullient theatricality of the two performers and the (one assumes, very necessary) sharpness of the direction. Like the New York City Players, I'm not sure that I've seen anything like it. I would love to see it again, if only to pick up on what I missed the first time.


Anonymous said...

Not like Foreman at all apart from the sustained development of a unique directorial voice based on his particular ideas about meaning and performance and reception. I suppose Foreman is a byword for having an idea and exploring it rather than just putting up plays, but he is only one in a collection of theatre artists in New York whose work will rarely travel. In a funny way he is more connected to Anne Bogart and her work with SITI in exploring beyond naturalism.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon -thanks for the comment. Foreman's texts are certainly a million miles from Richard Maxwell. What made me wonder about the connection was the monotonal delivery, which I'm told - in productions a few years ago, anyway - Foreman employs, and the absolute focus on the ontology of the stage. And the using of non-actors. Also I saw that Kevin Hurley has worked with Foreman. One day I hope to check out the scene in NY so I can make more informed guesses -



Anonymous said...

Alison and anon,

I have seen one of Richard Foreman's OHT productions, Bad Boy Nietzsche, at Brussels' kunstenfestivaldesarts in 2000. I hadn't thought of the similarity between Foreman and Maxwell before, and I don't know why, as I have been aware that Maxwell has presented many of his works at Ontological Theatre, and that they have worked with many of the same actors, including Kevin Hurley, Yehuda Duenyas and Ryan Bronz.

Their work is "not alike at all" on a superficial level - broadly speaking, Foreman's is a theatre of excess, and Maxwell's one of essence. But the reasons and results are similar.

Alison, I think your hunch that they share a "focus on the ontology of the stage" is a good one, although I do not think it is "absolute" as for both, the ontology of the stage is used as a way of shedding light on human experience beyond the stage.

I think that Foreman, like Maxwell, is primarily interested in the discrete theatrical moment - and making each of these moments as pregnant as possible with a double signification - that of an idea made concrete and that of the live moment itself. This creates a dialectical tension between form and content that is productive of meaning and identification (bearing a close family resemblance to Brecht’s alienation-effect). I felt, while watching Good Samaritans, a rare and exilhirating feeling of absolute alive-ness throughout, similar to the experience of watching Bad Boy Nietzsche.

There is a quote from Walter Benjamin, writing on the work of his friend Brecht. I have included it as I think Maxwell and Foreman's work can be understood to operate in a similar way to WB's understanding of operations of the epic theatre:

'Epic theatre starts by fits and starts . . . Its basic form is that of the forceful impact on one another of separate, sharply distinct situations in the play . . . As a result, intervals occur which tend to destroy illusion . . . Their purpose is to enable the spectator to adopt a critical attitude . . . towards the represented behavior of the play’s characters, and towards the way in which the behavior is represented.'

This "critical attitude" is often mistaken for an emotional distance. What I find most rewarding about Maxwell's work is that it manages to create a heightened awarenes of the ontology of the stage while engaging emotional identification.