Thursday, March 12, 2009

Strange and Wondrous

On Sunday afternoon (and evening) I had an experience. I got to see the Neo-Futurists do O'Neill's Strange Interlude, all 5-hours-of-stage-time-plus-two-intermissions-and-a-dinner-break of it. And I am so glad I did.

Now, in all fairness, I was not an unbiased observer: I interviewed Greg before the production (for the piece in the Onion that you can see below), and was already aware of his methods and ready for whatever came.

That being said, It. Was. Amazing.

Now partially this is because of the sheer scale. I had seen other long shows before--most were in the usual 3-3.5 hour range: longer than usual, but doable in a normal evening. I had even seen The Kentucky Cycle and Angels in America onstage, but I saw both presented on successive weekends, not in one day--indeed, they are designed to be performed in two parts. This was the first time I had ever done a true one-day marathon. There is something to be said for the sheer intensity of spending that much time in a dark room with a few hundred strangers. You're ready for anything.

And not everybody was a fan--check out the comments on Chris Jones' review to get an idea of how very varied the response was. Most people were on board, and many loved it, but the performances on Friday and Saturday included hecklers yelling at the stage, either during intermission or mid-performance, about how a brilliant play was being butchered. Luckily, or sadly, there was no such interruption on Sunday. I didn't notice any walkouts on the orchestra level, and anyone who wasn't having a good time was kind enough to avoid disrupting the entire show.

But what about the show itself? Well, it was certainly not a faithful production. The play is, to put it simply, insane. The nine acts of the wildly over the top plot covers 25 years in the life on Nina Leeds and the three men who love her. There's abortion, atheism, and adultery, and that's just the letter a. That's not even taking into account the lengthy asides to the audience, the huge swaths of intensely purple prose, the lengthy, prescriptive stage directions, and the general air of Freudian weirdness. It is almost never produced anymore, and not just because of length--I honestly think that modern audiences would not accept it produced straighforwardly onstage. (Though apparently there was a Chicago production in 2002 at the North Lakeside Cultural Center, which is actually a gorgeous old house--the audiences moved from room to room for each act.) So those claiming that director Greg Allen and his cast did violence to a great play should actually read it. I doubt they'd still claim that doing it as written would be an improvement.

However, and I think this is the important part, this was not a wholescale demolition of Eugene O'Neill's genius. It was definitely playful and irreverent, but it did have the genuine goal of illustrating O'Neill's ideas and themes--the way people go wrong when they try to maniuplate the lives of others, the crushing loneliness of lying to everyone around you, and the grinding boredom of trying to be someone else. By recognizing how ridiculous a lot of O'Neill's theatrical devices and plot twists are, though, the production seduces the audience with laughter, only to sneak the moving stuff in bit by bit. Somehow, it continues to walk that thin line, and be both hilarious and moving up to the end.

There were huge laughs in the show--each character reacting to their endless, physically impossible character descriptions, one characters repeated howls as he remembers his first time having sex (of course with a prostitute), a hilarious sex scene between a man and a Cabbage Patch doll. But there was also a lot that was genuinely, surprisingly moving--the fifth act, consisting almost entirely of the stage directions, and the sixth, virtually all the asides, performed by the actors at microphones, picked out of the dark by a spotlight, were both shockingly moving.

So yes, I laughed, I cried, I had to pee pretty badly at each intermission. And I hope that they manage to arrange a way for the production to return. If they do, GO. You'll probably never experience anything else quite like it, and there's a decent chance you'll love it.

By the way, for another, more poetic response, do check out the blog of my friend
Benno Nelson, who was at the same performance as I.

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