Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Body Snatchers" At City Lit Discussed

Here's the long-awaited second  collaboratioin between myself and Tim Brayton, film blogger extraordinaire over at Antagony and Ecstasy, where this article is also posted. This time, rather than a stage-based movie, we have a film-influenced play. Enjoy!

TIM: In 1954, Collier’s Magazine began serializing a science-fiction novel by Jack Finney, titled The Body Snatchers. It was fairly characteristic of the genre fiction of the ‘50s: essentially conservative, telling the story of a perfectly ordinary town that finds itself under siege by an incomprehensible alien force, and committed to the notion that human – that is, American – ingenuity and stubbornness can trump even the most implacable foe, so take that, Commies!

The crux of the tale, that the planet Earth has been invaded by alien spores that can form a perfect clone of any living being, except for their total lack of emotion, is one of amazing possibility, which is probably why Finney’s novel (published in book form in 1955, and revised in 1976) has been dramatized so many times: no fewer than four motion pictures have been adapted from the material, starting with a reasonably faithful 1956 film titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all the way to a remarkably shoddy Nicole Kidman popcorn movie from 2007 simply called The Invasion. And now, we have a stage version, courtesy of Chicago’s City Lit theater company and adapter-director Paul Edwards.

The confluence of Chicago theater and classic cinema doesn’t come along that often, which is why we’ve joined forces to discuss this new project. First, Zev has some words about the genesis of the play, and Paul Edwards’ specific attachment to the pop culture of the 1950s.

ZEV: Adapter/director Paul Edwards is a professor at Northwestern in the department of Performance Studies. To brutally simplify a complex field, Performance Studies is divided into two large branches. One studies performance and performativity in an anthropological and sociological perspective, in everything from religion in indigenous cultures to contemporary American politics. The other treats on the adaptation of non-theatrical texts, especially literature, to the stage. It is the latter area in which Edwards studies and teaches.

Paul Edwards was my professor at Northwestern, so I come to the play with a certain lack of objectivity. It was in his mind-blowingly awesome class on the literature and film of the 1950’s that I first saw the 1956 film version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, along with many other brilliant films. His immersion in the era is obvious in the stage version, but it gives a special kick to recognize a fair portion of the images shown on the projection screens (designed by Edwards and Daniel Carlyon) from his classroom.

So suffice it to say that I went in to the performance with high expectations and a certain sympathy for the project.

TIM: I may not know anything about Performance Studies as a discipline (indeed, what I most remember about it was the intro-level class Analysis and Performance of Literature, which everybody referred to as Anal Perf; and o how we laughed at how naughty it sounded!), but I can say this much about Edwards' treatment of the material: it's really great except when it's really not. There's a pronounced dissonance in his adaptation of the material, which is so comic and mocking in the first act, and so serious in the second. The second act I mostly love, and even the first act has some great moments, but I don't particularly like what it's doing tonally.

I know that you took Edwards' class on the pop culture of the 1950s, and I have to ask you what kind of approach he took towards the decade. Because in the first half of his Body Snatchers, I detected a not-at-all hidden level of contempt for the material. Finney's novel is determinedly serious: besides the obvious theme of anti-conformity and the need to cling to what makes us human, the book is shot through with a very definite fear of modernity. One of the key passages for me (at least, in the '76 version of the text; I don't know if it's in the original editions or not) finds the hero, Miles Bennett, waxing nostalgic over telephone operators, and grousing that direct-dial phones are robbing us of something precious. "We're refining all humanity out of our lives," is the exact way he puts it.

Now it's kind of silly, of course, to put that much emphasis on phone technology, of all things; but it represents a real concern. I might not agree with its conservatism (more pronounced by far in the book than in any of the films), but The Body Snatchers is nevertheless a credible work of horror: the horror of change, the horror of too much efficiency destroying our souls. In the beginning, Edwards doesn't seem interested in that horror: he's far too busy setting up lazy '50s signifiers and then poking fun at them, like when he makes the manly-man hero something of a buffoon. God knows I don't have any desire for society to revert to the 1950s, but I think that the play's initial refusal to treat the subject matter with any gravity at all is, while doubtlessly entertaining (I certainly laughed), kind of irritating. The Body Snatchers, in all of its previous incarnations, has been all about the horror, or at least the unease, of its scenario. This adaptation starts from a place of smugness and superiority, and I really think that cheapens what it could have been: a really unsettling fable of the loss of identity.

ZEV: Ah, Anal Perf. A great class, an even better way to make your parents and friends say "You're taking WHAT?" Memories.

The approach to the 1950's (defined for class purposes as lasting from the end of WWII to the Kennedy Assassination), as I remember, was to hold the work up to examination in the context of the era's anxieties. So much of the era was preoccupied with fears over the bomb, conformity, the rise of the suburbs, race, gender, and more, and it was easy to see these fears in the art.

I think that anxiety is apparent in the stage version of Body Snatchers, but the work runs into a tricky problem: it's one thing to read novels or watch films from the 1950's, pointing out their aesthetic and social preoccupations, it's quite another to represent the era onstage. And Body Snatchers is a particularly tough text. It is, by its nature, so filled with the signifiers of the era that it's hard to shake off a sense silliness, particularly in the early stages. After all, when we watched the 1956 movie in preparation for the play, we laughed through a pretty good portion of it. So how do you strike that balance?

This production apparently made the choice of playing for chuckles for most of the first act (and it definitely didn't go as far into burlesque as it could have), until a really fantastic scare effect near the end of the act, and playing for scares in the second. This doesn't work as well as it could--it entirely ignores the simmering fears of the early parts of the story, when Miles is still unsure what's going on, and it makes it a little harder to care about the characters. I'm not sure if taking it seriously from the beginning would have worked better, but this approach was seriously flawed.

There are many ways the adaptation works though--the scares are very effective, with an excellent use of suggestion and metaphor instead of explicitly showing the pods. The cast is generally strong, with Brian Pastor overcoming the jokey start to make a believably uptight Miles, Jerry Bloom as the deliciously sinister psychiatrist Mannie Kaufman, and June Eubanks, making the most of the tricky role of Dr. Budlong, made into a female and given a creepily flirtatious scene with Miles. Sheila Willis, as love interest Becky, doesn't quite work--she plays all of the character's sharp edges and short temper. The purpose may be to expose the shadows in a relationship that reads as an odd parody of a typical romance, but it too often makes the character simply unlikable.

And the fundamental act of adaptation for the stage is done with great skill--a clever mixture of dialogue, action, and narration spoken in the scene (with the exception of a few jokes early on where other characters appear to hear the narration). The plotting is tight and clever, cutting some of the novel's plot twists due to time, and others due to budget (I did miss the scene with the skeletons), but telling a clear and involving story. Indeed, the second act is quite tense until near the end, when the plot is on the verge of resolution but stops dead for a pair of lengthy monologues, not found in either novel or film, that explain the production's subtext in far too literal a form. The show gets back on track for an effectively shivery ending, but the impact has been blunted.

TIM: Oh God, those monologues. I think a show with absolutely no other flaws would have had a hard time surviving that kind of grinding momentum-killer so close to the end.

But I've aired my complaints with the show, and you've done the same (I agree with every word you said about the cast), so let me switch over to the things I rather liked about it. Which are not inconsiderable. In fact, on balance, I'd still say that I liked the show, despite my misgivings about the way the plot develops.

The set was tremendously minimal: two large backdrops just a few black lines and blocks of color, a couple of phones, a small bar, two large projection screens. And virtually all of the action was done in pantomime: if a character opens a door, he just swings his arm out in midair. It took a little while for me to get used to it, but once I had, it was kind of thrilling. The emptiness of the space emphasises the degree to which the story's conflict is between people - or rather, between people and pod clones. Body Snatchers, in all of its incarnations, is primarily about what makes humans human, and Edwards' stripped-down approach doesn't give us anything to focus on besides those humans: their actions, their words.

Like you, I missed the skeleton scene, but the staging was so efficient on the whole that I don't really mind the lack of big theatrical moments (which also makes the two big theatrical moments we got - at the end of the two acts - that much more effective). For example, representing the snatched people by having them wear sunglasses: it's quick, it tells us all we need to know, and it looks just "off" enough to be creepy, even in the jokey first act. But in the second act, when there aren't sarcastic asides to distract us from the gravity of the scenario, that's when all of that minimalist staging really popped. Watching those two people trapped in an empty, mostly dark space, wondering what was going to happen them, was genuinely tense; there was a certain existential horror to it, with nothing grounding the characters but each other.

As for the projection screens, which worked really quite well to provide an almost subliminal context for what was going on, all I really want to point out is that the use of clips from the 1956 film in one scene near the end - just about the only time the play acknowledged the film more than the novel - was absolutely brilliant: both a cute in-joke, and an opportunity to show us the aliens in a way that didn't break the play's focus on the characters, rather than the sci-fi trappings of the plot.

ZEV: It's funny, I'm so used to a stripped-down style of performance, the budgets of small Chicago theatres being what they are, that it didn't stick out to me as much as it could. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. A particular aid here was Jeff Glass' lighting design, which did an excellent job at creating the play's world, especially in the second act: as the story got more serious, there was less and less light onstage, forcing us further into the claustrophobic circumstances of people rapidly running out of options. The projections screens gave suggestions of the world outside while everything else focused us more tightly in, and it worked wonderfully.

And the sunglasses were exactly what a theatrical metaphor needs to be: clear and simple, while still visually interesting, jarring in the world of the play without being ridiculous, and fertile ground for some wonderfully shivery moments.

What was particularly gratifying about the show was how theatrical it was: there was one quote from the film and a fair amount of dialogue and narration from the novel, but the focus was firmly on what was happening in the present tense and in front of us. It was a fundamentally theatrical experience and definitely one worth having. Though we found definite flaws (and we're critics, how could we not?) it was still quite worth a trip, whether you know the novel, one of the films, or neither.

The Body Snatchers runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM through May 9th at City Lit Theatre, 1020 West Bryn Mawr Avenue, in Chicago. Tickets, $25, and information are available at (773) 293-3682 or www.citylit.org


Leah A. Zeldes said...

Very interesting analysis. You don't mention -- and neither did the play -- McCarthyism, but along with dehumanization by technology and creeping suburbia, Communist infiltration was a significant theme of the 1950s, and I was surprised to see no allusions to it.

Zev Valancy said...

It's interesting--the program notes mention the various readings that the movie is given, and then rather explicitly chooses a specifically social one. According to the production, it's not about a specific political ideology, but rather conformity in general: if you let others do your thinking for you, you lose your soul. I think this production makes a good case for that reading, but I'd be very interested to see a telling of the story with another view.