Saturday, July 6, 2013

Trains and Friends and What the Hell Was That?

Oh wait, before all that, there's last night's theatre.  Yet again, I found myself at the half-price ticket booth a bit after 5:00, but this time my brain and my mouth were in total agreement on what I'd be seeing.  So was the ticket booth, although the weasels were actually out of half-price tickets for the show in question, so I had to pay, y'know, real ticket prices.  I saw a revival of Private Lives, which was getting fairly smashing reviews.  Indeed, while on the train in from the airport, I read a review which compared it pretty favorably to a production I'd seen, like, a decade ago starring Alan Rickman.  And, y'know, I'd really enjoyed the Rickman one, so figured I'd take in Toby Stephens's take on it.  It was quite good, so yay.

Now, this morning, I took a train out to Banbury, to meet a friend of mine who lives ... somewhere the other side of Banbury.  She met me at the train station and we went out to Upton House, a stately home in ... wherever the hell it is.  We didn't even get into the home itself, we just spent time wandering in the gardens and getting caught up.  I only see her maybe once or twice a year, so it was really good to be able to meet up.

(And then we spent half the time talking about various aches, pains, and ailments which have stricken us of late.  Yeah, your 40s are a blast.)

OK, now I'm going to get into Theatre Critic on Vacation Mode.  The show is The Drowned Man:  A Hollywood Fable, a "promenade" theatre experience brought to us by the Punchdrunk Theatre Company, which is apparently known for this sort of thing.  I've not seen any of their shows before (as they've been in London and New York only), but I have had two experiences with shows where you follow actors around the theatre (catching, as you might expect, bits and pieces of the overall story), so the experience wasn't wholly new to me.  Still, Punchdrunk ups the ante on this sort of thing.  And there were plusses and minuses to the experience....

Minus:  You have to wear a mask.  I'd read a review which referred to them as "Donald Duck" masks, which isn't entirely correct, but not entirely incorrect, either.  Your mask is white; it covers your eyes and nose; and, where it would cover your mouth, it juts out into what (now that you mention it) looks a bit like a beak.  I came to partially appreciate the whole mask thing throughout my evening of chasing actors (the few people in the building who weren't wearing masks).  They had the advantage of keeping audience members from whispering to each other.  Hell, you can't whisper in these things, or even mouth snarky comments -- nobody can see your lips.  (And at one point I suspected -- although I couldn't prove it -- that actors could slip the masks on and disappear into the crowd.)  But there was something that sucked big time about the masks:  If you wear glasses under them, they clamp your nose shut.  I shit you not.  Punchdrunk suggests you wear contacts instead of glasses, if you have them, and it's pretty clear why.  Wearing glasses under the Donald Duck mask means that the entire mask construct is pushed a bit further away from your face than intended, and the part that's supposed to be resting on the top of our nose lands on the end of your nose, pinching it.  As Punchdrunk was pretty anal about never removing the mask, I spent (over) two hours with a hand on my "beak," holding it up, to allow breathing.  During some of the boring parts of the show (more on that in a bit) I spotted a few women in the audience holding up their masks as I was -- and, upon a closer examination, saw that they were wearing glasses too.  (I tried a knowing smile in their direction, but, obviously, the mask prevented it.)

Minus:  It's dark in there.  This sets a scene like nobody's business, but also makes it very likely that you'll walk into things -- in my case, a couple other audience members, one actor, and a post.  Oh, also, they say to wear comfortable shoes.  Do that.  Also, wear flat shoes.  Some of the walking surfaces are uneven, and I can see a real tripping hazard if heels start to slip in the darkness.

Minus:  It's hot in there.  Holy crap, it's hot in there.  OK, sure, we're in a (London) heatwave, and maybe they didn't anticipate this kind of weather when they converted the warehouse, but you're  hot and sweaty, behind a hot and sweaty mask, running up and down stairs, and generally packed beak to beak with other equally hot and sweaty people.  At a few brief moments, I was close enough to the actors to see how much they were sweating, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of them passed out on the job.

To vary things up a bit, I'll give you....

Plus:  I'd give every award in the world to the set designer.  You're on a few levels of a converted warehouse, but you're also in a movie studio, in a trailer park outside it, and a wide variety of other places.  (The wooden post I backed into was doubling as a tree.)  Kudos to the lighting designer too.  I mean, yeah, dark, but there's smoke and fog and lights coming through the woods and the damn setting is absolutely jaw-droppingly good.  When I was first let in (they let you in the building in a steady trickle of small groups), I didn't see an actor for a good 20 minutes -- I just spent the time exploring the set.  The details were extraordinary, and we were invited to touch everything.  I mean, I pawed through some papers stacked on a table, and it wasn't just the one on top that had stuff on it -- it was stuff all the way down (just in case someone happened to look, I imagine).  I liked the set enough that I'm actually trying to avoid spoilers for it.

Minus:  Not so for the plot.  Well, there's no sense in hiding spoilers from the audience on this one as, when you walk in, they hand you a little piece of paper outlining the plot.  (Flip it over.  Seriously.)  This didn't stop me from spending about an hour feeling like I was missing stuff.  After the first 20 minutes of not seeing an actor, I (metaphorically) latched on to the first one I saw, and followed him as much as I could.  But I lost him (the rest of the audience got in the way and they were moving too slow).  Eventually I found another one; this one was a woman, she was a secretary at the movie studio.  I followed her for quite some time -- and she didn't do much.  In her office (a brilliant set -- I didn't really get it until I saw the clocks), she sat at her desk typing stuff.  And tidying stuff.  And reading stuff.  There were about 20 of us standing there around watching her work and let me say the excitement was lacking.  I looked at my watch and decided that if her storyline didn't pick up in 10 minutes, I was going to wander away and seek out some plot.  (And then I realized that I just looked at my watch while standing, like, 6 feet away from an actor.)  

Plus:  OK, but once I figured out how to play the game (you could wander off at will, but I generally stayed with an actor until they had a scene with someone who seemed more promising, and then I'd follow that one -- with the understanding that I damn near always lost them in the stairwell, which became a free opportunity to wander around a new floor, looking for something interesting) -- anyway, once I figured that out, I actually caught a surprising amount of the story.  Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I missed a lot, too.  But when, at the end of the show, I saw how many people had actually been in the building with me, and compared that to the number of people who had been with me in any particular scene, I came away feeling pretty lucky.  I hope that the rest of the audience felt the same way, with respect to whatever they saw.

Minus:  There's no dialogue.  No, no, I take that back -- there was some dialogue, but, given the scenes that I saw, there wasn't much of it, and most of it was drowned out by the ever-present music, anyway.  There were some tidbits of plot (and/or character) which I only got by reading folded up pieces of paper -- I wonder how many of them I missed (and what the other masked people in the room with me must have been thinking -- as, usually, it was only me and one or two others who read the papers).

Plus:  In exchange for the dialogue, you get dance.  Interpretive dance.  Some of it genuinely, awesomely good.  My two take-aways from the show are one completely unexpected piece of set design, and a stunning solo dance piece from a character I'd never seen before (but turned out to have been pretty important).

By the time the whole experience was over, I was drained and spent.  I felt like I'd sweated off a pound or two (I'd put a few papers, like my ticket and the plot summary, in my pocket -- they were soggy when I got out; one of them was stained blue from my jeans).  I felt annoyed at how much time I'd spent not following actors and how much story I'd missed.  I'd seen a great piece of dance and some bravura set design; but I hated my mask with a passion, and I had the fairly certain feeling that I would have no desire to see any future Punchdrunk productions.

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