Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Theater: Legacy Edition?

Societas Raffaelo Sanzio
The farcical hullabaloo around the production of Spider-Man: Turn of the Dark took a tragic turn recently with the "dismissal" of director Julie Taymor, who had been developing the project for nearly a decade.  I say tragic in the sense of the ambitious folly that gives the production of art its sense of grandeur and drama.  When you rally the army, even a few casualities bring about the scrutiny that quickly leads from courage to shame.  All that those outside of New York have seen of this production are a few brief promo clips & a series of striking stills which evoke a visual and storytelling language that takes the "showtime" of Broadway in a direction that would seem to reconcile the inherent glitz with a spicy dash of the experimental and a heaping of pop.  Or rather, that's what we would be led to believe on the basis of her many ardent supporters.

Taymor embodies in all its multi-faceted dimensions the genius' downward spiral.  She peaked with the smash success of the indomitable The Lion King and the frenzied shock of her debut feature film, Titus, perhaps the most evocative Shakespearen transference since Polanski's Macbeth.  The last decade, however, has followed the classical narrative of an artist who falls prey to their own hype - succumbing to the law of increasingly diminishing returns.  The brand is sucked of its life, and, not unlike a very different auteur, George Lucas, the cultural co-option becomes less personal expression than a slothful disconnection from its original meaning.  Taymor's disaporic hodgepodge has been made to seem like arrogant colonialism - once genuine (at least in a personal sense), it is now lecherous, privileged and hopelessly out-of-touch.  Perhaps Spider-Man was a chance to correct this.  The scenic landscape we've seen thus far seems a particularly vivid transmutation of the comic book ethos.  One-dimension built off of layers of action, emotion, and worlds both seen and unseen.

But even more so, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark tells us something about this country's theatrical state of affairs that we might not realize at first blush.  As arts funding makes the slow march towards the sacrificial altar in a ceremony presided over by a Tea Party which, as one advocate espoused on NPR recently, IS "mainstream America" - we may be entering a necessary rite of passage.  The live arts have grown increasingly bloated, obtuse, and hollow in this country, both at the commercial AND avant-garde levels, relying on spectacle, gimmickry, self-pity, and an increasing sense of irrelevance.  NEA chairman Rocco Landesman made the perhaps not outrageous, though heavily criticized remark recently that "there are too many theaters" and that "you can either increase demand or decrease supply.  Demand is not going to increase.  So it is time to think about decreasing supply."  I don't think it's crazy to believe that the U.S. has suffered from a sense of artistic democracy.  The lack of non-elitism has actually allowed the general product to be diluted.

In the absence of rigor, the most anticipated and affecting work has come from across oceans - widening a gulf between the state-funded and the private funded.  Those countries support the castigating criticism on display in their artists' political/social works.  What we witness is an acknowledgment of history that seems to be remote for us Americans (as that "Tea Party" moniker testifies to).  The avant-garde has a tough road ahead, particularly in the face of a still under-appreciated Midwest/South Christian contingency that makes a religious themed mainstream film like Soul Surfer into a breakout success at the movie theater box office, eclipsing the potential soul-chugging charms of an assassin-thriller like Hanna or the haunted house horror of an Insidious.

These international artists are very much in the school of auteur-theory, but the work has a reach that makes it activist (while simultaneously questioning our conventional understanding of how that term may be applied).  In the work of Lemi Ponifasio & Raffaelo Sanzio, ceremony, ritual, visual art, theater, and (in the case of Ponifasio) dance, are tools to be molded in a space/time continuum that feels both immediate and eternal.  They break down ancient models, in the process depicting how the causes of the present are trapped under the crushing weight of history, and, perhaps, open not just our minds, but our souls to a world outside our reach.

Is it possible for either side of our social/political divide to define their limitations and find a middle ground?  I think, perhaps, for art to have the sustainability and support it needs, the latent sarcasm, willful esoterica, and dogmatics needs to find a place with the earnest, the Real.  A do it in dialogue with their constituents.  The Rude Mechs recent L.A. presentation of "The Method Gun," an examination of idolatry and this idea of realness flirts with a possibility, but can only get there through a veil of slapdash irony that defines hipster parody.  This work proves that theater and performance (and, by extension, "art" in general) has a future here, but needs to get over that self-flaggelating hump of self-pity.

Some relevant links:

- L.A. theater's "moment of truth" 

- "Modern-Day" Dilemma

  - Theatre needs windows on the world - Gulf Stage, which shares young Arab companies' work online, gives British theatre an invaluable opportunity to look outwards

- Immerse yourself in some theatre – from your bath - A new series of theatre podcasts, downloadable for free on the Guardian site, offers you the best seat in the house – a great example of how technology can extend the boundaries of theatre

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