Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mike Versus The Fine Arts, Part Deux: Avenge The Revengeful

I am a bit of a neophyte to this whole 'Theater' thing, having grown up much more on forms of art which featured the open destruction of instruments, which really didn't alter the tones they were producing all that much. For some reason this form of personal expression has never really seemed to gain the love of audiences everywhere, or even NEA grants, though it's hard to see how G.G. Allin is much different from Robert Mapplethorpe (Also, I cannot recommend google image searching (Yes, this is a verb now) those names. If you do, it's on you. I am just the messenger here). So, despite being the world's leading authority on most subjects, I am willing to admit that there are one or two people out there slightly more familiar with musical theater than I am. Your grandmother. Probably someone somehow involved in the production of Glee. John Hodgman. In fact, my background with musicals of any kind is mostly limited to a strong loathing of White Christmas, which definitely deserves it. So I am not necessarily the definitive voice to weigh in on this pressing issue, but as Hodgman has thus far remained silent, I must do the duty he is shirking, which is to say this: Renegade's performance of Parade is the best piece of musical theater I have ever seen.

This is not to say it is perfect. No, the only perfect piece of theater is my upcoming 9-act opera about dinosaurs with rocket launchers, which will (most likely literally) destroy all other plays. And mankind. But until some theater troupe finally gets the balls to put on THE GREATEST ACT MANKIND WILL EVER SEE, Parade can have top billing. Now, why am I telling you this right at the beginning of the blog post, you may be asking? Don't most great authors (Like Hemingway) save the climax of a piece (Dying in the rain) for the end of the work, hoping to keep up suspense among the readers (Clinically depressed/alcoholic English majors)? Probably. But here, I am hoping to set a (meta-)frame up for the rest of the piece. Because, you see, most art has flaws. Moby Dick had the cetology of whales. Bruce Springsteen had Hungry Heart. The Beatles had Paul McCartney. And Parade, while excellent, is not perfect. It has the chance to become more than it winds up being, and fails to take the extra step. So, lavish praise out of the way, let us now criticize.

(Note: I will probably (Unless I forget) be referring to characters by the first names of the actors portraying them both because I forgot my copy of the programme in the car, and because I am familiar with them primarily by first names due to the presence of The Official Girlfriend in the cast, even though most of them are not familiar with me. This will likely make me look like some sort of creepy stalker. But I'm not, as far as the police department knows.)

/puts on serious face

Parade is set in Atlanta in 1913, and framed with scenes featuring some battle imagery, which is pretty clearly symbolic, as Atlanta was either not involved in any armed conflicts that year, or was very sneaky about them if it was. This refers much more to a city that is still fighting a conflict that ended long ago, the Civil War. It has often been said by people in the North that the South never truly stopped fighting this war, carrying on a lingering resentment of the victors in the North, who were able to let it go because we're way better people than the Southerners. The main part of the play focuses on Jewish factory foreman Leo Frank, uncomfortably living far away from his home of Brooklyn. When a young girl dies in his factory, this resentment comes forth in a flood, the murder investigation becoming the excuse for an outpouring of long-smoldering anger. This is largely possible because the townsfolk do not see Frank as a person. Rather, he is an emissary, representative and veritable effigy of another , the hated North. And this is where the play has its greatest failure.

Leo's wife Jenna (Jena? Anyway, not the character's name) has been raised in Atlanta, and spent her whole life surrounded by the smoldering remnants of the war. She does not seem to be very close to Leo, who is clearly dismissive of Atlanta and its residents, and misses Brooklyn. But when the trial comes, she launches into a defense of her fairly-estranged husband, fighting with both those who seek to convict him and with Leo himself, who does not believe the help of someone he clearly views as inferior could be of value. Why? Because for her, the North has a human face.

It is easy to demonize a group of people. For example, from 2000 until 2008, it was clear to me that America was a bunch of ignorant Rednecks fully intent on running the country directly into the ground and picking fights with any nation who wouldn't grovel when we glanced in their direction. And yet, most everyone I met was really nice. When you meet the demon in person, it often turns out you share much more than you disagree on. This is how it is for Jenna. For her, the demon is a man. He is not The North, he is not the Jew. He is a man who goes to work every day to try to get ahead in life, like just about everyone else. She has been raised in this resentful atmosphere to the point where it must permeate her every pore, and yet for her the demon is a human. And as the first act rolls on, this internal conflict comes close to the forefront, but always pulls away just before it can truly be addressed. And when act 2 comes, the character has been completely neutered, and spends the rest of the play as The Good Wife, a character from whom all the interesting facets have been removed. There are not many characters out there who even have the chance to get close to the heights this one just misses, but it is a miss nonetheless. This pains me far more than any of the sad songs she sings.

The lesser place where the show misses the mark is with Andy's governor in Act 2, a man who is pursuing the truth while knowing it likely will lead to his political downfall (That he also helped cause the mess seems to be strangely unaddressed). This is a much more common sort of character conflict than that of Jenna in Act 1, and also a less rewarding one, but still not an opportunity to be treated as briefly as the script does, essentially referencing the situation for about 90 seconds before moving on, leaving this as another lost chance (Man, these both deal with internally conflicted characters. I must really sound like a Democrat right now (<--THIS IS WHY I'M NOT A POLITICAL SATIRIST)).

Now, these are more criticisms of the play itself, not the specific performance. This is because I know little of acting (Though I do know enough to know that Expectant Dads will be the greatest movie ever), and clearly much about writing, so most of what I have to say has focused on the area of my expertise. But there is one more point I am wholly unqualified to discuss, and that is the music. You see, it turns out musical theater often features music (Who knew?!). Parade is no exception to this apparently time-honored tradition. I suspect I am in the minority of the audience when I say that the songs did not really stick with me, but I also suspect I am in the minority when I go to a musical theater performance without really looking forward to the music part of the proceedings. I make no claims to being normal. There were two parts that stood out even to me, though. The first is a rather excellent drunken number performed by Andy in Act 1 as a reporter. The second, more lasting one is the decision to drop the musical accompaniment for the first couple bars of the closing refrain, with pretty much the entire cast on stage belting it out. This was an extremely striking moment, and thoroughly excellent, closing out the performance on a high note. And for a performance that hits the heights this one does, that note is a fitting way to remember it. When I think back on it, Jenna's character conflict in Act 1 brings to my mind nothing less than Dostoevsky's 'Grand Inquisitor' from The Brothers Karamazov. You're not getting praise much higher than that in these parts unless you figure out a way to reanimate DFW (No, not Dallas Fort Worth). Odds are if you're reading this you're related to me and live in Vermont, but if this is somehow not the case, get on down to Teatro Zuccone and watch a showing of Parade. And try the Two Hearted Ale. They go well together.


your mom said...

I enjoyed this insightful piece very much and have posted my review as a comment on Dani's link on the book of face :)
Are you staying warm and away from walruses?
your mom

your mom said...

Okay, joyful reunion time is over! Time to get back to work on writing a new insightful piece for your blog! :)
your mom
P.S. I know that at this time of year it's probably going to be a baseball piece. I'll grit my teeth and wade through it!

UncleRick said...

Sometimes a baseball piece boggs down in the middle. Now there's some Hall of Fame quality comments!

your mom said...

Wade...Boggs... Very clever, Rick!