by 99 Seats
With the fall NY theater season picking up, I just might be turning my sights back to the stage. Maybe. These days, I haven't felt like there was too much to write about, when it comes to theater. Most of the time, it felt like running repeatedly into the same walls, at full speed, with my head down. That is, as you would imagine, less than fun. I don't consider myself a theatre "critic" so writing about individual shows isn't really my bag and the big picture problems with the field are pretty damn well documented and pretty damn well covered and pretty damn well not going anywhere. Forgive my spurt of obstinacy, cynicism and pessimism there, but, persuasive arguments here aside, it hasn't been feeling like all the virtual ink we spill out here matters much of a tinker's damn. Lord love the fine people who keep fighting the good fight. I just haven't felt like I had anything new to add. I've been focused a lot more on doing things of late and not so much on the talking. Talking about TV or bitching about politics has been a nice escape. But it's the fall, the season's starting and, as the old joke goes, coffee break's over. Back on your heads.
So I went to see a show this weekend, A Bright New Boise by Sam Hunter, presented by Partial Comfort. Before I go any further, I'll get the disclaimers out of the way: I know Sam a bit; we were both teaching artists for TDF a few seasons back. I know the Partial Comfort-ers for a long while now and dig them and their vibe. Okay? So you get your prejudices all up about you now. You all set? Moving on...
I loved this show like nobody's business. I loved this show like my life depended on it. You should go and see it. Like, seriously.
Last week, Lauren Gunderson's piece in The Huffington Post was all the rage. Obviously, I really dug it and I really in particular dug the difference between Holy Theatre and Holy Sh*t Theatre. The conversation on the Twitter, though, took a turn that Isaac alluded to here: somehow, "holy theatre" became code for "old plays I don't like and the dumb people who like them." Which is weak tea, folks. And not, in my reading, what Gunderson was talking about at all. I think Sam's play provided a pretty neat counter-point to all of that. In fact, one of the things that set my hair on fire about Sam's play was how many of the things a lot of us have been talking about and wanting from theatre are integral to his play.
I don't want to give away to much of it. It's a joy to discover. But there are few basic things to know: the play revolves around a man who, after a major personal disaster, goes to work in a chain store in Boise, Idaho and tries to rebuild his life. That simple synopsis doesn't really do the play justice. See it and you'll see what I'm talking about. It's a funny, earnest (in all the good ways), smart and engaging look at the things we put our faith in and what happens when they fail us. What does it have?
It's not about the love lives of upper middle class people, certainly not upper middle class New Yorkers.
It's not about how people in small towns are a bunch of uneducated hicks and yokels.
It's not about how much better small town people are than callous, shallow city folk.
It's not about how people of faith are small-minded bigots.
It's not about how artists are better than other people because they can see the truth.
It's not tilted in favor of one "side" or the "other." But it's also not mealy-mouthed and wishy-washy.
At the risk of kicking up old dust with Scott, this play convinced me, more than ever, that artists should be traveling, should be outside of their communities, bringing the stories of their homes to the wider world. Sam is from Idaho and this play is all about Idaho and the people there and their lives. Not in a showy, "I'm bringing you effete New York assholes the real people way," but also not in a "Let's all point and laugh at the rubes I grew up way." In a straightforward, honest way. It should play Boise, absolutely. But it belongs here, on the Lower East Side, too. When I walked out of the theatre, I could see the towers of light commemorating 9/11 and I thought about my city and my faith differently. Because I saw this play, set thousands of miles away. Artists are bumblebees. We're meant to cross-pollinate.
There's no whimsy, no sock puppets, no angels or "magic realism." Pretty much the whole play takes place in one location: the break room of a chain store. Five actors, five characters (well, okay, there's one very brief flashback). No wigs, no quick changes, nothing. Just great writing, great directing and five very lived-in feeling performances. I went with an actor friend and she brought a non-theatre person friend with as well. At the intermission, my actor friend and I were swooing about the excellent directing. To his credit, the non-theatre guy piped up, "What do you mean?" And because it was so well directed, I could point to very specific things, things the actors did to tell the story and say, "See? That's the hand of good directing." It wasn't about good directing because the stage pictures were so perfect or there was a big technical moment. It was good directing because the story was beautifully told.
This play was a commissioned work from Partial Comfort and it shows that there's been some care and feeding of it and Sam. Not to mention a packed house that was a better cross-section of this city than I've seen in a theatre in a long while. Like I said, I know the Partial Comfort folks and still, I don't give them enough credit for being a multicultural, wider-spanning-than-you-think group. They're going about their business, doing the work, and clearly, doing something right. So kudos to y'all, guys. Well-played.
This is what I mean by Holy Sh*t theatre: my jaw was on the floor about five minutes into it and stayed there. Not by the power of "theatricality" or some great stage trick, but by dialogue, by a powerful reveal that changes everything you think about what you've seen. And it didn't let up from there. I never knew where this play was going or what it was going to pull out of the box next. I just trusted it implicitly. That trust was rewarded.
To me, Holy Theatre is precious theatre, theatre handled with kid gloves or presented on a perfect platter so that you can see how much time and energy went into the presentation. It's good, sure, and well-done, but the perfection of the thing overwhelms the thing itself. This can be true of a new play or a classic. When I rail at the people who tend to insist that Shakespeare or Miller or O'Neill can't be poked or prodded or messed with because he's perfect just the way he is, I think, 'You're making them more important than the story." I saw a production this past year that was praised to high heaven, ran forever, was one of the "events" of the past season. It left me utterly cold because it was all so holy and safe and perfect, the entire time. A lovely production, yep. But where's the fire?
Holy Sh*t Theatre doesn't need to be shocking or "in your face" or obnoxious to get the job done. It needs fire. A Bright New Boise brings the fire. As an audience member, I was thrilled. This is the kind of play the audience member in me wants to see. As a human being, just watching a story, I was illuminated. I saw ways of looking at life, ways of thinking about faith that I hadn't, that are still with me, two days later. That is the kind of theatre, the kind of art human beings crave. And the playwright in me was challenged. To write something that simple and clear and that cuts that close to the bone. To be that generous and honest and both unmerciful and full of love. It's an inspiring thing. Take part in it.
I didn't mean to set out to write a "review" or anything and this is a lot closer to that than I'm generally comfortable with. I guess this play made me a little evangelical. But it's nice to feel a clean, pure excitement about theatre again. Just in time for the fall.