Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Blackbird, Fly

I think I have found my calling in life, and that is to comment on the Globe reviews of Boston theatre. Haha. No, really. I saw Blackbird last night at Speakeasy. Here is what Louise Kennedy had to say:


The first thing to tell you about "Blackbird" is that I can't tell you much about it.

SpeakEasy Stage Company, which is staging the local premiere of David Harrower's award-winning play, has asked reviewers not to reveal the various twists of the plot. Fair enough; I hate spoilers as much as the next gal. But the problem here is that "Blackbird" is not much but its twists, and specifically the one big twist that's revealed just a few minutes in. Take that away, and what you have is an older man and a younger woman talking about their illicit former relationship.

Mine may be a minority view. Clearly the many regional theaters that have staged the play, to say nothing of the London judges who gave it the 2007 Olivier Award for best new play (over "Frost/Nixon," "The Seafarer," and "Rock 'n' Roll"), have found something in it that I, frankly, just didn't see.

People have praised its poetic language, its brutal frankness, its damaged but riveting characters, and so forth. What I saw was a 100-minute play that aims to be shocking, to assault the audience with raw truths about human nature, but that instead left me feeling emotionally flat, tired, and more than a little annoyed.

Some of the annoyance, I'll grant you, was purely physical. The play takes place in the grimy, trash-strewn break room of an anonymous office building, a setting that Eric Levenson creates in dreary detail, right down - or up - to the giant ceiling panels of fluorescent light. Levenson and lighting designer Jeff Adelberg have aimed these panels directly in the face of the audience, and the lights stay glaringly on throughout the show (except for a brief, "suspenseful" blackout near the end).

No doubt this is a deliberate choice, meant perhaps to heighten our discomfort with the play and its characters. It's less clear whether an intermittent buzzing whine is also a deliberate part of Cameron Willard's sound design, but the combination is certainly as discomfiting as any playwright could desire. The question, though, is whether a dull, constant headache is really likely to sharpen anyone's appreciation of a play.

As for the play - well, as I said, I can't say much. On paper, it sort of looks like poetry, because Harrower has laid it out in short, interrupted lines with little punctuation. On the stage, however, it plays less like poetry than like an acting exercise. The two characters engage in power struggles, interrupt and embellish and contradict each other's stories, and eventually express their conflicting emotions in physical as well as verbal ways.

Bates Wilder and Marianna Bassham execute all these moves with impressive skill. You can see that they have worked very hard on mastering every tic, every hesitation, every interrupted or repeated line with painstaking accuracy. They also enact the play's climaxes and lulls with careful precision; at times they seem to be dancing as much as acting.


There. Is. Nothing. There.

Sorry, I was succumbing to the faux-poetic impulse. Let me put it more directly. "Blackbird" heaves and gasps and thrusts itself into our faces, daring us to declare it repellent because of the nature of the relationship between these two characters. (Still not telling.) But it does not reveal anything essential about them, about ourselves, or about the complicated nature of love. After all the shouting and shaking and stomping have ended, we leave knowing no more than when we began.

And that's really why I can't tell you much about it: Not only because I'm not supposed to, but because there really isn't anything much to tell.


Since her post, many people had commented and claimed unity with her view, stating that the play was boring and cliched, and that if they were writing it, they would have put a new spin on child molestation, etc..... (rolls eyes)

So here is what I said to Louise and to them:


I saw Blackbird last night and was largely unable to breathe during its duration. Not because I had never seen a play about the subject before, or even because I found the ending that shocking, but because of what David Gammons and his design team did to bring the text to such vivid life ... other than saying that their choices were "annoying". ... [note to readers here: eesh, I wouldn't have gotten away with that in the Collegian!!!!]

Rather than picking apart the text of the play as if we all have PhD's in dramaturgy, think about the theatre moments created in the production and what they did to us as audience meembers. Una's monologue, in which she describes what it felt like to be abandoned by Ray after their last night together, was, to say it inarticulately, something else. Whether you think the situation is cliche or not, many of us have been there: Disoriented, afraid of the dark, staring out a dark window, terrified that someone we love may not be coming back. I can't pretend to know what the character might have been feeling in these moments, or whether or not she maybe should have been feeling things less "stereotypical". But you know what? Get over it. Stereotype lives. Cliche lives. They are part of our lives and we have all participated in them. Every possible thing that person could have been feeling, even the vaguely cliched ones, was shown to us so well by Ms. Bassham that I felt it *viscerally*; isn't that the closest we can come to a shared experience, to pathos?

Bear with me: A few moments later in the play, during a sudden power outage. Ray has gone out to investigate and Una is left alone, in the dark, disoriented, terrified, staring a huge, strange window. What a visual representation of a phobia brought on by the traumatic memory she just shared with us? This is absolute terror; and, better yet, we are THERE with her. Isn't that theatre? Can movies do that for us? Can books? Can witness accounts?

So please, let down your guards against cliche and stereotype for one minute and consider the effect the theatre created made from the text -- or you are missing out. There's a reason this wasn't a staged reading. If you don't, you're really missing out on some major parts of the human condition that Blackbird exemplifies; the power of raw feeling and what we do because of these emotions. It's not about what someone should or would be feeling at this stage in the game. This is not a workshop. This is a production that was produced well; let's give it its due.