"Whiskey" and "Bird" Display the Dazzle and the Danger of Theater in the Abstract [Updated]

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Saw a couple of shows last week that, for me, are vivid examples of both the risk and the reward that Theater in the Abstract can provide, those productions in question would be Theatre of NOTE’s The Whiskey Maiden and 24th STreet Theatre’s Man Covets Bird.

[Editor’s Note: Just a heads up that the show I saw at 24th Street was a preview and so what follows are my thoughts on a production that was not yet finished. Apologies to the creators and producers, the intent was not a malicious one, but came from a place of genuine enthusiasm and a desire to explore a larger theme that their show and Note’s show inspired from me. I remain NOT a theater critic and sometimes fail to follow the traditional protocol in these matters, sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not. In this case I’m sure it was a little of both. If the producers want me to take this down, I of course will and I hope to see the show after it’s opened and write a report on those findings. Please bear this in mind as you read as I’m sure my minor quibbles will be more than satisfied come opening night. That’s it. Carry on.CM]

Firstly, let me define my terms; all theater is abstract, all art is abstract, they are a representation of a larger whole, an idea, an image, a feeling, hell, everything we do in life is an abstraction really, language, commerce, government, it’s just a question of what exactly is being abstracted. That question, of course, ties in with one’s world view or philosophy of life, one’s beliefs about existence, so I’m not going to get into that right now because it’s not the point I’m trying to make. For the sake of argument and in this instance I’m defining Theater in the Abstract as that type of theater that most resembles parable and fable and many times myth and fairy tale, where characters REPRESENT things like wisdom and innocence and evil, rather than being actual three-dimensional, full-blooded characters that already possess all of those characteristics innately, which is closer to real life, for me. We all have the ability to be cruel or courageous or kind or profound or wise and it is the circumstances and the obstacles that one faces that brings out these traits, or doesn’t. It’s the difference between Little Red Riding Hood representing innocence and the Big Bad Wolf representing corruption as opposed to those same two types of characters representing an actual girl and perhaps a pedophile in something like Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive or David Harrower’s Blackbird.

Now just so we’re clear, either of these choices can work, in the right hands, but I prefer the latter approach, because the more I can identify with a character, the more flesh and blood a character comes across, the easier it is for me to emotionally invest in their journey and therefore allow for a possibility of catharsis when I’m sitting in those darkened seats. Doesn’t matter whether the play is inherently presentational or parable-like, doesn’t matter if they are fighting dragons or demons or corporate ghouls who represent dragons and demons, fill it with fully-rounded people with actual desires and flaws and I’m there for you, but give me ciphers and caricatures and I’m out.

Both Whiskey and Bird use this Abstract approach, but for me Bird was by far the better and more sophisticated of the two. Whiskey starts off like a kind of contemporary Sunset Boulevard wherein a homeless man in some apocalyptic wasteland of the future finds himself trapped in a house with a cast of bizarre characters wanting to use him for their own ends. But as soon as we realize that these characters are merely – SPOILER ALERT – figments and projections of our main character’s ravaged heart and mind, I pretty much checked out. It is almost worth seeing just to witness Darett Sanders do his thing. He is right up there for me when it comes to the best and brightest of LA Theater’s actors and he brings inventiveness, authenticity and a tremendous power to everything he does. But he alone is not enough to save Whiskey from spiraling into the “I just don’t give a shit” abyss.

In contrast, Finegan Krukemeyer’s Bird circumvents the dangers of the Abstract by completely embracing its flight of fancy and allowing the characters and themes to live and soar in their abstract environment. Director, Debbie Devine, once again shows that she is an alchemic wizard of stagecraft and story and there are moments in Bird that simply astound. And a major back-slap to producer and executive director, Jay McAdams, who shows once again that he has an eye like none other for sophisticated theater for the family and adult alike. The machine-like dance and song number, wherein the movements and the beat box body percussion are counter-pointed with the performers’ mingling melodies, is worth the trip alone. The two performers, Andrew Huber as the main narrator and Leeav Sofer as the Bird (the original music is his as well), are so talented and work so well together that you sometimes wonder if its possible for so much creativity to exist in two human beings and it is to Devine’s credit that it all flows seamlessly. And yet for all its exquisite beauty and breadth of creativity, using original music, video and incredibly detailed choreography, Bird still hasn’t found THE message that it wants to impart. It seems to be going after EVERYTHING instead, wanting to touch ALL topics and explore ALL corners of life with its magic wand, instead of honing in on one specific theme or emotion or idea. By making the attempt to be universal it sometimes loses the specific and in turn dilutes the power of its message.

There is a moment in Bird where our protagonist decides that he will ride on the subway to work and display his pet bird unabashed for all to see and the effect is stunning and radically real. Those around him take notice, conversations are inspired, people who have ridden on the same line for months upon months suddenly discover how much they have in common, and finally, when they are all leaving for work, our narrator imagines the desire of two silent riders who have sat across from each other for so long, imagining one of them saying to himself, “Maybe, just maybe, I’ll talk to you tomorrow and every day after that until the end of our days.” By reaching out with that which makes him special, our hero, The Man, inspires others to take the risk of connection, of friendship, of love. It is a tremendously moving moment.

But the play continues on and continues to expand and certainly other high emotional moments are reached as we move along, but that apex of climactic catharsis seemed to get diluted in the process. If I have any quibble for Teatro 24 to perhaps ponder, it would be to try and crystalize even further what they are after with this story, what feeling do they want the audience to leave with, what is the ultimate message that needs to be imparted? Anything that does not accomplish this goal should be discarded or perhaps altered so that  the trajectory of the narrative doesn’t blow its wad – for want of a better phrase – leaving us floundering for another fifteen minutes as we try to adjust and prepare ourselves for more. Nothing wrong with delivering more, if you can, hey, multiple orgasms are a wonderful thing, but they can be exhausting sometimes and not always as exhilarating as the purity of a perfect moment of catharsis; something that was achieved in their masterpiece Walking the Tightrope, when the innocent girl suddenly realizes that her grandmother is dead and is able to articulate it and by doing so shows her grandfather how to finally let go. Perfect catharsis, everything else is denouement.

All that said, go see Man Covets Bird. It is exquisite and has much to offer all ages and all levels of sophistication. It’s an amazing thing to see whole families attending the theater together, no matter how disruptive a seven-year-old can be when they try to run behind the backstage curtain or start talking to invisible friends (both happened btw). 24th Street is a gem in the crown of Los Angeles Theater, something they prove over and over again. If you’ve never seen a show there, here is a perfect primer for what they do and do so well.

And then there is Chris Kelley’s The Whiskey Maiden. For about fifteen minutes I was right there, invested, mostly because of Sanders, but everything was weird enough, the characters the circumstances, to keep me interested, and then it became clear that this was all some Dante’s Inferno, no one was real and I just lost the desire to go along for the ride. Even the language of the play, the things people were saying just kept getting more and more metaphorical and less and less specific, and for me, it is the specificity that makes something universal. If they could have hidden this fact for a longer period of time, things could have been different, or if they could have perhaps clued us in earlier maybe it would have had strengthened the story. But I doubt it. Ultimately the characters and the journey just weren’t compelling enough for me to stay on the bus and I didn’t. But others seem to like it, so don’t just take my word for it, just one man’s opinion, as it always is.

And let me close with this, it is specificity which creates universal appeal, whether the framework is an abstract one or a kitchen sink type of comer. Find a story you know intimately and tell it well – in detail – as if your life depended upon it. Because it does. You do that and I will sit up and take notice. And I’ll come back again and again and again. 

As the Man says in Bird, “Because it’s a liberating thing to talk publicly about things you’re only supposed to think privately.”

I can certainly attest to the power of that statement.