The Problems of Novel Theater

blair thomas & co., moby dick @ mca stage, 2 april 2016 & teatrocinema, historia de amor (love story) @ mca stage, 10 april 2016.

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Two recent, quite different performances at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art sought to harness what are often (mistakenly) considered  lightweight forms—puppetry and the comic strip—for the serious end of adapting a novel for the stage. Blair Thomas and Co.’s adaptation of Moby Dick used puppetry, along with quite a few beautiful folk songs written by Michael Smith, to take us to Herman Melville’s watery part of the world. The Chilean theater company Teatrocinema turned to a live-action version of the comic book/graphic novel for their adaptation of Régis Jauffret’s Historia de Amor. In both performances, there were many moments of technical ingenuity, but problematically so: how to relate hybrid theatrical innovations to serious content remained much at issue.

Blair Thomas and Co. along with folksinger Michael Smith and percussionist Michael Zerang offered cute gags in their show—a giant book version of Moby-Dick, papier-mâché boat passed all the way through the audience hand to hand, actors as monks from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which influenced Herman Melville)—but the best parts of the performance were Smith’s wonderful guitar finger picking and the enormous wrinkly, textured paper hung from the flyspace like an overwhelming, sublime glimpse of the white whale. Eventually, the paper dropped to the stage and became the ocean itself. Huge heads went on the necks of actual humans while actual humans seemed to become part of the screen-projected puppetry. Small flat shadow puppets cast huge, deep silhouettes. Huge whales shrank down to fit in the soul. Scale and size oscillated to the point where you might almost feel seasick.

At its best, the effect was mesmerizing; just as often, however, it became technical virtuosity for its own sake. What Blair Thomas & Co. would do next with the mechanics of puppetry began to feel more important than how puppetry struck deep into the mysterious Leviathan core of Moby-Dick‘s metaphysical and political themes. Which it certainly does, but that did not feel to be the central preoccupation for the production.

Part of the problem was that any adaptation of a very famous work has the danger of leaving one watching for choices of adaptation rather than focused on the performance itself. Instead of attending directly to the proceedings, one starts to watch for the imaginary pages of the original novel, fluttering in the background behind the scrim of the show on stage. You start to get more curious about the retelling instead of the story itself.

This was exacerbated by the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead quality of the show, which went at Ismael’s narrative about the megalomaniacal Captain Ahab askew, interested as much in the many side alleys, detours, and dead ends of the novel as in its central obsessions. Not a bad thing, necessarily, since, after all, the meanderings in Moby-Dick are important to the novel. But on stage, this led to a spotlight more on the question of who was pulling the strings than on the “cords woven of my heart-strings” that make Ahab’s obsessions and Ishmael’s reflections so compelling. The puppetry kept demanding we tend to its artifice rather than take us into the blubbery essence of Melville’s tale.

Blair Thomas and Co Moby Dick
Blair Thomas & Co., Moby Dick.

With mixed results, Blair Thomas & Co. pushed puppetry, typically thought of as lighter entertainment fare, toward dark and serious subject matter. Similarly, Teatrocinema pushed a supposedly lightweight form—the comic strip—toward the very sobering issue of sexual violence. The main protagonist in Historia de Amor is a young man obsessed with a young woman, who he harasses, stalks, and eventually (so far as I could tell) rapes. Not once. But, over the course of the story, three times. This content was, to say the least, discomforting, sort of like Lolita on steroids. And no matter how many clever stagings of the obsession Teatrocinema used for this man and woman, I for one found it difficult to stick with the protagonist. Was he really anything more than a monster? Why should we be giving him the time of day, forget about the dazzling innovations of this talented theater company?

Indeed, the technical virtuosity of Historia de Amor seemed to work against even registering, never mind condemning, the immorality and crimes of the main character. At the very least, it confused the issue. There was no place for cleverness within this story. Startling effects such as having the actors move within computer-animated trains and cars, turning their bodily projections of vomit into comic strip dematerializations, or emphasizing physical harm through comic book lightning bolts and exclamation marks seemed to blur fantasy and reality. But the topics of sexual violence and gender politics, the lasting effects of patriarchy, the new problems of hyperreality, seem to demand precisely the opposite: not a blurring of fantasy and reality but that we distinguish more strongly between them. Rape is graphic violence, not a graphic novel.

I suppose the point of Historia de Amor was to suggest a world, both on stage and by implication beyond it, that is troublingly problematic exactly because it encourages the blurring of fantasy and reality. The collapse of the real into the pretend enables social relationships in which there is no longer any distinction between actual and special effects. This creates societies in which it becomes permissible for dark obsessions to be enacted. If the world is pulled within the frame of the comic strip, there is no longer any constraint against acting out obsession, violence, or evil. Punches are simply large POWS! Reckless car crashes are simply CRASHES and some hubcaps spinning off a chassis. And rape becomes a bunch of lines vaguely drawn in the form of violent domination.

Within the cells of the graphic novel, now placed on stage and around the bodies of actors, everything is permitted. This is the narcissism of simulated realities, in which not even the traditions of theatricality are enough, in which to do things by the book is to let the pages fall where they may, in which all has been absorbed into dreamworld, in which flesh’s subjectivity can only be animated by computer animation, in which perpetrators of violence no longer have to make much of the difference between projections of personality and a person herself.

Teatrocinema, Historia de Amor (Love Story).

To lure us into seeing that we increasingly inhabit this dreamworld is certainly an important point for a theater company to make—and to do so as shockingly as possible. For we do live in a dreamworld that is also a drone world, one that sanctions the sameness of images on screens and people on the ground. But the production seemed so entranced by its own hybrid creativity, its own technical innovations, its own blending of live actors with an immersive environment of comic-book spectaculars, that it proposed a heightened awareness of this critical interpretation rather inchoately.

Instead, it seemed to give its protagonist permission for his actions. It seemed to blame them on the surroundings. This made me convinced that novelty has its limits. At some juncture, when faced with a character who cannot grasp the damage he inflicts within a production that allows him to inflict it, one simply says no to the action. No matter how special the special effects, you step outside the frame and pull away the artifice and you refuse to be a puppet of illusions.

If you don’t, you just might find yourself clinging to the splintered remains of a coffin, lost at sea and lucky to survive at all.

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