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Why do birds sing so gay? Because they’re fools. Besides, what else are you going to do? If the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven, then why not choose happiness over misery? Beane has been in a minimalist hell of his own creation his whole life. He owns one cup, one spoon, one jacket, one hoody, and an overcoat. He lives in a one room apartment with one lamp (bare bulb), one table, and one toilet. He works in a toll booth all day and has hallucinations induced by solitary confinement at night. He also has one sister, Joan, and one brother-in-law, Harry, who are cynical and world-weary, which is to say they don’t have much imagination, curiosity, or joie de vivre. They are his clueless caretakers, the sort who invite him over for dinner then give him a psychology test from the back of a magazine to show they care.
In New York City it can seem like the audience is an accessory to theater. Plays with big name stars charge a king’s ransom to sit in the back row of a giant theater, and you had better bring your binoculars if you want to see that movie actor strut and fret his hour upon the stage. Every restaurant in Manhattan has a cast of waiter/actors ready to slip you a postcard with info on how to see a burlesque or magic show, a comedy club, an art installation, a theater festival, or a musical act in any genre that tickles your fancy. Usually when you get there the art is so high concept you want to scrub your brain with Kardashian reruns just to get back to normal. Did they create that work of “art” for you, or did you just pay $15 to bear witness to their artistic genius?
In The Seeing Place Theater’s production of Chekov’s Three Sisters the birch trees, rendered abstractly on a back wall of the dilapidated ATA Sergeant Theater on 53rd Street, are uncanny sentinels, observers whose angular geometry comments on the gap between the characters’ hopes and the shifts they are forced to accept to cope with life’s capricious freaks. The company strives for a similar effect in the props and staging. The first thing you notice when you take your seat are labels in the place of theatrical property: a piece of paper with “Book” in black marker, a wooden bench labeled “Olga’s Bed” and a wooden block tagged “CLOCK.” Director Brandon Walker amplifies these Brechtian touches by requiring the stage manager to sit upstage from the actors and give cues to a tech sitting in the booth throughout the performance.
You don’t need the J. Geils Band to tell you that. But why does it seem that the Internet makes it so much more fun to hurt the ones you love and love the ones that hurt you? Maybe it’s the anonymous proximity, maybe it’s the dazzling newness of social tech, or maybe it’s the mind-blowing ubiquity of porn that killed romance for Dan, Alice, Anna, and Larry in Patrick Marber’s 1997 play Closer.
“Be not afraid of greatness” is the advice Malvolio gets from an anonymous letter in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” Our officious, comedic villain hopes the greatness of his mistress Olivia will be thrust upon him, a thought that tickles him in all the wrong places. Ever ready to put a subordinate in his place or flatter his betters, when he sees the opportunity to move up the social ladder a rung or two Malvolio exults in the thought that he could be better than he is.
The idea that you can be better than you are was laughable to the play’s Elizabethan audience. You were born into your place; you stay in your place; and morality consists of being faithful to who you are. People act immorally when they put on airs, or act beneath their station. We laugh at the type of fool Malvolio represents in hopes that public scorn will teach him a lesson in humility. It’s an important lesson to learn, because those who don’t learn it turn into tyrants and / or corpses.