Why Theater Perseveres 

Three new works give the lie to the notion that it's a moribund medium.

Every now and again a cry goes up that theater is dead, or at least about to breath its last. It's a concern entertained by grad students, theater workers, and the pages of their trade magazines. Perhaps the naysayer is a theorist, or a representative of some other medium, or sometimes even a disappointed audience member. The appearance of new media -- film, television, the Internet -- always lends the discussion more urgency.

These rumors of theater's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Besides its inimitable physical immediacy, theater endures as an expressive medium in part because its components are so versatile and potentially beguiling. From the way a play is envisioned by a director, to the cut of the costumes and the choice of music, there are so many facets to be played with and enjoyed by those on both sides of the lights. One of those elements -- the rhythms of human speech -- is currently being explored in three new works that give the lie to the idea of theater as a moribund medium.

Of the three, Anne Nelson's The Guys is most recognizable as a play. Based on her experiences, The Guys is a small, deceptively simple work that encompasses her reactions to the events of 9/11. The story of the play's genesis is amazing, one of those only-in-New-York happenings. Nelson, a professor of journalism at Columbia, agreed to help a shell-shocked fire captain write eulogies for the men of his company lost in the catastrophe. Soon after she was sitting next to Jim Simpson, founder of the off-off-Broadway Flea Theater Company, at a benefit dinner. They talked about making the story of Nelson and the captain into a play. The captain agreed and, three months to the day after the towers fell, Simpson's wife Sigourney Weaver and her friend Bill Murray were performing the piece at the Flea.

Nearly two years after the nation was shocked to a standstill by the sight of hijacked airliners ripping through the World Trade Center, we're still struggling with how to talk about what happened. That's the emotional core of Nelson's work. Captain Nick Flanagan has been called upon to speak about the heroes from his station at their funerals, yet he has a hard time seeing them as such. To him, they're just "the guys," a group of men with their own graces and quirks; whether it's building custom tools or making Waldorf salad for the church picnic. It takes a visit to writer Joan for Nick to see what's special about these men. Meanwhile Joan is struggling with her own helplessness in the face of the unthinkable; she wonders what she can possibly contribute when she is not herself a paramedic or firefighter or the obvious sort of hero. In a moment of intense vulnerability, these two make "the guys" real for the audience.

The result, while moving, unfortunately feels a bit pat. Nelson is clearly a journalist first, and the play's language and construction so earnestly strives for accuracy that it sometimes misses the mark on drama. Nelson's language, and the way Joan and Nick bounce things off each other, is almost too faithful to be as powerful as it could be. Sometimes the rhythms and patterns of "real" speech just don't sound right when transposed to the stage. Listening to two people repeat to each other, for example, that a certain man was devoutly religious or liked to build things doesn't necessarily build emotion or tension; it's just repetitive.

The larger challenge of examining this work is a sensitive one, one that journalist William Langewiesche faced when he wrote his excellent three-part series for the Atlantic Monthly on the dismantling of the rubble that was the World Trade Center. Langewiesche had the audacity to suggest that the people involved -- firefighters, cops, medical personnel -- occasionally engaged in less-than-heroic behavior, and he took it in the neck as a result. Nelson's work raises the same concern. Of course these people are heroes -- as someone said, they ran in when everyone else ran out. But does that heroism -- and the fact that our wounds are still fresh -- mean we can't say a single thing that might reflect ill? As Joan questioned Nick about his men, I found myself hoping he would admit that one was a bit of a slacker around the firehouse, or maybe that the others thought he was kind of an asshole. Such details would take nothing from these men -- indeed, it could make their sacrifice more resonant as the audience recognizes the firefighters as their own co-workers, friends, as themselves. Alas, no such luck. As strong as the emotions and a rotating cast of famous visiting performers are, the end result is a little bland.

Storyteller Tim Barsky's new collection of pieces, on the other hand, which premiered at Berkeley's intimate Epic Arts performance space and moves over to the Exit in San Francisco this month, is anything but bland. Traditional storytelling does something different with rhythm, ideally making even the most mundane story sing with mystery. Barsky is here to prove it with Over Nine Waves, which fuses ancient storytelling techniques with contemporary issues, hip-hop, and unusual sounds. Barsky, who recently did the music for Shotgun's Oedipus Rex, is back on familiar ground with a selection of old and new stories backed up by the surprising and exotic combination of cello, hand drum, bass guitar, flute, and beatbox. It doesn't sound like it's going to work, phrased that way, but it totally does; the end result is lush, tender, and haunting.

Barsky brings four pieces: a short, character-laden traditional West African Anansi the Spider story, two tales of social activism, and finally the complex 2,100-year-old Irish love story of Midr and Eideen. He manages a seamless blending of sources and sounds which somehow retain a feeling of antiquity while taking place in subways and cities. Barsky's lions carry pagers and his bees drink soy lattes; an eleven-year-old neighbor turns briefly into a cop-eating demon and a handsome prince rides by his beloved on horseback as she heads to the Laundromat.

All of the musicians working with Barsky do exemplary, subtle work, but one stands out for sheer bravura. Process, who quietly plays along during the first three stories, warms up the crowd after intermission with a description-defying display of beatbox talent, from replicating Rob Bass' "It Takes Two" and classic Salt 'n' Pepa to dropping drum and bass breaks, which should be physically impossible. Barsky also beatboxes -- into his flute -- to startling effect, while cellist Jess Ivry and bassist/percussionist Shree Shyam lay down smooth, evocative melodies.

Sliding effortlessly from a group of bystanders who end up in jail in the course of monitoring police activity ("You went out for the crack dealers and came back with four white activists?" one cop asks disbelievingly of another) and a kindergarten teacher caught up in the Seattle WTO protests to a story of "the love you don't dream of as an adult," replete with blood magicians, curses, and women turning into butterflies, Barsky's Over Nine Waves is not only a new force in theater, but sophisticated, impassioned storytelling at its best.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas intended under milk wood as a play for radio -- the first new medium that was supposedly going to supplant theater -- and Shotgun director Gina Pulice wanted to respect his "play for voices" while creating strong visual images for her audience. So she dressed up the eight members of her cast in stark black and white with an occasional cap, scarf, or tape measure for effect, ran them through countless hours of Suzuki physical warmups, and put them up on a stage that resembles nothing so much as a squared-off wedding cake. The end result is an engaging tangle of characters, animals, and dreams that manages to be both beautiful and dirty, funny, sad, and unsettling.

under milk wood winds through the small fishing village of Llareggub ("bugger all" spelled backward), the rolling hills covered with goats and nets full of fish, the shops and homes and memories of its people. Although Thomas allegedly planned to populate this town with grotesques of every stripe, the characters are often deeply wistful and always believable, even if their situations seem exaggerated. A man with epic dreams of poisoning his sharp-tongued wife, a young couple in love who conduct their affair strictly via the (steamed-open-by-the-postman's-wife) mail, a scuppered sea captain who imagines his dead comrades and loves clinging to his legs -- even in their gossipiest and most vicious moments, we know these people: their lives run parallel to our own. Thomas' characters "pelican" fish down their throats, play wicked tricks on each other, shoot long looks of unrequited passion across the bar at the Sailor's Arms. More physical than Reader's Theatre tends to be, more poetic than a straight three-act narrative, under milk wood is brightened by moments such as the one where a woman carried around by the feet plays an owl, a woman sings of her dead love, a man's two wives play a fortune-telling game with the household money.

Beginning as it does in the middle of the night and running through a full day until the sleepers have returned to their unquiet beds, under milk wood for all its abundant charm does feel a bit long. Which is not surprising, since Thomas wanted to write a Welsh Ulysses that would take a full 24 hours to perform, but there are moments where, despite the best efforts of the talented cast, under milk wood's energy seems to flag. Still, the chorus of voices -- individual, woven together, seductive, angry, bleating, barking -- blends well with Amy Sass' fluid movement design to create a hypnotic, sometimes sentimental portrait of a town caught in time and dreams that puts the lie to the death of theater as a vital, expressive form.


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