In the Next Room
(or, The Vibrator Play)
Sarah Ruhl managed quite a feat in her Broadway debut, smuggling a strikingly frank, optimistic and contemporary story of female sexual empowerment under the lush set and costumes of her late-1800s period sex farce. The central couple of Mrs. And Dr. Givings (Laura Benanti and Michael Cerveris) argued over proper use of the doctor’s vibrator as an instrument for curing hysteria or a device for pleasure. Their eventual reconciliation articulated Ruhl’s fundamental point: that sexual pleasure should not be rationed and distributed through systems of shame.
The wrenching ache of a voice crying out in pain. The electric tremolo of a voice in need, and the fear it elicits in the listener. The way our heartbeat slows when an affecting song gets inside of us. This is the stuff of Robert Lepage’s most recent work, and though the piece clocked in at over nine hours, for those eager to see a rare and ambitious work that intelligently and at times beautifully explored the many ways in which we use and make sense of the human voice, it was well worth the time.
A scatological version of de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, Quartett was filled with the most savage invective, always perfectly calibrated for maximum nausea, articulate talk of skin and lust and shit and death. Those looking for literal interpretations of Robert Wilson’s imagery did so at their peril; it was better, and more Susan Sontag-esque, to give yourself over to the nuts and bolts erotics than try to parse individual screeches, color codings or Isabelle Huppert and Ariel Garcia Valdès’ desperate pantomimes.
The Secret Agenda of Trees
Set amidst the working-class squalor of a nameless rural meat-packing community, Colin McKenna’s The Secret Agenda of Trees was a near-perfect play for a collapsing masculinist culture based on boundless consumption. It may not be the art we want, but it’s the art we need. Evading depressive abandon and recuperative sentimentalism, McKenna and director Michael Kimmel made especially effective use of the scenario’s meat-packing analogies. These characters’ lives resemble a slow, steady progression towards certain annihilation. Their realizing this only heightened the tragedy.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Cate Blanchett, in an extraordinary performance in Liv Ullman’s outstanding production at BAM, reclaimed Tennessee Williams’ text for Blanche. Her flights of fancy weren’t the ravings of a mesmerized mad woman, but the desperate attempts of a broken and miserable woman to cling to some form of dignity. This Blanche knows she’s full of shit; she ain’t crazy, just pathetic, and her inexorable path toward rape and lunacy was all the more harrowing for it. Ullman exposed the play’s raw power, which decades of over-familiarity and cultural saturation had obscured.
Tracy Letts’ politico-comic follow-up to his Tony- and Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County was belittled in some critical quarters as a light, sitcom-esque work, but his latest is far from insubstantial. In between the charming comic sparring of its two masterful leads (Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill), the play grappled with political issues more conspicuously than August, while exploring a similar theme: America’s (downward) historical trajectory. But whereas the previous play was steeped in cynicism, Donuts looked to the future, in true Obama-era fashion, with misted eyes full of hope.
This new piece written by poet Ariana Reines and inspired by Avital Ronell’s circuitous book, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, took the form of a triptych. Jumping between Alexander Graham Bell, a patient of Carl Jung’s, and a series of exchanges between lovers, the Foundry Theater once again tapped into the undercurrent that’s been coursing through theater for a while now, a desire to stop pretending or accepting status as a poor cousin of cinema, and to be a real experience.