Hello. Let us all pretend that I never neglect this weblog.
I want to talk about two expertly-acted productions of two recent plays.
I saw Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons last year. The play was extended several times due to excellent reviews and word of mouth. The production won countless awards in the past few weeks.
It’s also the worst play I’ve ever seen.
I have never had a more upsetting night at the theatre than watching Baker torture her characters through an aimless, unending series of short scenes. Supposedly, the play shows us a summer acting class in Vermont, but the play contains no real acting exercises and no real Vermont. (It takes place in a shiny antiseptic rec center—nothing in Vermont is antiseptic.)
You have to accept these lies as true for the production, but these lies serve only one purpose: torture porn. Baker’s acting class participants only have enough characterization to make it possible to abuse them; every reveal is just another piece of exposed skin to wound.
I don’t doubt that these are emotions that an acting class can bring up, and that a lot of audience members can identify with the embarrassment and longing felt by these characters. But we aren’t getting these emotions honestly; Baker has to lie every step of the way to provoke us. She showed so little respect for her characters that I felt all of the tender acting went to waste.
If you’re keeping score, that’s one vote against Circle Mirror Transformation and thousands of votes for it. That’s how it goes; am I ever not disappointed by something universally loved?
I saw Sarah Ruhl’s three-hour-and-forty-minute Passion Play earlier this month, staged by Epic Theatre Ensemble in Brooklyn. The play included many actors who had been part of previous Passion Play productions; the entire ensemble did a letter-perfect job with the play.
Passion Play received many favorable reviews, but there are two negative, yet sympathetic reviews that I agree with completely. Matthew Freeman at nytheatre called the play “a beautiful, but empty, epic.” Meanwhile Playgoer sees so many wasted opportunities in the play and states that “it was a play that did not live up to its premise.”
Ruhl highlights so many significant things about the traditional Passion play and its connection to history, but once she puts that highlighter away, what then? We get some light character drama and some impressive stagecraft. That’s good, but it’s not passion—in the religious sense or otherwise. Ruhl takes hold of huge themes but does not do huge things with them.
And I’m OK with that.
Although Ruhl didn’t do more, she didn’t promise more. I felt that her play was honest with me. I also found the beauty of this empty epic to be enough for me—the third act was especially gorgeous and made the first two acts pay off so well.
Once I discovered that Circle Mirror Transformation would be a geek show, I hoped for either something real to latch onto or an intermission so I could leave. Neither came. You can’t call the play a character study because they weren’t studied—they were abused. Meanwhile, you can be disappointed that Ruhl merely did a character study for her play-within-a-play actors when she could have done more.
I want something honest. You can build a play around lies, but you have to be true to your characters and honest with your audience. Make them tell lies with you. Ruhl was honest. Baker was not. Only one of those playwrights remains un-crossed-out on the Playwrights I Might Like list.
Bonus Playwrights I Don’t Like News: Thanks to John Lahr in The New Yorker for writing at length about Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children. We could say the play is about school censorship, but that wouldn’t be honest. This is a play that has a hot blonde teenager cry out, “Please impregnate me, Adam Rapp surrogate!” If the advertising was that forthcoming I’d be more inclined to see the play.
Bonus Playwrights I Do Like News: I saw Marisa Wegrzyn’s Killing Women two weeks ago. It’s a super-cute play about contract killers. Go see it!
Bonus Mike Pretends He Still Writes News: I’m still writing. You might see As You Wish on this site soon.