Sunday, January 22, 2006

Another Theatre Mini-Marathon

This one was offered fully by Canadian Stage, and consisted of an afternoon one-man show by Richard Greenblatt, Letters from Lehrer, based on his grappling with his memories of the influence on him of Tom Lehrer, followed by an evening performance of A Number by Caryl Churchill, whose name seemed familiar to me, but none of whose plays I had seen.
They shared a couple of delightful characteristics, both being simply staged (Greenblatt's play had one actor and two characters, and the evening play had only two actors, though four characters), and short in length (an hour and a half in the afternoon and an hour in the evening).
After that the contrasts could not have been greater.
Greenblatt's show begins with his fascination, for a variety of reasons, with the works of Tom Lehrer. The problem is that it does not get beyond that. Moreover, his fascination appears to be based on a profound misunderstanding; he mistakes Lehrer for a somewhat unthoughtful left-wing enthusiast, as he (Greenblatt) appears to be. This gives rise to all sorts of problems in the show - does he really think Lehrer's pre-EPA humour (and it IS humour first) about pollution describes today's North American reality as well as it did in the '50s? Does he really believe that Lehrer's paranoid humour about nuclear proliferation and the resulting threats are mirrored as well today (I do agree they are still mirrored to a degree today)? He appears to have failed to notice as well that the Soviet Union collapsed, and that world poverty has been of late on a pretty good trend of reduction. All this makes Greenblatt's political opinions more of a foil to Lehrer's sharp mind, revealed as Greenblatt shares his own notions with responses from Lehrer and with original lyrics from Lehrer.
The result is a very odd mix; naive and relatively uninteresting politics and dreams from Greenblatt, side by side with incisive and wonderfully terse material that Greenblatt performs in the show as Lehrer. I found it very odd - normally I try to choose my heroes from people I think I have some affinity with. Greenblatt presents himself as someone with great ambitions to serve 'the Struggle' and achieve great things, and along the way he quotes a telling assertion from Tom Lehrer that what he wanted to be was a 'graduate student for life' (where I was a grad student we called it 'TA with tenure'). Most of the show seemed to indicate that Lehrer achieved his goal, and Greenblatt just fails to see that. He dreams that Lehrer must have wanted more. But why should he have - it sounds as if he has led a very rewarding life.
There were also technical problems; Lehrer's songs have very witty lyrics, and as a result excellent performance of them depends profoundly on the singer's diction - Lehrer's was superb, and I found Greenblatt's problematic. I could not make out what whole sections of the lyrics of a song were.
There is a great danger in one-man shows based on the one man's enthusiasm for a hero and this show displays many of them. Ultimately they become just too self-indulgent (which a telling line in the show indicated that Greenblatt knew, and just chose not to work on fixing).
On the other hand I should say that many people in the audience were delighted to be exposed to Tom Lehrer's works, and it is fair to say that many people were profoundly sympathetic to Greenblatt's politics - this is the Canadian theatre community, after all.
The show disappointed me especially as I remember my sheer delight at a two-man show featuring Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra called "Two Pianos, Four Hands" (they do have a web page I cannot get to - the Yahoo cached page is here) - I do recommend it - there is a story, about two boys carrying their piano lessons through the years, and a theme, how these lessons (like life?) lead to ever greater challenges, and even a lovely reflection at the end. Someone needed to inject each of these features into this Lehrer show.

And then on to "A Number". The programme notes were terrifying - they cited Churchill as being like Pinter and Beckett and my heart sank. On the other hand I have seen the odd production of plays by them that were fun. And of course it was to last only an hour.
But WOW! What fun, what wit, and what a great mind! And a fine production too, directed by David Storch (one of Toronto's finest actors, a guarantee of some fine entertainment whenever he appears), and clearly a growing force in direction. Gary Reinike and Shawn Doyle (who played three clones, with slight costume and personality changes) were also terrific.
Though the plot has some indirection, the story is simple. Salter had a son, his wife dies, the son became a burden, so he shipped the son off but got some clinic to clone the child for him to bring up, because he really did want a son like that one. Along the way, the clinic actually spun off a few more clones ("A number!"), and dispersed them around the world. The play opens with the substitute son learning (by no means directly or honestly) from Salter that he is a cloned substitute. The next couple of scenes alternate him with the original son, pretty resentful and threatening, now having learned about all this and out of some institution, and the growing hostility between these two cloned characters, much of this presented in the text as based on issues of 'identity' and 'clone-ness', leads to disaster, though it becomes clearer and clearer it is the social situation that creates the nastiness. In the end Salter loses both these 'children' (though of course one is not REALLY his son). The play ends with him confronting one of the 'number' still out there. This final scene does a lovely job of stripping so much of what has been said of identity and cloning of the influence we had seen so far; in fact, this guy, never having faced any confrontation with his Doppelgaengers, has led a totally happy life, finds the whole idea of what is going on amusing and interesting, and cannot understand why Salter is so convinced that the whole idea of this "number" still being out there a problem. The last line of the play made me guffaw. And I must say this latter character expressed perfectly to my mind what I think I would feel about this whole issue.
The idea that clones ( I am assuming there are ways to actually generate these) are conceptually a lot different from twins seems bizarre to me (and for developmental reasons they are likely to be a lot less similar than twins). And Churchill starts beautifully filling the text with all the anxieties, about how there being a clone to me would affect my 'identity' (someone please tell me 'how?' - she teases with a clearly inadequate answer). She also gets nicely expressed in one place the main concern that strikes me about this potential technology, its instrumentality (in fact Salter applies it simply to make his life more convenient without feeling he really changed it). I would love to watch this a few more times - the text is dense and witty and surprising in places and just flat-out fun. And I read her finish as deflating much of the nonsensical discussion I have seen of this whole question beautifully.
I am now 100% eager to experience more of the work of Caryl Churchill - this is Pinter-Beckett with some actual content and thought.
And I am also eager to see more Richard Greenblatt - lad has his heart in the right place, and has done some really good stuff, and clearly can pick some artistic heroes correctly.
This was an easy mini-marathon to run. Thanks, Canadian Stage!


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