The director’s note starts off by saying: “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” That’s not a good sign. From the sounds of it, after 14 months of planning, M-34’s production of Miss Julie fell apart last month, so director James Rutherford decided to go ahead and use the space they had booked and the cast already assembled to try something totally different.
In place of Strindberg, they presented a devised and largely abstract piece staged in a traverse on a white stage that explored the juxtaposition of text with movement. Using excerpts from writers such as Gertrude Stein, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Charles Bukowski, the production took the form of a series of segments discussing death, aging, dreams, writing, and theater. Sometimes the movement was quite concrete–dogs at a dog park, wild animals, tucking a man into bed (a particularly inventive moment). Other times the movement was wholly abstract with arresting chanting and jarring gasping by the ensemble.
This group is cognizant of the delicate balance between “we know this looks like that weird kind of performance art you might be scared of but it’s not” and “maybe this is a little bit like that performance art you are scared of but don’t be scared.” I appreciated the confident self-awareness and humor throughout. Some sequences proved stronger than others but there were some gorgeously staged moments by Rutherford, utilizing shadow tableaux. The black and white costumes, by Olga Mill, suggested both presence and absence. As someone who leans more toward the narrative-driven than the free form in their tastes, I probably favored the parts where I felt I had a little more guidance. The scene between the elderly father (Maury Miller) and his writer daughter (Rachel Kodweis), where he pleads with her to write something like Maupassant and Chekhov proved to be the most developed section. Their verbal parrying back and forth over storytelling—what we put into stories and what we leave out—made for the most emotionally satisfying moment. As the father pressed the daughter, she wrote and re-wrote the story to please him but she could only speak in her own voice.
The story was a lovely illustration of the frustrating push and pull of family, the struggles to see hope when others see tragedy, and how artists must always wrestle with criticism. As the ensemble posed around the father and became his furniture and then the audience to the story, it reminded me of how much you can accomplish in theater with just bodies, a few props, and some powerful writing.
Even for all the abstraction in the course of the show, I always felt I was in confident and capable hands. Based on the director’s note, it might be best to look at this as evolving experimentation rather than a fully realized work. But if this company could throw this together in a month, I’d be up for seeing what they could do with more time and planning.