Michael Bettencourt

january 2006

The Aesthetic Response

Two recent viewings: the world premiere of "The Little Dog Laughed" by Douglas Carter Beane (of "As Bees in Honey Drown" fame) and "Sweeney Todd" by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler in the newly refurbished production by John Doyle.  And two completely different aesthetic responses to an evening in the theatre.

This essay is my spade, so to speak, to dig inside a long-standing puzzle for me about how and what I see and feel when I watch the art that I profess to love— or, in other words, what things make me feel I'm actually in the presence of "theatre" and what things make me feel that I am not.

First, the Beane.  This new play (a "world premiere"—a pretentious term, really, crafted for grant applications—why not call it a "cosmic premiere," since I assume it's not being shown on Alpha Centauri—but this is a kvetch for another time), a four-hander, takes its beat from the movie world, concerning an on-the-move male screen actor with homosexual identity problems and his (only slightly figurative) penis-eating medusa-ish agent/manager on her own make for the powerful and the tawdry.  They get a "property" that guarantees the two of them success if only the male actor will give over his desire for a "friend"—in this case, a male prostitute who falls in love with the male actor and with whom the male actor wishes to make a life.  The fourth character is a woman who is a gold-digger recently dumped by her most recent gold-diggeree and who also happens to be the off-and-on girlfriend of the male prostitute, who, by the end of the play, is pregnant with his child.  (Can't you just feel that New York vibe about gender slipping as so up-to-the-minute up to the minute?)  What happens is that the agent/manager, faced with the crash-and-burn of her one chance to make her way to the top and gnaw on a few hearts and testicles along the way, carves out a deal: the male actor will marry the pregnant girlfriend, thereby preserving his hetero appearance, and the male prostitute will be able to have "access" to the male actor through the back door, so to speak. The male prostitute, who by all counts is really in love, refuses, instead taking a nice fat send-off check from the agent/manager as payment for his "integrity."  Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, and the play ends with everyone walking away from the table "happy."

Now, putting aside the fact that the play rips off at least two other plays and movies that I can think of—"The Player" and "Swimming with Sharks" for the movies and "Speed the Plow" by David Mamet and "The Road to Nirvana" by Arthur Kopit (I am sure there are more). No, actually, let's not put that to the "aside" because while Beane may have borrowed, he didn't do better than borrow because there is no heart at risk at the heart of his play as there is in these other works.  The two movies employ, respectively, murder and torture, and in "Nirvana," the supplicants partake, literally, of blood and shit.  "Plow" lacks this kind of blatant symbolism but is no less caustic about "the business" and the ways it eats out the soul (often with the merry connivance of those whose souls are masticated).

"Dog," on the other hand, has none of this venom and drive—and how could it, given the anemic stories that Beane chooses to tell and the anemic ways he chooses to tell them?  First of all, the stories: A male actor worried about coming out in 2005—really?  A prostitute with a heart of gold (shades of a male "Sweet Charity")?  Two conniving, self-centered, harpyish women (three, if you include the pregnant girlfriend's unseen mother, Screecher, who has the temerity to comment upon her daughter's wastrel life)?  Beane never gives any of these characters anything vital to lose, and what he gives them to gain never seems worth the candle. Shallow-made characters accepting shallow gifts from their creator.

But even given this, what really kills the play's momentum for me is its constant self-referentiality, a "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" attitude that erodes the play's vitality because, while Beane has his characters talk about themselves, and then talk about how they've talked about themselves, he forgets to invite the audience in to the play-making process, preferring to treat them as laugh-deliverers at the proper cues and applausers at the end. By the end of the play, I was more than ready to exit because I felt like I'd never been asked to attend (to) the work at hand in the first place.

Okay, Beane to one side, "Sweeny Todd" on the other.

I cannot over-praise this production.  I've seen the what will now be called "traditional" staging of it, seen a video of Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury—and never much cared for the visual aspect of the production because it simply embodies the music's suggestions about time, place, and character.  And the "traditional" staging's efforts to blend music-hall and Grand Guignol sensibilities always felt like something veneered onto the piece to make it "stagy" and "Broadway-y" (sorry for the coinages), at odds with the dark heart of dark characters.

Doyle's re-staging not only brings that dark heart out (figuratively, to be sure, but also literally, given Todd's razor and Mrs. Lovett's butchering) but does it by using the artifices of the theatre so that the audience knows all the time that it is in a theatre, watching a work of theatrical artifice. Doyle dispenses with realism in order to get down to the work's reality: Todd's desire for revenge and the havoc it wreaks on everyone it touches.

The central prop is a coffin, which by turns also becomes a counter, a judge's bench, the barber's establishment.  The stage set mimics the coffin's rough construction.  The floor and the back wall (which rises up into the fly-space) are built from thick wooden planks separated by about an inch or so that lights can be cast through these slats.  Stacked on shelving screwed in to the back wall that itself ascends into the fly-space are loads of Victorian detritus from some disordered attic.  The actors are also the musicians, which means that everyone onstage (including Patty Lupone and Michael Cerveris) must play several instruments and sing and act.  The throat-slittings are not done in that Rube Goldberg-contrapted chair that slides them out and down into Mrs. Lovett's basement, as is usually the case.  Instead, when the throat is slit, Cerveris' hand sweeps the blade across the throat, and the lighting goes to red while a character (it varies) pours blood from one white bucket into another, each killing adding more blood to each pouring. The dead don white lab coats painted in red Corita-like streaks until everyone onstage, except Todd, wears the sign of their death.

And there are many more touches like this that constantly force the audience to re-see the piece and re-hear the music.  And these touches (or "gimmicks," as some reviewers have called them) are always clearly "artificial"—that is, we can see the machinery that never once lets us think that what we are seeing is "real life" but constantly reminds us that we are seeing "theatre life."  The "gimmicks" make the familiar piece new and strange and "unreal" and "untruthful," which allows us, paradoxically, to feel the reality of the piece's truths more deeply. 

So this is what I have learned.

What is "real" in the theatre is not what is happening on the stage but what is happening in the mind and spirit of the audience members as they watch the stage.  What happens on the stage is simply the mechanics of story telling, and these mechanics can range from "realist" and "linear" to their complete and utter opposites.

What creates a sense of "real" in the theatrical audience is when they can sense that the story being told to them has enough weight to it for the story to create a gravitational pull that draws them in—so that they can be in the "world of the dream"—andand—that the mechanics of the story-telling increase that gravitational pull rather than defuse or diffuse its power.  And, for my money, the best way to power-up a theatrical work's gravity is to keep the audience off-balance by making them realize, through clever and surprising strangenesses, that they really don't know this story that they thought they knew (such as with "Todd") or that they thought they knew where the story was going but it didn't go that way (such as with new work).

Beane's work doesn't do this, despite the production's own gimmickry of sliding set pieces, arch lighting design, and tight sound design. Never once does the story have much gravitational pull, and the mechanics of the story telling, with such things as stop-the-action-dead-for-personal-monologues, do nothing to make the story attractive. And we know where this story is going to go—some deal will have to be made so that all the sharks get fed, and so it simply becomes, for the audience member, a matter of waiting to see if he or she has figured out the deal before it gets revealed on the stage.  We are not in the dream, we are outside it (all right, I am not in the dream), distanced by the play's hipness, not engaged in any deep way with the story.

With "Todd," all of what doesn't happen in Beane's play happens here.  True, we already know the story, but because of the way Doyle has re-jiggered the story telling, we don't know how the familiar story is going to be told—in other words, "anticipation" as one vector of gravitational pull.  And many more vectors, as I've described above. Throughout the work, we have to give up settled understandings, and this makes for more engagement and thus more pleasure.

There are limits to all of this, of course.  Not everything will lend itself to what the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky called "enstrangement"—though that depends more on the audience than it does on the work.  For example, in the recent museum-like recreation of "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", the production crew failed to ask a very simple question: what was it that made this play so barbed when it premiered on Broadway in 1962, and how can we recapture that in 2005, even if it means un-doing everyone's picture of what the play is "really about"?  A kind of "Sweeny Todd"-like re-rigging of "Woolf" may not play on Broadway, but that is due more to audience expectations than the play's resistance to being re-thought (a German production retitled it "Whose Afraid of Franz Kafka?"—now, that opens up some interesting possibilities).  And certainly not all enstrangements lead to deep aesthetic pleasures—for instance, watching a Wooster Group production can be intellectually satisfying (sort of) but mightily tedious.

But the core idea still stands, I think.  For me, "traditional" theatre, with its characters, rising arc, etc. does not actually need to be done on a stage because it is not primarily a visual effort, even if money is lavished on set and lighting.  Beane's play could be done on radio (and, as I often do during performances, I will close my eyes and simply listen, and if the play moves along just as well with eyes closed as with eyes open, then it's a radio play).  This "Sweeny Todd" could not be done on radio because it relied so heavily on visual mechanics to tell its tale, mechanics that challenged settled opinions by freshening up the story.

When I go to the theatre, I want theatre, and this means more than words, more than blocking, more than the usual production suspects.  If a play simply remains a play, more often than not I feel outside the process, though there are always bits and pieces to enjoy. But when it chooses to make thing strange through cleverness or re-imaginings or surprises—when it decides to be theatre—I am willing to give it my all because it's trying to give something back to me.


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©2006 Michael Bettencourt
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt has had his plays produced
in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the




january 2006

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