Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Blurred Lines (Theater Edition)


This past Saturday, I caught the theatrical equivalent of a double feature: seeing two plays in one day. With a Shake Shack break in-between. And the more I thought about it, the more I realize these two plays shared a very common (and I do admit, slightly arbitrary for the sake of this post), thread: they cross boundaries.

I started my day by waking up at noon, having cereal, and then heading into Manhattan for "Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play" by Anne Washburn at Playwrights Horizons. It deals with a post-apocalyptic world, where immediately after, a group of people act out old episodes of "The Simpsons" from their memories to keep themselves entertained.

And with "The Simpsons" becoming oral history, in the style of "Othello," it becomes something like a Greek drama in the second act (set 75 years after the apocalypse). It's a powerful concept: At the end of the world, after the power goes out, "The Simpsons," a work originally presented in the most philistine of mediums: sitcom television, have become the new classics: a Grecian-style tragedy with chorus, masks, and overtones of morality.

Low art has become high art. Or maybe it has always been high art and it just took the lights going out to realize it.

When I left Playwrights Horizons on 42nd street, it was 5 p.m. I got dinner and a cupcake and at 7:30 p.m., I headed over to the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park to watch "The Tempest." But this wasn't any ordinary 3-hour "Tempest," with accents and overwrought emotions and monologues.

This is what 200+ performers onstage looks like

This "Tempest" was a musical and it had 200+ performers (some professional, most of them not). It re-envisioned Prospero's Island as a Mardi Gras-like place: colorful, vibrant, energetic, musical and diverse. When Prospero and Ariel wrought their magic, these performers did their bidding. They represented the magic of the island. Claudio la Rocco said it best in her New York Times review when she described it as a "love letter" to the city of New York, showcasing its various cultures and the talents of its citizenry, by putting those citizens on the stage.

It also helped that Norm Lewis and Laura Benanti were in it too, for the sake of the theater geeks.

And when Norm Lewis utters the timeless lines, "We are all such stuff that dreams are made of," what we had seen with the spirits of the island, fluttering in and out of the stage, illustrates his point.

"The Tempest" was an intersection of what's normally seen as community theater with professional. Yes, this was put on by a not-for-profit theater (the Public Theater) and included paid actors, but it also had non-trained individuals showcasing their talent, doing theater for the love of it rather than money. And it was a production that was created for all kinds of people and populations, not just the subset of audience who enjoys Shakespeare and can afford to buy theater tickets.

And in blurring the lines between high and low art, community and professional theatre, these two plays showed me how arbitrary those lines are.

Both of these plays touch on the most primal reason of why people make art, and why others consume it: It saves us. In "Mr. Burns," art connects us to the happiest part of ourselves and shows us the world as we would want it to be, where good can triumph over toxic evil. In "The Tempest," by putting non-professionals onstage, it lets us see that art reveals the most beautiful, joyous part of ourselves, letting us come out of our comfort zones. It helps us better ourselves. 

In this new age where the choices of entertainment have never been so vast, and you can watch TV shows that are high works of art and watch plays that is completely catered to those who prefer shiny things, perhaps the signifier of particular art forms as "high" and "low," "community" and "professional" doesn't really mean anything at all.

Of course, I'm not equating "Transformers" to "Hamlet," or saying the experience of watching a community theater production of "Les Miserables" will be exactly the same as the Broadway production (mainly because of production values). But I can't imagine that something like "Mad Men" isn't as artistically relevant or elevating as "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Perhaps the only differences between all the different art forms is intention, not mediums. And a profound, historically altering piece of work can come from anywhere. Doesn't that then make it the purest definition of high art? It elevates the viewer to another state of perception. And shouldn't all art, no matter the medium, or who is playing the parts, do that?

At the very least, if it inspires a moment like this, that sticks in your mind years and years after you first saw it, doesn't that mean something?

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