A.R.T.

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The Tempest, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge MA (Photo: A.R.T.)

Ah Prospero. You are my favorite character in all of Shakespeare! The masterful conjurings, the lonely exile, the fierce revenge still raging after twelve years away from the lost Dukedom of Milan, the Other embodied in ethereality and earthiness, the willingness in the end to forgive and forego—there are so many parts of his story that have resonance for me. Many have described Prospero as a primal symbol for the solitary (and often solipsistic) artist, and others see him as a particularly personal stand in for Shakespeare himself (it was the last play he wrote before returning to Stratford upon Avon, and he died just two years later). It is a poetic fantasy, and one that asks for us to step out of the world that we know and to enter into a phantasm of sprites, monsters, magic and manipulated nature.

A.R.T.’s new production of Prospero’s world, The Tempest, makes stepping out of our world and into another domain quite effortless. Aided by the skillful blending of what may seem like disparate themes—old time dustbowl carney shows, classical magic tricks (even cards!), the rough and tumble earthiness of Tom Waits’ music played by rough and tumble musicians, physical performers and Pilobolus-inspired acrobatism, staging in and off the proscenium—Prospero’s island laboratory of extraordinary powers invites us in and we are all his, ready to be enchanted.

Co-directors Aaron Posner and Teller (the quiet one from the Penn & Teller magic duo), have also blended their quite disparate visions of the play in a way that gives it a richly layered texture. For Posner The Tempest is a family play, with the island inhabitants of Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Caliban making up an odd but not unfamiliar version of the dysfunctional family. For Teller it is the magic, the thing he loves most in life. “How different Prospero is from typical fairy tale wizards,” Teller writes. “He doesn’t use spells and potions to affect the physical world. He creates shows, and those shows—’that insubstantial pagaent’—are his weapons. That makes him less like a warlock than like a stage magician.” But as Teller points out, Prospero gives it all up, the very thing that is so essential to his very being. And why? For the love for his daughter, Miranda. Which brings all the theatrics right back to Posner’s view of the play as a story about family.

Yes, the editing of the play has been generous, but I do not take issue with that. Purists are often offended by any prunings of the Bard’s original material. But many of us know this play well, and the well-placed nips and tucks hold this production together in a way that does not feel inadequate or abusive of its intent. And what performances! Nate Dendy‘s Ariel is the best I have ever seen—every move he makes is light as air, and in the end he disappears from the stage as if by magic(!)—plus a Caliban cobbled from two sets of bodies is unforgettable.

We all agreed we would love to see it again. But we would need some serious conjuring skills of our own to make that happen since every show is sold out for the rest of the run through June 15. Standing room, anyone?

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Rehearsing for Pippin at A.R.T. (Photo: Dina Rudick/Boston Globe)

In my previous post I wrote about how surprising it was to find such striking beauty in the overstated, extremist interior of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. It brings to mind one of my art professor’s words to me from so long ago, “To make a great painting you have to push it to the edge where it almost doesn’t work.” That has been a very useful insight that applies to many things in life, not just for my own art making.

Case in point, Diane Paulus‘ latest production of Pippin at A.R.T. A big hit on Broadway 40 years ago, Pippin was an unexpected inclusion (IMHO) for the 2012-13 season. Having seen it on Broadway in 1973, I had cataloged it away as musical comedy light (as opposed to the musical comedy dark of Sweeney Todd) that was saved from vapidity by Ben Vereen‘s spectacular performance as the Leading Player.

And yet now that I have seen it I see that it is a perfect fit for Paulus’ well known mission for A.R.T. to “expand the boundaries of theater by experimenting with a new physical vocabulary of musical theater storytelling.” Fresh from her critical success with an updated adaption of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and her work with the Cirque du Soleil on their latest creation, Amaluna, Paulus is on a roll. For a play that questions the viability of our desire to be exceptional, she is just that. Exceptional.

This new Pippin feels smart, sharp and utterly beguiling. Paulus cooks up a wild concoction of disparate memes to make this feel very fresh—the musical theater tradition of the 50′s, Bob Fosse-esque swivel hipping (he actually was the choreographer for the original production), Cirque du Soleil circus acrobatics by way of Montreal’s Gypsy Snider and Les 7 doigts de la main, and the structure of a morality play that traces with sincerity the journey for self-knowledge. With that armature in place, add the best of the best creative team (since Paulus has connections with just about everybody doing great work in theater these days)—hot shot Tony award winning designer Scott Pask (Book of Mormon, Coast of Utopia); Dominique Lemieux, one of of the original Cirque du Soleil costume designers; choreographer Chet Walker, heir apparent to Bob Fosse; lighting designer Kenneth Posner; music supervisor Nadia DiGiallonardo, among many others.

Then there is the cast. Pattina Miller is toweringly terrific as the Leading Player (sorry Ben Vereen, you don’t own that role any more my friend). Matthew James Thomas combines a strong stage presence with the necessary innocence of a jejune Pippin. Hell, everyone is good—singing, dancing, interacting, entertaining, working as a well oiled ensemble. Is this production ready for Broadway? Lock, stock and barrel.

And while all the pieces come together so well, Paulus doesn’t lose connection with the substance of the story.

In Paulus’ words:

Pippin deals with an incredibly serious subject: how far would you go to be extraordinary? Will you burn yourself alive to be extraordinary?…This question is deeply relevant to our lives today. It can be relevant to anyone, from an eighteen-year-old trying to figure out the meaning of their life, to a middle-aged person trying to assess what they’ve achieved in their life. What are the choices we make to pursue a life that is “extraordinary”?

What I love about Pippin is that all of this is expressed through a theatrical metaphor. The show is a play within a play. It’s about a troupe of players who are enacting this ritualized performance. In the world of the play, to be extraordinary is to perform “the Grand Finale.” It uses theater as a metaphor for examining one’s own life.

Friends who know me will be shocked that I am advocating for a musical comedy. But like the Sagrada Familia, this wild concoction takes it to the extreme but finds that sweet spot where it works. While Gaudi may have to intercede from across the veil to get his beloved cathedral in Barcelona completed, Paulus is very much among the living and applying her prodigious skills to a steady stream of inventive and ingenious productions.

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Sammy Tunis as Ada Lovelace in Futurity (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/Boston Globe)

In an interview with Tony Kushner that took place when his landmark play in two parts, Angels in America, had just opened in Los Angeles, he talked about the genesis of the idea for AA. It was the 1980s and he was living in New York City. The time and circumstances of his personal life had brought a specific set of themes to his attention, front and center: the AIDS epidemic and sexual identity, the role of his Jewish heritage and community, and the American religious phenomenon that is Mormonism. As unconnected as that list appears, he wanted to weave all of them together into a play that used those concepts to forge a much larger story. His success at achieving that has been well documented.

Assembling a cohesive and memorable work of art from a panoply of unexpected themes is ambitious and a bit daunting. It is easier to take one core idea and let it unfold. But when the assemblage approach comes together, the results can be unexpectedly fresh and surprisingly provocative. Futurity, a play with music (I can’t bring myself to call it a “musical”, a term I view as denigrating when applied to serious theater—that being my own prejudice, admittedly) currently being presented by American Rep in Cambridge, is an exploration into that theatrical genre of idea assemblage. Set at the time of the Civil War, the play interweaves narratives of science fact/science fiction imaginings, war, technological utopianism and American roots music. Factual and fictional characters come together and include Lord Byron‘s real life daughter Ada Lovelace, a brilliant young woman who worked with Charles Babbage in thinking through the genesis of computational technology. There is the overarching theme of building a computational prototype, a “steam brain,” that can couple human intelligence and technology to bring the end to war. Part H. G. Wells, part Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, part Red Badge of Courage and part adventuresome and slightly wacky indie-rock opera, Futurity has a lot to recommend it.

The creative team behind the production is César Alvarez and the The Lisps, a “band” by some accounts but more accurately self-described as a “public/performative version of all the relationships you are struggling with.” The members of that creative matrix are well suited at blending music with theatricity. While produced in collaboration with an impressive crew of theatrical talents—Molly Rice cowrote the book and award-winning Sarah Benson directed it—the production still feels like a work in progress however. But works in progress are OK too. The hope is they will continue in their process of being honed, polished and tightened.

A few words about the production from director Sarah Benson:

Futurity is about that power of the imagination to transcend our human frailties and limitations. If war is a failure of the imagination, Futurity asks us to challenge or assumptions and invest in the imagination, our “steam brain” enabling us to think beyond our own perspective and create new possible worlds.

Technology makes real these new worlds. It enables us to realize the imaginary, and as yet, what seems impossible.

And from co-writer Molly Rice:

What was most exciting was that the band was both outside and inside the story. They were never not a band, but never not the characters they played, either…And the mere fact that a band from Brooklyn sought to tell the tale of a “peace machine” made by a Civil War solider/inventor and an unsung Victorian lady scientist? Who also happens to be Lord Byron’s daughter? I wanted to work on that…

In part the piece is about the hidden similarities between seemingly different things, like science, art and war; math, mechancis, and music. And something about about the piece beckoned many disciplines to collide inside of it, from visual art to dance to sonic invention.

Futurity runs through April 15 at the Oberon Theater.

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R. Buckminster Fuller

Content-rich theater is hard to do. Tom Stoppard is probably our most exemplary contemporary playwright of that genre. In so many of his plays, ideas and intellectual constructs take on theatrical forms, functioning almost as characters in the story. The Stoppard experience is deeply layered and yet neither didactic nor instructional. Which is why you (OK, I should say me) can watch the Coast of Utopia trilogy in marathon mode (7 hours) and still be longing to return the next day and do it all over again.

A. R. T.’s current offering at the Loeb Theater is a content-rich theatrical venture as well and one that I would recommend to anyone in the Boston area who has been able to dig their car out of the snowdrifts or is lucky enough to live within the reach of the T. R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, the long overdue homage to an extraordinary thinker, is performed as a one man play. Thomas Derrah is an uncanny channel for the quirky mannerisms and squaresville attire that seduces you into the playful, provocative and profound world of Bucky Fullerama. He was a man who spent a lifetime seeing things upsidedown and insideout, of bucking (he was well named!) against established norms—including his dismissal from Harvard not once but twice—and unpacking and debunking everyday assumptions. His world view, startling and mind-stretching even back in the 60s when startling and mind-stretching were the norm, feels prescient and timely given our current time and troubles. The production is chock full of mind teasers and provocations, delivered through words and a few well placed and expertly executed visual aids. But like Stoppard’s plays, D. W. Jacob’s production does not feel didactic or intellectually detached, and Derrah holds the sold out audience rapt.

I heard Bucky speak twice when I was a teenager. I was so taken by what I heard that I read everything he wrote and carried his ideas around for the rest of my life. Some viewed him as just plain off the grid, one of those types I affectionately refer to as “scientists gone galactic.” He was cut out of a different piece of cosmic cloth from his bureaucratic, gatekeeper cohorts, no question. But the course of time has taken us closer to his viewpoint than most of his detractors back in the 50s and 60s would have ever imagined possible.

And in keeping with a theme that has been running through my posts here over the last few months, Bucky’s life is another example of lastingness, of someone who was at his best in the second half of his life. His story is full of early failures. At one point in his 30s. he had been thwarted so profoundly that he decided to stop speaking altogether. He wanted every word he uttered to be authentic, defensible, carefully honed. So for two years he said very little. Slowly he reshaped and reclaimed a voice for himself. And once he did find his pitch perfect tuning, he couldn’t be stopped. Both of the Bucky lectures I attended went on for four hours without stopping. He was in his 70s at that time, but the energy he gave off was electric and irresistible.

Recently I asked my college-aged friends if they knew who he was, and almost all of them said no. It is high time to bring Bucky back for another age and another generation.

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The Blue Flower, A.R.T.

Tom Stoppard’s last two plays, Coast of Utopia (a 3 play trilogy) and Rock ‘n’ Roll, explore the historical periods preceding significant events as a way of contextualizing and unpacking those outcomes. To make sense of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Stoppard placed his 9 hour Utopia trilogy in the years between 1833 and 1866 when philosophical debates were raging in pre-revolution Russia. RnR tracks the role that popular music played in the democratic movement that emerged in Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

To hold to a historical orthodoxy while still creating an engaging theatrical experience is not a trivial accomplishment. Stoppard, a master of the theater of ideas, is well positioned—probably more than any living playwright—to deliver up both history and theater. Speaking personally, both these plays have impacted me deeply, transforming my view of the evolution of these two major historical events.

The Blue Flower, currently playing at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, takes on another historical arc—the transition in Europe from the Belle Époque at the turn of the century through the end of World War II. Conceived, composed and written by a musician and a visual artist, Jim and Ruth Bauer, the production approaches the tumultuous events of this period primarily through the lens of art. The lead characters are based loosely on three artists—Franz Marc, Max Beckmann and Hannah Höch—as well as a scientist, Marie Curie.

Ruth Bauer’s sensibilities as a visual artist permeate the production as well as the narrative point of view. There are art tropes throughout, from the Blaue Reiter’s defiant rebellion to Dadism’s absurdist response to the Great War. The staging and the styling of the production are fragmented and collage-like, a kind of grand gesture homage to Kurt Schwitters. It is rare to find so much art consciousness in a dramatic stating.

In a particularly brilliant move, the lead character Max Baumann, (inspired by Max Beckmann) refuses to speak his native German. For most of the play he communicates in an invented language, Maxperanto. Not only is his refusal to speak the common tongue a powerful statement of political and cultural defiance, it is also an adept metaphor for the artist’s position in a world gone mad.

The musical score, mostly minor keyed, is poignantly crafted and expertly performed (Bauer describes his eclectic sound as “Kurt Weill going tête-à-tête with Hank Williams”.) The music also serves as an emotional bridge between events that took place over 100 years ago and the incomprehensible mess we are grappling with now. Our world seems every bit as fragile as Weimar and also poised for catastrophe from polarizing politics, short sighted policies and institutions that no longer work.

The program notes are some of the best I’ve encountered and in many ways are required reading to step fully into The Blue Flower experience. The contextualizing provided is thoughtful and insightful.

Here are a few sample passages from Jim Bauer’s accompanying commentary:

Weimar, the fragile German experiment in democracy after World War I, became a classic and singularly tragic confrontation between traditionalists and modernists, conservatives and liberals; between those who believe that what is past is pure and those who believe that what is new is better.

By and large, events from the early part of the twentieth century lie hidden in the long, deep shadows cast by Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II. Like a three-legged colossus, they stand so large in the middle of the century that it is difficult to see past them. But it is only by peering into those shadows that one can see how the twentieth century took shape and how the twenty-first may yet be sculpted.

We have always lived and, it seems, will always continue to live in or between two wars: whichever the last one was and whatever the next one will be.

***
In the beginning of the Weimar period, ballast for heavy grief and suffocating remorse was provided by a weightless sense of relief, a buoyant feeling of optimism. there was a burst of creativity, a sense of freedom, adventure and open horizons, a feeling that the world could be made anew. The Weimar spirit was driven in part by the possibility and thrill of creating things instead of destroying them, building them up instead of tearing them down…But Weimar was also a world fractured into many pieces and deeply divided: outwardly blooming with hope but inwardly trembling with fear of and gnawing doubts about the horrors of the past and the shadows those horrors cast on an uncertain future.

With a demagnetized compass and a broken rudder, society swirled freely about in a political, economic and cultural maelstrom until Hitler, wasting little time and with a keen eye for opportunity, found a way to make things appear simple.

This is a thought provoking, slow fused work. An evening of light entertainment it is not. In that sense Don Aucoin’s review in the Boston Globe misses the point altogether. Anyone concerned about the state of the world will find The Blue Flower deeply moving.

The Blue Flower runs through January 2011.


The blue flower of the title references a romantic concept originating with the poet Novalis that symbolizes the artist’s longing for perfection.

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I have written on this blog about several of the productions from Diane Paulus’ first season as artistic director at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge: The tantalizingly beguiling Sleep No More from UK-based theater company Punchdrunk; the stunningly brilliant Gatz, an unforgettable verbatim performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby; and Paradise Lost, Cliffford Odets’ quintessentially American play about the Great Depression. Also produced this season—The Donkey Show and Best of Both Worlds.

The closing performance for Paulus’ maiden voyage at the A.R.T helm is a newly minted musical about baseball, the American experience and the Red Sox, Johnny Baseball. The populist leanings of this production are in keeping with the theatrical change of direction under Paulus’ leadership. Those proclivities are being played out off stage as well with the Fenway Park-like atmosphere that includes hot dog, pretzel and beer vendors in the lobby.

As a subscriber to A.R.T. for over 30 years, I view this year’s season as the most dramatic departure from A.R.T.’s theatrical past that I have seen. There is no question that Paulus is a force of nature—razor smart, charismatic and highly energetic—and her views on what theater should be are strongly held. She is insistent about bringing art closer to the average person, chipping away at the gap that has in many ways widened between artist and audience in this postmodern culture. It’s a little like moving from the artsy “theatre” variant back to its straight up American spelling.

What has amazed me is that even though Paulus’ advocacy has been stated quite clearly, the season’s performances have been wide ranging and extremely varied. Her proselytizing point of view has not resulted in theatrical experiences that all feel the same, a problem that has plagued numerous companies with visionary and/or ideological artistic directors. Each A.R.T. production has been its own variant on Paulus’ intention to produce theater that feels participatory, not detached; alive, not anesthetized; connected to our humanness rather than to our heads.

A few years back, before Paulus arrived at A.R.T., I was asked to participate in a theater devotees focus group to talk about the overall theater scene in Boston. Assembled in the room were the most serious theatergoers I’ve ever met outside of New York City. This was a gathering of those kind of theater buffs who knew the inside scoop on what was happening with every company, which directors had board support and which were caught in political crossfire, and of course the inevitable gossip about who was sleeping with whom. They were in a completely different league of devotional theatergoing from me.

What surprised me most about that experience however was how vociferously they hated A.R.T., all 11 of them. I was the only A.R.T. advocate in the room. And I couldn’t get any of them to buy my arguments in A.R.T’s defense—that risk taking is an essential part of great art making, or that no other theater company in Boston had been willing to step out into the stark and slightly scary world of contemporary playwriting and producing. They hated A.R.T’s theatrical mindset—cerebral, Cambridge elitist, inaccessible, insular, smug.

I left that night with my allegiance to A.R.T. even more emblazoned than it had been before. I have had some unforgettably rarefied experiences in the Loeb Theater over the years, and some of those experiences would probably qualify as cerebral, Cambridge elitist, inaccessible, insular and maybe even smug. And yes, some productions were crash and burn failures, without question. But the intention, that’s what I have always been drawn to at A.R.T.

Paulus’ direction is taking A.R.T. down new roads and so far I’m having fun on this jaunt. As the next season was announced I did find myself wondering if there will be room in A.R.T.’s future for those exquisitely crystalline, ethereally detached but ingeniously conceived productions that have been so signatory for this theater company in the past. Is there room in this new “people’s republic of Cambridge” theatrical climate for a translucent Three Sisters, a mesmerizing production by Serrand or Serban? I’m essentially a pluralist, so I want to get some of everything. But that approach to life—and to theater—doesn’t always fly.

Johnny Baseball would never be my choice for season frontrunner but then again I’m not a big fan of the song and dance genre. But loving baseball and in particular the Red Sox helps a lot even without plot complexities or philosophical inclinations. The play is fun, and the cast and the singing are terrific.

An interesting thing has happened since I saw Johnny B. on Wednesday night: I have talked about the play to people I have never mentioned theater to before and encouraged them to go. For the first time I am seeing how two very different subgroups can come together, Red Sox Nation and regional theater. Whether you are have populist tendencies or not, that is something to consider.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have never been keen on the idea of a creativity elite. Since 1959 when C. P. Snow wrote his legendary essay “Two Cultures” about the breakdown in communication between the sciences (“the white coats”) and the humanities, other us/them dichotomies have emerged. Creativity is one of those, highlighted in recent books like Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and the Rays’ The Cultural Creatives. And my ongoing dialogue with my friend Bose about what constitutes creativity has kept this topic particularly active over the last few weeks.

An earlier post about the difficulty of measuring creativity has also been rattling around in my head. I have a personal life full of amazingly talented artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, but I have always considered my highly analytical, business-oriented partner Dave to be one of the most creative people I know. When I first read the well publicized creativity exercise used to promote open source innovation, 40 uses for a brick, I realized that’s the way Dave has always approached everything, from business problems to planning a family vacation. He sees connections that others often overlook and has an ability to keep propagating new ways of seeing.

This is different than what happens for me in the studio. And yet there is some common elemental source at work here—a shared language, a common fragrance. Parsing it any more than that seems like an unnecessary excursion. But it is my nature to leave plenty of life’s unnamed experiences only partially exposed, respectful of what is inchoate and just a little mysterious.

What set me off this morning was a back issue of the New Yorker with an article about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s painfully unsuccessful attempts to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Having just recently been enamored and awestruck by experiencing The Great Gatsby performed verbatim in a production of “Gatz” at the A. R. T. (and written about here), I was a bit unnerved by this unsettling account. It is about the harsh reality that creativity doesn’t always spill over. It has its limits, it has those domains where it cannot scale. In other words, it is a story about human longing and human limitations, of how the gap between the two can be a terrain of extraordinary misery and suffering.

Billy Wilder described Fitzgerald’s foray into Holllywood as “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job,” with no clue how to connect the pipes and get the water to flow. How could the author of one of American literature’s greatest novels be so off in another form? In Slow Fade, Arthur Krystal does a decent job of putting it into perspective:

Fitzgerald drew his faith not from camera angles or even plotlines but from sentences; and what draws us powerfully to his work is the sensitive handling of emotional yearning and regret. When he was revising “Gatsby,” he characterized the burden of the novel as “the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” As Arthur Mizener….pointed out, “it is precisely this loss which allows Gatsby to discover ‘what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.’” Perhaps Fitzgerald could have captured this heightened state of awareness in a script, but was this what the studios were looking for? Fitzgerald’s vision of becoming a great screenwriter was no more realistic than the likelihood of his returning a kickoff or writing a hit Broadway show. But, then, Fitzgerald was not one to give up on dreams; if he had, he could not have written so beautifully, so penetratingly, about their loss.

Reading this left me with a willingness to surrender to the “chop wood, carry water” that so characterizes a lifetime of work, be it in an overtly creative field or not. This isn’t a negative view; rather it is accepting where we might be brilliant and where our own personal river runs thin. Fitzgerald’s life happens to exemplify two extraordinary extremes. But that is often the nature of genius.

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Gatz


Jim Fletcher as Jimmy Gatz, AKA Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island

Try telling your friends there is this 7 hour, two-part play at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge that consists of nothing but the text from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. Then try telling them it is one of the most memorable nights you’ve ever had in a theater.

The truth is, Gatz is hard to describe. It sounds like a high brow yawn, self-conscious and unappealingly long. Someone reads from a book and that’s the whole play? Well, yes. And you found this engaging? Utterly.

It opens in a dingy office where every wall and fixture looks like it is coated in 40 years of grime. A bedraggled office worker enters and sits down at a ramshackle desk. When he can’t get his 80′s vintage PC to boot, he is left with nothing to do. Ransacking idly through the items on his desk, he finds a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel stashed in a floppy disk holder. In an odd but strangely organic moment, he begins to read the book out loud. Slowly, one at a time, others in the office join in to bring the story into form. It is as if they cannot resist getting caught up in this very American and bitterly heartbreaking tale. Just like all of us in the audience. It has the irresistible gravitational pull of a myth.

It is a preposterous and outrageous undertaking, to be sure. How do you take a book most of us have read and make it feel brand new? How do you create a theatrical frame that can hold the action while still allowing Fitzgerald’s jewel-like prose rise up without constraint? How do you pace the thing, ornament it, bring in humor (but never too much) and set a tone for the production that is pitch-perfect?

The Elevator Repair Service theater company began working on this project in 1999. For years they couldn’t get the rights to the material and ran into other external obstacles. But it wouldn’t die. Finally the stars aligned, lucky for us.

The plays (Part 1 and 2) run through February 7 in Cambridge and then heads to New York (according to the program notes by director John Collins.) Both my partner Dave and I woke up the next morning and said to each other, “Wouldn’t it be great to see the whole thing again!” That’s not surprising coming from me, notoriously excessive with an endless passion for going under the spell of what art can do. But the more measured and temperate Dave? Now that tells you a lot.

Here’s a few excerpts from the play: WBUR

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sleepnomore

If you live in the Boston area, DO NOT miss this: Sleep No More, at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline. It runs through January 3.

And if you have a nature that is excessive and appetitive like mine, you might need to go twice. (I’ve already purchased another block of tickets to go with a gang of friends and my children.)

There are lots of reviews of this installation theater production, links to which I have included at the bottom of the post. But let me just share the essentials: The production is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth and is the work of Punchdrunk, an enigmatic theatrical troupe from the UK. This is their first foray into U.S. territory and they are here in Boston by way of Diane Paulus, artistic director of A.R.T. Paulus saw Punchdrunk in action when she was in London a few years ago. After that initial exposure to their work, Paulus said she could not view any subsequent theatrical event without the overlay of that experience.

Paulus is a seasoned theater pro, but her comment made me think about “never the same” theatrical milestones in my life as an audience participant. Living in New York City in the 70s and beyond, I was altered permanently by a number of theatrical experimentalists:

Robert Wilson. The 12 hour production in Brooklyn of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. A Letter for Queen Victoria. And then most memorably, Einstein on the Beach in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera.

Lee Breuer and Mabou Mines. The Beckett projects and the Shaggy Dog Animations, productions that explored how symbols become characters. And then the unforgettable Gospel at Colonus.

Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Where do I start? His performances were almost impossible to describe but I returned again and again.

Andrei Serban at La MaMa. The Fragments of a Trilogy (composed of three plays: The Trojan Women, Medea, and Elektra ) where the audience becomes the Greek chorus and the proscenium-centric format is annihilated. Greek tragedy is us.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Esoteric Mormonism was laced throughout the story line, so watching the two plays was like stepping into a highly personalized archaeological dig of my tribal past. Most of those references fell outside the expertise of reviewers, but it was clear Kushner had done some deep research into the psyche of this very American religious tradition.

Tom Stoppard. Anything by Sir Tom, but most unforgettably, The Coast of Utopia 12 hour marathon at Lincoln Center in 2007. At the end of the three play performance, I just wanted to do it all over again.

Should Punchdrunk and Sleep No More be added to that list? I want to go again before I make that call. Does the magic wear off with over exposure? (Does anything survive that most difficult of tests?) Will those haunting rooms feel as imbued with magic as they did last week?

Some of these concerns are captured in a review of the production by Frank Rizzo in Variety:

Shakespeare is not so much spoken as gleaned, and if something is lost in the translation, something else is gained in the experience. This, after all, is not “Macbeth” — it’s a very different theatrical animal with its own agenda, not the least of which is to attract adventuresome audiences in search of what’s new and hip. The production abandons text, poetry and linear structure to create a more engaged audience dynamic. But one can also ask what does that experience add up to: a richly imagined reality or just a fleeting dream?

Whether this type of production becomes more than a novelty will depend on one’s nature, sensibility and endurance. Certainly, those without a fundamental understanding of “Macbeth” — and even those who know the play well — might be lost in the maze (in several rooms that possibility is literally true). For the enthusiastic crowd the show attracted in college-crammed Beantown, it is drama as digression, theater as the latest app, and Shakespeare presented in visual tweets.

Will the next production be as gripping or will it just become the old same-new, with better bar selections? (There’s a lounge in the center of the building where a jazz singer and combo perform for those who need a break, or a good stiff drink.)

As for its possible future in the U.S. after A.R.T., the production would be a staggering challenge logistically and financially to duplicate — load-in time alone was said to be months — and would need a market of young auds to support the endeavor. But in the right environment, it could be just the thing to reinvent and enliven a theater community.

Whatever one’s aesthetics, just be sure to bring comfortable shoes. As the old joke about the aging hooker goes, “It’s not the work but the stairs.”

Reviews of Sleep No More and Punchdrunk:

Variety
Edge Boston
Boston Herald
Boston Globe
Arts Boston
Guardian

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