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The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern opened its sixth iconoclastic season with a manifesto, à la Antonin Artaud. In a pedagogical, and at times pedantic, prologue to an adapted version of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie — mashed up with scenes inspired by J.D. Salinger's fictional Glass family — the actor who very shortly will appear as The Son (Williams' Tom) declares that there are no masterpieces, and asserts that plays like The Glass Menagerie have been "damned to success," their canonization rendering them somehow opaque and muted.
The problems of "the canon" in the arts and humanities has been widely discussed for 25 or 30 years now. It is essentially one of who controls the stories by which we know ourselves and our shared values. It is a power issue, but also one of time and space. To make room for more voices, more stories, some of the old ones must give way. The easiest way to justify this is to declare that nothing has greater importance than any other thing — that there are no masterpieces. This is a position on which I disagree to the bottom of my soul. Demanding greater inclusiveness in canon — in theatre, literature, art, music — does not require that the hierarchy of achievement in the arts be dismissed. I cannot imagine a drearier future than one in which there is no "best" of its time and place, unless it is one in which no one is capable of revisiting an artwork and seeing or hearing it afresh without the artwork having been deconstructed, mashed up or otherwise mauled.
In the lively arts, there is a pretty fine line between the aforementioned activities and fresh interpretation. In the case of Glass, director Jay O'Berski brings some powerful insights and techniques to his staging, but he seems so determined to make us remember that this is a play about being a play that rebels against The Way It Has Always Been Done, that I found it almost impossible to give a damn about the characters. Theater-goers who have a greater interest than I in ideology and theory, who prefer the ideas to take precedence over the emotions and the dramatic build of story, will probably find this mash-up more satisfactory. I can see that mixing the northern family craziness of Salinger's Glasses with the southern family craziness of the Wingfields makes a point about the universality of family craziness, but — so what? Surely anyone can draw that inference from the separate works. I also must say that LGP might have been more effective in mixing Glass with Menagerie if they had drawn not from Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, but from Salinger's Nine Stories, particularly "For Esmé with Love and Squalor," and "A Good Day for Bananafish."
Theatre has so many uses and functions, and so many methods of creating them, that it is hardly surprising that any one viewer should prefer some types more than others. Rebellion, the making of manifestoes and unpolite extreme experimentation all are fair game for theatre-makers. Those do not always make for strong drama, however, and often engender a peculiar problem. Artists like O'Berski want their audiences to be forced out of their comfort zones. But it is all too easy for an artist to fail in empathy for those folks who came out because they want to be challenged, while dealing on stage with difficult matter — to go too far in discomfiting the viewer. The goal should be to present repellent characters in difficult situations, and their ugly truths, without repelling the audience or distancing them from those characters.
Glass does not succeed at this very well. O'Berski does make use of his considerable cache of physical theater techniques to make very clear just how little The Mother (Amanda Wingfield, more than ably played by Jane Holding) and The Son (Tom Wingfield, portrayed by John Jimerson, who morphs into a wan, underfed, David Bowie c. 1975-type over the course of the evening) understand each other and how poorly they communicate. O'Berski has created a scene in which mother follows son into the bathroom (amazingly detailed and depressing bit of set design) that includes some of the production's more brilliant moments. The claustrophobia, the needs, the dreams, the demands and desires of this family are vividly delineated. Holding is particularly good here (and there are only a few moments throughout where she slips into caricature). But in another scene, mother and son scream at each other over the roar of a vacuum cleaner. This was overkill. We got it already — they can't hear each other! If it had gone on one more second, I would have jerked the cord out of the wall. And it was at that point that I quit entrusting myself to the play.
The interpretation of the daughter (Laura Wingfield) by Jennifer Evans is indeed fresh and refreshing — up to a point. O'Berski plays up everyone's sexuality, but particularly Laura's. He's no stranger to subtlety and nuance, but he seems to have misplaced them here. Having Laura strip and stare boldly into the audience was not dramatic, it did not elucidate, but instead seemed merely salacious — and once again reminded us that this was not a play about people, but about ideas. Somehow, actor Trevor Johnson, the Gentleman Caller, didn't get that memo. When he finally shows up, he brings meaning with him. O'Berski makes the Gentleman Caller more overtly different from what the mother wants than is normally seen, but it is an excellent and fitting interpretation. Johnson has a preternaturally warm stage presence in any role, and he was beautiful in his kindness to Laura, and attractive, understandable and forgivable in his insouciant disappointment of her and her mother.
The production also includes intermittent music — songs played and sung by Dana Marks and Carolyn McDaniel. They were quite pleasant, but functioned mostly to disengage the viewer from any tenuous connection to the characters she had been able to forge. The play ended with a small piece of dance. It was a bit odd, since it was all on its lonesome, but it was visually very effective, and made an eloquent statement of the longing underlying all the action, whether that action came from Williams, Salinger or O'Berski.
Glass runs through September 24. For details, see the sidebar.