Your Humble Blogger has been on a bit of a theater binge lately. The latest was The Call, by Tanya Barfield, over at Theaterworks (in Hartford). I had a terrific time, but I didn’t much like the play. Or most of the performances. Or the production.
So. Over the last year or two, most of the plays I’ve been reading have elicited only the response: this isn’t for me. Or I don’t care about this play. Or just meh. And at some point, fairly recently, I began to wonder: what do I like? If I don’t like very many plays, do I not like plays? Or is it that (as happens so often) a particular wave of theatrical concerns or conceits passes me by? There seem to be a lot of plays about unpleasant people behaving unpleasantly: I see no need to be part of that. But what do I like? What do I like about theater? Do I even like theater at all, or do I just like Shakespeare?
After a fair amount of navel-gazing and thought, identifying some plays I do like and some connections between them, I realized that what I like most of all in the theater is storytelling. I like plays that tell stories; I like plays that are about storytelling; I like plays that mess around with the idea of storytelling. I also like words; I like plays that mess around with words; I like playwrights that enjoy words and wordplay. Another thing I like is characters with interesting voices—by voice here I mean the way the character speaks, the rhythm and structure of sentences and speeches, the word choices, the music of the sound. And the other thing that I like, when I read a play, is for it to spark a lot of possibilities, a variety of potential interpretations.
So anyway, The Call is mostly a play of domestic squabbles with some rather mild political/racial whatnot, depicted naturalistically. Not my thing. The rhythms of the dialogue seemed off to me (possibly deliberately, to show the tensions and lack of connection or listening, but I couldn’t tell and it was bugging me, anyway) and I had little sympathy with or interest in the main character. Toward the end of the first act, I began to think about the main question of the play: would the lead in the end choose X or not X? And I thought: I don’t really care. In the second act, though, a character we haven’t heard much from—an Ethiopian immigrant—starts telling the story of the lion’s whisker. And the play began to sing to me.
And just for the duration of that story, I was fascinated. Now, I’m sure that was the work of the actor, Michael Rogers, a veteran actor with tremendous skill, and I really like watching actors use that sort of skill. He shaped the story: the sound of it, the melody, the rhythm, the speed, where the pace changed and changed again. When he was focused on who he was telling the story to, and when he was focused on the story itself. It was also the playwright, of course, and the director, and the actress to whom he was telling the story helped as well. But mostly: for a moment, the play breathed.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,