In the House

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I went to see theater yesterday! I saw 2 (two) Broadway shows in one day. It was… fabulous. And fraught. And fabulous. I say a matinee of The Lehman Trilogy and then Hadestown in the evening.

I have a few thoughts, which I haven’t sat on for long enough to make them coherent, but maybe posting about them will make that happen. Or, y’know, not.

First of all, I should say that I went in to both shows knowing a great deal about them. I had seen the NTLive broadcast of Lehmann, back in 2019, and have listened to the original Cast Album of Hadestown enough to know a lot of the words. So neither of these shows is new to me, particularly. And, of course, the major plot arcs aren’t susceptible to spoiling in the usual sense—Lehman wouldn’t exist if the company hadn’t so conspicuously failed in 208, and Hadestown is the story of Orpheus and Euridice, which is, as Hermes sings in it, an old song from way back when. Anyway, I am going to talk about details of the productions here, in ways that some people may not want to read if they are hoping to see productions of them later. In other words: Spoilers. But I don’t think enjoyment of either production would actually by spoiled for most people by knowing a lot of detailed information in advance.

Another thing about both shows is that they were both really well suited, to me, for the experience of ‘returning’ to live theater on a large scale, after a stretch of watching a lot of stuff on screen. They both are, formally, interested in the act of story telling. Hadestown is the simpler and more straightforward of the two: the character of Hermes (played by the biggest star of the show, the great Andres De Shields, who I consider myself fortunate to have seen) addresses the audience directly, and other characters occasionally recognize that they are being watched. The second act opens with the genre conventions of a concert, rather than a musical—Persephone introduces the band by name (the musicians’ names, not character names) and asks for applause for them. Most of the show maintains a fourth-wall kind of naturalism (of the Broadway musical kind, of course) in which they maintain their characters consistently throughout (except the Chorus, which again, is an old Broadway musical convention) but what is really going on, the heart of the play, is the performance that we are attending: the fact that we are now, at that moment, re-telling the old, old story, and that we keep re-telling it, over the ages. “'Cause here’s the thing/To know how it ends/And still begin to sing it again/As if it might turn out this time/I learned that from a friend of mine” Hermes tells us at the end. The value, in the end, of story-telling: of being there with the actors and musicians and the rest of the audience.

Lehman is a variation on “chamber theater”, with the three actors performing dozens of roles with no costume changes or minimal/symbolic costume changes (eyeglasses, turning up a collar, a hat or walking stick) and minimal/symbolic set changes (in this case, a lot of document boxes forming shop counters, staircases, and other setting pieces). And they talk about the characters as much as play them, with consciously poetic language, slipping in and out of a non-naturalistic narrative style. They address the audience without quite acknowledging that they are in a play. Unlike Hadestown, they don’t ask or assert what it means that they are telling this story, on a stage in front of an audience, but it is very much about telling the story—there is no pretense that we are simply peeping in to what would be happening whether we were there or not.

In both shows, the fact of our physical presence, in the building, with the actors telling the story, was central to the play. Which was, of course, particularly moving, since physical presence is still fraught—I felt, more or less rationally, that I was attending the play at some risk—my own risk and the more general risk to the public health. The experience, both beforehand in the planning and in the moment of theater watching, made me think about why.

I have more thoughts about the two plays (they both used revolves—which worked! Perfectly! And silently! Amazing what can be done with enough resources) but I should probably let myself think about them a little more before even trying to write them down.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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