Sunday, July 29, 2007

Stolen Chair Steals the Show

Finally got to see the Stolen Chair Theatre Company's new piece, Commedia dell'Artemisia, on Friday night, as part of The Undergroundzero Festival at Collective: Unconscious. There's a lot to be said about it, especially given the fact that the piece is all of 40 minutes long.

Before I go on, I should do some full disclosure. I wrote about Stolen Chair in the pages of Back Stage about a year ago (for my Now Playing weekly column), and in addition to the fact that Jon Stancato has become a very good friend and the additional fact that I recently made a modest donation to Stolen Chair's coffers, I happen to be, on an aesthetic and critical level, an unabashed fan of the company and its unique mission.

Recently, someone asked me to describe what Stolen Chair does, and while I could naturally refer the person to the company's mission ("dedicated to the collective creation of imaginative new work and original adaptation of classical texts...[F]using high theatricality and playful dramaturgy with traditional storytelling..."), that's really just grant-getting gibberish (sorry!) when you're sitting in a social setting and people just want to get to the point relatively quickly. I, therefore, tend to describe Stolen Chair's work as the result of putting genres into an aesthetic supercollider and pressing the trigger. Just as contemporary subatomic physics is all about what happens when you smash protons, neutrons, neutrinos and all kinds of indescribably small objects in order to simply find out what makes them tick, Stolen Chair will take genres you don't necessarily think of as inextricably wedded -- in Commedia dell'Artemisia's case, Moliere, commedia and the rape trial of Renaissance painter Artemesia Gentileschi -- and link them up, smashing them together to see what, if anything, happens, and what we can learn about what makes each of those genres/styles/elements/aesthetics tick.

I think Kiran Rikhye's script, in addition to being supple, smart, and with regard to this play, almost always well rhymed (I'd have to scour the script to see if there are any Spring Awakening-style imperfect rhymes), is also pretty daring in the sense of taking a celebrated rape trial and satirizing it. (A play I reviewed in 2002, Lapis Blue Blood Red, dealt with the subject far more seriously, and was quite memorable.)

One of the difficult things, too, about what Stolen Chair does is Stancato gently insists upon a sense of uniform style even as the play necessitates the taking of different genres and styles and smashing them together. In other words, if you're doing Moliere, you're doing Moliere; if you're going for classic commedia, you're going for classic commedia; we know what is expected of the actors performing in such works. By contrast, once you smash together the two, you're unsure of how much commedia to infuse into the rhyming Alexandrine couplets -- so the actors are effectively left to perform without a net.

In the last piece I saw, Kill Me Like You Mean It, "an absurdist film noir for the stage" mixed with a dose of Genet, the actors were similarly forced to decide in performance (and I thought mid-performance) what mixing noir and Genet really means.

Last point: I don't think Jon Stancato has a bottom line for why the company prefers to mix and match genres and styles and aesthetics. I think he does it because he believes that, as with subatomic physics, there are important things to be learned by engaging in said smashing.

As you can tell from the press photos, the production also involved some gorgeous mask work. My own mask is off to the cast, including David Bengali, Cameron J. Oro, Layna Fisher, and Liza Wade White.

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