Theater review by David Cote. Public Theater. Conceived and directed by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. Music by Robert M. Johanson, Julie LaMendola and Daniel Gower. With ensemble cast. 10hrs. Three intermissions.
The first thing you ought to know about Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1–4 is that the ten-hour spectacle on display at the Public Theater, coproduced by Soho Rep, is unfinished. The final magnum opus will be a 24-hour multidisciplinary cycle of ten parts, encompassing music, theater, dance, art installation, radio drama and—who knows—maybe group sex and a cooking class. Derived from 16 hours of telephone conversations with sound designer and performer Kristin Worrall, transcribed and staged (verbatim) by Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, Life and Times is the most ambitious theatrical undertaking of my generation. It may also be the stupidest.
Fear no backlash, ye avant-garde faithful: Being stupid, trivial and banal is part of NTOK’s capacious bag of tricks—as are boring the audience, breaking the rules, making random choices and producing an almost unbearable stream of pure, epiphanic bliss. On a moment-to-moment basis, whether the performer is crooning a bouncy tune or mugging in a goofy costume, the event is infinitely amusing and stimulating. Of course, after an hour—or three—of microdelights, the ineffable, silly joy becomes a deadening affair. And yet, every time you are ready to scream with despair, Liska and Copper change the game and replenish your attention span.
Perhaps I should back up and describe the organizing principle of Life and Times. About six years ago, Liska and Copper asked Worrall (who accompanies with flute and appears onstage) to tell her life story. Every detail. From birth until the present moment. (She was 34 years old at the time). Naturally, at first, she grasped at flickering, half-remembered shadows of infancy, or used sensations extrapolated from the family album, to help fill in the details of growing up middle-class in Rhode Island in the ’70s and ’80s.
As her reminiscences progressed through childhood, her memories became more detailed, more nuanced, darker and filled with ambivalence. In the show, she goes from marveling at how in photos she seems “a very serious baby” to sharing a tender but rueful recollection of prom night. At the end of the ten-hour performance (its four episodes are also performed separately, in repertory through Sunday), we’ve followed our subject to her junior year in high school. Worrall doesn’t tell her life in complete sentences or with a memoirist’s ear for narrative elegance: Her speech is digressive, self-conscious and peppered with elisions and errata. Possibly 13 percent of the performance text is made up of um, like and hahaha.
How does the creative team stage such rambling material? Forgoing any sort of representational approach, he devises an ingenious metaphorical framework. Episode 1 (infancy through third grade) takes place in a blank white space, inhabited by three women in gray dresses who look like Finnish stewardesses or figures from a Soviet propaganda poster. (They are later joined by a trio of vigorous bearded men.) The women sing the text, trading parts and occasionally dancing, jumping or playing with red balls. For Episode 2 (third grade through junior high), the actors wear Adidas tracksuits of various hues. Again they sing through the text, but now the music is techno, very ’80s synth-pop. The final two parts are set in a twee re-creation of the set of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap: an English country estate inhabited by various duffers and matrons, where a murder mystery is afoot.
Far from being random abstract settings, each scenographic overlay makes indirect sense in terms of the biography. First, blank white walls form the tabula rasa of toddlerdom; then snazzy uniforms and peppy group numbers match Worrall’s years of youthful conformity and socialization; and for the moody period of adolescence, sexuality and emotional confusion, the directors employ the genre conventions of a murder mystery: suspicion, fear and claustrophobia. When Alison Weisgall recounts her (Worrall’s) first menstruation, it sounds like a crazed confession of homicide.
Not enough praise can be heaped on the talented cast and crew. NTOK regulars Anne Gridley and Robert M. Johanson are in fine form: She’s a petite, grimace-prone waif and he’s a strapping, lusty buccaneer. The aforementioned Weisgall has a haunting, bruised mezzo belt, and Julie LaMendola’s pure pop soprano is absolutely exhilarating. All the performers, but particularly the women, sing for longer periods than you would think humanly possible. On the less musical side, Elisabeth Conner bops around the periphery of the show with a sly smirk; and stout, bewhiskered Ilan Bachrach chews the scenery like a famished grizzly bear.
For all the zestful acting and visual flair, does Life and Times work as marathon theater? Is such long duration key to its meaning and impact? Hard to say. On the one hand, you have to see it all in one day: It’s a life (or part of a life), and you can make startling associations across its vast, varied terrain. On the other hand, the piece so often calls attention to its soporific, repetitive nature, you wish you could absorb it in endurable parts. Call it too much of a so-bad-it’s-good thing.
In Great Lengths, his outstanding survey of marathon theater, Jonathan Kalb mentions something he calls “the mayfly effect.” It is, he explains, “the illusion of living a lifetime within the span of a single day.… [T]hese plays’ journeys are so extensive, adventurous, varied and marvelously circuitous that they actually seem to compress the incomprehensibly messy, bewilderingly ramified whole of life between their opening and closing curtains.” Life and Times indeed aims to capture and monumentalize the minutiae of a relatively unremarkable existence. Sound generic? You will be shocked by how many access points lead to your personal history. At the same time, you will often be bored, perhaps painfully so. This meticulously assembled epic is stupid and beautiful and it sure drags on, a bit like life.—David Cote
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