By Tom Sellar
By Emily Warner
By R.C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By R. C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Tom Sellar
What is a fact? In the theater, most often, a fictional invention: Iago has been passed over for promotion, John Proctor has had an affair with Abigail Williams. On a less fundamental level are the facts that reveal character: Willy Loman ridicules the bookish kid next door, Trigorin compulsively writes things down. For more detailed data, there are nonfiction facts, you might say, that obtrude into the dramatic fiction. To follow the love affair of Masha and Vershinin in Three Sisters, you only need to know that, when other people are around, they communicate it by humming a familiar tune; but you understand a good deal more about them, and even get a glimpse of their unhappy future, if you know that the tune is the duet from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.
But all this speculation about fact presupposes a certain kind of play, during which we believe in the lives of the individual characters, and let the facts illuminate them. Henry James, pondering Hedda Gabler, said Ibsen was writing about "the individual caught in the fact." For major historical events, the 20th century found another way onto the stage: to make the facts central, and let the characters illuminate them. This happened for two reasons. One was that realism, even epic realism à la Brecht, lacked the technical arsenal to process the amount of factual data involved within a reasonable time: So much life has to be sliced in, so many untelling details have to be dished up before we get to the telling ones. Unless you have Shakespeare's dual gift for selectivity and poetic succinctness, it's far safer to cut to the chasethat is, to the factsand let them speak for themselves.
Not that they can, of course. Like the fictional facts inside a drama, historical facts onstage are only raw data. They take their meaning from their presentation, making documentary theater in some ways a tougher challenge than the imaginative kind. So many points of view have to be honored to give the work texture and a sense of fairness; so much has to be omitted and condensed without making the story feel half told. The fashion for collages of interviews that came in with Anna Deavere Smith has led more than one performer-compiler into the dangerous land where the interviewee's body language replaces the substance of the event. But this, too, is a playwriting challenge: For the sharp-eyed documentary maker, style can reveal substance as fully as it can for Ibsen or Chekhov; with the merely glib, substance melts into style.
By Adina Taubman
Ontological Theater (Closed)
Documentary theater has its chief competition in the camera, which will always beat it for authenticity. Editing can be as manipulative as you like, but a film of a person saying something is still a film of the actual person saying that thing; a reenactment not announced as such is fraud pure and simple. A stage performance, though, is a reenactment by definition, which explains what the theater can offer documentary that the two-dimensional media can't: a sense of ritual. Where film and video record whatever happens to catch the filmmaker's interest, the theater has to tell the story that bears repetition, the set of voices or set of events that speaks in some way as a myth. There has to be a larger meaning, and it has to arise spontaneously out of the act of telling. Otherwise, the factsthe actual words and deeds, the people who actually did and spoke themare violated. Playwriting teachers tell you that exposition has to be repeated three times; in a country that forgets its history so avidly (Gore Vidal's "United States of Amnesia"), documentary theater is a way for art to embody history's expository process, to say at least three times what we all had better remember.
That notion is a preposterous way to introduce Snatches, a documentary that has, by intention, the most degradingly trivial text I've ever encountered in docudrama. Don't get me wrongthe degrading triviality is the point, and one scarily worth making. The characters are Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, and the harrowingly inane dialogue is taken from Tripp's tapes of their conversations, now matters of public record. Laura Strausfeld's piece, however, is not actively political, not an indictment of Clinton, of Kenneth Starr, of illegal wiretapping and Washington corruption, or of anything remotely issue-based. Essentially, it's an attack on materialism, on the affluent arrogance of the vast number of Americans represented by theseI only judge them by their own wordsunfathomably stupid women, who viewed the entire civic life of their country as a handy way to meet influential people, get high-paying jobs, and, in Monica's case, have love affairs with high-powered older men. We know the results. What's unnerving is to hear the whining, and the soothing, the sniping and the scheming, Monica's moans and Linda's lies, all played out as the primary elements of the experience. Everybody else in America thought this was about the presidency, the nation, the world; to hear Monica and Linda talk, it was about good hairstyles and six-figure salaries.
Strausfeld's witty, pop-Baroque staging, imaginative but somewhat overly controlled, stresses the expensive emptiness of the two women's experience. Posed at a variety of oblique angles to the audience, her Monica and Linda literally have no presencewe virtually never see their faces. The conversations, sorted by topic and intercut, not only interrupt each other but are interrupted by silent, solemnly choreographed rituals in which the women, seated facing upstage, engage in sublimated erotic relations with their hairstylists, who are the only other visible characters. Between blips of conversation, news headlineschosen for maximal double entendre ("Top Aides Beg Clinton to Curb Emissions")run across the proscenium arch. Played for sympathy, the words Strausfeld has chosen would tell a story of female bonding: two helpless gals standing together to conquer sexist Washington. That's not how this story ends, of course; the end is the last intense, confrontational scene over lunch, with Linda stonewalling, still pretending to be Monica's friend, as the tape recorder turns. Trust, decency, dignity, and friendship aren't part of this story. In stressing their absence from this small, sordid corner of public life, maybe Strausfeld has made a larger political statement after all.