Remembrance of Obies Past

Judges from the last five decades pay homage to the productions and artists they'll never forget

This first Lifetime Achievement honor, in 1977, was more a milestone for the Obies than for Chaikin. The awards, after 22 years, were a grown-up institution. Judges could look back over a body of history to recognize "lifetime" accomplishments. Chaikin tended to look in the opposite direction. He cared less about surveying his past work than about tackling new challenges. In fact, four years earlier he had disbanded his decade-old Open Theater at the height of its game to see what creative possibilities might lie outside it. Then in 1984, when a devastating stroke blasted his use of language, he explored that, trying to communicate his own skewed ability to communicate.

For me, Joe Chaikin's theater made a lifetime of difference. He found ways to speak of the fiercest, deepest, most fragile parts of our lives, levels of experience that I'd not known people could communicate. I loved the work. I wrote about it and started to attend workshops and rehearsals. Over three decades Joe Chaikin became one of my closest, most cherished friends.

Now Joe is dead. So are scores of other Obie winners and judges. The Obies are not just grown-up, but multi-generational. But much that Joe invented remains alive and has even seeped into the mainstream. So it turns out the name of that award is still a bit off: The "Achievement" has extended way past his "Lifetime." EILEEN BLUMENTHAL

Refugees of convention (above): Andrei Serban's Trojan Women (1974)
photo: Amnon Ben Nomis courtesy of the Ellen Stewart private collection
Refugees of convention (above): Andrei Serban's Trojan Women (1974)

Imaginative complicity

When I think back over the Obie-winning productions that have lodged themselves in my memory as powerfully as recurring dreams, I recall moments of theatrical wonder and simple surprise. It makes sense that the scenes that would stick, inviting the mind to engage them again and again, are those that enlisted the imagination in the first place, that required the spectator's imagination to complete them. They include: Sheila Dabney in Maria Irene Fornes's Sarita standing on a flat stage gazing down while a few feet away, standing on the same flat surface, her boyfriend gazes up, urging her not to jump. Jasper McGruder and Pamela Tyson in Suzan-Lori Parks's Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom tracing the distance of an ocean with the wave of a hand. Karen Kandel in Mabou Mines's Peter and Wendy turning a majestic galleon into a humble home by unclipping a piece of cloth representing a sail, folding it up, and placing it in a laundry basket. Peggy Shaw dismantling the gender order by flexing and preening her way through "I'm a man, ow, ow, ow" in Belle Reprieve, the Split Britches-Bloolips deconstruction of A Streetcar Named Desire. Anna Deavere Smith layering disparate experiences and analyses into Fires in the Mirror. Ron Vawter revealing drag as politics and politics as drag in the astonishing juxtapositions of Roy Cohn/Jack Smith. A dirging bus (Chuck Cooper) delivering the news that JFK has been assassinated in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's Caroline, or Change. Though different in style, point of view, and temperament, these works share a profound trust in the most elemental tools of theater—presence and language, body and voice. And, in quintessentially theatrical ways, they share the urgent demand that the spectator sit forward and engage. ALISA SOLOMON

Cry in the dark (left): Charlayne Woodard in In the Blood (2000)
photo: Michal Daniel
True fakery

From my five years as Obie chairman (1998-2003), two of my favorite plays: Richard Maxwell's House (1999) and Edward Bond's Saved, in its 2001 revival by Theatre for a New Audience. House won a Special Citation and solidified Maxwell's New York avant bona fides; Saved earned a design Obie for Douglas Stein and the Ross Wetzsteon award for TFANA.

I'd like to now further honor each with an emeritus Obie for "Best Fake Violence." Among theater's manifold failings is the insult to one's intelligence proffered by the typical act of stage mayhem. Maxwell and Bond overcame the blood-pack and retracting-knife crap in two different—but essentially hyper-fake—ways. The fight scenes in Maxwell's stylized domestic comedy were deeply phony by traditional standards—just as Maxwell intended. His fisticuffs and killings took place with a knowing awkwardness that offered little regard for verisimilitude—a corollary to Maxwell's purposefully underacted dialogue tactic. The violence was played for laughs, but also as a direct challenge to stage convention. It pleasingly corrupted the staleness of the stage fight, which—for some unknown reason—most directors think audiences believe.

And what could be less believable than a group of actors stoning a baby to death, as they do in Saved? (Bond's 1965 play is a portrayal of the emotional oppression engendered by class structure.) Who in the audience really believes there's an infant in that carriage on the business end of the actors' hurled rocks? Yet during the performance I attended, the almost ritual-like scene was met with excruciated cries of "No!" and "Stop!" from some audience members. There was no baby, no doll even, just agitated imagination triumphing over what reason knew to be false—false not just because of its theater setting, but because of its sheer extremity. It was a deeply arresting sequence, the highlight of the best production of my Obie tenure. BRIAN PARKS

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