Past, Present, Suture


I am very old now. I started seeing plays in Greece, around 400 years before the man you call Jesus was born, and though I still hobble to my seat with a certain degree of hope in my heart, these days I often get the impression that I’m seeing something I’ve seen before. Granted, young artists love having a predecessor to hang onto. I remember Sophocles saying as much to me when he was still a chorus boy and used to dance naked before the archons, doing what we called solo mime back then and you today call performance art.

There is nothing new under the sun: When young artists repudiate criticism’s claim to weigh them against their predecessors, they’re usually just pleading for the chance to be judged fairly as equals, without prejudice, or they’re just being saucy, which is a central part of any young artist’s posture. Some may tell you that they’re working in an experimental tradition, but that’s just slovenly thinking brought on by academic jargon: An experiment that follows tradition would be a contradiction in terms. Anyway, every piece of theater is an experiment in itself, no matter how much reference it makes to what went before. The joy of art is that every new artist with sufficient spirit can arrange the old elements in a new way, and make us see the old journey with new eyes. In fact, the saddest experiences, especially for a 2500-year-old like me, arrive when the young experimenter hasn’t looked back deeply enough, and proffers in all innocence something too close to its model to be fresh, but not strong enough in its borrowings to make the artist’s love for his predecessor’s work a source of renewed joy, as Picasso did when he painted Velázquez’s Las Meninas over again.

To judge by their latest works, Adam Rapp loves Sam Shepard, and John Kelly loves Jean-Louis Barrault. But in Faster, and in the progress so far of The Paradise Project, that love has had disappointing results. In both cases, I suspect, for the same reason: The desire to do something personal and original, inspired by love of the predecessor’s work, has gotten tangled up with the desire to replicate that work, so the end product is neither fish nor fowl—neither an old triumph reanimated nor a new one, made in homage, standing free. Sadly, neither of the two successor artists—so gifted and so imaginative—has thought as deeply as his elder about the elements of the work and what they might mean.

Rapp responds to other influences besides Shepard, including the self-consciously sordid naturalism of our own time, which always seems to forget that it had an ancestor a century ago. Walking into a theater where the curtainless stage reveals a dank basement with a naked lightbulb, and an apparently retarded person crouched in a downstage corner, I instinctively look around for Lugné-Poë or Gerhart Hauptmann. Hauptmann, who created the vagabonds Schluck and Jau, would understand Faster‘s teenage runaways, Skram and Kitchin, who tamper not with the shape of reality, like Shepard’s tormented twosomes, but with supernatural powers. When Hauptmann grew tired of writing about knocked-up servant girls and rat-bitten slum babies, he turned to allegories in blank verse, and I half expect Rapp to follow; his linguistic facility and moral perturbation clearly hunger to break out of the basement.

What Rapp does instead, in a muddled and hasty fashion, is to invite the supernatural in. The two desperate street scroungers, with Skram’s mute, traumatized older brother in tow, have discovered a little girl wandering by the river, whom they plan to sell to a rich sucker. But the time, as the suddenly stormy weather indicates, is not ours but the End Time; the little girl is Hope or Salvation or Man’s Immortal Soul, or something. And the moneyed purchaser proves to be our old friend, the Adversary. The action, which in the first act has consisted of manic bickering, now shifts to manic dickering. Skram is challenged to perform a loathsome task in return for a suitcase full of money, and does, but somehow never bothers to claim the cash. Kitchin can’t take the tension and rushes out. Various unpleasant culminations occur; like the sections of the play, they don’t much relate to each other.

Nobody insists that Rapp play by standard rules. What’s annoying is that, making his own rules, he keeps either forgetting them or throwing them away, so that the game is no fun to watch. Shepard, who came to the theater through an interest in painting, always seems to have some strict aesthetic principle behind his work. Rapp, despite the many cometlike ideas that shoot through his text, seems oddly less sophisticated. One has to applaud him for his passionate concern, his willingness to steep himself in all the miseries of our dislocated world, but the results would hold more interest if he paused in his fervor to consider what he was offering his audience, other than the old news that the world’s in trouble.

The pause might also guide him to directors who’d interpret his texts instead of merely, like Darrell Larsen, echoing and redoubling everything noisy and specious in them. From the naked lightbulb in the curtain warmer—which glares all through intermission, though the room’s lights are supposed to have gone out in the storm—to the beat-box noise underscoring the curtain call of this almost musicless play, Larsen’s work is overhyped and predictable at every step, with particularly bad effect on Chris Messina, the gifted actor who plays Skram’s entire lengthy role on one hysterical note.

Kelly, who began as a dancer, knows from notes. What escapes him in this new piece, at least so far, is a combination of structure and theme. Baptiste, the principal male character of Marcel Carné’s 1945 film Children of Paradise (played unforgettably by Jean-Louis Barrault), is based on a historical figure, the celebrated French mime Jean-Baptiste Deburau. The role understandably obsesses Kelly; what he seems to have missed is that Baptiste’s is only one kind of performance displayed in the film, which is so deeply loved by theater people because it contains virtually every imaginable mode of performance, from peep show to poetic tragedy. The other men in the film who flutter around the beautiful but elusive Garance, all performers in their way, are equally engrossing historical figures: Frédéric Lemaître, the great actor who made Shakespeare viable on the French stage (reduced by Kelly to a pompous narcissist), and the master criminal Lacenaire, whose memoirs remain a true-crime classic (omitted entirely by Kelly, though he’s the driving force behind the movie’s plot).

Kelly’s piece falls into three parts: First a contemporary New York artist, heading towards total breakdown, is transformed by seeing Children of Paradise. Next, he dreams his way into the role of Baptiste, performing a sizable chunk of the film’s central mime sequence, to Joseph Kosma’s soundtrack music. This leads to a confrontational third section in which the film’s other characters— Garance, Baptiste’s fiancée Nathalie, and Frédéric—give vent to their feelings in song. In an epilogue, the artist, now transformed permanently into the despairing Baptiste, disappears into the film; he vanishes through a screen containing a huge projected close-up of the actress playing Garance.

For those who don’t know the film, the piece as it stands can hardly make sense; for those who do, it isn’t enough. If it stuck to the young artist’s own troubled feelings, and viewed the complexly formed film through his personal prism, its overwrought quality would make sense; but when the other characters give vent to their feelings, you immediately start looking for a balance and breadth that the piece, unlike the film, doesn’t possess. The pity is that Kelly has the capacity to do something great with this material: He proves it easily with the wonderful moment when he wakes to find that his bedsheet has become Baptiste’s Pierrot costume. Kelly’s singing, disturbingly, has become harsh in tone and erratic in pitch, making an unpleasant match with the lush, assured sound of Wendy Hill’s Garance. But it’s hard to tell what place Michael Torke’s mellifluous tunes are meant to have in this context; they jar with the familiar sound of Kosma’s score, and the songs seem arbitrarily dropped in, in a clump, for no particular reason other than that a new piece must have new music.

But what is the new piece? We already know that Baptiste vanishes into the crowd; Kelly is only adding a needless echo. Rather than create a new piece at all, he might think usefully about restoring to the stage the mime work that Prevert and Kosma actually created for the theater, a reconstruction of one of Deburau’s most celebrated pieces, which contains all of the film’s mime sequences except the very first one. It hasn’t been seen in New York since Barrault performed it here with his company, exactly 50 years ago.