Upset that you missed Sundance or Cannes this year? Well, forget the slopes of Utah or the sands of the Riviera, and hop the L train to Williamsburg instead, where the decidedly un-Hollywood Brick Theater is putting on “The Film Festival: A Theater Festival”—a collection of more than 20 plays (and some genuine films) that explore the boundary between celluloid and greasepaint. Some intriguing titles have already passed (like Bring Me the Head of John Ford), but we caught three appealing pieces that can still be seen.
For the film buff who’s also a closet ham, there’s a site-specific audience-participation play, Suspicious Package: An Interactive Noir, that enlists you, the ticket-buyer, as a character in a faux–film noir. The piece sends you and three others out onto Metropolitan Avenue with nothing but a period-costume item and a handheld Zune media player, which beams both stage and street directions into your earphones and pre-filmed segments onto your palm-sized screen. (The latter include flashbacks from your character’s point of view, accompanied by a Raymond Chandler–style interior monologue on the audio track.) Impressive synchronization of the devices not only choreographs your group’s entrances and exits, but feeds you your lines, enabling dialogue between you and the other “actors.” Conceived by writer-director Gyda Arber as “part theatrical experience, part live video game,” Package may lack the body count of Grand Theft Auto, but the fear of not knowing what you’ll be told to do next makes for thrills enough in this good-natured, 45-minute retro walking tour.
The totally indoor Tod & I (from the puppetry ensemble Piehole) bears the influence of classic German Expressionist cinema (or at least Tim Burton) in its striking Black Forest landscape, black-and-white color scheme, and use of intertitles in lieu of spoken dialogue. The story, devised by lead puppeteer Jeff Wood, shows a boy at his grandpa’s funeral getting lured outside to play with the mortician’s kid Tod—which in German means “death.” Tod plays rough—he stages a mock Viking funeral for our hero—but the imaginary lethal games become an exhilarating rite of passage. Wood’s ashen-faced rod-puppets are creepy—even the children look like corpses—yet also endearing and surprisingly expressive. (You don’t often see a puppet bang the wall in mourning.) Tod & I so successfully transposes Caligari-esque aesthetics into three dimensions (albeit in miniature) that the video prologue and epilogue seem less cinematic by comparison.
In Eric Bland’s Death at Film Forum, the famed Village art house hosts a cutthroat, reality-TV-style competition between young filmmakers. But the real setting is the overpacked mind and tortured soul of the cinemaniac. Lots of Godard references abound, of course, as the play’s four auteur wannabes exhibit video clips of both their films and their interior lives—including a delightfully out-of-nowhere parody of Berlin Alexanderplatz. If the script occasionally meanders, Bland’s writing is anything but bland, with vibrant characters, lots of heartfelt passion, and spirited volleys of non sequiturs. Of the winning cast, Scott Eckert and Richard Lovejoy especially stand out as very different kinds of film geeks.
Amid the raging aesthetic debates in Film Forum, the most compelling tension lies (as with all these pieces) between the real and the virtual—or, to put it another way, between those often estranged relatives, stage and screen. As far back as 1934, Walter Benjamin challenged theater to avoid engaging in a “hopeless competitive struggle” with film and instead “enter into debate” with it. By letting the rival art forms duke it out in so many different variations, this hybrid festival heeds that call, with some nicely surprising results.