This may feel like a long road to a small house… so grab a snack.
It can easily be said that I am not a fan of Realism… or as it is sometimes called in the theatre, Modernism. I mean, I think it’s fine; it has its purpose. It’s a period we should study. It’s a technique we should know. It’s just more suited to certain art forms over others. For instance it suits photography much more than painting. And in the theatre, we actually have a pejorative term for theatre that is not realistic; we call it… “theatrical”. Odd, I know.
A little history (for those who don’t know): Shakespeare wrote that the purpose of theatre was to “hold a mirror up to nature.” On that day, theatre began what I often call the slow death-march towards Realism. As people distanced themselves from the concept of God as the reason for everything and began to discover more about the minutia of the scientific complexities that surround us, theatre began to reflect this trend as well. Theatre became psychology’s playground and Realism was its vehicle. As Freud, Jung, and Skinner were dissecting why we do things, the same question was being asked on the stages in Russia and France. In this context, Realism is an amazing step forward in the art of theatre, and even I recognize this.
However, what is interesting about theatre is that concurrent with the development of Realism (Modernism) was Post-Modernism. The Moscow Art Theatre housed two different directors who saw theatre in two different ways, and their names were Constantine Stanislavski and Vsevolod Meyerhold. Stanislavski went on to become a relative household name for his contribution of the (often-distorted) acting technique he called The System which was then interpreted (perhaps erroneously) into Lee Strasburg’s famous (perhaps infamous) Method. Meyerhold, on the other hand, suffers from a relative anonymity that barely excludes lovers of postmodern art.
Meyerhold addressed theatre as a physical medium (as opposed to psychological) often using dance and gymnastics to help tell his stories. His work in Biomechanics is revered by any lover of physical theatre. His was a world of “theatricality.” He stood firmly in direct opposition to the concepts and theories purported by Stanislavski and the like and we often credit his work with the birth of post-modernism in the theatre.
So from the word go, there has been a school of thought that believed that Realism would ultimately lead to the downfall of theatre. The basic reasoning behind this idea: theatre is not real. In fact, it is highly unreal. When we walk into a theatre we are asked to actively suspend our disbelief. This means that the audience must use their imagination. Realism is about getting all of the smallest details correct: the dust on the shelves, the patina on the silver, the thought in the moment. Those details are then given to the audience… and the audience no longer needs to activate their imagination. This works amazingly well in film, but almost contradicts the very structures of theatre (similar to photography and painting). On the contrary, Post-modernism allows for moments of interpretation where you as an audience member are left to fill in the blanks with your own ideas. In essence, it’s why the book is always better than the movie. With a book, you get to fill in the blanks, and in doing so you take a level of ownership of the story that is being told.
Nonetheless, Realism is what the majority of today’s audiences want, and so it is what we, the practitioners, often give, it is what most playwrights are writing, and it is what most schools teach as the major part of their curriculum. As an actor and director who absolutely loves the worlds of dance, physical theatre, and movement and who believes that the best theatre is ultimately the combination of all of the arts into one, this can be a hard pill to swallow. In my opinion, great works theatre give us a little of both. I love when I see a show with amazingly realistic moments coupled with moments of meditative interpretation, music, dance, etc. I also love to see people do things that I cannot do; it makes me want to learn how to do those things.
Which finally brings me to Snowstorm. It is easily my favorite piece of theatre I have seen in Portland since Hand2Mouth’s My Mind is like and Open Meadow. Like My Mind…, Snowstorm is a beautiful fusion of multiple art forms into one performance. This is all I ask of theatre.
I know very little about the inception of this project so I cannot speak to its exact origins. What I do know is Jessica Wallenfels is at the helm. I have been in Portland for a while and Jessica and I have met, but I had yet to see one of her works. I had heard of them, but never taken in one first hand because she is oftentimes working out-of-town. So, this blog is in some ways breaking one of my rules: Don’t comment on a person’s work until you’ve seen three things they have created.
This is what I have been yearning for, calling for, begging for out of Portland’s theatre scene. Snowstorm combines virtuosic musicianship with virtuosic directing leading high-level actors through a story of words, music and movement. To the credit of this cast of who’s-who-in-PDX-theatre, every character is clearly defined with moments of delicious realism. However, this show’s success lies in its theatricality and the fact that this story could only be told by combining this group of talents in the same room for an extended period of time… And that is beautiful theatre.
And… it is very Russian.
I went to the invited dress rehearsal so I was not privy to director’s notes or a cast list. I am only speaking about what I saw on stage. There were moments of heart-wrenching pain and moments of gut-clutching laughter. Jamie M. Rea puts on a clinic as the lead and is complimented by a dashing Chris Harder who delivers one of the piece’s most stirring moments of physicality. However once again, Matthew Kerrigan steals the show. His movement and acting techniques are top-notch, but it is his comic ability that sets him apart in this show. He supplies us with the much-needed moments of comedy.
The entire piece is beautifully accompanied by a pianist, Eric Nordin. The story comes through and from him and his piano. Though the story bears little, if any, real likeness to the Pushkin short story, it creates a world that is believable as Russian; the struggles, the pain, the father/son relationship, the loss of love, and the metaphor of the impending storm are all accompanied by a robust score of Rachmaninoff.
And the aesthetics are some of the best I’ve seen on the (smaller) Portland stage. The set, lights, costumes and props are all excellently designed and executed. But Tony Fuemmler’s MASKS… simple and beautiful.
Some might look at this piece as high-brow, esoteric, experimental. Good. It is. And we need more of it. Theatre has an amazing power to entertain, but it has an even greater power to stimulate emotion and educate, and this piece runs the gamut. The movement is largely pedestrian with moments of inspired contemporary choreography. At times the choreography may out-matched the performer, but these moments are rare and in the end, I don’t really care if everybody is an amazing dancer as long as I am being moved by their work. And this piece definitely moved me.
So, thank you Jessica. Thank you to your amazing cast and crew. Thank you for stepping away from the paradigms and creating inspired, vital theatre. Go see this show. Support Jessica Wallenfels working in our town. We need her and what she brings.