Saturday, April 3, 2010

My thoughts on A TRUE HISTORY OF THE JONESTOWN FLOOD at the Goodman

I'm always a little confused when everyone seems to absolutely despise a piece that I think is okay. I found the Goodman's production of Ruhl's Passion Play to be tolerable, for example, and in general seem to enjoy a lot of Ruhl's work more than many of my theatre netizen compatriots. I think in general it's because I have a strong affinity for whimsy and the fantastical in theatre. While I can have a decent time at a contemporary realistic piece, it's not the kind of thing I most enjoy seeing. Give me some breaking of the fourth wall, or a dream sequence, or yes, even an inexplicable school of giant fish heads processing majestically across the stage. I'm willing to be beguiled by spectacle, and I would maintain there's nothing wrong with that. I've read a lot on the blogosphere lately crapping on this play, and since I'm between jobs and poor I figured I'd let it pass me by- until the Goodman offered a pretty sweet discount to see it this weekend (thanks, Christianity!) and I saw today's 2 p.m. matinee.

This is going to be pretty scattershot, but that's okay since I'm not trying to be a serious theater reviewer here. I'm just conveying my impressions of it. First, I didn't think it was as dire as I was worried it might be. For one thing, I got to enjoy some Chicago acting peeps that usually aren't allowed on to the Goodman stage in major roles- Cliff Chamberlain (oh Cliff, you'll always be the Tin Man to me), Stephen Louis Grush (hi Stephen! Remember when I ushered for Bernice Bobs Her Mullet? Uh, me neither) and Janet Ulrich Brooks (shining in several supporting roles, and making her Goodman debut? After how many years of kicking ass in the storefront scene? Really? I feel a bit better about never having worked there then).

Also, the scenery was pretty impressive. I think too often those of us who frequent the shoestring-budget storefront scene forget that spectacle is part of Aristotle's Poetics. A piece that employs spectacle to effective ends shouldn't be shunned just because they had money. I sometimes forget that seeing theater is a Pleasure, a leisure activity, and part of that experience can sometimes be the sensual enjoyment of pleasing or impressive sights and sounds. Especially the scenes of devastation near the end of act one and during act 2 were pretty impressive. And kudos to the sound designer for what was a truly awesome sound when the flood waters come crashing down in the darkness near the end of the first act. It reminded me very clearly of a few nightmares I've had about drowning. But enough about me.

That said, I think the play itself has problems. What is it about, exactly? Because to me it seemed like the playwright, Rebecca Gilman, was trying to draw too many themes into her embrace when crafting this piece. To an extent it's kind of about theater itself, and the perpetual tension between the theater that exists solely to entertain and theater that spits on entertainment value and only cares about inciting social change. In some ways I thought it was a daring piece to show at the Goodman, because of the very nature of the Goodman- i.e., when the socialite comes out in the world of the play and thanks all the rich folk who made the theater performance within the play possible, it's hard not to think about the typical demographics of the Goodman subscription audience. A lot of wealthy names are on plaques and listed in programs there. Are all of those same people as generous when it comes to their social responsibilities? Am I as an audience member complicit in similar suffering to the suffering shown in this piece? Which brings me to another 'it's about:' it's also about class warfare, examining the social stratification that literally brought about a situation where the wealthy enjoyed their leisures on high at the (eventually fatal) expense of the toiling masses below. Part of act 2 also seemed like a kind of mini-commercial for the American Red Cross. Some of the pacing is weird- either draggy or too abrupt. For example, near the end of the first act, two characters decide to screw on stage with an abruptness that had several people around me giggling. And then the final scene before the curtain comes down was soooooo drawn out. Almost pointlessly so. And my personal reaction as the curtain fell was "Really? That's how you're ending this play?" It was unsatisfying. Other thoughts:

-So Richard died? I guess?
-Filling the stage with waves as part of that big budget production in Act 2 was cool, but why? What was the point of that scene? It was obscure to me, which is frustrating because I consider myself a fairly discerning individual usually when I see a play. It's kind of about redemption? Maybe? Except to tart up what really happened to these people for the delectation of a paying audience was kind of offensive. Except this play itself for all its pretensions to compassion and really unfolding these events, also tarts up real human suffering for the delectation of a paying audience, of which I was part. Hmm.
-Playwrights, showing us intentionally bad melodrama/acting as plays-within-a-play is not as funny to us as it is to you. Knock it off. Or use it more sparingly.
-"I'm not one of the villains in your plays, Fanny." Except that in my opinion, the son of privilege who won't do the right thing despite his feelings IS a stock character now.

I'm still mulling it over. It wasn't terrible. But I also don't see why Chris Jones saw it as so major that it got its own apologia on his blog after he gave it a lukewarm review.

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