Fresh from the Saturday close out of Design Week Portland, the electrifying eight day celebration and survey of what’s happening in PDX’s surging design scene, I went to see Adam Bock’s play THE TYPOGRAPHER’S DREAM at PCS on Sunday. The contrast between the two experiences could not have been more jarring.
After being wowed and awed (not to mention entertained) all week long by one DWP practitioner after another at the top of their game in an industry on the upswing, I found Bock’s short one act more like a funeral for an irrelevant art form than an example of the very best theatre has to offer.
From its thin running time of just over an hour, to the bare stage and flat drama, to the appalling smallness of its concerns, Bock’s play represents an almost complete abdication (by both playwright and producing theatre) of the responsibility and even aspiration to create theatre that engages the audience and the larger world in meaningful dialogue.
The fact that this show is being presented on the city’s leading stage (in a building Portland’s citizens have haplessly subsidized to the tune of god knows how many millions of dollars at this point) only heightens the disconnect.
There’s just no easy way to say it. This is not what great or even good theatre looks like. And Portland deserves better from its largest company.
Anyone in touch with US theatre centers like New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Ashland – and why shouldn’t Portland aspire to the best in theatre, as it does in other areas like food, design, soccer, bikes, visual art? – would be hard-pressed to sit through this play without wondering, as the polite older couple in front of me did repeatedly with puzzled glances at each other, “WTF is going on here?” People get on planes to come to Portland for numerous reasons. But nobody is coming for bland and invisible work like this.
To use the DWP comparison, the equivalent would be like going in to the Whitsell expecting to see Stefan Sagmeister and instead finding a brief bare bones talk with no visual aids by someone else who doesn’t seem to know or particularly care very much about design.
With this play as an example of the dramatic form, Bock and Portland Center Stage are not showing us ANYTHING of what theatre can be. Of how good and urgent it can be. Of how original and compelling and prophetic it can be. Of how timeless and influential and unexpected it can be.
Theatre, the most powerful of all the live performance art forms, the most transformative and affecting experience that can so transport a viewer that s/he involuntarily cries out at an actor on stage or even physically tries to engage in the action playing out – as happened at a performance of INTIMATE APPAREL recently when an audience member was so deep in the story she shouted at Vin Shambry’s character.
Here the mighty theatre is like an arthritic hamster dragging itself lifelessly across a bare stage. Very. Slowly. We watch, we wait, we root for the lil’ guy. We wonder what might happen next. But that’s it.
And we need to ask: When so much more is possible, why are we settling for so little? In what alternate reality does this play look like the best possible option available from the American contemporary theatre’s deep bench?
If you don’t travel for theatre and your experience with current plays is limited to shows like this one, you’d be forgiven for thinking the art form has lost its way. But that’s not accurate. Coast to coast, in the hands of companies and makers with a reason for being and something vital to say, the American theatre is alive with promise and impressive artistic achievement.
THE TYPOGRAPHER’S DREAM is something about three under-actualized office types and how their job roles do or don’t define them. There’s a stenographer, a typographer, and a geographer. They sit at a conference table facing us, talking over each other (which is excruciatingly painful and ineffective). It’s not clear who they are talking to. And eventually we do find out a little more about how they know each other. There are some laughs, mainly courtesy of the three actors’ great physical skills. And that’s about it.
The idea that “you are your job” does not strike anyone in a self-actualized career as odd. Would any successful person you know bristle at the idea that they are somehow identified with their job? For anyone who is making it happen in their respective field, they most definitely ARE their job – and that is their dream. Meaning, they are likely putting a lot in and also getting a lot out. Said another way, it is their dream to open a bakery, to start a design studio, or to create a new clothing line.
Aren’t we all something more than our jobs? Of course. But this obvious point is no more in need of a play to probe its implications than other truisms like “the universe is a big place” or “you just never know”. Actually, if you’re Will Eno it’s ok to tackle “the universe is a big place”. The idea that you are not your job is appealing to those in dead end jobs – like the characters in an Adam Bock play. But this doesn’t feel like one of those big questions that has been keeping the audience up at night. By and large, the audience at your average Portland theatre performance is not in dead end jobs. What could interest them about such a scaled back, unambitious story? It’s hard to say. But this material shoots way below the average audience member’s intelligence and sophistication.
The good news here is the stellar cast, which features three of Portland’s favorite actors. Simply having Sharonlee McLean, Laura Faye Smith and Kelsey Tyler on stage creates a lot of enjoyment. Looking at them, and looking at them look at each other, is fun. These are funny, funny people. Almost all the laughs are because of these fabulous actors and their physical comedy skills – not the text. It’s not a stretch to believe these three could easily improv 70 minutes that would end up being much better than the slight play they find themselves imprisoned in. We ache to see them really ignite and use the upper range of their abilities. But the text does not take them (or us) there.
Bock seems very enamored with the supposed freighted resonance of nothing happening on stage. There are lots of “look, see how nothing is happening on stage right now? this is a deep moment when the audience ponders the universe and their lives” moments. You see it in his stage directions. By and large, it doesn’t work. It reminds us that we are not getting what we came for – which is something, not nothing. It reminds the audience of the large hole in their evening where the play was supposed to go. There’s a whole wing of the American theatre fascinated by nothing much happening on stage and long silences, and sometimes it can work. But when it doesn’t work, it’s deadly. Also, the proposition of paying $55 to come and witness how realistically nothing can happen on stage is a precarious one. The audience says: “Show me what you got!” They want the best.
At the theatre, nothing much happening is like being served an empty plate at a restaurant, or staring at a blank screen at the cineplex. It’s not what you came for. It’s certainly not what you paid for. You came for something. And not just something you can soldier through and somehow survive. You shouldn’t have to brace yourself for the worst when you go to the theatre, like you’re visiting a crazed relative who might open the door in their underwear. You shouldn’t have to give your partner that “oh god here we go” look as you settle in to your seats, not knowing if you’re about to lose three hours of your life you’ll never get back. But for more than a few Portlanders I know burned by shows like this one over the years, that’s exactly the kind of helmets-on mindset they have. “Go to the theatre? Ok, but, uh, you know the last time we went…”
Going to the theatre should be as exciting as a Timbers game. You should be half out of your mind with anticipation all day thinking about it and how good it’s going to be. You should go for an unforgettable live experience you can’t get anywhere else. Like the sold out crowds jamming Portland’s auditoriums during DWP, audience members come because they want to see the very best possible product. And in a lot of theatres today – that’s exactly what they get.
But this isn’t it. Not even close.