David Ives, Charles Mee and a little Silverdocs (6 cents)

Two recent unusual theatrical experiences.

David Ives’ “Venus in Fur” is playing at the Studio, and I thought it was phenomenal – a combination of an almost-perfect play, and a wonderful two-person cast. A young playwright adapts Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s late 19th century novel for the stage, the story of a young man whose happiness depends upon having a relationship with a strongly dominating, and particularly sexually dominating woman (the word “masochism” comes from Sacher-Masoch’s name). The playwright is in the process of casting the play, the day has ended, and he hasn’t yet found his female star. As he is getting prepared to go home to his fiance, a bedraggled young woman comes through the door, hours late for her audition appointment, and refuses to leave without being given an opportunity to try out. She is just what the part does not require: the role is of a woman with a steely, domineering bent, and she is a ignorant sounding country bumpkin, too dumb to take no for an answer.

Through persistence (domination in utro?), she convinces the playwright to read with her, he playing the male star. Then for the next 90 minutes or so, you are treated to first class comedic theater – the play requires each of the actors to move from their off-stage personalities to their very different role-personalities, which they do seamlessly, until even they can’t tell when they are role playing and when speaking naturally, and certainly you can’t, as the relationship of the actor and playwright, and the relationship of von Sacher-Masoch’s characters become interchangeable in this play within a play comedy.

A tour de force.

A different, but equally fascinating experience, was Charles Mee’s “Bobrauschenbergsamerica”, which just closed the Forum Theatre’s season. Mee is both a playwright and an historian; he teaches playwriting at Columbia University. Rauschenberg was, of course, an American abstract artist, many of whose works consist of represenations of normal artifacts (and sometimes the artifacts themselves) combined in ways that seem to be random, without deeper meaning. Most of the items – bicycles, tin cans, what have you – can certainly be viewed as pieces of Americana, and I think one can look at Rauschenberg as Norman Rockwell on a bad day.

Charles Mee (who by the way as also written a play based on Rockwell – I have not seen or read it) has put together a one act play that is as abstract as Rauschenberg’s artwork. It is set in Port Arthur, Texas, Rauschenberg’s home town, and you meet his mother, and an assortment of his friends, boys and girls, and Bob himself, portrayed as a likeable, but not too clean, outcast, who wants to put all the pieces together, but doesn’t quite succeed until the end, where all of the objects that are used in the play (it’s really not a play, but rather a series of only remotely related, for the most part, half-skits, often separated by short musical pieces, all of which are reminiscent of small town America mid-century) are pushed onto center stage and placed next to, on top of, or inside each other to create one big, yes it is true, Rauschenberg work.

It must be very hard to put all of this together on stage, without having the cast members fly off on their own, and Forum did an admirable job with it.

Fun.

Silverdocs is the annual documentary film festival held at the American Film Institute’s Silver Spring headquarters. I don’t normally track documentary films, but this year, I did spend one afternoon watching two of them.

Mini report:

“Hula and Natan” is an Israeli film based on two brothers who own an automobile junk yard on the outskirts of Sderot, adjacent to the Gaza Strip. The brothers are clearly social misfits, who inherited their business (if indeed it is a business) from their father, who squabble with each other when they are not philosophizing about life and its unfairness, and who are being evicted for failing to pay rent just as the Qassams fall on Sderot (they view that bad) and the Israeli’s move into Gaza (they view that bad, as well). Is the movie enjoyable? Not really. Is it interesting? Sure.

The director was at the festival and had a Q and A after the screening, which I would have loved to attend, but I had to get to the second movie. What interested me about the film was how it was made. How did they decide to make a film about these two guys? How did they know (if they did) that they would be evicted? How did they knew there would be a war in the middle of their story? I will never find out.

The second movie, which I thought was much better made, is called “The Pruitt Igoe Myth” and is the story of the infamous Pruitt Igoe apartments in St. Louis from construction in the early 1950s until they were demolished in the late 1960s, the victim of three major trends: the crowding of very poor folks with primarily rural backgrounds into thirty three high rises, the absolute inability of the residents (who grew poorer as time went on and the buildings declined) to pay an amount in rent approaching what was needed to maintain the buildings, and the changing demographics in a city whose population was falling so rapidly that, as units became vacant through normal turnover, there was no one standing at the door to move in.

I think that the goal of the filmmaker was to show that the problems of Pruitt Igoe were not only the problems of the tenant make up, that there was more at play, and I think he did a good job. Much vintage footage, interviews with academics, and conversations with former Pruitt Igoe residents (not all of whom were negative about their young lives there)provided a fascinating look backwards for the St. Louisan in me. I think this film will be around for quite some time.

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