Thursday, 6 March 2008

Newbury Culture Vulture

I've just lived through nearly a week of no broadband service -- and even now am having to make do with the dubious charms of dial-up, just until we get our little modem-warranty issue resolved. It's been a week marred by hissy fits with technical support staff, and my whining has achieved nothing. I've learned that if you are not "account holder" you will get nowhere in this world; being wife-of-account-holder means pretty much zilch. Having your name on the utility bills is the key to everything -- a crucial feminist lesson that is having to be re-learned.

Searching through the flotsam and jetsam of my week for a little subject-material -- and discarding my new washer and dryer, despite their "A" energy ratings, as newsworthy -- I have settled on a pair of cultural experiences, one touching, funny, and uplifting, and the other depressing as hell. In that spirit, I bring you Diablo Cody and Stephen Sondheim.

Although West Berkshire is no NYC, or even Houston, when it comes to bagging cultural experiences, if you plan ahead you can find the odd happening. (I like the way "odd" can be used to indicate both infrequency and strangeness.) Therefore, when I noticed that our local theatre was offering a Stephen Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, I resolved to attend. I'm not that versed in Sondheim, although I did see Follies on Broadway some years ago -- and I loved the new Tim Burton telling of Sweeney Todd -- but I have an overall impression of Sondheim being a witty fellow, even if the material is dark. If only I had bothered to google "Merrily" before rolling along for a rollicking evening of musical entertainment, I could have discovered that the original Broadway production closed after only 16 performances. If you ask me, this is the single most depressing entertainment experience I have ever endured . . . and seeing Schindler's List on New Year's Eve is in a second place so distant that it hardly seems the same race. At least that movie was beautiful and moving -- in addition to being tragic and an all-around downer.

But let me set the stage: it was a rainy, windy Monday night and ten mothers (much like me) had all rushed through the dinner routine in order to make way for a rare weekday outing. It was the 40ish birthday of one of us: and this good woman had just suffered through a frightful two years of battling breast cancer. Several of the women in the group are nursing sick or dying parents. At least half the number, to my knowledge, are seriously fretting about money difficulties these days. Mostly the marriages are intact, but a few have been battered by extramarital affairs and threatened bankruptcy. Almost all of these friendships formed through mother-toddler groups; now the children are all past the cute, all-consuming stage of infancy and toddlerhood and range somewhere between emerging and full-blown adolescence. I would guess that most of these women, as parents, feel that they are in the late-middle stage: it is still a hard slog, with many pitfalls to come, yet one is so aware now of children growing up and away. The oldest ones will be going to University in a few years. Time, both the short-term and long-term kind, seems limited now. Days are packed, but the weeks melt away almost without registering.

Well, I am really getting in the spirit and thoroughly depressing myself now. If you had been in the audience, perhaps you would have seen a reasonably attractive collection of well-preserved 40 somethings -- all clutching their G&Ts, smiling, a bit giddy about being out at night, all ready to be entertained.

None of us realized that the title of the show was going to be ironic.

First scene: the show opens at a Hollywood party, full of drunks, syncophants and suspicious wives. One of the main characters, Frank, is the host of this party -- an epic disaster which reveals him to be the protypical "sell-out." At one point a serious musician, now a producer of mediocre movies, Frank has traded his artistic integrity for financial success -- and everyone in the drama has some bitter stake in this career trajectory. In the course of the opening number, both of his long-term friendships and his second marriage -- seen to be limping along for years -- are irrevocably sundered. His first wife, and the son from that marriage, are ghosts in the background; in the foreground is his latest affair with the ingenue from his film. She is one-part cunning, one-part innocence; he is a stew of cynicism, guilt, and the longing to feel something again. The entire scene feels like the lancing of a boil. Every emotion is poisonous.

One of the "features" (is idiosyncracies the more accurate word?) of the The Watermill Theatre musical is that the actors play all of the instruments as well. While one can admire the multitasking proficiency that allows the actors to emote, sing, and strum -- and do all this without bumping into each other on the very tiny "in the round" stage -- it makes for a rather vigorous viewing experience. There's just so much going on. In a scene like I've just described, the tone of which is mostly angry, the sheer stridency of singing and playing is totally overwhelming. At one point, Frank's first wife sings Not a Day Goes By -- which was, for me, the only recognizable tune from the show. If you read the lyrics, you can perfectly imagine Liza Minnelli belting out this tune. It's basically a great break-up song; a torch song with a more modern vibe. Instead of being a paen to love and lust, it's a lament about being haunted by a relationship that didn't work out. I'm sure there's not a person in the over-30 portion of the world that can't relate. However, in this rendition, the many possible shadings of emotion have been crystallized into intense bitterness. It jangled my nerves to the point of discomfort and ultimately left me questioning the point of the exercise. I know that theatre is meant to be cathartic, but I found that the opposite was true in this case. I felt like an innocent bystander who is suddenly doused with BLECH; one minute you are standing on the sidewalk in your starched white shirt, and the next minute a hurtling car plows throughs a puddle and showers you with the dirty, greasy offspill from the road.

It is always tricky to play around with chronology. There's a fine line between mentally challenging your audience and just plain confusing or irritating them. I can think of a few examples of playing around with time -- Memento and The Time-Traveller's Wife come to mind -- in which this narrative device totally serves the story, and indeed is an integral part of the story. Merrily We Roll Along is quite a different case, though. In this show, the first scene is the last; in other words, you start with the denouement and then spool backwards. Instead of the more common flashback, the entire story is told through counter-chronology. Inevitably, by the time we reach the last scene we are being introduced to three wide-eyed talented young hopefuls. Newly arrived in New York City, they have met up on the roof -- literally gazing at the stars and sharing their dreams. Even if the show had started at this place, I suppose one could have predicted the inevitable ending . . . all washed up in the suds of middle-aged disappointments. However, starting the show at "the end" somehow taints it all. Even the "novelty" number about the Kennedy years is impossible to enjoy; jokes about all of the numerous Kennedys are overlaid with our knowledge of how many of them will ultimately die tragically and prematurely.

In some ways, Merrily We Roll Along is one of those overly self-referential studies of the NYC theatre world. I suppose that all "talent" gets eaten up and spit out, to some extent. NYC is a hard place -- that's a cliche, if true, and Sondheim isn't the first to say it. However, it does seem that there is no other place in the world where so many talented people converge -- thinking that they are "special;" hoping for singularity -- and then being crushed gradually by the sheer brutality of numbers. There are many reasons why middle-age can be so sad, but this show finds the bruise of disappointment and then pummels it over and over. Behind you are the irrevocable choices and mistakes; in front of you are only the narrowing range of possibilities. I don't always feel this way about being 40ish -- indeed, I can really believe in its possibilities at times; all that bunk of really starting to know yourself (confidence, wisdom, blah, blah, blah) -- but this depressing vision really laid waste to our festive birthday get-together.

Happily, my next cultural experience was an entirely different one: instead of leaving the theatre weighted with despair, I felt buoyed up. Although no one in England seems to have heard of Juno, the amount of hype it has gotten in the U.S. makes one feel almost compelled to offer an apologia: yes, it really is good despite the fact that everyone seems to like it! I had been looking forward to this one for weeks, and it really didn't disappoint.

A brief aside: Anyone who knows me knows that I love movies. They are my number one escapist option, and an activity that I like to share with friends. Two of my ongoing (and interrelated) gripes about the English countryside concern the fact that (1) there are no movie theaters in our area and (2) no one seems to go to the movies. I had not quite realized how much of my conversation had revolved around discussing the latest movies until I started hitting the brick walls of indifference and obliviousness. My initial impression of bloggers, admittedly noncomprehensive, suggests that people who are willingly to write for hours on random subjects are also likely to be Netflix members.

Sometime in November, our local Corn Exchange -- previous seat of agricultural commerce, currently serving as an arts centre -- opened "Screen One," a tiny little four-rowed theater about as big as the average American's media room. You can't get any popcorn, but there is a little kiosk selling typically English "sweets" and warm Cokes, and rather than a once or twice a month offering, they are showing movies there every day! And not only do they show movies, even better, they show the sort of movies that I like! I suppose it sounds a bit over-the-top to suggest that this is life-transforming, but I could I get away with "life-enhancing?"

Anyway, last Saturday I took my girls to see Juno -- and it was funny and touching. Like one of my favorite-ever "teen" movies, Clueless, it has a creative teenage argot and many quotable moments. However, it was so much more than that. From the opening credits, you feel that you are going to see a vision that is unique and fully-realized -- and you really do. The storyline -- pregnant teenager has to make a choice -- could go terribly wrong in so many different ways. Too sentimental; too judgmental; too trivial; too manipulative . . . the possibilities are almost endless. Instead, writer Cody and director Reitman somehow manage to steer an almost faultless middle way which is never a compromise. The story isn't predictable, and neither are Juno's choices, but somehow the outcomes are perfectly right for the characters. Also, I know this might sound bizarre -- considering that she gets pregnant at 16 -- but I hope my girls might one day find a relationship like the one between Juno and Paulie. If you've seen the movie, you will understand. Even if you don't have a teenager, please see this movie. It really is a love story for all ages.

Laurita: We have shared so many bad movies. I really, really wished that we had seen this one together.

Finally, I love it when life isn't predictable. Despite the many depressing paragraphs I wrote about Merrily We Roll Along and the way it made me feel, I leave you with the counterbalancing fact that Diablo Cody -- writer of Juno and one-time stripper -- won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The first thing she said, when she accepted her award -- all proud pink tatoo and cut-up-to-there leopard print dress -- was "This is for the writers . . ."

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