by Tina Howe
Theatre UNB / Stage Left
Fredericton, November 2003
Len Falkenstein 4, Mem Hall 1. That's what my scorecard reads, after watching a production conceived by Falkenstein (and executed by Mike Johnson) triumph, yet again, over the limitations of the college-dining-hall-cum-theatre that crouches at the heart of Memorial Hall. (The one loss, by the way, was Falkenstein's first encounter with the space, an ambitious drama class production of Woyzek which I only saw in a preview and which I thought was defeated by that immense, alienating, elevated stage at the end of the room.)
While the Stage Left production of Tina Hall's Museum has some fairly serious problems -- not least of which is the script itself, which feels very much as though it were written specifically to provide acting opportunities for a large number of apprentice actors -- the shape of the acting space, the pacing and timing of the production, and the blocking and moving of the cast, all make Memorial Hall, again, into a place in which authentic, engaging theatre can occur.
The play's premise -- a place, more than a situation -- is this: we're in a section of an art gallery, where three "avant-garde" artists' work is being displayed. We watch as various people -- casual visitors, photographers, tourists, one of the artists himself -- pass through, humiliate themselves or each other, relate to each other and the strange (but not so strange, after thirty years) works calling themselves "art," and generally provide a meandering and amusing, if not especially compelling, evening. It occurred to me looking at the art (one of the artists, whose we work is displayed mostly against the wall near the tunnel though which people spelunk their way into the theatre, specializes in white canvases), that the play has an oddly prescient relationship to Yasmina Reza's Art, which made fun of the same sort of painting a quarter century later. In both cases it's an easy target, but perhaps it wasn't quite so easy when Howe wrote her play, in the early seventies.
The strongest part of this production, as I've said, is the mechanics: the staging, set, and blocking. As the audience enters the playing area we are -- as often in Falkenstein's Mem Hall productions -- right in the middle of things: We are instantly cast into the role of gallery visitors, walking among the black display pedestals with tiny, incomprehensible sculptures on them, looking up onto the stage proper where a string of strangely-clothed dummies are hung from a clothesline, and with our backs to the array of featureless white canvases up on the wall; we're mingling with the cast, who are also wandering about among the exhibits, in an area running down the middle of the hall and up onto the stage with the audience arranged on either side. As the post-bop jazz which provides atmosphere subsides, the playing area empties, of audience and cast. And then, for the next hour or so, into this area, the play's mammoth cast of characters explodes, by ones and twos, and threes, from various well-concealed entry points, onto the stage, lugging their agendas, prejudices, and equipment.
There are 37 in all, played by (according to my count) twenty actors, most of whom play two or three roles. They range from a couple of arch-connoisseurs who speak only French to a tourist listening to a deafening recorded tour, from the curator of the exhibition to three women who find everything about the exhibition hysterically funny, from a space cadet zoning out on the art (and eventually achieving a sort of electronically-assisted ecstasy in her relationship with one of the miniatures) to the dutiful, heavy-handed guard who insists on keeping people from photographing the works without permission or absconding with the clothespins in a basket under the line of suspended bodies ("each one of those clothespins is an important work of art," he keeps explaining).
It would be silly to try to list all the cast members: as with the Theatre Saint Thomas production of The Kitchen three or four years ago, the star is really the ensemble. The audience does notice Casey Danaher as the guard ("Please, sir, don't smell the paintings," he says at one point), and a few of the other characters have more major roles -- I think of Zach Leblanc and Corey Breau as a couple of critics ("This may be our last day in the presence of live art"), Zita Nyardy as the zoned-out art devotee, and others -- but the play aspires, oddly, to a kind of cinema verité / Andy Warhol movie sensibility, where we seem simply to be watching what happens in a particular place at a particular time.
The result is that everything depends on the ability of the individual scenes to engage us, and the fact that they vary pretty widely in that -- some are wonderful, some seem pretty pointless; some are well acted, others not so well -- leads to a kind of review sensibility in the audience. When a scene is flat, there's not much to carry us through it.
Another problem, of course, is that there's not much new about laughing at all-white paintings or bodies hung out to dry: indeed, the art world seems pretty well to have digested such "avant-garde" ideas and to have moved on past them. What the play has to say about art, its creators, aficionados, entrepreneurs and skeptics, has pretty much all been said by now -- and may, much of it, already have been said in 1971. This is not a major problem, but it does have the consequence of lowering the general temperature of the evening somewhat, and making it even more necessary for those individual scenes to generate consistent electricity.
Even though they don't all succeed in doing that, it's worth watching the tight discipline of the production, the way the entire acting space is used, and the way our eyes are never allowed to drift away from the focus, even when a dozen people are "on stage" at a time. Stagecraft can overcome lots of difficulties, and this production of Museum is a case in point.