Sunday, August 08, 2010

Fringe 2010 - A Standing Long Jump - 3 stars

Taking A Flying Leap At... What, Exactly?

A Standing Long Jump - Theatre In The Round Players (TRP)

The New Theatre Group

Frequently I find myself tempted to tease director Brian Balcom about the name of his company, The New Theatre Group. ("Seriously, you couldn't come up with a name?") But I know it's not meant to be a generic theater name. It's their mission. They are a group that creates new theater, by commissioning a writer to create a new script for a cast already chosen, playing to their unique strengths. Their latest outing, from writer Mat Smart, A Standing Long Jump, is so new, the actors received the latest version of the script three days before they opened. They are, for the purposes of this production, still carrying script in hand. Fresh theater, hot off the press and into the actors' hands. Up in front of the audience, literally a newborn baby of a script. I admire the hell out of that work ethic, trying something completely new to see how it grows live in front of an audience. And Fringers are the best, and most receptive crowd, on which to try this method of creating new theater.

The first two years of productions from The New Theatre Group were shows I loved a lot. They were on my pre-Fringe Top 20 list for 2006 and delivered on my high expectations in a big way with Alan Berks' play How To Cheat (also a big hit with Mom). Fringe 2007, they were a returning favorite, but I hesitated, thinking Killer Smile by Steve Moulds would not be the kind of play I'd like. Boy, was I wrong. (And they've been using my crow-eating quote in their publicity ever since, "I'm not going to second guess New Theatre Group's next production. I'm just going to go.")

Well, I did go in Fringe 2008 to Trista Baldwin's American Sexy, of which neither Mom nor I were big fans. But we were in the minority. Not only did it get great audience and critical reviews, it got picked up for a remount in a showcase of emerging artists at the Guthrie.

Again last year, I went to see The New Theatre Group's latest Fringe offering, a double helping of Dominic Orlando, with his scripts Strong, and Little Green Men. Once more, I was in the minority. People I know whose opinion I respect loved the thing. Like all the other New Theatre Group productions, it was packed with amazing actors - Amy McDonald, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Terry Hempleman, Sasha Andreev. The curtain-raiser, Little Green Men, was fine. Strong drove me nuts. A psychologist has as her patients a serial killer, his friend a recovering child molester and former police detective, and the former child molester's victim who is now all grown up and in the police force herself, investigating the serial killer. No it isn't a soap opera. No it isn't a joke. That's the plot and cast of characters. Again, people loved this thing. I myself, just months later, found another script of Dominic Orlando's, The Sense of What Should Be, damn near perfect - one of the best theater experiences, new play or otherwise, I've had in years. But the Fringe show. Nope.

So, being 2 for 4 with good Fringe experiences with The New Theatre Group, I came into A Standing Long Jump cautious, but optimistic. The main reason this time, apart from Brian and his unwavering devotion to new work from living playwrights? One third of the cast is Mr. James Craven, an actor who I have loved in absolutely everything I've seen him do. A regular in the company at Penumbra Theatre, I have had the pleasure of seeing James Craven perform in new plays like Redshirts, and classics from the pen of August Wilson including The Piano Lesson, Gem of the Ocean, Fences, and Radio Golf. The man is a marvel to watch in action. If James Craven was coming to the Fringe, and Brian Balcom was bringing him, then I was going to that show, no question. And bringing Mom.

Standing in line at the Fringe a couple of days ago, a fellow Fringer was telling us how they enjoyed A Standing Long Jump but that it seemed audiences were divided. You either liked it, or you didn't. There wasn't any middle ground. Mom and I were a good test case for A Standing Long Jump, because we were split right down the middle. Mom enjoyed it. It drove me nuts. When we got out of the theater and were able to walk and talk it out, I was relieved she had a much more pleasant viewing experience than I did. And we tried to figure out why.

Doc (Ali Rose Dachis) and Roy (James Craven) hang out at the same coffee shop every day. Doc has had her heart broken by her now ex-husband, twice. Roy keeps dreaming of the same former lover (not one of his three ex-wives) and waits for her to walk in that coffee shop door, adjusting "her" chair at his table. This slavish devotion to a romantic pipe dream drives Doc crazy, but her displeasure does not deter Roy. Doc's displeasure does draw the attention of... I want to say Ryan is the name of actor Namir Smallwood's character but I didn't write it down, it isn't in the program and it isn't online so we'll punt. Ryan is smitten with Doc instantly. They date. He proposes marriage. She laughs at the notion (not at him, but he is understandably upset by this response), and says no. Ryan disappears.

Roy's dream of his former lover involves her leaping from the roof of one building to the next, and urging him to follow. In a moment between scenes which the audience is not privy to, apparently Roy's dream plays out in real life. The lady jumps and makes it, and just like in his dream, Roy jumps and doesn't make it. Why the lady doesn't hang around to, you know, help, we don't know. She leaves her telltale red high heeled shoes behind as a sign that she was indeed here, and Roy's not nuts - well, not any more nuts than your average person who leaps between rooftops on a dare. And so Roy lies on his back, in an alley, for nine days, with Doc tending to him. But she's not really a doctor, it's a nickname, she just keeps the old guy company.

Until Ryan shows up. At which point Doc decides that even though she can't bring herself to marry Ryan, she is willing to prove her devotion to him by jumping that same alley, from one rooftop to the next. She has been practicing her standing long jump on the safety of solid ground, with Roy cheering her on, during the nine days Roy just lies there in the alley. For some reason Doc feels like her physical, rather than emotional, leap of faith toward Ryan will prove something. Ryan, rightly, thinks Doc is a lunatic, as he stands helplessly on the opposite rooftop and watches her leap.

No, really. That's the bulk of the plot, though I still haven't spoiled the ending for you.

Mat Smart's script is juggling a lot of theatrical devices that are quite interesting. For instance, the three characters will often read what sound like stage directions, about the other characters or themselves, and thus give us insight into their inner lives and backstories. This isn't overdone to the point where it feels like cheating the exposition fairy out of a job so, clever turn that one.

The characters of Doc and Ryan are represented by what they drink - Doc is coffee in a "to go" cup, Ryan is vitamin water. Piles of vitamin water bottles and "to go" coffee cups are littered about the stage, and in one of the more dramatic entrances I've seen in a while, Roy emerges from backstage with a large garbage bag stuffed to the brim with both cups and bottles and causes the bag to disgorge its contents all around the young lovers as they stand together, oblivious to the world.

(This entrance was even more dramatic because, at the performance I attended, Mat Smart originally began the play reading Roy's role because James Craven was (stuck somewhere? unreachable) just minutes prior to curtain. Craven arrived after the show had begun. Smart exited at an appropriate moment, and Craven made his entrance with the garbage bag ready to explode.)

It's that literal/metaphorical flying leap at love that Mom appreciated, and I didn't. Mom appreciated the gesture on the part of the characters, even though she thought it was a bit odd that Doc would just hang around with poor Roy, flat on his back after his fall into the alley as opposed to, say, calling an ambulance some time in the stated nine day period of the script. Or, that none of Roy's many friends who he called every day from the coffee shop would miss him if he, you'll pardon the expression, dropped off the face of the earth for over a week.

My primary stumbling block as an audience member is that the script is still currently trying to have it both ways - it takes place in reality, but it doesn't take place in reality. This world of heightened reality has a set of rules that aren't clear to me. Ryan has a job he needs to report to. Roy, I could believe as retired. What the heck does Doc do all day? She doesn't appear to be a student. Did she land an incredibly generous alimony or something that she can afford to just sit on her butt all day in a coffee shop or a back alley and there are no consequences? Don't these people have anyone else in their lives, even offstage characters we hear about but never meet who might have some dramatic weight to them?

The litter of cups and bottles goes from symbolic to representative of literal reality, the clutter of a back alley. So as the play goes on, as an audience member I get more and more set in actual reality, everything feels less symbolic or metaphorical, and I get less willing to play along with the final conceit of the script.

Doc states that she wants to punch Julia Roberts in the face if she ever meets her in a dark alley, for perpetuating the romantic comedy drivel that sets good people up for heartache with unrealistic expectations of love and forever. I sort of want to punch Doc in the face for thinking that jumping from one rooftop to another is a suitable substitute for, oh, I don't know, accepting a marriage proposal, or having an honest conversation with the person you love.

Because really, that's what the script is missing - any evidence that the love between Ryan and Doc is real. They seem like nice enough people. But we just have to take their word for it about their relationship, because we never get to see it. Personally, I think an honest conversation with someone you love who may or may not love you back is infinitely more terrifying that jumping from one rooftop to another (and I'm scared to death of heights). If you slip and fall jumping, it's over, splat. If you don't come to a meeting of the minds and hearts with the person you love, well, that's gonna sting a hell of a lot longer. There are no stakes in A Standing Long Jump because nothing is at risk. It's all conjecture. It's all bones, no meat or muscle.

There's an interesting play in here somewhere struggling to get out, and no doubt that's what they're working on in this developmental process. My wish, as an audience member, would be for the script to either go full-on alternate/dream reality, or grounded in this reality we're all sharing. And regardless of the reality, that doesn't mean people don't have to talk to and spend time with one another in front of our eyes so we can get an inkling of what they're relationship is like, and why we should be rooting for (or against) them. Characters are always unreliable narrators when it comes to themselves. I'm much more interested in what they do, rather than what they say, as proof of who and what they are.

All that said, it's still a great cast, well-directed, and an interesting physical world on stage. Plus, you might come down more on Mom's side of that alley than mine. So A Standing Long Jump is still...

3 stars, Recommended

NEXT PERFORMANCE - Wednesday 8/11 at 10pm

(Then Thursday 8/12 at 5:30pm, and Saturday 8/14 at 8:30pm)

Their Fringe page

Fringe show #18 - Sunday, 8/8 4pm


And here's a handy index of links for all blog content on the 2010 Fringe!

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