Sam Buntrock’s staging of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George is nominated for several Tonys and has received a lot of praise, especially for its ingenious use of animated projections. The actors interact with these moving images (a small dog is particularly popular) and the device is not only creative, but it doesn’t feel like an artificial graft—it fits the theme of the show.
The first observation is that the two most inventive musical revivals of the past few years on Broadway (George and John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd) have come from England, which says something about the state of American directing. The second is how startled some critics seemed to be by Buntrock’s use of technology to make the painting so integral to the show come to life; it’s as if they had never seen that type of stuff before. For some reason effects are fine in movies but to many theater fans, technology still feels like a new gimmick.But really, it shouldn’t be perceived that way. I love a pared-down, naturalistic staging as much as anyone else, but there are also times when I want a director to go all out in the creation of a total live environment; in that respect, it makes sense to use all the means at your disposal—a staged play doesn’t have to be a two-dimensional experience.
Lighting and sound design, for instance, are crucial, and it never ceases to amaze me how little they are used to their fullest potential on our shores; if you can, try to experience (and the word is right in this case) the work of Italian director Romeo Castellucci and his company, Sociètas Raffaello Sanzio, who create an overwhelming sensory overload in which the audience is thrown into a fully self-contained world that has very little relationship with the one they live in.
In addition to the basics of sound and light, computers and video can be used to play off the viewers’ relationship with time and space. It’s true that in New York companies like the Wooster Group, the Builders Association or Caden Manson/Big Art Group have gone pretty far in integrating those technologies into their shows, but they remain far from the mainstream and are actually more acclaimed abroad than here. (Except perhaps for the Wooster Group, which had a headstart on the other two.)
One of the harsh realities is that this stuff requires moolah, and American experimental companies don’t have the resources of European troupes or of big American non-profits like, say, Lincoln Center Theater or the Roundabout. But the latter two’s relationship with video and computers onstage is still typical of the diffidence that surrounds the issue here. The Roundabout is producing Sunday in the Park, and while the production is pretty, it’s also far from revolutionary—hence my bafflement at the dazzled reviews that welcomed those projections.
Too often, it’s as if artistic directors and directors thought that computers were somehow going to mess with the integrity of theater itself—I see this as a consequence to the very American assumption that theater is best when served in a naturalistic manner.
But while shows by the Wooster Group, the Builders Association and Big Art Group, as well as Grzegorz Jarzyna’s production of Macbeth at St. Ann’s Warehouse are not naturalistic in the least, they challenge our aesthetic assumptions and speak directly about/to our culture. If that’s not what theater is all about…