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Mise-ing in Action

For most stage directors, enticing audiences towards an appreciation of a work has always been something of an exercise in accommodation. That is, giving recherché knowledge the appropriate context. Style, epoch, provenance, language, politics, philosophy, etc., all amount to considerations that must be grappled with and reconciled, in one way or another, before an audience might find meaning or relevance in a performance. Witness the abiding success of an opera production like the Met’s Franco Zeffirelli Bohème, which takes all the bustle and hubbub of a Parisian street-scape and plops it down on the company’s stage in an effort of exacting verisimilitude. At the same time, consider the ways in which a production like Robert Wilson’s Lohengrin — an austere and hyper-stylized staging that also happens to be one of my favorite productions in the Met’s repertoire — arguably succeeds by emphasizing the universal and archetypal over the specific.

In this case, I’m not talking about the details of singing, acting or music, but rather the onstage creation of time and place, “setting.” And I can’t help but wonder if we’re living in an era of live performance that will amount to the setting-sun of traditional scenery and stagecraft. In the past few weeks I’ve attended a number of performances that have relied on eye-dazzling digital video projections — essentially virtual mise en scènes — for the creation of both extraordinary effects as well as in lieu of actual sets or scenery. Any of you lucky enough to catch Rupert Goold’s hair-raising new production of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart, which recently transferred to the Lyceum Theatre after a sold-out run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, probably know what I mean. The performance contains a number of scenes in which jarring images and effects are beamed onto the back wall in thrilling virtual coups de théâtre: as the Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, the massive image of an impenetrable grove of trees is projected onto the entire stage; stock footage of marching Politburo troops appears across the stage during the last act; and, as Banquo’s ghost materializes during Act III, Scene 4, a phantasmal stillicide of blood flows out of an open elevator shaft onto the walls. Since then, I’ve been to the Met’s inspiring new production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, which features the inventive use of projections for the opera’s sanskrit text as well as footage of Martin Luther King’s 1963 march on Washington; the brilliant new production of Sunday in the Park with George, wherein the Seurat’s pointillistic paintings come to life; the — IMHO — underwhelming musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s expressionist drama Adding Machine at the Minetta Lane Theater, which features projections of what could be called a “mechanized reincarnation factory”; and, perhaps, most atypical of all, baritone Nathan Gunn’s recital at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, in which video projections of the writings of Thomas Merton and autumnal leaves were projected onto the stage behind him. Those looking to go even further afield of the usual stage flats and muslin backdrops would do well to get their hands on a DVD of José Montalvo’s brilliant and psychedelic staging of Rameau’s Les Paladins, featuring William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, which played at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet in 2004; the production features no scenery to speak of, but employs an entirely-virtual set cast onto the stage, and finds the singers and myriad dancers interacting with projections ranging from life-size subway cars and castle turrets to camels, horses and peacocks. It’s a blissful work of cosmopolitan genius that is very highly recommended.

What strikes me as most atypical about the use of virtual projections in live theater is not how they might detract or add to the various productions in which they’re being employed, but rather the near-wholesale absence of criticism by more dogmatic audience members, who might otherwise become apoplectic if microphones or virtual orchestras were to be used in the opera house or theater, during a vocal recital or on a Shakespearean stage. I’d argue that we’re talking about similar things — technological enhancements that rely on more than mere acoustic resonance or spatial effects for their impact — and yet video projections seem to be not nearly as anathema to audiences as the amplified voice or synthesizer. Perhaps video in live theater is seen as mere frippery surrounding the fundamental elements of a performance, or maybe we’ve just begun to experience the passivity in the opera house and live theater that one always feels when plopped down in front of the TV or movie screen. I consider myself an artistically liberal opera- and theater-goer, but I still can’t help but think that after the initial novelty of video-based special effects in the dramatic arts wears off, something about the immediacy of a live theater performance will have been discontinued as well. Who knows if we’ll still feel a frisson at the realization that, while those onstage remain subject to the laws of physics, actors still manage to transport us to new places in the process. Is it possible to retain the suspension of disbelief required by organic theatre, if everything we could ever imagine gets projected under the proscenium?

Still, I don’t have false notions about the otherwise impossible degree of realism and artistic accomplishment that video can bring to the live theater or opera house. I’m definitely looking forward to next season’s Met production-premiere of Robert Lepage‘s staging of La Damnation de Faust, a work so notoriously difficult to stage — Maestro Colin Davis has rightly called it “an opera of the mind’s eye” — that it’s often given only in concert performance. I also can’t help but imagine what Lepage, an artist at the forefront of the confluence of live theater and video, has in store for his Ring cycle, which plays at the Met in its entirety during the 2010-11 season.

Notwithstanding, part of what I think audiences have enjoyed so much about the work of a director like Julie Taymor is how decidedly un-mechanized and organic her stagecraft is; all the effects are accomplished through nothing more than skilled, physical creation — a preternatural union of corporeal form, objects and movement. As a kid who was never allowed to play with video games growing up, I’ll be the first to admit that puppets still get me every time.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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