Depending on your perspective, this could contain spoilers for the performance, but then again, you probably will have forgotten them by the time you reach that part of the evening.
Perhaps because it was dinner theatre, over the course of those four hours last night, I just kept thinking of that classic review that people will give of a poor restaurant: “The food was terrible, and the portions were so small!” It’s such a summarily absurd statement, but I think it perfectly captures the gluttony that people often display for disappointment. This is not to say anything of the sort about the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s latest outing, which was both wonderful and challenging and in just the right amounts. Four hours certainly tested the furthest limits of my stamina. Yet, for something as sprawling and ambitious as No Dice, the company wrapped it all up remarkably neatly. And that is no small feat for addressing the multiple levels of everyday disappointments that the piece encompasses.
For those who remember last year’s Poetics or the troupe’s cameo at Ten Tiny Dances, the style is familiar. The Nature Theater compiles a basic vocabulary of “found” motions – waving, pantomime, dated pop dance moves – and strings them together by random selection into a arguably rhythmic dance. Their use of chance to determine sequence feels like the movement counterpart to Jean Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp’s automatic collages. As the actors distance their prosaic motions from their expected experiences and emotions, the choreography becomes abstracted and juxtaposed anew. In No Dice they largely depart from dance, to the stiffly blocked-out staging of community theater. The spastic, incongruous dance moves make brief appearances (most notably as a mime for form-filing administrative work), but most of the choreography riffs on a kind of “red-light-green-light” amateur style.
Deliver line. Cross stage left. Deliver line. Stride downstage. Deliver line. Cross stage right.
By so humorously stripping down the movements, the dialogue is isolated as the focus of No Dice. Extending their “found” performance concept to sound, the dialogue was extracted from hours of phone conversations that the cast recorded. The lines they selected cover the personal and potentially awkward territory of private calls, complete with all of their nervous laughter, trivial asides, and poorly considered comments. Each actor’s lines are fed to them through individual iPods, so that they speak their parts as soon as they hear them. As a phrase in one conversation will lead a new character to begin the lines of a separate dialogue, the three leads are in constant rotation in and out of paired conversations. The result of this individually-prompted script is that the leads step in and out of their roles without ever clarifying who the speaking characters are. Luckily the subjects they discuss overlap between the many conversation snippets. Frustrating day-jobs, addiction and weight gain, future ambitions, amateur theater. Regardless of the topic, the speakers struggle to sound meaningful and in control while bemoaning their lack of direction or discipline.
But all of this begins with poor stage accents. The actors muddle together Caribbean, Cockney, Scottish, German, Russian, and French accents while delivering their lines staring full-face at the audience, their faces contorting out-of-sequence with the words. At first, the effect is slap-stick funny. Discussing your business’ complimentary soda policy with a heavy brogue guarantees laughter. But gradually, the exaggerated dialogue begins to act like a chalkboard-exercise in sentence diagramming. I found myself focusing more and more on how poorly people communicate and articulate their ideas. The improper emphasis and emotionless delivery make our conversational word choice seem laughably illiterate. It begins to seem like the goal might be the deconstruction of the English language.
As the piece progresses, whether from exhaustion or intent, the actors begin to slough off their accents as their acting moves into full-on melodrama. Every line seems like it will be the last before the inevitable rush of tears. The speakers’ personal failures and disappointments become fodder for soap-opera dramatics and as new conversations are introduced, parts of the original dialogue returns. The second time around these familiar conversations involve the actors in different roles and, absent of accents, the audience pays more attention to their content. Progressively, as the lines that the actors are being given move out of sync with each other, the emotions appear to match up more closely with the repeated conversational fragments. Stripping off their extraneous costume pieces, the actors deliver their lines so genuinely that they sound laughable compared to their earlier hammy appearances. It becomes true parody – repetition with difference – and with this move, the mechanics of the script and its sources are laid bare.
No longer was I noticing the structure of colloquial speech, I felt like I was witnessing a playwright developing a script. As a result, the piece gains the eerie quality of self-reflexive metadramas like 8 1/2 or Adaptation. Whether or not the dialogue actually involved the company members in real life, they cleverly make you believe that you are witnessing a part of their lives. Conversations about bad audition experiences and the terrible day-jobs they hold down suddenly seem more personal. As they discuss the earnestness of dinner theater or tragically funny stage performances (Moscow Cats Theatre?), you notice the elements of their conversations in the show you are watching. The actors reference the sandwiches the audience received and a segment on an idea to market products through avant-garde theatre parlays into the intermission complete with concessions. The audience is unable to ignore the artifice of the performance. Even the excerpts they chose from the phone conversations consistently reveal the distance of the two speakers, highlighting the intermediary of the telephone.
In one conversation, a man opines, “We don’t hear ourselves, you and I. We just talk. Things go unrecorded.” The play recorded everything. Listening to those records, you are listening to the creation of the play. And once the Nature Theatre gets you to realize that, they never let you forget that you are spending four hours watching people re-enact calls.
“These days, who knows what you need in terms of storytelling.”
posted by patrick l.