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When a play is not what it seems

History, and other swindles 

When a play is not what it seems

A funny thing happened in a series of collegiate arts programs over the past two decades. Theoreticians and historians--scholars traditionally relegated to more custodial roles in departments primarily devoted to the practice of theater and dance--slowly and methodically gained tenure and stature through conventional academic research. To some degree they had a cultural bellwether: With the rise of deconstruction and its useful challenges to a host of cultural norms, theory suddenly became topical, controversial--in a word, sexy.

As that happened, artists frequently encountered speed bumps while advancing their collegiate careers. Conventional researchers from other disciplines--folks who regularly sat on committees for tenure and promotion--didn't always recognize evanescent productions, choreography, designs, scripts or performances as legitimate scholarly research. This was a difficulty few theoreticians and historians encountered with their papers and publications that were far more durable--and discernable--as traditional scholarship.

On this rising tide, the custodians rose in uneven numbers. In time they came to populate committees on curriculum, new hires and tenure. And so it came to pass that scholars with little to no personal aptitude in direction or stagecraft attained key positions in programs in theater and performance, while non-choreographer/non-dancers came to lead departments of dance.

Which is when the funny thing happened. Talk about coincidence: Theory became significantly more valued than practice in these curricula. Their production arms (and the artists who populated them) were disadvantaged, defunded, destaffed--sometimes gradually, sometimes not. In less than a decade the new order reversed or simply dismantled programs that had been in place for generations.

Imagine a music department deciding, overnight, that none of its students had to actually be able to play their instruments, as long as they could write about them. The analogue of this absurdity slowly unfolded in a number of performing arts programs across the country.

In the place of full productions, audiences (or classes, by that point) were increasingly treated to the highest art form of the new regime: the lecture/demonstration (or lec/dem, for short). In them, brief snippets from plays or choreography were permitted to support the most important thing: the presentation of even more conventional research, theory and analysis.

At first glance, a similar swindle seems in effect in Burning Coal's Lipstick Traces. Theater patrons expecting a conventional play about the seminal 70s punk band the Sex Pistols will likely be surprised--actually, make that disappointed--to learn that something else is in the cards. Ultimately, they're going to be spending a lot more stage time with some milquetoast chick named Noelle than they ever do with Messrs. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten, either alone or combined.

Is she with the band? Not hardly. Noelle's character is a freshly-minted (and somewhat nervous) Ph.D. from one of these performance programs above who've been enhanced--at least in theory.

Having taken the approved course of study concerning this crew of malcontents, she's now a complete expert on the comprehensive socio-historical significance of the band and punk culture.

Noelle's character is this despite several disadvantages. This 20-something wasn't in Kings Road, London--or anywhere else, for that matter--when the band actually got underway in 1975, or by the Pistols' punk Gotterdammerung at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in January 1978.

Even stranger for a punk rock scholar, Noelle seems comfortable only when at the greatest distance from people who are clearly identified as merely simulations of her subjects: actors whom she warmly thanks--by their real names--at the end of their foreshortened scenes.

Gradually, it becomes revealed: Lipstick Traces is her lecture/demonstration about the Sex Pistols.

Word to the wise: Beware.

A rattled Noelle gets a laugh at the opening when she starts her presentation. "It's going to be fine," she says, mustering the bravest smile she can. "It's going to be difficult, but it's going to be fine."

In these two revealing lines, playwright/adapter Kirk Lynn identifies the situation Noelle's in. Clearly she's assuming the subject matter is about to cause her viewers the same amount of discomfort she's feeling herself.

An audience of foul-mouthed yobs, then? Hardly. They're students from the same program she's from; the group she'd likeliest be called upon to teach. Apparently their exquisitely tender--or sheltered--sensibilities must be protected with a preemptive disclaimer, and similar handholding throughout. Any who've come expecting a throwdown are about to find the mosh pit definitely closed.

In this way, Lipstick Traces slyly reveals its true subject: the bait-and-switch of contemporary academics, the implicit shell game in triple-buffered representations of really raw material.

As author Greil Marcus did in the book this show is based on, Noelle's narrator and her company of "actors" connect John Lydon to John Leydon, a 12th-century heretic and rabble-rouser with curiously convergent views. She moderates dutifully counterfeited performances from first generation Dadaists Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara at the Cabaret Voltaire. She takes good time introducing us to Guy Debord, the Lettrists and Situationists.

Indeed, it seems she all but counts on running out the clock before her ostensibly true subjects must take the stage.

In the annals of academe, Noelle would be far from the first presenter to calculate, "The more time the rest take up, the less time I have to give those losers."

By comparison, Johnny Rotten gets mere seconds on stage. Short homage, indeed--but not the shortest: That honor befalls Sid Vicious. He's never seen on stage at all.

The "performance" Rotten gives in an ersatz audition doesn't begin to suggest the wall of malice he created with the band. We get the feeling this is intentionally so: Presumably, the projected audience of academe would find such rough trade distasteful.

By the time a three-minute history of the 20th century reinforces the self-obsession of Lynn's true subjects, we're amazed that Marcus actually approved a project devoted to skewering not only the operatic rhetoric of his 512-page doorstop of a book, but the parasitic culture from which it sprung.

Could he have possibly missed the double meaning of Rotten's famous San Francisco concert-closer, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Or the reiterated words of Pete Townsend, "When you listen to the Sex Pistols ... what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening."

Their prominent placement in a show in which nothing is actually happening (except the monologue of the narrator) merely underlines the hidden, wicked grin of Lipstick Traces.

P.S. Take a stopwatch. Measure the amount of time any Sex Pistols song is actually performed or played. By the Sex Pistols themselves.

Go see Lipstick Traces. But be advised: It's a swindle.

It had been too regular--and unwelcome--a feature in reviews from N.C. State in recent years.

Strong designs? Naturally. Good scripts? Sure.

Difficulties in the acting?

Yep. We got that, too.

Which is why I'm particularly thrilled to note the level of improvement I've seen across the board this year in mainstage shows at University Theatre.

The upward path began with a sturdy fall production of Biloxi Blues and was clearly observed in both Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and a special January run of Jane Martin's Jack and Jill. In each of these the central roles were notably stronger, while supporting roles themselves were receiving more support during development.

The warming trend continued last week with a superior production of Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales .

The script, one of Williams' earliest plays, remained unproduced for over 30 years until Vanessa Redgrave unearthed it for a London premiere in 1998.

Its egalitarian ethic firmly grounds it in the world of the New Deal. Its occasional but obvious melodramatic indulgences mark a gifted but still developing young playwright who hadn't fully learned yet how to gauge the strength of his own words.

With this worthwhile but variable script, the acting must finesse the rougher parts. It certainly did in Thompson Theatre last week.

Under Terri Janney's direction, Jim Sullivan gave the strongest performance we've seen from him to date as the corrupt warden of an island penitentiary based on Alcatraz. Just as convincing: Chad Goudy's cellblock tough-guy, Butch O'Fallon. Will Sanders finds the right notes of reserve and believability as Canary Jim Allison, an inmate who walks the line, while Jackie Willse finds the strength and the limits of the warden's virtuous new secretary, Eva Crane.

Remi Loiseau removed no doubt that Swifty, the new inmate, was doomed; Byron Jennings II and Josh Parker took thankless roles and found humanity in them. Ensemble work sent a chill down the spine in a mid-show chantey, "A Ticket to Hell."

It's interesting to see Williams explore themes he will return to repeatedly in his career. We watch as Williams' dark angels of corruption, cruelty and desire lay waste ultimately to everyone on stage.

Corky Pratt's monochrome vision of an Alcatraz cellblock sets the mood, and Lisa Tireman's costumes (and the uncredited makeup) fill out the picture. But none would have sufficed without believable actors in the world. As notable as the design elements are, it's the acting that really generates the heat of "Klondike," the boiler room where inmates are sent to be tortured. The physical work convinces us of the pain in these people's bodies.

It's certainly not the first show this season where the acting has outshone the script. I'm glad this one was at N.C. State. By all means, continue.

Which brings us to the strongest show of the week--which also proved to be one of the more frustrating ones as well. If you didn't catch Duke Theater Studies' excellent production of Angels in America I: Millenium Approaches last week, the bad news is it's too late now.

Not that the folks at Duke made it particularly easy. Having seen what point-blank intimacy gave this production, I can appreciate why director Jeff Storer might opt for the black box of Shaefer Theater. What I can't appreciate is staging a major work of our time in the smallest theater in Bryan Center--and then limiting its run to a handful of performances in one week.

It seems particularly gratuitous given the quality of the work we saw on stage--or stages, to be more precise, since a cadre of characters from the 1980s manipulated set designer Jan Chambers' shifting grid of puzzle parts as they tried to piece together lives suddenly confronted by the HIV virus. In dividing the audience into various banks surrounding the performance area, Chambers paralleled a country split apart by the social and political realities of this mystifying illness.

In Tony Kushner's vast but tightly edited script, a constellation of vivid individuals connected by the thinnest strings are forced to individually confront the consequences of their own sexuality. The two AIDS victims diagnosed by play's end--notorious politico Roy Cohn and Prior Walter, a nearly Byronic hero in this world--are never more than two degrees of separation from everybody else on stage.

Where illness does not shake or shatter relationships, like Prior's love with office geek Lou, simple identity seems to do the trick. Harper and Joe, an unhappy young married couple with a strong Mormon background, confront Joe's deeply closeted homosexuality.

But in a time when multiple systems of defense appear to be giving way--from the human immune system to the band of ozone around the Earth--Kushner suggests positive changes may also pass through breached barriers. In a world of magical realism, when a dreaming Prior meets a pill-addled Harper in the same hallucination, both negotiate what Kushner terms the blue streak of recognition. As millennium approaches, people may be able to approach one another in unconventional ways. Prior hears a disembodied voice, portending the arrival of an angel--not of death, but revelation. The only way these things can occur, implicitly, is if some longtime guards are finally lowered.

In Jeffery West's interpretation, Roy Cohn's avarice and hatred metastasizes as gradually as the disease that's in his body. Kymberlie Stansell's amazing acting proved a revelation in itself in her role as the desperately unhappy Harper. Martin Zimmerman's work as Prior Walter was touching, wry and always physically grounded. Ross Buckley showed the frailties and repellent defensiveness of Prior's lover, Lou, while Edward Wardle brought considerable taste to the role of Belize. Carrie Alexander was notable in the supporting role of Joe's mom, while Jack McDonald and Matt Hooks amused as Prior's same-named ancestors.

Duke Theater Studies continues to think small when it presents Perestroika, the conclusion to Angels in America, in a week and a half. A single staged reading will take place in the somewhat more spacious Richard White Lecture Hall on Duke's East Campus. Day laborers and most non-students are out of luck: The sole showing is set for 2 p.m.

Byron Woods can be reached at byron@indyweek.com.

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