Friday, March 25, 2011

Diane Paulus and the new A.R.T.

(Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Last night I sat through Prometheus Bound, Steven Sater's new musical written with System of a Down lead singer Serj Tankian, at the Boston-area A.R.T., directed by the inexplicably popular Diane Paulus. Her star is on the rise after directing Hair on Broadway, which happens to be on tour in Boston at the Colonial Theater at the moment.

I'm not surprised that I didn’t love Prometheus. I clearly just do not like her work, and I suspect I never will. I didn't love Hair, with its paper-thin story full of characters I didn't connect with played by a highly energetic cast throwing out an impressive wall of sound on songs I knew but never had loved. I half-hated the complete two-headed mess of a musical that was Johnny Baseball (the modern half was a light and hilarious spoof of Red Sox fans, while the flashback was a muddled, preachy, ineffectual, sappy, and trite treatise against racism). And I despised The Donkey Show.

Most of all, I hate what Paulus has done with Zero Arrow Street in Harvard Square. I don’t find her use of the space to be daring or exciting or even particularly creative. In fact, it’s annoyingly disingenuous. It's one thing for a scrappy theater company to turn a run-down club into a low-budget, makeshift theater space. It's another entirely for a high-profile, well-funded company to turn a perfectly good theater with decent sound and sightlines into a crappy club performance space so that dancing half-naked actors can sing loudly at you and invade your personal space to distract you from the deficiencies in yet another underdeveloped show.

This immersive-theater style Paulus is cramming down our throats just makes me weary. I thought Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More was brilliantly immersive, with the audience roaming around four floors of an abandoned school out in Brookline to check out the amazingly detailed spooky-cool set design and then running to catch up with gorgeous dancers as they zipped from room to room to wordlessly interpret scenes from Macbeth. (Bringing Punchdrunk to Boston is Paulus’s best contribution to Boston theater so far.) She’s riding high on Sleep No More’s critical raves and The Donkey Show’s success (undeserved, I think--aside from the fun of drag kings and very pretty, very scantily clad go-go boys, I don’t see the appeal of this hideous disco-music sketch of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Paulus now seems determined to force this in-your-face style onto pieces much less suited for it.

I neither want to stand for a 90-minute show on a crowded dance floor, getting pushed around to make room for actors and set pieces flying at me from different directions, nor do I appreciate having to crane my neck around this way and that to try to follow the action from the more expensive raised table seating. The lack of tiered seating upstairs and the action taking place mostly on the level below means someone else’s head is in your way even when the actors are directly in front of you. The floors on the upper level are creaky, and the actors are always stomping and jumping on and off tables and railings, so it's really loud. And with the mix of voices over music being woefully unbalanced, you just miss too much of the show visually and aurally.

I do wish I had seen Amanda Palmer as the Emcee in Cabaret there, since that seemed like a brilliant use of the space (and it wasn't directed by Paulus). And I must admit that the kids down on the dance floor at Prometheus Bound, and the gay men and bachelorette parties at The Donkey Show, seemed to be having a grand time and were likely to come back for repeat viewings. So it's clearly bringing in a new audience to the theater. So even if I don't like the style, and even if it will keep me from seeing future shows in that space, I must grudgingly admit that I’m grateful that Paulus is helping to make a new generation of theater-goers.

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