06 February 2004

Company of Angels I: Theatricality

Saw "The Company of Angels" last night. There are comments related to specific aspects of the performance, so consider yourself warned if you'd prefer to see it with a blank slate.

First of all, the MIT design and build staffs did an outstanding job, as always. The stage picture was consistently beautiful. There's a series of three quick scenes in which Esther appears onstage in her costume from "The Lottery Ticket" and then goes off and returns with the whole cast for the boarding of the truck. As they cram into the hidden compartment (created beautifully as is only possible in theatre with just a little background sound and a trapezoid of light on a dark stage) everyone is dressed in drab greys and browns but you see the briefest flash of Esther's bright red dress under her overcoat. It perfectly reminds us of how her youth slightly separates her experience from the other members of the company. Then she runs back on stage only moments later for the next scene, wearing a new purple frock symbolic of the improving fortunes of the company.

Another example comes after a throwaway line about using a former Gestapo meeting hall for rehearsal space. One of the actors tosses a bundle of red cloth on the ground as they're setting up and nobody pays any particular attention to it. Only after a few moments does the audience notice the bundle has a white splotch in the middle and that there are some black lines there and — oh shit. If you parade the flag across the stage it looks flashy and cheap.

These are small examples of why I love the theatre and why this piece is so marvellously theatrical. The play is full of moments (like realizing what the flag is above) where you're laughing at some joke on the stage and suddenly you're gripped by something shocking and terrible. The playwright (and my personal hero, Alan Brody) tells a very simple story about people falling in love, going back to work, finding a way to start creating art again. The story works completely on its own, but the play is staged in a background of the horrible experience they all shared. The director (and another hero of mine, Michael Ouellette) found one wonderful piece of stagecraft by setting the imaginary audience upstage during the faux curtain calls for the play-within-the-play except for the ends of the acts and the Hatikvah. Only at these moments does the real audience (us) become a part of the audience of Holocaust survivors as the performers face us, downstage center, and sing. The result is breathtaking.

This brings me to another observation I made, which is how perfect the music was woven into the script. It's hard to get that feeling when just reading it (or even rehearsing it, I imagine) but the whole show is punctuated by music. A song takes words and underlines the emotion with the music and the beat. This play takes its most crucial moments and puts them in italics with songs. Finally, it all works so well because every single actor has a strong voice. I'm not one to do music critique, but they sang their hearts out and it showed.

I'm reserving another entry for my comments on the actors and acting.

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