The set up:
Allowing an audience a small glimpse inside his head is often a director’s creative intention. When Matt Hune directs a show for his newly formed Hune Company, the audience is let into more than his imagination; we also gain entrée into his living room. Called the Living Room Series, Hune’s 2015/16 season brings 20 plus audience members into his chic Montrose townhome turned black box stage (thanks to prodigious curtain draping) to get an intimate, small budget viewing of new and recently created work.
First up in the series, Not Mad, a collaborative company effort, is a modern movement, musical and theatrical reimagining of the King Lear tale using a mashup of the Bard’s sonnets, speeches from the play’s text and contemporary song. This is not a retelling of King Lear we’re told, but a nonlinear exploration of the themes of fathers and daughters and emotional inheritance thought the eyes of one particular family.
In other words, this is experimental theatre writ large. Or actually in this case, living room small.
If a critic goes to a play but can’t actually see the play, can she still review the play in question? This was the conundrum as I sat on a black swathed comfy padded fold out chair, mere feet away from the action but unable to see about 80 percent of what was taking place. This despite being elevated one riser up from the stage floor. The issue was not so much spatially wrought, but rather directorially decreed.
In setting most of the play’s action on the floor with his actors sitting or lying down, Hune committed one of the cardinal sins in direction, namely ignoring blocked sightlines once the house is full. While there was no formal survey done, I’d venture to guess that other than the first row of seats, most of us experienced the show as a kind of poorly descriptive radio play with fleeting glimpses of real live actors.
From what I’m able to cobble together, I’m not overly certain that full unobstructed viewing would have made for a more satisfying or robust performance despite some compelling and elegantly moody ideas put forth. Nor do I think a front row seat would make it any easier to relay the arc of the show as really, there none to speak of.
So, with both these things in mind, here’s what I can tell you.
The show begins with the entrance of a ghostly fool character (Regina Ohashi giving us her best creepily dead pan self) clad entirely in white from her milky doo rag to talcum powder face to snowy backpack. Sitting (I think) she delivers an unidentifiable (to me anyway, as I was too distracted trying to see, to pay attention at that point to the words) Shakespearean monologue or sonnet of some kind in order to set the mood on the dark bare stage, save for only four straight back chairs and a shadeless floor lamp.
The fool (thankfully standing on one of the chairs now, hello…there you are!) produces a black binder from her backpack and with the sound we iPhone users identify as the ding of a text coming through, begins to introduce us, one at a time, to the nameless four daughters in the play.
Middle daughter (Elizabeth Martinsen) is first. Reading out factual snippets like wry, derisive judgments in one of the show’s more clever conceits, Fool tells us that this daughter is an art school kid who owns an alternative clothing story. And she’s crazy. All the while, Middle daughter is down on the floor and I have no idea what she’s doing during or after her intro.
Oldest daughter (Kathleen Teodoro, the most in command of movement and dialogue in the performance) is next. Fool tells us she’s the tough, secret smoker who tends her now ill father’s multi-million dollar business. And she’s had enough. I wish I could have seen exactly what Teodoro was doing on the floor post introduction, but from the grunting and flinging noises, I can only guess it was a kind of frustration venting involving paper and boxes of some kind.
Next up is Youngest Daughter (the not quite yet adept at finding the music in Shakespeare’s language, Emma Rae Hightower) who is the drinker of the bunch. Fool tells us of her boarding school attendance in Vermont, that she’s more blunt than most people care to deal with and likens her (humorously) to a heavy dose of Winona Ryder. I could actually see Youngest Daughter on the floor thanks to a few rows of shorter people in front of me in that trajectory. She drank and took pills in a belabored way that included the kind of head shaking people think other people do when they take a large swig of booze to wash pills down but really, no one actually does.
Interspersed among these character intros is another of the show’s lovely touches. A character we will come to know as the French, born-out-of-wedlock Estranged Daughter (the hauntingly beautiful-voiced Maggie Wintz) plays acoustic guitar and sings (in French) snippets of metaphoric songs like the Beatles’ Fool on the Hill, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit (including a middling synchro dance number by the other daughters) and a terrifically Jim Morrison-esque, Gloria, sung inexplicably in English. We get some, but not all of the musical nods, but thanks to Wintz’s talent and Hune’s understated and quiet staging of these moments, they are highlights of the production.
Lear’s presence is there too. Clad in a bathrobe, shaking with Parkinson’s, Father (played intentionally meekly by Billy Rosenberg) dodders off and on the stage in senile stupefaction. Senility that seems to be shed in one wonderfully executed and visually delicious scene where Father elegantly dances with his brood to a doo wop version of I Only Have Eyes for You while Fool holds up a disco ball for full dance hall effect.
Filling up the rest of the 50-minute production, the characters recite out of context snippets of Shakespeare that frankly without the fullness of story to swaddle them or the understanding of sonnet for sonnet's sake does nothing to bring meaning or evoke emotion or make the play anymore digestible. It pains me to say that what I believe I recognized as Sonnet 29 (When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate) was reduced to merely hollow words by this production. As was Eldest Daughter’s, pulled from King Lear, rant against her father. As were all the Bards words used in service of this stylized but substance-less story.
At some point there’s a scene where the girls go mad (again on the floor so I’m not sure how this unfolds except to see their disheveled state when they stand up again) and of course the final scene that has Father crawling off the stage reciting the famous, “O, let me not be mad, not mad” Lear lines.
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By the time everyone has fled the stage but Fool who closes the show with a Sonnet (43 I think…. When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see…) we’re left thinking perhaps we’re a little mad. Is it possible to both feel utter disenchantment with a show for what it didn’t give us (a decent view literally and metaphorically) and yet be spellbound by the couple moments of beauty and risky excitement it provided?
In the end I think it’s possible to feel both. Hune and his collaborators are trying something new here and for that we must applaud them. New forms of theater do not get made without risking and failing and learning and trying again. No, it’s not for everyone. And in this incarnation, I’m not sure Not Mad is even for those of us that like risky theatrical ventures.
But if other shows in the Living Room Series can try to remember that groovy ideas do not always a nifty show make and that backstory written into the program (here telling us of ex-wives, former nannies and likening the family to a sane Donald Trump clan) that never gets explored on stage is a tease setting us up for disappointment, then I think we will have something here. I’ll certainly be willing to find out.
Not Mad continues through August 8 at 1210 Stanford Street. Tickets are available online at hunecompany.com and at the door. $20.