Relevance on Parade

How do you get theater to meaningfully reflect our times? Should it?

While the perennial question of whether or not theater's dying is of limited interest (it's been dying since before I was alive and will be dying after I'm dead), there are particular times, and this is one of them, when I really do wonder if those of us who work in this trade are doing enough to make it pertinent to the times in which we live.Of course, some perfectly good plays defy relevance. The Odd Couple has a couple of things to say about American gender roles, but that's not why people love it—they love the slob and the prissy guy arguing. When Neil Simon revised it in 1985 for two women, his "updates," like substituting Trivial Pursuit for the poker game, didn't make it more relevant, they just showed how out-of-touch he was with contemporary culture. (Soon after, he switched to autobiographical plays about his childhood—probably one of the best decisions he ever made.)But entertainment is the lens through which we view practically everything now—the current election, which the media are presenting as a sort of Celebrity Survivor, being a prime example. The conventions have left me deeply sick of zingers and gotchas and vapid song-and-dance in general. I'm lately forced to watch all the cheesy reality shows I've avoided for the past decade, because they're now the nightly news.This might be why I enjoyed the opening night of Shrek while actually watching the show, but the moment the curtain came down I felt like I'd gorged on a big bag of potato chips and a magnum of Coke. They've done a stylish and thoughtful job of turning a franchise into a working Broadway musical, and I was entertained for the length of it, but for a change all of this cheery, empty spectacle left me feeling...empty.Up 'til the early '60s, TV and film were drastically hobbled by the Hays Code, and a whole assortment of real-world issues such as homosexuality, pregnancy, violence, and racism could only be alluded to. Compared to these anodyne worlds, theater was a place where one could discuss issues of weight and importance. But such cultural restrictions are long past. While the film version of William Inge's Tea and Sympathy (1956) is so circumspect about homosexuality that it's hard to tell what's going on, by the time Angels in America came to HBO in Mike Nichols' 2003 film, the script, adapted by the playwright himself, gives us all the original's controversy, profanity, and sexuality straight-up.Yet Angels itself isn't so relevant any more. I recently saw fringe company ART do their own production of Angels in America, Part One (I didn't have a chance to see ReAct's Part Two). I enjoyed ART's staging, and Kushner's dialogue still carries a punch, but I found the work less germane than ever. Who cares about Ed Meese and the ozone layer in our age of government-sanctioned torture and global warming?It has always seemed strange to me when fringe companies, generally comprising enthusiastic 20-somethings, devote part of their seasons to plays like Angels, or Balagan's recent Search and Destroy, or Eclectic Theater's Art, whose social criticism may have had some sting a decade ago or longer, but which now seem dated and irrelevant. Perhaps it's because these are the scripts that were studied and admired by these young artists while in college, but whatever the reason, the result is like one of those liberal boomers who's still pissed off about Reagan's second term but doesn't follow current politics "because they're depressing."Yet the night after seeing Shrek, I was down the street at ACT, where I was rewarded with their production of Eurydice, Sarah Ruhl's meaty poetic exploration of the Orpheus myth. There's nothing about Iraq or the economy or (thank God!) Sarah Palin in this show, but the script's deliciously contemporary, even while retelling a myth that's 2,500 years old. Ruhl's a writer who's alive to the world: Her petulant God of the Underworld, for example, an impulsive brat who's constantly throwing tantrums when he's denied what he wants, reminded me of another leader we've learned to loathe in the past eight years. I left the show thinking about death and love and the way that we instinctively believe that music provides a bridge between the two; and for a few hours anyway, I felt like the real world, with its Bridges to Nowhere and lipstick on pigs and calls for offshore drilling, was far less relevant than the world I'd just left.

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