Saturday night, in a black box in NoHo, the Ghost of Theatre Past attacked the spirits of theatre present and future. Some of us didn’t survive.
As 40 eager people filled the seats, a band of actors and their crew mounted a comedy by a living master. Or they they tried to.
But when the lights rose, the air grew thick. It got hard to breathe.
Floor-to-ceiling flats had crept onstage and loomed ominously. Heavy pieces of furniture were eating up the floor space, swelling like malevolent balloons. Dozens of props and tchotchkes burgeoned into what little air was left.
Two actors bravely fought for room to deliver their lines. A man fended off pesky playing cards, cigarettes and matches while discovering his wife’s infidelity. She was so busy struggling free of costume items — and then trapping wayward bags, bottles and glasses — that her husband’s questions slipped by her.
The scene ended. The lights dimmed, and work lights came on. Then the monsters began to move.
Two flats wheeled slowly about, and one came downstage. Tottering toward us, groaning, it revealed yet another massive blob of furniture stuck to its back. A bloated couch nudged forward.
A pair of courageous stagehands tried to contain the attack. For two minutes, they wrestled flats and hassocks, suitcases and pillows, but in vain. Finally, the director leaped up, threw open the lobby door and rushed to the light booth. A blackout ensued — or would have, but the flood of lobby light held the soulless creatures at bay.
Spared for the moment, we took a deep breath and focused. Another scene began.
For nearly three hours, this battle continued. Some of us, alas, were casualties, carried out quietly during intermission. The survivors applauded at the end, deeply touched by the actors’ heroic attempt.
They had stood up for the human right to explore art and love, in the face of an overwhelming onslaught. But when they left, the boards belonged to the aliens, who slumped and squatted, grinning inhumanly. They had won.
The play was well written, witty and wrenching by turns. The actors’ work ranged from solid to scintillating. But they were all defeated — by mountains of material goods, the 45 minutes it took to shift them about, and the 25-minute interval.
The Ghost of Theatre Past.
Twice in the last month, I’ve seen it choke plays to death.
Once it was alive — before radio and film, TV and the Internet, before Las Vegas and Disneyland and the Super Bowl. Back then, it provided everything — story and spectacle, news and context, drama and all the details. But, as the bird says, nevermore.
Today the Ghost stalks the night, looking for undefended stages. Trying to do what film and other media do better, it crushes and dismembers plays. Theatre lovers must watch, helpless, as each torn scene is lifted up and almost brought to life — then flung aside and forgotten.
We don’t need flats and furniture. We have imaginations.
Theatre is about our imaginations — and using them. We gather, actors and crew and audience, to imagine a story. We don’t need realistic details in every corner. We don’t want them.
And we don’t want the interruption of shuffling them around. We want the story. Give us a couple of risers or boxes, tell us they’re an apartment or a throne room, and we’ll do the rest. That’s what we came for.
It’s time to lay this murderous old Ghost to rest. At least in the intimacy of our small theatres, where spectacle is out of place and steals our time.