Great expectations

Theater is still a taste worth acquiring, even in the age of special effects

Savering perfectly phrases the barrier many unaccustomed ticket-buyers hit when they go see a play -- the audience knows what they're watching is fake. If The Turn of the Screw were filmed today (it's already had a lovely, serene, eerie movie rendition starring Deborah Kerr and scripted by Truman Capote as The Innocents), it would star Julia Roberts fronting a hundred-million-dollar spectacle that would scrub away every possible doubt that what you were seeing were ghosts -- because that's what you paid to see. That's what you expected. The irony, of course, is that cinematic computer effects are highly advanced fakery, and that you can't get any more real than two live actors in a room spouting dialogue. But you could spend your lifetime in a Buddhist monastery bouncing that one around in your shaved cranium.

But ironic or not, that "fakeness" -- and this is the hardest part to explain to theater neophytes, to newcomers who fidget in their seats wondering what all the fuss is about while their butts ache during the second act -- is good theater's biggest strength. Film tends to take you away from yourself; theater usually reminds you who you are and where you are, whether by comparison or contrast. The trick of turning the live stage into escapism the way you would movies is to accept and eventually embrace that fakeness and just listen and watch for smaller moments that can turn into gigantic revelations, if the actors are doing their jobs. Forget about the externals, the justifications, the artifice.

Angela Wilson -- a produced Dallas playwright whose script God Goliath got a reading at Kitchen Dog's New Play Festival and whose Heart will receive a full production at Theatre Quorum -- admits there is some sacrifice by the viewer to the experience of theater.

Are these talents enough without special effects? Kent Rice-Williams and Laurel Whitsett are alone onstage in Theatre Quorum's The Turn of the Screw.
Are these talents enough without special effects? Kent Rice-Williams and Laurel Whitsett are alone onstage in Theatre Quorum's The Turn of the Screw.


Through July 17
Mesquite Arts Center

"When I go to theater, I sometimes have to leave my personal taste behind and focus on the value of the art," Wilson says. "If you're going for a movie or a TV show, you go and see what you want. It's often the same for community theater. I've taken my daughter to theater, and it's a sort of training for her to see things that are subversive that she's not going to like, but that she's going to appreciate later. It's the same with audiences; it's frustrating to try to train an audience at the same time you grow one. You want to sell tickets, but you don't want to make fodder for the masses. I wish we could do Harvey, for instance [the play about the childlike man whose best friend is a tall white rabbit]. But I'd do it differently. Let's face it, the lead guy's a drunk. But when you talk about that, you're messing with an American icon.

"With The Turn of the Screw, we wanted to just tell a raw story," she notes. "Our bare stage is the equivalent of the writer's blank page. But many audiences don't want to put that kind of investment of attention, of concentration in it."

Is the obsolescence of theater inevitable in the age of live CNN video coverage of crimes, of information and entertainment that shoot from one end of the world to the other in seconds? Of course, critics have been mourning the death of the stage, the novel, and visual art for so long, all the funeral guests have left the wake. And with multimillion-dollar musicals and movie-stage tie-ins touring the country to packed houses, one could argue that some theater artists are smartly waking up to the times and adapting in the way painters and novelists aren't. When I speak of an approaching expiration date for theater, I'm talking about theater in that Dionysian sense -- that sweaty, naughty, bourbon breath-in-your-face exchange when nothing separates me from my actors. No frills, just people.

I'm no child of the the-a-tuh myself. I did read plays as a kid, and acted in high school productions, but the defining pop cultural moment of my childhood was (you guessed it) Star Wars. My movie tastes went off into arcane alleys where I'd hang out in the darkness of my imagination and smoke a cigarette with favorite actors or directors from my personal cult, but the ecstasy of watching George Lucas' epic was irreplaceable.

Or so I thought. Worn down by the constant nagging of the hype monster, I relented and saw Star Wars I: The Phantom Menance. Actually, I was truly excited, and when that John Williams score started, the chills racing down my spine left freezer-burn on the megaplex seat. But about halfway into the film, my involvement with the wondrous special effects deteriorated into detached admiration and, finally, a little annoyance. I had problems paying attention. And it repeated to me a realization I'd had about a year ago: Because I see a couple of plays a week now, and have trained myself to scavenge for delicious scraps of food in that spare stage ecosystem, I can eat only so much fast food delivered to me on banquet-sized trays. There's no thrill of the hunt; the faster a movie editor cuts away from an actor's face, the more my attention wanders, because I'm used to searching a live face for response. When my butt started to hurt in The Phantom Menace, I knew again that theater had seduced me.

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