ODC Theatre, October 30, 2011
When Lee Strasberg, long associated with “psychological” acting in its most extreme expression, traveled to the U.S.S.R in 1933, he became fascinated by the work of the Russian icon of physical Theatre, Vsevolod Meyerhold. According to some accounts, Meyerhold admitted to Strasberg that his actors had no understanding of the psychological dimension of their work, that they moved as they were directed to, based on Meyerhold’s system of Biomechanics. Nonetheless, Strasberg was gripped by the powerful physical theatricality he saw in Meyerhold’s work, more so than he had been by what he saw at Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, in fact. The two director/teachers agreed that if their methods could be integrated by a single group of actors, something completely new could be achieved.
I thought of this story after seeing the marvelous Night Falls, a collaboration between playwright Julie Hébert, choreographer Deborah Slater and an ensemble that included two master actor/movers, Joan Schirle and Bob Ernst as well as the luminous and subtle actor, Patty Silver, two gifted, younger physically accomplished actors, Stephen Buescher and Jessica Ferris and the compelling singer-dancer Patricia Jiron.
Hébert’s eloquent and understated script follows one woman, Peregrine – a respected filmmaker who is neither rich nor famous, about to turn 60 – through a sleepless night as she agonizes over the unwritten speech she must give the next day at an awards ceremony honoring her work. Peregrine is embodied prismatically by Schirle as what might be called the ego, persona, or that part of Peregrine who lives in the material world; Silver as the “old” woman inside her; and Ferris as the puella – that part of her psyche which is a perennially adolescent girl. Ernst appears as Peregrine’s ex-brother-in-law, summoned by a cell-phone call to the wrong number.
The narrative is wonderfully specific, filled with surprising and quirky details that ground what could, in less skillful hands, become heady and abstract. Hébert, Slater and company clearly understand that it’s the concrete particulars that allow a story to become universal. This rigor exists in both the narrative, with its knowing allusions to filmmaking, both avant-garde and commercial and to the dilemma of the aging artist, as well as the movement vocabulary shared by the ensemble, pulsing dynamically through the piece.
The masterful integration of the narrative and psychological realms with the physical, gestural life of the piece makes Night Falls a rare and wonderful event. That’s what brought Meyerhold and Strasberg to mind. I experienced this sense of super-dense reality most powerfully in the interplay between Schirle and Ernst. Late in the piece, for example, these two wounded and well-defended survivors of failed loves, meeting by “mistake,” begin to see each other – and themselves – differently. What could be rendered as either a conventional “scene” or as a “poetic” movement duet becomes a stunning, layered, complex exploration of the necessity for and the impossibility of authentic connection. I’d need to see the piece a few times in order to begin to adequately describe what these two brilliant actors do, how they manage to play together in so many different modes at the same time. Their voices and words do one thing, their faces another, their gestures a third. Rather than illustrating what’s being said, the physical interaction arises from a different, parallel dimension so that we experience not only what is but what isn’t, what might be, what is longed for and what is feared. I’ve only experienced such expressive abundance a handful of times in all my years of seeing theatre.
It’s essential to point out that what was being expressed – the pain, frustration, fear, disappointment, wonder and acceptance of mortality; the courageous insistence on knowing self and other – was, to this audience member, vitally important. That the questions raised were equally urgent to all concerned – actors, writer, director, design team – was never in doubt. All the collaborators were burning with a shared passion and the result was incandescent.
My only regret is that I saw the piece at the end of its brief run and won’t be able to return several more times and bring everyone I love and care about. Night Falls proves, once again, that live performance is life-changing. I know this intuitively, subjectively, in my cells. My entire adult life has been dedicated to making theatre with similar aspirations, so I don’t feel that my praise is in any way exaggerated. The fact the piece had a run of only a few performances, that no venue seems to exist locally that could give work like this a real home for six or eight weeks exposes the shameful state of support for the arts in this city, this state and this entire nation. The fact that such work is being made anyway, is a testament to the very spirit the work so movingly expresses.