Saturday, October 17, 2015

Portraif of the Artist as Pin-Ball Machine

When you are teaching at UCSB, you make a point of arriving early to spend some time, sitting in the darkness of The Old Little Theater, just across a hallway from your classroom.  In the solitude and darkness, you find a sense of companionship with elderly presences representing all the wonderfully good and terribly bad things you have seen in your theatergoing time.

Not until you experienced Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, the night after having seen Streetcar in a larger, more robust and modern building did you sense your pleasure for the intimacy of the smaller theater and thus your complete enjoyment of the smaller because smaller means you have to use more of your imagination as you watch the story.

Earlier this week, you experienced another revelation about how such elements as story, venue, imagination, and the disconnect from convention collide within your sensory awareness.  As if in a trance, you stood to indulge the entr'acte of the National Theater filmed presentation of Hamlet, coming to you in a movie theater in, of all places, Ventura, California.  

This was an embellished theater, much larger and grander than the one you'd sometimes attend when you were working the carnival circuit, staying at a cheap hotel just around the corner.

You were drawn to a large bank of pin ball machines and imaginative stalls where one could play elaborate video games.  You felt as though you were in one of the pin ball machines, with its flashy arrays of bumpers, flippers, culs de sac, and diversions.  The idea of going to Ventura to see Shakespeare in such an arcade of a theater was enough to shake you out of convention.

Most of the Shakespeare plays you've seen have been filmed although you are not a stranger to the tragedies, histories, and comedies being presented in a theater.  This version of Hamlet was set in the alternate universe of a time frame somewhere between the first Hamlet you'd seen and perhaps the nineteenth century, except that in the famous "The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King," Hamlet is wearing a Grateful Dead concert tee shirt, and a closer look reveals his footwear to be running shoes.

The experience was far from disconcerting or distracting, instead seeming to ratify your own vision of yourself and the world about you at considerable remove from the you that was and the world about you that was.  Now that you think about it, whenever you took the world as it was presented to you at school and most of the supplied text books, you were buying into closed roads, dead end streets, boring or patently sugar coated decorations.

If not the first disconnect between reality and the fugue state of the surreal came when, as an eleven-year-old, you were living in Miami Beach, Florida, which had been used by the Army as a training and service center during world War II.  You did quite well for yourself by selling out-of-town newspapers to service men, that is until one afternoon, when a troupe of recruits was dismissed from drill.  In their midst, you recognized an actor you recognized from his role in many films, often as a desperado of some sort, and in recent years, either as a German officer or enlisted man.

"Would you have," he asked you, "papers from Los Angeles?"

"Examiner,"  you said.  "Times."

"Ah,"  he said.  "Not the Daily News?"

"You?  The Daily News?"

He registered amusement in his eyes and the set of his jaw, lips slightly parted.  "I see you know your Los Angeles papers.  Why would I not want the Daily News?"

"Because the Daily News is--"

"Yes?"

"The Daily News is friendly to labor.  The Times hates unions.  The Examiner is a Hearst paper.  You portray people who--"

His eyes locked on me.  "You recognize me. How old are you?"

You told him.

"I am not always the type of person I portray.  You must learn to understand.  Things are not always what they seem."

You are pleased to recall that incident.  You are formed by such encounters as that and the event, real and imagined, that cause you to question your own attitudes and beliefs as well as those of others you took in without examining them.

Each time you see or read Hamlet, you see a four-hundred-year-old reality, shaped by younger ensembles of actors and directors, cracking open any sense that reality has a use by date.  Each time you confront an ancient or elderly truth, you see it in the lobby of a theater that has undergone much change in your lifetime, as indeed you have, too.

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