Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Lisa Kron's Master Class, her "Well" at the Huntington

On a theatre list, we discuss the "opportunity" advertised to playwrights to take Lisa Kron's Master Class at a luxury resort in Italy: cost $1700 for the week.
Someone asked who Lisa Kron is.

I reply: A writer recently much praised for "Well" which I will see at the Huntington Theatre in Boston tonight. She has 600,000 entries in Google -- don't you Google before you ask the list? I saw her earlier solo show about her family's annual outing to an amusement park: pretty good. Kron comes from a solo/performance art/standup background and was well known in those circles before venturing into more traditional stage territory.

One playwright was offended by the "master playwright" sell and called the opp description "pretentious". I jumped on his leftist bandwagon with:
Pretension's the least of it. This is class warfare. The idea that someone can pay $1500 plus airfare to go to a luxury resort in Italy and get artistic attention and approval not available to a writer who has to work for a living makes me want to spit nails. The fact that Ellen Stewart has given the La Mama imprimatur to this "opportunity" makes me weep. Sic transit....

I realize that I am an utter heretic in these matters.
Socrates is my model. Though poor and ugly, he accepted neither money nor sexual favors from his students. He was eager to learn from anyone who appeared to have knowledge, as long it was knowledge he could test. He taught his testing method to slaves and aristocrats, and treated them with equal respect and attention. He condemned the kind of teaching that encouraged students to use rhetorical tricks and craft to obtain advantage or "make the worse appear the better cause" -- marketing is a no-no! The pursuit of truth and and beauty-- kindness is a subset of beauty-- through the Examined Life is the goal of both art and science, and a sacred one, a calling from the God or one's inner Daemon. Money isn't a way of keeping score, or a neutral determinant of value. It is a distortion factor: it reinforces the tribe's natural bias in favor of that which confirms the prevailing comforting illusions.

Of course, this too is an illusion. The Socrates I imagine I know and love is a character in closet dramas by the aristocrat Plato, who had his own agenda.

Then I saw "Well". Did I like it? Yes. The author/narrator has excellent comic timing and although making fun of authorial pretensions was part of the piece's structure, I, like the rest of the audience, was inclined to like approve of the person behind the unreliable persona. I'm sure that if I were the sort of playwright who could afford to spend a week working with Kron in Italy, I would respect her and enjoy the experience. Not everyone reacted this way: my companion was very cranky, and kept muttering things like: "self-indulgent" "pandering" and "fraudulent". At its core, "Well" is Midwestern "nice" rather than NYC edgy or corrosive. (Another friend fell asleep.) But generally, the laughter and applause was enthusiastic, and comments from the audience on way out sounded grateful that they had been encouraged by nice rather than assaulted by nihilism. I like that too-- it's a weakness of mine, that I'm a Midwestern liberal do-gooder and I like nice. Like Kron's mother, I moved my family from a white suburb into an integrated neighborhood-- Boston's Mission Hill-- and sent into a voluntarily integrated school run by ldealists. Like the Kron family experiment, it didn't work out quite as hoped-- but we don't regret having done it. I like liberal Landford Wilson and even Republican A.R. Gurney, for goshsake. I'm grateful when comedy comes down on the "right" side of moral earnestness rather than sinking me up to the neck in satirical despair-- like, say, much of Durang. Do I think "Well" is a work of particular depth or importance? No. It does not fulfill its implicit contract of confrontation and catharsis. Its themes and metaphors do not coalesce into a coherent whole. And structurally it is a classic case of the passive autobiographical protagonist, and all the fun and games with meta-theatrical bells and whistles to disguise that do not compensate for it. The production itself is over-done, messily lavish, and intentionally disjunct in a way that seems designed to encourage you to give the actors extra credit for merely surviving it. I do give them extra credit-- I was just upset that the supporting actors were least convincing when playing "themselves". Perhaps that metaphor would work better if they were black clad puppet manipulators who took off their face coverings when turning "real" to chide the author?

On the other hand Louise Kennedy, the Globe's new first-stringer, really REALLY like the show. I'm glad that she did, and very glad that the Globe now has a critic who is not temperamentally averse to what is after all a very Woman Playwright type of show.

Quoting Kennedy's Globe review:
It is really tough to be smart and silly at the same time, but Lisa Kron magnificently succeeds. Her comedy "Well," now making its Boston debut at the Huntington Theatre Company, has moments goofy enough to make your sides ache -- and other moments intelligent enough to rearrange your understanding of the world.
"Well" comes to Boston fresh from Broadway, where performance artist Lisa Kron earned a best-actress Tony nomination in the role of "Lisa Kron," whom playwright Lisa Kron describes in the script as a "New York performance artist writing a play NOT about herself." Is that meta enough for you?
The wonderful news, though, is that unlike too many metatheatrical attempts to use performance to comment on itself, "Well" deploys its self-references, self-interruptions, and self-transformations with wisdom and grace. Kron the playwright, Kron the actress, and Kron the character all make delightful company, self-aware but never self-absorbed. So the play, while it's clearly autobiographical, is also clearly about more universal questions: what it means to be sick, what it means to be well, what families do to and for each other, and how sometimes in spite of ourselves we find a way to heal......"

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