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I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. I loved Off-Leash Area’s 2009 production Ivan The Drunk and His Terrible Tale of Woe, and I loved 2010’s Le Squat even more, which I didn’t think was possible. Odds are, at some point, Off-Leash was going to produce a show that I didn’t automatically adore unreservedly.
Even so, they’re a company that tends to defy the odds—plus they were working this time with playwright Dominic Orlando, whose 2009 production with Workhaus Collective The Sense of What Should Be remains one of the best new plays I’ve seen in years. But their current absurdly comic collaboration Now Eye See You, Now Eye Don’t (currently playing in the Ritz Theater’s studio space) didn’t manage to captivate me to the same degree as those previous works.
|now eye see you, now eye don't, presented by off-leash area at the ritz theater through may 7. for information, see offleasharea.org.|
Don’t get me wrong—even when Off-Leash Area is, well, a little off, they’re still working at a level of originality and theatricality that beats half the other theaters in town. There are flashes of brilliance in this production that keep cropping up in unexpected places. Still, I sat there wondering why I felt so uncharacteristically disconnected from the events playing out in front of me.
It feels like it’s a function of distance—distance of two different sorts. There’s the distance of the artist from the subject matter, which feels like it’s too close. And there’s the distance between the audience and the main character, which feels like it’s too far away.
Now Eye See You, Now Eye Don’t is the (strangely funny) story of a painter who is losing his eyesight. This is incredibly compelling territory to be exploring. Paul Herwig, who portrays the painter onstage, is also coping with vision loss. Herwig devised and directed the piece, alongside Jennifer Ilse with assists from Orlando and creative contributions from the cast. Herwig also designed the set and props. In previous Off-Leash outings, this kind of focused artistic vision really crackled. A concept as inherently visual as this is right up their alley. In addition to Herwig’s amazing past set work, Off-Leash always seems to team up with great lighting and costume and music creators, and here, it’s no different. There's great work from lighting designer Mike Grogan, costume designer Sonya Berlovitz, and music composer Reid Kruger.
Personally, as a playwright, I can never adequately process an experience that’s recent. It normally takes a good five to ten years before I have any kind of useful distance or perspective to understand it from a storytelling perspective so I can create a good script. A wise writing teacher once shared two guiding thoughts that have continued to stick with me over the years. “Just because it happened to you, doesn’t mean it’s interesting"; “Just because it actually happened, doesn’t mean we’ll believe it’s true.” The principle underlying both is that truth itself is not an excuse or justification. Whatever you’re peddling still has to work as a story.
One of the key reasons Le Squat worked, even though it’s about Herwig’s personal experience and people he knew, is that he has the perspective of some 30 years between now and then. The accumulation of telling details is staggering. Now Eye See You is treading water in which Herwig himself is still struggling to stay afloat. The subject seems to be overwhelming the story much of the time and the details, not grounded in character, are getting lost. None of the collaborators in the process appear to have been able to offer the outside perspective Herwig may have needed here, and since they don’t have personal experience with vision loss themselves, they may not have even known the questions to ask, or what might be missing.
The other challenge is the main character of the painter himself. The reason the artists that inhabited Le Squat worked so well is that they were human beings first, and artists second. The audience also saw their art as it was being created right in front of them. The painter in Now Eye See You exists in a vacuum. All the other characters in the play are comic caricatures. The painter has no real, human relationships to put him in context. His art is also largely a mystery.
The production makes a clever choice in withholding the sight of his art—in this way, we, too, are sightless. It also avoids the pitfall of presenting art that may not seem as great as this painter’s reputation seems to demand. When paint finally does hit the canvas that surrounds three sides of the playing space, it manifests the blackness which is beginning to encroach on the painter’s own eyesight. Later, this blackness is transformed into a night sky full of stars and planets, which is quite beguiling.
However, I found myself wishing for more hints of the artist’s work. Having seen past presentations, I know that Herwig is capable of creating art worthy of this painter. Two different eyes on a larger universe which are revealed in the play’s closing moments bear this out. Yet the large canvases on the right and left sides of the set remain blank. Without some art to look at, we sort of have to take the guy’s word for it that he’s good, which feels like an opportunity missed. Paintings, perhaps sections of several paintings, could have enfolded the playing space, and then as sight began slipping away, perhaps those paintings might have been obscured somehow—his art leaving him as this sight recedes.
Then there’s the added bonus that the more we understand the man and his comical predicament, the more the art might take on added meaning, since we see more clearly the source from where the art springs. Here, the art is as much a cypher as the man, even though the concept of a visual artist losing his capacity to see is a killer metaphor and a great source of potential conflict.
Also, the painter’s relationship to the world around him doesn’t cast him in a very flattering light. It’s one thing to bite the hand that feeds you, it’s another to gnaw off their entire arm up to the socket. The painter doesn’t treat his art dealer (Mimi Holland) very well, even though she supports him both financially and artistically by believing in him and peddling his work. The rich folk who collect art (and thus help keep him alive and in painting supplies) are portrayed as a bunch of know-nothing morons who keep spouting the same phrases over and over again, slaves to their cell phones, finally degenerating into a flock of squawking birds who pick over the art auction and wear their purchases like fashion accessories.
It doesn’t help that during our first introduction to the painter, he is reclining by a lake on a starry night at an artists' retreat, where he bemoans the fact that he’s at an artists' retreat. “Why must there always be a retreat? Why can’t you just cut me the check?” Wow. These are the kinds of problems I want to have. This person is so far removed from the experience of almost anyone in a theater audience that it makes it hard to relate to the poor guy, or feel sorry for him like we should. I kept getting the feeling that the production wanted me to sympathize with him, but it was a tough sell.
The ensemble of actors is a great bunch. The squawking art collector crowd does a fine job of turning humans into animals (Holland again, with Heather Bunch, Non Edwards, Jordan Klitzke, Larissa Shea, and David P. Scheider). Schneider also has an insidious turn as an art collector rep boggling the painter’s mind by delivering huge sums of money. Shea gets a couple of fun turns in as an art fair lecturer, and a woman in the ER who gives a hilariously scathing assessment of the state of modern healthcare. Bunch and Klitzke double up as art fair lecturers. Megan Bridges, Bryan Gerber and Christine Maginnis are the painter’s dance-happy surgical team.
Finally, Ilse and Erin Liebhard are fantastic as the tap-dancing “cost of healthcare” duo. Their scene detailing how the painter’s epic medical bill breaks down would be high comedy indeed, if it weren’t also reality. The laughs are hearty, but uneasy. In fact, the cast is so good that their characters all make their points the first time out. Since they don’t have the same depth as fully human characters would, there are no extra layers to peel back. Repetition, which is frequent throughout, reveals little that is new or illuminating when they cycle back over the same terrain. More humanity would have made both the painter and his surrounding world richer and funnier and sadder. This cast could clearly have delivered that. It’s a shame they weren’t asked to do so.
Now Eye See You, Now Eye Don’t is the beginning of something that has the potential to be as great as the other Off-Leash Area productions that have blown me away, and have reminded me powerfully of why I love theater so much. When they realize this idea’s full potential, I’d love to revisit it. Even now, however, any Off-Leash Area is better than no Off-Leash Area. It’s the tyranny of high expectations. When you’re this great, your audience feels a little let down when you’re just really good instead. But I’m happy that Off-Leash Area sets their own bar so high, and keeps struggling to jump still higher. With so much theater settling for so much less, I’d rather watch a group of talented artists struggle for something big any day. Whether they make it all the way or not, it’s much more fun to watch them try.