by Matthew A. Everett | 6/22/09 •
“We can’t control it anymore. It’s lost.”
If you think that Alzheimer’s disease isn’t funny, you’re right. It’s not. But this play frequently is. If you think that Alzheimer’s disease can be heartbreaking, frustrating, and sometimes annoying, you’re right. And both fortunately and unfortunately, so is this play.
|single white fringe geek is the blog of matthew a. everett. in addition to being one of six bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet, he blogs throughout the year about theater and culture|
I have a special fondness for Live Action Set and the work they do, probably because I’ve been reviewing them since before they even had a name, back in their early Minnesota Fringe Festival days. It’s good to see them performing on one of the Guthrie’s stages, both for the group, and for the potential new audiences they can reach.
When Live Action Set is good, they’re astonishing (“The Piano Tuner,” “Please Don’t Blow Up Mr. Boban”). Even when things are a little off, they’re still worth watching. “My Father’s Bookshelf” falls into the latter category.
There are parts of “My Father’s Bookshelf” that are tremendously entertaining and engaging, even brilliant. There are several sections of the performance that effectively put the audience inside the head of someone whose memories are turning inside out. Many of these sections are funny. Some of these sections are unsettling. Sometimes, they’re both.
Bobby (Robert Rosen) is a man who frequently addresses the audience, and is succumbing to Alzheimer’s, though he can’t see it. His wife Carmella (Barbara Berlovitz) can. His children Hunter (Dario Tangelson), Shannon (Megan Odell), and David (Jason Ballweber) can.
This is not a story we get in a strictly linear fashion. We get very little traditional exposition. Most of the details we get, we pick up on the fly, in random order. Bobby’s childhood, courtship, early and later parenthood, all collide in fragments, sometimes delivered in a rapid-fire style, sometimes at a more languid pace. Sometimes events will be seen both from Bobby’s perspective, as well as the perspective of his loved ones, as they struggle to hang on to their good humor and optimistic attitude in the face of their disintegrating family unit.
An army of rolling refrigerators hold everything from food to clothing to drugs to books. Surprises are tucked into deceptively familiar places. Elaborate diagrams of circuitry and endless lengths of extension cords outline specific memories and represent unraveling synapses. Personal questions about coping strategies from unknown interviewers are projected above the stage, prompting stories both humorous and alarming from Bobby’s family members.
The things that don’t work are especially puzzling because they aren’t strategies Live Action Set has normally used in the past to engage an audience. For instance, there is a strange patchwork of moments throughout the evening where Megan Odell is addressing the audience as a doctor who studies Alzheimer’s, trying to give the spectators an overview of the basic facts of the disease, and the current direction of research into treatments and potential cures. This barrage of information does little to enlighten the audience about the other characters and their plight, and seems to encourage the conclusion that nobody knows anything. While it’s certainly a valid point, a lot less time could have been spent getting there.
The notion of being confused is a big part of life dealing with this disease, but the other parts of the performance give the audience a window into that reality much more effectively. Toward the end, when the doctor reveals the meaning of the title of the show, and veers into very personal information about her own father, herself, and her child, it starts to feel like we’re not listening to a character anymore, but getting information directly impacting the performer’s life. This may just have been very intense and effective acting, in which case, kudos, because I started to get uneasy, as if I shouldn’t be watching this anymore, sort of like emotional porn.
The exploration of the line between realities is something Live Action Set plays with frequently, and it’s central to a discussion of something like Alzheimer’s. But you want to be careful it doesn’t get away from you. When the audience starts to feel the performers may be getting out of control, they stop paying attention to the story and get distracted by the storyteller.
This is the kind of framing device that one would expect from a more traditional kind of theater company. Not bad, just not necessary for a group like Live Action Set, because they’re beyond that basic sort of storytelling. They get at the same truth by other means – physical, emotional, nonsensical, but all the more powerful for being unconventional.
And I’m not saying this because I’ve seen Live Action Set do better than this in other performances. I’m saying it because I’ve seen them do better in other parts of “My Father’s Bookshelf.” There’s earned sentiment, and then there’s blatant manipulation. Examples of sentiment that’s earned abound. Bobby tells of launching a small rocket into orbit, then losing control of it. Now it’s trapped, circling the earth, irretrievable, only electronic signals reminding anyone that it’s still out there, stuck in an endless loop but still functioning. The line between Bobby and his rocket isn’t drawn directly for the audience. It doesn’t need to be.
Elsewhere, the family uses Bobby’s lack of short term memory to say all sorts of absurd things to keep from repeating themselves in a continuous cycle of the same conversation. Later, when Bobby’s demands become more unmanageable, we see the toll it takes on the family’s normally buoyant spirits. Words don’t need to be spoken. Toward the end, when an audience might expect a string of emotional farewells, the family gathers around, all with beer in hand, and tells a string of corny jokes. Bobby can’t tell jokes anymore, but it doesn’t matter. The jokes are so old, everyone recognizes a part of the mangled punchlines.
The use of song in this production tends to fall into the manipulative category. Perhaps there should be a moratorium on the use of the tune “You Are My Sunshine” in plays. When a woman sings the plaintive melody to a man who is slowly being lost to her, it seems a bit manipulative – either pounding home something that was already felt, or overreaching for an emotional payoff that hasn’t yet been earned. However, when an entire chorus of gray-haired performers in matching uniforms comes parading in singing “You Are My Sunshine” (no, I’m not kidding), you’ve officially crossed the line and gone sprinting off into the distance.
So much is accomplished in so many other places in this production with few words, or none at all, that it seems baffling when the show doesn’t seem to trust that loaded silences or simple moments between skilled performers (which each and every member of this ensemble is) will be enough.
The other thing this production struggled with was knowing when to stop. I counted almost half a dozen ending points. Any of them, prior to the last one, would have been satisfying emotional conclusions – Bobby, placed in a long-term care facility, brought in line not by the staff but by his wife, who knows how to play into his new inner world, a woman who he trusts but no longer recognizes; Bobby saying his goodbyes to his youngest son, the memories of whom he knows he’ll lose first; the family beer and joke time; Bobby stepping outside himself to see his current physical state; the revelation of the title.
But then, after all that, we get some peculiar schtick involving rocket launches and premature blackouts and here come the Alzheimer Family Singers again with a Beatles tune and at that point I just have to scratch my head and go, “Huh?”
In its defense, “My Father’s Bookshelf” was enormously cathartic to the large segment of the audience who had all been effected by Alzheimer’s taking their loved ones from them, and came specifically to see the play because of the subject matter, and in some cases their involvement in the production’s development. There was much laughter and many tears and a standing ovation by that contingent in the audience. Oddly enough, they probably needed the informational segments of the production even less than the rest of us did. But it meant a lot to them to see their stories reflected in a way they thought was truthful onstage.
Though uneven in execution, the performers are so good, and some stretches of the production so inventive, that the good outweighs the bad for me, and “My Father’s Bookshelf” is still…
The remaining performances of “My Father’s Bookshelf” are this Wednesday through Sunday, June 24th through 28th at the Guthrie Theater complex (818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN). For reservations, visit www.guthrietheater.org or call 612-877-2224. For more information, visit www.liveactionset.org
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