NOT ENOUGH AIR (an amazing play)

I urge any Chicagoans reading this post to rush out and see this local stage production (and world premiere), the most exciting piece of theater I’ve ever seen in this city. But I’m sorry to say that the only illustration I can access on the Internet and reproduce here is the above image, which is what’s used in the ads. [Postscript, 2/9: Lara Goetsch, TimeLine's director of marketing and communications, has subsequently sent me four of her own photos of the production; my two favorites are reproduced below.] This isn’t bad when it comes to dealing thematically with Masha Obolensky’s play (which is about the creative processes involved in playwriting—specifically, about the processes by which real-life playwright Sophie Treadwell turned the 1927 murder case and execution of Ruth Snyder into a very successful expressionist play, Machinal, produced on Broadway with Zita Johann and Clark Gable in 1928), which bears a certain relationship to David Cronenberg’s film of Naked Lunch. (Admittedly, Cronenberg’s politically incorrect and highly idiosyncratic adaptation of William S, Burroughs is a far cry from Obolensky’s feminist play when it comes to comes to sexual politics; but even so, what this play and this film does with typewriters as pivotal props in relation to transformations between real life and fiction does seem comparable.)

In terms of lighting, direction, and ensemble acting—which includes overlapping dialogue and various cinematic devices such as freeze-frames and various onstage approximations of montage, lap dissolves, and superimpositions—this production by the TimeLine Theatre Company frequently calls to my mind various Orson Welles theater productions of the 30s, 40s, and 50s that I’ve read about but never seen, especially when it comes to using the viewer’s imagination as a central ingredient in the staging. But I should also acknowledge that my reference points in these matters are limited, and it’s highly possible that I’m referring to much larger theatrical traditions that Welles was also drawing from. What seems closest to the methodology of Citizen Kane (with its own theatrical sources) are the telegraphic changes of place and emotional registers via lighting as well as an uncanny grasp of period detail used to inflect theme and character, e.g., the unknotted tie worn throughout most of the play by Janet Ulrich Brooks as Sophie, suggestive (at least to me) of her ambivalent territorial encroachments on domains mainly perceived in the 20s as masculine.

Part of what’s so impressive about Not Enough Air as a production is the adroit way it enables us to follow lightning-quick transitions between times, spaces, and characters (non-fictional as well as fictional) and to understand many of these shifts viscerally even before we can start to dope them out conceptually and intellectually. In such a manner, I found myself comprehending immediately the logic and pertinence of going directly from Ruth Snyder being questioned by police after the murder of her husband to Sophie Treadwell being queried by the press after the triumphant opening of Machinal. It’s partly the deftness of Nick Bowling’s direction that makes this legibility possible, but, as became clear from a post-performance public discussion last night with the audience by the dramaturg, three of the six cast members, and (I believe) the production manager, the working out of the play’s narrative via staging—which entailed the small cast doubling as prop movers as well as playing different parts, and the use of downstage, upstage, and a separate second-floor space (reachable through a ladder on wheels) that were both as mutable and as interactive as the actors — was largely a collective effort. (Roughly speaking, downstage is usually bare apart from the props imported by the cast from a cluttered upstage room on the other side of a prison-like door that periodically doubles as a jail cell — a kind of division of theatrical space that mainly seems to follow a precise psychological logic.)

Don’t miss this. It runs through March 22. [2/6/09]

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