Thursday, February 26, 2009

Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell at the ICA

The Institute of Contemporary Art presents alternative performances that don't necessarily fit within the artistic milieu of the Boston theatre scene. Their latest presentation is the New York transplant, Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell. It's a beautiful and moving piece of theatre that also serves as a memorial and testament to this theatrical legend.

When I read of Gray's suicide in 2004, I remember audibly gasping from the loss of this theatre Renaissance man whose presence within theatre history had already been confirmed. Gray was one of few living performance artists whose work was canonized during his lifetime and that I studied as an undergraduate theatre major. To me, this meant that he was Dionysian and I couldn't imagine any circumstance that would make someone so successful take their own life. Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell addresses this very reaction and serves as a memorial and celebration of his life and work.

Spanning decades through his personal monologues, the play is created from published, unpublished, and journal writings that provide quite possibly the most personal account of his life ever performed on stage. It is ironic that his first show not to include himself as the writer and performer should prove to be the most personal, which raises interesting thoughts about performing the self, identity and/as performance, and the presentation of self versus the interpretation of others. Edited by director Lucy Sexton and Gray's widow, Kathleen Russo, this performance delves more deeply into the personal than Gray did himself in his performances. The entire performance raises existential questions as to who can tell whose story, whose reality is the truth, and what does it mean to be alive? The climax of the play includes journal entries from the end of his life that speak simply, lack humor, and provide a painfully real insight into his decision to take his own life. However, this is not an evening of tears and melodrama, but a true celebration with many hilarious stories about sex and family and life and, yes, death.
The show is performed by four actors and a local guest celebrity. Interestingly, all the performers are writer/performers in their own right who are perfectly suited to this staged reading-style of performance. I couldn't help but feel that the actors were chosen based on the sonorous character of their voices: The squeaky, almost Sedaris-like tenor of Josh Lefkowitz who reads selections from Gray's youth. The intense baritone with a soft, caressing lisp in Ain Gordon who perches at a table imitating Gray's more public, performing persona. The basso British dialect of David Cale who sits in an overstuffed chair with an afghan reading familial stories that connote the private life of Gray. Finally, is the surprising choice of Alina Troyano (aka Carmeltia Tropicana) whose slight Latina accent and compact, comic sensibility lead to the evening's most delightful monologue where she recounts Gray in a Native American sweat ceremony. Her individual sense of humor matched with Gray's incomparable wit definitely deliver the biggest laughs of the evening. However, each of the actors do a marvelous job serving Gray's delicious humor and simplistically poetic prose. I must also give credit to Ain Gordon who has the most difficult job of reading Gray's final entries from his journal. He does so with a slight catch in the throat, but with a determination and dedication to the story that you can imagine Gray had in his own life and death.

My only criticism of the evening is the use of the local celebrity as a part of the show. Luckily, the evening I attended Gideon Lester, Artistic Director of American Repertory Theatre, was the guest and so the readings were well done and Mr. Lester is always pleasant on the eyes. Although Lester did a fine job, especially in recounting Gray's experiences as the Stagemanager in a Broadway revival of Our Town, I can't imagine how well this would read with the other guests: an author, a politician, and a journalist. Lester obviously seemed less rehearsed than the other actors and his placement at a chair far downstage right from the rest of the set added another otherness to his presence. In trying to make sense of this choice textually, the guest spoke of Gray's Broadway turn and negotiating a contract with an LA-based management company - essentially, it was Gray's struggle with selling out versus staying true to his art. However, I felt that these monologues could have (and probably would have) been better served by any of the other performers. Therefore, I can only imagine that this was a device dreamed up to bring in local audiences rather than serving the script

My other critique of the evening is that it was less than a 1/4 of a house full. This was one of the most moving and profound pieces of theatre I have seen in Boston recently and the fact that it was less than half full (with ticket prices as cheap as $20) is a disappointment to the producer's initiative at filling the house and at Boston audiences for neglecting such a moving work. While Dirty Dancing plays its pre-Broadway trial down the street to sold-out houses at $88 a ticket, I am finally convinced of the old producer's adage that when the economy is bad, the people want fluff. At Dirty Dancing they get a fluffy, forgetful evening of theatre, but those who attend ICA's Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell will leave with a different perspective of life, love, family, success, and happiness. So, where would you rather invest your money?

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