Sunday, July 19, 2009

NYC: Our Town

Let me begin by saying that if a David Cromer fan club does not yet exist, I volunteer to be the founding member. Mr. Cromer, a Chicago-based director, has made a name for himself reinvisioning classic works that simultaneously honor the original intention of the work while revitalizing them for contemporary audiences. Take his Glass Menagerie presented last season at Kansas City Rep, which received widely acclaimed (national) reviews. Likewise, his direction of the musical adaptation of Elmer Rice's classic, The Adding Machine was one of the hottest off-Broadway tickets of last season. His current offering, Thorton Wilder's Our Town playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, is not so much a production as it is a contemplation or meditation on this classic work.

Cromer plays double-duty in this productemplation as both the real director and the on-stage persona of the Stage Manager - which, you will remember from your High School English class, is the narrator for the play. As Stage Manager as well as director, Cromer captures the simplicity of the story by embracing stillness and silence that hearkens the simple lives of the inhabitants of Grover's Corners while forcing audience obeisance of said silence. The effect of listening for a train whistle or the voices of school children in studied silence takes on a religious metaphor, one that is reflected in the text and that culls from the Ancient Greek religious heritage of theatre. "Listen," Cromer says as the Stage Manager and director, and the audience sees the silence with both our attention and imagination. Throughout the play, simplicity and stillness are honored - a rare find in our media-saturated, hi-def Broadway world.

Obviously, Cromer has a rich canvas on which to paint his directorial interpretation. Thornton Wilder was an innovator in theatre and his stage directions of the show call for simplicity and minimalism of staging far before it was chic, or even a termed device. Mr. Cromer has transformed the Barrow Street into a 3/4 round theatre with only a handful of rows ensuring that every audience member is as close to the action as the players themselves. Sitting in the center first row, I found myself tucking my feet under my seat numerous times to allow the bypass of actors or witnessing scenes practically in my lap. The set consists of two tables with four chairs each to represent the Gibbs and Webb houses, which dramatically transform into the second-story windows of the two young lovers by placing the chairs on top of the tables. Such simplicity in staging coupled with naturalistic pauses and silences make the work transformative. I knew that if this production were on Broadway, I would be assaulted with sound effects, lighting effects, rushed delivery, et al. But in this off-Broadway house, Cromer is allowed to let this piece breathe as deeply and vitally as the characters it (re)presents.

Most of the critical praise for the work has touted the alarming choice during the third act. It is, apparently, this seasons' theatrical "Crying Game." And, apparently, I am the only theatre connoisseur who escaped knowledge of said interpretation. However, I refuse to reveal it to other theatre snobs who deserved to be impressed as I was. However, as brilliant as I felt the device to be, I did not find it half as risque and impressionable as the play itself, which defies so many standard theatrical devices. The entire play is a contemplation of performance and representation and adulation and devotion. The choice to have the actors wear contemporary costumes brings the show full-circle. Cromer, as I have said, is serving classic American plays with honor and reverence while delivering a contemporary spin that is both intellectual and accessible. He has been slated to revive two of Neil Simon's comedies for the Broadway stage in the up-coming season. And after seeing Our Town, I have faith that Mr. Cromer can revive far more than just discarded classics, but has the potential to refocus our aesthetic to honoring our theatrical heritage while reclaiming some sacred element of our performative anthropology.

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