Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Quick and Mild-Mannered Review of Harvest at Subversive Theatre

For me, attending plays at Subversive Theatre feels as comfortable as going home, somehow. There's no sense of  "going out;" no ritual of being seen (although I always see people I know). The productions are always expertly produced and cast, even if or when there may be things to criticize as somehow beneath the production values of better-funded more fully "professional" theater.

There is such an abundance of talented people, certainly in Buffalo, who would do almost anything for the chance to act on stage. You can apparently recruit them even for blatantly subversive productions. These are productions which are not only subversive of the oppressive norms of capitalist so-called democracy. But they are subversive of the norms of professional theater as well.

Although it's moving smartly in the direction of feeling almost like a conventional theater, the space has few of the creature comforts of homecoming. It remains plainly housed in a typical workshop warren as can be had cheaply among the surplus industrial factory space so abundant in Buffalo.

So, why do I feel like I'm coming home?

At its opening over a year ago, the space was almost impossibly uncomfortable. Noisy, echoing, and either far too cold or far too hot. Now, it actually begins to feel cozy. But they have started charging for tickets for shows which used to be stridently "free" (donations gratefully accepted). I guess I should be worried?

The production I saw last night of Langston Hughes' Harvest was, I felt, fully professionally produced, presented and acted. I missed Kurt's customary and fairly polished appeal to the audience for donations. I missed his explanation of the mission of this theatrical company. But then I feel like an indulgent parent, maybe, blind to what everyone else is wanting. I think they are smart in their new ways to grow an audience.

The play itself was plenty straight-up in its presentation of the capitalist dilemma from the point of view of those at the bottom of the supposedly naturalistic pyramid of suffering. The secret exposed: everyone at every level feels as though they suffer oppression coming down from above them. The farmers who oppress their pickers are themselves oppressed by the bankers and the taxman, and the sheriff who serves the farmers feels oppressed by the farmers themselves who finally, out of desperation to get their crops in or lose their shirts, take matters into their own hands with guns, and inevitably bloody results.

In nature, it is supposed, all creatures exist in a perpetual state of cringing fear, food insecurity, a pyramid of predatory eat and be eaten. The workers here must live out in the open under tents at best, subject not only to the serial and concurrent tyrannies of weather, disease,  children to care for; but even romantic love and its inevitable outcome. If that weren't enough, these cotton pickers had to endure the predations of their betters. Betrayals from within.

Sad, but inevitably true, I guess. Cotton pickers are no different from the unfortunate frog getting eaten by the stately heron. Well, except that the players on this stage are all members of the same species. The divisions among them are presented as purely artificial and absurd. At the very top is a remote and absent FDR; earnest, but feckless at ground level. A professor stops by and in the end says something like "Oh, I see what you mean. I'll tell my students." He'd thought there must be some way for folks to meet at the middle and split the differences among their grievances, for surely the farmers had some too.

Although the play was presented authentically, from the period of its writing, there is no mismatch with today's lived reality. Sure, it feels primitive and almost simplistic in its staging, which is the way it was written. Stark. Plotting the lines of division, and then measuring the tensions across them.

One still wonders if the explosion is necessary. As of tectonic plates these days, whose power just builds and builds until the very earth shakes, each release triggering the likelihood of more. Might there be a different model?

Getting eaten in the state of nature is also the role of the outcast, the weak, the genetically deficient. In the family of man, as in more local families, these roles are reserved and limited, supposedly. Our fear of one another enacts only the act of flight and fright in the face of voracious and unthinking predators who are themselves driven by unanswerable hunger in nature.

Subversive Theater is a refuge from all of that. Not much money lifted from my pocket. Free refreshments. Easy conversation between the acts. And even the reduction to almost nil of the distance between the performance and its audience. I guess that's why it feels like coming home.

Relentlessly, this company asks us just what is and what can be art. Must it only exalt the already exalted, who will inevitably be the absent playwright? The absent God. The good and refined taste of the privileged audience. Or can it invite the audience in to the struggle for understanding which is still common at the root of all artistic production?

In the end, it is the state of nature which is artifice, generated in our mind in reminiscence of a time too recent in our own past. When Natives, who were only imitating us, would scalp and pillage. When bears would attack from the woods. That state has been so fully tamed now that to invoke it is to invoke a fiction whose only purpose is to let us feel more fully manly. Very much like blue jeans do, or SUVs or athletic contests or libertarian posturing as if it were the clear-eyed truth. Women dressed for nakedness as prey.

The stage on which we play out our very public fantasies has grown old. No wonder I feel at home in this superannuated warehouse space, built as if to withstand a bomb blast. Any size shaking of the earth. Although that too is an illusion. The only real safety is on the streets.

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