breaking the fourth

Orson’s Shadow at Round House Theatre
Vigils at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

There is no longer anything shocking about breaking the fourth wall. More often than not in contemporary theater charecters break the scene as they help to explain actions, forward the plot or just stop to have a chat with the audience. Playwrights are not taking risks by introducing this type of storytelling, nor are they trying to. Yet, there is something to be said about making good use of this narration. 

In Orson’s Shadow by Austin Pendleton, now playing at Round House Theatre Bethesda, the breaking of the fourth seems to hinder rather than help the natural flow of storytelling. Pendleton takes you back in theatrical time to the rehearsal’s for Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in 1960’s London.

 In this age of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and “Behind the Music” there is something gleeful about watching the famous behind the scenes. And it is particularly thrilling when the famous being watched aren’t minor actors but Gods and Goddesses of stage and screen (Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Orson Wells).

Pendleton could have allowed these great egos play out their story of passions, madness, betrayal and art on the stage. Yet he felt the need to tinker, to go one step deeper, to introduce a narrator, real life theater critic Kenneth Tynan. In the world of the play Tynan is a tired out critic looking to help Olivier reshape British Theater by founding the National Theater. In the play he is also jealous of the fame and artistic passion of those surrounding him. In between his constantly coughing and fighting for his life while battling emphysema (note: Tynan did die of emphysema but not until 1980), he is a pointless narrator. It didn’t seem that any of his asides were necessary for the understanding of the scenes. Yes, he told us of his obsession with Laurence Olivier, but surely we would have noticed once he started fawning over him in the scene. Yes, he told us of his on going friendship with Wells. Yet as he’s breaking the fourth wall and talking to us Wells interjects, why I ask, could they not have played the conversation directly to each other?

There are times when narration just feels like lazy storytelling. You need to end a show and there still are unanswered questions? Just have a character who didn’t narrate before step through the fourth wall and, as Joan Plowright does in Orson’s Shadow, tell us how everyone else dies. Why not try consistency and have Tynan end the show? Because as Joan states she is the obvious choice since, after all, she is the only one still living. I wonder what will happen when Joan Plowright dies, will the play never be done again?

There are times however when multiple narrators not only work in a show but help push it to something new and stunning. Vigils is a new play by young (only 27!) playwright Noah Haidle. It is currently having its East Coast Premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

A widow has refused her husbands soul to ascend and instead locked it in a box. The soul, body and widow are trapped in their memories as time passes on and she debates making a new start of her life.

The widow is going on her first date since her husband’s death two years ago but she is still not ready to let the soul go. The soul is more than ready, plotting his escape. Trapped in the house without his body he relives and narrates his life. The memories just come, he does not control them but experiences them as we do. When the memories stop and we are in the present, he lets us know.

But soon there is a switch. The memories we are seeing are the similar to what we have just seen but now they are coming from the widow. She’s leading us through her memories of her husband and back further to her grandfather. And then there’s another switch, the same memories are attempted from the body. Though the body without his soul has a much more difficult time remembering.

The trio of narrators took the play to a deeper level as the audience gets pulled into the story.  The fragments of the husband and wife’s lives take on meaningful dimensions as they try to put the pieces together. The trapped life they have had after the death is apparent as the pieces start to fall on top of each other. The spirit wants to fly up, the body wants to fall into the ground and the wife wants to hold on tight.

The play was less successful in incorporating the present day. The wife wooer is adorably played by J. Fred Shiffman (indeed all of the actors are wonderful). Yet his charm and awkwardness covers over some storytelling leaps. We know he’s in love with the widow but for how long is not clear.  In someways he’s just there to provide a distraction for the widow, a catalyst in her releasing the soul. The addition of and Irish Fire Chief who likes to give hugs pulled me out of the story and left a rather unsettling taste in my mouth. The ending of the play also left me feeling a bit cheated though dazzled by the beautiful production image.

All in all, the charm of the play and the originality of the three tiered story telling makes me anxious to see much more of Noah Haidle’s work.  Besides I’m a fan of any show that includes a dance break.

* Note on Reviews:  I do not belive that reviews should be a factor in deciding what to see. If something sounds interesting go. If not, still go. Even ‘bad’ theater is better than no theater at all. If you leave feeling the need to discuss it: all the better.

One Response to breaking the fourth

  1. ARH says:

    Narration, or at least stepping out of context, is of course very prominent in Theater J’s “Sleeping Arrangements”, where it is used to such good effect that the conversations the actors have with the audience and the ones they have with each other, seem perfectly in place.

    I, for one, almost always like this technique; I know that some don’t. For some reason, my mind is focusing on a movie and not a play (or at least a movie version of a play), “Evita”, where Anthony Banderas narrates the Peron saga. I think it is harder in the cinema, but even there can be brought off sucessfully.

    But then again, this is nothing new, is it? Look at Greek drama, for starters.

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