Comments by Gail M. Burns, March 2009
It is a kind of talent in itself to be an audience…Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.
– Ann Patchett
On the second day of Spring, 2009, I set off for the Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, MA. While I have long been aware of this company’s existence and activities, there had never been the right combination of their performance schedule, my unpredictable life, and the mercurial Berkshire weather for me to make a trip. While Ashfield is no further from my home than Stockbridge or Chatham, it is a twisty, hilly drive. Even with good weather in the valleys, I hit a snow squall and white-out conditions at the top of the Mohawk Trail coming home.
Double Edge is a laboratory theatre, founded in 1982 by Artistic Director Stacy Klein, a student of Jerzy Grotowski and Jacques Chwat. Double Edge company members make long-term commitments and work on the same material for years on end, with public performances being a low priority. Training, in-depth research, self-discovery, and communal life and work are core components of their process.
Throughout the world of our work, which has taken place primarily in the U.S., Central Europe, and South America, we have attempted to create an intense dialogue between cultures, and between individuals. This dialogue was never verbal. This dialogue was never rational. This dialogue was never about form. It was always an artistic dialogue, one that could and would use any means, whether it be movement, song, object or image, to tell the story of the human being. This story, though complex, dark, and incomprehensible, is certainly one of hope.
– Stacy Klein, November, 2004
Several things finally lured me to Double Edge, but the most important was the ability to see all three of their most recent works, corporately known as The Garden Cycle or The Garden of Intimacy and Desire, and individually as The UnPOSSESSED, The Republic of Dreams, and the Disappearance, at one time. The individual pieces are short (about 45 minutes each), and in this presentation are punctuated by intermissions during which a delicious vegan dinner is served. You arrive at 6 pm, see The UnPOSSESSED, have dinner, see The Republic of Dreams, have dessert and coffee, then see the Disappearance, after which you are invited to join the cast for wine and seltzer and conversation about the plays. This sounded like too much fun to miss!
The Garden Cycle is the Double Edge’s third cycle of work, and has been “under construction” as it were, since 2000. In the company’s own words it is “an ongoing exploration of the complex dichotomies of dream and reality, freedom and responsibility, indifference and fanaticism.”
I have no idea what that means. I have no idea what an awful lot of Double Edge’s written material about itself and its work means. I don’t think that matters because I was merely an audience member on the second day of spring, 2009, and as such am of no consequence to the work of the Double Edge Theatre. Even the fact that I am an audience member who is going to write about her experience doesn’t really affect them or their work. Their work is not about me or for me.
Most of the productions I attend are all about me – “Me” in this case being a random audience member. They are staged to acquire my money, my time, and my attention. What I write about them can influence a company’s ability to attract those things from all the other Me’s out there. Part of my job as a critic is to advise you whether or not a particular production is, in my personal opinion, worth your money, time, and attention.
But notice that I am using the same approach - attending one performance and writing about it - to evaluate productions created with very different intentions. This approach is based on the ludicrous notion that a theatrical performance, once officially “open,” is unchanging, a notion Double Edge volubly disputes. Theatre is a living art, not a static one like film or sculpture or painting. Every time you see a film or a work of visual art, you will see the same object. Your reaction to it may very well be different each time because you are alive and therefore constantly changing, but the art itself is not. Every single moment of every single theatrical performance is different. I can only write about what I saw and heard and felt during from where I was sitting during the fleeting moments that my life and the lives of the dozens of people responsible for presenting the performance intersected.
No matter how we rehearse our intention the performance has its own accidents.
– Mary Caroline Richards
In this regard Double Edge is telling the truth and most theatre companies are lying because Double Edge admits that their work is never finished, always evolving, and therefore defies critical assessment. They openly state that their work is all about them and since I am not one of them I will obviously not understand where they have come from, or where they are going, with the work that passes briefly before my eyes.
These clearly defined and separate roles for creators/participants and audience bring into sharp focus reality of the theatre. I never know what the artists I see intended. Even if they tell me, and quite often they do, or at least try to, I have not been a part of their creative process and frankly, I often just plain don’t get it. I am merely a body in a chair watching them. When I leave the theatre I become the artist and, like someone painting a portrait in mere paint, try to capture and convey the ever-changing life I witnessed in static prose.
So what did I see at Double Edge? I saw theatre. I saw a wonderful, exciting, and meticulous blending of movement, speech, light, music, costumes, set, and props that moved me and thrilled me. I want to see it again, but of course I can’t. Those moments only existed on the second day of spring, 2009. I can just be glad that I chose to be in Ashfield then.
The three plays in the Garden Cycle are very different. I personally don’t see or understand the connection between them, but there was enough time between them, and the theatre space was completely rearranged every time I entered it (The Republic of Dreams and the Disappearance are staged in traditional fourth wall style with actors and audience facing each other, while The UnPOSSESSED was staged in the middle with audience seated along the two long sides of the room), so it was easy for me to separate them mentally into three completely different theatrical experiences. The commonalities were the actors, the performance space, and the clear reality that these three works were generated by the same creative spirit and philosophy.
Comments on the Plays
(I have decided to insert the entire credits from the program for each production because, while there are people with larger speaking parts than others, these are ensemble created pieces and no one should go unmentioned.)
Adapted from Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”
Conception, Direction, and Scenario by Stacy Klein
Co-Created with Carlos Uriano and Matthew Glassman
The Double Edge Ensemble
Don Quixote – Carlos Uriano
Sancho Panza – Matthew Glassman
The Barber, the Soothsaying Monkey – Hayley Brown
Teresa Panza, Altisadora – Jeremy Louise Eaton
The Housekeeper, the Duchess – Carroll Durand
Master Peter, The Duke – Thom Pasculli
And from the Charlestown Working Theater
The Niece, Marcela, Dulcinea – Jennifer Johnson
Original Music by Justin Handley, Brian Fairley, John Peitso
Performed by Brian Fairley, John Peitso, Todd Trebour, and Scott Halligan
Stage Design by Stacy Klein and Matthew Glassman
Lighting Design by Mary Louise Geiger
Lighting and Technical Director – Adam Bright
Costume Design by Carroll Durand, with Hannah Jarrell
Puppet Design by Michal Kuriata
Text Compilation by Jennifer Johnson, with Brian Fairley
Spotlight Operation – Milena Dabova and Sarah Cormier
The UnPOSSESSED is inspired by Miguel de Cervantes' 16th century masterpiece Don Quioxte Carlos Uriona and Matthew Glassman play Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, probably one of the most recognized literary duos in the world. We think we know them, and yet the number of people who have read ALL of “Don Quixote” is probably very small. So whatever the mad knight and his simple side-kick do we are ready to laugh at them and see whatever philosophical bent we have been taught to apply to them. One of my companions for the evening is a Cervantes scholar and The UnPOSSESSED did NOT jibe with her understanding of Don Quixote but none of Double Edge’s theatre pieces are intended to be literal adaptations of their source material.
On the other hand, Double Edge’s method of working and the long amount of time they devote to each work means that they do in-depth research, seeking out primary sources whenever possible. Uriona is Argentine, so the company had direct access to Cervantes in the original Spanish – something of which I am deeply envious as I always distrust translations.
Because I “knew the story” of The UnPOSSESSED (I don’t – I’ve seen Man of La Mancha twice and read the first 200 or so pages of two different translations of Don Quixote) I liked it the best. Certainly it is the most exuberantly physical and visually spectacular of the three works in The Garden Cycle. The comparison to circus comes to mind, but really only because aerial stunts, stilt-walking, tumbling and other skills associated with the circus are included. This gives The UnPOSSESSED its dream-like quality, and Klein refers to all three works in this Cycle as dream plays.
I was actually reminded of one of my own dreams when Glassman swung in a wide arc from the wall behind me out across the performance space. I had dreamt that I was being asked to play a role that required me to “fly” down and out over a central performance space, suspended on a Foy Rig, and that I did. As Glassman passed over me I had a visceral memory of the courage and faith it required to leap at the audience in my dream, and I was full of admiration. But Glassman, Uriona, and the other actors who “fly” in The UnPOSSESSED are not on Foy Rigs (for the uninitiated, those are the mechanical systems used to simulate flight in stage productions like Peter Pan and Wicked) they are using their own brute strength and the laws of physics to hold on to and propel themselves on thick sheets of white fabric. This is impossible to describe adequately in words. My son thought I was a blithering idiot when I waved my arms about and tried to tell him what I saw, and you don’t even have the benefit of my arm waving, so I recommend you visit the photo gallery on the Double Edge Web site.
With my limited knowledge of Don Quixote there were many bits of the story that were mere entertainment to me, but I enjoyed the spectacle of the tilting at windmills, the knighting ceremony, the battle with the herd of sheep, and the encounter with the enchanters. But my very favorite visual, which there is not a photo of, alas, was the ultimate battle with the knight of the mirrors. Uriona stood in the center of the performance space anchoring and guiding Thom Pasculli – resplendent in flowing garments that twinkled with mini-mirror-like reflective pieces and enormous on stilts – as he spun around him on the fabric ropes, in slow motion. It was such an amazing sight that my mind didn’t want to believe that I was watching a live performance. “This must be some CGI magic,” said my brain. But I knew that it was real, and I was spell bound.
We do not readily associate the sense of smell with the theatre, and yet the proverbial smell of the greasepaint has lured and retained many a performer. But Klein and company have chosen to include odor in The UnPOSSESSED in a unique way. Near the beginning of the piece, Sancho produces, and proceeds to eat, a raw onion, which he then shares with Don Quixote. The audience reacted audibly when Glassman took the first bite. All I could think was, “Now the actors will smell of onions!” And they did, not terribly, but every time they dashed past I got a hit of onion. The interesting thing is that now, whenever I smell onion, I look for Don Quixote and Sancho! Hmmm...
Up in what may have been a hayloft, or may just be a clever imitation of one, four musicians – Brian Fairley, Scott Halligan, John Peitso, and Todd Trebour - were seated. They performed a marvelous score, written by Fairley and Peiso and Justin Handley. I understand the ensemble theory in which no one gets a solo bow, but I wish these talented men had been given a chance to be acknowledged by the audience for their important addition to the production.
The Republic of Dreams
Inspired by the life and artwork of Bruno Schulz
Conceived and directed by Stacy Klein
Co-created with Matthew Glassman, Carlos Uriano, and the Ensemble
Joseph (Bruno Schulz) – Matthew Glassman
Jacob (The Father) – Carlos Uriano
The Mother – Carroll Durand
Bianca – Hayley Brown
Adela – Jeremy Louise Eaton
Rudolf – Adam Bright
Score composed by Jacek Ostaszewski
Set designed, painted, and sculpted by Mira Zelechower-Aleksiun
Costume design by Carroll Durand
Lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger
Dramaturgy, musical direction, piano accompaniment by Brian Fairley with Scott Halligan (cello)
Associate design – Michal Kuriata
Lighting and technical direction by Adam Bright
Lighting Operator – Thom Pasculli
Spotlight Operator – Milena Dabova
Table design – Justin Lively
Props – Hannah Jarrell
I knew nothing about Bruno Schulz (1892 –1942), whose life and art is the subject of The Republic of Dreams, nor anything about the true story of the 1988 disappearance of Dutch actor Gustave Julien (Jules) Croiset (1937- ) or Ilan Stavans (born Ilan Stavchansky in 1961) who wrote the short story based on Croiset’s escapade which Double Edge has used as the basis of the Disappearance. But I enjoyed both pieces immensely because they are good theatre and because they are beautiful to look at. And I found that a quick trip through the Internet resources on these subjects to be very illuminating, which is why I have provided clickable links to the basics above.
The company has a whole table full of primary source material available during the intermissions which you may browse through but not remove. There are detailed director’s notes from Klein in the program, and, of course, company members are happy to share their knowledge. For The Republic of Dreams the company traveled to Schulz’ home town and spoke with people who knew him. For the Disappearance Stavans came and worked directly with the company on the stage adaptation of his short story of the same name. This is a group of people who take the word “research” very, very seriously!
One of the issues I frequently address here on GailSez is the question of just how much “homework” the average audience member should be required to do in order to enjoy a show. Often knowing too much – as did my companion the Cervantes scholar – is as dangerous as knowing too little, but I think here knowing a little is helpful. While I enjoyed both shows from my position of blissful ignorance, I would have enjoyed them more if I had at least read about Schulz, Croiset, and Stavans on Wikipedia.
For a director more concerned with process than performance, Klein’s stagecraft is impeccable. From every angle her shows are breathtaking to look at. One of the benefits of spending years working on the same projects is that you have time to find not just the costume that fits or the prop that serves its purpose, but the perfect costume and the perfect prop. You don’t have to focus the lights in one frantic sleepless night while one set is struck and the next one erected, you can spend entire months experimenting with gels and focus. And all this time and attention to detail, not just by the director but by the whole company, shows.
The Republic of Dreams is visually the most dreamlike of the three plays. While it lacks the physical dream qualities of spinning and flying so prevalent in The UnPOSSESSED, it is dreamlike in the ludicrous juxtaposition of characters and action. Why is there a man lying on top of an armoire in a leotard and tutu with a Prussian helmet on his head swimming the crawl? Well, why not? If you dreamt that you would wake up and laugh about it, but it is the kind of thing that you see in dreams and accept as perfectly normal.
According to Klein’s program notes, Schulz’ etching from the early 1920’s of a marching group of underwear-clad wax dummies provided the core image for this piece, and his 1936 essay, also entitled The Republic of Dreams, provided the ethic.
I am rewinding my brain cells here, but I believe The Republic of Dreams occurs in Schulz’s head during the split second between his assassination and his death. It is, literally, his life flashing before his eyes in a great hurried jumble of sounds, faces, places, and ideas. So it is not a peaceful nighttime dream but a rush of the conscious mind to recapitulate and hold tight to what makes Schulz a unique human being, before he returns to the dust from whence we all come.
Schulz did not believe in a linear world, and he did not write or draw one...Like Schulz, I insist on examining life according to a different kind of narrative, on standing firm in my dreams despite the violent conformity and enforced rationality of our world. Circling and spiraling through the imaginative genius of Schulz’ creations, I have discovered by own magical theatre – a dynamic layering of events not linked to obvious cause-and-effect.
– Stacy Klein
Schulz (played by Glassman) was born and spent his most of his life in Drohobycz, a town that was officially “owned” by several different countries in his lifetime. He became a graphic artist, a literary critic, and one of the most highly regarded prose writers in the Polish language (although he was also fluent in German) of the 20th century. A Jew, he was assassinated while bringing home a loaf of bread, not for his faith but as part of a petty argument between occupying German officers during the Second World War.
Once again, I loved the music, written by Fairley and performed by him on piano and Halligan on cello. It had a wonderful Klezmer sound, which I find very peppy, and it provided a fast-moving soundtrack to the cacophony of memories flooding from Schulz’ brain.
The images I loved best were the moments when what felt like the whole cast poured out of, or crammed themselves back into that armoire. It has a false back, of course, but the spectacle was amazing. There are photos of it here.
I also loved the table/step scenic units on wheels, designed by Justin Lively that moved, often with several cast members on board, seemingly on their own, but actually under carefully controlled and imperceptibly choreographed people-power.
We dreamed the region was being threatened by an unknown danger, permeated by a mysterious menace. Against these perils we sought refuge in fortresses of the fantastic. Today, these remote dreams come back, and not without reason. The possibility suggests itself that no dream, however senseless or absurd, goes wasted in the universe.
– Bruno Schulz, The Republic of Dreams 1936
If, like me, you come away with a yen to learn more about Bruno Schulz, this Web site contains English translations of many of his works. This site is in Polish, but it has much to offer visually to those who don’t speak that language. Klein also dedicates two pages in the program to her ongoing interest in Schulz and his inspiration of her work.
Based on the short story by Ilan Stavans
Directed and created by Stacy Klein with the Ensemble
Maarten Soëtendrop/Shylock – Carlos Uriano
Yosse/Bassanio & Launcelot Gobbo – Matthew Glassman
Christabelle/Jessica – Jeremy Louise Eaton
Soëtendrop’s Mother & Hugo/Antonio – Carroll Durand
Maria Piqué/Portia – Hayley Brown
Detective Demotte – Adam Bright
Original Music, Piano, and Dramaturgy by Brian Fairley
Puppeteer/Musician – Thom Pasculli (Clarinet/Saxophone)
Musicians – Todd trebour (Viola, Voice), Scott Halligan (Cello)
Scenic Design and Large Puppets by Michal Kuriata
Puppets, Paintings, and Masks by Hayley Brown
Costumes by Carroll Durand
Lighting Design by Dana Sheehan, with Matthew Glassman and Adam Bright
Lighting Operator – Milena Dabova
Film Projector – Sarah Cormier
the Disappearance is the newest work in the Garden Cycle. It was a first for Double Edge, working with a living author, and a first exploration of the theatre for author Ilan Stavans who wrote: “Working on stage in improvisational exercises, establishing a multifaceted dialogue with the director and actors, allowed me to explore the interface where literature and drama meet. It pushed me to reconsider the very fibers that make fiction work on the page.”
In 1988 Stavans became obsessed with the story of the disappearance of Jules Croiset when he read about it in the New York Times. “For years I saved the newsclipping, waiting for the moment to appropriate the tale.” he wrote in his introduction to the 2006 collection that contained his short story The Disappearance, "The dates are all accurate, as is the spirit of the protagonist’s staged exit and reentrance. I’ve only dabbled with the proper names, the protagonist’s psychological upbringing, and the rationale behind his escape."
Stavans turned the Dutch Croiset into the Belgian Maarten Soëtendrop (Uriona) and gives the story a narrator in Soëtendrop’s younger fellow actor Yosee (Glassman). They are appearing in a production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Soëtendrop in the leading role of Shylock, the epitome of the anti-Semitic stereotypical Jew. Shakespeare’s poetry is interwoven with Stavans’ prose and Double Edge’s inventions to create a seamless whole which explores the far-reaching damage done by anti-Semitism in specific, and prejudice and hatred in general.
Well, the importance of theatre is that it holds a mirror up to humanity – to say, ‘This is what we do, is this really what we are and do we perhaps need to rethink ourselves?’ Language allows truth to resonate within our bodies so that people can truly recognize the image in that mirror.
– Renée Speltz
For now we see through a glass, darkly...
– I Corinthians 13: 12a
If you look at the photos of the Disappearance on the Double Edge Web site, you will understand at once why I chose these quotations. Klein and scenic designer Michal Kuriata have incorporated glass – both mirrored and transparent – throughout the set. The delicious thing is that this gives every member of the audience a different stage picture. What I saw reflected in a mirror or distorted through a windowpane, another person saw unfiltered, and vice versa. I loved the various effects achieved this way, enhanced by Dana Sheehan’s evocative lighting.
The dichotomy between identity, belonging, and being an outsider are themes that firmly bond the writing of [Stavans] with our own artistic search. the Disappearance reflects a room of its own, or many distinct rooms, within which the creative boundaries of each artist’s prior concept of self is exploded.
– Stacy Klein, March 2008
This version of this particular story explores questions of identity – how it is formed in childhood, or even in the womb, how we create and recreate ourselves, only to cover ourselves up with masks and costumes, even with new names, as our personal roles change with age and circumstance. Soëtendrop merges himself with his mother, his twin brother, and the roles he plays as an actor.
I was reminded of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as Shakespeare blended events on stage and back stage in Stavans’ story. I am at a loss to explain how it is that I have never read or seen a production of The Merchant of Venice (especially when I have seen King John twice!) but I was frustrated by my weak knowledge of that play. I know that I would have enjoyed “the Disappearance” much more if I had a full command of The Merchant... just as a solid knowledge of Hamlet is essential to enjoying Rosencrantz...
Music, masks, puppets and Carroll Durand’s meticulous costumes are key components of all three Garden Cycle plays, and they are equal partners in creating the visual and aural wholeness of Double Edge’s work.
I returned to Double Edge the following morning to attend a journalists symposium on Writing About Laboratory Theatre, where I had the pleasure of hearing colleagues from around the world speaking about the rarity of laboratory theatre and the specific problems writing about it creates for journalists, some of which I addressed in my prologue. Living and working as I do in a region where there are distinct hierarchies and rivalries among critics, I found it a wonderful treat to be able to talk freely and seriously with my colleagues and I thank Double Edge for organizing the event.
They have two more symposia planned during this run of The Garden Cycle: Fresh Faces: A New Generation of Daring Innovators on April 19 and Bold Women of Theatre on April 26. The Symposia start at 11 am and conclude with a luncheon. You can learn more about them here.
I have not written about the physical set-up at Double Edge, although I did mention that they lived together. In 1994 the company left Boston and moved to a 105-acre former dairy farm on Rt. 116 in Ashfield where their facilities now include permanent housing for company members, two performance spaces, archives, gallery space for local artists, and a newly-purchased 19th-century house a mile or so away in downtown Ashfield for student and guest accommodation. Since the opening of the Farm Center in 1997, Double Edge has presented its own performances, hosted international artists and groups, held discussions and symposia.
From its arrival in Ashfield the company has been very involved in the community and the region they call home, something I consider crucial to any company’s long-term survival.
Will children enjoy the Double Edge shows? Yes and no. They will enjoy the physical and visual spectacles, but they won’t be able to follow the stories. These plays aren’t really geared for young children. At $50 per ticket ($45 for students, seniors, and Ashfield residents), I would leave the kids behind for The Garden Cycle and plan to take them to the company’s annual family-friendly indoor/outdoor Summer Spectacular – The Arabian Nights – which will be performed, rain or shine, Wednesdays-Sundays, July 29 - August 22 at 8 p.m.
Dress Code: This is a Farm, and, on the second day of Spring 2009, there was quite a bit of MUD to be slogged through to get to the reception room and then back and forth to the performance space. Leave you pearls and stiletto heels at home and strap on your wellies for this one!
My only caution to people considering attending The Garden Cycle is that there was a LOT of stair climbing involved in my Double Edge experience. If you have trouble with stairs you will want to call ahead. I am sure there are some accommodations that I didn’t see.
The Garden Cycle - consisting of the plays "the UnPOSSESSED," "Republic of Dreams," and "the Disappearance" - will be performed at the Double Edge Theatre, 948 Conway Road, Ashfield, MA. The entire Cycle will be performed on Saturdays, March 21, 28, April 4, 18, 25, & May 2 at 6 p.m. A "Pay What You Want" preview performance is March 14. Related events will take place on Sundays, including symposia (March 22, April 19, April 26) and workshops (March 29, April 5, May 3). I will be seeing the show on March 21 and posting my review on this page shortly thereafter. For information call 413-628-0277. For reservations call the Box Office at 866-811-4111.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009