Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sci-Fi novels: We

I stopped reading sci-fi around age 15. But I've returned to the genre recently, playing catch-up on works like Dune. I just finished We, a very early Soviet sci-fi novel (1921) written by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It's not just a brisk, zesty read, it's got artistic substance beyond most sci-fi. George Orwell cribbed a lot from We: the mechanics of his dystopia as well as a few big plot points—including the climax! Basically, We is the prototype for dystopic sci-fi: the protag awakens to his home culture's injustice, joins the revolution, and dies.

It's the 26th century. The OneState is a domed city of glass, a beautiful image subverted by its reason: to more easily spy on citizens. Free love is enforced by bureaucratic forms; people have alphanumeric IDs rather than names, like Star Wars droids. D-503, the protag, has designed the first interstellar rocket. Maybe that's why he's drafted into an anarchist cell by erotic I-330, drawn into despair by her dagger lips (it may be a lefty book, but it's not enlightened).

And so on. Part of the novel's fun is seeing sci-fi tropes in their raw state—you can get the same primitive futurism when you watch Fritz Lang's Metropolis. But We also works as a novel, probably better than 1984. Zamyatin gives D-503 a vivid inner life: the novel's arc is D's breakdown, caught between the anarchist and the state. His insanity is electric in a Dostoyevsky-like way, oscillating between obsessive hyperclarity and fevered ravings. And that climax that Orwell lifted? Actually, both scenes are riffs on the Grand Inquisitor: the State's torturer justifies totalitarian measures by citing his love for the populace.

If We is a sci-fi riff on Dosteyevsky, it's is some cackling-scientist version, a trip to the future in HG Wells' time machine. Zamyatin is ironic to his core: the book ends with anarchy threatening to topple the OneState (yes!), but the hero's been lobotomized (umm…). Still, there's a dashing element of romantic adventure to We. Check out this descrip of the femme fatale, who's been smuggled aboard the rocket:

[T]he huge blue sparks above, over the radio antenna, seemed to come from her, and the faint, lightning smell of ozone, also from her.”

That's right out of Buck Rogers!

We's not a great novel, but it's brisk & engaging. The reason to read it isn't its vision of the future (which is dated) or its investigation of totalitarianism (which, yeah, Orwell did better). It's the mad vivacity that Zamyatin infuses D with. He puts us in D's head then sets it spinning into insanity. Poor D, driven mad by lust, scientific abstractions, and the State. A weird, Soviet electric fantasy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Corporate theater culture

The theater blogs today are all about Outrageous Fortune, a study of the not-for-profit American theater scene. Isaac at Parabasis & several others are blogging their way through the book. And I've been inspired by their comments, though I haven't read the book (yet). In one post, Isaac talks about the corporatization of not-for-profit theater. He quotes OF:
"You can't have an artistic system be corporate, because all the corporation is about is making money.  The current system neither makes money nor produces good art, so we're in a terrible bind."
Later Isaac wonders "if the problem is simply that a lot of ADs are bad at their jobs, but the structure is basically sound."

Now this is something I've thought about a lot. I believe that it's a huge problem across the arts: American culture has adopted the corporation as the model for human organization.* Private & public funding encourages this paradigm by requiring various features of the corporate structure (like a board of directors) in order to receive money.

I worked for 3 years at a large NYC theater company with a corporate structure. Despite being on the artistic staff, I felt as if I had no stake in the work onstage. The company produced widgets. Even in the commissioning of plays (which I was heavily involved in), conformity to corporate habit was enforced through a process of pitch submission & panel evaluation.

How do these theaters work? A board of directors looks at the theater's "numbers" (attendance, budget, awards & prizes) to evaluate whether they're best served by the AD. If he or she fails to meet the board's standards, he or she gets replaced. And so it goes throughout the company's hierarchy.

What's the upshot? It's terribly dehumanizing for employees and it produces insipid work for audiences. And that's contra the goal of art, which is to make all of us, on both sides of the fourth wall, more human and more humane. So, Isaac, no, the corporate structure is fundamentally unsound in this context. A theater company shouldn't be run along corporate lines.


* And not just the arts: as but one example, education, esp. higher education, is run according to the corporate structure--to the system's detriment.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Romeo and Juliet (The Nature Theater of Oklahoma)

After a month off, I'm back in the habit of covering NYC theater & other work that catches my mind's eye. First up, an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet at the Kitchen.

Romeo and Juliet
The Kitchen
January 7, 2010
Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper (directors)

At its core, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Romeo and Juliet is about memory. The show recounts  impromptu summaries of Shakespeare's romance delivered to co-directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. Most of the people they interviewed haven't read the script since high school (or they conflate it with West Side Story), and they're fuzzy on the plot—especially the convoluted ending (which lover merely feigns death?). But retelling the story, even in patchwork, inspires people: one subject moves himself visibly in recounting the tragic ending, another recalls a crush extolling the play in gym class, a third compares the work's catharsis to her feelings after the WTC attacks. These moments are lovely and human.

But the actors must struggle to impart individuality and texture to each inteview. They're directed to play in a hambone style, pronouncing words plummily (the “bal-CONE-y” scene) before a painted curtain right out of Dickens. The show sneers—and invites us to sneer too—at mis-rememberings like “What light through yonder window speaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the west!” This Romeo and Juliet is pretty damned funny, but it's got too much empty irony and hipster surrealism (why the 5-foot-tall dancing chicken? Dunno). Liska & Copper stage a wrestling match with Shakespeare, but of course they can't win. They do concede graciously, however, playing the balcony scene with lights down so we really listen to the words. Paying their interview subjects the same respect would add substance to an enjoyable but empty evening.


Romeo and Juliet plays at the Kitchen (512 W. 19th St., btw. Tenth & Eleventh Ave.), closing on January 16. Tickets?

Photo credit: Kerstin Joensson