Size Matters

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Publication: American Theatre
Author: Cote, David
Date published: March 1, 2012

Size Matters A deep analysis of 7 high-profile megaplays taps into their unique, encompassing theatrical energies GREAT LENGTHS: SEVEN WORKS OF MARATHON THEATER By Jonathan KaIb. The University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor, 2011. 229 pp., $55 cloth.

FRIEND ONCE TOLD ME ENGLISH COMEDIAN Frank Muir's definition of Wagnerian opera: You take your seat at six o'clock and listen to Wagner's music for two hours; then you look at your watch and it says six-thirty. That tyrannical abstraction Time is nothing if not subjective; it flies or crawls or stops dead. We've all attended 90-minute plays that lasted an eternity, and protracted epics that flew by without glancing at our watch.

As a busy critic who must forearm himself with knowledge of the show's duration, I am painfully alert to published running times. If a play finishes 10 minutes under the wire, I'm taken aback; 10 minutes over and I feel trapped. Waiting for things to be over, die mind drifts to digital distractions: e-mails misent, texts unchecked, banalities untweeted. Indeed, I caught Muir's Wagner joke on Facebook - one of those time-wasting, attention-shrinking ubiquities of the digital age that critic Jonathan KaIb thinks has turned us into fidgety philistines, unable to savor the joys of long- form theatre.

As a bulwark against the culture's "hurry sickness" and "image swarm," KaIb offers Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater, a diligently researched and beautifully written appreciation of work that bursts the bounds of "two hours' traffic.'' Through a deft historical introduction and six authoritative, deep-diving chapters, KaIb reconstructs whole theatrical worlds from memory and reassesses contemporary criticism of them. Kalb's subjects are refreshingly diverse: the Royal Shakespeare Company's daylong adaptation of Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby; Peter Brook's 11 -hour Hindu-myth-derived The Mahahharata (1988); Tony Kushner's two-part Broadway hit Angels in America in 1993-94; the 1976 Phillip Glass avant-garde opera sensation Einstein on the Beach; the rules-based "durationals" Quizoola! and Speak Bitterness by England's Forced Entertainment; and Peter Stein's 21-hour uncut staging of Goethe's Faust I + H for Germany's Expo 2000.

Why do some artists undertake such massive projects and, more important, why do so many of them attract such avid authences? KaIb doesn't push any grand unifying theory. Although he traces lengthy stage events from the ancient Greek festival City Dionysia to the medieval Corpus Christi cycles - and weaves in Umberto Eco's The Infinity of Lists to suggest diat the human mind best grasps life's plenitude and variety through compendia - he admits that each case is different. And yet, he eloquently observes, each also "generated an uncommon sense of public communion that transformed throngs of atomized consumers into congregations of skeptical co-religionists, or at least consciously commiserating co-sufferers."

This book is (no pun intended) timely; in recent years, marathon plays have become downright common, a development KaIb notes. Between October 2009 and December 2010, 1 myself reviewed and/or attended a surprising number of these calendar-busting engagements: Robert Lepage's Lipsynch (8.5 hours); Taylor Mac's The Lilys Revenge (5 hours); Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle (9 hours); Tarell AJ vin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays (4.5 hours); Peter Stein's Dostoyevsky adaptation The Demons (11.5 hours); the Signature Theatre revival of AngeL· in America (7 hours); Elevator Repair Service's Gatz (7 hours); and finally, Tricycle Theatre's 12 -play historical cycle The Great Game: Afghanistan (10.5 hours).

But I happened to miss all the productions KaIb anatomizes in Great Lengths, and that's one of its greatest virtues, for me at least: vicarious play-going. Reading KaIb on Brook or Stein is like being led through vast, crowded galleries by a tireless docent who draws attention to minute details and even dishes a little dirt about the curators. KaIb has reviewed for the Village Voice and the New York Press and currently teaches at Hunter College, and he's one of the most incisive, serious theatre commentators of the past 20 years. Samuel Beckett and postwar German regietheater are his areas of expertise, but his theatrical tastes are wide-ranging, as the new book attests. KaIb can savor the melodramatic thrills of Dickens, the intellectual elegance of Kushner's camp-Brechtian strategies, and the anti-theatrical, aleatory contours of Forced Entertainment's conceptual stunts.

He also has journalistic chops. KaIb knows that unless he re-creates die cultural context and content of die show engagingly, we won't appreciate his analysis. He lauds Trevor Nunn, playwright David Edgar and die RSC actors for embracing Dickensian sentimentality, balancing die "corniness" of the plot with a plastic narrative voice diat enfranchised every member of die ensemble. He brings The Mababbarata to vivid, colorful life, including the mini-scandal that erupted when the Brooklyn Academy of Music received $4.2 million from die city to renovate the Majestic Theater as "a chic ruin," modeled after Brook's Paris home, Les Bouffes du Nord.

The chapter on Angels in America offers a clear-eyed explanation of why political theatre in general, and Brecht in particular, have never flourished in America. His account of Einstein on the Beach opens up new ways of seeing and hearing that immersive, sensual masterwork. The final section on the mammoth weekend-long Faust I + II will make you depressed that you never saw it, but very glad KaIb did.

Besides the sheer documentary usefulness of his reportage, KaIb is in fine form engaging criticism of his subjects. For example, he questions the assumption that Brook was dallying with touristic amateur ethnography in The Mahabharata, a contention diat struck a nerve in the late 1980s at die height of identity politics and critiques of Orientalism in Western art. Radier dian accept die notion diat Brook appropriated and distorted Indian history and Hindu myth in his multi-ethnic metaphysical pageant, KaIb applauds its rigorous naïveté and theatrical inventiveness as an antidote to reductive formulae of ethnic realism or authenticity.

Likewise, KaIb defends Kushner against queer theorists who found diat universalizing the queer subject somehow lessens its power as an agent of political change. Watching Forced Entertainment's Speak Bitterness on his computer in his home office, KaIb pens a charmingly up-close-and-personal sketch of a critic's shifting attitude toward a structured but baggy event - actors reading confessions from sheets of paper for six hours. He's amused, then irritated, then bored, then pulled back in and deeply moved by die mad, fragmentary monumentality of it.

For a book about such prolonged and complicated artworks, Great Lengths is not long-winded or self-indulgent. Buoyed by Kalb's fine-tuned prose, his dryly witty but earnest voice and his ability to make deep connections across centuries and continents, it is a steady and exciting read. It also functions as a marvelous history of Western drama that summarizes a number of theoretical constructs - -from Aristotle's prescriptive Poetics to Hans-Thies Lehmann 's concept of "postdramatic" theatre. Along the way, we learn a bit about the Noh tripartite structure jo-ha-kyu, Broadway pricing and marketing, die rise and fall of die avant-garde, Romantic closet drama, queer theory, Wagnerian versus Artaudian visions, Brechtian alienation, and the weirdly institutionalized iconoclasm of German theatre. In its own way, Kalb's book resembles the plays he writes about: It is bodi capacious and multifarious.

Author affiliation:

David Cote, theatre editor and chief drama critic for Time Out New York, is an early-career playwright/librettist.

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