Friday, September 18, 2009

Review of Applied Mechanics "It's Hard Times at the Camera Blanca"

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Applied Mechanics "It’s Hard Times at the Camera Blanca" presented the inescapable nature of the global economy, that other thing artists hate most about the intersection of art and economics. Here, eight circus characters (trapeze artists, clowns, a lion tamer) downed drinks at the Camera Blanca bar as they struggled with the economic uncertainty of a travelling show on the verge of financial failure. The audience moved between tables, chairs, and barstools, eavesdropping on conversations between a brother and sister as their relationship fragments over an uncertain economic future, listening to the outpourings of clowns who fear irrelevancy, and throughout, witnessing a Ringmaster ruling over all of them with a unyielding iron fist.

One moment of hope rises above the Dickensian din: a young clown arrives, hoping to reinvigorate, if not reinvent the circus (i.e., the economy, if you didn’t get it yet). "No one does that," the lion tamer tells him; "no one can do that" the Ringmaster commands.

Rebecca Wright’s text lays the metaphors on thick; however, she enlivens the dialogue by creatively borrowing from a number of other sources, providing a movie-buff’s dream script with quotes culled from Greatest Show on Earth, Trapeze, and Casablanca (hence the mnemonically mimicking "Camera Blanca" bar). I laughed in hearing the bartender and trapeze artist replaying the "Go back to Bulgaria" dialogue, just one of the moments that transcended the show’s melancholy mood.

Like several other Fringe Artists presenting works that deal with the scientific discipline of economics, I’d love to know the depth of Wright’s knowledge in this field (or at least how much research she’s done). However, unlike the two monologues Mike Daisey showcased at this year’s festival, Wright at least doesn’t dip into fantastical solutions to fix economic woes, but instead presents the valid, real concerns felt particularly by artists during an economic recession that makes the production of art a luxury and further drives the existence of artists to the margins.

Despite these financial concerns, Wright and her designer Maria Shaplin didn’t manufacture a sure-seller for the Fringe, but instead pushed at the boundaries of theatre as an art form. "Hard Times" dropped the proscenium, linear narrative, and fixed directorial focus, and forced the audience to follow characters about an awkward landscape, catching only part of the conversations at a time to piece together the evening by themselves. At times it felt a bit scatter brained, but the entire 35 minute piece repeated, allowing anyone with decent parallel processing skills (or massive ADHD) to catch every conversation and get the whole jist of her "hard times" and circus metaphor.

And while Wright may not have found any answers about the economy, her new work asked important, and theatrically rewarding questions about the dramatic nature of theatre.

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