Sunday, July 31, 2011

On the Inescapability of Gaga

I was driving home this morning, listening to the radio (an occasional past time of mine), when Lady Gaga came on. As a reflex, I immediately went to change the station, only to discover that the exact same Gaga song was the second station. Fighting back a brief panic, I quickly changed to a third pre-set station, only to discover that this song was playing on that station too! For those playing along at home, that's three separate radio stations simultaneously asking me to listen to Gaga. I took the hint and listened to the song, afraid of where else she might show up if I didn't. I listened to a Gaga-less gospel station for the remainder of the car ride.

In conclusion, the bitch is everywhere. Good for her, scary/questionable for us. I hope you folks are enjoying a lazy Sunday.

(Obviously, the links in this post needed to match the song's actual circulation)


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Queening Out: Thinking Through Next to Normal

It's been a while, and I imagine you are getting pretty tired of my blogging excuses, so I won't make any. To no one's surprise, this post ended up being significantly longer than I intended. Humor me. Read it.

We all knew this day would come: Will Danger is letting his inner show-queen out of the cage and let me just say that I'm surprised we made it this long without encountering her. Pausing to channel Jill Dolan, I begin: This evening, the Danger family and I trekked into DC to the Kennedy Center for an evening viewing of the highly-anticipated Next to Normal, a show which seems suspiciously, if necessarily, attached to the diva-like reputation of its star, Alice Ripley (and also a show which, I might add, has closed on Broadway and is nearing the end of its touring production).

I'm finding the show sort of difficult to write about, if only because I have several different threads I want to pursue. The set (pictured below) is interesting in the way it is alternately (and simultaneously) the Goodman's physical house and Diana's head (invoked by the creepy pair of eyes the occasionally replace the set's middle floor), which strikes me as a surprisingly complex formulation. I wonder if this design choice indicates that we are meant to read the entire play through Diana's eyes; her mind's distorted reflection of her family, rather than the actual family itself. This seems like a compelling choice in the way it places the show in lineage with late 19th/early 20th century German and American expressionism. The framework of the play falls in-line with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, O'Neil's Long Day's Journey into Night and (most significantly) Ibsen's A Doll's House, each of which portrays a kind of nightmare distortion of the world through its protagonist's eyes. (That litany makes it sound rather as though I just completed an 11th grade English class, doesn't it?) We take Diana to be the protagonist, sure, but to what extent do we either read or accept her as a narrator? What does it mean, especially for our understanding of the story's other characters, if the events as we see them are not real, but instead a reflection (or possibly manifestation) of Diana's grief?

Perhaps because I've spent a great deal of the summer so far thinking about affect, I thought the show painted a particularly intriguing affective trajectory for grief, examining the ways in which we trade and exchange grief (Dan), the way we might come to inherit the effects of a grief we've never actually known (Natalie) and the way in which our personal affects hold the capacity to both fracture and psychically reanimate us (Diana). I'm repeating my previous entry and stepping slightly on Teresa Brennan's toes, but what does it mean to imagine affect not simply as something which we can transmit, but something that also accrues materiality and becomes physically sedimented?

Along these lines, I'm thinking in two directions: First, what is the line between the biological and the affective? At what point do we connect affects (these ethereal "shimmers" [stolen from Gregg and Seigworth]) and biological pathologies, chemical imbalances, etc? Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, do our affects accrue materiality as they attach themselves to objects and people? In Next to Normal, Natalie, as the child who didn't die, exists as a constant reminder to her mother of Gabe, the child who did. Through Natalie, has Diana given her grief flesh? How does Natalie exist to Diana if not as an object of her grief and what happens when we start to think of grief, or any affect, as materiality?

I suppose I'm hardly qualified to critique theatre and theatrical performances, but this blog is nothing if not self-indulgent, so bear with me. This cast (which included understudy Pearl Sun) felt a little weak to me. Emma Hunton was by far the standout, singing a fantastic, if extremely unlikeable, Natalie. She's certainly come a long way since her Spring Awakening days. Only knowing Hunton from Spring Awakening (Ilse), I was sort of surprised to learn that she could even sing the part, let alone deliver the powerful vocal performance she did.

Ah, Alice Ripley.

Ms. Ripley (who won a Tony for her performance as Diana, has been playing the role for several years now, and has damaged her voice such that that she sounds as though she is singing entirely underwater) called out this evening (Not totally surprising, given the present state of Ripley's vocal chords). There's been a great deal of ink spilled over whether or not Alice Ripley is a hero or a total fucking nutbag, and I think the truth is that she's both. I will start by saying that I really do believe the woman is out of her mind and obnoxiously obsessed with herself. That being said, Ripley can be a powerful performer, and the show sort of fell apart in her absence. I really didn't want to believe that the show requires Alice to be good, because I think it's a smart show. Pearl really fell flat, though, not because she isn't a competent performer, but rather simply because there was something missing. Her Diana felt safe; Pearl did a poor job of convincing me that she was losing her mind, or in any psychic danger. Maybe the bottom line here is that you need to be crazy in order to play crazy. Or maybe Ripley's ego empowers her onstage. At any rate, Pearl Sun's Diana didn't quite carry the emotional or intellectual weight which we've come to expect from Ripley.

Whatever you're doing Alice, it's working for you, I guess.

I've run on much longer than intended, so I'll cut it off here. I do want, in closing, to think about the show's literary and theatrical genealogies (Ibsen, O'Neil, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and to place that next to the show's feminist sensibilities. What does it mean to see Diana and Ibsen's Nora make the same decision 130 years apart, and to have it be received similarly? When Diana decides to leave her family, her treatment, and her mental health behind, some audience members were shocked. Why don't we see more women choosing insanity or seeking their own paths, independent of familial ties?

Be good, folks.