In what does the "magic" of the magic of theatre consist?
The Marvelous Maria Beatriz asked that question after we had seen a production by Belarus Free Theatre of "Discover Love," about political disappearances of citizens.
The framework for the question was set up a few nights before, when we ushered for Lynn Nottage's new work, "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark," about black actors in 1930s Hollywood and the choices they did and did not get to make about their careers.
"Vera Stark" is a stylish production: motorized sets, sumptuous costumes, well-calibrated acting. In short, not a hair out of place and just the thing to appeal to their subscribers and the gerontological crowd from which they draw their audiences.
The script is, I think, a mess, with a first act pitched at the level of a minstrel show and the second act (set decades later) a parody of academic deconstructionist speechifying by people discussing Vera Stark's meaning to the culture.
Beyond that, however, it was next to impossible to feel connected to anything about what was happening on the stage. So finely tuned were the goings-on that the most one could do was simply watch the passing show -- one was not invited in or spoken to or even necessary to the event.
In other words, while it had all the magical trappings of theatre, it had no magic -- that is, that quality, ineffable and largely serendipitous, that shifts the theatre-goer out of the ordinary into the extra-ordinary, that abolishes all but the present-tense and makes the theatre the entire world and our citizenry in it essential and organic.
"Vera Stark" tried very hard to provoke this, but we could see its sweat and so became disenchanted.
A few days later, Belarus Free Theatre at LaMama, in the Annex.
A large open space, completely open, with a mattress (four tire rims and a washtub tucked underneath), a chair, and a backdrop for projections. Three performers. Entrances and exits made from the behind the backdrop, a sound design of voices and effects. And the story of the abduction and murder of Tolya, the husband of Irina Krasovskaya, by the political authorities, told by simple direct address to the audience, their words translated into English supertitles.
And the Marvelous Maria Beatriz and I are in tears at the end.
Directness, simplicity, honesty — those were there. But also how the performers invested the artifice with themselves and didn't just move around inside it.
How they shaped the air with their words the way a painter reconfigures a canvas with paint.
How well they deployed the paradox at the heart of a theatrical production: the more "realistic" a production tries to be, the less real it comes off; the more the artifice is embraced as artifice, the greater the possibility to connect emotionally and intellectually.
Those are the ingredients of the magic, how they reëlasticize time and space so that veneers crack and honesty seeps in and the daily and the contingent and the instrumental stand in momentary defeat while aesthetic pleasure teams up with moral respect to make each of us feel consequential and thankful.
The secular version of grace.