ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 2
By Jacob Horn
Stage directions run the gamut from virtually nonexistent (as in classical drama) to minimal (Shakespeare's, for example), to extensive (like Arthur Miller's lengthy expository passages). And then there are Eugene O'Neill's stage directions, which leave no stone unturned. Actions and reactions, emotions and motivations are described with tight precision, while the playwright creates environments more vivid in the script than they could ever be on stage.
Director Christopher Loar became fascinated with O'Neill's stage directions, discovering that "in them we find the unrequited dreams of a failed poet... [whose] meticulously prescribed stage directions proved to be a kind of insurance against anyone screwing his plays up." And, as an ensemble member of the New York Neo-Futurists, a company whose approach to performance prohibits illusion (a stage in a theater is always a stage in a theater), Loar found that separating the directions from the dialogue was the perfect way to bring O'Neill into the Neo-Futurist aesthetic.
This resulted in 2011's The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 1, and now Volume 2, at Theater for the New City, takes on five of O'Neill's plays from 1913–1915: Recklessness, Warnings, Fog, Abortion, and The Sniper. Those who saw the earlier production (this reviewer did not) might tire of the conceit, which is directly extended from the previous show, but viewed independently, Volume 2 is a highly entertaining theatrical experiment.
The greatest success of CCSD is as a physical comedy. Loar and the ensemble cast (Christopher Borg, Roberta Colindrez, Cara Francis, and Dylan Marron) exercise great discipline, allowing for recurring gags that don't run out of steam, and carefully situate moments for maximum comedic impact. The cast members work well together. Narrator Cecil Baldwin's reading of the directions is clear, pleasant and well-integrated, despite a few moments where histrionics elsewhere on stage threaten to drown him out.
Francis's selection of props and set pieces is ingenious; though they initially seem randomly scattered and haphazardly collected, each one serves a highly specific purpose, demonstrating a tremendous attention to detail. Many objects serve multiple purposes, and the ways in which they are initially deployed tend to set them up perfectly for later uses without ever seeming forced.
This presentation also provokes some interesting questions about authorship/ownership in the theater. O'Neill has written everything here, and yet the play somehow feels less like it belongs to him than a traditional staging of one of his plays might. His stage directions exude an urge for control, but Loar sometimes pushes back against this instinct by capitalizing on double meanings or ambiguities in order to deliberately misconstrue them. Sometimes these jokes feel a bit like low-hanging fruit, but they play an important part in asking whose play this is.
There's also the question of how much of a play's plot can come across without any dialogue being spoken, relying simply on sentiments and actions. Working only with O'Neill's stage directions proves reductive, but it is surprisingly effective. The challenge to communicate a story exists throughout, but the staging of the final play of the group, The Sniper, also tackles the additional element of emotional charge. It is staged in the same physical style, yet is tonally distinct, exuding a seriousness that seems bent on proving there's more to the whole venture than slapstick humor and deconstruction.
When it tries to double back on its comedic approach, CCSD meets mixed success. After establishing the performance of the bare stage directions as something comical, it's hard to change course. The audience seemed unsure if they were still supposed, or allowed, to laugh during a period of adjustment that was quick, but jarring.
And yet, the instinct to push this enterprise beyond the comedic success it has achieved in Volumes 1 and 2 seems valid—and is ultimately rather powerful. Could Volume 3 be far behind? Only time will tell, but Loar and his team have shown in this entertaining and well-executed Volume 2 that if they wanted to, they have the chops to pull it off.