- homepage link


Divided to Conquer
By Jonathan Kalb

Avenue Q
By Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty
Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th St.

Big River
By Roger Miller and William Hauptman
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St.


It's hard not to be a little cynical about alternative theater trends on the Great White Way: autobiographical solo performance, Tanztheater, multimedia collage, bang-on-a-can percussion, poetry slams, and a hundred other sources of revitalization grabbed up by the hype machine. Most of the time, the Broadway theater is an enormous sponge, a massive organ of crude absorption and regurgitation where originality is readily hawked but grows naturally only as a fluke, like an opportunistic fungus, and the truly edgy is quickly vulgarized and politically neutralized by the pressures of mass appeal. This point hardly needs reiterating; commercial cooptation no longer raises eyebrows. All the more interesting then, that a relatively sophisticated off-theater technique--the split focus--now stands at the center of two Broadway musicals with much of its complicating power intact.

Avenue Q, the "Sesame Street" spinoff for grownups, demands that audiences divide their attention between live stage action and animation clips played on large monitors off to the side, and between near-life size puppets and puppeteers who mimic and play against them. Big River, the Roundabout/Deaf West Theater revival of the 1985 musical version of Huckleberry Finn, is performed simultaneously in speech and sign language, with some characters played by two actors at once. Sometimes one signs and the other speaks and sings, and other times both sign, or both speak or sing, and other times signers are "given voice" by unassuming choral actors half a stage away.

From a certain standpoint none of this is new. The National Theater of the Deaf has been performing in sign language since 1967, and Big River's Los Angeles-based Deaf West company is itself twelve years old. Puppets were sassing their handlers long before the Muppets, or even Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and puppet-human interaction reached a height of subtlety and sophistication in the last 20 years in the work of "alternative" artists like Ralph Lee, Larry Reed and Theodora Skipitares. What's remarkable about these two musicals is: (1) that their split-focus techniques are unusually subtle for their commercial contexts; and (2) that they are used as central structuring concepts, not afterthought flavoring. The charm, eloquence, and depth of both shows issues in large measure from these techniques. It's novelty as necessity.

Let me be clear on what I do and don't mean by split focus here. Because theater is a collaborative art where a lot is often going on, there's obviously a sense in which it always involves divided attention: spectators look away from actors to admire sets, sound effects, lighting, or they divert their eyes from stars to appreciate backup performers, or they pause in listening to attend to costumes, props, attractive bodies. All this is unavoidable. At least since the art of directing was born, however, most Western theater has operated on the presumption that the artist in charge is supposed to control the distraction as much as possible. The director is expected to have a strongly cohesive vision of what is most important at every moment of a production, with the end product planned as a preconceived, unitary experience, regardless of chance reactions. In commercial venues like Broadway, this unitary convention reigns supreme. Even in high-octane extravaganzas that blast a profusion of lights, legs, voices, shapes and colors at the audience simultaneously, every sequence has a dominant focus, if only to keep the wildness aligned with plot and character development. This singularity is in fact intrinsic to Broadway's essential conventionalism and conservatism: it promotes the idea of a single, dominant, overarching vision (author's, director's or producer's), long unfashionable among those hip to the pluralizing and relativizing trends of contemporary theory, and it pretends that the culture's postmodern aesthetic of diffusion is inconsequential and irrelevant when in fact it's ubiquitous.

Many of the theater's most important artists have of course been indulging in this aesthetic for decades. Pick up any substantial interview with Elizabeth LeCompte, Richard Foreman, or Peter Sellars, and you'll find some eloquent justification for multiplex signaling, multiple points of view, simultaneous action in disjoined stage spaces, constructive friction between text and action, and more. In a 1988 conversation, Sellars mentioned that his preferred sort of theater was specifically unlike television.

What I love is that theatre is not like television, which features one thing at a time. You move in on a close-up of her face or whatever. But theatre has three or four things happening at once and you have to decide what to look at. I try and leave it open to the audience what to look at. Obviously I guide the eye in certain situations. I also leave it open so that two people sitting next to each other saw different shows because they were each looking at a different place at a given moment. Two people watching a TV show see the same thing.

Sellars might have gone on to point out that the longevity of single-focus on Broadway has undoubtedly been sustained by television, whose nature is comparably conventional. My guess is, the commercial inroads that split focus is making today are an aftereffect of the rise of the internet.

"The internet is for porn!" croons the genially grumpy Trekkie Monster in Avenue Q. Point taken. But of course by now everyone knows that the internet is also for distraction and instant gratification generally. The Web is the ultimate procrastination and multi-tasking tool, and its cluttered aesthetic of windows-within-windows has permanently altered design in countless non-electronic contexts. From breakfast cereal boxes to billboards, info-age surfaces have more stuff crammed onto them than anyone would have thought feasible or desirable a few decades ago. Recently, the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center premiered a feature film by Julie Talen called Pretend that was made entirely in split-screen--four to eight different frames together onscreen at all times, in contrast to the fleeting split-screen effects used in previous films such as Timecode and The Hulk. Thus, when the director of Avenue Q, Jason Moore, expects his audience to bob mentally back and forth between an actor (John Tartaglia) sincerely singing an anxious ballad, a puppet controlled by that actor making contrastingly silly faces, and two animation clips cutely transforming the word "purpose" into "propose" (the puppet-character is freaked out about marriage), that's okay. We're equipped to find it all fun rather than confusing.

Avenue Q, whose thin plot is about disaffected post-collegiates squeezing by on pluck and perkiness in a fairyland-dilapidated, 1970s-ish New York, has been praised for its youthful energy and clever media appeal (the show has the feel of a TV-episode shoot). But its basic presentational strategy is its real source of subtlety. Being modeled on the Muppets, for instance, most of the puppets have giant, intently ogling eyes, but the actors operating them only rarely mimic that straightforward earnestness. Mostly they temper it with calmer, more measured expressions so that the composite characters are really blends of two attitudes, one simplistically allegorical and the other more complex because it's filtered through the specifically human. This doubling is crucial to the edgy confessional humor in a song like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," which plays the real racial identities of Asian-American, African-American and Caucasian actors off the imaginary racial distinction of monster/non-monster. It's also what makes the much publicized realistic sex scene between two puppets rise above kiddie porn. The performers doing the manipulating don't act aroused, but they aren't passive or indifferent either. They're businesslike and bemused, occupying a strange, expressive middle-ground like emotional referees. In this quasi-Brechtian circumstance, the point doesn't seem to be to disrupt empathy but rather to complicate it by generating it from two different sources.

Such multiple perspectives are the essence of Big River. Huck's greedy, drunken, ne'er-do-well father, for instance, is literally "doubled" early on when looking in the "mirror"--a silly comic gag involving a basic acting exercise of two actors in direct mimicry that soon takes on serious undertones of self-confrontation, especially when the reckoning ends in his death. The actors who play this role, Troy Kotsur and Lyle Kanouse, wear identical bushy beards and ratty woodsman-clothes but have opposite physiques, one giant-like, the other smaller and nebishy, and although only one speaks, both sign and the director Jeff Calhoun has closely choreographed their behavior. Not only do they gesturally "dance" with others; they also (seemingly) confer, spat, sing and dance with each other. I can't be completely sure because I don't know sign language, but there's no need to get every nuance to see that these self-consultations open up rich questions about the father's "true" nature. Along with the show's many other signer-singer partnerships, this pairing also touches in some measure on the limits of trust and understanding between people of thoroughly different experience.

On top of this, Big River splits focus with its set (designed by Ray Klausen), whose central conceit is a collection of outsize pages from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with type so large they can be read from the balcony (some page-panels also open to form puppet-theater-like mini-prosceniums). For the spectator, the invitation to read is irresistible, and pausing to read necessarily means skipping something else happening onstage, or giving it half attention. Gertrude Stein once pejoratively referred to this sort of skipping as "syncopation"--a systematic delay in apprehending certain aspects of a performance, particularly the flow of emotions--but in this case the syncopation feels apropos. Presumably, a hearing-impaired person always experiences delays or syncopations when watching a drama, signed or unsigned. Thus I wondered whether this production's enticement to read might possibly be a crafty attempt to equalize experience among the public, and perhaps generate mutual empathy.

None of these ends or means is revolutionary, of course. Split focus isn't necessarily even progressive in itself (think of its numbingly spectacular use in rock concerts and political conventions). That two Broadway musicals opening within a week of one another embraced it so thoroughly and complexly, however, certainly is worth a moment's pause. No triumph of complexity to be sure, but perhaps a harbinger, an opening gambit, or just a fresh breeze.


©2003-10 All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or distribute in any form without express permission. Hunter Department of Theater . 695 Park Avenue . New York, NY 10065 .