READER FEEDBACK: ICEMAN COMETH at Fells Point Corner
A Mr. Mark Squirek -- a non-facebook subscriber but an individual with an evidently keen interest in theater -- sent me this response to a recently posted review of Eugene O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH, now at the Fells Point Corner Theater. To post responses to BWW reviews requires facebook membership (it's a way to eliminate anonymous, hateful postings), but not everyone has joined the millions taking the facebook plunge. I was impressed enough with the detail and depth of this letter to include it as a READER FEEDBACK column. I will say that I am a member of the ICEMAN cast, so I believe it only right to note that here. In any event, here is Mr. Squirek's comments.
I encourage all to let us know what you think:
O’Neil’s work reflects something timeless about America. In Iceman it’s the universal experience of living failed dreams and the sad resignation that the hard job of living can bring. It’s the idea that life can kick your ass and leave you alone and wishing for death. His script contains the lost and the forgotten, the near dead and the dying, the political and the apolitical, the drifters and the thieves.
It’s a broad canvas to cover and he travels it well by showing us a single night in the lives of the characters while their lifetime of disillusionment and shattered dreams gradually unfold as they each speak. It is an ugly canvas as well.
Just because times are ugly in America right now is no reason to not present this play. If anything the play is a call to arms. The current attempts to suppress and monitor the internet are no different than one hundred years ago when the mail of a suspected anarchist was opened on suspicion alone. The current refusal to deal with the economic inequalities that have built up over the last three decades is as real as the ugly slums of New York were a hundred years ago.
Iceman is brutal reminder that the not much changes in America. What was true one hundred years ago is just as true today. Only today we have Cheetos and lite beer.
Given the depth of his writing, the length of the play and the incredible amount of work that it takes to simply stage it, Iceman is seldom produced. Another unacknowledged reason that Iceman is so seldom done is that few audiences can stand the challenge that O’Neil lays before them. You have to sit there and be willing to allow yourself to fall into the world he has created.
Iceman is hardly esoteric. In fact it could be easily argued that it is the complete opposite. The play is completely real and meant for the masses. It is a very real portrayal of damaged people and lost souls who for a few brief moments every day manage to find another reason to wake up. Just because they are alive in the early part of the twentieth century doesn’t make their disconnection from society any less painful to see.
Drive by the line homeless people waiting for a soup kitchen to open right across from the main branch of the Baltimore Public Library. Like these unfortunate souls, the denizens of O’Neil’s twilight universe are one step away from disappearing completely. Only in O’Neil’s bar they can still figure out how to get a few nickels for beer or a cheap shot before the shakes set in.
The slang that O’Neil included in his play is a joy to hear. While watching the play on opening night I smiled at the usage of a word such as “tart” as well as most of the other slang in the original script. To ‘blow” someone to a drink certainly means something different today! Hearing these long forgotten words reminded me of how fluid language is across the American landscape. How quickly we change the way we speak. How every generation shapes communication into something they think is singularly special but in reality does nothing more than dress yesterdays’ fish in new paper.
Words come, words go, but like the human condition, the ideas at the heart of what is being said by a skilled writer are always the same. Audiences regularly attend Shakespeare and everyone knows that Romeo loves Juliet. But like almost every other 14 year old the kid gets tongue tied as he tries to understand what he feels and has problems expressing it. We know Richard the Third is an evil wiener even though he often speaks words of flattery and seduction. The language may be five hundred years old but the universality of what is being said comes through thanks to the skill of the writer and the actor on stage.
Yes, some of what O’Neil wrote was tedious and redundant. It is a challenge every production faces and director Lynda McClary’s choice to cut entire passages and at times even single words, tightened up an otherwise long, and you are right, occasionally dreary slugfest on the stage. McClary’s intelligent and difficult choices managed to keep the narrative of the piece and still present O’Neil’s ideas and language intact while keeping everything in context.
One of the most frustrating trends in recent stage productions is the idea that Theatres need to bring the experience of a stage production closer to what cinema gives an audience. I am talking about the overuse of shadowy lights which often leave actors in half darkness or excessively dramatic music designed to remind the audience that a certain passage on stage has emotional resonance. In other words, the technical aspects of the play such as lights and sound overtake and in the hands of the unskilled, overwhelm the direct intentions of the playwright.
This production was immaculately lit and the set was one of the best I have ever seen in Baltimore. There were no showy multiple levels of lighting that created five rows of shadows and left actors performing key monologues in the dark. There was no insipidly syrupy music designed to tell me what I was supposed to feel. There was only the skill of the playwright and the professionalism and technique of the actors and director bringing a filthy and hidden and forgotten part of America to life.
The set reminded me of the photographic work of Jacob Riis who, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, used photographs to expose the horrific conditions of the slums in New York. While watching FPCT’s Iceman I felt as if the entire evening was a time capsule performance from the days before film. It was a joy to watch the show unfolding before my eyes.
That said, McClary did use one very subtle cinematic technique that actually has roots in theater and even more so, in real life. During the seventies the late director Robert Altman regularly incorporated overlapping conversations onto what was happening on the screen. This drove studio execs wild. But he was right. For perfect examples of this technique try and see the film version of M.A.S.H. or even better, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
Like the choices Altman made, McClary decision to present this type of crowded environment complete with overlapping lines and occasionally stacked vocal exchanges highlighted the confusion that life often presents us with. It also emphasizes that, in reality, many of us only partially hear conversations, even when we are talking with someone one on one. By having the actors work in such a finely tuned manner, by having skilled actors accurately reflect the mess that most barrooms are, the director took me back in time to when I hung out in bars. I saw what my life was like years ago. What everyone was wearing on stage may have been different, but it was the exact same behavior. Bragging, bloated confession, hushed intimacies and undeserved hubris all dancing in a waltz of pointlessness.
History and the passage of a hundred year’s time may make the Second Boer War obscure to many today, but to the characters on stage it as real as Vietnam was to returning veterans just fifty years ago. No war is obscure. Historians make them that way. Just ask the mothers of the sons who have died during the conflicts, men and boys and women who often died without a reason other than making an old man richer.
Just as real are the on stage arguments about communism and the sense of rebellion that was in the air at the turn of the last century. Every single one of these ideas is applicable to America in 2012. There is no difference between the anarchist who have lost his dreams in Iceman than the people living in the woods of Oklahoma stocking up on weapons. It is just two different roads to the same town. A town called “change the got-damn system.”
I am not a big believer in the idea that all theater should challenge the audience or even make them think. There is plenty of room on every stage for Arsenic and Old Lace, Hair, new playwrights and whatever the director who thinks that “everyone should be naked or it isn’t real life” is currently working on. So I have no complaint when I attend a four hour play. I only ask that it be done well.
Yes, audience members are going to sleep. It’s Friday night and they worked all day. Or maybe they are only going because their nephew is in the cast. I see people nodding off when I attend ten minute one acts! Four acts and single fifteen minute intermission is not anything to ask of an audience member who is there to be challenged by great writing and great acting.
There are eighteen people on stage and every single one of them deserves to be up there. It is one of the most impressive large ensembles you could possibly hope for. How McClary managed to get them to work in such unison, such a spirit of selflessness is just an amazing accomplishment. It speaks volumes of her skill and the commitment of each actor to the words the playwright wrote, to the ideas he presents for us as an audience to simultaneously consider and view.
There is a reason that O’Neil won a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize. There is a reason Kevin Spacey recently did this show across the sea. Iceman is an undeniable American classic and one of the foundations of American theater. To have such in an incredible production of this complex play done so well speaks volumes about how much great theater is available in this city. Especially for those who are willing to put away their twitter accounts for four simple hours.
Just make sure you pee a lot before you go in. And don’t drink too much in there. It is long….! But if you are willing to suspend your life, if you are willing to forget about your facebook page and reruns of "Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia" for the time it takes to see FPCT’s production of Iceman, your brain and heart will see something wonderful on stage.
Thank you for reviewing this show.