Once upon a time, downtown theater took itself very seriously. The performance collectives of the 1960s unabashedly proclaimed their intentions to excavate the authentic human soul and provide models for new utopian societies—though to the skeptical eye this may have sometimes looked like a lot of naked rolling around. When experimental theater turned away from these hormonal excesses in the 70s and 80s, becoming colder and more formalistic, it remained unapologetically difficult. For all its archness, it never questioned Pound’s injunction to “make it new.” But what about today’s would-be theatrical innovators, late arrivals to the avant-garde party (one that might be over anyway, according to eulogizers like Richard Schechner)? Inheriting a theater fatigued by a century of riotous invention—and the unfortunate clichés that were the residue of those experiments—they must combat the suspicion that everything worth saying has already been said. With all this baggage, the urge to treat artistic ambition with irony can seem irresistible.
So what’s a new generation of intrepid theatrical adventurers to do, clinging stubbornly to the oldest of old media? The Brick Theater’s Pretentious Festival, taking place throughout June, is a witty acknowledgement of this quandary. It’s a reply to last year’s $ellout Festival, when the theater’s efforts to, in the words of co-artistic director Michael Gardner, “give up all our artistic pretensions to show tits and ass, be crass, and give the public what it wants” met with big office success and was lauded by the Village Voice as unpretentious. The Pretentious Festival’s part-serious, part-satirical aim is to give the public what it likely doesn’t want: defiantly elitist art. “We’ve decided to pull up the gates,” says co-artistic director Robert Honeywell, “so only the select few can come in.”
But beneath the grandiose rhetoric—“The Most Important Theater Festival On Earth” trumpets the Brick’s web site—runs a vein of earnestness. By framing the festival as pretentious, its organizers are forestalling cynicism with self-deprecation, and using irony as a smokescreen for genuine artistic risk-taking. Co-artistic director Jeff Lewonczyk explains the Brick’s approach to curating the festival: “we tried to come up with a good balance of jokey things, spoofs or parodies, and things that were taking sincere creative risks, and having the guts to do so under the banner of the Pretentious Festival, which could easily open artists up to being accused of being pretentious themselves.”
The lineup for the festival divides between shows that skewer theatrical pomposity and overreaching—like Nihils by writer-performer Trav S.D., touted as a “send up of performance art, poetry readings, experimental theater, and deconstructionism (and a thousand other isms)”—and bold attempts to spar with theatrical idols, test the representational limits of theater, or tackle large historical events. The festival boasts two Hamlets (including an uncut performance of the so-called “Bad Quarto”), one Macbeth, and a play—Stolen Chair’s Commedia dell’Artemisia—intended to trounce Molière on his own clownish turf. There is documentary theater about the Iraq war; a play about the forced exile of Africans and Acadians to America (Sarah Ashford Hart’s Evangeline); and Eric Bland’s intriguing The Children of Truffaut, which endeavors to imbue theater with atmosphere and intimacy of film.
Two pieces by the Brick’s co-founders exemplify the festival’s simultaneous embrace of theatrical daring and parodic facetiousness. Robert Honeywell’s humorously hubristic exercise in abridgement, Every Play Ever, purports to have distilled all of dramatic literature to four easily imbibed core themes: “Come and see the lecture,” he boasts, “and you’ll never have to see a play again.” But he hastens to add that the play is also an examination of the effect of attenuating digital-age attention spans on the theatrical experience, and a search for the essence of the art form itself: “The goal, if we pull it off, is to show, in the doing of it, what theater is.” Michael Gardner’s Nothing enigmatically advertises itself as an embodiment of existential crisis: “If you come to see this play” he warns “you will see nothing, and you will experience nothing for free. And that will either be a profound experience for you, or it will piss you off. Hopefully both.”
Some shows in the festival have real political bite. Sponsored by Nobody’s found-text piece Compression of a Casualty—presented with another piece of textual scavenging, Foxy Friends—splices together a top-of-the-hour CNN announcement of a soldier’s death in Iraq with biographical details about the actual man, giving human dimensions to a media statistic. Writer Kevin Doyle was haunted after seeing the mordant sound-bite, which the anchors never returned to: “I always wondered who this person was,” Doyle explains, “and proceeded to find out that it was a young man who was nineteen years old, who had a young son who he never saw. But you never hear that on CNN.”
Similarly, Ian W. Hill’s Hamlet, a long-gestating labor of love, is a radically anti-heroic reading of the play that focuses on its social dynamics. Hill’s prince—he plays the title role, and directed the production—is a snobbish prig, the entitled offspring of privilege, who throws tantrums and abuses Ophelia while his country is overcome by war. “I don’t particularly like Hamlet,” says Hill. “I find him the wreck of a potentially great person. And a rather horrible human being.” Although the project has been germinating for years, topical resonances are unavoidable: “Suddenly, it seems very specific—a country gone out of control, where the rulers may be deceiving you, and not for your best interest.”
So can a little pretentiousness sometimes be a good thing? Hill thinks so: “Unless you strive for something, and risk being pretentious, you’re not going to achieve anything great.” Honeywell elaborates: “What I’m looking forward to is the stuff pretending to be ironic that actually is serious. Because the greatest thing about this concept is we can embrace it, and say: ‘Oh, it’s so funny, obviously that’s tongue in cheek.’ But the good stuff, to me, is operating on many levels—stuff that is acting like it’s pretentious, and yet, if you step back, you say, ‘Whoa, that’s saying something rather interesting.’”
The Pretentious Festival runs June 1 through July 1 at The Brick, 575 Metropolitan Ave., Williamsburg (between Union Ave. and Lorimer St.). Visit www.bricktheater.com for more information.
Jacob Gallagher-Ross is an MFA candidate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the Yale School of Drama, and a managing editor of Theater magazine.