Like the seismic shift in the theatrical terrain that I experienced when I saw the Steppenwolf Theater’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead off-Broadway, or the excitement I felt when I saw Steppenwolf’s galvanizing production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County with the original cast on Broadway, the Signature Theater’s production of Annie Baker’s Pulitzer –Prize winning The Flick represents all the tremendous potential for groundbreaking Theatre as we push into the future.
Centering on a small group of individuals who work in one of the last “soon-to-be –obsolete” projection movie theaters in Central Massachusetts (specifically, North Brookfield, Massachusetts), the dawning of a new “digital camera –age” becomes a significantly potent symbol for sheer survival of the human condition in the midst of accelerating change and increasing “cost-efficiency”.
Director Joe Calarco has assembled a mesmerizing group of actors in the midst of Scenic Designer’s James Kronzer’s intricate set of a series of red movie theater chairs that one would encounter in a very “lived –in” film venue.
Playwright Baker revels in the seemingly mundane minutiae of the daily rhythms and casual (yet revealing) offhand remarks that bounce off her characters with the “passive-aggressive” and slightly sarcastic tone of a disenfranchised humanity. Think of Chekhov with a sarcastic, biting veneer and you can gain a glimpse of Ms. Baker’s very provocative technique. Yet, in the midst of the reciprocal psychological bruising and fatalism, there is often a glimmer of very tentative hope for this forlorn yet touching group of individuals.
An underlying casual comic banter spurs the audience’s attention with our group of four superlative actors. Director Calarco does a masterly job at fusing all the components of this subtly misanthropic play together into one cohesive whole. Calarco obviously has great respect for the pacing and offbeat, natural and purposefully casual tone that is the hallmark of Ms. Baker’s disciplined writing style. These denizens of this movie theater in North Brookfield, Massachusetts may annoy one another and glare at each other suspiciously but there is an underlying affection for one another even amidst the ruthless ambition and narcissism of the word of the hardworking employed.
As in real life, so – also – in playwright Annie Baker’s world, contradictions abound amidst the seemingly monotonous pace of everyday life. Themes of reality versus performing/imitation, disclosure versus secrecy, and conformity versus authenticity permeate the proceedings. Again, it must be reiterated that Calarco totally trusts the material and allows the long pauses and quiet moments to linger in the mind; this helps to underscore the necessary rhythms of this play. Baker has produced a play that is epic in scope yet, concurrently, intimate and totally captivating.
When I entered the Signature Theatre’s Ark Theatre space, the subtly interactive feel of this play was reinforced by the stage consisting of the red seats of the movie theater (of the actual play) – the audience faced these chairs with a beautifully encased glass-covered projection booth snugly perched above (concurrent silent scenes played out here –thus, adding a whole new dimension). I (and my fellow audience) became the actual “movie screen” of this imaginative play. The Fourth wall was broken, indeed, with the actual Signature Theatre audience becoming absorbed into the reactions of the real-life characters (who contrast so strikingly with the movie scenes of this small-town movie theater). Kudos are not enough praise for the meticulous Scenic Design of James Kronzer’s movie theater and Andrew Cissna’s breathtaking, delicate Lighting Design.
Phenomenal Sound Design by Eric Shimelonis pulsated piercingly throughout as familiar film scores with a vast assortment of film scenes from such films as Requiem for A Dream, The Godfather, and Citizen Kane among many others. This heightened artifice and the scrupulously etched production design sharply underscored the contrast between the fluid, resonant world of visual imagery and the informal, accidental tone of the real world.
As Sam, the older employed worker, Evan Casey is sublime. Mr. Casey expertly captures the essence of the Central Massachusetts demeanor, body language and accent. Casey’s deadpan pronouncements and retorts are “spot-on” and produced many laughs amidst the anguish of this very natural character. Casey’s excessive praise of the James Bond franchise and the film Avatar as prime exemplars of the film canon were hysterically funny. Another gem was Casey’s long monologue when feeling guilty about sneaking in some hot tamales into another theater he went to on a family wedding trip—specific, absorbing and authentic.
As Rose, Laura C. Harris, is also superb. Playing a narcissistic and somewhat cutting, obnoxious projectionist, Harris projects an utter physical confidence and possesses a very sonorous voice. Harris’ character is quite seductive and sexually audacious – Harris sprawls her lithe body across the movie theater seats and dances up a storm with wild abandon and infectious glee.
Ms. Harris’s artistry was palpable as she made an unpleasant character quite easy for the audience to understand. Harris’ acting in moments of indignation at feeling unfairly treated by the theater owner and her amusing observations about the astrological signs of her co-workers were decided highlights.
As the nervous, obsessive, and nerdy character Avery, Thaddeus McCants beautifully conveyed the insecurity, nervousness, and final confidence of his character. Crouching in his seat with his head in his hands or pushing his mop with pronounced despair, McCants paints the complexities of his character with ease. McCants’s well-played encyclopedic knowledge of actors and their roles as exemplified by a “six degrees of separation” style film game enveloped the play like a well-fitting glove.
McCants’ monologue about trying to kill himself was heartbreaking yet perfectly prolonged to reveal the laughter beneath the pain. McCants’ explosive monologue as he vents his fury at his co-workers is harrowingly effective.
McCants’ lengthy explication of the artistic dangers of converting from 35 millimeter to digital is immersive, revelatory and totally on target. This explication mirrors the concurrent undertow of the increasing concern for the loss of authenticity amidst an overly-technological society.
In the dual roles of the Dreaming Man and Skylar, actor William Vaughan expertly performs “double duty “performing two highly-different roles within limited stage time. Vaughan’s precise, crisp, movements and swagger are a joy to watch.
Praise must also be given to the costumes of Frank Labovitz, Production Stage Manager Julie Meyer, and Assistant Director Rex Daugherty.
Ms. Baker’s writing (I have earlier enjoyed her play Circle Mirror Transformation) is uniquely her own – like David Mamet, Ms. Baker creates a very distinctive writing style that augurs even more provocative work ahead. I cannot shake from my mind the split-second moment when Ms. Harris splayed her hand across the glass window of the projection booth – a moment that recalled the iconic scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona when the boy splayed his hand across the celluloid. Such creative and original moments were interspersed throughout like startling jolts of theatrical energy.
Signature Theatre should be applauded for tackling such a landmark theatrical event. If you are interested in serious, groundbreaking theatre, do not miss The Flick!
Running Time: 3 hours and ten minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.