Earlier in the week, I questioned all of the new plays that seem to be cropping up with scripts, but without performers. I asked whether or not these were works of theater, or if there was some sort of requirement that would distinguish the people begging for change on a crowded subway car from the people begging for change on a crowded subway car who called themselves actors. Well, I'm still wondering if it's fair to call certain shows theater, like the glib and impactless An Oak Tree, but I would like to rescind my pre-buzz commentary on Doublethink, which I've since seen.
Simply put: it's theater if it is a performance meant to illustrate something -- be that a moral, a story, an emotion, or an idea -- to an audience and given that the performance isn't meant for personal gain (i.e., a con game). If a show is produced simply to make money, the greatest impetus for performance is removed from the equation: that is, the why of performance: why this show, why this night, why, why, why. To use the two examples I keep swinging about: An Oak Tree told a rather bland story that constantly kept both the audience and performer at arm's end, more like inviting someone to read off of cue cards than asking them to use their confusion and personality to join a more involved process (the upcoming NBC show, Thank God You're Here, tries to mine the neuroses of comedians for laughs). Doublethink, on the other hand, already starts on the high note of a social experiment: we have the intimate privilege of seeing how two actors interpret the same directions, whereas they, seperated by a screen and blinded by floor lights, washed out in the dark, can only follow those directions to the best of their ability (it appears to be very freeing).
In An Oak Tree, there was very little direction (beyond Tim Crouch's stifling control), and the theatricality didn't extend far beyond Crouch's shiny coat and shinier pate. Rotozaza, on the other hand, have not only sleekly produced a lot of intricate technical effects for Doublethink, but they've managed to keep the actors engaged directly in their world, wheras Crouch kept releasing his guest from theirs. One thing to consider: I've only see one night of either performance, and for all I know, An Oak Tree was better with another performer, and Doublethink could be bombing right now, as I type this. But I maintain that Doublethink is grounded in true theatrical conventions, whereas An Oak Tree is a manipulative stage-show, like a bar-mitzvah magician, and that the former is true theater because of its encompassing vision, whereas the latter is failed hypnotism because of its limited goals.
I'll continue trying to define theater, here, as I continue to see shows as often as I can: if any of you out there have genre-bending recommendations, please make them, and let's all see if we can find the trust, communication, and committment of Doublethink as we go about seeing and recording as much as we can about theater as humanly possible.