Sunday, February 23, 2014

Company One Presents "The Flick" by OBIE Award-Winner Annie Baker: An exercise in Pure Writing and Pure Acting

Watching "The Flick" in many ways reminded me of the way I felt when I first watched the film "Cinema Paradiso."  That film, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, is in essence a love letter to the film industry.  Like the protagonist in the film, playwright Annie Baker spent many hours as a kid haunting the small town cinema in Western Massachusetts where she grew up, absorbing the essence of good cinema and of good story telling.  She has translated that love for story telling to the stage.  "The Flick" is rife with allusions to movies - great and small.  Its three principle characters not only work at "The Flick," a down-at-the-heels single screen movie theater, but they also share a fascination and love-hate relationship with film.

Ms. Baker is known as a playwright who often weaves prolonged episodes of silence into the fabric of her plays.  She has sometimes been criticized for this trait, but I tend to see her periods of silence as a gift and as  an invitation.  The gift is a time for quiet reflection.  The invitation is permission to notice things that are happening that are not tied to dialogue, a chance to listen to the voice within my head.  An invitation to ask questions. "What is being said through non-verbal means?  Who are these people and what should I notice about them?  In what way are they aware of each other?"

The opening of the play serves as an example.  Two male characters, Sam and Avery, enter the empty movie theater with brooms and dustpans.  They sweep the theater, row by row, in near silence.  They do it mechanically and robotically.  Having been forewarned to expect period of silence, I asked myself the following questions: "Who are these people beside humble employees of a movie theater?  These kinds of people are not usually 'featured' in a play, so what is interesting about them that the playwright would choose to tell their story?"

It soon becomes clear that Sam is the veteran employee showing Avery, the new kid on the block, the ropes of how to clean the theater after a showing.  Sam is helpful in his own way, proscribed by the almost Aspergers-like affect that has him parceling out words one by one as if from a sticky Pez dispenser.  Avery is painfully shy. The dynamic changes as Sam throws out an unlikely pairing in a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and Avery responds with confidence and alacrity that verges on the ability of a savant.

We meet Rose, the third key person in this triangle that is anything but "Right" or "Equilateral."  Just as Sam is almost, but not quite autistic, Rose is almost, but not quite Goth.  Her green hair and loose-fitting black shirt barely hide what could be a very attractive femininity.  She has been promoted - ahead of Sam - to the coveted role of projectionist in a theater that is holding out against the rising tide of digital projection and still boasts a traditional 35MM projector.  Sam's resentment at having been snubbed plays a key role in the relationships that will develop among the three employees.

Under the very fine direction of Shawn LaCount, the trio of actors create fully realized and memorable versions of San, Avery and Rose.

  • Alex Pollock uses a backwards Red Sox cap as a tribal totem and as a fig leaf to hide the nakedness of his scalp and rawness of his emotions.  One alternately wants to either hug him or shake him.
  • Brenna Fitzgerald is marvelous as Rose.  She claims to be "over movies," but the falsity of her apparent nonchalance about her job is revealed when the security of her job is threatened when an ethical crisis assails the threesome.
  • Peter Andersen uses his black frame glasses, nervous tics and gestures to establish an Avery for whom we care and about whom we are worried.  His vulnerability is palpable.
  • Steven Chueka does a fine job in his two brief cameos as "Dreaming Man" and Skylar, the replacement employee.
Alex Pollock as Sam
Peter Andersen as Avery
Brenna Fitzgerald as Rose

Ms. Baker is like Anton Chekhov in that she shows people who try to connect with one another, but ultimately fail to connect in any meaningful way.  Sam resents Rose, but is madly in love with her.  When in a fit of frustration he shares this fact with her, he is not able to look her in the eye, and so the moment dies.  Avery longs for a deep friendship with Sam - and perhaps something more - but never is able to express that desire until too many things have happened to prevent a friendship from flourishing.  Rose is attracted to Avery, but her attempt to take things to a physical level prove to be a huge embarrassment for them both.

The playwright uses the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game to show an ironic contrast.  Avery and Sam are able to make obscure connections among imagined people, but as real people, they struggle to make even the most basic meaningful connections with each other.

The set, designed by Cristina Todesco and the lighting by Jen Rock create a wonderful replica of the experience of the single screen that was the bread and butter of most American's theater-going experience at the movies.  The audience sits where the screen would be - and this is no accident.  Over the course of three hours a dual projection is taking place upon that screen/audience.  Remembrances of iconic movies are projected while Sam, Avery and Rose project themselves onto us - in snippets of speech and action and gesture.

Annie Baker's propensity toward irony emerges in another way.   A leitmotif of this play is the ineluctable takeover of digital projectin.  Avery is passionate about trying to stick his thumb in the digital dike and preserve 35MM projection as long as possible.  When a new owner buys the theater and the inevitable day comes, the actual action of Sam and Rose replacing the old projector with a new digital one in the projection booth is presented in total silence behind the projection booth window.  As an audience, we are watching an advance in cinematic technology being depicted as a silent film!  Brilliant!

Avery articulates his preference for 35MM over digital by dismissing digital as made up of millions of pixels that are all the same size.  In contrast, true celluloid film captures "light and shadow, separated by split seconds of darkness."  I see this idealistic picture of film as a metaphor for how the playwright sees human lives, and how she shows us how worthy of our attention are the likes of Sam, Avery and Rose.

With one intermission, the play runs three hours, and is a worthwhile investment of time for lovers of good theater, good film, good story telling and good truth!

The play will run at the Suffolk University Modern Theater through March 15.



A New England Premiere by Annie Baker
Directed by Shawn LaCount
February 20 – March 15, 2014
Presented with Suffolk University at the Modern Theatre
“Annie Baker, one of the freshest and most talented to emerge Off Broadway in the past decade, writes with tenderness and keen insight. Her writing is a great blessing to performers. The Flick draws out nakedly truthful and unadorned acting. This lovingly observed play will sink deep into your consciousness.”
– New York Times

Welcome to a run-down movie theatre in Worcester County, MA, where Sam, Avery and Rose are navigating lives as sticky as the soda under the seats. The movies on the big screen are no match for the tiny battles and not-so-tiny heartbreaks that play out in the empty aisles. Annie Baker (THE ALIENS) and Artistic Director Shawn LaCount reunite with this hilarious and heart-rending cry for authenticity in a fast-changing world.

C1’s Take: With this production, the artists of C1 answer the call from New England fans of one of America’s most celebrated contemporary playwrights. Boston’s relationship with Annie Baker began with the C1 award-winning production of THE ALIENS as part of the Shirley, VT Plays Festival. Annie Baker (who grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts) recently won both an OBIE for playwriting, and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for THE FLICK. This is a play about an indie movie house turning digital right here in Massachusetts, and one of the characters is a Clark University student, where C1 was founded.

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