The whole may not equal the sum of its parts
The theatre department’s March production of Attempts on Her Life (Martin Crimp, 2007) has just closed, following a four-night run. Attempts is a play which decided it would be avant garde and quirky well before the first line was ever written, and the production, as well as the audience, suffers for it.
Attempts on Her Life is presented as a series of abstract vignettes related only through their inclusion of Annie (variously Anne, Anna, Anya, etc.), the titular “Her.” Throughout the play Annie is variously depicted as a war survivor, conceptual artist, fictional character, porn star, terrorist, etc. “She’s the shit in the fan,” helpfully declares a lyric from a strangely upbeat musical interlude, and we, the audience are left with little more to work with. The character herself never appears onstage, instead remaining firmly in the realm of the unknowable. At one point, the entire sixteen-person cast takes the stage in t-shirts declaring, “I am Annie,” which are clearly meant to be poignant and symbolic, but provide neither the insight of poignancy, nor the statement of proper symbolism.
Some of the play’s vignettes are more effective than others. In one case, a German auto salesman describes (in German) the features of their new car, the Annie. As the slick salesman and his sexy translator slowly descend into overt Nazism, the mood grows steadily less humourous, followed by a return to comedy as the character becomes enough of a caricature that we feel safe chuckling again. In another case, a discussion of the aftermath of a terrorist bombing (committed, of course, by that elusive bitch Annie) is juxtaposed against slow-motion footage of artistically shot bondage, creating a scene which is “artsy” but not artistic.
The play makes liberal use of the projector, flashlights, high fashion, interpretive dance, and other quirks, which often had the negative effect of overshadowing the players themselves. The surprise of seeing an actor gliding across the stage on a hover board while a drone emblazoned with neon LEDs circles overhead only serves to make the slower-paced scenes drag, as the audience endures quintilingual monologuing only in anticipation of the next weird thing.
To be fair, it is rarely a long wait. Attempts on Her Life includes live music, a choreographed hip-hop fashion show, pink confetti, a man in a red leather skirt wheeling a corpse across stage, martini-swilling bohemians, cast members wandering into the audience armed with flashlights, and a profanity-laced tirade so coarse that Crimp felt the need to include it twice, and spread it among three actors.
The problem with the high spectacle of the play is the failure of the writing to capitalize on it in any meaningful way. Do we want to watch a dried-up porn star in a ratty pink teddy monologuing ironically about how great her life is while a drunk across stage alternates between translating her mewlings into several different languages and falling asleep? Of course we do! But we also want it to mean something in a larger context, and therein lies the rub. “This has nothing to do with theatre,” declares one character during a scene involving art criticism. I am certain the line was not intended to be self-aware, but it drew a laugh nevertheless.
While the play is generally well acted, costumed, and lit, the dialogue often seems to conflict with the natural cadences of the actors. Imagine your grandmother reading for the part of Sonny in Grease, and you’re somewhere close. This is particularly noticeable during the first vignette, which consists entirely of voicemail messages left on Annie’s machine. In some cases the “ums” and “ahs” were given enough weight that I visualised the script itself rather than the scenes being described, and this lack of naturalism suggests a cast whose own artistic talents have been silenced in fear of the director’s wrath – in this case, department veteran Kelly Handerek. A quick glance at Handerek’s entry on Rate My Professor confirms that “Kelly knows exactly what he wants, and tells you exactly that.” One is forced to question the educational merit of the experience for the students involved, and wonder if the hollow emptiness of some of the lines was caused by a void usually occupied by creativity.
Attempts on Her Life is the type of thing we stop and gawk at, like the aftermath of a car accident, or a homeless person doing something obscene on the sidewalk. It holds our attention, and maybe even generates intelligent discussion after the fact, but we are aware of the lack of artistic depth even as we view it. Those who claim otherwise are likely to buy an abstract painted by a chimp. Like that guy we know who uses piercings and tattoos in lieu of personality, Attempts is trying to use quirk in place of substance, and quirk alone has never been enough.