The Absurd vs the Anecdotal

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Forty–five years ago, Martin Esslin published the book, The Theatre of the Absurd, which was easily the most influential theatrical text of the 1960's. Since that heady time, when playwrights like Albee, Beckett, Dürrenmatt, Pinter and others seemed to be innately connected to the zeitgeist, there have been lots of interesting plays—but no real movements.

A new revival of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros playing here in Santa Monica is sharp reminder of those forty-five years. This production (directed by Frederíque Michel) doesn't reinvent Ionesco's play, nor make us see it in any new light. Michel adds a Sarkozy reference and music by Charles Trenet, but on the whole, it's a rather traditional take on the material.

Because of this straightforward staging, one can see Rhinoceros for what it is: A longish, imperfect play that is somehow still deeply profound. One also sees how incredibly difficult a play it is to bring to life on stage. So difficult that it may have even permanently driven Orson Welles from stage directing. (His 1960 production of Rhinoceros in London, starring Laurence Olivier as Berenger, was the last thing he ever directed for the theater.) The actors in Michel's production are not Olivier's and they struggle throughout the play with Ionesco's bleak yet comic lines.

Michel's stagecraft can't elevate the production beyond the cast's limitations or the play's challenges, but simply getting it up on stage is a valuable reminder of how theatre was once the place for writers to be daring and stretch an audiences view of the world and themselves.

If, 45 years later, there a theatrical movement forming today, I would argue that's its epicenter is here in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this movement is far less daring and frankly, much more mundane. If the Post-World War II years brought us the Theatre of the Absurd; the early 21st century brings us the Theatre of the Anecdote.

Rhinoceros and plays of its era employed big ideas and bold gestures, often at the risk of alienating its audience; whereas the Theatre of the Anecdote seeks to tell small, personal stories, usually using direct address to make sure nothing is left misunderstood.

The World Premiere of David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face at the Mark Taper Forum provides a perfect example of the Theatre of the Anecdote. Hwang's play is a thinly fictionalized account of the playwright's own artistic and political troubles. Because Hwang is more openly self-critical than most writers, the piece has some fun moments. But ultimately, besides the reliable truth vs. fiction conceit, Yellow Face is simply a first-person essay put on stage.

There is nothing wrong with this—as essays go, Yellow Face is amusing and well structured. But it isn't really a play. And it's not just David Hwang who's not making plays. The Taper has over the years become ground zero for this type of theater—witness this season's offerings Distracted or Nightingale. But this form is also spreading to Broadway with "plays" such as the Joan Didion adaptation: The Year of Magical Thinking. Like the citizens of the small French town in Ionesco slowly turning into Rhinceroses; theaters around the English-speaking world are seeing dramatic plays quietly being replaced by staged memoirs. Welcome to the Theater of the Anecdote.

Yellow Face continues through Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum; Ionesco's Rhinoceros runs through July 18 at City Garage in Santa Monica.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Troy Dunn and cast of Rhinoceros by Paul Rubenstein