Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre began its 2013/14 season this past weekend in its usual uncompromising and challenging style with a new production of the somewhat controversial three hour drama The Flick by Annie Baker.
The Flick is the name given to a movie theatre in Massachusetts, the setting for the play. Imagine we’re the screen, the canvas upon which the dreams of all are projected, and we’re looking down, into the auditorium, at those who work the theatre. The movie theatre is the earlier styled, single-screen theatre, built before stadium seating became the norm. The back walls are adorned with what appears like plush though worn red velvet panels headed with faded lights. In a half light, the auditorium appears welcoming in the way a theatre can look when you first enter to take your seat, but when the show is over and the people are gone, the stark white lights switch on and we see the Flick for what it is; a worn out, run down, old-fashioned styled movie theatre in serious need of renovation.
The attraction for young newbie theatre worker, Avery (Micah Jondel DeShazer) is that the theatre still projects real film through a 35 millimeter lens. He’s a cinema purist. The idea of going digital, as most theatres tend to be today, is not what the cinema should be about. “It won’t be film anymore,” he insists.
Then there’s thirty-something Sam (Louis Farber) who has worked at the theatre for several years. He’s the one who shows the newbie the ropes; how to sweep the floors, how to work the concession and what to do at the box-office. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” asks Avery of his floor-sweeping mentor. After a slow burn, Sam looks up at Avery as if ready to growl, and states, “I am grown-up.” It’s an indication that what Sam is currently doing is all he can do. The moment is a heart-breaker, particularly when he quietly ads, “A chef,” as an afterthought, indicating he has dreams, but they’ll never be attained.
And finally there’s Rose (Courtney Weir), the projectionist with the green-dyed hair. Rose is Sam’s unobtainable woman. Despite the notion that she might be a lesbian, Sam still pines for her, but it will never be. When we first see Rose she is up in the sound-proof projection booth. When Sam repeatedly calls out her name from down in the auditorium, Rose can’t hear and continues her work changing reels on the projector. By shouting her name until a fade out, the point is made: Rose will forever be out of Sam’s reach.
It’s not difficult to explain what happens over the epic running time. The answer is actually, not a lot. The three characters talk of film trivia, their lives, their work and occasionally an insight to their true selves, plus we spend an inordinate amount of time simply watching Sam and Avery silently sweep the floors. There are moments when you’ll feel as though you’re watching a whole auditorium being cleaned in real time. But what it’s actually about is another matter. Throughout the three hours the play appears to take on several themes; unfulfilled dreams, feelings for others, putting on facades, how a life can be messed up without the hope of making things better, plus the problem of change that will always come whether we want it or not. We either embrace the change, go with it or get out of its way. In the Flick’s case, change is going to come in the shape of digital projection, which will ultimately result in the changing of jobs and duties. “This isn’t a job we have while we go to college,” Rose points out when the idea that she might lose everything presents itself.
Whether you’ll embrace the challenges and rhythms of The Flick depends on what you look for in a play. The Flick opened to good reviews when it opened Off Broadway, but audience reaction was different. Many walked during the intermission at its New York presentation, annoyed with the lengthy pauses and moments of silence as characters think of a response to a question or simply go about their daily duties and do nothing but sweep. The style will polarize.
But what’s important here is what Stray Cat has done with the production. The three leads engage, particularly Louis Farber who, out of the three characters, is the one given to a more animated delivery and emotional outbursts. Eric Beeck’s scenic design successfully captures that unmistakable flavor of an old single-screen movie palace; you can practically smell the popcorn. The movie theatre’s seating actually looks more comfortable than the ones at Stray Cat, plus, Coutney Weir’s sudden dance to a hip hop recording is hugely entertaining and gives the play an unexpected and sudden boost of energy.
The Flick is not a play to see twice – much of what you need to know you basically get in the first hour – but the fact that Ron May has brought the production to the valley in its entirety enables followers of theatre a chance to see for themselves what all that fuss was about when the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, who staged the original production, wrote an e-mail to his angry subscribers defending his decision to stage the play in the first place. I can’t imagine Ron doing the same. And neither should he. That’s why Stray Cat is uncompromising and such a necessary element to valley theatre.
For times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Stray Cat Theatre website.