Everybody has turnoffs when it comes to theater. For some, nonintegrated song-and-dance sequences (as when a song is shoehorned into a musical rather than fitting in organically) are a mood killer. Others are left cold by a heavy-handed use of deus ex machina. My theatrical turnoff is when a show begins with actors acting "natural" onstage, preparing for a show—especially when they're wearing "crazy" apparel like suspenders and bowler hats. Fearing that I'd walked into a production of Godspell by mistake, I was greeted by such an entrance at the Rising Sun Performance Company's new work, DeCADEnce. Though I tried to shake off the contrived prologue, the rest of the show, unfortunately, lived up to my grim expectations and then some, as a high-concept, poorly scripted, under-rehearsed, and overly long bit of self-indulgence.
The show's aim is to shed light upon the excesses and dirty secrets of the 20th century through a vignette from each decade, introduced by a title card projected on the wall. From the murder of an elephant at Coney Island in 1903 to President Clinton's infidelity in 1998, the show mostly goes for a presentational and artificial style, with misguided forays into realism that the costumes and performers cannot sustain.
The two segments that are most effective are the melodrama "Arpeggio" in RadioPlay (1934) and the filmed sitcom "The Jaunts of Jare-Bear" in TVPlay (1955). Both take a satirical look at the popular leisure activities of the time and their insistence on putting forth an unrealistic view of the country's economic situation and the typical nuclear family, respectively. These pieces seem to have benefited from extra rehearsal and direction, and it shows in the performances as well as the overall finished product.
In MinstrelPlay (1913), the segment started off promisingly with a look at a middle-class black couple. The husband, a Shakespearean actor, is not being taken seriously by critics or the public, and his wife beseeches him to move into the song-and-dance medium, which is the only genre that accepts black actors. He is appalled by the suggestion that he swallow his pride and play one of these denigrating roles.
Then two white actors present a piece in blackface, meant as a counterpoint and an illustration of the mean-spiritedness of this so-called "entertainment." What should be an offensive and uncomfortable look at our own sordid past is instead a feeble stab by actors who are either too embarrassed or ignorant of the performance style to emulate it properly. The characters are not broad enough, the accents are wrong, and the musical number seemed slapdash and rushed. If you're going to do blackface, go all the way. And if you're not comfortable with it, show a real example from a film, such as Holiday Inn, Dimples, or Babes in Arms.
As a whole, the production seemed more caught up in its message than in presenting it in a coherent way. The segments were not polished enough, so that the point of view was either lost in the shuffle or pushed awkwardly to the front.
There were also performance problems, with actors rushing their lines, other actors going up on their lines (two weeks into the run, no less), choreography that wasn't yet automatic, and, worst of all, no sense of knowledge about the time periods from the cast. During the 60s segment (LovePlay), there seemed to be no understanding by the actors of the spirit of the times. Putting on a tie-dyed shirt and spouting Jefferson Airplane lyrics does not a hippie make.
It's admirable when a theater company decides to work on new pieces developed with its ensemble, as the Rising Sun Performance Company was formed to do. However, there needs to be someone, whether writer or director, with a clear vision that is seen through the collaborative process. Too many cooks are apt to spoil the broth, and sometimes they run onstage in their "street clothes" and spoil the show for some of us.