nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
December 30, 2008
It might be an exaggeration to say there would be no independent theatre as we know it today if there was no Living Theatre—but then again, it might not. Founded nearly 60 years ago, The Living Theatre set the mold for much of what we see in American experimental and independent theatre today through its challenges to existing social, political, and artistic models, its focus on ensemble collaboration and improvisation, and its fiercely and often defiantly independent spirit. Still in existence today, The Living Theatre is restaging one of the company's most famous works, Jack Gelber's The Connection—a work that remains dynamic and provocative 50 years after it was originally produced.
In keeping with its title, the play is a meditation on the idea of connecting on many levels. The main topic of The Connection is heroin, and at its most literal interpretation it's about four junkies waiting for a connection with a mysterious figure named Cowboy who will bring them their fix. The connection is also one between heroin and jazz music, for sharing the stage and mirroring the four junkies is an excellent jazz quartet led by bandleader Rene McLean, which interrupts the dialogue with bursts of extended music throughout the play.
And on yet another level The Connection is about the very definition and nature of theatre itself. Opening the show are a fictitious "producer" and "playwright" who question the authenticity of naturalism overtly while also interacting with the other performers on the stage—sometimes as actors and sometimes as characters. Throw into the mix a pair of filmmakers who are purportedly documenting the event but get drawn into the maelstrom as well, and by the end of the show The Connection reveals itself to be as much about connecting the performance to the audience and the theatre to life as anything else.
The Connection stands as seminal work in The Living Theatre's canon; a precursor to the more improvisational and collaboratively-created work they and other groups like the Open Theatre would embark on in the decade to come. In hindsight, it's a fascinating look not only into an important movement in American theatre, but an important moment in American society as well. At a time when there were few accessible depictions of heroin use, the show no doubt stood out starkly as a little seen examination of the dark seething cultural forces bubbling underneath the smiling face of the 1950s—forces that only in hindsight we know were due to erupt soon thereafter in a myriad of ways.
The Connection, though, is not simply a theatrical museum piece—it remains a vital and "living" experience. The theatrical forms the play was challenging are still dominant today, and its fluid and skillful blurring of the line between the reality of the performance and the reality of the event is still exciting and startling. In disregarding traditional narrative and characters in favor of a structure that follows experientially the event of getting high—from the desperate waiting to score at the beginning through ecstasy to the crash—The Connection is surprisingly thought-provoking and effective.
Much of the success of this production has to do with the presence and talent of the performers involved. As with the best ensembles, not one actor or musician stands out: instead all the performers work as a dedicated and committed group whose focus and commitment to the show's esoteric style pays more and more dividends as the evening progresses. Among the ensemble is the show's director and the near legendary co-founder of the company itself, Judith Malina, who is remarkably reprising her role of Sister Salvation from 50 years ago. There probably aren't many people still around who would be able to say whether she's missed a step since then, but in this production she holds her own.
Thematically, the show remains surprisingly relevant as well. While the issue of heroin use as a hot-button issue may be dated, the show is more about what that drug represents and what that urge is—that desperate feeling of alienation and the need to push the envelope to feel life more. At its most profound, the connection in The Connection—through drugs or through jazz—is that attempted connection to the essence of life. Both quartets are trying to reach it in their own ways, and the differences in approach and results are part of what make The Connection such an interesting ride. The musicians can control when they start and end their "connection," while the junkies are at the mercy of their dealer and the duration of their trip; the musicians connect with each other and draw the listeners into their connection, while the junkies never truly connect with each other, and their individual experiences remains ultimately inaccessible to us and to each other.
In the end, The Connection is a psychologically illuminating and at times visceral event—a testament to the spirit and ethos of the company that has brought it to life. The historic nature of this remount makes it even more of a special opportunity that really shouldn't be missed: a chance to see both living art and important theatre history at the same time.