A Thousand Words: Seven Short Plays On Photography
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
July 7, 2006
Making an evening of short plays feel like a coherent theatrical event is always an artistic challenge for producers and directors. A Thousand Words: Seven Short Plays on Photography tries to meet this challenge thematically: Shalimar Productions asked its writers to turn to Susan Sontag's influential work of criticism On Photography for inspiration. The results are mixed; as with any assemblage, some of the plays are much stronger than others. Striking, though, is that the two strongest plays are the ones that delve the deepest into the source material, that really seek for a theatrical context in which to examine photography. (I should note that the evening I saw contained only six of the seven plays in the series; "Clarisse and Larmon" by Deb Margolin was not performed.)
The two plays I found the most interesting were extremely different in style and theme: Please Send Pic by Sharyn Rothstein is a comedy on the subject of online dating and the lies we tell about ourselves using photographs; For Art by Nastaran Ahmadi examines the interdependent relationship between a photographer and his muse. But both look at the way that a photograph creates a character in the mind of the viewer, a character that may or may not coincide with the real person.
In Please Send Pic, cleanly directed by Catherine Ward and wittily acted by Julie Leeds and Simon Kendall, Deborah and Mike meet in a bar, while each is waiting for a date to arrive—someone they've interacted with online, but not met in person. Each is clutching a photograph and trying to identify their date from it; each is still waiting. They strike up a conversation, they imagine their own potential relationship with each other—and then the gap between photograph and reality intervenes.
Ahmadi's play, which she also directs, mostly takes the form of a monologue delivered by photographer Mike, who's tape-recording his thoughts on each of the pieces in his upcoming show. All of them are portraits of Bessie, a neighborhood girl who Mike originally photographed because he was captivated by her utter boring-ness—but in photographing her, Mike's relationship with Bessie becomes more complex and inflected with unpredictable power dynamics. Ahmadi's direction isn't quite as crisp as her writing, which (in combination with a strong performance by Alex Organ as Mike) eloquently captures the artist's combination of intensity and inarticulateness.
I also enjoyed—though I'm not sure I understood—Kirk Lynn's Les Carabiniers, an absurdist fable about the aftermath of a one-night stand. Lynn's writing has a lovely loopiness, and director Shoshona Currier packs the short play with strong images. But the multiple levels of reality in the play confused me, and the connection to photography felt a little forced.
Michael John Garces's Overexposed is witty but a little superficial: Jennie runs into Dan, a feckless old lover, at an airport baggage carousel; when her husband arrives, it becomes clear that Jennie and Dan have very different memories of their relationship. Though well acted (by Christianna Nelson as Jennie, William DeMerritt as Dan, and Hoon Lee as Jennie's straight-man husband Charles), the play didn't really seem to delve into the relationships. Also, the thematic link to the photography theme—Dan's trying to take pictures with the lens cap on his camera—felt like a clumsy metaphor about the relationships.
Rednecks with Fish by Charles Forbes tackles interesting thematic material—how does a photograph become iconic; how do we connect to individual images; how does photographing someone change your relationship to them? But the language is overblown, and it feels like Forbes is trying to cram way too much material into a short play.
I found Pathetique by Alex Dinelaris both melodramatic and disjointed. Scenes alternate between two gay couples; one partner in each is a photographer up for an award that evening, and both photographers have overblown fights with their partners about the awards ceremony. The older photographer doesn't want to attend the ceremony at all; the younger one doesn't want his partner there. But other than the coincidence of attending the same event, the two couples don't seem to have anything to do with each other; their stories don't inform each other. And, although the production includes projections of photographs, the theme of photography feels especially tacked on here.
Sontag analyzes, among other things, the way that photographs form "a grammar and…an ethics of seeing." The most successful pieces in A Thousand Words are those that try to grapple with that grammar.