State of the Arts 2011
Two-for-one from Woody Allen

Good production, bad seats: Back Porch Players face God and Death at new Center for Dance

Good production, bad seats: Back Porch Players face God and Death at new Center for Dance

News_God and Death_David Wald as Diabetes and Brooke Singer as Doris
David Wald as Diabetes and Brooke Singer as Doris Photo by Clara Maverick Riggs
News_God and Death_Matt Benton as Bursitis
Matt Benton as Bursitis Photo by Clara Maverick Riggs
News_God and Death_Michelle Harper as Gina and Benito Vasquez as Kleinman
Michelle Harper as Gina and Benito Vasquez as Kleinman Photo by Clara Maverick Riggs
News_God and Death_Neal Gage as Hepatitis and David Wald as Diabetes
Neal Gage as Hepatitis and David Wald as Diabetes Photo by Clara Maverick Riggs
News_God and Death_David Wald as Diabetes and Brooke Singer as Doris
News_God and Death_Matt Benton as Bursitis
News_God and Death_Michelle Harper as Gina and Benito Vasquez as Kleinman
News_God and Death_Neal Gage as Hepatitis and David Wald as Diabetes

They are ancient Greeks, but with names like Diabetes, Hepatitis, and Trichinosis. They are distracted by beautiful women and often forget their lines. Most urgently, they are looking for an ending to their own play.

The self-reflexive humor in Woody Allen’s 1975 God is so sophisticated and timeless that it’s a wonder this one-act play isn’t performed more often. Thanks to the expert direction of Nicholas Collins and the finely-honed skills of The Back Porch Players, it will be forever emblazoned not only in my mind, but in those of many Houston theater fans as well.   

Paired with another of Allen’s one-acts, a dark homage to French playwright Eugene Ionesco simply called Death, Tuesday night's dress rehearsal was notable in that it also marked the first time a theater group has appeared in the Margaret Alkek Dance Lab at Houston Ballet’s beautiful new Center for Dance.

The Jung Center has also provided support for the production, which makes even more sense in terms of these particular plays, filled as they are with intelligent explorations of myth, archetype and allegory. They are extraordinarily funny, but in a way that leads to pondering the “big questions” in life. The double-bill runs through Aug. 18 and is a certain highlight in the summer theater scene.

 At another point, none other than Blanche DuBois shows up. After ordering a Coke and bourbon from one of the actors, she exclaims, “I’ve got to get into another play, one where God exists!” And then later, at the height of pacing, Stanley Kowalski runs in screaming, “Stella!”

 This was my first experience with The Back Porch Players, and I’m deeply impressed, intrigued enough to head for their staging of Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood next month at the Barnevelder.

Anyone who has seen more than a few of Allen’s brilliant films knows that he hardly shies away from controversial themes. When he wrote these two one-acts, which appeared in the mid-1970s in a volume called Without Feathers, the phrase “political correctness” was hardly part of the Zeitgeist.

Collins’ “Note from the director” in the program reminds the viewer that Allen’s sense of humor, “…provides a rather disarming method of communication to directly speak on what can be highly controversial and disturbing subjects.” That’s beautifully put, but what is particularly refreshing after all these years is how wonderfully irreverent the play feels under the grey skies of so much politically neutral 21st century theater. These plays get under your skin. At the same time, you’re laughing uncontrollably.

There are so many blurry lines in God that it’s even a bit disorienting at first. I wasn’t sure who was an actor and who had just shown up to see the play. And even though some actors are “planted” in the audience, Allen subverts that notion while it's in progress.

When two evident (i.e., costumed) actors accuse a man in the audience of being “fictional,” he replies, “I'll show you how fictional I am! I'm leaving this theater and getting my money back.

This is a stupid play. In fact, it's no play. I go to the theater. I want to see something with a story…with a beginning, middle, and end instead of this bullshit! Good night!"

And with that, he walked out of the theater.

At another point, none other than Blanche DuBois shows up. After ordering a Coke and bourbon from one of the actors, she exclaims, “I’ve got to get into another play, one where God exists!” And then later, at the height of pacing, Stanley Kowalski runs in screaming, “Stella!”

The company exudes a deep sense of ensemble, handling the fugue-like writing with brilliant timing and diction. Collins’ direction is completely skillful, making this feel like the perfect blend of Beckett and The Marx Brothers.  

I was profoundly moved by Benito Vasquez’ stirring portrayal of Kleinman in Death, a seeming “Whodunit” with sharp existential overtones. The play is far less slapstick, filled with lines that provoke more nervous laughter than God.

When the subject of reincarnation arises, for example, Kleinman says, “I don’t see how a man could be the president of a corporation in this life and then end up a chipmunk.” Vasquez captures just the right blend of vulnerability and neurosis here, making for a deeply compelling performance.

Every new space, once it opens to the public, needs a little fine tuning, and the Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab is no exception.

I have been going to the theater for nearly four decades, which means at the very least that I’ve encountered every possible sort of venue. I’ve sprawled on dirty gymnasium floors while watching modern dance, perched in rickety folding chairs during community Shakespeare productions, and squeezed into wooden fold-downs from the 19th century for long Mahler symphonies.

I’ve languished in some of the oldest opera houses of Europe, where the seats are notoriously awful. I am sorry to say that even paint-chipped baseball bleachers are more comfortable than the seven rows of upholstered benches in the Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab at Houston Ballet’s new Center for Dance.

Earlier this summer, I endured a seat in the front for a program of choreography by company members. I left feeling invigorated by the dancing, but tortured by the benches. This time, I brought my tape measure.

As I suspected, the seats are exactly one foot deep, with "backrests" only one foot high. Place two rulers in an “L” shape on your backside and you’ll get the idea: no support at all. You might be thinking that I should just lose some weight, and I won’t argue the point. However, a female friend told me recently that I have “no ass,” so I don’t think it’s merely a matter of my size. I looked around and noticed everyone else shifting as well. There were several large people in the audience, and they looked positively miserable.  

I escaped to the back row so that I could sit at the top of the aisle steps during most of the show. It appears that these theater-wide benches (there are no individual seats) fold and stow easily when the space is being used for its intended purpose, as a dance lab. But somebody at Houston Ballet should find permanent storage for these pain-inducing monsters and then “forget” to pay the bill.