Dr.C (Or How I Learned to Act in Eight Steps)
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
June 2, 2009
Picture a theatre history lecture. Now picture the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Squeeze them together and put them inside a space ship (or a futuristic science laboratory, if you prefer). Now listen to words, lots of words, taken from quintessential texts on acting. Now hear them chant-sung by eight physically disciplined actors dripping with sweat. Wrap your mind around all of this, and you've got a good sense of what Dr.C (or How I learned to Act in Eight Steps) is like. Is it interesting? Yes. Does it provoke thought? Yes! Is it for everyone? No.
Dr.C (pronounced dee-are-dot.see) is not so much a play as a theatricalized research experiment. Created by Theater Mitu and directed by Ruben Polendo, Dr.C is divided into eight modules, each one dedicated to a "philosopher" of acting: Aristotle, Adolphe Appia, Constantin Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, and Anne Bogart. A cold recorded voice instructs the performers when the section is going to begin and for 15 minutes per unit they move with great physical intensity throughout the space while singing/chanting (sometimes accompanied, sometimes not, and never rhyming) words, phrases, and sentences written by that philosopher. There are short transitions between modules when the actors speak their own words including: "I don't know what this is, but it's not acting...It's more like being some sort of test subject." This is very true. There is no arc, no climax, no developed characters. There is movement and text.
However, it is often hard to understand what the actors are saying, because of singing over top of one another, elongating words over multiple notes, and because the performers are unmiked and not always heard above the band. So you catch words and phrases, but not the entirety of the text. Words, comprehensible and not, wash over you and it feels like being in a church or synagogue. Which is fitting—the texts these words are taken from (particularly Stanislavski's books) are often treated as bibles.
All of the actors movements are inspired by the expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Their physicality is angled and intense, often appears illogical and certainly does not seem natural. Expressionism, at its best, is about showing the inner life—how someone feels, rather than how someone would behave in the real world. Unfortunately, the consistent use of expressionist movement in Dr.C ends up countering the efficacy of dedicating a module to a different acting teacher. The aim is to learn about the style, ideas, and means of eight pivotal thinkers, yet we cannot gain this understanding just by listening (because so much is incomprehensible) and there is no distinct change visually (because of the constant expressionist movement). So they're singing Grotowski's ideas for a poor theatre, where all that is needed is an actor and an audience, yet the movement is stylized and intense and there is no interaction with the audience. And I feel no closer to Appia, whom I knew very little about before. The most successful section is the one on Brecht because props and a sense of humor are introduced, the music is Weill-inspired, and it looks and feels different from anything else in the show. I got the sense of revolution; the actors were poised together to create something big. Comparison is a strong learning tool and this piece has great potential, inherent in its structure and the strength and dedication of its cast and crew, to immerse the audience in eight distinctive methods of theatre.
Everyone will get something different out of Dr.C but here is what it made me think: these systems of performing were very important in their time, and have been greatly inspirational to new artists, but, try as people like, will never be as successfully recreated or as influential as they were originally. So maybe artists should spend less time trying to do productions as their forefathers did and focus more on creating something new, just as Theater Mitu certainly is, creating a very new style of theatre.