Flying Snakes In 3D
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
July 5, 2012
I’m in agreement, often passionate agreement, with almost all of the sentiments, convictions, and frustrations that underlie Everywhere Theatre Group’s Flying Snakes in 3-D: That theatre is increasingly both for and made by the rich, with enormous financial barriers in the way of not just middle- and working-class audiences, but artists without substantive financial support. That the theatrical work that is lauded, rewarded, and produced all too often comes from and validates the emotional lives of a privileged sliver of humanity: white, heterosexual, male, and wealthy enough to afford to participate in theatre on either side of the proscenium. That it’s almost impossible to make a sustainable living in the performing arts, and even harder to do so if you want to make non-mainstream work. That theatre might just be marginalizing itself into an early grave if it doesn’t figure out how to engage with young people, poor people, nonwhite people. That those of us who care about it don’t always even know why we still want to make theatre, and yet we can’t seem to stop.
Yet despite my sympathy for the artists and their frustrations, I found myself equally frustrated by the piece of theatre they’ve built to address them. While the challenges they pose are structural and systemic, the show more often revolves around the smallest microcosm of the questions they ask: “If theatre is going to make us poor forever, does that mean our dreams have to change?” While grappling with that question is clearly important, necessary work for these artists to do for themselves, in order for it to make engaging, surprising, vital theatre, the audience needs to have a stake in the answer, which I never felt to be the case.
In fact, they pretty much tell the audience explicitly that they don’t expect us to be interested in their journey, that a show about poverty and abuse will be “unpopular,” that “people don’t want to hear about that kind of stuff”—so they’re going to splice in a science-fiction spoof about snakes to keep us entertained.
Consequently, Flying Snakes in 3-D has two very different components, which intersect occasionally: a series of deeply personal narratives about overcoming poverty and abuse, and choosing to make theatre despite the enormous obstacles to doing so—and a very silly, almost nonsensical comedy spoof of low-budget sci-fi and superhero movies, about mutant flying snakes.
In the frame story, the artists “themselves” (the stories belong to three of the creators of the piece, Leah Nanako Winkler, Teddy Nicholas, and Lindsay Mack, but Winkler and Nicholas, the piece’s co-writers and co-directors, are played by other actors for the majority of the piece) talk about their lives, their heartbreakingly difficult upbringings, how they made the choice to work in theater, and how they survive financially now. There are common themes among the narratives, but for the most part, each is treated as a separate monologue, an individual journey of one artist from past to present.
In the snake plot, genetically enhanced flying king cobras escape from a lab and wreak havoc, until the F.U.C.K.ers squad (Four Universally Combative Killers) of semi-superheroes (a psychic ninja with a murdered sister, a horse-shooting cowboy with a magic lasso, a not-too-bright basketball star with a flaming ball, and the governor, with special powers of diplomacy) are brought in to save the day. The two parts do reflect on each other: the snakes represent wealth and privilege, and have been created as enemies of the poor. (And one of the most successful segments in the piece is a play-within-the-snake-play, created by Teddy after the snakes, aka the 1%, whine that they want their emotions and their personal stories validated: he constructs a perfect compilation of suburban upper-middle-class coming-of-age cliches where being forced to take a part-time job is the worst thing that’s ever happened to our hero.) But structurally, the two narratives are simply intercut from time to time.
Stylistically, they’re of course extremely different. Yet while one story is meant to be stripped-down, sincere, and honest, and the other over-the-top and campy, in both cases, the creators often seem to be consciously choosing artlessness over craft (in storytelling, in performance, and in Winkler and Nicholas’s direction), as if it would be dishonest to shape their personal narratives more carefully; as if craft represents the privileged, facile theatre they’re fighting against. A few of the performances (notably Lindsay Mack, as herself and Dr. Inis Goodheart, the scientific mastermind behind the doomed snake experiment) do stand out. But far too much of the time, I felt like the piece was being performed by the actors for themselves, rather than the audience.
Artists need to constantly re-examine their goals and their dreams; they need to think critically about the institutions and the contexts they’re working in; they need to bring all of that into their art. But they also need to make those inquiries matter to their audience—and they need to trust their audience enough to challenge them, instead of telling them they’re not up to the challenge.