Roger Nasser Is The One-Man Ten-Minute History of American Theater
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
June 8, 2012
It's a constant debate within the New York theatre community: is it easy, lazy work to keep reviving the canonical plays and playwrights, or does it show a deserved respect for stage history to persist in offering new interpretations of seminal work? The argument for the former proposes that in an age where personal, indie theatre has such a hard time of it, refusing to take risks only exacerbates the problem.
Roger Nasser is the One-Man Ten-Minute History of American Theater, currently being presented as part of the always-inspiring Brick Theater's Democracy festival, is a strange, strange beast. Certainly, it could be accused of valuing revival over originality, as it presents one-man versions of five classic plays: Our Town; A Streetcar Named Desire; The Crucible; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and a "Surprise Musical" that you'll likely recognize even if you've never seen it. And yet anyone who thinks Nasser and his team have played it lazy isn't paying attention. In these ultra-condensed adaptations, Roger flies through multiple characters at a marathon speed that equally mesmerizes and entertains, revealing both solemn respect and gleeful irreverence for stories many of us have memorized in our own ways.
Most of the fascination centers on Roger himself. A big fellow with a gentle smile and an unassuming demeanor, his singular presence and impressive focus create the impression that he's less performing these plays than swallowing and spitting them out. What he lacks in vocal virtuosity and nuance, he more than compensates for with dedication. The effect is ultimately not to pull us into the dramatic weight of the stories—but that's okay, we've been through that before—but instead to remove us into a bizarre meditative space where we confront these archetypes divorced from their over-familiar story structures, and all the while Roger keeps chugging along.
To call the show irreverent is not to suggest it's an evening of cheap laughs at overly-revered work (though a bit more of that could add a different rhythmic layer). Instead, it's to say that by diving into this project with such gusto, Roger and his director Melissa Roth have sought to divorce content from form and characters from structure, in the process creating an entirely esoteric blend of theatricality that both pays credence to tradition while grounded in one unique fellow. For those who think themselves more into tried-and-true tradition, there's certainly a joy in seeing some classic plays force-fed in a brisk hour, and for those more into ambitious, exploratory experiments, this will also fit the bill. Look into it, if only so you'll be able to have an opinion when it's given a revival.