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Storytelling lies at the heart of both theatre and song, and this basic human need fuels our appreciation for both art forms and their forms of artifice. PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened its 2013/14 season with a PRC2 production of an interesting experiment including sung stories by singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright, III. In Surviving Twin, which is directed by Joseph Haj, Wainwright examines the relationship between fathers and sons, or, more precisely, his relationship with his father and, to a lesser degree, with his own son. The family lines branch to other generations, but this remains a very personal story. The audience must do its own work to raise its content to the universal plane. Some may find it heavy lifting.
The set-up is not unlike that of the High Wide and Handsome project about musician Charlie Poole, which Wainwright and friends performed at Duke in 2010, although at PRC, Wainwright goes solo. There’s a chair and a lamp, a few other pieces of set and props, and projected imagery. Over the past couple of decades technological advances have exploded the possibilities for imaged backdrops to wonderful effect, but now the risk arises of stage sets looking very much like Facebook pages. Surviving Twin uses old Wainwright family photographs and memorabilia, along with video, projected on screens or onto panels made to look like segments of old houses, which hang at angles above the stage, as if being sucked upward in the vortex of time (scenic and projection design by Caite Hevner Kemp). There is at once too much of this, and not enough. The pictures fill in detail for Wainwright’s songs, monologues, and recitations, and distract the viewer from the fact that no story actually unfolds on stage. One might wish that more mental imagery were evoked with fewer visual prompts. Yet since the images are projected for us, in a presentation whose static quality is only emphasized by the one rather lengthy piece of video, it is hard not to wish for more of them.
Every person living has some sort of relationship with his or her parents, although not every person is so lucky as to also be a parent. Many, if not most, of these relationships have difficulties, troubles, even tragedies. Going back as far as we may in time, this is true. And perhaps there is something in the genes that makes father-son/son-father relations particularly fraught and combative. Wainwright opens this show with “Surviving Twin,” which includes the lines, “Can a man’s son be his twin?...Can you murder someone in a way that they don’t die?...I didn’t want to kill him, that would be suicide….Although the old man’s dead and gone, I’m his surviving twin.”
And, apparently, not happy about it. Seemingly, Wainwright, Jr. felt much the same about his own father, the first Loudon. In a Life column, "Life With--and Without--Father," Wainwright, Jr. mentions his years of therapy after the death of Loudon One, and bemoans the way his father had been his "eminence gris."
Long-time listeners to Wainwright’s music will know that at its best it combines fine guitar and banjo picking with deadpan lyrics, often dry and dark, in a forceful rhythmic progression. They will also know that he indulges in a coarseness sometimes crossing into crudity. Music takes backseat to lyrics in this show; although Wainwright accompanies himself, the song structures are very similar and the instrumentation is not inventive. The song here that shows him at his best is about wearing his dead father’s clothes and living with his furniture. He wears “a dead man’s tuxedo, with a broken-in feel;” he sits in a dead man’s chair and sleeps in his bed. It’s a “dress rehearsal in the dead man’s clothes.”
Surviving Twin includes many wonderful stories (though tinged with an unsettling bitterness and sometimes marred by blatant self-absorption or obscured by self-protectiveness), but the connective tissue between them is sometimes so thin as to be invisible. He talks about his grandfather, then jumps to a story about going to see his mother at the end of her life — and suddenly segues into a rollicking song about his grandmother — before reciting one of his father’s Life magazine columns about having a suit tailored in London. The suit, still very fine, is with him onstage, clothing a headless mannequin.
After quite a bit more jumping around in time and subject, he arrives at his father’s final column, written shortly before his death in 1988, about maps and journeys and not being ready to follow the map to where all the roads end. As are the other Loudon Wainwright, Jr. columns Loudon Wainwright III recites, it is elegantly written and circumspect. Wainwright III sums all this up in a final song about what’s between fathers and sons: “Maybe it’s hate; probably it’s love.”
The PRC2 series is an invaluable part of the Triangle’s theater scene, because it provides a place for the new and experimental to receive well-supported productions. The only things raw here are the writer’s conflicting feelings. There can be no objection to a man feeling how he feels. One does wish, however, that as this piece develops, he either would harrow us with fuller revelation, or else stand back a little from himself and make a cooler evaluation.
Surviving Twin continues through September 8. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.