Choose Your Seat Wisely Feb 10, 2012
by Josh W
Why am I compelled to write a justification for choosing your seat wisely? The answer is twofold. First, The Past Is A Grotesque Animal is a brilliant piece of theater and demands your attention. And second, where you sit will greatly affect your experience of the performance. Sure seating at any performance determines your perspective and the subjective experience of audience is limited by blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. The difference here is that The Past Is A Grotesque Animal is in Spanish, and for most of the audience this means that you will be spending a great deal of time reading the surtitles suspended on both sides of the stage. And you should.
Almost all of the events onstage are narrated. Conversations and dialog are in the background. Narration frames everything. Third-person narrators, vocalized internal monologues, song/karaoke, and snippets of dialogue intermingle to craft a narration that binds the entire work. Ergo, you will spend a lot of time reading the surtitles. Seems straightforward, right? Well it isn’t. Instead of the traditional, single surtitle screen centered on the stage, the audience is presented with two screens on the left and right of the stage, each displaying the same text. Those in the end of the aisles can cast their glance through the action to the opposing screen to follow along; while those in the center need to choose a screen at any given moment. I (sitting second row, center) adopted a pattern of right screen for the first half of a scene, and left for the second. Why am I focusing so much of my time telling you about the surtitles? They’re just an addition to make the performance intelligible to a non-Spanish speaking audience, right? Typically, this would be the case. But there is something else going on in The Past Is A Grotesque Animal. But first, allow me a digression.
The story spans a decade in the lives of four characters over the course of two hours. So, there are gaps and voids everywhere. Each scene is a fragment from one of the character’s timeline. Sometimes the gap between these fragments spans a few days and sometimes a few years. Details about the events between these fragments are sometimes given directly in the narration. At other times they are markedly absent. The stage is a rotating circle divided into four sections that turns throughout the performance; each section signaling a new time, place, and set of characters. Action unfolds like you are watching a large zoetrope that speeds up and slows down as needed. In addition to these chronological and spatial voids, there are holes in the language as well. As all third-person narratives do, the narrative here draws focus to particular details at the expense of others. This focus is constantly shifting. At times the narration summarizes a conversation taking place onstage, other times we are exposed to only one character’s part in a dialog, and sometimes the dialogue is completely replaced with an internal monologue. The conversation is there taking place onstage, but we are not privy to it. Often this happens overtly (one participant’s half of a telephone conversation, a secret whispered in someone’s ear), but it is also crafted more subtly; which brings me back to the subject of the surtitles.
I cannot imagine this work without them. Like the narration which points out some details and neglects others, the surtitles act as a second guide for the audience’s attention. There is the physical act of turning your head and shifting your glance away from the stage to read, but this is true for any surtitled work. In The Past Is A Grotesque Animal they are far more integrated into the work. Not everything spoken onstage is translated. Again there are voids. As the audience watches a women packing a bag and dictating into a tape recorder, a narrator recounts her childhood story into a microphone, the surtitles flip through a translation of the narration. Her dictation goes untranslated. The narration stops and the screen hangs on its last sentence. Her dictation continues. Translation acts a meta-narrative throughout the performance. The surtitles become another explicit character in the story – sometimes acting as a subtitle, and other times like the intertitle in a silent film. Words are spoken. Sometimes they are heard, and sometimes they are understood, but not always.
So choose your seat wisely, it will greatly affect your experience. Not that there is a bad seat in the house. This is a performance in the hands of extremely talented actors and a director who knows how to craft an experience. The experience weaves language, action and space into something that demands a great deal of attention from the audience. But it’s worth every second of your time.