It was a definite hint that we were in for something different when we arrived at the Terrace Theater and were led to seats set up on the stage.
It reminded me of Anna Krajewska-Wieczorek’s production of The Changeling at UCLA in the Eighties were we all sat on stage while the actors writhed and shrieked under our folding chairs. It wasn’t that threatening, but Difficulty was difficult.
It was not that it was so oblique and non-narrative; what was difficult about it was that it ended after the first ten minutes, but didn’t realize it, and kept on going for an additional, entirely unnecessary hour and a quarter.
David Lang’s music—a string quartet was the entire orchestra—was lovely and hypnotic, if a bit aimless. The setting was on a plantation in the Old South. There was an excellent black choir—led by Eric B. Anthony. And there was the Family—most impressively a deranged matriarch played by Suzan Hanson. Characters rose up to view on the stage elevators, and the vastness of the auditorium stood in for the vast fields of the plantation. The fog machine worked overtime and by the end it felt like a sauna.
Mac Wellman’s libretto not only avoided narrative but mostly avoided syntax—which is fine. Thank God people take Gertrude Stein to heart. But what’s fun on the page doesn’t necessarily translate to the stage—especially when you’re sitting on a folding chair. And note that the music Virgil Thomson created for Stein’s operas was in a very easygoing vernacular style: no need for all the elements to be strange at the same time. Here it was the words x by the music x the staging = irritation.
Charitably, you might say the effect was of a time and place so corrupted by lies (i.e. slavery) that not only communication between people broke down, but language and reality. Which is a provocative thought, but one that was comprehensively presented in the first few minutes.
I realize there is not much market for such a thing, but the crowd at LBO Saturday seemed game, and if it had finished by 8:00, once they had gotten over the initial shock, I don’t think anyone would have minded a micro-mini-format.
At any rate, good for LBO for putting it on. It’s invaluable that we have a company around willing to take on these oddball projects, even if they aren’t always winners.