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June 17, 2008


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Well, first let me say I am a big fan of both Ruhl and Haidle. I do think that though they both use whimsy, that's not really the main thing. I think it's more about symbols and creating a new language for the stage. The visual stuff they do like the house of string or the ladder to the heavens would never work if filmed.

It's an entirely theatrical conceit which is why people are going crazy for it and possibly also why other people hate it. When we think of whimsy on TV or in film, it is whimsy made for TV or film. I don't want to say it's naturalized for the little box, but you're physically closer. It's made real. And the thing that works in my example of Northern Exposure is that Joel is a non believer. You can almost do anything if you have someone there saying no, this is not how the world works who keeps people on the ground. I think it's why I don't get David Lynch.

But also, for Northern Exposure for example, that whimsy is not the only thing going on. It's not about tone and creating a new world. You latch onto the characters and if the tone goes crazy for a scene, you don't care. But if the whole thing is like that, some people just don't like it. In a way what I think people don't like about Ruhl and Haidle is the consistency of tone. A certain number just can't live in that world that they created. It's too foreign. Again, me, I fucking love it.


I have mixed feelings about it. (Gosh, thinking back, that's pretty much my response to just about everything on the planet, isn't it? I guess I enjoy fence-sitting). Personally I love whimsy and magical realism on stage, and (this is just my personal taste) feel like watching realism is kind of a chore unless it's absolutely amazing- i.e. August Osage, for example. Part of it is probably escapist tendencies on my part- my own life has enough of kitchen sinks and houses and struggling to pay bills without having to go see a play about it. But unless said whimsy appears in the service of at least a semicoherent statement by the playwright, it's not that much different from any other kind of vapid spectacle (i.e., musical theatre at its worst, and I say that as someone who *loves* musical theatre). At the risk of sounding arrogant (too late...), I see a LOT of plays. Like, almost as many as someone who gets paid to go see them. And I'm a reasonably intelligent person- so, if an image appears on stage and I completely don't get it, I usually feel like it's the playwright's fault (or the director, sometimes) and not mine. There have been times watching Ms. Ruhl's work (those f*cking fish...) where I've been wondering what the hell was going on, and as someone who considers themselves perceptive that's a frustrating experience. But there are times when I love her whimsy and departures into the fantastic (I was crazy about Dead Man's Cell Phone, until it kind of jumped the rails for me in the last five minutes or so...doesn't she know how to end a play?).
I feel like TV does realism better than stage does. Partly that's because we've been trained to consider what the camera captures as more "true" whereas there's always an inherent artificiality to even the most naturalistic stage drama (people projecting, 'cheating out' towards the audience, etc.) But on the other hand my absolute favorite show on lately is Pushing Daisies (I just hope they've decided where it's actually going, now). Well, and the Colbert Report.
As an aside, I don't watch TV much either, but that has more to do with having no spare time and being too cheap/poor to get cable than any sort of principle.

Mike from Philly

you should have seen the Wilma's production of Eurydice when you were here. Blanka is an expert at handling Ruhl's style, and i actually think you would have appreciated it a lot more in the setting of mythology. i had never thought about the similarities between Ruhl and modern television, though. interesting.

Jon Steinhagen

Um...Kris Vire, you have become my #1 favorite theater critic of all time. What has to happen to get you to write books? Tell me, I'll help.

As for this latest article, well...my responses would go on for days, and this is your blog. I'm just glad to see the nearly lost art of dramatic commentary did not die out with John Gassner or remain the exclusive, chatty (and catty) domain of Ethan Mordden.

Thank you for making my day, man.

Go Chicago.

Mr. Smith

You have to write for your medium. To use the first example that comes to mind, I have no idea how they're going to make

"The Time Traveler's Wife" as compelling as the book was on film. Mainly because they'll be trying to show you the reason behind the main character's time traveling, as opposed to the book where they can say "It's just something that happens to him, like a genetic disorder" and focus on the storytelling. Because of the nature of film, you're going to have to show how and why this happens. Even as a viewer familiar with the book, I'd be unsatisfied if I didn't see that. Because that's the nature of the medium. Overall, I think the stage is more a home for naturalism than surrealism. Because we as the audience are a part of the atmosphere onstage, so it's harder for us to accept that all this fantastical stuff is happening 100 yards away from us when we're sitting in the middle of real life. Television and film keep the work at a distance, so our suspension of disbelief is given a leg up from the start.

Having not seen Ruhl's work, I'm treading on less-steady ground with my next point, but: It's possible to create whimsy and fantasy onstage but only when you go all in with it. If it's just an accent or a motif, it doesn't work as well.


This is an incredibly great post, Kris, and boy, I have no good answer. One of my struggles lately is wondering why the heck I loved "The Clean House," disliked "Cell Phone" and would rather kill myself than sit through "Passion Play" again, and my *guess* right now is (and this could change any minute) is that when this whimsical style works, it works when it fits the characters. I gave a shit about Mathilde, and I can't remember a single character from "Passion Play." And I just think there's too much of throwing shit against the wall in "Cell Phone." For every moment that found me absorbed, she threw something like "You remind me of a casserole" in my face.

One of the other things I find interesting regarding your "Northern Exposure" and "Ally McBeal" references is that both of those shows did *not* have any staying power. They were both big flashes in the pan and both seemed to run out of steam far quicker than other shows of comparable quality. That might be a coincidence or not, but I think it might have to do with one of the curses of a good television show: your characters have to grow, but in order to grow they have to change and the show has to change. And that messes up the show's original core concept. But the core concept, the whimsy, gets old really fast so you *have* to change, so you're in a Catch-22. I can't imagine "Pushing Daisies" being on the top of its game for more than two or three seasons.

Does that make any sense? This is a tough question!


Mr. Smith, I respectfully disagree on the naturalism/surrealism distinction. The problem with naturalism on stage is there is always a limit to how 'realistic' a stage drama can appear- finally, it must always appear more false than film would. I guess the clearest example (and a rather gruesome example, unfortunately) of this problem is stage violence- suppose a character decides to disembowell himself on stage, or slit their own wrists. How realistic can it be on stage? Or what if someone shoots or stabs someone else? Even with blood packs, etc. the illusion created fails to convince on the level that a film showing those things would. To an extent that has to do with the money spent, but not entirely. This failure of live theatre to be as natural/realistic as film presents itself in more pervasive and subtle ways as well- as I said in my previous post, even the most realistic stage drama will have actors cheating towards the audience somewhat, limiting how much their conversation overlaps, and projecting their voices enough for the audience to hear even if they're saying something very quiet and confidential to a character standing right next to them.
I don't write this to disparage live theatre. But I think that this inherent artificiality is something that needs to be acknowledged and embraced- and I see that embrace in the work of not just Ruhl, but also director/adapters like Mary Zimmerman. I think that on stage a symbol can be much more powerful than in film. The example that's coming to mind is from Zimmerman's Argonautika- Medea is struck by Cupid's arrow and falls in love with Jason, betraying her family and forsaking her homeland for him. Rather than just recounting that, that actress playing Medea spends much of the evening with this huge arrow literally sticking out of her, and blood stains down the front of her dress (it sounds clunkier than it was). The point being, the audience can perceive a truth about love- that it can be ugly, and painful, and messy, and a great catastrophe when it befalls someone- more clearly due to that symbol as it appears on stage. But it's a symbol that I doubt would ever be attempted in a movie version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
Example two, specifically addressing stage violence- did anyone else see "Rose Rage?" I think all the things they did with cuts of meat were tremendously effective- the symbol can drive the point home effectively and powerfully, with the added benefit of having the immediacy of being part of a live performance.

Paul Rekk

That's a helluva comment, Ed.

I recently had some reflections on Documentary Theatre (one extremity of naturalism on stage) on my blog.

I'm with you on the inherent handicaps of naturalism on stage. It's the main reason I find the smoking ban such a big loss. There are a small number of commonly recurring actions that we simply cannot reenact on stage, that's a given. But if the goal is realism, we should be looking for ways to eliminate them, not adding to the list.

In terms of stylization and/or absurdism, the paradox seems to be that the key to its effectivity is turning it into naturalism. The reason Zimmerman's arrow sounds clunkier than it was (I can only assume -- I didn't see it), was because the Zimmerman and her performers treated it as if it were the logical continuation of situation. Absurdism works best if(when) it's only absurd to the viewer. Can't relate this to Ruhl until I see Dead Man's tomorrow night, but I thought I'd nose some random ruminations in here anyway.


I can't take full credit (blame?). I've been eating, sleeping and breathing Pirandello for a month and a half.


1. I second Steinhagen.

2. Whimsy, in my mind, works best when it's a Trojan Horse hiding within its cute exterior something potentially deadly and destructive. Whimsy for its own sake feels like somebody pasting glittery pony stickers all over the cover of a Gutenberg Bible.

3. Ruhl may in fact be a very affable and down-to-earth person in real life (I wouldn't know), but I find myself immediately hackle-raised when somebody makes a comment about "watered-down television" and then follows that up by admitting they never watch television. In other words, the first comment wasn't based on any of her own perceptions so much as what she's been led to believe about "television."

But you're a writer, Ms. Ruhl. Surely you could have mentioned something you actually understood in order to make your point.


i'm a dork because the only thing I want to respond to is the comment from adam "I think it's why I don't get David Lynch"

While I know you weren't specifically citing Lynch as "whimsical", using him as an example to prove the point of whimsical is kind of a stretch.
To me, Lynch is a surrealist... his whole point is to not have a straight character "grounding" the material.

I'm jus' sayin' :)


Just realized there was one moment in "Passion Play" that I really thought worked- did anyone else read this moment the same way? During act II (the part set in Nazi Germany), there's a moment in which the village idiot character (who in the Nazi Germany section is not just impaired but also Jewish) pretends to be the witch in the Hansel and Gretel story, writhing and choking to death in the oven after being pushed in by the kids. It's a comedic bit, and I started to laugh at it, and then I realized that in the world of a play, I was watching a Jewish character pretend to choke and die in an oven in Nazi Germany. It's a pretty grim bit of foreshadowing that made my blood run cold. So that was one moment in Passion Play that struck me as pretty effective. Actually, act 2 was overall the best part of "Passion Play" in my opinion.

Malachy Walsh

Great little post.

I found what Ruhl had to say about TV family dramas interesting since I hadn't seen any television recent family dramas that really fit her description. Then I got to the part where she said she didn't really watch any TV and I thought, "I see what the problem is here."

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

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