It’s rather interesting to note that a lot of the criticism of the video game “Assassin’s Creed Unity” is not being made from an artistic perspective, or one focusing on the quality of this video game compared to many others — but from politicians.
The newly released game is set in Paris during the French Revolution in 1789, a follow-up to earlier video games set during the Crusades and the American Revolution, and made by a Ubisoft, a French company.
Heavy in bloody violence, the critics have denounced it for portraying the key players in the game as bloodthirsty murderers — when in fact the politicos insist they were heroic revolutionaries. After all, wasn’t it a case of the oppressed masses rising up against a privileged nobility that set off the revolution — a chance to bring down the folks who scoffed at the notion of fixing poverty, disease and hunger?
It will be left to those who can obsessively sit for hours next to their Xbox, playing video games for hours, to decide whether this one is effective or not — and to the French politicians to decide how it fits into their own particular version of the culture wars.
The fact that the criticism is political rather than artistic makes sense, in a way, when you consider the historic popularity in France — dating all the way back to 1897 — of the Theatre du Grand-Guignol. It dates back to the decision by French playwright Oscar Metenier to buy a theater in Paris’ Pigalle district to produce his controversial — and violence and gory — plays. In 1989 Metenier was succeeded by Max Maurey, who transformed the Theatre du Grand-Guignol into a house of horror. It was said that he considered each play a success based on the number of people who fainted during the performance.
The gory and controversial productions would continue for decades, and did not close its doors until 1962. The final director, Charles Nonon, said reality during World War II and the Holocaust made their horrific productions seem passé in comparison: “We could never compete with Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone believed that what happened on stage was purely imaginary. Now we know that these things — and worse — are possible.”
That raises an interesting series of questions. Should “art” be pure escapism from the genuine horrors of reality — or force the audience to confront society’s most hideous atrocities?
Do artistic recreations of tragic and horrific incidents put a mirror up to our society and demand a response — or simply exploit the violence for pure titillation?
These days, it would be hard to imagine any theater company producing something that can compete with the savage brutality available on the Internet — as an extreme example, ISIS members chopping off the heads of victims, and, even more shocking, twisted Americans watching these videos, feeling a sense of excitement, and plotting ways to leave for Syria to join ISIS. The reality is too explicit today for any shock value to be available to the struggling artists.
Those who get an adrenalin rush from violence can either play the video games that allow them to slaughter innocent people — in a safe, fantasy setting — or watch those sickening, stomach-turning ISIS videos with the knowledge that this is no Hollywood special-effects extravaganza — but the real thing.
So if it is not only possible for theater to shock through “graphic” portrayals of violence, why bother to attempt to shock these days?
Orlando is blessed with an amazing number of truly gifted community theaters and theatrical talent — actors, playwrights and directors among them. There are a lot options for what to see — but without question, virtually all of the productions could be considered “classical” in the sense that the approach is traditional: a clear linear storyline, characters and character types that are instantly familiar and recognizable, and productions that often build toward an emotionally-charged dramatic climax.
Classical shouldn’t be equated with fluff. In the age of Ferguson, the Orlando Shakespeare Theater has spent this past season commemorating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through powerful productions like “The Best of Enemies” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which explore issues of racial intolerance and racial injustice. Dark Side of Saturn theater company is now producing Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending,” which also looks at racism in the Deep South.
The recent touring Broadway production of the hit musical “The Book of Mormon” at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts challenged concepts about whether organized religion can meet the basic needs of regular people, in-between all those snappy one-liners and gross-out humor.
Mad Cow Theatre has used its productions to monitor and track the trends in our culture — and how where we’ve been can impact where we’re going; their recent musicals have been as diverse as “James Joyce’s The Dead” to revivals of “Hair” and “The Who’s Tommy.” In different ways, these productions can “challenge” the audience — both artistically, and in terms of common perceptions about the society we live in.
None of them, though, strays far from the “classical” approach. None could be considered “radical” or experimental in the artistic sense, since none challenges the way we expect theater to tell a story.
In 2013, I started Naked Rage Theatre. It was not necessarily intended to be a new community theater company — I already had that in Freeline Productions, which has produced the plays “Hooked” and “Copping a Craigie” at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival — and both productions were admittedly “classical” in their approach to audiences.
Rather, my goal with Naked Rage Theatre was intended more as an artistic movement — an attempt to provide a voice to those who are not always attracted, artistically, to the classical approach.
Experimental theater is sometimes thought of in the same vein as that old Grand Guignol Theatre approach in Paris — to be shocking is the main, perhaps only, true goal.
But you have to ask, what’s the point of simply portraying violence and cruelty as a theatrical artifice when it’s impossible to compete with the shock value of watching news coverage of the riots in Ferguson, the murder of two police officers in New York City, or the slaughter of 12 editorial board members of the Charlie Hebdo publication? Why try to compete with the worst that reality has to offer, except you’re attempting to do it in “artistic” terms?
Another way of looking at this: in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his novel “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” The kindly, intelligent and cultured Dr. Jekyll had dark secret fantasies that he repressed — until he drank that potion that brought out his alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. It was supposed to represent the dark side of our nature, the things we hold in to conform to proper Victorian standards — only today, Mr. Hyde no longer seems particularly shocking, and the things he indulges in — gambling, having lots of sex, seeking out prostitutes, drinking booze, smoking cigars and cursing at people — is the kind of stuff that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in a TV sitcom during the family hour. He seems mild compared to, say, Charlie in “Two and a Half Men.” The pursuit of taboo breaking as an artistic endeavor has become tiresome and repetitive.
If we were to drink a potion today that would unleash our inner Hyde, what exactly would we do? What things would we unleash that we’ve repressed?
If there are still dark paths that we can walk on, where would we go?
Thus Naked Rage Theatre poses the question: is it still possible to shift away from the classical approach to theater with its traditional storylines, familiar characters and sense of shared communal values? And, more importantly, is it possible to do this without going for the easy shocks of violence or the drift from socially conformist behavior to an exploration of perceived “perversions”? What “shocked” audiences in Stevenson’s day, or in the heyday of the Grand Guignol movement, has probably been done to exhaustion artistically.
That’s the challenge, and it’s a steep one. Are there new ways of creating a potent, exhilarating theatrical experience without being classical in style — or content?
Last year, I entered my play “Murder Sleep”, set in an aging hotel in Fort Lauderdale, into the Lottery for the Orlando Fringe Festival in May. Now high up on the waiting list, I may still get in; time will tell.
I’m not entirely sure that “Murder Sleep” moves that drastically from the classical approach, though I very much wanted it to. But I do know that it’s worth aiming for a different approach — and even failing, on occasion. That’s what Naked rage Theater represents: a clarion call to those who want to walk down a darker path, and have their own ingenious (and potentially innovative) ways of doing it.
Contact Freeline Media or at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..