Started in 1992, Anne Bogart’s Saratoga Intl. Theater Institute (SITI) has developed a series of avant-garde works that reflect its anti-naturalistic approach to the theater. In the case of “Cabin Pressure,” Bogart conducted a series of interviews with audience members following performances of a couple of her own shows, all with the intent to further an understanding of why people come to the theater in the first place and to investigate the special “creative link” between actor and audience. The resulting piece is a hyper-self-conscious collection of thoughts, quotes, comments and brief performance pieces, all revolving around the central theme that this actor-audience bond is in a state of disrepair. Even if the diagnosis is correct, “Cabin Pressure,” unfortunately, will not do much to fix it.
The performance begins before the audience enters, tossing away the convention of a traditional beginning, middle, and end. After the actors perform bits of dialogue from Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” the lights come up on the audience. The actors emerge, out of costume, and sit on folding chairs. Another performer asks them a series of questions: “What did you think?”; “Did youlearn anything?”; “What did you think it was about?”; “Did anything surprise you?”.
This pattern repeats throughout the show: the actors perform bits from a host of theatrical styles — from Restoration comedy and Victorian melodrama to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” modern performance art and radio plays — followed by the same series of queries and the same series of answers.
The usual complaint about the theater these days — and it’s voiced here at one point — is that it looks down on the audience, never recognizing that people want to be challenged. But what really comes across here, and it’s almost certainly unintended, is a very different view. The problem, “Cabin Pressure” seems to be saying, is the audience, which coughs and wriggles its candy wrappers and can’t articulate a strong verbal response to the experience afterwards. Bogart wants to poke fun at her own work and the actors as much as the audience, but really, it’s a lopsided affair, rather outrageously self-involved and therefore not very involving.
In its ideas, the work suffers severely from taking the words of some of the more provocative theatrical thinkers — Stanislavsky, Brecht, Artaud — and making them sound like finger-wagging cliches. And the theoretical contemplations are all so focused on one type of performance that this feels highly narcissistic. The word “character” is never mentioned, the notion of story unconsidered. It’s not that theater necessarily requires these elements, but they do fundamentally affect the actor-audience link, and Bogart seems intent on ignoring them rather than questioning their purpose or efficacy.
The design elements here can be quite striking — Walt Spangler’s Restoration wigs have a delightful wit to them — and there are certainly flashes of Bogart’s visual power. The performers are all strong physically and vocally, and once in a while, they show off some ideal comic timing, especially Kelly Maurer. But when an actor does step forward to speak directly to the audience, as Barney O’Hanlon does, there remains a fundamental falseness to it. He’s not so much speaking to us, engaging us, as he is lecturing. And that’s the real problem here: What’s supposed to be provocative is just preachy, and what’s presented as challenging is puerile.