When I sat down at to watch The Pleasures of Peace at the Medicine Show Theatre, I saw immediately a perfect litmus test for the success of the show. Sitting to my right was a group of classic contemporary NYU hipsters, drinking Heineken and discussing celebrity gossip. The success of the show depended on how well it got under the skin of exactly these kind of people.
A revue like The Pleasures of Peace, which takes its title from a poem by Kenneth Koch, is exactly the type of show we should be seeing more of in the English-speaking world, and especially in the U.S. If I had one major objection, it would be that I wanted the show to be larger, and with a larger audience. The Medicine Show Ensemble has carved a niche for itself with shows like this, and while the current show is slightly too long and somewhat uneven (the plight of any revue, good or bad), it was obvious that this diverse, creative ensemble had the intellect to match their inventiveness.
Some skits focused on the dichotomy of political and banal conversation. One routine featured the best theatrical expression I've ever seen of the conflict between classical sincerity and postmodernist apathy: a humming battle between Beethoven's 9th and a lullaby, with the song meant to put you to sleep eventually winning—and sounding very dangerous.
There's a lot of joke telling, mostly of the type of jokes people have all heard but would never tell in such a public forum. There's an Oscar Wilde scene on the morality of the wealthy, which is promptly destroyed by intentionally shit analysis meant to mock the audience. But throughout the show, there's an overwhelming commitment to creativity and attacking complacency. Like all smart theater, the ensemble puts the art before the politics. There's certainly a fair share of leftist rhetoric, but it's mostly either secondhand or treated with a sense of humor.
Of course, if I was totally happy with a challenging show, that would mean I wasn't really challenged that much after all. The Medicine Show Ensemble had that covered by delving into that most verboten of theatrical practices: boring your audience. Nearly an hour after mentioning how boring opera was, the show launched into a sarcastically boring opera based on a Louisa May Alcott story about a subject that's usually anything but boring to young people: hashish. I don't know if it was worth it to bore an audience to make a point—I'm leaning towards no—but I at least appreciate the ensemble's willingness to try. I just hope that they were aware of the boring factor.
There are inevitable limits to the revue format, especially to a contemporary eye. The biggest misstep, which was more a product of the format than the content, was the inclusion of John Gruen's one-act play Guards in Love. While the play, about a love affair between a British royal guard and a Swiss Vatican guard, was not that bad at all, it probably had more of a place downstairs as part of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's one-act marathon, especially considering it didn't add all that much to the theme of the evening. Still, considering the amount of material packed into the night, keeping it to around two hours was an impressive feat.
Perhaps a show this experimental or eclectic can't be expected to pack houses, even in an Off-Off-Broadway production. I'm sure the ensemble members wouldn't have it any other way (except maybe with a bigger paycheck). Yet theater like this is too smart to be left to the fringes, and I wish it could run longer so that critics and crowds would be more likely to take a gander. As for those NYU kids, despite the show being quite funny, if on its own plane, they almost never laughed, and spent the second half of the night whispering to each other in confusion and looking to the door. Brecht would have been proud.
Through June 28. Located at the Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble, 249 W. 52nd St (3rd Floor). Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online at Smarttix. Photo credits: John Quilty
Directed by Barbara Vann. Pleasures Of Peace features Molly C. Blau, Paul Cloeter, Mark J. Dempsey, Felix Gardon, Jason Alan Griffin, Beth Griffith, Ashley Anne Harrell, Nina Karacosta, Ward Nixon, Andrei Robakov, Peter Tedeschi, Alex Martinez Wallace and Ann Marie Yoo.