Thursday, May 3, 2012

Spy Movie as Stage Drama

Remember the sensation of your first Bond film. The women, the action, the sharp dialogue sprinkled with spy jargon you only half understood. Before “Bond, James Bond,” became a punch line or an applause line, depending on which Bond you were watching (Timothy Dalton, anyone?). Before you realized that most of the movies hit the same beats and feature similarly drawn villains.

That was the sensation I had when I first watched the Jason Bourne movies. (Mission: Impossible had straddled the divide, and while it remains beholden to its elaborate masks, the most recent film recognized that such a conceit is hardly necessary, and the film is more exciting for its daring.) A new kind of spy emerged, someone good-looking and violent in a modern way, an American way. Bond, we realized, was for a specific time, an Anglo-centric moment of the world before American military power reached its zenith. Bond had gadgets. Bourne had training and weapons.

Of course, if you’ve only seen the newer Daniel Craig Bond movies, you may have no idea what I’m talking about when I describe the Bond of old, whose cartoonishness was part of its appeal. That Bond withered during the Brosnan years, as television and film veered toward the hyperrealism we see today, leaving Bond as an anachronism, a quaint reminder that spies used to drink martinis and don disguises, before Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum had ruined the fun.

Bond parody still exists on television, on the late great Chuck, and the better-than-ever Archer. But no one would confuse 24 with a martinis and costumes party. Jack Bauer might go undercover, but as a heroin-addicted double-agent gathering intelligence. Jason Bourne recons a site, determines an exit strategy, and executes his mission without fanfare. The glamour is gone and the danger is multiplied.

Notice that all of the above references appear on screen, not on stage. Espionage thrillers lend themselves to grand set-pieces, to helicopters flying into trains, to dangerous car chases, to fight scenes creatively edited so every punch feels like a surprise. We are disconnected from the death of anonymous policemen and henchmen alike; they are there for a moment and our hero moves on. We never have to deal with the aftermath, with the impact of the violence.

On stage, we are afforded no such comfort. A violent death must happen slowly, we must deal with the lost humanity. Similarly, locations are suggested rather than explicit. Characters exit a boardroom, the lights go down, they enter a different part of the stage, and they’re in Iceland. The stage requires us to work harder than the screen across all genres, both as performers and as audiences.

This is all to say that Asymmetric, the world premiere espionage thriller by Mac Rogers, is perhaps more daring than we might realize. The play takes its genre to a medium that actively works against it. The play nods to its cinematic forebears in many ways, but it remains trapped in the room with its audience, or rather the audience remains trapped with the play, with its characters. It is paced like a film, exciting, daring, and on a grand scale, but lives on stage.

You get the best of both worlds. The action and scope of a film, tethered to your own humanity on stage.

ASYMMETRIC opens May 19 at the Adrienne Second Stage. This blog will periodically update the development of the play in rehearsal.

Kevin Rodden is a production assistant for New City Stage Company.

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