(Here is the obligatory spoiler alert that I feel compelled to include. This one has me really thinking about some stuff, so I imagine that I will give a lot of details away – if you would prefer, please go see The Flick next weekend and then come back here to read the review and see how your thoughts match up with mine. If you continue on, remember that you’ve been warned. XO-Miss Jaye)
Does anyone else remember The Sims? I mean the original PC game – before it was available on gaming consoles, before the later versions where there were lots of specific missions and goals and you moved from level to level. I mean the bare bones Sims going about their daily lives: washing dishes, going to work, showering, and doing all of the mundane tasks of an ordinary life. Maybe you let them work their way up on their own or maybe you got carpal tunnel from putting in the “rosebud” money cheat code a thousand times, but however you played there was a sense of fascinating boredom that accompanied that game. I remember playing it and thinking to myself that this was insanity. I would never have gone over to a friend’s house and watched them do the dishes or sleep, but here I was watching little pixellated people doing household chores and everyday activities. Take a nap. Have lunch. Wash dishes. Take a shower. Paint a picture. Go to work. In “real life” it would have been boring, but in that game, for reasons that I still can’t explain to this day, it was riveting.
That’s how I felt when watching The Flick, the latest production by the Empire Theatre Company at the Empire Arts Center. Written by Annie Baker, the show centers on three employees at a small movie theatre, one of the few theatres left in Massachusetts that still shows movies on an old 35mm projector. Sam (Darin Kerr) is an older guy, the veteran employee who is showing new employee Avery (Leo Lakpa) the ropes: the rhythm of cleaning the theatre to prepare for the next day’s business. Rose (Leah Biberdorf – check out our profile of her HERE) is the projectionist, a role that evokes both jealousy and admiration from her male coworkers. Rose runs the movies, Sam and Avery clean the theatre. On one level, this sums up the The Flick: we’re watching three people show up to work and do their jobs. I swear, the floor of the Empire has probably never been cleaner for all of the constant sweeping and mopping that takes place during the run of the show. That same voice that piped up while I was playing The Sims was back again yelling, “Why are you watching three people pretend to work at a pretend movie theatre.” But just like when I was playing The Sims, that voice was pushed to the side and I kept watching. I was fascinated.
The guys spend a lot of time talking about movies; Rose rarely joins in because she is “over movies.” As Sam and Avery banter, we can see the differences between them emerge. Avery clearly sees this job as just a temporary stop on his way to…whatever. He is young and rather particular in his tastes; he was attending Clark on a full ride (his father is a professor there, teaching linguistics and semiotics), but has taken the semester off. He believes that there hasn’t been a “truly great American movie” since Pulp Fiction. He and Sam play a version of the “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon” game where Sam gives him 2 actors and he has to connect them in 6 moves or less. Avery can always do it, and Sam always seem flabbergasted by how quickly he is able to come up with the answers. Avery, we are meant to understand, is going places; specifically, he is going places that Sam is not.
Sam’s tastes are less refined and he is much more immersed in the escapist world of pop culture – and why wouldn’t he want to escape? He moved back in with his parents after breaking up with his live-in girlfriend, he’s about to go to the wedding of his older brother who is (using the vernacular of the play) “retarded,” and his obvious infatuation with Rose is not only unrequited but also barely even registered by the other characters. This is Sam’s life. Maybe things will change and maybe they won’t, but he clearly doesn’t have his eyes set on something greater the way Avery does. There is an early moment between the two:
Avery: What do you want to, like, be when you grow up?
Sam: I am grown up. That’s the most depressing thing anyone has ever said to me.
(a long pause while the two continue cleaning)
Sam: A chef.
It would be easy to believe that Sam doesn’t have any dreams of anything bigger, because if he does he doesn’t seem to have any plans or motivation to make them happen. He can only see as far as getting trained as a projectionist and promoted like Rose. He just is what he is.
Avery doesn’t know what he is, or what he wants, or where he’s going. In one scene, he’s talking on the phone with someone about a recent dream he had in which he and a bunch of other people had recently died and were in Purgatory. You could only go on to Heaven if, when “they” reviewed all of the books you’ve read and the movies you’ve watched in your life, they can find one that you truly loved and that really symbolizes your life. Avery is listing off all of these great movies that he thought for sure would be the one that would get him in, but none of them are working. Finally, the one that grants him entrance to heaven is Honeymoon in Vegas, a cheesy comedy he loved when he was 4 years old. For Avery, authenticity is something he had as a child, and now he struggles to know who he is. He complains to Rose when they are alone that he is always being advised to just “be yourself,” but he has no clue who that is. He also reveals to Rose that he attempted to commit suicide his freshman year at Clark. This is perhaps why his view of the future is so vague: depression is clouding his vision of what the future could possibly be.
Rose is perhaps the hardest character for me to wrap my mind around. She’s the love interest, the female figure that both of the men in the story can focus on so that we can watch their homosocial relationship develop. Although Rose is oblivious to Sam’s feelings, no one else can miss them: he stammers when he talks to her, awkwardly offers her assistance with…well anything she might need, and tells Avery that Rose is a lesbian to help throw him off the track. Rose seems drawn to Avery and wants to hang out with him; while Sam is away at the wedding, Rose and Avery hang out after hours at the theatre, listening to music and watching a movie. During the film, Rose makes her move: she starts kissing his neck passionately before undoing his pants to give him what feels like the world’s most awkward handjob (and really, aren’t all handjobs pretty awkward?) as he continues to stare intently at the screen. She storms out and stops the movie, and then the two talk. He reveals his depression and suicide attempt; she reveals that she is “pretty fucked up too,” that she is very sexually aggressive in the beginning of any relationship (she calls herself a nymphomaniac) before she eventually loses interest and then she “just fake[s] it until we break up.” She confesses, “Sometimes I worry that there’s something really wrong with me, but I’ll never know what it is” and she attempts to fix it by forging a connection with Avery. Rose’s attempt to seduce him was a false connection, her just playing into her own perceived pathology; the real connection comes after, when she shows Avery how to run the 35mm projector.
There is something…off about their connection at the theatre. As Avery is talking about his suicide attempt, indeed with any of Avery’s moments throughout the show, there is a sense of pretension about it that prevents it from having the emotional resonance that it should. It’s like watching a tutorial for how to have an existential crisis as a hipster: nothing is good enough or cool enough to inspire him to want to live, he’s anti-Facebook because his mother reconnected with an old boyfriend and left his father, and his suicide attempt is so unorthodox – he tried to kill himself by swallowing a bunch of pins – that even Rose is perplexed, saying, “Does that really work?” You want to care about him, but he’s so wrapped up in pretense that he’s less an actual person and more the idea of a person, and not necessarily the type of person who garners much sympathy. He feels disposable, and indeed, as the play reaches its conclusion you find out that even the other characters view him this way.
Early on, Rose and Sam reveal to Avery their tradition of collecting “dinner money”: skimming about 10% of the ticket sales off the top. Steve, the owner of the theatre, is apparently clueless and all of the employees have been doing this for years. In the second half of the play, Steve sells the theatre to another company who is planning to update to digital and whose manager is much more savvy in reviewing the finances. He figures out the “dinner money” scheme and blames Avery. Avery doesn’t rat them out, but he goes to Sam and Rose and asks them to confess their part. Rose immediately goes on the defensive, reminding Avery that he is able to attend Clark on a full ride scholarship; she has student loan debt and her mother is a secretary. Sam is quiet, and though he seems to feel guilty, he reminds Avery that Avery said he would quit if the new owner replaced the 35mm projector with digital anyway. When tested, whatever feelings they have for Avery are not enough to try to protect him from being fired. And why should they? In every word and action since he arrived, Avery has reminded them that he has bigger plans and aspirations for his life. Rose and Sam don’t see much past the next show.
Later, Avery returns after hours to meet up with Sam. The new owner has replaced the projector and wants Sam to donate the old one for scrap but instead he’s saved it for Avery along with a few random reels of film. Avery loads it up into his car and is about to leave when Sam tries to apologize for not sticking up for him when he was fired. Avery is clearly angry, lashing out by saying that it was probably for the best as he has much bigger things in store for him (though he still can’t clearly articulate them) and Sam will just be here in the theatre, doing the same thing and living the same life.
Sam responds by saying, “My life seems sort of depressing, and in a way it is. But there’s some really good stuff in it.” And that’s when it hit me: I’d spent the whole show believing I was watching Avery’s story unfold, but the truth of The Flick is that it’s Sam’s story. Sam’s life is small and ordinary, and it would never be the sort of thing that Hollywood would commit to celluloid. Avery’s story has the right amount of angst and dramatic life events to be the sort of escapist distraction you expect to see on screen, or on the stage, but it lacks a sense of reality. Sam’s life, however sad it may seem, is where the truth is. It’s that person we all know and we feel a little sad for because it seems like their life isn’t moving or changing or evolving, and if we’re being honest it’s also the worries we have about our own lives: are we making a difference, will we be remembered, did our lives matter? Baker has set up this piece to surprise us, and to trick us into examining the unexamined. It’s why The Sims was so compelling: by watching these little animated avatars wash dishes and go off to work, we hope to find that our own mundane activities are a part of something greater, that what we are doing with our lives has meaning and purpose. That even if we don’t achieve some place in the history books, that we loved and mattered and somehow deserved our place in the world.
This transformation through story wasn’t the only oddly affecting part of this theatrical experience; I want to turn the attention now to the technical aspects of the piece. The audience is seated on the stage, looking out into the auditorium. As I was taking my seat in the back row on a strangely tall riser (I think there may have been steps at the end of the aisle, but most of us just did the awkward 18-inch-or-so step up from the stage), I was thinking that this was pretty gimmicky. I’ve written before that ETC sometimes struggles to find the right balance between their production space and the shows they choose. The Office Plays, from their first season (I think), was engulfed by their large stage and bare bones set design; for their last production, The Falsettos (I didn’t post a review of that show for reasons you can read about HERE) they curtained off a small section of seats to create “a more intimate experience” (read: claustrophobic) that I found off-putting and not very effective (I’ve heard rumblings that this limiting of seats may have been less an artistic choice and more related to their contract for the performance rights – the same contract that “outlawed” reviews – so I can be somewhat sympathetic, but I think it raises important questions about how much influence rights holders should have on the evolution of a production). At first I was worried that this reversed stage/seating situation was just an attempt to be different for different’s sake, but the show slowly won me over.
Film is, in many ways, a voyeuristic medium. Laura Mulvey has written about the idea of “the male gaze” in horror films: that the audience, generally assumed to be primarily made up of young (mostly white) men, is watching young women being stalked, terrorized, and murdered for their enjoyment and what’s important for Mulvey is that the camera is mostly showing the visual perspective of the killer as opposed to the victims. This element of watching, or peeking in on private moments, is true of any film, not just horror films. By having the audience seated on the Empire’s stage, where the screen would be in our fictional setting, we are watching the play unfold but we are also, in some ways, being watched ourselves. This was most obvious in the scene where Avery and Rose are watching the movie together after hours: they are seated in a section of seats illuminated faintly by a spotlight, staring at the “screen” – that is, directly at the audience. They are watching us, as we watch them. There was something both unnerving and fascinating about that connection; it was not exactly breaking the 4th wall, but something close to it. If movies had feelings, they would perhaps feel as uncomfortable and as exhilarated as we, the audience, felt in that moment.
The use of the projection booth also created a sort of Rear Window experience, watching Rose and sometimes Sam or Avery working behind the glass, possibly doing something germane to the plot but also just being there. The double disconnection of having the action happen within the show but also behind a pane of glass also contributed to the voyeuristic feeling, like we had snuck in after hours to see what was happening. The use of the space wasn’t perfect; they could have put some lighting onto the balcony and played more with the available space, having characters interact from the different levels, and the lobby really needed a light just outside the door in the last scene between Sam and Avery so that there wouldn’t be so much action happening in darkness, but I was still excited by the possibilities that emerged from that reversal of expected space and was glad that it proved itself to be no mere gimmick.
All three actors did a great job of bringing their characters to life. Kerr’s Sam is awkward but likable in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has formed a relationship with a slightly odd coworker. He’s a bit “fussier” than I might have imagined Sam to be, but in the end when the story changes over to his, he owns that transition and gives Sam some really poignant moments. Lakpa is spot on as Avery, giving us the troubled young adult we recognize from every teen movie ever with enough emotional resonance to allow us to care about him as the story progresses but, in the end, we aren’t necessarily sad to see him go. Biberdorf is at her best when Rose is providing comedic moments with her snazzy dance moves and rather colorful vocabulary; unfortunately Baker wasn’t as successful in giving Rose much depth and Biberdorf works really hard to bring some resonance to the character in the quieter moments. Director Chris Berg even makes an appearance on stage (or perhaps we should say “in house,” given the staging?) – first as a sleeping movie patron and then as Avery’s detached replacement who has a desire to touch the movie screen. It wasn’t a lot of stage time to work with, but no one naps like Chris Berg.
The Flick plays for another week at the Empire Arts Center, March 31 – April 2 at 7:30 pm. The seating is limited, so I would suggest that you purchase tickets in advance or get there very early to ensure a seat. Tickets are $16.5o and seating is general admission (another reason to get there early!). Berg and crew have put together a great show and though the running time may seem daunting at close to 3 hours, it is definitely worth watching through to the end. Check it out, and comment below with your own thoughts on the production!
Tags: Annie Baker, Champagne Dreams Productions, Chris Berg, community theatre, Darin Kerr, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, Falsettos, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Laura Mulvey, Leah Biberdorf, Leo Lakpa, Miss Jaye, Rear Window, The Flick, The Male Gaze, The Office Plays, The Sims, Voyeur, World of Champagne