By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Short of performing it yourself, you may never get closer to a musical than when you see the Transport Group's revival of Hello Again. Produced in a converted Soho loft, the production happens in and around the audience, placing them inches from a sea of desperate lovers.
But this is no peepshow. Except for a few flashes of skin---and one parade of shirtless hunks---the actors keep their clothes on. What the audience sees so intimately is the struggle to turn sex into love. "You want these things to be melded into one," says director Jack Cummings III. "But the sadness is that it rarely, if ever happens. So the characters are always searching for that. They will continue to look for it infinitely."
Infinity is built into the songs: Written and composed by Michael John LaChiusa, Hello Again is an adaptation of La Ronde, Arthur Schnitzler's formally striking 1897 play. Both use two-person scenes to tell a circular story about sex and love: A prostitute and a soldier sleep together, and in the next scene, the soldier sleeps with a nurse, and then the nurse sleeps with a college student, all the way around until the final scene reintroduces the prostitute. But where Schnitzler sets his action in 1890's Vienna, LaChiusa sets his musical across the entire twentieth century. Characters (or at least their essences) bounce across decades in a single transition, suggesting that the ache in the songs belongs less to a specific time and place than to the perpetual state of the human condition.
Transport's production underlines our connection to this idea. The audience sits at ten round tables, which are arranged in a circle. Eventually, every table becomes a stage, with couples interacting just inches from the crowd. (At the performance I saw, the soldier and the nurse were so close to me that I could smell the detergent on their costumes.) And when they're not on the tables, the performers stand on nearby ledges, enter from hidden elevators, and burst singing from their dressing rooms. "It gives you a sense of a journey that you wouldn't necessarily feel in a proscenium theatre," says Cummings.
But for every scene that's close, another is far way. If the soldier and the nurse are at your table, then the next scene will land on the table across the room. The sudden distance is jarring.
That's no accident. "If you were in a proscenium theatre, you could be that far away and you wouldn't think anything of it, because you would have gotten used to it," Cummings explains. "You acclimate yourself to the one perspective that you have. This is almost like I'm leading you through a maze: 'Now here's this perspective, now you're sitting in this seat of the theatre.' Hopefully, that means you never sit back. You're constantly having to participate in a way that will challenge you to pay extra attention."
But this isn't mere gimmickry. Transport Group is known for unusual stagings---in May, it will produce a musical on a basketball court---but they're always rooted in some element of the material. Cummings, who is also Transport's artistic director, says, "There's something deep and textured about what [LaChiusa]'s written. I wanted to give as fully textured a production as I could so that it would feel supported and expanded and complemented."
He continues, "And those characters are trying so many different things to find that [intimacy,] there are so many different facets and methods to their approach. I wanted to offer a multi-faceted physical production that would reflect that."
Of course, this symbolism comes with practical demands, and they're shaping the production, too. Cummings notes, "We've discovered that the inclination is to play it pretty intimately because you're always so close to someone, but there's that whole section at the opposite end. We realized you always had to play for the people who were furthest away from you, and if everyone did that, there would be an accepted tone and size for the piece.
"With things being played at that size, it seems like the people near [an actor] accept and are maybe even excited by that."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo of the Hello Again cast by Carol Rossegg