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Obsession with Flicks

Film possesses a quality, a certain key to the mysteries of life, which can resonate deeply within our souls.  Live theatre has this same un-nameable quality.  But, unlike live theatre—which is a mutable, living entity that changes with each performance, cinema is a recording of a moment in time, and once it is recorded it will remain the same forever.  Movies are a series of snapshots that have the power to reveal a truth about the human condition, and the power to let audiences escape the problems of their own lives for a time.  Again, live theatre has the same capability, but is not a recording in the same way that film is.  A live play is ultimately ephemeral, each performance can only happen once—and once it is done that performance will never be seen again.  The next performance will be its own specific and special moment in time.  But film, film is permanent, it will be the same every time it is watched.   This permanence is comforting.  We know we can return to a specific piece of cinema again and again, and it will be the same each time.  Each viewing can lead to new discoveries—something not seen in the first time the movie was watched.  Characters become like old friends, but perhaps better, because they will never change and drift away.  And we can quote our favorite parts of movies and relive our favorite moments, or share a visceral experience of a film with someone else.  Who doesn’t love to say, “Hello!  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die,” like Mandy Patinkin?  Movies are also accessible to more people than live theatre.  Maybe a thousand people got to see The Laramie Project when it was performed by Tectonic Theatre Project in Laramie, WY, but millions of people saw Avatar.  And Avatar can be revisited again and again and again.  For people on the fringes of society—who find it difficult to fully connect to other people—movies can be the ultimate escape.  Movies can become an obsession.

This brings me to Company One’s engaging production of Annie Baker’s newest play, The FlickThe Flick, set in an aging movie theater with the same name, follows the journey of three employees of the cinema.  Three people that all desperately need the escape that movies, and the Flick itself offer.  For all three characters are on the edges of society, each in a different, and multifaceted way.  Baker’s characters are all outsiders, and from groups viewed as the other when it comes to representation in movies.  The three characters that drive the play are Avery, a young black man; Rose, a white woman; and Sam, a white, Jewish man in his 30s.  All three are from groups that see very little in way of representation in film—a very deliberate choice that Baker made.  Though, it should be noted that Sam’s religion is not a feature of the play.

The fact that all three characters are outsiders as well is revealed throughout the first act of the play.   Avery, who has just started work at the Flick when the play begins, seems nervous and awkward—but that can be chalked up to jitters of the first day on the job.  However, Avery’s nervousness and awkwardness never really go away.  That is who he is.  And his obsession with movies is a way that he can escape himself.  Rose, on the other hand, appears to be a fun, lively young woman, who likes to have a good time when she first appears.  In fact her first appearance gives Rose a quality of remove, of an ideal that cannot be reached—and this is through a wonderful piece of staging by director Shawn LaCount.  When Rose first appears, it is via the projection booth, a space that is elevated and sound proof.  So she can be seen, but unless Rose sees the others in the theatre, she is unreachable.  But as Rose reveals more and more of herself as the play goes on, it becomes apparent that she believes the only way she can connect with those around her is through physical contact and sex—she, herself, feels broken.  Rose once loved movies, but has drifted away from them.  The Flick is still vital to her though, it is a safe haven for her.  This of course, leaves Sam.  Sam is simply a strange and awkward man, off putting in a surprising engaging way, as portrayed by Alex Pollock.  Sam also uses movies as an escape, and he likes to watch, but film is not an obsession for Sam the way it is for Alex.

Company One’s production successfully brings these three flawed people to life.  Peter Andersen and Brenna Fitzgerald (Avery and Rose respectively), like Alex Pollock, live inside the awkwardness and flaws of their characters in a way that invites the audience in to the play.  Additionally, these three people inhabit a space that is recognizable to the audience, and safe for the characters.  Secrets are spoken in the empty confines of the Flick’s screening room that cannot be shared anywhere else.

The comfort and familiarity of the space is what initially drew me into the play—before it even started.  Once I got over my slight (and I can only assume deliberate) disorientation from looking at a second space for an audience where I would not sit, I thought to myself, “I know this place, I have been to this movie theatre.”  The set was a reflection of movie theaters I went to as a youth—theaters that closed long ago.  So I knew where I was right away.

I also strongly identified with all three characters, they are all people I know and to whom I can relate.  I see a reflection of my high school friends that worked at the movie theaters in my home town in Rose.  And while I never worked at a cinema, I did work in a video store, and I have had the same conversations Avery and Sam had.  I even played the version of Six Degrees that they played—my friends and I took great pride in being able to find connections between actors in less than six moves.  These characters spoke to me through Baker’s staccato, broken, awkward language.

I was also taken in by the structure of the play.  The Flick is long, running over 3 hours, with the intermission, but Baker is clever in her construction of the play.  Throughout the first act the play is made up of relatively short scenes that invite us into the lives of Rose, Sam and Avery.  Director Shawn LaCount and the actors keep these short glimpses into the life of the Flick moving at an engaging pace.  This is remarkable, given how much time the characters spend in silence, but LaCount keeps each moment of silence full of life and forward moment.  Life does not stop just because the characters are not talking.  The shorter scenes in the first act ultimately lead to the two longest scenes of the play, which occur on either side of the act break.  These longer scenes contain some of the most moving and revealing moments for the characters.  They also come at the exact right time.  Just as act one came to a close, I realized that I was ready for a break, and was then surprised that an hour and forty-five minutes had passed.  Structurally, it made sense to end act one with a long scene and start the second act with another long scene, which then cascades back into shorter scenes that bring the play to its conclusion.

The Flick is home to the characters that inhabit the play.  The movie theatre is also home to an avenue of escape—the films it shows, and that the characters watch.  The quirks, flaws, and obsessions of these three people deserve a place where they can be released and experienced.  A place of wonder, fantasy, and escape feels like an appropriate place for all of them.  Just like the movies over which Avery obsesses, Annie Baker’s The Flick touches what it is to be human, and gives us a glimpse of the key to the mysteries of life.

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