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Critical Response “The Flick”

Company One’s production of The Flick honored and illuminated Annie Baker’s story of three mismatched movie workers with great truth and passion. Baker’s fifth fully produced full-length play had its New England premiere at Company One this February, re-introducing me and the Boston Theatre Community to the powerful nature of Baker’s work. Company One is no stranger to Baker’s cannon, having produced The Aliens in 2010, and The Flick is a clear cut and graceful example of Baker’s writing philosophy: theatre should portray the truth rather than the hypothesized idea around the truth. The striking thing about her writing is that the play exists in the moments between: the reaching, and the stop starting of interaction. The poetry of human connection becomes clear.

Two of the dominant aspects in the performance were the space created and impeccable use of time. These two features of the play are noticeable because they are a union of playwrighting and production: what Baker wanted in her stage directions is the only way that this play could work, and Company One did a brilliant job illuminating these choices. They mounted the play with great respect to the script and story.

The production, at The Modern Theatre in the Theatre District of Boston, begins as the audience walks into the space to find their seats and sees dozens of other chairs mirrored back at them. As they puzzle where to sit and where the action is to take place, the set itself has already given a clue that the audience is to serve as an uninvited observer of the action. Having this layout present from before the beginning of the play puts the audience in a place of unease, initiating the idea that everything they are about to see is something that they are not allowed to be seeing. Because Baker’s text focuses on the intimate interactions shared between the characters, putting the audience in a place of the silent and unsolicited observer forces the audience to bear serious witness to the humanity of the characters and private moments of the play.

When Rose starts to kiss and touch Avery, it is clear that he is using the movie screen as his focus point to keep it together. However, because the audience is the real receptor of this moment, I not only felt pain for Avery in watching the scene, but I also felt like I was being forced to bear witness to something that I had not signed up for. Baker’s reflective stage encourages audience members to be actively uncomfortable in seeing personal moments between characters not usually seen onstage or in film. “The main characters in the play are a black guy, a woman, and a Jew (although I no longer make Sam’s Jewishness obvious). And that was important to me when I started writing the play”(Baker, Interview with Tim Sanford.) By putting the audience in a relationship that mirrors that of the characters, Baker is asking the audience to engage with the play in a way of seeing non-traditional characters and being on level with them: meeting them eye to eye.

The space also is home to another critically important character: the projector. The projector itself houses the 35 mm film which inspired Avery to being working at “The Flick” in the first place, as film is one of the few things helping Avery deal with his depression. The projector serves as another energy as it symbolizes moving up in the world of “The Flick” (Sam always wants to learn and is never given the chance, Avery gets to do it almost immediately, creating a large conflict between the two) but it also symbolizes something that each of the characters are looking for: a sense of authenticity. Avery, Rose, and Sam all struggle with who they are on the inside and how they are being perceived by one another. They struggle to convey the truth. The projector is what Avery considers to be the most authentic as it plays real film, which him has deemed better than digital. This is why he heavily identifies himself with the projector: it gives him a sense of truthfulness in a world made of “stereotypes” of people.

While the projector itself means very different things to the three of them, in the end, the ceremonial gifting of the projector to Avery is a moment of unity. Sam is giving away his goal from the beginning of the show to help Avery move past his depression and back into school. Avery accepts this as Sam’s unspoken apology for the dinner money fiasco and both of them talk about healing and moving on. The projector polarizes them and brings them together, and is authenticity in a world being usurped with new and “better” technology.

The three-hour play is spent splitting the difference between witty character building dialogue and moments of silent interaction and communication. The length in the New York production “polarized viewers” (Wallenberg), and maybe it’s Company One’s decision to divide the play into three acts instead of two, but the play earns every moment from Sam and Avery’s first entrance to Sam’s exit in the very last moments. This is due to the extreme bravery in Baker’s writing to create pauses and open spaces that speak more than her dialogue. Plays are calculated, by many, with how many pages of text they take up. Baker boldly writes in such a way that the characters are able to express potent truth in moments of silence and non-verbal interaction. I say bravely because, as a playwright, Baker must then trust that her words and the people producing the work are enough to create the dynamics within those pauses. In the Company One production, I saw the characters come alive in the moments of silence between one another and even between their own thoughts.

Baker’s work is unique in that the story is never rushed. She allows the characters time to warm up into who they are onstage in order for actions and interactions to happen that could have never happened early on. If Sam’s confession of love to Rose had come sooner it would have been shocking and brash, but because I felt as if I had been watching him pine over her for months, I knew it all needed to explode right then.

The text and production of The Flick fit together like popcorn and butter. Company One produced a show that allowed Baker’s artistic voice to breathe through the room at all times and never apologized for a three hour production or the powerful dynamic of the space. Instead, the play lives like each of the characters: taking time to develop, trying to find a sense of truth, and leaving me with hope.

 

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