Sometimes, we fuck up our Suggests. We get excited about a one-weekend or one-night-only event, an event we can't see before writing about it, but has promise, based on the evidence.


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The evidence for Nature Theater of Oklahoma, previewed and Suggested in this week's paper:

1. Critics love them, universally as far as I can tell.

2. They get quality festival gigs (TBA in Portland, Under the Radar in New York, Fuse Box in Austin).

3. They give good interview and make strange, intriguing projects—their next show will be a solo reenactment of Rambo. They built their current show, No Dice, out of recorded telephone conversations and the blocking and gestures are a game, with strict rules, the actors play with each other every night. Also, No Dice is four hours long. It sounded an audacious and extreme experiment.

4. Theater programmers—especially German theater programmers—love them. I'd heard about Nordic programmers saying No Dice was the best show in ten years. Implied Violence, who just got back from talking to a bunch of German programmers, wrote in an email: "The Euros love the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, across the board."

Don't believe the hype.

If Nature Theater were just another young company, touring their occasionally-interesting-but-often-trying new show for one weekend in Seattle, I wouldn't bother with an after-the-fact critique. But their inflated reputation, which has mostly gone unchallenged, demands a small, honest pinprick.

I'll be that prick.

A clip of the show, with Germans laughing and laughing:

No Dice is a lo-fi, four-hour "musical dinner theater" usually performed in a non-theatrical space. In this case, Nature Theater performed on the fifth floor of an unfinished office building (a bare concrete floor with insulation and pipes and wiring still visible) on Eastlake Ave.

The music: synthesizer and guy in cheap bat costume using a looper to build squeaking, beat-boxy compositions.

The dinner: ham or pbj sandwiches, plus Diet Coke and Dr. Pepper (both sodas are mentioned in the conversations that form the script).

The theater: actors with goofy costumes and made-up accents reenacting real-life, mundane telephone conversations.

They talk about their jobs (real estate, boring office jobs, working for a magicians' library, starring in a Russian TV miniseries), drinking, smoking, casting calls, head shots, Actors' Equity, how hard it is to be a frustrated artist, the Moscow Cats Circus ("Were they equity? Equity cats?"), and compulsive eating (a tub of pudding before bed).

The two major theoretical hooks, both self-conscious:

1. Cheesy dinner theater. One lady, in a red wig and a melodramatic pan-Euro accent, describes going to a mystery dinner theater with four friends:

Ze costumes are goo-FEE and ees amateur-EESH, but zey try so hard zat you have to love zem... We proba-BLEE won't be back for like four or five ho-URS. Ze whole evening will be tied up.

At that point, she looks at the audience meaningfully.

So Nature Theater is doing cheesy dinner theater—except as a young, experimental company that looks all Brooklyn-bohemian. (In a good way: beards, crazy mustaches, architect-glasses, piled-up hair.)

2. All these mundane conversations we have every day might contain secret wisdom and we should value them more and pay more attention to them. One of the other actors, dressed as a pirate with Jewish Orthodox side-curls, has a conversation with one of the other characters, who is sitting at work while they talk:

"You're turning the boring part of my life into art?"

"Yes, I think we should focus on that. That should be our goal."

Those two hooks are fine, but a little thin for piece of mini-endurance art from what is supposed to be the greatest company since sliced bread.

The other problems:

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1. No Dice didn't need to be four hours long: all the accumulated time didn't build to any kind of big, endurance-art symphony with weight and layers. Nature Theater could've taken the best bits (and there were several of them, both funny and touching, oases in the desert) and made an hour and 15 minute-long show without weakening the show's effect. In fact, it might intensify it, make it stronger. Which is not a good sign.

2. Not only was it theoretically thin, it wasn't very entertaining. A piece of theater needs to have either theory or craft (preferably, the greatest company since sliced bread would have both). But the actors were self-consciously schmaltzy and melodramatic, the text was mundane, the dance numbers were intentionally amateurish.

The whole project leaned on a "it's-hip-to-be-square/it's-interesting-to-be-dull" aesthetic. It got halfway there.

3. Since Nature Theater isn't bursting with theory or craft, it's asking us to buy into No Dice because we like them, their personalities on stage. They are, at times, charming and sexy. But not sexy or charming enough to buoy the whole show.

4. The whole project (extreme self-consciousness, found materials, swapping artfulness for amateurishness, thrift-store costumes, performing in a non-theater space for no robust reason but just for the hell of it) seems a little... stale.

The good stuff, because there was good stuff: Funny, spazzy dances; some conversations people in the audience could identify with to an embarrassing degree; some genuinely good comedy wrung from placing melodramatic emphasis on boring words ("Maybe you should try WORKING OUT!!!!"); and a touching finale, with the actors speaking words of kindness and hope, from earlier in the show, to individual audience members.

And milling around before the show, making people sandwiches as they walked in the door, Nature Theater seemed like profoundly nice, well-meaning people.

But the Germans, Nordics, and critics are high. Nature Theater of Oklahoma is merely, barely good, and certainly not great. A classic case of hyperinflation.

See the first de-Suggests—about an event put on by One Pot and Clear Cut Press—and its attendant shitstorm here. And the second de-Suggests, for the fraudulent version of the Russian cat circus, here. (And you can read the deeply weird story behind the fraudulent Russian cat circus here.)

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