review: The Blue Flower

The A.R.T.’s The Blue Flower is pretentious. Let’s just get that out of the way at the start. The lyrics are pretentious, the music is pretentious, the style is pretentious, even the concept is kinda pretentious. That said, it’s a pretty good show, and it contains one of the finest monologues I’ve seen in years (more on that later).

The experience starts even before you enter the theater. The lobby has been set up with lots of tables and a bratwurst cart and feels very much like an early-20th-century train station. You then enter the theater directly onto the stage, which again is set basically to feel like a train station. You’re brought into the show before the show even starts.

The story centers around Max, an artist who eventually retreats into his own manufactured language to escape his past. At first,  Max and his friends lead a very Bohemian lifestyle in Berlin; at times I was strongly reminded of Rent and therefore its predecessor La Boheme. (Hannah reminded me slightly too much of Maureen from Rent, actually.) The first act is a rich depiction of this Bohemian life, filled with vigor and joy which is soon torn horribly apart by World War I.

The story is a little disjointed at the beginning, but after the straight-up narration of Max’s life begins it settles down a little bit. There is a strong dose of surrealism and at times the production veers a little too close to Dadaism for my liking, but my date thought it was brilliant. To each his own, I guess. My only complaint about the narrative itself was that it needed probably one more pass with a scalpel, especially near the end. Just a bit too long for the material.

I adored the show’s use of mixed media. Sometimes this sort of thing can be awkward, but here it was seamless and totally fit the show. There are videos playing behind the actors for what seemed like half the show, usually with subtitles. Light and shadow are used beautifully and are almost characters in the show. Blue petals sprinkle over the audience at one point, and if you’re in the wrong place you’ll also get covered in newspaper. All these complexities ran like clockwork. The show has a very high production value.

Also a very high talent level. Hannah and Max especially (Meghan McGeary and Daniel Jenkins) could tell entire stories just by moving a few muscles in their faces, it was quite breathtaking to watch. Even the two-man chorus gave their various parts a lot of character while barely saying a word. The only actor I really had a problem believing in was Tom Nelis as the “Fairytale Man,” but that is probably more due to the character itself (who annoyed me). Mostly, though, every single person on stage was obviously giving their all. You can tell sometimes when a cast is pouring 100% into a show they love, and The Blue Flower is one of those shows.

Unfortunately, what I consider one of the most important parts of any musical—the music—was… perfectly adequate, but not particularly exciting. The songs were all slightly too similar for anything to stand out. The “Sturm n’ Twang” style of the music was an interesting idea but didn’t seem to gel particularly well with the story. One character loved cowboy movies, but that wasn’t enough a part of the story to influence the entire show’s musical identity. And the lyrics, as I mentioned before, were pretentious. Don’t get me wrong, I generally liked them. There were some lines that I wanted to write down because they were so clever, and pretentious lyrics aren’t out of place in a pretentious show. But again, they seemed simply adequate. The songs just weren’t remarkable. There was nothing that you left the theater humming, nothing that was particularly memorable. It was all performed by very talented people, but it just didn’t grab me.

Even with that one glaring problem, though, I do recommend The Blue Flower. It’s an experience as much as a play, and it really is an important piece of art. It’s not my usual cup of tea but I am extremely glad I went.

And finally, that monologue.

At some point, Max addresses the Daughters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (or some such group). He speaks in a language that is just straight-up “Romance”—sometimes it sounds Italian, sometimes French, sometimes nothing at all. Subtitles and images run behind him while he tells the story of Prince Rudolf’s death. It is absolutely brilliant. Yes, my favorite monologue of the past year isn’t actually in any language. But it is a beautiful piece of acting and production and when it ended I sat back and thought, “well, that was worth the price of admission, doesn’t really matter what they do now.

Which of course isn’t true, so it’s a good thing the rest of the show held up. :)

Disclaimer: I received press tickets from the A.R.T. to attend this show.