27 October, 2005

To See or Not to See What I Wanna See

    When I first read a spoiler-filled synopsis of Michael John LaChiusa’s newest work, See What I Wanna See I immediately rejected it as a show I could see (given the opportunity) because of some of its content – namely both rape and consensual sex depicted on stage.
    Since the show has been running in previews for two weeks (it officially opened last night), a number of people I know have gotten a chance to see it and have been discussing the meaning and implications of the show ever since.
    From all I’ve read, See What I Wanna See seems the most thought-provoking musical to come to New York in a very long time.  This is exciting for me.  The world needs more thought-provoking theatre.  LaChiusa and the gang of writers/composers he is often grouped with (Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens) are working hard to bring this kind of theatre back to the Great White Way.

Idina Menzel (The Wife) and Marc Kudisch (The Husband) in See What I Wanna See (Photo copyright Michal DANIEL, 2005)

    However, one dilemma remains: Can a Christian, in good conscience, go to See What I Wanna See?  Theatre isn’t like the movies.  You can’t wait for the DVD to come out and fast-forward the unpleasant or explicit scenes.  You’re not so removed from the characters in the theatre.  If you were to watch a rape scene in a movie it would be far less disturbing than watching one in the theatre – especially at the Public, a very small theatre with a thrust stage.  All the terrible action is right there in front of you . . . in the very same room.

Idina Menzel (The Wife) and Aaron Lohr (The Thief) in See What I Wanna See (Photo copyright Michal DANIEL, 2005)

    Even with this disturbing imagery, can a Christian see it?  The story would be monumentally different without it and far less thought-provoking.  Can rape be portrayed tastefully?  Perhaps it is portrayed as tastefully as possible.  But is it proper to portray it at all?  Is there another way to show the selfish paradigms of sinful man without using rape, consensual sex, and grim murders to do so?  If there is, would the story be nearly as powerful since part of the hard-hitting nature of the show is found it the extreme nature of the situations at hand?

These are the questions that have my mind churning in circles about this show and theatre in general.  If given the opportunity, I would want to see it because nothing like it has come along in a very long time, but I do not want to be desensitized to sinful extremes.  Thankfully I live 550 miles from the city and don’t have to actually make the decision, but I can’t help wondering . . .


  1. I think that if you're going to tell a story like See What I See then you are justified in using rape to depict depravity. After all, the Bible doesn't leave out that unpleasant fact of fallen life, and even goes so far as to point out that the particular instance I am thinking of (occuring sometime close to David's reign I think but I can't remember exactly) was also incest (HA! that's the Bible - trump card! :-)). However, this account is very tastefully worded. If my memory is correct the man pretends to be sick and asks his half-sister to cook him some food. When she brings it to him he propositions her; she refuses; so he grabs her hand and "knew her." The story then moves to the consequenses of these actions. I think that we can take a lesson from the Scriptures (shocker - life-lessons from the Book of Life) on how to deal with these issues. If you are going to portrat sex, consensual or forced on stage, it is extremely easy to do so using implication. For instance, in a rape scene, the man could throw the woman down or force her to the ground and then the lights go down. At this point you can either change scenes to depict the shattering consequences that leave no doubt as to the outcome, or you can use sound to convey the true horror of the situation. This even has more impact then visual depiction because the imagination can creat scenes more vivid than real life, and thus you use audible suggestions to convey what is impossible to create visually. The same techniques can be employed with a consensual sex scene - which are also neccesary in order to make a realistic show about real life in the modern world. But you don't have to have two actors dry-humping on stage in full light to get your point across. That is gratuitous to the point of disgust. It produces the same "shock effect" as the Theatre' d' Vampyres in Interview With a Vampire. Not good...bad theatre.

  2. I think your last few sentences hit the nail on the head. Given the particulars of the show -- the story of a man stealing another (now deceased) man's wife told three times by three different people in which two depict rape, one depicts consensual sex (or visa versa, depending on how you see it) -- I wonder how thy could tell the story to similar effect without being graphic.

    I'll have to think about that and make another post.

  3. Having seen the show, I'd have to say the portrayal of these horrible acts could have been a lot worse. I've seen more graphic and disturbing depictions of sexual violence on stage. If I were to set a movie rating for this play, I'd probably give it a PG-13, not an R. It's hard to go into more detail, but let me just say that I don't think the actions overwhelm the art.