Sometimes, a movie adaptation of a play makes you realize new dimensions to a seemingly straightforward moment of stagecraft in the original production.

And, fittingly, said moment also happens to be a handy demonstration of how theater utilizes the stage’s topsy-turvy combination of reality and performance for dramatic effect.

To anyone who’s seen The Whale: do you remember the scene when Brendan Fraser chokes on a meatball sub?

Probably not.

But everyone who witnessed it on stage will recall the horror. 

Because audiences subconsciously (or consciously!) know that movies are recorded — and thus perfectly controlled — anguish, we can sit there and watch Brendan gag away without much real-world consternation.

Do we feel for the character? Hopefully! But does watching him choke provoke frantic worrying? Nah.

BUT, when Shuler Hensley performed the same choking on stage, I found myself actively suppressing the urge to run up there to help him.

We all understand they’re acting, but when I’m watching a human being live and in person right in front of me realistically gasping for air, my mind can’t help but tell my body (or does my body tell my mind?) to do something!!! Save this struggling flesh and blood!!!

Obviously, I don’t. But that tension, that pull, is a result of theater, as an artistic medium, existing within the audience’s shared corporeal reality.

How can we be sure that it’s perfectly scripted? What if he’s really choking and everyone working on the production just so happens not to notice???

This season’s Cost of Living on Broadway featured a similar spectacle of doom. Both the character and the actor (Katy Sullivan) have already been introduced as lacking legs. So when she takes a bath midway through — splashing water around to communicate to the audience it ain’t no fake bath — and when her spotter leaves her alone on stage, and when she loses her grip and falls underwater, those seconds of nothing but the sounds of drowning are absolutely excruciating for the audience.

This is all performance, right?

But what if it’s not??

In both situations, the audience is put in the position of the characters: beholding a nightmare, powerless to stop it.

Or maybe I’m the only person who thinks this way? If so, blame/credit Taylor Mac:

Given the bodily restrictions of Machine Dazzle’s elaborate, movement-constricting, scalp-to-toenail costumes, and given Taylor’s penchant for scaling stages without made-for-purpose stairs, Taylor has the habit of scolding nearby audiences for not offering to lend a hand; it’s a means of drawing our attention to the very-real reality, with actual stakes, within performance.

Yet again, Taylor’s doing the lord’s work of expanding my conception of the relationship between theatrical artifice and truth.

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