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Theatre on Video: Sex and Death to the Age 14

Hurricane Sandy still has us reeling somewhat in the Northeastern U.S.—which is the sole reason for this lengthy delay. You can’t beat Mother Nature, and I haven’t watched anything for over a week. Don’t worry, however…there is always a back log. And I’ve wanted to write about something I saw for the very first time a month or so ago. It also serves as the inaugural “filmed” theatre piece to be reviewed on this blog…something I touched on bringing into the spectrum back when the summer of 2012 was in its waning days. This performance is actually a special feature on the Criterion Collection DVD of Steven Soderbergh’s 2010 documentary “And Everything Is Going Fine”. That doc is about the late monologist, Spalding Gray—and “Sex and Death to the Age 14” was his very first monologue(created and performed starting in 1979, then captured on videotape in 1982). Spalding Gray committed suicide in 2004. Before that unfortunate occurrence I had managed to see Spalding live on three separate occasions and missed a chance for another because of a snowstorm. Mother Nature deals, again. I plan on doing a much longer piece on Mr. Gray in the not-too-distant future, which will include a review of Mr. Soderbergh’s film(Soderbergh had also previously lensed a version of Gray’s “Gray’s Anatomy”, released to limited movie screens in 1997). If you’ve never had the opportunity to experience Spalding in person, “Sex and Death to the Age 14” is a nice alternative and introduction. Expect more on other examples of how to experience Spalding’s work, in a more detailed encapsulation of his career in a coming entry.

“Sex and Death to the Age 14” sets the tone for Mr. Gray’s future monologues by being about as “bare bones” as you can get. There is a wooden table on a stage with a lone chair. There is a notebook on the table written in long hand(Mr. Gray never learned to type). There is a glass of water, and some minimal props(like some Polaroids, or maybe a few 8 by 10 glossies). And then eventually the entrance of Gray himself, who sits, opens the notebook—and proceeds to read it to his audience. If you opined that this could not possibly be the recipe for enthralling theatre, you would be dead wrong. Spalding Gray had a gift. And listening to someone ramble about his life could be tedious if not for the talent of the storyteller. Mr. Gray—with very little, if any, flamboyance—was certainly a master storyteller. This fact is in evidence during the 64 minute narration of the highlights of his first 14 years—which include the death of pets, sexual awakenings and discoveries, and the deeply troubled existence of Mr. Gray’s mother(who predated Spalding’s demise with the taking of her own life). Spalding Gray’s timing was impeccable and his tone darkly comic. Seeing him speak live, I remember finding myself often backed into a corner by his wit. His stories could be so deadly serious, that even a brief ray of humour found you laughing to detach yourself from the gloom. The laughs were not only earned, but also increasingly welcome as examples of despair and mourning increased exponentially.

The final time I watched Mr. Gray speak in person was at the base of the World Trade Center in the year 2000 as part of the Evening Stars OnStage series. The following summer, Spalding was involved in a life-altering car accident while vacationing in Ireland. And so, a man who already had issues with melancholy and despondency, was dealt the blows of physical rehabilitation, facial scarring and possible brain damage. Days after returning to New York(after weeks at an overseas hospital), the planes struck the twin towers on 9/11/01. There is horrific footage available of falling bodies crashing through that very stage where I had sat enraptured during Spalding’s “Interviewing the Audience” presentation roughly a year prior. Gray’s widow, Kathie, would later reveal that this horrendous day was more than Spalding could handle emotionally. Gray would leap from the Staten Island Ferry to an icy waters death in January of 2004. The 64 minute “Sex and Death to the Age 14” is a unique find for Gray enthusiasts. Shot on videotape, it has been transferred to DVD in HD. There are no subtitles, but the audio is more than satisfactory. In a dark room on a calm night, you can almost believe you are sitting in a quiet black box theatre absorbing this work. I’m happy to have a classic Spalding Gray monologue serve as my first “Theatre on Video” entry. These captures of Gray’s performances will see him live on for decades to come.     This Theatre on Video performance rates an 8.

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