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Size Matters: A deep analysis of 7 high-profile megaplays taps into their unique, encompassing theatrical energies.

AIEND ONCE TOLD ME ENGLISH COMEDIAN rank Muir's definition of Wagnerian opera: You take your seat at six o'clock and listen to Wagner's music for two hours; then you look at your watch and it says six-thirty. That tyrannical abstraction Time is nothing if not subjective; it flies or aim Is or stops dead. We've all attended 90-minute plays that lasted an eternity, and protracted epics that flew by without glancing at our watch.

As a busy critic who must forearm himself with knowledge of the show's duration, I am painfully alert to published running times. If a play finishes 10 minutes under the wire, I'm taken aback; 10 minutes over and I feel trapped. Waiting for things to be over, the mind chifts to digital distractions: e-mails unsent, texts unchecked, banalities untweeted. Indeed, I caught Muir's Wagner joke on Facebook--one of those time-wasting, attention-shrinking ubiquities of the digital age that critic Jonathan Kalb thinks has turned m into fidgety philistines, unable to savor the joys of long-form theatre.

As a bulwark against the culture's "hurry sickness" and "image swarm," Kalb offers Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater, a diligently researched and beautifully written appreciation of work that bursts the bounds of "two hours1 traffic." Through a deft historical introduction and six authoritative, deep-diving chapters, Kalb reconstructs whole theatrical worlds from memory and reassesses contemporary criticism of them. Kalb's subjects are refreshingly diverse: the Royal Shakespeare Company's daylong adaptation of Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby Peter Brook's 11-hour Hindu-myth-derived The Mahabharata (1988);Tony Kushncr's two-part Broadway hit Anvels in America in 1993-94; the 1976 Phillip Glass avant-garde opera sensation Einstein on the Beach; the rules-based "durationals" Quizoola! and Speak Bitterness by England's Forced Entertainment; and Peter Stein's 21-hour uncut staging of Goethe's Faust I + II for Germany's Kxpo 2000.

Why do some artists undertake such massive projects and, more important, why do so many of them attract such avid audiences? Kalb doesn't: push any grand unifying theory. Although he traces lengthy stage events from the ancient Greek festival City Dionysia to the medieval Corpus Christi cycles--and weaves in Umberto Eco's The Infinity of Lists to suggest that the human mind best grasps life's plenitude and variety through compendia--he admits that each case is different. And yet, he eloquently observes, each also "generated an uncommon sense of public communion that transformed throngs of atomized consumers into congregations of skeptical co-religionists, or at least consciously commiserating co-sufferers."

This book is (no pun intended) timely; in recent years, marathon plays have become downright common, a development Kalb notes. Between October 2009 and December 2010,1 myself reviewed and/or attended a surprising number of these calendar-busting engagements: Robert Lepage's Lipsyvch (8.5 hours); Taylor Mac's The Lily s Revenge (5 hours); I lorton Foote s The Orphans" Home Cycle (9 hours): Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays (4.5 hours); Peter. Stein's Dostoyevsky adaptation The Demons (11.5 hours); the Signature Theatre revival of Angels in America (7 hours); Elevator Repair Service's Gatz (7 hours); and finally, Tricycle Theatres 12-play historical cycle The Great Game: Afghanistan (10.5 hours).

But I happened to miss all the productions Kalb anatomises in Great lengths, and that's one of its greatest virtues, for me at least: vicarious play-going. Reading Kalb on Brook or Stein is like being led through vast, crowded galleries by a tireless doccnt who draws attention to minute details and even dishes a little dirt about the curators. Kalb has reviewed for the Ullage Voice and the Nezv York Press and currently teaches at Hunter College, and he's one of the most incisive, serious theatre commentators of the past 20 years. Samuel Beckeu and postwar German regietheater are his areas of expertise, but his theatrical tastes are wide-ranging, as the new book attests. Kalb can savor the melodramatic thrills of Dickens, the intellectual elegance of Kushncr's camp-Brechtian strategies, and the anti-theatrical, aleatory contours of Forced Entertainment's conceptual stunts.

He also has journalistic chops. Kalb knows that unless he re-creates the cultural context and content of the show engagingly, we won't appreciate his analysis. He lauds Trevor Nunn, playwright David Edgar and the RSC actors for embracing Dickensian sentimentality, balancing the "corniness" of the plot with a plastic narrative voice that enfranchised every member of the ensemble. He brings The Mahabharata to vivid, colorful life, including the mini-scandal that erupted when the Brooklyn Academy of Music received $4.2 million from the city to renovate the Majestic Theater as "a chic ruin," modeled after Brook's Paris home, Les Bouffes du Nord.

The chapter on Angels in America offers a clear-eyed explanation of why political theatre in general, and Brecht in particular, have never flourished in America. His account of Einstein on the Beach opens up new ways of seeing and hearing that immersive, sensual masterwork. The final section on the mammoth weekend-long Faust I + II will make you depressed that you never saw it, but very glad Kalb did.

Besides the sheer documentary usefulness of his reportage, Kalb is in fine form engaging criticism of his subjects. For example, he questions the assumption that Brook was dallying with touristic amateur ethnography in The Mahabbarata, a contention that struck a nerve in the late 1980s at the height of identity politics and critiques of Orientalism in Western art. Rather than accept the notion that Brook appropriated and distorted Indian history and Hindu myth in his multi-ethnic metaphysical pageant, Kalb applauds its rigorous naivete and theatrical inventiveness as an antidote to reductive formulae of ethnic realism or authenticity.

Likewise, Kalb defends Kushner against queer theorists who found that universalizing the queer subject somehow lessens its power as an agent of political change. Watching Forced Entertainment's Speak Bitterne3s. on his computer in his home office, Kalb pens a charmingly up-close-and-personal sketch of a critic's shifting attitude toward a structured but baggy event--actors reading confessions from sheets of paper for six hours. He's amused, then irritated, then bored, then pulled back in and deeply moved by the mad, fragmentary monumentality of it.

Kor a book about such prolonged and complicated artworks, Great Lengths is not long-winded or self-indulgent. Buoyed by Kalb's fine-tuned prose, his dryly witty but earnest voice and his ability to make deep connections across centuries and continents, it is a steady and exciting read. It also functions as a marvelous history of Western drama that summarizes a number of theoretical constructs-rom Aristotle's prescriptive Poetics to Hans-Thies Lehmann's concept of postdramatic" theatre. Along the way, learn a bit about the Noh tripartite structure jo-ha-kyu, Broadway pricing and marketing, the rise and fall of the avant-garde, Romantic closet drama, queer theory, Wagnerian versus Artaudian visions, Brechtian alienation, and the weirdly institutionalized iconoclasm of German theatre. In its own way, Kalb's book resembles the plays he writes about: It is both capacious and multifarious.

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GREAT LENGTHS: SEVEN WORKS OF MARATHON THEATER

By Jonathan Kalb.

The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 20h.

229 pp., $55 cloth

David Cote, theatre editor and chief drama critic for Time Out New York, is an early-career playwright/librettist
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Title Annotation:Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater
Author:Cote, David
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
Words:1179
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