Review of We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time at Public Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    June 28, 2019
    Review by:

    David Cale is a Golden Boy of the solo performance world, gifting us with solo shows since 1986. In his most recent solo show, We Are Only Alive For A Short Amount Of TimeCale invites us into his past, which is part truth and part myth. I say "myth" because that is the style of Cale's presentation. Cale is in his own very particular world, and he is not unaware of his location.

    Dressed in a drab but impeccable tailored plaid shirt (the plaid matches, sleeves and torso) Cale assumes the role of the story teller. He borders on appearing as a savant as he tiptoes down the trail of his past. There is only us, his musicians and his story. The theatre is nearly shrouded in the spell that Cale weaves.

    Cale's story wanders, because he understands the value of a switch back in storytelling. He was raised in Luton, north of London. The armpit of the country. The hat capital of England, one factory being owned by his grandfather Jimmy Egelton who was, for all intents and purposes, a rat bastard. When Cale's mother and father met, she was a designer in a competing hat factory. Upon their marriage she was forced to leave her job and work for Jimmy, where she was made a shop steward. No more designing. It was a humiliating come down, and things only got worse from there. Cale's father was a drunk, the kind who disappeared for periods of time, and when he reappeared he was mean and vicious. His mother withstood the gale force winds of unkindness all her married life.

    The "incident" about which the story revolves is told in simple detail. Cale hands us glory, defeat, terror and joy with the same sized spoon. There are moments of exquisite beauty that Cale connects with a light touch. His touch is so gossamer, however, that his highs and lows never made it across the footlights to me. I am in the minority here. Many in the audience responded with audible gasps as the story unfolded. For some reason, I never got involved.

    One drawback to the evening is that I believe this original production was staged for a proscenium theatre: one where the audience is directly in front of the stage. This means the performer would spend all of his time facing forward to talk to us. This is what happened at the Public Theater as well - the only problem was that the Anspacher is a thrust stage where over 50% of the audience is seated to the right and left of the stage. Cale spent at least 80% of his time on stage looking at those of us directly in front of him, leaving a good chunk of the audience to look at his back and side profile throughout. Sound was another problem. When he turned to face the side audience his head mic did not pick up his voice. Cale wears a head mic and uses a mic on a stand as well. There is a considerable difference in the sound quality, which added to the uneven quality of this show.

    On the bright side, the a six-piece orchestra featuring Matthew Dean Marsh (Piano), Josh Henderson (Viola), Tomina Parvanova (Harp), Jessica Wang (Cello), John Blevins (Trumpet), and Tyler Hsieh (Clarinet) added a brilliant patina to the production. Seated behind a scrim, they are pulled into the story and then released back into the darkness again and again. The space is made bigger and pushed toward the infinite. Lovely.

    Somehow the evening itself succeeds based on the sheer determination of Cale and his tale. It is important for him to tell us this story, and his passion for the story keeps us engaged. When all was said and done, however, I remained interested but not concerned.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "How the innocent are abused and, in some cases, rescued — by others or, more likely, themselves — is the theme of this ultimately hopeful show, a coproduction of the Public and the Goodman Theater in Chicago. In some ways, it is thus a transformation and culmination of Mr. Cale’s many dark, downtown works, typically told in monologue and song and from several points of view. If you’ve seen even just one or two of them, We’re Only Alive will serve as a kind of concordance to the characters and symbols that have populated his theatrical imagination for decades."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "An air of nostalgia pervades the show: Cale clearly misses his mother, and feels lucky to have survived his childhood, but he also longs for the innocent he was. “Feral child, there was a feral child!,” he sings, and it’s part of the show’s strange, interesting, ambivalent attitude towards suffering that Cale looks transported with delight as he does so."
    Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

    "Cale wrote the Alive score with composer Matthew Dean Marsh, and there are many soul-searching songs that sound every bit as graceful as the title We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "If you've seen David Cale in any of the numerous one-man shows he's performed over the last few decades, you may think you know him pretty well. You don't. His new autobiographical solo musical receiving its New York City premiere reveals him in a whole new light. The heartbreaking We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time finds this talented writer-actor digging into his past so intensely, so intimately, you'll at times feel tempted to turn away."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter