Friday, December 18, 2009

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance - by John Arden

First performed at the Royal Court in 1959, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (An Unhistorical Parable) is described in Arden's preface as being a realistic, but not a naturalistic play. It is set in England during an unspecified time, somewhere in the second half of the 1800s, in a Northern town governed by a mayor who also owns the coal mine, the only place of work for the people there. The mine has been shut down and the people being warned not to strike, to be patient, times are hard all around. But this is a secondary concern.

Structured in three acts, the play begins with Serjeant Musgrave and his men preparing to cross a river on a barge. They say they are out recruiting volunteers for the queen's army, they have boxes of rifles and a gatling gun along with them, and the three soldiers are devoted to their Serjeant. Once in the town the powers that be there - the Mayor, Parson and Constable are worried that the people will riot before the telegraph lines are fixed and they can send for the dragoons. They learn that there are soldiers seeking new conscripts coming to town and plan to enlist their help in getting some likely trouble-makers from the union drunk and conscripted before they start anything. By the end of the first act we know that the Serjeant and his men are not all that they seem.

In the second act things ratchet up a bit. The girl at the bar visits the soldiers at night, leading to one of them wanting to run away with her, abandon whatever plan the Serjeant is hatching, and when the others get wind of this he is accidentally killed. The frayed edges of the soldiers are showing, we learn they are haunted by something. Still they keep up appearances, give the coal miners a good time at the pub, eventually helping one of them get free of the constable when he comes back to steal the Gatling gun and start a riot. The Constable and Mayor are on high alert, worried that they'll lose control - and in the early morning hours the Sarjeant suggests they start their consciption rally - give free beer to the people and convince them to join their ranks rather than fight with the Union.

All setting up for the third act. Here the plan is unvieled, and we learn what's been haunting the Serjeant. They'd been sent to occupied countries, colonies of the crown, and after a young man was shot in the back by the people of the occupied town - they were ordered to, and carried out, a massacre - including women and children. The Serjeant's plan as he talks about the merits of serving for the crown, and displays the rifles and the Gatling gun are to turn the violence on the people. He's killed 25 people in a foreign land, in retaliation for the death of one of their sons, therefore to set the balance - and to show the people what is being done in their name - by way of bringing a stop to war - He will turn his guns on them - specifically the Mayor, the Constable and the Parson - since it is for their concerns they've gone to kill for the army.

I'll stop there. Just to prevent a spoiler. Outside of the story, the play uses songs - english folk songs, and moments of human kindness broken by authoritarian or mission-driven action. I'm left with a sense of the simplicity of the Serjeants plan - bring the carnage home and the people won't support wars abroad anymore - and the ultimate failure of his plan because of the humanity of his allies.

It would be an interesting play to do now.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trojan Barbie - by Christine Evans

Trojan Barbie
was performed at ART (recently I think) and is published in the current issue of TheatreForum, the sub-title or description is: "A car-crash encounter with Euripedes' Trojan Women."

The characters are Hecuba, mother of Polly X and Cassandra and mother-in-law to Andromache; along with the royal family is a chorus of women Clea and Esme. Helen (of Troy), Menelaus, Helen's slighted husband and possibly Talthybius are also from Euripedes play. Additionally here we have, Lotte, a British holiday-maker and doll repairer; Mica, Officer in Blue, Jorge and Max from the conquering army; and Clive, Lotte's fantasy partner. Race is not indicated for the women, however the men of the army are indicated as Latino, African, and African American.

The play is set in a present and past that has encrouched on the current world. It takes place in a real Troy as well as the mythic one - with action occuring in Britain at Lotte's doll hosiptal, and a refuge camp where the women are being held indefinitely by the conquering army.

The play opens with Lotte making plans for her singles tour to Troy which is followed by a monologue from Polly X where she relates visiting an art museum, after the looting everything of value had been taken leaving only the contemporary art. She relates her plans to become a sculptor and to make 'Trojan Barbie' a huge heart made of smashed up dolls. As she commits herself to her art and to revenge, two soldiers appear and drag her away.

The next scene deposits us squarely in the refuge camp. Hecuba is grieving and a camp guard is spinning the 'strategic plan' ad infinitum. Interspersed is Lotte, packing essentials for her trip abroad. Cassandra enters prophisizing destruction and Helen breezes through wondering why these ladies don't keep themselves up - the guards are so much more helpful when you're wearing a bit of lippy. It's a montage of tones and agendas and rising emotions, broken by an image of Lotte, carefully making her way towards them with her roll-on bag and map.

This is followed by what becomes a major strand of the play, Polly X getting drunk in the zoo with Max and Jorge. Polyxena, Hecuba's youngest daughter, we know from the old stories had her neck slit open so that her blood spilled over the grave of Achilles. Polly X, here a punky barely adolescent girl, gets drunk and treats her night out with the two young soldiers as a welcome escape from the camp. It's us who knows where this is going and scene after scene it gets worse, she's innocently crushing on the younger soldier, Jorge, while Max tries to get her to take her shirt off - this increases to its inevitable end which becomes the final image of the play - her standing defiant, her neck slit by the soldiers - with her vision of her sculpture "Trojan Barbie" behind her - herself one of the broken dolls.

Amidst Polly's story is Lotte and the women in the camp. Their world's overlap with Lotte being pulled into the camp by guards after offering comfort to Andromache at a cafe. Her protests that she's a British citizen and attempts to keep herself apart from the pain of the women in the camp - seem to work when she is suddenly called for by the Officer in Blue and removed.

Finally she is home, working on her dolls and reflecting on her adventure which was covered in the national press,
The only part that really disturbs me is, with all the media hoo-hah, they never asked about the women. About where they were taking them in the trucks. And I don't know how to find out. Nobody asked anything about the women. It was all focused on me, goodness knows why, I mean I didn't really do anything except manage to get rescued! Thank God. I guess in time everything will feel normal again, and the memories will fade, but it's like they just drove off into a big black hole or something, and that does distress me -
(Lotte, Scene 15)

At this point Hecuba enters as a bag lady screaming for her babies - the dolls Lotte is working on in her workshop. A man, recognizable from the camps, but now a hospital worker, rushes in apologizing for her, and bundles her off into the rain. And then Polly's final image amongst the dolls emerges.

The TheatreForum publication has photos from the production, which give some sense of how it can be laid out in space. The separate worlds melding into one another and characters from myth, present, and dream co-exist melding and sometimes taking over one another. Also, the images of the text - particularly the dolls, are documented. One particularly striking one is Andromache with her little boy, a child-sized doll with hinged joints and glass eyes.

And just as in Euripedes time, the play portrays the women and children of war - bombing campaigns, and liberations and spreading democracy - or whatever it may be called - that results in people consigned to camps, losing their lives and families, and asks the audience to see them, hear them and ask where they are, how are they living - where do those trucks go? And how are we complicit in this.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Firebugs - by Max Frisch

According to the preface Max Frisch was an architect who also wrote plays. He was born in Switzerland in 1911, living through both world wars. This play was written in 1958 and translated into English in 1960.

The complete title is "The Firebugs (A Learning-Play Without a Lesson)" except, perhaps the lesson that if two men come in your house and say they are arsonists, pack your attic with explosives and ask you for a match - perhaps they are what they say they are and will happily burn you up - despite how hospitable you are - because they want to burn you up.

The play is organized into eight scenes which take place in the Biedermann's upper-middle class home, in the living room and the attic. It begins with a short scene, Gottlieb Beidermann, a professional man lights a cigar and is surrounded by The Chorus of Firemen who deliver a choral song, probably spoken, about being ready to save the town. Biedermann complains that one can't light a cigar anymore without everyone thinking of houses on fire.

The next scene is longer. It takes place at Beidermann's house, his servant Anna is bringing his wine and Beidermann reading about the latest fires and how the arsonists get into people's attics by posing as peddlers. Then a peddler, Schmitz, comes to the door and insists to be let in, he says he's seeking Kindness, Humanity. Beidermann lets him in, and lets him stay in the attic. During this scene we're also introduced to Beidermann's wife Babette, who doesn't like the look of this at all. Her husband ignores her and the Chorus of Fireman end the scene, watching over the town.

Eisenring, Schmitz's partner turns up with barrels of gasoline which they are arranging in the attic. Schmitz worries that Gottlieb will discover them and call the police, to which Eisenring responds,

Why would he call the police?

Why not?

Because he's guilty himself - that's why. Above a certain income every citizen is guilty one way or another. Have no fear.
(scene 4)
And there's the crux of the play. These two men, revealed to be ex-convicts and certainly firebugs, are welcomed by Gottlieb into his home. Sure that he will be able to befriend them and show them what a great guy he is and then they won't burn him up. He lies to the police about what's in the barrels, he ignores his wife and servant who are increasingly distressed by these men, he has them to dinner - first hiding the finery to make them more comfortable - then dragging it all out at their request. He helps measure the fuse, construct the detonator and finally provides them with a match...all because they ask and he offers his help, however he can.

Class is discussed over the possibility of being 'nabbed' while stealing sawdust. Gottlieb observes that his "kind of people seldom get nabbed," to which Eisenring responds, "Because your kind of people seldom steal sawdust. That's obvious Mr. Beidermann. That's the class difference." Gottlieb then explains his view on class...
I don't hold with class differences - you must have realized that by now, Mr. Eisenring. I'm not old-fashioned - just the opposite, in fact. And I regret that the lower classes still talk about class differences. Aren't we all of us - rich or poor - the creation of one Creator? The middle class, too. Are we not - you and I - human beings, made of flesh and blood? ... I don't mean reducing people to a common level, understand me. There will always be rich and poor, thank heaven - but why can't we just shake hands? A little good will, for heaven's sake, a littel idealism, a little - and we'd all have peace and quiet, both the poor and the rich. Don't you agree?
(Scene 5)

During this monologue, he lights up a cigar. Eisenring's only response to his enlightened view-point is to point out that he shouldn't smoke in the attic because it is now filled with gasoline barrels, he then goes back to constructing his fuse.

The comedy and absurdity comes from Beidermann keeping up this hospitality and ruse of idealism, trying to show what a great guy he is. By the end, everything is burning and this PhD character appears trying to have his say. He finally gets it out and what he needed to say was,
I was intent on improving the world; I knew about everything they were doing in your attic, everything. The one thing I didn't know was this. They - they are doing it for the pure joy of it.
(PhD, Scene 8)
Up until the end Beidermann remains in denial, even while everything is blazes and The Chorus of Fireman are crying out in grief at the disaster. He points out quite logically, when his wife asks if he gave them a match - that of course he did, and that proves they weren't the arsonists. If they were real arsonists then they would have their own matches of course.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Jumpers - by Tom Stoppard

So. I haven't posted in a while. I've been paralyzed by this play. Stuck. It's taken me days to finish it and I've pushed through - and what did I get out of the endeavor?

I'll try to provide a description.

Jumpers was first performed in London in 1972. There are two acts followed by a Coda. It starts with a musical performance by Dotty on the event of a victory in the polls by a Radical Liberal candidate. She's singing and losing the thread of her performance. A woman is swinging back and forth, losing an article of clothing each time and nearly colliding with the help. Then the Jumpers enter - a tumbling act. George, Dotty's husband, apparently trying to sleep in the next room calls for them to knock it off. The Jumpers are in a pyramid formation when BANG a shot is heard and the pyramid tumbles - a Jumper has been shot. Archie (later revealed to be Dotty's lover) tells her to keep the body out of sight till morning.

Dotty watches TV with the corpse on her lap. There's a program about a recent moon landing. The astronaut's left one of their own on the moon. It is morning and George is beginning his work. He is a moral philosopher. His work is to dictate his lectures to his stone faced secretary who doesn't say a word and records his every utterance. Currently he is working on, "is God?" He tangles through much logic, occasionally visiting with his turtle, his rabbit and his goldfish. He is occasionally interrupted by Dotty screaming out, 'Rape!' or 'Wolves!' which he ignores.

Eventually they come together over a game they play - she acts out titles for him to guess, i.e. she lies naked and still on the bed - 'The Naked and the Dead." She wishes for Archie, George suspects hanky-panky and she claims he is her doctor. They talk about the night before and there is some business with hiding the corpse from George.

A detective arrives at the door, Bones, who turns out to be a huge fan of Dotty - but also planning to arrest her for the murder committed in their home at the party. Eventually he gets past George to Dotty's room, the corpse falls from its hiding place and Dotty begins to seduce him. George discusses the philosophical work of the deceased jumper - also his colleague - and while Bones is in another room. Archie returns with the other Jumpers to remove the corpse.

And that ends Act One.

In Act Two Bones encourages George to help his wife get off from the murder charge by pleading insanity and continues his investigation - now without a body. Archie and Dotty carry on with their 'examinations,' and George and Archie talk philosophy, and the newly vacant Logic Chair that the corpse used to hold - and George is interested in. Through the scene George accuses Dotty of killing his rabbit - furious with her for that (in contrast to the total lack of emotion demonstrated for the dead Logician), I think she did kill his goldfish - and maybe eat it? (though I could be wrong about that) and then he discovers that he killed the rabbit accidentally when he was shooting is bow & arrow inside. As he finds the body he also manages to crush his turtle. His weeping takes us to the Coda.

The coda is a symposium in dream form where the question of "Man - good, bad or indifferent?" is discussed amongst Archie, George and Clegthorpe - the ArchBishop of Canterbury. This devolves into a performance by the Jumpers, a song by Dotty, a monologue by George about god and trains, and Archie asking us not to despair,
many are happy much of the time; more eat than starve, more are healthy than sick, more curable than dying; not so many dying as dead; and one of the thieves was saved. Hell's bells and all's well - half the world is at peace with itself, adn so is the other half; vast areas are unpolluted; millions of children grow up without suffering deprivation, and millions, while deprived, grow up without suffering cruelties, and millions, while deprived and cruelly treated, none the less grow up. No laughter is sad and many tears are joyful. At the graveside the undertaker doffs his top hat adn impregnates the prettiest mourner. Wham, bam, thank you Sam.
(Archie, Coda)

To which Dotty gets the last word, "Goodbye spoony Juney Moon."

The descriptions of staging and lighting are meticulous, a complex set is intricately described as well as how moments should bleed into one another or be separated. The rhythms of moments and characters create order from the slapstick and absurdist elements - and following the logic of the long philosophical passages is like chasing cats.

I'd say I should read it again to really grasp it - but actually I think I would much rather see it in action.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hysterical Blindness - by Laura Cahill

This premiered in NYC in 1997. It's set in 1987, in Avenel, New Jersey. I'm imagining a town with porches, houses close together, a dingy bar down the road and a Denny's out by the highway. There are six characters - Debby and Beth are the main focus, with Debby's mom Virginia as a counterpoint to their story. It's written in 14 scenes, mostly pretty short, that take place at a bar, Beth's house, Debby's house and one scene at the apartment of the man with Patrick Swayze eyes - Rick.

The play starts in a bar with Debby and her friend Beth drinking beers. Debby is telling Beth about how she went hysterically blind at work. Debby spies Rick at the bar and decides she's pretty much done for - although he seems less that aware of her. Beth needs to get home early to be with her daughter. Debby's sad pursuit of Rick creates the spine of the play. Her mother Virginia, a waitress at Denny's starts up a relationship with a widower who eats breakfast there. While her mother's relationship seems to have something tender and real about it, Debby's is all delusion. Beth sortof likes the bartender, but mostly daydreams of when they were kids, and the father of her daughter who took off long ago. Each woman waits for a man, and seems to be stuck without a man to take them out of their static lives.

Rick is finally egregious enough to get through to Debby that there is no relationship. And Virginia's widower keels over from a heart attack. Debby comes home to find her and her mother's house re-done with nice furniture. Virginia had been saving for something and finally spent some on herself. Though they are both a bit overwhelmed by the nice new home they tentatively settle in and the final scene, where Debby visits Beth and says she's signed up for 'Well Woman' we get the sense that she's making some changes for herself and may be leaving Beth and her daydream of getting some chairs, some beer, some Springsteen and partying in the yard all summer - behind her.

It's a play that relies on the specificity of the Jersey girl, the late '80s, and the low-rent mood pervading the script to take hold to work I imagine. The central metaphor of Debby's actual hysterical blindness - and the hysterical blindness of women waiting for a man to change their life - sets up the play and gives it its throughline.

I've got better access to plays now - any suggestions of published plays I should be reading?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Alone at the Beach - by Richard Dresser

Premiered at the Humana festival in 1988, Alone at the Beach is an ensemble comedy in three acts. Each act takes place over a holiday weekend over one summer, Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. It takes place at a house in the Hamptons. George has inherited the house from his grandmother and has brought on five people to share the house, selecting them on a first come first serve basis.

The first act has the characters arriving and sets up the 'how will these folks ever get along?' question, and a quickly developing romance between George and recently divorced Molly begins. The second act opens with George throwing a Birthday party for Molly - but she's gone back to her ex-husband who is coming out to the house with her for the weekend. Her ex-husband Joe also happens to be George's therapist - who's been unknowingly listening to the details of his ex-wife's affair with George for the past month. Drugs are taken, a three-some is initiated and a dog is run-over. In the final act some new alliances are made as everyone packs up for the summer. George and Molly re-connect at the end, they've made changes in order to be closer - Molly's planned to move out to the Hampton's full-time while George has sold the house to return to the city. Paths cross and continue to miss one another.

The title is the play - each character is alone at the beach - and though stabs at closeness are made, all pretty much end up alone at the end of the summer. It's kind of a mirror up to nature play. It is set in the late '80s, a particular time and place. The interest and humor is watching these strangers get to know on another, stumble on each other's personalities and try to come together over the summer. And then, kindof like the end of summer, the connections evaporate along with the season.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Loss of Roses - by William Inge

A flop on Broadway in 1959, Inge revised the script for publication. In his preface he describes this play as always feeling like a sure thing to him and when it was going up there was a horrible moment where he saw that the play on-stage was nothing like the play that was in his head - but that the revisions would correct this.

This past fall I got to stay at William Inge's house in Independence, KS as a writer in residence and read most of his plays there. There wasn't a copy of this play, but there was a poster for the Broadway production, starring a young Warren Beatty. I loved the title and as I got to know Inge's writing I wanted to find this one too...

And, reading it this afternoon, its fallen short of my high expectations. It's a two act play. In the first act we meet Helen and her son Kenny. They both work and contribute to the household expenses, lucky to have jobs during the depression. Kenny is attached to his mother and doesn't want to leave, recently having turned down a good job outside of Wichita. Helen doesn't want him to get too comfortable, wanting him to strike out on his own and get married someday - at the moment he's drinking and running around with the trashiest girls in town. Helen's getting ready for Lila, who used to help her around the house and with baby Kenny when she was a girl and who is now an actress with a travelling show. The show's gone under and the show people drop her off at Helen's while they look for work in Kansas City.

Later that night, Kenny puts some moves on Lila when he's drunk. The next morning, Lila tries hard to be good and impress Helen, and cover for Kenny. Somewhere in there we also learn that Lila was hospitalized after she tried to commit suicide after running away from her husband & his father - there's also a whisper of sexual abuse in her past - a past that Helen helped her to get away from. The Act ends with Lila resisting any flirtation with Kenny and him thinking he could get used to having her around.

In the second act, a month later, Kenny and Lila have some drinks and Kenny puts the moves on her. She likes him - maybe loves him but turns him down. Helen comes home and Kenny throws a fit and threatens to move out after his mother refuses to take an expensive present from him - a watch to replace the watch his father gave her. We also learn that Kenny's father died saving Kenny's life. Lila's show friend, who she's in love with, comes back with a promise of work - $100 a week. It comes out that the work is a for a sex show - and some blue movies possibly. Lila refuses and goes to Kenny for help and comfort. They spend the night together after he asserts his seriousness about her and his plan to marry her. The next morning Helen senses something's up and confronts Kenny, Lila's a wreck and tries to slash her wrists, Kenny decides its time for him to move out and he heads off to work. Lila sees a girl going to school carrying roses. She remembers her first day of school, giving roses to the teacher and getting whacked later for talking - and asking for her roses back. Her show friend pulls up and Lila goes off to her future with him.

The loss of innocence, the hushed tones when discussing girls with bad pasts, the committment in mental institutions, the longing for a man to come and save the girl - and the realization that he's not coming... these hallmarks of theatre in the late 50s/60s - or maybe just William Inge and Tennessee Williams - I'll need to read more to make an accurate generalization.

This one though - it's interesting to me that Inge would be more sure about this one than any other - perhaps because it is structurally pretty clean, the action/images/intentions dove-tail together and it is containable in the mind... and then its the ones that are messier - that make you afraid to share them - that are uncertain that have that thing that makes them bigger than themselves.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Look Back in Anger - by John Osbourne

Look Back in Anger
was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 1956. On the back of my copy it states, "The searing drama of the angry generation" and it fits into the British cinema of the time that was focused on these, angry young men.

The play is in three acts. Jimmy, an educated son of the working classes, is married to Alison, a beautiful flower of the posher set. They live in a flat with the bathroom down the hall and share their space with Cliff, who works with Jimmy running a sweet stall. At open Alison irons a pile of laundry for the men, she takes care of both of them without question or thanks, and Jimmy and Cliff read piles of Sunday papers. Jimmy berates Alison for her stupidity, for taking his insults and for settling for such a shit hole. He dumps his hatred of the upper classes onto his wife, who silently takes it. Cliff plays mediator and comforter of Alison. In the second scene of the first act, Alison's friend Helena arrives to stay. She's an actress and acts as a savior to Alison, who has told everyone except Jimmy that she is pregnant.

Helena encourages Alison to leave Jimmy, calling her father - a former officer who spent the last 3 decades before the war in India - to come get her. Alison goes with poppa and Helena moves in on Jimmy. So that the third act's opening mirrors the first except this time it is Helena doing the ironing. Alison loses the baby, returns one last time - Helena vamooses and Alison and Jimmy are back together.

This play holds a place in British theater as turning point of sorts, heralding the arrival of these new angry young men.
I suppose people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids. There aren't any good, brave causes left. If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off, it won't be in aid of the old-fashioned, grand design. It'll just be for the Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus. No, there's nothing left for it, me boy, but to let yourself be butchered by the women. (Jimmy - Act 3)
This speech of Jimmy's, among many others that he has, is the prism through which the play can be seen. A mixture of the aimless, young men after the war, under-employed and in a society going through a major upheaval. And the other huge strand of the play which is a view of women as life-sucking harpies.

As a reader I got pretty sick of reading this character's constant bitching about women, about his wife, about how stupid she is, about how she doesn't know anything about life. And sick of her subservient, helpless affection for him. That by the end of the play she comes back to him and they find their way back too each other through a little affectionate game they play of bear and squirrel. (yes, she is the squirrel) did nothing to alleviate my feeling of exhaustion with the narrative and the characters.

Now, I've striven to take plays on their own terms and freed myself from feeling the need to comment on the merits of scripts. And here is a play that yes, technically I can see how it works, the scenes all end on a cliff-hanger, the characters and their story serve as a mirror to look at a particular time in a particular society. There is a commentary on class, on British post-war society, on moralities and romanticism, and through the character of Jimmy it's all presented very 'in your face' and uncomfortably. And yet, I couldn't get past the sense of the women as functionaries and punching bags to serve the writer's central character. Even the unseen mother is depicted as a vulture, un-caringly waiting for Jimmy's father to die, leaving the young boy as the only one his father had to care for him.

And that's where the play gets really tricky for me. I feel like the play wants to be about the anger of a young man towards a stifling, class-based, moralistic society - but ends up being about a man angry at his mother and every iteration of her in his life. Which takes the teeth out of the play's posturing for me.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Round and Round the Garden - by Alan Ayckbourn

Round and Round the Garden is the last of The Norman Conquests trilogy. Again, the same group, the same country house where the sibling's mother (who likes to be read racy novels and apparently carried on with all sorts right under their father's nose) is dying upstairs. The same weekend. This time they are in the garden, and appropriately, everything gets aired out - and there are a few rolls in the grass that shed new light on what was simmering under the surface in the living room and the dining room.

And it should also be said, the same structure in each play. Two acts. Two scenes per act. Each scene ends with the disaster or the cri de couer that propels the next scene - or at the end that sums up the entire play - from Norman's point of view - and really his is the one that matters since he's started all the problem that got the play moving, and ends the play by causing just one more catastrophe.

Earlier in this series I read an early Ayckbourn play, Relatively Speaking, a comedy of mistaken identities, marriages and infidelities - actual and suspected. The material here in this later play (1973) is similar, infidelities and marriages but this one has a much deeper tap root. There's a quiet pathos underneath the play as well as a delight in the ridiculousness of people navigating the confines of family and commitment. And maybe that's what makes the comedy successful, that we can laugh at these people condemned to each other's company, seeking to get away from one another by any means necessary and delight at the end when Norman, who's managed to get kisses from each of the women, as well as painted pictures of weekends away with them - and quite possibly the men as well - conspires to wreck the cars so that they'll all need to stay another day together.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Living Together - by Alan Ayckbourn

Living Together is the second play of The Norman Conquests trilogy. It takes place in the Living Room, over the same weekend, with the same characters.

This one begins on Saturday evening with Norman sulking because his trip has been canceled, Reg dealing with the bags - and the game he's invented that he's hoping to play - and Sarah marshaling everyone around. As the plays pile up the sense that anyone has control over anything really does deteriorate, because we see what's happening in the next room when character's aren't around we see how little effect individual's attempts to control the situation have.

Married relationships take the foreground in this play. Particularly Sarah and Reg's union - with her constantly running him down and bossing him - dismissing his attempts to get everyone to play his game with him - and his general acceptance of her command. This plays counter to Ruth and Norman's marriage which although Norman seems unable to stop himself from suggesting a roll on the carpet or a get-away to Bournemouth to every lady present has an honesty and bluntness that carries them - and by the end, carries them through. In a way.

And it's a comedy. And it's filled with lonely and somewhat sad people trying to make the best of things.

Tomorrow I'll find out what's been going on in the garden.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Table Manners - by Alan Ayckbourn

The next three entries will be The Norman Conquests. This trilogy (recently on Broadway) of plays each take place over the same weekend, with the same characters, in different areas of the house.

This first one begins with Annie and her Sister-in-Law Sarah. Sarah's just arrived with her husband Reg, to take over Annie's duties as caretaker of her & Reg's mother for the weekend. Annie is going somewhere... over the course of the conversation it comes out that she's planned a dirty weekend in East Grinstead with Norman, the husband of her older sister Ruth. Sarah is shocked! Shocked! she'd assumed it would be a getaway with Tom, the local vet and eligible bachelor who haplessly comes round often, but really has no game at all. Norman shows up on the lawn waving around his pyjamas.

By scene two Ruth, Norman's wife, turns up at Sarah's request - she's short-sighted and doesn't like to have been pulled away from her work. ...

There are endless miles of terrain between these individuals, and Norman - a seemingly happy guy who happens to be married to a woman with her own mind, that doesn't really include him very much - does and says the wrong things throughout and is weirdly successful at it. The two other women end up in his arms at different points in the play.

And, as this one is set in the dining room, much of the comedic engine is the attempt to Just Sit Down and Have a Nice Meal Together.

moments where off-stage business is alluded to - and where characters come in laughing or disoriented from something that happened in another room with another character imply that the next two plays will add more dimensions to this one. Though, this one does stand quite nicely on it's own.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Lesser Magoo - by Mac Wellman

The Lesser Magoo
completes Wellman's Crowtet series. It is available at for download as a pdf.

The Lesser Magoo opens in an office where Torque is being 'rogated' by Candle & Curran. A dressing down, an arbitrarily abusive interview? The nature of their work is alluded to, the Nature of Crowe's Dark Space, old feuds and traditions and the history of their people. In this invented history, which combines sheer invention with familiar locations and references all delivered as convention would dictate, there are objects and locations mentioned which will resurface elegantly later in the play. It becomes murkliy apparent that one wouldn't want to be identified as an unusualist. Something horrible happens to Torque off-stage. There are moments of stillness. Joegh Bullock is seen hanging in a closet, he held Torque's position previously but has, "suffered a fatal self-erasure." And an invitation to visit Moonhat is extended by Candle to Curran.

The next scene opens on Moonhat estate with many guests at a lawn party. They will drift in and out of the scene as necessary. There is occasional singing. Much attention paid to the young and beautiful Tessora. Aunt Sycorica is appropraitely witchy. A literary figure discusses his work loosely. There are discussions about 'unusualists' and much discussions about other guests. The ghost of Joegh Bullock wanders in asking to be noticed, only Tessora can see him. A crippled old philosopher, Foss, arises from his wheelchair and walks into the woods. A Corn Knife is discovered (like one described in the first scene) and hastily hidden away. The former Senator speaks at length - this monologue feels like a touchstone, in that it has a coherence and point of view from our world. He speaks of his exhaustion fighting off the Pentagon and the Department of Defense, the shame of all the money going to fight wars while schools and public resources diminish. He rails against the corporations suffocating the common man, while the voters vote for policies and politicians that help them do just that. Aunt Sycorica asserts that,

In my own country, in my own lifetime, people proceeded to be MAD... insane mind you, just in order to escape responsibility. (p. 60)
then the guests begin acting strangely...

The final scene takes place in the woods. Tessura has followed Foss and Curran has followed Tessura, there is talk of randomness and talk of death. From a distance, the literary figure (dressed as Bottom with an Ass's head) and the former senator watch the women. Tessura describes disturbing things she's witnessed her parents doing in the woods and her fears of becoming an unusualist when all she wants is a normal life. The Ghost returns and she sends him away. Foss, the now - not -paralyzed philosopher returns with a silver foot, Tessura glows, luminous and is ascended, screaming, into the night sky.

The play is language and tumbling stories/histories, rich, playful, nonsensical, rhythmic, allusive and elusive. Slippery nonsense and pained expression of futility of fighting the nonsense that passes for policy. Theatrical and resisting standards of traditional interpretation, The Lesser Magoo, feels tricky and at the same time explains many of its tricks in the text.. another play that begs another, closer read - and then another - and (one hopes) a chance to sit and watch in the theatre with a beer.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Delirium of Interpretations - by Fiona Templeton

Delirium of Interpretations
published in 2003 by Green Integer has the subtitle (of the predicament and the phenomenon of Camille Claudel). In Templeton's notes preceding the text she provides a short biography of Claudel, a sculptor who lived from 1864 - 1934. She began sculpting young, was a student and later mistress of Auguste Rodin. She separated from him, continued to make art and after the death of her father was committed to an asylum by her family, including her brother, the playwright Paul Claudel. She died 30 years later in the asylum, much of her work lost or destroyed.

The play is constructed from multiple texts. Actors speak in character, as historical voices, as actors performing actors, and as representatives of various forces in Claudel's life. The majority of the text is assembled from letters, descriptions of Claudel's and Rodin's sculpture, from biographies, from literature from the era, from the myths on which much of their sculpture was based, and Templeton's original writing. The script is presented with a side column where sources are attributed, often line by line.

The play is organized into a prologue, five scenes and an epilogue. Characters are indicated by letters rather than names - possibly to suggest their changing natures. For example, R is Rodin, male artist, and father (physically). Claudel's existence as a sculptor of great talent, the lack of definitive information about her life - sometimes she is portrayed as stalking Rodin - other times he is the one controlling and relentlessly seeking her. The judgment and ultimate imprisonment by her family due to the diagnoses "Delirium of Interpretations" which would now be referred to as paranoia - paranoia that may have been very justified according to some accounts collected here. The jealousy of her talent by the men in her life - Rodin and her brother - and how this led them to control her - as well as the resentment of women, particular Rodin's wife and her own mother. The position of women at that time, particularly women seeking to work, to create, to be valued for their art - at a time when art was an entirely masculine endeavor. All of this is reflected in Templeton's text through the multiple interpreters - a sense of the inability of one objective voice, an undermining of any singular narrative to explain the individual - results from the play's form and methods of construction.

The published version also includes photographs of the sculptures referred to in the play. This adds an additional layer to the experience of reading - as would seeing these in person. There are notes regarding the staging, direction, and the acting of the peice. Templeton explains her vision of the performance style, includes the audience placement and some moments of improvised experience in the forward and afterward. Her explanations ground the sometimes dense and difficult text into the larger aims of the piece as a theatrical experience.

Claudel is the only character granted a subjective voice throughout the piece. It is through her the audience experiences the narrative, which unfolds chronologically through her life. First the impulse to create, then the experience of being in Rodin's workshop, then the conflict with her lover, her work alone, then a scene of interpretations of Claudel's work, a final scene of interpretations of her - the doctor's notes and views of her in the asylum as well as her own accounting of her mental state and experience, and finally an epilogue "Death, Disappearance, and History."

Here's some text to end with - which will speak louder than my attempt at description -
Genius is PR, it's macho, meaning egotistic and exclusive, unable to differentiate from their own viewpoint. It's a reason for a lot of brutality, it's old-fashioned, it's the biography, not the work. It's not useful. Talk instead about foresight, both penetration and encompassment. The work. In the world. Excitement. The greatest talent is to make something of your talent. I expect craft from people I work with. Talk of genius avoids multiple respect for creativity. It suggests the inhuman. (Scene 4, Camille)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'Night Mother - by Marsha Norman

Pulitzer prize winning play of 1983, 'Night Mother opens with a mother straining for some cupcakes on a high shelf and her daughter, Jessie looking for some towels that her mother doesn't want anymore and a big piece of plastic or garbage bags. Then Jessie is looking for her father's gun. We learn that Jessie has a wayward son and that they are getting ready for her mother's weekly manicure. And then, bottom of page 5, Jessie says, "I'm going to kill myself, Mama."

Through the rest of the play, which unfolds without a break, Mama tries to convince her not to and Jessie goes through a long checklist of things she wants to do before she goes. Getting the house in order for her mother, giving away some items, passing on information and asking some questions. We learn more about Jessie's life. That she's an epileptic, that she was married and had a son, her husband left her - and had been sortof selected for her by her mother.

Sometimes her mother goes to the phone to call - but stops herself. Jessie has said she'd shot herself immediately if her mom calls for help - still...

Jessie's thought through this and decided. She's been planning it. She's feeling good because she's decided to do this. Watching the mother you want her to stop her - to try harder to stop her - and you have the sense of helplessness, share the sense of helplessness to do anything.

And finally, Jessie does it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Convention of Cartography - by W. David Hancock

The Convention of Cartography
is a play for one person, with video and environmental elements. The first stage direction:

(Audience members stumble upon a very old Airstream trailer, sitting in the middle of an overgrown parking lot. A hand-painted sign above the door of the trailer reads: MUSEUM)
There are seats facing a video monitor, several objects with the label "SOME OF MIKE'S THINGS" and a woman selling concessions. She is the curator's wife, and takes part in the performance as well, helping with tours and taking over at set points.

The curator appears and begins his lecture about a man he knew. A poet and artist and drifter who left poems in random places for people find and made boxes - described like Joseph Cornell type objects - that he installed at various places - underpasses, in people's attic's, highway restrooms. A picture of the man emerges through the lecture - how he worked and his effect on the curator's life. Then we are told that when Mike was dying the curator traveled to be with him.

Video tapes of the curator and Mike's conversations from this time are shared. These are interrupted by the curator - occasionally adding context, or sharing Mike's art, describing his efforts to locate and retrieve some of the work scattered across the USA. There are moments that will be fast-forwarded unless the audience protests to see it. Other stories emerge, the story of Ida, the great-aunt of the curator - how he met Mike when he was living with her, UFOs, a man dying in the back of a greyhound bus. Mike does not often cooperate with the curator, setting his own terms for many of the sections. Objects are referred to in the stories and are then seen in the collections and available for the audience to handle.

Audience is invited inside the museum. Displays of work are described, as is the nature of interaction the curator and his wife will have with the visitors. A video plays, a close up of Mike talking about Ida. There are cards described that should be placed with the exhibits.

At finish, a box with a peephole and a penlight is available for the audience to look at one by one. It is "Ida's Wing" and they are told it was found in a retirement home in their town. The curator tells about the discovery and exits. Leaving his wife to share it and resume the tour.

The play has a distinct mood in it. A feeling of loss and the attempt to collect and locate the inexplicable. As a script for an installation/play it is so clear. I've often wondered when attending other similar-type events how do you record it? and this script feels like one answer to that question. Or just for reading and gleaning the potential experience that way.

I wish I could go visit this museum in an over-grown parking lot, outside of some mid-western town... and I highly recommend reading this.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

a note to readers (11/1 - 11/8)

I am traveling this week and not near the computer often. I am shifting to reading short plays for this week that is shorter on time. Longer plays will return next week.

Turn Four - by Crystal Skillman

Turn Four
, a short play published in Play A Journal of Plays is set during the last 20 laps of the Daytona 500. Three drivers in their cars, which are chairs able to shake and represent speed, are staggered facing the audience. They remain in the same position through the play. The driver's are Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Dale Earnhardt.

The script is presented horizontally. The drivers speak to themselves and during the race and to each other over headsets. By laying out the script in 3 vertical columns a sense of the stage picture is conveyed through the visual organization of the text.

The historical events of the race are that Waltrip won and Earnhardt, Jr. came in second. Earnhardt was positioned for 3rd. Waltrip was driving a car owned by Earnhardt and this would have resulted in a 1-2-3 finish for the family. Earnhardt crashed and was killed on turn four in the final lap of the race.

Skillman imagines these final laps and the conversation between father and son, the tension of the three men vying for position, moments of recollection of their connections to racing, visions of victory, all building towards the final moments when Earnhardt loses control of his vehicle.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Icing: A Hockey Wedding Event - Sawako Nakayasu

Icing: A Hockey Wedding Event
is published in PLAY A JOURNAL OF PLAYS, issue 1, Spring 2003. It is a script for an event. It describes the lay out of the space, the areas inside and outside the main event space. What information the audience should have before hand. How admission should be payed and in what circumstances it should be waived. How attendees should be greeted. Characters are described with some of their actions, some of which are continuous throughout the event. There is a section of notes touching on music, dance, general structure (borrowed from weddings & hockey games).

Outside of the main event space is a Carnival, with participatory booths - fortune teller, walk-through wedding chapel, things that might be found at a carnival all with a wedding and/or hockey spin.

Then the script describes the Events of the event. These are organized into 3 periods, guided by an Announcer and a final section of "Falling." Language and elements of weddings and hockey games are re-configured and played with. There's audience participation. There are surprising interruptions, dances, fights, the marriage of hockey bags, a fight, the heart of "Ex-girlfriend #2" is cooked and served to a lucky audience member and "probably gets eaten with a little bit of sadness," among other things.

These events all take place inside a giant wedding cake. It ends when a giant knife cuts through, followed by a giant hockey puck, and the curtains "fold in and fall down over the audience. Music. End."

Sawako Nakayasu is a poet. I don't know if this event was ever staged. I would like to be invited if it is.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Redwood Curtain - by Lanford Wilson

Redwood Curtain
was first performed at Seattle Rep in 1992. It’s a three person play with three scenes and no intermission. It begins in the redwood forest outside of Arcata, CA. A man is urging his dog to kill an animal. A young Asian-American girl appears, she’s been watching him. He knows it. She talks to him, they wrestle a bit, he takes her wallet, she can control the elements. She is looking for her father, a Vietnam vet with mismatched eyes and an eagle tattoo. This man is a Vet, living in the woods, mismatched eyes and at the end of the scene she sees, an eagle tattoo.

The second scene is in the girl’s aunt’s car. She’s picked her up, is concerned and we learn that this girl’s been doing this a long time. We learn what’s truth and what’s lies about the girl. She is a piano prodigy, she was adopted by a wealthy family from a young Vietnamese girl who was paid $25,000. Her adopted father taught her and was depressive and drank. We learn that the aunt used to own a timber company that harvested the woods under guidelines approved by the Sierra Club, but she’s been bought out and the purchasers will cut down these 2500 year old trees. The scene shifts to the aunt’s home. The girl leaves for town. The man from the woods turns up and returns the wallet, all the money there – every picture and card examined and replaced. He departs.

The final scene is back in the woods and the truth of the girl’s parentage is revealed.

It’s such an elegant structure. Minimal characters, minimal scenes. An entire history – of the Vietnam war, the men damaged by it, the children left without fathers – is evoked as the backdrop and it provides this depth – along with the theme of corporate buy-outs of irreplaceable trees – that buoys up the simplicity of what we see at the surface. The iceberg theory of a play, its only 1/3 that we see. The rest is deep below the surface, signaling its magnitude with this little glimpse at the top.

Also, the back of the published play tells me that when this play opens on Broadway it will mark the fortieth production of Lanford Wilson’s to be directed by Marshall Mason. With that type of collaboration, does it allow him to trust his 1/3 at the top? To trust that the depths will be revealed by the director?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Miracle Play - by Joyce Carol Oates

This one is published by Black Sparrow Press. I love their publications. As a high school student I had a few of Bukowski's books that they published with their rough cardboard colored covers. I picked this one up in a used book store pretty much because it was published by them and because I'd never heard of it.

And it's not anything like what I expected. I guess I thought, literary, magical somehow, rooted in emotion and character. Probably. Maybe playing with the form as a writer not typically known for plays might do. I was ready for a surprise.

So, Miracle Play, first performed in 1974, is an urban crime drama. It opens with Titus Skinner (29) getting ready to beat up his sometimes girlfriend, Beattie Roscoe (16) for stealing $500 worth of his product, heroin. The next scene has Titus's brother's face being scalded with boiling sugar water by Beattie's brother and his friend in retaliation. Then Beattie's brother and his friend are burnt alive by Titus. The play is the attempt to make a court case against Titus by the Prosecutor, a white man who promises a conviction if Beattie will testify against Titus. Titus is defended by Kidd, a white man, who uses Titus as a symbol of all that is wrong for blacks in America and fights to have him set free. At one point he is given $100,000 for Titus's defense, he says from gentle white people who want to help. Titus's brother gapes in disbelief, partly that anyone would give that kind of money to help his brother - who he knows is guilty, is a drug dealer, and is a threat to everybody in the neighborhood - but mostly he gapes that anyone would have that kindof money just lying around.

Now I suppose this type of material is used to fuel Law & Order and many other hour long crime dramas. But here, 1974, written by a white woman, writing an urban, black story - I wonder how it was received. I wonder how the conversations were different then. Was it praised for it's unblinking portrayal of black urban america? For her ear for how people talk? It's not sentimental. It's not looking to make heros of any of the characters, there's a tragedy to some - an innocence that doesn't last. And the dealer, Titus, has the last word - about growing up and expecting to end up in the electric chair, but now that states are doing away with that things'll change. Then to win over the jury with an act so impressive they'll have to let him go he sticks a lightbulb on his forehead and lights it up.

It's a play that feels of a particular time, the 70s, New York City - I don't know that it fits now - not that the story it tells doesn't happen anymore - but its not what theatre does, its what TV does. Though I doubt that is for the better - seeing how TV mines those stories for the salaciousness of actions rather than the motivations of the characters bound by themselves and their society.

I was looking for a surprise and I received one, all preconceptions over turned and in that Black Sparrow Press and Ms. Oates did not disappoint.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Colored Museum - by George C. Wolfe

Premiered in 1986, The Colored Museum is a series of pieces, monologues and scenes, that present a multiplicity of African-American experience, stereotypes and conflicts. Most have an element of direct address, involving the audience in the action and the character on stage.

The container for the pieces is a museum, each "exhibit" following after the next. The first exhibit is an airline stewardess welcoming us onto the flight, the middle passage. The audience is invited to put on their shackles and instructed that there will be 'no drumming.' A time slip occurs and we're plunged into a swirling recounting of moments in history, nearly overwhelmed, but still arrive, welcome to our destination. This is punctuated by a final image of two male slaves and a woman slave being welcomed with the canned pleasantness of the stewardess.

Ten more scenes follow, each vastly different than the last and accumulating meaning as they build on one another. The final scene breaks loose characters from previous scenes and they join Topsy Washington when she says,
So, hunny, don't waste your time trying to label or define me. ... 'cause I'm not what I was ten years ago or ten minutes ago. I'm all of that and then some. And whereas I can't live inside yesterday's pain, I can't live without it.
(Topsy Washington and cast, 'The Party')

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Saint Joan - by Bernard Shaw

First performed in New York in 1923, Saint Joan, tells Shaw's version of Joan of Arc. My copy has a very long preface delving into his interpretation of Joan. In the play she is an individual, committed to following her inspiration - manifesting itself as voices of Saints and God - she conducts herself in a manner appropriate to her calling. She is a leader with a passion for weapons and a vision of how battles are won.

The play is organized into six scenes and an epilogue. Shaw starts the play with her seeking the horse and men of a military squire in order to raise an army to crown the Dauphin and throw the British out of France. The sixth scene is the trial which results in Joan being burnt at the stake. The epilogue melds time, fifty years after the burning, when she was declared innocent of charges and 1920 when she was canonized as a saint. The spirits of Joan and others in the play return for this finale.

Shaw places Joan in the middle of power struggles amongst the church, the feudal lords and the king. As well as portraying a genius compelled to live and act powerfully and with clear principles, he uses her story to illustrate a moment in time when Nationalism was coming into prominence - the idea of the French and the English under a king - instead of the feudal system of whatever lord held power over an area.

Similarly to the play read yesterday, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a terrible thing - the H-Bomb, the burning at the stake of a 19 year old - is put on trial. And in both the individual, complex and human, faces the powers of the State and Morality - powers that don't hold real sway in the main character's struggle with their own powers.

This play, from the 1920s, is certainly using the theater to present an argument and reveal the motivations of those who wield power over others. I would say revealing hypocrisies, but Shaw goes to lengths to give everyone their reason for their actions, and in the epilogue we see some of the fall out - and weigh some of the possible outcomes.

Though Joan gets the last word,
Oh God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long? (Joan, epilogue)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In The Matter Of J. Robert Oppenheimer - by Heinar Kipphardt

Published in German in 1964 and in English in 1967, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, uses primary source material from the hearings regarding whether or not to grant Oppenheimer security clearance in the 1950s (after the development of the Hydrogen bomb). Kipphardt condenses the hearings, re-organizing and editing for drama and clarity, but as he states in his introduction if it was a choice between drama and accuracy he went with accuracy.

It unfolds over two parts, follows the question and answer format of the hearings, with longer monologues interspersed between the scenes.

The most striking thing about this play to me was the power of the story that is within it. The slice of history represented as is, without frills or spin. The complexities of the choices physicists were making, responsibilities to humanity or to country, could withholding knowledge or even just enthusiasm be considered 'intellectual treason'? - and what did that even mean when the question at hand was developing a weapon with little tactical value, that could destroy the human race?

I am ashamed I'm reading this so late in my life. And its resonance with current events and questions lead me to suggest that a reading or a re-mounting of this play is in order. This part of our history is not yet grappled with and we're facing similar questions, a dramatic text exists that both cleanly presents an event - and vibrates with the existential, moral, practical and philosophical questions the fact of that event's occurrence creates.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Road To Mecca - by Athol Fugard

The copyright on my copy says 1985, it doesn't state where the play was first performed. The Road to Mecca, is a two act play with three characters. At open Elsa, a 28 year old woman from Cape Town, turns up unannounced at Helen's home. Helen is an older woman living alone in a small village 800 miles away from Cape Town.

Through the course of the first act we see the sculptures that Helen has been creating since her husband's death, and learn that the villagers have ostracized her for her choice to make these and not follow the conventional path of a widow, going to church and visiting with the other ladies of the village. Elsa is a teacher at a 'colored school' in the city and has had a rough few months, a tumultuous ending of an affair with a married man and she's up for disciplinary review for asking her students to write about equal rights in South Africa. We also learn that Elsa has been moved to come here unannounced in response to a letter she received from Helen which read to her like a suicide note. The pastor has been pushing Helen to go to an old folks home and a space is ready for her if she will just sign. Elsa pushes Helen to face the problems, start taking care of herself, and not give up and let them tuck her away.

In the second act the pastor arrives and the deeper conflicts of the situation are revealed. Helen nearly burned her house down and didn't move to save herself. Through the course of the second act Elsa and the Pastor vie for control over Helen's life, until Elsa withdraws angrily - she'd been inspired by Helen's pursuit of creating her sculptures, by her freedom, and is disappointed that Helen won't fight for herself. Eventually though, she does, explaining to the Pastor and to Elsa the significance of the sculptures, their ability to capture and play with the light so that it will never be dark. The pastor relents, and the two women are left alone together.

There are many stories told, the gossip is passed between the women, the exposition is revealed through their conversation, catching up and clarifying why Elsa has suddenly arrived. The version of events told by Helen in the first act are turned around by the arrival of the pastor in the second. Elsa has to deal with this shift, which she feels as a betrayal. The pastor pleads his case clearly and seems to be motivated by something more than pastoral concern for one of his parishioners. And Helen's voice is only finally heard in fullness and clarity by the end of the play, although there are slivers, glintings and hints throughout.

The background of a village in South Africa in the 1970s is deftly painted in the background, it does not dominate the play, but it is an essential part of it.

In the preface, Fugard talks about the woman and place this play was inspired by. He talks about feeling like it might be a play but not being 'hooked' quite yet, the fish weren't yet biting. When he learned that this woman had a strong friendship with a younger woman, a social worker from the city, then he said his bait was taken and he could write the play.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dutchman - by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Imamu Baraka)

First performed in 1964, Dutchman has two characters: a white woman in her 30s, Lula and a black man in his 20s, Clay. It takes place on a subway train.

There's a wordless prologue where Clay, riding the train, sees a woman looking at him through the window (she's revealed later to be Lula). Caught unawares he smiles, then tries to shake off the encounter. The first scene has Lula deliberately sitting next to Clay and starting up a seductive conversation with him. He plays along, tries to keep everything 'okay' and goes along with her flirting. She runs her hand up his thigh, and pretends to know everything about him - but is cagey when he asserts himself into the conversation, expressing interest or opinion.

In the second scene, she describes how they'll be at the party, how they'll be when he comes home with her. She goads him - wants to dance with him on the train, calls him names, calls his parents names - he finally snaps. Grabs her, hits her and speaks his mind to her and to all - lets her know he could kill her right there, but then no poems get written. When he is done, she stabs him, throws him off the train and the train and its passengers carry on. Another young black man gets on and a old black man does a soft shoe down the aisle.

The play barrels through - like a train - and is hot with its anger. The conflict is on the train and its in the space between the audience and the action, and the world and the theater, the forces colliding in the play are echoed out from the stage (or the imagined stage). And structurally it is simple. A conversation. One dominating, the other trying to maintain their autonomy in a one-sided conversation - then bursting - then being killed by the dominant conversationalist. It's wickedly simple.

A play that feels like an object. No explanation comes from it. It is itself.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Fantasticks - by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt

A Two -Act Musical, The Fantasticks opened in 1960 and kept playing until 2001 (I think). There are nine roles, a pianist & harpist and a simple set - a platform, a cardboard moon and some wooden swords.

It opens with Try to Remember, which always makes me cry and El Gallo, who serves as a narrator, sets up the young lovers kept apart by their feuding fathers. But it turns out the fathers have only pretended to be feuding so that their children will fall in love. They then hire El Gallo to abduct the girl so that the boy can save her and they can stage a reconciliation and everyone can live happily ever after. This happens, and under the moonlight the lovers kiss with their happy fathers by their sides.

Then Act 2 opens under the hot sun. All the flaws are present, the magic is gone, everyone fights, the father's re-build the wall but for serious this time. The young man is enticed to go out into the world and see what there is to see. The young girl is seduced by El Gallo and makes plans to run away with him. El Gallo abandons her, stealing her mother's necklace, and the young man returns, worse for wear - but comforts her and they fall back in love and the fathers reunite as well. El Gallo has the last word, having provided them with the pain necessary to live a happy life.

There's some unfortunate choices that haven't aged well - the abduction is more often referred to as a rape, leading to a whole song about the different kinds of rapes - all romanticized and separate from the current meaning and freight of the word - but jarring to this reader. And the insistence on Indians and Hispanics as the bad guys. It's a play that operates with fairytale fantasies and flips those on the audience and the characters in the play, so yes it' going to reflect the stereotypes as it does so...but, alas that those are our stereotypes and that these two choices bog down a play that has so many simple riches in a small package.

My mom tells a story of seeing a traveling performance of The Fantasticks performed in Johnson, Kansas - a tiny farming town - when she and my dad were living there. The community hall was packed with farm families, everybody in the area coming to see the play. I imagine a dark plain, a warm light from the windows of the hall and the songs drifting out across the empty town.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

You Can't Take It With You - by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman

A comedy in Three Acts it says on the cover and that's exactly right. Premiered in 1936, You Can't Take It With You takes place in the home of Martin Vanderhof in New York City "just around the corner from Columbia University, but don't go looking for it," according to the stage directions. (The stage directions have a great tone, like someone from that era is kindof chatting you through the play.)

Martin Vanderhof's family and assorted others live in his house and do as they will, write plays, make candy in the kitchen and fireworks in the basement, run a printing press and study ballet, among other things. As it's a comedy there's a love story running the plot - Alice, the youngest grand-daughter works as a secretary on wall street and is seeing the boss's son. The first scene of the first act introduces the characters of the house and sets the scene. In the second scene Alice and her beau, Tony, get engaged and plan for the families to meet.

The Second Act is the evening before the scheduled meeting - dance class is going on, a portrait is being painted, explosions from the basement - and Tony's well-to-do family comes over on the wrong night. Social discomfort gives way to grand mis-steps as the worlds collide, Alice breaks it off, the parents leave and before they can go the whole house is placed under arrest for the distribution of revolutionary slogans (Trotsky - he liked they way they looked printed) and the gun powder blows up in the basement.

In the Third Act, also one continuous scene, Alice is trying to leave for the Adirondacks, Tony is trying to win her back, the dance teacher brings over a russian Grand Duchess - now a waitress at Child's Times Square and dinner is being made though no one has an appetite. Tony's father comes to fetch him back and Grandpa intervenes, talks about people being able to do as they will - not spend their time doing what they don't like out of habit or expectations. He quit business 35 years ago and never looked back, the father comes around, reminded of his past wishes to play the saxophone and fly on the trapeeze. Alice and Tony are re-united and Dinner is served. Grandpa says the blessing, (this echoing a previous blessing in the first act)
Well, Sir, here we are again. We want to say thanks once more for everything You've done for us. Things seem to be going along fine. Alice is going to marry Tony, and it looks as if they're going to be very happy. Of course the fireworks blew up, but that was Mr. DePinna's fault, not Yours. We've got our health and as far as anything else is concerned we'll leave it to You. Thank You. - Grandpa, Act III.
Written and premiered during the Great Depression there are references to that throughout - a character on relief, a Russian Emigre inserting comments about the five-year plan, there's a sub-plot of 20 some years of back income tax owed by Grandpa - averted because they buried a man under his name a few years back. The house is filled with activity, all of it chosen and purposeful to the person doing it - some for profit, some for the sake of doing and the family both by birth and those who have just decided to stay seem to enjoy one another as they are. Even when they say their painting stinks its not to stop them from doing it, just a statement of opinion.

So, I teared up at the end. I always do. I've read this one before - got to be in it in High School - as the dancer - and it's a beauty of a comedy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Balcony - by Jean Genet

Performed in NYC in 1960 The Balcony unfolds during a violent rebellion in an un-named city at an indeterminate time. It takes place in a brothel - or "house of illusions" where elaborate role plays are enacted. There are 13 characters in the play and 8 scenes.

The beginning scenes are of the role plays, The Bishop, The Judge and The General enact scenes of power and glory with the assistance of the brothel employees. Occasional reminders of the rising treacherousness of the world outside filter in. By scene four Irma, who runs the brothel is introduced. The Chief of Police enters wanting to know if anyone has requested him as a role to enact. This is the crux of the play - the symbols of power - and from here the plot kicks in resulting in a wicked reversal where the brothel is the only refuge from the bloodshed outside, and an Envoy uses the role-playing Bishop, Judge and General as symbols to trot out in front of the people, along with Irma as the Queen.

In the final scene the Chief of Police is satisfied as one of the leaders of the rebellion comes in and wishes to enact him.

There's lots of corsets, lingerie, horse play and suggestive moments. Irma has a device with dials and a view finder from which she can see all the rooms of the house. The fantasies of power and the realities of power come into conflict - the men playing at it so enjoyed the fantasy and the reality takes all the fun out of it. The Chief of Police, also referred to as the Hero, once emulated wants to be entombed with victuals to last him 2000 years.

It was kindof a hard slog to read this, I found myself skimming ahead then going back because I had no idea what was happening. Much of the play's power would be in seeing it, I imagine. (And I have seen it, years ago - but I only remember the opening scene where they chose to have the Bishop masterbating and squawking...)

There's so many different uses of the stage, actors playing mirror-images, the men and women of the brothel coming in and out of role, costumes and props - this is a different kind of theater entirely. And after pushing through, the ending was satisfying, the way the images and questions he'd been setting up from the beginning with the elaborate role plays and the setting and the secondary characters all fell into service of his vision, a "caustic view of man and society" according to the summary. Yet...

Yet I wonder what this play asks of us now? What does the General, the Bishop and the Judge look like to us now? What Queen could be trotted out to bring peace after the rebellion? Do we have these figures and how are they dressed?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Search for Signs of Intelligent LIfe in the Universe - Jane Wagner

In keeping with randomness, this was at the used book store and I picked it up. First performed in 1985 by Lily Tomlin, (written for her by her partner, Wagner) it is a multi-character play to be performed by one actress. It unfolds in three parts and our guide throughout is Trudy, a former design executive, now bag lady who's gone crazy - or sane as the play suggests. She's in touch with aliens and assisting them on their search to understand humans, her knack is to channel other people - bringing them to life on stage.

The first part of the play introduces several characters of different walks of life and experiences in the 80s in America. The second zeros in on a group of women who have been friends since the ERA movement and struggle with roles of wife, mother, lover, activist, career achiever. There are connections between the first characters and the stories told amongst this group of women. The final section brings more of the characters into connection and has Trudy saying goodbye to the aliens, reflecting in amazement on our shared humanity.

Philosophical, representing a broad swath of americans during a moment in time, reflecting on where society had come from in the 70s and what it was wrestling with now in the mid-80s, it was long running on Broadway and was made into a film in 1991.

And now, reading it, it makes me sad somehow. Something about the hopefulness of the play looking at a moment in history 25 years ago, and a sense now of the dizzy-ing scale of the problems in our country and our world. The play's central point of view, that humanity should be appreciated, standing back in amazement and awe (doing "awe-robics") at people's ability to cry, to get goosebumps, to laugh - feels hollowed out, its simple truth eroded away by blogs and self-help literature and whimsical art saturating the atmosphere and becoming comfortable, self-assuring, white noise - unable to effect change.

I am left feeling cynical and depressed. I don't feel a lack of awe, but I feel overwhelmed by a lack of power to protect what is awe-inspiring.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Old Times - by Harold Pinter

Premiered in 1971 by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. Old Times is a play in two acts with no scene breaks. There are three characters, Deeley, Kate and Anna.

In the beginning they are all on-stage, although Anna is in dim light. Deeley and Kate are married and awaiting the arrival of Anna, an old friend of Kate's. Her only friend she says. Deeley is curious. Anna arrives from her volcanic island where her husband remains in a white dinner jacket. She and Deeley speak while Kate becomes vague-er and vague-er. She relates the old times, when she and Kate were room-mates in London, rushing off to art events and working as secretaries. She and Deeley sing snatches of old songs back and forth. Kate goes to take a bath.

In the second act, Anna and Deeley are present. They continue the reminsce with shifts. Deeley claims to remember Anna, fragments of what Kate has related to Deeley return in Anna's mouth with shifted meanings. Kate emerges from the bath, relating her happiness about the country, how soft it is. The vying for dominance of memory in the room takes a turn, things are sexually charged in an indeterminable way and Kate relates a memory of Anna dead in their room, covered with dirt. Her body disappeared and Kate brought Deeley home, wanting to cover him with dirt - instead they got married. Silence falls. Each character finds a chair to rest on, Deeley shifts around. Black out.

Absurdity, the self-conscious use of language - characters commenting on words that they don't hear often, misunderstanding the object of sentences, using strange constructions. The careful placement of pauses, of stage directions, of laughter - that seems menacing though I'm not sure why. All this is what makes it Pinters. When I read him I rush through then go back. I am worried someone will be killed, someone will attack, no one does in this play at least. That feeling of dream permeates it though - as well as absurdity, but it's not funny.

How? How does is this acheived? a combination of detailed, slightly off monologues with the rigid, deliberate dialogue. The sense of things being said in an echo chamber, silence all around them, a cold space. The feeling that anyone could be lying, and that everyone probably is - but it's all amongst such normal activity. They've made a casserole for a visitor, what if she's vegetarian? Is she married? Why doesn't she bring her husband? These opening questions turn into - why does she space out like that? Is she ill? Is she dead? Does her husband have an on-going affair with this old friend? Are they humoring the wife? The slipperiness and dead creepiness of memory sneak in and no explanations are forth coming, for a moment there's a sense of releif after Kate finally starts to speak. But she doesn't really explain anything and in fact is pretty disturbing, and her husband starts to weep, and no one says anything.

It is its own little nutshell.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blue Window - Craig Lucas

Blue Window
was first produced in 1984 by the Production Company in NYC. There's a note in the published copy stating that it was developed with the director and cast - which makes a lot of sense. The text is inter-cut and over-lapping. There are three scenes in the play, 7 characters. The first and last scenes take place in several apartments simultaneously and the second scene takes place in one - with all the characters at a dinner party.

Each detail adds to the overall mood of the play, a dinner party on a Sunday night, late in the second scene we learn that it is the nervous hostess's first attempt - a hurdle to get over - with the story about her life coming towards the end of the third scene. A couple studying Italian in preparation for a trip, a composer working on a song - later talking about music - these become aural elements woven through the dialogue. There is a song at one point, breaking out of the action. There is a terrible story told. There are couples trying to stay together, to fall in love again. There is too much punch drunk, a rambling conversation about O'Neill, a speculation about what if we were in a play right now.

A particular feeling of Sunday night, the dread of the week ahead, saturates the play and the final image of a window, each disparate conversation creating their own metaphor for the object creates the ending of our evening.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Lear - by Edward Bond

is a re-telling of the story of Lear, premiered at the Royal Court in 1971. With a brief passage before the cast list Bond reminds the reader that:
According to ancient chronicles Lear lived about the year 3100 after the creation. He was king for 60 years. He built Leicester and was buried under the River Soar. His father was killed while trying to fly over London. His youngest daughter killed herself when she fell from power. (Holinshed and Geoffry of Monmouth)
I took this as a reminder that Bond's intention is to take the same liberties with this scrap of ancient history as Shakespeare did - not to rewrite or comment on King Lear - but to create an entirely new play.

There are 53 named roles in the play and space for an assortment of soldiers, workers, strangers, court officials and guards to be represented as well. The play is told in three acts. The first two acts have 7 scenes each and the final act has 4. The principle characters are Lear and his two daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle and a Gravedigger's Boy and his wife, Cordelia.

Lear is building a wall. The play begins with a worker being carted onstage dead, an axe in his head, and a summary judgment of death by firing squad leveled on the worker who accidentally did it. The wall is a mud pit, the work is not going well, every one is sick and to boost production the worker is killed to keep everyone in line. Lear envisions a wall that will keep out his enemies - particularly the Dukes of North and Cornwall. His daughters have been inspecting the wall with their father and use the firing squad as their moment to publicly question their father's judgment, suggest that he is insane, and announce their plans to marry North and Cornwall. Then the battle begins.

In the first act war is waged, the sisters try to out maneuver one another and their father, their confidante is tortured - tongue cut out and ears poked with knitting needles so that he will not blab, they have their husbands killed and defeat Lear's armies. Lear wanders to the forest, starving, and is taken in by a Gravedigger's son, who has left his father's profession to farm on this patch of land. He and his wife (Cordelia) raise pigs, grow food and live peacefully. The boy takes in Lear, feeds him and invites him to stay, he relates the troubles that he's had since the wall has been under construction - people forced to work rather than take care of their families, the injuries and death - he and others have been sabotaging construction. There's a moment of calm at the farm, broken by the daughter's soldiers who murder the boy, rape his pregnant wife, kill his pigs, poison the well and haul Lear off to prison.

In the second act Lear is imprisoned, the sisters continue their pursuit of power and as Lear begins to lose his mind contemplating the depth of injustice, he is visited by the ghost of the gravedigger's son. He and the boy's ghost comfort one another - and Lear asks for his daughters to appear - they do, as ghosts- but also as visions of their childhood innocence and seeking comfort from Lear. He tells them:
I know it will end. Everything passes, even the waste. The fools will be silent. We won't chain ourselves to the dead, or send our children to school in the graveyard. The torturers and ministers and priests will lost their office. And we'll pass each other in the street without shuddering at what we've done to each other. (Act 2, scene 2)
The tide soon turns and the wife of the Gravedigger's Son, Cordelia, has organized a rebel army and comes into power. The prisoners are force-marched to and fro, many are executed - including both daughters, and Lear is left to go mad in the hopes of doing himself injury. A prisoner, hoping to be smiled on - puts Lear in a straight jacket and removes his eyes - but it won't hurt because it's 'technological.'

In the final act, Lear has become a prophet of sorts, keeping house at the farm, taking in strangers and writing letters to Cordelia, faithful that she can be made to see reason. Soldiers come, more are imprisoned. Cordelia has renewed the wall building effort and Lear is shot dead in the woods.

I didn't intend to do such a long re-cap of the narrative, but once I started I wanted to work through it - and there's much more in the play of course. Bond lays out in his introduction what his political beliefs are (socialist, with faith in art/humanity over technology), the questions he is wrestling with through the play, and how he hopes to inspire hope and effect change through his art. The play reflects this and lives in it, depicting the cycle of violence, the fear motivating those in power, the plans and designs for peace and security that lead further into repression, desperation and insecurity.

There are glimpses of ways out of it - the fragile moments of peace on the farm, of comaraderie amongst the prisoners, of the ghost daughters - even Bodice is given a monologue seeking a reason for her new found power leaving her more fearful and alone - but they are only glimpses quickly dashed by the arrival of soldiers, guards, even workers rushing to their own oppressors.

Bond consitently asks the question of who's laws? and in service of what? by presenting the arbitrariness and 'justice' serving whoever happens to be in power. Lear's former councillor turns up at the end, seeking deserters in order to bring them back and punish them. Lear condemns his 'views' that they deserve their fate:
O I know what you think! Whatever's trite and vulgar and hard and shallow and cruel, with no mercey or sympathy - that's what you think, and you're proud of it! You good, decent, honest, upright, lawful men who believe in order - when the last man dies, you will have killed him! I have lived with murderers and thugs, there are limits to their greed and violence, but you decent, honest men devour the earth! (Act 3, scene 2)
At this point Lear gives up and wants to be left to live in peace, in the woods somewhere, so he can grow old and clever as a fox. His wish is not granted.