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.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Love Song - by John Kolvenbach

Premiered in 2006 at Steppenwolf, Love Song is a comedy in ten scenes. It moves between Beane, a recluse, seemingly depressive and his sister and her husband, Joan and Harry, who try to help him amidst their busy lives. Beane comes home in the third scene to a woman in his apartment, wearing his clothes, she came to steal but there's nothing to steal and Beane is transformed by his contact with her. In their second scene together she tells him:

Do you understand who I am? The last one? The architect? I took his stereo, I Ripped it out of his bookcse, It has no buttons and it's also a satellite and a particle accelerator and no decent person could possibly afford this Object and I am Ripping it out of his bookcase, I've got my boot on a shelf for leverage. But then I notice something: Hold on a minute. None of the books have been read. No cracked bindings, Beane. Not a wrinkle. I burned his house down. I got some gasoline and a blowtorch and my vengeance and I burned it to the ground. I waited for him to come home and I watched the architect cry and I felt happy for the only time this year. Is who I am.

I think that's reasonable.

He falls in love with her. He tastes things, he develops a passion for the world. His sister and husband worry but then are inspired to play hookey from work and fuck all day. But then it becomes clear she is imaginary and Joan encourages him to hold on to her anyway. Molly comes back to Beane, but Beane chooses to try the world, knowing that Molly will be waiting for him should it not work out.

It's simple. It's fast. It starts immediately with a wordless scene of Beane in his apartment with the walls closing in. The dialogue is swift, smart, current. Funny and sad and lots of love, lots of different loves loaded into a small set of givens. And totally theatrical. Only theatrical. No bones about it - and even if you could give it Jungian interpretation of meeting and integrating the shadow self, the anima to your animus or whatever - it doesn't fall into pretention. It sticks to comedy - quick characters drawn swiftly with few details and dealing with this - an awkward brother, a caring sister and how they will live in the world.

There's no rhyme or reason to the choosing of plays for this experiment. I'm reading one everyday. I'm apart from my book collection so I'm relying on what happens to have been ordered recently and what happens to be in the used bookstores of Atlanta, GA. I like this randomness. It is kindof the point, to read widely and try to write a response to them. I haven't decided if unplublished plays will be included. I read those too, but I'm leaving them out for the time being. In fact - even a new play like today's & Ruined I'm finding harder to talk back to. And I'm not sure why that I'm thinking about that.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ruined - by Lynne Nottage

was commissioned and premiered at the Goodman Theater in November 2008, co-produced by Manhattan Theatre Club.

The first play of this series that left me crying. Every play I've ever read by Lynne Nottage has left me crying. It is a two act play, six scenes in the first act and seven in the second. It is set in and in the immediate vicinity of Mama Nadi's bar and brothel located in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the center of the play is Mama Nadi and her girls, particuarly Sophie and Salima, whom she agrees to take on the first scene of the play. Salima has been kept by soldiers in the bush, raped repeatedly and Sophie is 'ruined' - taken by a bayonet. Men pass through the bar, a salesman related to Sophie and in love with Mama Nadi, a diamond merchant and leaders from both the rebel and the government armies. The play gracefully weaves information and stories from the war torn Congo - the mining, the soldiers, the treatment of women, the lack of security, the betrayals, the bribery and violence - throughout its unfolding plot and revelations about the characters.

In the introduction director Kate Whoriskey writes about travelling to Uganda with Nottage to interview women in refugee camps, Congo was not safe for travel. She states that the initial impulse for the play and their collaboration was a notion of adapting Mother Courage using the war in the Congo as a setting. Nottage had been an Aid Worker in the area and was responding to the lack of international attention to this areas on-going bloody war. After this trip:

Lynn was interested in protraying the lives of Central Africans as accurately as she could, and she found Mother Courage to be a false frame. She decided to abandon the idea of adaptation in favor of a structure that was true to our experiences in Uganda.
The structure of the final play is strongly narrative and emsemble. The priciple characters are complex and through the progressions of scenes we learn more and more about their personalities and motivations. There are no simple solutions here. An exception may be the Army leaders who present themselves as big men and seem to believe their own rhetoric, making them unreliable, scary figures who terrify those they are proposing to assist. The inclusion of songs sung by Sophie with words that speak of the abandon longed for by those drinking in the bar and patronizing the brothel, tap into a world beyond the world of the Congo, into a universal longing for oblivion and escape from the terrors of their lives.

Unlike Brecht's desire to maintain a critical distance and present his audience with opposing visions of truth, Nottage has a clear vision of her character's truths and their inability to fit into a this or that structure. Her stated committment is to

celebrate and examine the spectrum of human life in all its complexities: the sacred with the profane, the transcendent with the lethal, the flaws with the beauty, and the selfishness with generosity.
With rich characters, escalating tension, incorporation of song and dance, and a setting that brings the concerns of the play into one place Nottage writes for a stage where the pain and struggles of another place are brought into our theatres and demand attention for the least acknowledged victims of a brutal conflict.

So far my questions have been reflecting on what plays of earlier years have to say to plays today. This is a play of today, the Pulitzer Prize winner, and a play decided absent from TCGs recent list of the most produced plays of 2009-10. Is this because it is a large cast? or because of content? where does it fit in the seasons of those theatres large enough do it justice? (or am I just revealing my ignorance of how this all works and it's going to finally get it's Broadway run?)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Coastal Disturbances - by Tina Howe

Produced at Second Stage in 1986 and then re-opened in 1987. How to begin to describe? The play is set on a private beach in Massachusetts during the last two weeks of August. Those two choices dictate much of the play - the closing of a season, the cold days coming in, the privilege of the beach members. The play is organized into two acts - five scenes in each, spread out through the two week period.

It opens with the two lovers of the play meeting - Holly, a young photographer having a nervous breakdown of sorts and Leo, a hero-like dream boat in the tradition of Tennessee William's young men - a surplus of energy, sex oozing from him. Leo's been hired as a lifeguard after a young boy drowned, he's immediately effected by Holly and their relationship forms the spine of the play. Surrounding that is a dear older couple enjoying their annual seaside holiday, two mothers and their children (7 & 8), and a second act visitor - Andre Sor.

The couple and the families provide the landscape feeling of the play, an accumulation of conversations and actions that ebb and flow throughout. The children are beasts, constantly fighting and harassing Leo - and creating moments where one of the mother's freaks out and shakes her son - stopping the action dead. The roles of the children are pretty great, precocious and central to the play, they must have found some remarkable kids to perform these parts - and it would pose a challenge to any production - that and the giant decomposing whale that appears for one scene in the second act.

But, the second act visitor. Only vaguely mentioned in the smallest detail by Holly as the source of her breakdown, he appears immediately after Leo and Holly spend the night together on the beach, and is exactly as she's described. He's the european, older, sophisticate to Leo's primal, virile immediacy. He wraps Holly around his finger only to explain that he'll have to leave for Europe soon and yes, her show he's promised her must be postponed yet again. He upsets Holly, casts a dark black mood over Leo - who was the bright light of the play, tells the tragic and slightly cliched story of his childhood in Brooklyn as a WW2 refugee, and disappears again. Light returns in the final scene with Leo succeeding in wresting Holly's contact information from her, helping the old couple set up their anniversary celebration and gazing happily at her address.

To me it was a satisfying read and I wish to I could see it in production. It's large cast may make that very unlikely, but reading it inspires me to apply to some MFA program in direction and take it on. I think it's the grace of over-lapping actions and conversations, the sense of a beach at the end of the summer and the ease that moments of imagination are embarked on - only to be interrupted by a child's scream or the arrival of an acquaintance. Also people are reduced to wild emotion on several occasions - laughter, attraction, despair, anger - that just flies out there and passes on as well. At many points Howe indicates the stage like a painting, fixing images in my mind.

Again, its a play that defies being 'about' something, has a large cast - including full-blown childrens roles, and I imagine it with high production values. So, considering now, where do these plays go now? Sneaky quiet ones that pack a lot in about the way we live in this world, but modestly keep that tamped down - as is appropriate for their characters and subject, is there room for that in the current theatre?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Relatively Speaking - by Alan Ayckbourn

In his introduction Ayckbourn states that this play was written in response to a request from his theatre for a play that people on their beach holidays would enjoy when it was raining, before going back to their landladies. It's a comedy, two acts, two scenes per act, four actors - two couples that hinges on misunderstandings, lies and attempted cover-ups. None of the characters are particularly malicious, but nor are they above seeing gain from others confusions.

I laughed out loud quite a bit - and groaned some too. There's great layering and mirroring going on in the play. In scene one, morning, a girl is trying to get out of the apartment to visit her parents and her lover gets suspicious - the phone keeps ringing and someone hangs up - or she speaks cryptically only to announce a wrong number, he finds men's slippers under the bed, there are piles of flower bouquets stashed in the bathroom...her explanations are barely plausible - and then as she's about to leave - he opens a drawer to get something for her, pulls too hard and boxes of chocolates fly out. And then there's more.

Looking at it structurally - the first act sets up all the misunderstandings - and the second act unravels them. The fun is seeing who figures out what when and what they do with the information. And the character most reprehensible - the older married man carrying on an affair with the younger woman and continuing to bother her even though she's asked him to stop - is the one who gets the comeuppance - through his wife finally figuring out the truth of the situation, continuing the ruse and using it to her advantage - and for the young couple's happiness.

A perfect play for a rainy Sunday by the seaside. And after I'd like a glass of wine, a plate of oysters and my love to wittily banter with.

Then - questions for today - do we have light comedies? Are the stakes too high to write them? Do young writers write them - or avoid them, cause fellowship money, prizes, theatres who produce new writers don't typically do light comedies - and what's it matter? Are we losing something...or is tv full of this type of fare?

In this case the content is light - but all characters are treated with respect, are full and true, real emotion vs. manipulative lies are trotted out to solid effect - and it feels very human... that should have a place somewhere, but does it?

Or do we just do these old plays - and then it seems like these fine qualities are things of the past?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Lie of the Mind - by Sam Shepard

First performed in 1985 with a cast including Harvey Keitel, Aiden Quinn, Amanda Plummer and Geraldine Page.

A man, JAKE, comes home believing that he's killed his wife after she's taken up acting and oiling up her body and not thinking about him and he beat her up. BETH, his wife, is battered and left with a speech problem. Her Brother, MIKE, brings her home to recover with her mother and father, somewhere in Montana. FRANKIE, JAKE's brother, goes off to find out what actually happened, ends up shot in the leg and stuck on the couch at BETH's house. JAKE recuperates in his childhood room with his mother and sister, eventually escaping in the middle of the night in his boxers and an American flag to find BETH. He's captured by MIKE, turned into a draft horse and forced to apologize to the BETH.

Other things happen, a house burns, a broken family returns to Ireland, a half a deer carcass is flung on stage, a story of a father being run down drunk on the US/Mexican border, a box of ashes, glimpses of better times in the past, memories of a crazy mother, a suspected lobotomy.

Part of the reason I am doing this is my woeful ignorance of written plays. I just didn't read them, or did in fits and starts and promptly forgot. I'm trying to learn about the written play and find ways to talk about them - but also trying to discover what I like about them - what I don't - and what does dramatic literature have to do with anything.

So, Shepard. All that stuff is here, the west, the gender roles, the violence of men - the mothers opting out in one way or another. These are themes I have heard are in Shepard's work. No one has lied about that. Harvey Keitel must have been amazing.

The play is laid out in three acts, alternating between the two family's, BETH's & JAKE's, and their attempts to heal their children - and the secrets and conflicts that brings out between parents, siblings and the past. At root it's the draw towards one another felt by JAKE & BETH, he's battered her nearly to death and each act ends in them crying out for the other. By the third act she's planning to marry FRANKIE who's been trying to get away from her house but can't because his shot leg's infected and there's been a blizzard.

Something about the play left me outside of it. The tropes are known - drunk men, long-suffering wives, violence just under the surface -

You can't save the doomed! you make a stab at it. You make the slightest little try and you're doomed yourself.
LORRAINE act 3, scene 1

It feels like narratives I've been trying to get out from under. The story of the woman who wants to be owned by her man, that wants to save him and is destroyed in the process. Women who bemoan the fact that men leave and become shells because of it, or pour their energy into defending their boys. Wives who are described as all female - or all love. I think because of this I resisted the play.

And in relation to Behan's play, which seeks to entertain - falls all over itself to entertain - while skewering those with power, this is a totally different beast. The ante is upped through escalating physical and emotional violence and it is the characters in the play who skewer themselves. Finishing with imagery and a sense that the American dream, the myth of the romantic pioneer and American Macho is the target.

The most hopeful part is the sister and mother of JAKE deciding to burn down the house, memories and all, dance a jog and head to Ireland to look up whatever straggling ancestors they can find.

I guess I want to be past the stories in this play - I want America to be past these ideas of men and women. But in fact we're not and this line from the final scene of the play still holds as much - if not more resonance today:

Haven't you got anything better to do than to monkey around with weapons and flags? Go outside and make yerself useful.
BAYLOR, act 3, scene 4.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Richard's Cork Leg by Brendan Behan

Performed posthumously in 1972, edited with additional material by Alan Simpson.

A couple of anti-fascists, Cronin and The Hero hang out in a graveyard with some prostitutes planning to disrupt the funeral of a man killed fighting the communists in Franco's Spain by shouting anti-fascist slogans. The dead man is The Hero's cousin's husband, she turns up with her daughter and everyone ends up at her house after a gun battle breaks out at the funeral. She holds a committee meeting instructing them about the evils of female's dancing, which is interrupted by police disguised as meter men - seeking The Hero who shot someone in the arse hole during the fight. They storm the house, the Hero flees and Cronin is killed.

The play is filled with songs, digressions, upside down language, and the occasional direct address. (during a sex scene the lights go out and it is pointed out that when the author wrote it, acts like that were not allowed to be performed on stage)

Here's an excerpt from a song from Act Two:

You'd think 'twas a crime to be human,
And go for a swim in the sea,
And dance with no clothes in the sunshine,
And drink foreign lager for tea.

To regard co-existence with favour,
And nuclear weapons with fear,
To want more return for less labour,
Fatter fish, cheaper chips, better beer.

Let the heroes all die for the people,
If that is what they want to do,
And we'll struggle on here without them,
I've concluded, now, frolics to you.

As a writer I'm looking at the play for its structure - for the way with a minimal bit of action - there is a huge amount of political commentary that is always on the side of the characters in the play. He is an equal opportunity offender, attacking all those in power and the hypocrisy of the English, the Irish, the Church, the Communists and celebrating the resilience and comraderie of the young, dispossessed and alive in the Graveyard where the play is set.

I wonder where contemporary examples of this are? It makes me think of Lanford Wilson's Hot L Baltimore (which I just googled - and apparently inspired a short-lived TV show). But anything more recent? Big casts, stuffed with politics and satire, songs and irreverence? That is not a family drama.

Behan is pulling from so many rich troughs and throwing them into his play (which, granted, he didn't actually finish - but Alan Simpson claims to be working from pretty complete notes & fragments - which on reading does seem true) I wonder what the American troughs are? Or if with the advent of entertainment culture and mass media outlets our ditches of riches have grown too shallow?

"[...] that the music hall is the thing to aim at for to amuse people and any time they get bored, divert them with a song or a dance. I've always thought T. S. Eliot wasn't far wrong when he said that the main problem of the dramatist today was to keep his audience amused; and that while they were laughing their heads off, you could be up to any bloody thing behind their backs; and it was what you were doing behind their bloody backs that made your play great." Brendan Behan