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.