Friday, April 16, 2010

The Pain and The Itch - by Bruce Norris

Premiered at Steppenwolf then Playwrights Horizons, The Pain and The Itch is a satire of liberal suburbanites so focused on their correctness they don't perceive the rot in their own house.

It unfolds in two time periods. A present time, an afternoon in January and the past, the previous Thanksgiving evening. In the present parents Kelly and Clay are recounting the events of the previous Thanksgiving to Mr. Hadid. Their daughter, 4, wanders in and out and their baby cries occasionally. Kelly and Clay try to tell the story in the best possible light. The action fluidly shifts into that past moment. In addition to Kelly and Clay, Clay's mother Carol, and brother Cash are also present for the holiday meal. Cash has also brought his young, eastern european girlfriend.

In the first scene Mr. Hadid is visiting and Clay and Kelly play host. A tone is set, Kelly and Clay avoid getting to any point by talking about themselves - establishing their world-view (their 'type') - and more importantly a mystery is planted that isn't revealed until the final scene of the play. The incongruity of Mr. Hadid, an older man in a skull cap, a recent immigrant, in the suburban living room of these young parents who are prattling on, asks a question - and the rest of the play un-ravels the answer.

By moving between the two time periods there is the occasional relief from the claustrophobic thanksgiving meal this family is attempting to have. These scenes are pitched high, the conflict and animosity burbling up and the 'pain and itch' of the title growing, literally, more insistent. Before it is too much though the play leaps back to the present. The parents re-telling their side of the story and Mr. Hadid calming listening, quietly - non-judgmentally - taking in this young couple.

And the mystery unravels by the end. And really, the effect is more horrible than you were expecting. Satire indeed. And a condemnation of particularly strident attitudes.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Typographer's Dream - by Adam Bock

Produced in NYC by Clubbed Thumb in 2003, The Typographer's Dream has three characters who speak directly to the audience (most of the time.) They talk about their jobs.

There is a Typographer, a Geographer, and a Stenographer.

There are 76 scenes, some very short, some not so short. They talk about their jobs, defining these three, specific lines of work. They talk about how their jobs have changed over the years. How they relate to their jobs, how much is work and how much is business. How much pressure they feel. How they fell in love with what they do - and fall out of it.

They encroach on one another, commenting on each others lives, on choices they should or should not make.

The language is precise. The rhythms of the play are specific. A casualness set out from the beginning lets this sneak up on you until by the end - the specific has begun to encompass the world and the reach of each of their experiences and perspectives, which may have seemed narrow at the outset, resonates with the weight of the changing world and particularly America's place in it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Kissing The Floor - by Ellen McLaughlin

Published in the 2009 New York Theater Review, McLaughlin states in her introduction,
Kissing the Floor is the ninth play I've written that is directly inspired by a Greek text, and though it wanders farther from its source than any of my other work, it is still along the lines of a modern rendering of the Sophocles. I've always approached the adaptation of Greek plays aslant, privileging intuition over intellect and allowing the plays to disturb and disarm me before I make any moves to find my on way in.

She continues to provide a fascinating narrative of the process of thought, feeling and intuition that led her to the play. (I love introductions, I may be a playwright and reader of plays today because I poured devotedly over used bookstore finds of Tennessee Williams plays with his fabulous, heart-rending, poetic words to his readers tucked like a love letter into the books.)

In this re-telling the focus is on the children of Oedipus and Jocasta - dead before this play begins. The girls, Annie and Izzie, and the twin boys, Paul and Eddie. Izzie, becomes the guide through this world of the destroyed, broken family, she is the one who seems to have chosen life, despite the cursed pair who created her. Because she's chosen this, she tries to reach a hand out to Annie, who may, perhaps, also be able to let go of their origins and have a life of her own. Annie though, refuses.

Annie wants to stay by Paul, save what she can of her brother. Here, McLaughlin departs from the Greek original. She leaves the brother alive - and instead chooses to make him morally despicable in such a way that Annie's pure devotion to her brother, only because he is her brother, is less heroic and more a death-wish, a refutation of life.

Using a hypnotic, recurring childhood game, where Annie guides her siblings into imagined worlds, demanding them to describe what they see, McLaughlin takes us into the world of these grown children. Annie's quest to save and protect her brother - cursed and reviled for what he is, Izzy's attempts to bring her sister into the light, into the world of the living, Paul's inability or lack of interest in changing - no matter what his sister sacrifices, and a brief appearance by Eddie (the twin) who tells us the Oedipus and Jocasta story, set before the 1929 Wall St. Crash. His story comes mid-way through the play in the form of a 3 page monologue, it brings back the original horror of the old story which then colors the continued attempts of the siblings to achieve their goals, providing a context that elevates the stakes and darkens all possible outcomes.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Long Christmas Ride Home (A Puppet Play with Actors) - by Paula Vogel

The Long Christmas Ride Home
was first produced in 2003 in a co-production by The Long Wharf Theater and Trinity Rep, it moved to NYC later in the year.

In her introduction Vogel cites a misunderstanding of Bunraku puppet theatre as a starting point for this play, and the feeling of church pageants in church basements and community halls. As there are puppets, singing, and dancing in the play it makes sense to encourage a DIY ethic to theatres considering mounting a production - and it places it in a very specific realm for the reader.

The play can be performed by six actors. A male and female narrator, who give voice to the puppets and whose bodies provide visual reference points for the mother and father. The puppets, operated by actors, are the three children in the family. Additionally there is the Minister, who takes on other roles as needed.

It is Christmas. The family is in the car traveling to Christmas service at the Universal Unitarian Church. The internal thoughts of each family member are shared with us by the narrators who describe, take voices, and perform their own physical roles as mother and father. We learn the secrets, that aren't very secret. Particularly Dad's affair.

They arrive at church and pile into the service, there is singing, there are thoughts - the other woman is across the room, and the minister shares a slide show from his recent trip to Japan, Woodblock prints of the Floating World, an era in Japanese culture seeking to embrace the pleasure of the ephemeral flesh without guilt, to find beauty in the commonplace. The service concludes with a moment of spectacle - a Nativity Scene performed in dance and puppets.

The family travels to their Grandparents, where tensions bubble over while presents are given, a really wonderful scene. Each one more laden than the last. Finally a breaking point - Grandpa confronts Father about his philandering, calls him a "kike" and they lock arms to wrestle. The family bundles out of there and back into the car. There is a beautifully poetic visual moment leading from the youngest girls understanding of what happened at grandma's - and then, the moment that cracks everything open. Dad smacks mom across the face.

From here the play shatters. Each puppet child's thought at this moment is shared and then the puppeteer is broken from their child to become the adult. Each grown child hits a wall, each unique, each a line sketched from that moment, that Christmas -and each are saved by a breath from their sibling. The one who died young, the one who didn't grow older.

The Ghost of this one gets the penultimate moment, creating a folktale that could be as old as any story told in our culture, but beautifully was made right here in front of us. And then, Dancing, and the beauty of the commonplace. But before the play is done we are returned to the slap, and the moment after, and the family holding their breath as one, before they can start to breathe again.

Vogel's accumulation of images, ideas, and language that finds manifestation in character, dialogue, story, situation, spectacle, dance, music - every tool the theater has to offer is saturated in the play which is more than anything here on the page, and infuses every moment with it's animating breath.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Good Boys and True - by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

First produced by Steppenwolf in 2007, then in NYC at Second Stage Theater in 2008, Aguirre-Sacasa's play Good Boys and True is a play that works kindof like a funnel, or more precisely like a corkscrew sea shell (I'm sure there is a technical name for this) - you're going down a maze, it starts at a clear point and then opens further and further out implicating more and more in it's scope, but still keeping the main thing hidden in it's shell.

So. First Act, not broken into scenes, but rather just slipping from one place to another without a break - often using these shifts to nice effect to highlight how different characters are in different situations. We have Brandon, a clean-cut, football and basketball player giving a tour of his school, a private school outside of Washington DC. What a nice boy (we think). Then we have his mother (a doctor) and his coach meeting because coach found kids watching a video tape of a boy having sex with a girl, possibly forcing her, certainly she didn't know she was being filmed - the boy's face is not visible, but from the back - it could be Brandon. What a terrible boy (we think). Then we slip to the next scene between his mom and her sister (who teaches at a public school - on principle) and their discussion leaves us wondering - is he a nice boy? is he a terrible boy? Then he enters and mom confronts him. He says no way was it him And he got into Dartmouth on early decision. What a nice boy (we think again, and it's reassuring)

From here each scene builds further by the end of the first act we know the facts of the situation, but it is the truth of the situation that is dangled until the end. And in pursuit of that each scene brings in new questions often by revealing old secrets - the entitlement of the private school students, what students who are legacies are really inheriting - the violent stories of the past - the present, exalted positions of the perpetrators, the school culture and the wider privileged culture promoted by parents defending their children, pushing their children down a particularly narrow road. Tucked into scenes between Brandon and his best friend is the seed that holds the truth of this nasty situation.

In the second Act, we are introduced to the girl in question, lawyers and media are involved, and futures are at stake. The layers of bigger and bigger questions accumulate and widen the scope of the play's grasp. With the mother we follow the search for the truth and seek a moral stance - with Brandon we are further and further shut out as he shuts down, waiting for his father to come home, to understand and to make it all go away. The end is a little scene, breezy - a glimpse of teen-age awkwardness finding a friend to rest on, to trust. But this is a flashback and as we know, there's no path back after this.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Dew Point - by Neena Berber

The Dew Point
premiered in 2001. It's a 2 act play with 4 scenes in the first act and 6 in the second. 5 characters, three women and two men. In a quick nutshell, Mimi is engaged to Kai, remains friends with Jack, a former lover who cheated on her, Jack is dating an actress 20 years his junior and starts a thing with Mimi's friend, Phyllis. From here a play investigating friendship, marriage, attraction, manipulation and how rot seeps into things and destroys things over time, spiderwebs out through each scene - culminating in a choice and a release.

The opening image is Mimi staring at a chair and Jack watching her. It's an arty chair. Jack made it specially as a wedding gift for her and Kai. Mimi is restrained in her praise, Jack is needy for it, for her excitement, her approval. And it's pointed out, a single chair is an odd gift for a couple. Most of the play occurs in Mimi's apartment so the chair remains present and potent throughout, and is brought back explicitly into play in the penultimate scene.

It is a very clean play. The characters each work, their jobs play into the fabric of the action and propel decisions and attitudes. A couple moments of scenes from the past interject themselves, giving glimpses into Mimi's state of mind, what she is attempting to balance, to move forward through, until it all comes crashing down.

Jack, the irrepressible womanizer, artist, self-centered, self-justifying cad at the center of the storm, remains true to his nature throughout. Baffling and troubling as it may become to those around him.

And there's a lot of funny parts too.

And its' a New York City play, about New York City people. A little diorama of a world in an apartment and everything it takes to make those little worlds, keep them together, and all the little fractures that persist no matter how much plaster you slap up there.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Pavilion - by Craig Wright

Sometimes I assume things. Like my friend Kyle. When first introduced I thought he was a Marine Biologist. Turns out he's a theater director (among other things), but it may have been a year before I really figured that out. I have a stubborn mind. (not stubborn enough to read through more than four plays by Howard Barker, but more like I get fixed ideas that are tough to dislodge) The Pavilion fell into this mind trap with me. I always thought it was an elaborate, site-specific, epic sort of play - and therefore, because it is a play that is performed often, I was like Wow. They are doing that big ol' play? well not exactly.

First produced in 2000, The Pavilion is a two act drama set in rural Minnesota at a high school reunion. The two main characters, Peter and Kari share a past as high school sweet-hearts, 'the cutest couple' in fact, and made choices then that have kept them apart - until now. A narrator character steps in as a cast of other guests at the reunion, and acts as a sort of Stage Manager, as in Our Town, adding a larger philosophical dimension to the drama between these two characters who find themselves in lives that feel like they've gone off track ever since their senior year.

In the first act we learn somethings about what drove them apart, a lot about each of their current situations and watch Peter try in vain to get Kari to give him the time of day, just to talk, to put to rest some of what's been left broken between them. He fails, she explodes and the act ends.

The second act begins with Kari in a more forgiving mood and though there is no easy reconciliation there is some real peace found - and the other characters played by the narrator reveal in snatches of conversation a bit of the sorrow of many lives, feeling narrowed by choices, by age, by dis-contentment - these finally take over and finish off the play in a monologue of disconnected phrases, all painfully specific to what's gone before - and feeling universal.

The title of the play refers to the location of the reunion. An old Pavilion in town that has played host to all major community events. It is slated to be burned down at the end of the night, to make room for a concrete amphitheater that will host a summer concert festival. This metaphor - the past being burnt down for the present - the sense of life disappearing around them - being at sea in a country that paves over its past for a buck given the slightest opportunity - looms over the play, and gives the simplicity of the story being told it's location and weight, out there on the plains. Under the stars.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Gaoler's Ache For The Nearly Dead - by Howard Barker

Continuing reading Barker today, while waiting for an oil change. A TV blaring a game show. I'd even thought that today wouldn't be a bad day to sit in a waiting room. The Olympics are on. That'll be just fine. But, they weren't on at the Toyota Dealership, and one woman who responded, 'on this is alright' when asked about changing it or turning it off prevented deliverance for the crowded room. I struggled to focus on this play, wishing for a culture that respected some silence and had fewer commercials.

Smaller somewhat than the other two read & written about here. The play is set during the french revolution, an alternate history of sorts. The King is beheaded early on and the queen and her son, now the king, are consigned to prison. Where a face through a door, the goaler, watches all. He's been told to report that he sees mother having sexual relations with her son. And over the course of his surveillance he sees just this, a progression of their physical closeness. The queen is brought in front of the crowd - the 'Moral Public' to be tried and he is called to report this observed transgression. He refuses. He says he saw nothing. He says he was told to see it, and so he saw it, but that is not the truth. The play ends with the prosecutor for the people kissed by the queen, his mouth filled with monarchical spittle, and then pushing the young king around on his rocking horse.

The play takes the notion of the queens body not being her own, but belonging to the people - also the obsession with that body and it's wastes, it's sexual activity - and combines it with the watching of her, the prying into private moments and turning that out for the public to see. It makes me think of Karen Finley's work (just reading the review of her new piece, The Jackie Look, in the Times) And about celebrity culture, the people peeking into every aspect of those lives - waiting to take down the figure for any transgression that offends it's "Moral Sense" but it is the obsessive attention of the people that bestows the power in the first place.

And to further confound any interpretation or moral sensibility the queen did lie with her son, at his incitement - him being the king and therefore able to claim any act as his own. Messy Messy Messy. The Crowd in the play a character unto itself, without lines but creating the music, the underscoring of energy throughout the piece. He uses the stage to present simultaneous action - things happening in the private space of the bedroom then the prison cell, while the public metes out its punishments and asserts its unassailable good.

Apologies for incoherence. I am faced with a sense that my political understandings have been shaped too long by this American binary system, that I am looking for the clear point of view, the which is right/left, which is progressive/conservative and Barker is not playing that game. Not at all. And so struggling on. Another tomorrow...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Seven Lears - by Howard Barker

Continuing a week of Barker, maybe longer...

Seven Lears takes as its starting point the wonder about the mother, the queen, Lear's wife. How she is never mentioned in Shakespeare's play and why might that be? From this Barker spins a play in seven parts. Seven stages of Lear's life, from child, to youth, to warrior, to king - to just before the play that we know begins - and we are presented with a portrait of a king's education.

In his telling Lear was the youngest of three brothers, and when playing in the castle came upon the jail with the prisoners rotting and tortured. He is disturbed by this and rolls the implications over in his mind, while his brothers want to go play football. Outside his brothers throw themselves over a cliff and Lear is left to grow up the king. He's provided with a tutor, the Bishop, who's goal is to learn the compassion out of the future ruler. From here a portrait of a coddled ruler arises, one whom everyone agrees with and protects from his own stupidity. (although pre-Bush - there is an eerie familiar echo of the young man raised to claim power and to never doubt himself) He falls in love with a girl, Clarrisa, who insists on truth, no matter how awkward or painful. He marries her and she proves herself to the backbone of the kingdom, the sense behind his petulance - and though eventually she betrays him by loving another, she is honest throughout. It is this that is repressed and why she is erased from Shakespeare's King Lear.

There's a theatrical freedom in Barker's work that I'm finding exhilerating. The daughters clamouring for consummation so that they can be born, Regan describing her unwillingness to come out of the womb into the vile world. A collapsing of time so that in one scene a baby can grow into a young woman in a fluid, coherent, dramatic rush. Additionally the bald speech of the characters and the chorus, a frankness about power and the insecurities that power nurtures amongst the annoited. The sense that on this stage, the bare and ugly truth will be said aloud and wrestled with. It is vastly different from our naturalism, from the carefully, unfolding conversations where truth is peeled away - instead it is the widest scope possible shoe-horned into the finite space of the play. And within the object of the play one crystal can be examined, one that replicates itself out endlessly to form the world around us.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Bite of The Night - by Howard Barker

I've been reading this play for a week. On and off. I should go back and read it again, to grasp, to wallow in it, to follow the fissures. What I think I will do is forge ahead and read more of his plays. Develop my muscles. Some sort of a training program.

My God.

Shakespeare is alive today. Just as difficult, epic.

There's a scene at the end where Helen (the one of Troy) who has been central to the play - an object of desire, be-armed, then be-legged - and then at the end strangled, but not dead - so they shovel dirt in her mouth until she is silenced. Trying to write about this play I feel like that. Like there is dirt shoved in my mouth. That this art is not reducible to description.

This play is hard work. Barker is hard work. The antithesis of so many discussions about what plays are these days. He has his own company - maybe still does? - in Sheffield, U.K. The Wrestling School. I had the good fortune to see two plays there in the early 90s. Both difficult, challenging, furious theater.

In a pathetic attempt to describe - the play is in 3 acts. It is set in Troy. A mythical Troy. There are 25 plus characters, including Helen and Homer. There are soap-boilers, old ladies, scholars, students, soldiers, children, archeologists, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, laborers, officials, Kings, poets, and queens. There are prologues. Many scenes in each act. There are big images, horrible violence, diatribes, betrayals, over-lapping times, philosophical actions and digressions, political screeds. Troy after Troy is built and destroyed with different leaders and different morals. Desire remains and the danger of desire - embodied in Helen. Homer wanders through, an impotent old man. It's an over-whelming play, and I need more muscles to really write about it.

He begins with an opening prologue, delivered by a soap boiler. It seems as good a place as any to start this week (maybe month) long reading of Barker plays, so here you are:

They brought a woman from the street
And made her sit in the stalls
By threats
By bribes
By flattery
Obliging her to share a little of her life with actors

But I don't understand art

Sit still, they said

But I don't want to see sad things

Sit still, they said

And she listened to everything
Understanding some things
But not others
Laughing rarely, and always without knowing why
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed
And in the light again said

If that's art I think it is hard work
It was beyond me
So much of it beyond my actual life

But something troubled her
Something gnawed her peace
And she came a second time, armoured with friends

Sit still, she said

And again, she listened to everything
This time understanding different things
This time untroubled that some things
Could not be understood
Laughing rarely but now without shame
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed
And in the light again said

That is art, it is hard work

And one friend said, too hard for me
And the other said if you will
I will come again

Because I found it hard I felt honoured
(First Prologue)

And so do I.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fat Men In Skirts - by Nicky Silver

The earliest of the published plays, and it feels it, very raw, loud when it wants to be, little restraint - working exactly right for this play's brutal cri d'couer.

I'm interested in Silver's structures. Each of these plays contains itself in minimal acts and scenes with a clear this then this logic to them. In Fat Men In Skirts this means three acts. The first act, set on a deserted Island where Phyllis and Bishop have survived a plane crash. Five years pass on this island, some flashbacks - and shifts to present day - introduce Norton, Husband & Father & Philanderer, and his developing relationship with Pam who, by the end of the act is pregnant. Phyllis and Bishop cannibalize those killed in the crash and the act ends with the final transgression, of Bishop raping his mother.

Move to Act 2 and Phyllis and Bishop have been rescued and returned home to Barton. Phyllis is shattered and Bishop a nightmare of a teen-ager, abusive to all and bringing his mother single shoes in a sort of tribute. Barton tries to maintain something, Pam is around, posing as the maid so as not to raise suspicions. Horror ensues to end the act as Bishop continues the customs of the island in this nice upper-middle class home.

Finally Act 3 and Bishop is in a prison for the criminally insane. The dead return to speak and an inmate develops a crush on Bishop. Driving this scene is an interesting structural choice. He's killed his father at the end of Act 2. That was seen and was goaded on by his mother. But in Act 3 we learn that he's also killed Phyllis. The scene unfolds with no explanation of this - and at the final moment the characters from the asylum change on stage into Pam and Nestor (speaking from the dead) and the death is played out in conversation with them all.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pterodactyls - by Nicky Silver

I love reading multiple plays by one writer. Obsessions and patterns emerge, but also each play's unique way of weaving the material, texturing it. It's the same but different.

Pterodactyls premiered in 1993, so before The Food Chain (1994), and before Raised In Captivity (1995). Can I comment here on the remarkable a play a year run at the Vineyard, and that there are cast over-laps - particularly Hope Davis who seems to have been in each? It feels earlier though - it feels messier, it takes on a thousand things and lodges itself in a family that nobody is going to escape from clean.

A long first act (summer) followed by a second act comprised of two scenes (fall and winter). I think I say messier because it's got that fluidity of monologues and lines spoken out, of characters following their own paths through the same landscape, without a sense of any imposed structure. It follows its own logic and it works. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that many playwrights start this way, there's a breathlessness, a scrambling to keep up with yourself and get it all down exactly as it is felt in early plays. Maybe. And then things develop, new muscles grow, new concerns. Not that the development is a bad thing, absolutely not, but it can be kindof an awkward period. A bumpy-skinned, gangly adolescence after the effortless simplicity of a child's access to whatever well writing comes from.

Back on track. In the first act, Emma brings Tommy home to meet her mother. He's a waiter, they're going to be married and Grace, Emma's mother, disapproves because he's not good enough, but relents enough to give him a job as a maid, complete with uniform that Tommy is happy to wear. Todd comes home after a long absence and informs them that he has AIDS, his father insists on calling him Buzz and wants to play catch, his mother refuses to engage with the information. Through monologues and flashbacks stories from this family emerge while in the present there is a willful refusal to listen or to engage with one another that propels the action into the second act where the consequences of the first act gain stakes and significance as the wedding is planned and Emma is pregnant. The final scene is almost a coda, each character holding on to their crutches and defenses as faded as Mrs. Havisham's dress and as precious to them. Throughout the play, Todd has discussed dinosaurs, excavated bones from the backyard, constructed a skeleton of a baby Tyrannosaurus, and this image gives the final monologue the final kiss of the play.

I would have liked to have seen this one back in 1993. I would have been a year out of high school, my head dripping with Very Important Political Playwrights as well as the primacy of devised work over text. I have a notion had I seen this the rug may have been pulled out from under me a few years earlier than it finally was. (In a production of Hurricane by Erin Cressida Wilson, 1997). But, as it was, our paths did not cross back then - NYC was not on my radar in those days, baffling but true - and I was somehow insistant on reading up on Performance Semiotics instead of new work. Maybe all this blogosphere stuff can introduce some plays and points of view to students at impressionable ages. That would certainly be a good thing.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Food Chain - by Nicky Silver

I found a collection of his plays downstairs in the unpacked boxes, so there will be a few more of these. Excellently there was an introduction to this one. I love introductions written by playwrights. I think it was reading Tennessee William's introductions to his plays that lodged somewhere in my head and launched this path that I am on. Wrestling with this form, this way to make theater.

Silver's introduction describes graduating from the Experimental Theatre Wing at Tisch/NYU and then having a situation where he could put up his plays as he wrote them. He did this for five or six years with some plays going on to further life, but others just existing there in that moment. Excellent. I always imagine writers coming out of nowhere, they don't. And they don't just start writing masterpeices. Probably the why the current climate is so tricky for new writing - when there are so few resources and so much risk involved with putting anything up - how do you just do something. The situation Silver describes, of a theatre just handing over whatever un-booked time there was to him for free, seems like a by gone time. One more reason rising property values is a bad thing for artists.

So, The Food Chain unfolds over three scenes. The first scene has Amanda on the phone with Bea. Amanda's husband of two weeks, Ford, left to go work on a film right after their wedding and Amanda has called a suicide help line and gotten Bea, a particularly self-centered counselor on the line. Amanda tells her story, describes her distraught state and at the end of the scene Ford returns, into Amanda's arms and offers no explanation - while Amanda works to squelch any recriminations she may have. In the second scene, Otto is in Serge's apartment trying to win back his love. Otto eats constantly and is over-weight. Serge is a runway model - and is waiting for his true love to return - trying patiently to get Otto to leave. Over the scene it's revealed that their relationship Otto is mourning was all of two dates a couple year ago. At the end of the scene a phone call. It is Serge's love saying that he's not coming. In the third scene, Serge turns up at Amanda's apartment seeking the love of his life, Ford. Otto follows Serge in and Bea, the phone counselor turns up angry with Amanda for hanging up on her. They fight over the beautiful reticent Ford's affections. Throughout Ford speaks no more than a 'Well" and a couple "Uh-Huh"s - finally finishing with Amanda and Serge agreeing to share him and then going to have awesome sex, while he eats the last of Otto's food.

In this published version, Silver's offered two endings -dramatically different in action - centering on Otto's response to the final relational configurations.

Looking at it, each scene is so cleanly driven by needs, objectives and obstacles - with stories and coincidences flying off the energy that the action creates. Particularly scene 2 which is the simple acting exercise where one actor wants to stay and the other actors wants them to leave. Here though, written and given huge life, this simple conflict is spun into yarn that weaves the whole cloth of the play.

Next in this collection, Pterodactyls.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Raised In Captivity - Nicky Silver

Another shocking gaping hole in my play-reading life. Nicky Silver. Other than this one, just read today (by the fire, very nice) I'm shamed to say I'd only read Free Will and Wanton Lust, and that only because we were producing it. Which is probably one of the very best reasons to read something.

So, 1995 this opened at the Vineyard. It's in two acts. The first act has 8 scenes and the second is two scenes. In the first we meet Sebastian, estranged from his mother and twin sister, he's disconnected from himself, from his feelings, from others. Through the play he tries to connect with a convicted murderer, through letters and a hustler that he feeds - and re-connect with himself by shedding his therapist. At the end of the first act, a violent attack, brings his mother to him, back from the dead, to describe the truth of his father. In the second act Sebastian has been taken in by his twin sister and her husband, who has quit dentistry to take up painting - only with white paint. His sister, Bernadette, calls his fired therapist for help (throughout she has been punishing herself for her failures, forcing penance - not washing, stabbing herself, gouging out her eyes) the therapist agrees to help and stays - discovering a resemblance between Bernadette's husband and her own, dead one. Sebastian only speaks to the baby.

To untwine this wicked stew of past crimes, inherited pain, guilt, failure and grief, Silver lets each character find his or her unique redemption. And the redemption often lives in letting go, setting another free, and finding an honest way to grieve those loved and lost.

The pace is fast, in the first act scenes tumble one on top of the other creating a pile that suffocates the main character. In the second he struggles to get out. In writing about it, I'm focused on Sebastian - it is his play - however it's not in a lead kind of a way. Each of the other characters have their own stories and arcs - but these each relate - not story-wise, but thematically, to the pile that Sebastian's trying to crawl out from under.

and any play that can reach the end with "I miss everyone." as a line well earned is one that I like a lot.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You In The Closet And I'm Feelin' So Sad - Arthur L. Kopit

1959. Harvard. Undergrad Arthur Kopit writes the play that will launch his career, and defines a generational response to the horrors the world has faced. Well, maybe not the last statement, although the glowing introduction in my copy may have you believe this.

Written in 3 long scenes. Oh Dad, Poor Dad... introduces Madame Rosepettle and her son Jonathan Rosepettle. Madam travels the world, having adventures, with her husbands taxidermied body and her submissive son in tow. Jonathan, called constantly by his father's three names instead of his own, is confined to his rooms in various hotels and busied with his coin, stamp and book collections - terrified of his mother he dares not cross her.

When his eye is caught by Rosalie, who he watches with his telescope that he made from glass and tubing in order to get a better view of an airplane passing overhead, his mother breaks from tradition and invites her up in order to show her son what a lame slut she is. This doesn't happen, Rosalie connives to make a key and return to rescue the young man and make him her husband.

She has a chance, because earlier Jonathan has listened to his mother tell the story of his father and her plans to keep him sheltered forever. But - the seduction is too much for Jonathan, the corpse of his father falls out of the closet and...horrors ensue.

As Madam cries when faced by the horrendous scene, ending the play, "What is the meaning of this?"

There's a clear voice here, a slap-dash comedic style dancing across the page - easily imagined on stage - set-pieces ( a chorus of bell-boys attending to Madam's every whim, her stuttering son following her with a pad and pencil - a seduction by a girl dressed in crinolines and red-cheeks). A world in a Havana Hotel room, overlooking the bay, with a silver, siamese cat eating, pirahna and two Venus Fly-Traps (to add to the list of terrifying females of the play...), a boys world - a fun place to visit, perhaps, but also a world that's going to turn on any one of us without a dick.

I've been reading a lot of works by young men in the 50s at the moment. It's an odd time and the works share a similiar voice. A self-conscious attempt to be modern. Attitudes towards women laden with tradition, expectations, conflicts and eagerness. Either a complete disregard of family - or a total dependence on them. I imagine these young men, children born after the war, cherished new hopes after the dark days of rationing and daily news briefs - sent off to school, given every advantage, and charged to make the world new. There's such self-confidence, bravado in them - is this typical of boys of 20? is it just that this era published them, celebrated them young? or is it unique to a period desirous of erasing the past, stepping into a new future, with a new vision of America and the world?

And that's my digression for the evening. On to the Golden Globes and a bottle of beer. Tomorrow I think I'll read something newer. Consider the present. Where we are. What we want now.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tattoo - by Rejane Desvignes and Igor Bauersima

Published in Theatre Forum #35, and translated from the German by Neil Blackadder, Tattoo unfolds in a modern, European city. Fred and Lea are broke artists, Fred is working on a novel, Lea is a discerning actress. Their old friend, Tiger, now a big deal in the art world turns up one night and over comments about his completely tattooed body being valuable, illicits a promise that the couple will take care of his body when he dies. He will have it plasticized and they are to keep it, never sell it.

And that's the beginning of a play questioning what the responsibility of an artist is and what an artist can and can't do for money. The plot of Contempt is referenced throughout as the play unfolds...Tiger is killed in a freak accident and his assistant plasticizes his body and deposits it in Lea and Fred's house. They now have an object, that they do not want, stuck in their home, over-shadowing their relationship - that is also tremendously valuable. What will they do?

This play was written in 2001. It is pointed out in the preface that a couple years after the play was written a man's tattooed back was sold online, with the stipulation that he display it 3 times a year as long as he lives, and once he dies his skin goes to the buyer.

Specific music, video projections, art installations, off-stage voices and a plot saturated with moral quandaries about money and art accumulate to create the world and gist of this play.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Witch In My Heart - by Hilda Kuper

Written by an anthropologist in 1970 who lived with, researched and wrote about the Swazi People, "A Witch In My Heart" tells the story of a woman, the third wife of a son in his father's house who is barren, but loved most by her husband. He goes to the city (Johannesburg) to earn money to pay the medicine man to help her bring a child, and while he is away his other wives spread the seed of the idea that she may be a witch. When the second wife's child, a son, is still born, she is blamed and is expelled from the home. Her husband is jailed by the Afrikaaners, finally having his freedom bought by a friend. He returns home to find his love gone, his baby dead, and no life there for himself. He exiles himself from his people, going to live among strangers instead of the family that failed to care for his beloved in his absence.

Hilda Kuper was born in Rhodesia, later moving to South Africa and pursuing her work as an anthropologist. This is her only play. According to the preface it is required reading for students in South Africa. It feels accurate and throughly presenting its subject. Each character represents a side of the story in their traditional role and how their feelings guide their touting or flouting of tradition.

I picked it up at the used book store because I hadn't come across any african plays written by a woman. This, clearly an outsider looking in, and making a good faith effort to record what she's seen - in complexity and without judgement. I feel the steady hand of an academic here with a protocol for speaking of another culture. It creates for some stilted dialogue and clearly exemplary situations, however I close the book feeling like I've been privy to a world far from my own...and sometimes that's enough.

If you have an interest in this one, it's out of print, but I'm happy to send my copy to the first request.