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.