Archive for the ‘theater’ Category

Shakespearing at The Drunken Odyssey

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Riverside 2 smallWhat began as a summer project and now looks as if it will take me into next spring has recently made its debut on John King’s website, The Drunken Odyssey. For reasons I explain in the first post, I’ve been reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in (presumed) order of composition and writing 600-word blog posts about them, starting with Henry VI, Part 1. As I write, I’m five plays ahead of the postings, which means I just finished Titus Andronicus. So far its been a great summer adventure of reading, responding, and writing.

Reading Titus Andronicus, which is supposed to have been partly written by George Peele, I was reminded of something I wrote a while back about Shakespeare’s relationship to the “university wits.” It was part of a longer piece (well, rant) about the effect of college playwriting programs on the kinds of plays we were seeing, but the Shakespeare stuff is here:

In a way, it’s an old story. Shakespeare was condescended to by the University Wits, Jonson, even in encomium, slighting his “small Latin and less Greek.” It is an indignity from which he still suffers. One of the oddest arguments of the anti-Stratfordians is that he couldn’t have written his plays because he didn’t go to university. This seems to me such a coarse misunderstanding of the sources of art in general and playwriting in particular as to overleap all but the most high-flying of the absurdities by which that curious faith is promulgated. And in light of what I’ve been discussing it seems just about exactly untrue. Isn’t there, to Jonson and even to Marlowe, a sheen of the academy, which would detract from Shakespeare’s unruly engagement with life as it is lived, as it is felt, as it is endured? Isn’t it possible that Shakespeare was better spared the university?

Here’s a story I love about Shakespeare. Many years after Shakespeare’s death, Jonson delivered another of his left-handed panegyrics. While avowing that he loved Shakespeare “this side idolatry,” he throws in, “Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, ‘Caesar, thou dost me wrong,’ he replied ‘Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,’ and such like, which were ridiculous.”

Imagine it. It’s opening night of Julius Caesar, and here’s Jonson congratulating Shakespeare in the time-honored manner of rival playwrights. Jonson says whatever is the Elizabethan equivalent of “Really, really interesting, Will,” and then slips in his, “Oh, by the way…” And Shakespeare, irritated and abashed, sensitive about his lack of a university education as he is about his doubtful coat of arms, inwardly resolves to change the line. As he apparently did, at least if Jonson is quoting him correctly, since it has come down to us in different form.

But, of course, Jonson was wrong. Yes, the line is a rhetorical absurdity, a flagrant violation of whatever Elements of Style Cambridge was circulating at the time. But it is the line’s queasy failure to mean that captures the casual corruption of political speech. It leaps the centuries. Who in this year, this week in the life of the ailing American experiment can fail to recognize the rhetorical slippage whereby a leader never does wrong but with just cause? When we speak of the genius of Shakespeare, this is what we’re talking about. And it’s not something easily taught or even nurtured at the conservatory.

The Latest: Lazy Summer Edition

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

Lately I’ve been cleaning up my website—nothing spectacular, just adding photos, switching out play excerpts, changing a font or two, creating a new banner of photos for the header—and, in doing so, I’ve been forced to pass my home page time and time again and to face down those haunting words, The Latest. Scanning down the column I can see that it’s the latest only in the sense of superlatively late. As in, months go by without my posting anything to it.

Honestly, though, there’s not a lot going on right now. DEADLY MURDER keeps getting produced in various locales, including one somewhere in Siberia. (No, I mean literally. Siberia.) In Los Angeles this spring, I met Alan Shearman, the director of the Portland production, and since I wasn’t able to see it live, he gave me a DVD of their quite impressive staging. The graphic on the left is by Lee Moyer for the same production.

The Athens DEADLY MURDER produced this very fun trailer.

And I’ve just discovered that, in November, there’ll be another production closer to home. Road trip?

A few things, including an intriguing development for DEADLY MURDER, fall into the category of “watch this space”: nothing worth talking about at the moment, but material perhaps for future updates.

More or less in that category are the writing projects I’ve been working on this summer. In June in São Paulo, I finished a fair draft of my new novel, THE HOUNDS OF HEAVEN. (A shout-out to the folks at Livraria da Vila on Lorena in whose lovely and comfortable terrace café I got a lot of work done.) Patient friends are reading and responding to the novel now. You can read an excerpt here.

I’ve also been re-re-polishing the first novel, THE TRAVELER’S COMPANION. This is because I’m thinking of dipping a toe into the chilly but rapidly warming waters of self-publishing. Watch this space. Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt.

Other than that I’ve had a lazy, pleasant summer, teaching our pre-college writing class at NYU, following Brazilian soap operas on O Globo, getting out to see friends and films, and shopping for furniture for the apartment I seem to be buying…

More later (though hopefully not terribly later).

Deadly Murder Productions

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Thanks to the Samuel French edition, DEADLY MURDER has started appearing at theatres around the country, including what seems to be quite a fine production at the Lakewood Theatre Company in Portland (pictured, Ty Boice and Adrienne Flagg) and another at Theatre Suburbia in Houston. There’s also a production in Prague right now, and one will open soon in Athens, under the title TA BROMIKA KOLPA (below), a translation, I think, of A NASTY TRICK, a title the play had at one point.

It’s a strange but fun feeling to think that there are all these Camilles and Billys and Teds out there, some speaking in other languages. (What’s the Czech for “a few brisk years in reform school on the fly”?)

Recently, the Greek translator contacted me to ask for a program note, and I rediscovered something I wrote for the 2008 production at Vienna’s English Theatre. Maybe it’s worth reproducing here:

“We love blood. We love murder. We love danger and double-crosses and the moment when the safe, predictable world gives way. Or we love them in a thriller.

“When I began to write DEADLY MURDER, my play CRESSIDA AMONG THE GREEKS, a retelling of the doomed Trojan War romance, had just completed its New York run. It, too, had its share of blood and betrayal and worlds collapsing, but it was a tragedy, and in tragedies things cost. Tragedies, at the end of the night, present you with a bill for the blood and betrayal, and it’s a steep one. Thrillers allow us to slip the cost. They allow us to laugh as we gasp, to feel horror with pleasure, to ride death and danger like a roller coaster.

“Maybe that’s why a thriller seemed like such a good idea after CRESSIDA. Maybe I needed some murder without the cost.

“I’ve always loved thrillers and mysteries. When I was a kid, we came home from school and watched Perry Mason on TV. I whiled away summer afternoons with Agatha Christie. I love Ira Levin’s fiendish entertainments, and the elegant gamesmanship of Anthony Shaffer’s SLEUTH. Writing DEADLY MURDER, I rediscovered the luxurious addictive pleasures of these stories: mysterious strangers, priceless jewels, unsavory secrets, and death not from natural causes. We get a lot of tragedy in the world. We get a lot of blood and betrayal. But tonight we just have fun.”

Embedded

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

A week ago Saturday I saw Richard Nelson’s lovely, understated Sweet and Sad at the Public as part of their invaluable LAB series.  Someone should do a piece on the psychology of ticket prices—maybe the aesthetic psychology of ticket prices. The Public has for a couple of years been assembling casts of wonderful actors to work for a limited time on challenging new work, and charging $15 a ticket.  The combined result of the work and the ticket price is something that feels for the audience like an essay—in the sense of a trial or attempt, but maybe in the other sense as well—in theatre.  A jeu.  Something that feels both provisional and rich.  It’s as if every day were Vanya on 42nd Street.

So part of the pleasure of Nelson’s play was seeing, in an environment in which the lowered financial stakes seemed to lower other stakes as well, really good actors perform challenging new material.  But another part was that it reminded you of the pleasures and uses of realism.  These aren’t always obvious.  I remember a play I saw in London several years ago in which real water ran from the tap and real bacon sizzled on the stove with the result that the more the design and direction insisted on the reality of the play, the less persuasive the play itself became.

It may be that realism, like poetry, works better when it uses little pins of the real to create its world, little red wheelbarrows of actuality.  In Nelson’s play, we had real food, real bottles of wine, and real crocheted tablecloths—old, familial, prone to stains—to pin us to his world, each pin a recognition, but those recognitions depending for their sharpness on their separation, our ability to pick them out from the background.  Not easy to do if everything—background, foreground—is composed alike of pins.

Maybe it’s that recognition, first of all, that realism provides.  We see ourselves.  You know that crocheted tablecloth.  Your aunt or somebody’s grandmother had one; you remember it draped over somebody’s hope chest.  Of course that implies that realism works best for those it actually represents.  What do we lose from Chekhov when a samovar is a cultural signifier and not an everyday household item?  What do we lose from Ibsen when we’ve never warmed ourselves in front of a porcelain stove?

The answer may be not much, and therefore the power of those plays doesn’t depend on realism.  Or the answer may be not much, and therefore the project of realism, the recognitions realism allows, reaches beyond a particular cultural setting.  I’m not sure if I’m making that distinction clear (or if I’m even clear myself about it).  It’s the difference between saying, on the one hand, that realism isn’t important in Chekhov because his characters transcend their time and place and saying, on the other, that something essential to the concerns of realism, something inseparable from realism, is what makes his characters resonate beyond their immediate circumstances.

At one moment in the play, I was watching Maryann Plunkett, and there was a dizzying moment of collapse:  the actress playing a character listening to a story while she ate from a plate in her lap collapsed into a woman listening to a story while she ate from a plate in her lap.  I couldn’t tell the difference.  It was as if I were at this dinner, the story was being told for the first time, and this woman was attending to the story with that mixture of sympathy and resistance with which we all listen to a family member tell a story.  Her attention flicked between the teller and her food because, well, one must eat.

It seems like the opposite of the alienation effect.  Instead of forcing you to suspend your involvement with a character by reminding you of theatrical artifice, it takes away the comforting distance of artifice, your awareness that you are watching an actor play a part and that the life of a family is being represented for you onstage.  You are, in these moments, in that familial life.

What are the uses of that?  Few, I suppose, if the goal of realism is just to be real.  But Nelson has other things on his mind.  He’s concerned with how we remember, and how remembering shapes what we do next.  The play takes place on the tenth anniversary of September 11th, the dinner happening in the two hours before everyone is going to go down to the high school for a commemoration ceremony.  But a teenage daughter has also died recently, and part of the family’s struggle is to keep her tragic death from reshaping their memories of her.  Towards the end of the play, the uncle, who suffers from memory loss, reads Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser,” the poem that gives the play its title and itself an act of re-remembering, of using memory to reshape a story of heroes and battles into one of wounds, death, longing, kisses.  (This last makes me think that Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising, with its repeated reference to “your kiss,” was consciously Whitmanesque.)  “Why did the victims’ families get compensated?” Maryann Plunkett’s character asks at one point, a question that seems both loaded—so loaded she’s almost afraid to ask it—and urgent.  How is that compensation an act of mis-remembering?  And what consequences has that mis-remembering had?  What, on this anniversary, do we need to re-remember?  The questions by themselves have urgency, but their urgency for the audience comes from the way in which they’re woven into the life and concerns of this family.  We can’t tell where the familial concerns end and the political ones begin.

While thinking about all this, I came across a quote from Walter Benjamin.  He posits a “law of literature according to which a work’s truth content is the more relevant the more inconspicuously and intimately it is bound up with the subject matter” and suggests that “precisely those works turn out to endure whose truth is most deeply embedded in their subject matter.”

Perhaps that’s what realism does.  It not only embeds its truths in its subject matter, it embeds us as well.  It reminds us how tightly the threads of our lives are woven into the larger patterns.  It may be the most political of all theatrical forms because it gets us where we live.

Long Time Gone…

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

It’s been nearly a year since I posted any news on what was at the time my newly redesigned website.  It’s not that nothing’s been happening.  Theater Breaking Through Barriers presented a reading and then a staged reading of SAD HOTEL with the wonderful Sam Tsoutsouvas in the Tennessee Williams part, which he played in the White Barn production ten years ago.  For the third time, I participated in Blue Coyote’s Standards of Decency Evening, this one called STANDARDS OF DECENCY 3: 300 VAGINAS BEFORE BREAKFAST.  My play was called PLATO’S RETREAT (pictured) and looked at internet pornography through Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  It may be the first time I’ve ever missed the entire rehearsal and performance period of a brand new play, since I left for Brazil (that’s Carlos and I in Brasilia’s Oscar Niemeyer-designed Cathedral) a few days before rehearsal started and returned two days after the last performance.

My big project for the summer was to finish the novel that I started in my first year in NYU’s MFA Fiction Writing (in Chuck Wachtel’s amazing year-long novel-writing workshop).   I should say I finished the first draft of the novel, as pretty much the entire last half is an unholy mess, which I will spend the next year straightening out.

As for other news, my three-character thriller DEADLY MURDER (I know, I know.  Can I just say, here, publicly, that I didn’t give it that title?) seems to be sprouting up at community theatres thanks to the Samuel French edition.  There are also productions slated for Prague and Athens in December.

So that’s the news for the year.  The website also remains in the beautifully designed but empty state that my friend Bob Chatelle left it in when he designed it, lacking the information and material that I was supposed to fill in.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to spend a little time over the next months getting it into shape.