Monday, July 31, 2006

At every mouth he with his teeth was crunching
A sinner, in the manner of a brake,
So that the three of them tormented thus.
To him in front the biting was as naught
Unto the clawing, for sometimes the spine
Utterly stripped of all the skin remained.

"That soul up there which has the greatest pain,"
The Master said, "is Judas Iscariot; With head
inside, he plies his legs without."

-Inferno, Dante, Canto 34

The Ninth Circle of Hell is referred to several times in Company One’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, but Judas gets off easier in the hands of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis than he did under the pen of Dante. In the Inferno, Dante saves the inner circle for traitors, and Judas sits in horrifying punishment alongside Brutus and Cassius. Forever being chewed on by jagged teeth and with his back being scraped by the claws of Satan, Judas freezes with other famous betrayers.

They say every generation gets the hell, heaven and purgatory it deserves. For the Hell of this Judas, Mr. Guirgis has put the wayward apostle in a catatonic stupor, while the denizens of Heaven, (including Pontius Pilate,) eat sushi and play golf. Most appropriate though, (if not slightly derivative of films like Albert Brooks Defending Your Life and Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice,) the Purgatory of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot consists of endless, bureaucratic litigation. In this no man’s land, souls work off their absolution as either a member of the court or, even more horrifying, an eternal member of the jury pool.

The plot revolves around a new appeal, brought before a cantankerous judge (George Saulnier) by an aggressive and ambitious defense attorney named Fabiana Cunningham (Noel Armstrong.) She brings a writ, signed by Saint Peter, to appeal Judas’s sentence to the Ninth Circle of Hell. And here starts a carnival of arguments, star-witnesses, surprising revelations and even a "video playback" of Judas’s attempt to reneg on his deals with the Romans and the Sanhedrin. All of this makes for an enjoyable evening with surprises popping up regularly. Unfortunately, all this is at the expense of driving the drama forward with appropriate force.

Mr. Guirguis opens up great avenues, ideas and arguments, but it is almost as if he is insecure in his considerable talents and feels as if he must overcompensate. Almost every single scene in the play goes on longer than it needs too; jokes are repeated four times in one scene, dramatic beats that were arced and resolved beautifully come back and start all over again, and clever attacks on ideas resurface regularly without significant changes to tactic or strategy.

The multiple roles necessary for this endeavour are imbued with great detail and clever shadings by the ensemble. Greg Maraio’s Sigmund Freud, complete with phallic cigar, is a wonderful cameo. The defense asks, "Now, Mr. Freud, you are known as the father of Modern Psychiatry?" Mr. Freud replies without a trace of insecurity, "I AM modern phsychiatry!" Later, Mr. Maraio returns, completely transormed into a party-loving, midwest community college teacher, who serves as the jury foreman, and delivers a touching coda to the play. But at almost eleven o’clock in the evening, this monologue is two long by half and only repeats something we had just seen dramatized effectively not a minute earlier.

It is a testament to Guirgis’s skills that he makes these repetitions as enjoyable as possible, but as all of his characters and ideas add up, even his divine talent cannot seem to gather his sheep back to the pen. As the testimonies, cross-examinations and revelations spin off into scenes from Judas’s life and amusing monologues from some of the Apostles, we keep forgetting what is at stake in the trial. Who wins? What is winning? If it is an appeal, why is there a jury? What are the answers the attorneys expect from their witnesses?

Robert Brustein has hailed Guirgis as possibly another Eugene O’Neill, and there is the undeniable sensation when watching a Guirgis play that you are in the presence of a master in the making. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, like Our Lady of 121st Street , sings with unique voices, and the playwright is unafraid of dramatizing large ideas and questions and leaving them unresolved. Will Stackman, in his review of this Company One production observes that there are many entertaining, but extraneous, monologues and set pieces that are obviously written specifically for Guirgis’s LAByrinth Theatre colleagues. This free-wheeling style is undeniably enjoyable for the cast and the audience, but eventually it submarines both.

During the course of the evening, Satan, played with perfect Rat-Pack perfection by company Artistic Director Shawn LaCount is called to the stand twice, the second time leading to what should be the penultimate stand-off between Defense Attorney Cunningham and the Prince of Darkness for the soul of Judas. Instead, Guirgis has so much going on at this point of the play that this talented ensemble has to work to the point of straining to register the slightest tick on the dramatic and intellectual seismograph.

Another example is the brilliant creation of El Fayoumy, the prosecuting attorney whose loquacious orations, spoken with hilarious broken English, are astonishingly inventive. But, late in the proceedings, as the actor Mason Sands, (who should be seeing a supporting actor nomination come awards season,) launches into yet another of El Fayoumy’s three minute monologues, peppered humorously as it is with equal parts procedural jargon and ass-kissing toadiness, the inventiveness starts to become slightly distracting.

Eventually, one can't shake the feeling that the playwright is just buying time, that he has not quite figured out how all of this fits in to the play. Perhaps this is emblematic of our era.

Though the funeral parlor of Our Lady of 121st Street may be a descendant of Harry Hope's Saloon in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, the purgatory of Judas Iscariot called to my mind the universes of Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner. As our millenium has passed and the world doesn't seem to be getting any easier with regards to questions of morality and spirituality, dramatists seem to want to pull great figures of history into our current world, or at least wrestle with their ideas. Ralph Waldo Emerson discerned the highest literary genius as the effortless ability to juggle images of nature. It would seem in our day and age we are all after the ability to juggle ideas.

In Seattle, the ACT theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of Mitzi's Abortion, in which Thomas Aquinas appears to a military wife who is contemplating an abortion. Mr. Guirgis gives us Freud, Christ, and Mother Theresa, while the voices of Eliot, Auden and others seep into Alan Bennett's The History Boys. Almost like Odysseus in Hades, we conjure the dead to try and receive direction home.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Dialogue - The Bane of the Novelist Turned Playwright

The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap.

The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare.

Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?

-Chuang Tzu (C. 400BC)

A few years ago I wrote a post about David Guterson's novel Our Lady of the Forest. At the time, I concluded my little mini-review with this thought:

"There is poetic brilliance and exposition in the prose, but the dialogue just seems so contrived and leaden, especially in the beginning sections. As a playwright, I am around dramatic texts all of the time and I am witness to the struggles and pains that playwrights take towards getting dialogue right, because, basically it is all you have. I think it would serve some novelists well to try and write a play or two. Guterson included."

Today, the Guardian has an essay about just this problem that novelists- turned-attempted-playwrights have with rendering believable dialogue:

What Compton-Burnett never quite realised is that, in a novel, speech can be much more affected by conventional elegance than in a play, where someone actually has to say the lines and any kind of falsity will be ruthlessly exposed.

Any novelist who writes a play must face up to this simple truth. Graham Greene's plays, William Golding's The Brass Butterfly, Muriel Spark's Doctors of Philosophy, or any of Iris Murdoch's lamentable attempts at drama share the same problem. In a novel, dialogue needn't sound realistic, and it can be backed up by all sorts of comments about the interior life of the characters. All these authors painfully found that they didn't know how to write dialogue an actor could enunciate, and they didn't know how to convey the drama only through external facts of speech and behaviour.

Dialogue in theatre is not just about sounding realistic. Dialogue in the theatre can be elegant and heightened, it can be cryptic and halting, it can be in a completely made up language, and it could even be spoken 0nly in in physicality. It doesn't have to be "realistic", but it has to be believeable. The audience has to be able to surrender to the playwright's philological universe. It doesn't have to sound like speech we hear everyday, but it has to be a believable system of communication.

If the audience buys into that that system, there is more work to do still. There must be a reason for dialogue or monologue, (a reason other than exposition.) The character must want to, or need to, communicate. Why? It calls to mind Chuang Tzu's quote.

Eric Bentley in his Life of the Drama said that dialogue should be poetic, but he did not mean flowery or ornate. Instead, he suggested that dialogue should approach that purer definition of poetry, the one where we try to express in words that for which there may not be any words. The effect of good dialogue should be the perception that the character is actually "inventing" language as they are speaking. Bentley holds up Shakespeare as the prime example because, after all... Shakespeare did invent some of our language.

In theatre, dialogue is all we have.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Perfect Country for Shakespeare...

John Heilpren seems to dissent from most critics who have taken in the Leiv Schreiber/Moises Kaufmann Macbeth. But I was most interested in his comment on the mishmash of historical settings for the Public's production:

The action vaguely takes place—the Playbill informs us— 'around World War I,' and the cast, led by Liev Schreiber, are therefore costumed vaguely in army gear. In such simplistic ways, we’re meant to be reminded of the horrors of war
(assuming we need to be reminded). But, as always with the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park, the production and its ragbag of costumes dodge haphazardly around various time zones in an effort to popularize an already popular play. Now a sword fight, then a gun. Now the Edwardian era, then the 30’s, then it’s sort of Elizabethan, and always we end up in that fantasy land of ribboned generals, Ruritania. If you are everywhere, you are nowhere.

I once knew Ruritania from an Army battle simulation I worked at, but I just thought they had come up with it with it through the same type of officer magic that once came up with one of the most unique names I have heard, "Operation Banjo Antelope."

Through a quick Internet search, I find that Ruritania is the setting of the fictional novels of Anthony Hope, including his Prisoner of Zenda. Ruritania then took on life of its own as the setting of other Romance novels by other authors.

Wikipedia informs us that: "Hope's novels resulted in 'Ruritania' becoming a generic term for any imaginary kingdom used as the setting for romance intrigue and adventure."

I have never seen a modern dress production of a Shakespeare play that really deals effectively with the violence, and I have seen more than my share of "board room" Macbeth's and "executive" Richard III's. The mind's way of dealing with the incongruities, when it comes to the climactic battles, is not so much willing suspension of disbelief, but rather the equivalent of willingly taking handful of Unisoms. The alternative to conking yourself out during these scenes, is far worse; giggles can ensue.

Actually, Ruritania is probably a better alternative. The violence usually comes off better in rougher updates, the ones where we deal in the underworld of gangsters, although these revisions cause their own problems. The violence in Romeo and Juliet does seem to survive in its street gang updates.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bing, Bang, Clickety-Clack... Isherwood's famous Pig!

Isaac at Parabasis has the directory of his Pig Farm project, in which a bunch of bloggers got comps to see the play.

The crew of bloggers' responses to Kotis's new play at the Roundabout are linked at Isaac's site, along with his own response and they are all worth reading and comparing.

However, aside from dealing with the power of criticism and the aesthetics of Charles Isherwood, the central issues of much of our theatrical and blogoshperical handwringing seem only to be adressed in a few places:

Ian Hill at Collisionwork touches lightly on it here:

I went to Pig Farm because, well, it was free, and more especially, it was by Greg Kotis, so it was one of the few pieces of theatre I'd bother spending more than $20 for if I could afford it (which I can't)....

Oh, and for those of you who do have the playgoing dollar to spend uptown and on a worthwhile show, I've been given a code to save you some bucks.

Freeman presents it here:

Second is that ticket prices are absolutely restrictive. Unlike movie reviews, which are read for water cooler talk as much as actual dollar guidance, reviews of plays are guiding a far greater allocation of resources. $50 tickets to see a play, even one as entertaining as PIG FARM, is too much for most of the audience for which PIG FARM is written

And then Joshua at the Dojo dives right in:

Added to the fact, however, is that though I was allowed to be comped, (and may I thank the lovely folks for that) I couldn’t help but notice the cost of the tickets to see this play. Tickets run from fifty dollars to over sixty-five, in addition to a $1.25 facility fee.

If the tickets cost twenty dollars, I’d recommend this play without a thought. Maybe even at 25 dollars, I might recommend it. But not at fifty or sixty dollars. And that’s another problem. The folks that will enjoy PIG FARM the most aren’t the ones who are sitting in the audience for an Off Broadway show. That specific audience, one who would help the writer and director find the soul of just not that play but possibly their next play, won’t be in the house watching. That audience cannot afford to come to an Off-Broadway show. That audience won’t spend fifty bucks for a show. They’ll wait till it comes to their university or community playhouse and then they’re go, spend twelve dollars or so and laugh and laugh, enjoying it thoroughly.

Joshua is actually forgetting one option...

You see, that hypothetical audience will most likely just turn on On-Demand and watch Clerks II for about the cost of the service charge for the theatre tickets.
History Boys is in the eye of the MCAS...

I read Alan Bennett's The History Boys over the weekend and thought it to be a funny, entertaining whirlwind of ideas, but it had some characters as stock as staples.

Slate, continuing their contrarian theatrical coverage, has probably one of the more incisive, though narrow, breakdowns of the play I have seen. Here is the Slate writer, David Greenberg, speaking of the play's character of Irwin, a history tutor/teacher, who espouses a belief in history as a type of performance art with substance taking a backseat to showiness.

No historian would defend such views, and none would promulgate them, either—which is why Irwin's character is ultimately unpersuasive. Had Bennett shown more restraint and empathy in creating Irwin, he could have given us two equally compelling ways of thinking about history—or, better still, two equally compelling lead characters, characters always more important than themes.

Dramaturgically, Greenberg seems to be right, but then he makes the mistake of pinning his critique to the "mouthpiece" character of a female teacher, Mrs Lintott:

Though Lintott can't be said to represent all feminist historians, her soliloquy accomplishes something like what feminist scholarship has done: upending received wisdom, resulting in a more expansive view of how things work. Yet her character, though important, is underdeveloped; and in consigning her
worthy viewpoint to a cameo role and framing history instead as the black-and-white drama of Hector vs. Irwin, it is Alan Bennett who succumbs to glibness—flashing his cleverness to dazzle his audience.

Without knowing it, Greenberg actually comes close to the drawback I found with the play.

Greenberg thinks the play's problem is that it is too black and white and overly focused on Hector and Irwin, but really it seems to be a memory play crossed with an idea play, but with no focus in either. It has a dreamy, memory play tone, but it is told from the mouths of several different characters, without any type of resolution of disparities. As currently executed it is not a bad experiment, but this would be a coup if Bennett had found a better way to weave his hybrid structure and loose imaginings into the ideas.

Reading the play I never found Irwin to be so completely bull-headed in his view of history, and surprisingly I found Irwin to be one of the least stock characters in the play. I actually found the play to be more about an expansion of the idea of educational theory to a larger canvas. David Greenberg is a historian and so it makes sense for him to approach the play from the historical perspective, and I welcome it.

But perhaps I too am seeing the play through my own Massachusetts lens, which tends to be conditioned, rightly or wrongly, to see such academic explorations only as they pertain to the ongoing MCAS debates.

Teach to the Test or not to Teach to Test?
That is the Question.

So, my primary thought after reading The History Boys? Exactly what is "the Test" to which we are or are not teaching? Is it life? Career? The character of Irwin, in his life seems genuinely asking those questions, all the way through. The ending codas of the students are what drive home these feelings.

Slate's coverage of theatre is always welcome, as it usually provides great fodder for discussion. I just wish it could be more regular.

And, to add to that thought; How about some theatre coverage in Salon?
1956, The Magic Year... Let's "Look Back in Anger"

I was doing some research to try and see just how many productions of David Auburn's Proof are going on at any one time, when I suddenly discovered

Doollee, is an interesting non-profit site that has a very searchable index of plays, plays playwrights, literary agents.

It's mission is interesting, if only for its seemingly arbitrary cut-off date.

1956 is the year Soviet Troops marched into Hungary, I Love Lucy was the #1 show on TV, Diary of Anne Frank (Sans Natalie Portman) was on Broadway, Edwin O'Connor's The Last Hurrah sat around the the top of the Best Seller lists, and The Searchers was #10 at the Box Office, (with John Ford probably never imagining the critical stir it would create years later.)

1956 is also that year that Doollee starts its cataloguing of playwrights:

Doollee is an online database of playwrights and theatre plays. As an ongoing project we aim to list every play written or produced in English since 1956, the year John Osborne's seminal play Look Back in Anger was first performed at the Royal Court in London. As a general rule of thumb, if you are a playwright who has had at least one play written or produced in English since 1956 then you are eligible for inclusion on the site. Doollee will then happily list the details of every other play you have written even if it is unpublished, unproduced, or was written before 1956.

I am fascinated by this cutoff. It seems to make some sense, but are those Angry Young Man plays really the start of such a revolution on the stage?

There is a brief outline of the first production of Look Back in Anger at Wikipedia.

Well, if anybody knows exactly how many productions of Proof are going on around the country, (not just Lort B,) please let me know. Currently, just in this area, we have had two.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Future Just Happened...

Bill Marx, Theatre Critic and Arts Editor for WBUR sent off his final editorial last week. Unlike Ed Seigel, (former Globe Critic,) who talked more about the state of his Boston Theatre beat, Bill Marx used his column space to address the state of the larger universe of Arts Journalism:

WBUR's decision to end original online arts coverage and focus on arts news and features tailored for broadcast runs counter to the strategy of most major news outlets, from NPR to the "New York Times" and the BBC, which are embracing the web's tremendous potential for interactivity and community via web-exclusive content, blogs, stories, reviews, and podcasts. WBUR is lurching backwards into the future -- I wish it luck.

I wish Mr. Marx luck as well. My contention with some of his views will no doubt be familar to the long-time readers of this blog, but I will miss the development that was proceeding with the WBUR Arts page. If you are interested, or if you wish to leave a personal comment, you can check in on Bill's personal blog.

And if anybody wants to know what the dystopian future Mr. Marx is outlining looks like, look no further than the TV Guide-like, capsulized, cliche-ridden reviews of two recent plays in the Boston Herald. Here. (Which I outlined already.) and Here.

Borrowing from Michael Lewis's great book, I would say, "Don't look now,... the future just happened."

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

So what's going to happen? We're going to start seeing these embittered typists typing up their documentation incorrectly - and then passing them on to these embittered contractors who will misinterpret them to these huge armies of embittered capenters and embittered mechanics and a year later or two years later, we're going to start seeing these ten-story buildings in every city collapsing to the ground, because each one of them is missing some crucial screw in some crucial girder. Buildings will collapse. Planes will come crashing out of the sky. Babies will be poisoned by bad baby food. How can it happen any other way?

-Aunt Dan and Lemon - Wallace Shawn

Of course, Aunt Dan left out the embittered legislators, embittered governors, embittered DA's, embittered project managers, embittered CEO's and embittered voters.
Non-Profit Modeling

Don R. Hall, our Angry Guy in Chicago, examines the non-profit model of grant-by-success.

The reality is that you don't get big donors without some commercially successful shows under your belt, and grant organizations give to groups that are going to get their name out into the public eye which means they grant to organizations with a large audience base just like any advertiser. Does Steppenwolf Theatre Company really need $50,000 from Sara Lee or did Sara Lee just pay for some great ad space? Does Lookingglass Theater really need the $30,000 from the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture when they pay $1.00 per year rent on their downtown venue that was gifted to them by the City of Chicago?.....

It is a terrible cycle, and one that inevitably makes it harder and harder for people to survive out there. I took a look at our Mass Cultural Council theatre giving and found that they do give to many theatre groups.

However, this embarrassingly easy research bears out most of Don's theories.

The three top recipients:

Huntington Theatre Company $52,000
North Shore Music Center $52,000
American Repertory Theatre $42,330

Things drop off precipitously after this. The Western Mass summer companies get a nice change, (Williamstown-$31,790.00 Shakespeare and Company $25, 120.) but then we start going down almost completely into the 4 digit territory.

I understand spending has been cut drasctically, but consider the ratios:

The combined grants to New Repertory, Lyric, Merrimack Rep, Company One, Speakeasy Stage, Sugan, Theatre Offensive, and Stoneham Theatre company.... $35,350.00!

All those 8 companies combined, get far less Mass State cultural money for theatre than the Huntington, ART and NSMT get individually.

Just to make things little more concrete, the $2000.00 grant Company One gets would not even pay the rent for one of their runs as Resident Company of the Boston Center for the Arts.

My first instinct is to say, "Well, state funding has been drastically cut!" However, if the funding were drastically improved, would we see a difference in these ratios?

My next instinct is to say that those top three Companies are "institutions of culture" (brands, if you will.) However, Theatre Offensive and Sugan are not?

Although I won't begrudge any institution any money it can get. I have to wonder if Don does have point:

So, why the slow death of the NFP Arts Organization? Because the model only works for groups that don't need the model. When the advantages of NFP only favor the already commercially successful groups, the groups involved are no
longer "supporting some issue or matter of private interest or public concern for non-commercial purposes."

Monday, July 17, 2006

Irrelevancy... Even in The Non-Profit World?

As read Playgoer's posts lately, I try to be positive about the future of theatre and it's reliance on the non-profit model. But my heart kind of sank when I read this in the Globe this weekend:

WBUR is Phasing Out Arts Criticism

Boston University-based WBUR-FM (90.9) is changing the way it covers arts and culture. The public radio station is eliminating its online arts magazine, Arts Scene , and with it the position held by editor and arts critic Bill Marx...

Read the ugly details in the article.

If anyplace should be expanding arts coverage one would think it would be Public Radio. WBUR's online Arts section has been rocketing forward in the last few months with a Blog and also podcasts. Bill Marx seems to have been forward thinking in ways to deliver arts coverage, without sacrificing voice or style. His articles on the state of Boston's Arts and Culture initiatives as compared to the city arts departments of Philadelphia and Toronto, are valuable reads as well.

Maybe Mr. Marx will find backers, (non-profit,) who will support the creation of a new, online arts coverage magazine, one that goes in the direction of his expanding vision he had for the WBUR Arts page.

All of this makes really clear that the Net needs to be taking up the slack where the major publications, (Non-profit or not,) fall off. Non-profit seems to be succumbing to bottom-line thinking.

Update: Boston Phoenix has a story also, see it here.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Who wrote that?

John Heilpern in the New York Observer talks about the practice of pull-quoting:

I’m told I’m usually such a miserable sod that favorable quotes from my reviews can be slim pickings. But even when I rave about a show, there’s room for improvement. For instance, I wrote in my review of Mr. McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which swims in more blood than the Jacobeans, that it was “the best bloody play I’ve ever seen.” In the Times ad, however, the “bloody” was dropped and the quote became “The best play I’ve ever

Well, if it helps …. But a friend of mine, who’s a playwright, called me up to complain that he thought he was the one who’d
written the best play I’ve ever seen. So I got on to the press representatives of the show and said, “Hello, it’s me. Sorry to trouble you, but The Lieutenant of Inishmore" isn’t the best play I’ve ever seen. That singular honor belongs to a friend of mine and to something called Lear. Why, The Lieutenant of Inishmore isn’t even Martin McDonagh’s best play.”

So they put back the “bloody.”

But a more recent example takes the strudel. In the Times blurb for the British import of Henry Green’s
Nothing, the quote from my review was published proudly above the title as: “I’ve rarely had such a good time at the theater—John Heilpern, New York Observer.”

In fact, I wrote, “I’ve rarely had such a good time at the theater without enjoying myself.”

Still, I found the rewrite of my politely downbeat review so funny, I couldn’t bring myself to protest. I hope you weren’t misled by the ad that deserves an award for chutzpah.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Beckett's Game With Reality

In my post a few days ago about Happy Days, I wrote of the challenges of acting Beckett, and actually talked about acting Beckett as almost a conversion into a submissive religion. Today, the New York Review of Books examines the centennial of Beckett with an interesting article addressing the struggle Beckett had with his beliefs regarding the ineffectiveness of prose and the fact that he was a writer.

Tim Parks is interested in some of the words of those "remembering" Beckett. For instance, Parks points out that Harvard Professor Robert Scanlan gives this parting line, ""Here's to you, Sam Beckett. God rest and bless your sweet and patient soul."

Parks then muses on this:

How curiously this valediction rings, addressed as it is to a man who satirized every form of metaphysics and renounced any mental comfort that might subtract him from the exhausting
experience of being alone with his conviction that the world was without meaning and expression futile, yet that all the same he was duty-bound to express the fact. But perhaps it is precisely in Beckett's repeated renunciations—of English for French, of a rich and traditional narrative facility for texts stripped of
everything we would normally think of as plot or color—that we can find a link between these sometimes sentimental centenary remembrances and the core of the author's work, his special position in the literature of the twentieth century.
"How easy," wrote Cioran, "to imagine him, some centuries back, in a naked cell, undisturbed by the least decoration, not even a crucifix." With Beckett, it is the persistence of a "religious" seriousness in the declared absence of any
sustaining metaphysics that gives his work its special, for some, saintly, pathos.

Beckett approaches chaos in a religious way, Parks explains. While Beckett may have preached aimlessness in concept, his word choice was meticulous and his dedication strict. However, how does such yin and yang manifest itself?

Beckett was aware of course of the contradiction in his position, that it is inconsistent if not masochistic to talk, as he does to Anne Atik, of writing being a "sin against speechlessness," and then to go on writing, perverse to apply such meticulous control in texts that seek to demonstrate the impossibility of control. Given this state of affairs, honesty (and sanity) demanded that he bring the contradiction to his readers' attention, use its colliding energies—the yearning for expression and the conviction of its futility—to give his work pathos, and, in the end, realism, since it was this contradiction that lay at the core not only of Beckett's experience, but of a whole strand of Western thought that declares the world without sense, but then finds that to go on living one is obliged to behave as if the opposite were the case. Looking for a voice for this modern state of mind, Beckett produced a style in which, with all its developments over his long career, lyricism and parody, affirmation and denial, are always fused together in such a way that each intensifies the other.

And, though Parks professes sadness on the part of the raving fans of Beckett's prose, he ultimately sees the most effective medium for Beckett's bleak vision in the stage.

"But most importantly of all, the theater allows both silence and physical movement to come to the fore in a way they cannot on the page. A blank space between paragraphs simply does not deliver the anxiety of a hiatus in a stage dialogue. Only in the theater, as the audience waits in collective apprehension for the conversational ball— between Didi and Gogo, Hamm and Clov—to start rolling again, could Beckett's sense that any deep truth must be located in something, or nothing, beyond speech come across with great immediacy. Likewise the actors' interminable and pointless movement back and forth across the stage is a more immediate statement than the words of a page-bound narrator telling us of his aimless daily wanderings. When we watch the plays, the impotence of language to explain the characters' experience is powerfully evident. Conversation serves above all to pass the time."

So much more in the article, it is free, so get it while you can.
Does Your Company Value "Creativity!"

Scott Walters talks about creativity on a post today. The intersection of creativity and business unfortunately often ends at the conception of the company as a revenue generating entity.

Fast Company Magazine tried to submarine some of the vangaurd of the corporate coopting of creativity in their article: The Six Myths of Creativity.

"In our diary study, people often thought they were most creative when they were working under severe deadline pressure. But the 12,000 aggregate days that we studied showed just the opposite: People were the least creative when they were fighting the clock. In fact, we found a kind of time-pressure hangover -- when people were working under great pressure, their creativity went down not only on that day but the next two days as well. ....In fact, it's not so much the deadline that's the problem; it's the distractions that rob people of the time to make that creative breakthrough. People can certainly be creative when they're under the gun, but only when they're able to focus on the work."

And I would also point to a study from Melbourne titled, "Dying in the Arts; Creativity as Metaphor." A great quote is as follows:

"The category of creativity legitimately belongs to the arts where it is seen, invariably, as the outcome of processes of imagination, experimentation and (often) failure. It is precisely these definitional aspects of the practice of creativity that make its interpretation in organizational theory so specious. The metaphor of creativity, as it is used within organizational theory, not only disguises its ideological function, it also elides one of the defining characteristics of creativity which is its coexistence with market failure."

Get the Lead Man a Therapist!

The Boston Herald has one of the most cliche-ridden and laugh out loud reviews I have seen in a long time. Reviewing Shakespeare and Company's Hamlet, the Herald's Vicki Sanders informs us, in true pull- quotable fashion, that:

"Director Eleanor Holdridge aims her cast straight for the play’s emotional jugular, provoking scenes of unusual poignancy."

She also gives the audience a clue to the success of the production:

"This Hamlet feels modern not only because of the production’s
contemporary look but also because the people in it are undeniably real."

I assure you Ms. Sanders that this is only because Shakespeare & Company has perfected actor-cyborg technology. Have you ever wondered why only half the students return from their Shakespeare Summer Intensives? (Cue Stepford Wives music.)

However, my favorite line has to be the following, which addresses the powerfully felt performance of the Jason Asprey, son of Artistic Director Tina Packer, in the role of Hamlet:

"It’s clear that Asprey doesn’t see Hamlet as iconic. Rather, he’s a young man like himself, trying to come to terms with a mother who married his father’s murderer, a girlfriend he’s not mature enough to handle, a stepfather he doesn’t trust and emotions he cannot control."

I didn't know Asprey had such a turgid personal circumstance, but fortunate for him to be able to draw on it. Perhaps the Attorney General should dispatch an investigator to Lenox. Tina Packer and her husband probably have some questions to answer.

How is it possible that a good review could almost make me not want to see the show? I guess I will take this as a rave, and assume that the production was so good that it emptied this particular reviewer of their cricitical and communicative faculties.

Compare this to Louise Kennedy, of the Globe who is doing a great job on the summer season. She displays wit, style, a sharp eye and makes some good observations. Not doing shabby at all for limited space reviewing.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Buried. Alive.

Two of Boston's theatre veterans are working on Beckett's Happy Days for the Gloucester Stage Company. Yesterday's Globe had a publicity piece talking just a little about the demands of the role of Winnie, played by Nancy Carroll.

Winnie spends the play immobilized and buried in dirt, spouting the intricate poetry of Beckettian dialogue. I have always thought Beckett is hard to approach for most actors because it involves an inversion of not only dramatic structure and principles which we rely on as actors, but also an inversion of our principles of being. The lies that we tell ourselves to continue our progression through life are laid bare in Beckett.

Director Scott Edmiston explains:

"There are some playwrights, some plays, some roles that change you," Edmiston said, "change who you are as a person and change your talent and your sense of yourself as a creative artist. I really feel when all is said and done Nancy will be an even greater actress because of the challenge."

It can change you physically as well. Beckett actor Billie Whitelaw diagnosed many physical problems, including a spinal problem, as symptoms of the contortions her body was forced to endure while playing many of Beckett's most famously restrictive characters.

Whitelaw had advantages that other actors do not have, she worked closely with Beckett on productions. However, it would be wrong to label this a "collaboration" in the feel-good sense we normally associate with theatre. A collaboration, (or is covenant a good word,) is exactly what it is, but I have never been persuaded that it anything but the purest form of submission on the part of an actor:

"My talents, My Voice, My Body, For Your Vision."

The actor should neither seek nothing ,nor expect nothing, that they have been conditioned, (in their pre-Beckett experiences,) to expect in return.

Terry Teachout had posted a quote from Frank Langella a few weeks ago about the actor being a vessel for the playwright. (This is very nuanced dramatic theology which has been coopted and distorted, some would say, by David Mamet's instructions to speak lines plainly and flatly and the audience will be served.)

When we enter Beckett, we enter new territory. We are converting from a faith religion, or a covenant religion, to a submissive religion. We are no longer in a put-your-hand-in-my-hand country. We heave our talents up to the creator and leave our will, our beings, as empty vessels, to use Langella's terminology.

If all literature is basically a war against time, then Beckett has created infrastructure well-suited for the specific battlefield on which drama engages mortality.

Shakespeare may have approached this problem through negative capability in his poetry and characters, but Beckett extends this to the actors themselves by direct annihilation of interpretation through regular means.

Edward Albee in his latest collection of essays talks about how reading plays is probably the purest form tin which to receive the drama, because the staging can never live up to the author's vision. Beckett, rather than succumb to this challenge, rose up to face it on straight. In his language and concept he requires either submission or failure.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Subscription Time!

Following Playgoers' breakdown of the breakdown of Broadway as a place for the cultivation of straight plays, I have initiated this year's Subscription Survey of Our Local Theatre's in Boston.

The Winner this Year......(Drum Roll).... Trinity Repertory Theatre, once again, with an 8 Play Subscription Package that you can subscribe to for as low as $16.50 Per Play.

This is a mostly unscientific survey of the subscription packages of most of our theatres that offer them. For my results I take the per play costs of the cheapest subscription package that you can purchase. (Mostly this is the Preview/Weeknight/Matinee packages in the balcony/B tier seating.) I exclude packages that are extremely strict such as "Wednesday Matinees" because I think that most people I know really don't look at those as an option. I also exclude Student Discounts and Senior Discounts as well as Flexpass options. (As a note, Flexpass generally does not provide savings as much as convenience, but more on that later.)

Basically, I am trying to see what your basic, desired theatre demographic would need to pay to subscribe to a local theatre. Also, many theatres are offering multiple subscription packages of different combinations of plays, but for the final results I usually have included the largest subscription package because it generally provides the largest per ticket discount. In other words, the more plays your subscribe to, the larger your savings.

I cannot take full responsibility for my findings, because some of these include Early Bird options, and some of those discounts may change at a moments notice. I have tried to indicate this where I could. So, you may go to the website of the theatre and find slightly different pricing. From my experience last year though, I find that the cheapest remain the cheapest. But subscribing still offers a substantial savings over single ticket buying.

To see quality theatre, you can usually subscribe to a season of 8 plays for only a little more than the cost of seeing Wicked, or the even the touring production of Doubt.

This year I included the price per play of all the different time designations, understanding that some people might prefer to go to the theatre only on Saturday nights. These listings still only reflect the lowest teir of seating options.

If you wish to see the complete list of packages, please click the links below to be connected to the theatre's website. For instance, the Huntington still outpaces everybody with their options for different packages, and I am almost waiting for them to unveil a On Demand Home Theatre package in which the production will come to your home, on a date you choose. However, there is a price for this convenience; the Huntington still is, overall, one of the priciest subscriptions in the region. As I said before, most theatres are offering a Flexpass, or something with a similar name, but these usually do not provide any discount on per play price, but they can make your theatregoing a little less stressful.

A last word on all of this. You can still go the theatre affordably by purchasing tickets to the smaller companies that don't offer season subscriptions, but put on quality productions that generally sell for $15-25 a ticket. These organizations also offer 1/2 price discounts and pay-what-you-can nights as well. This involves some preplanning though, as most of the venues are small and if you try to buy tickets for the latest Rough and Tumble, Whistler in the Dark, 11:11, AYTB, or Zietgeist productions you may find that the 40 seat theatre has sold out.

A good example: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by one of the country's up and coming playwrights is being performed by Company One this month. Tickets are $25.00, but if you wait till the last weekend when friends of the enormous cast are packing in, (and after, possibly, a good notice has been given by a major paper,) you will find yourself shut out. So do yourself a favor, and buy a ticket for the first week. For complete listings and reviews of these smaller company productions check out Larry Stark's Theatermirror.

Back to subscriptions though.

Here is how things break down, generally. Prices listed are per play. They are in order from most affordable.

Trinity Repertory Theatre: 8-Plays. Matinee/Preview: $16.50; Weeknight $21.00; Weekend $28.50

American Repertory Theatre: 8 Plays. Matinee/Weeknight: $22.00; Weekend: $38.60 (Prices based on Early Subscription.) Not a bad showing this year for a large Regional theatre.

Boston Theatre Works: 4 Plays. $25.00 Per Ticket. One Price. (This is an Early bird special.)

Merrimack Repertory Theatre: 6 Plays. Previews: $28.60; Matinees: $28.66; Weeknights (Incl Friday): $41.16; Sat Night $46.16

New Repertory Theatre: 5 Plays. Weekday/Weekday Mat: $29.20; Weekend Mat/Fri Night:$33.60; Sat 8PM $37.80

Lyric Stage Company: Weeknights Wed-Fri: $32.85; Weekends (Sat Nite, Matinees): 35.71.

Speakeasy Stage: 5 Plays. Off Peak: $36.00; Peak: $41.00

Huntington Theatre Company: Multiple Subscription Packages, 4,5,6, and 7 Plays, All Range from $38-46 In price per play.

Any comments, or if I am off on my calculations, by all means, leave a comment.

One more thing to add: This survey is not artistic, there are interesting and important productions to see in any of the seasons these companies are sporting. However, there are also productions in each of their seasons that I could probably do without. In that case, somebody could look into several smaller play subscriptions.

You could get a three play subscription from New Rep to see The Pillowman, Orson's Shadow, and Silence, and then get a Huntington 4 Play Subscription to see Radio Golf, Well, Streamers, and Persephone. Total Cost to see these 4 recent plays of note, 2 world premieres, and 1 interesting revival : $266 per person.

Just a little more than a Netflix subscription.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Faerie Fight Song?

Reading Terry Teachout today, I was caught at the end by his quoting of the song from Midsummer Night's Dream:

Over hill, over dale,
Through bush, through briar,
Over park, over pale,
Through blood, through fire,I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone:
Our queen and all her elves come here anon.

My memory quickly went, not the magical setting of the woods outside Athens, but more to the environs of my days in the Army, and the tune of the Army Fight Song.

There are several versions of the song one will hear while in the Army, not including the hilarious, (and sometimes filthy,) parodies that are sometimes executed with great, almost freakish, skill by the more lyrically talented enlisted men.

The official and incredibly banal corporate jingle that is the current Army Song is not as memorable, as evocative or as fun as its predecessor, The Field Artillery Song, (or as it is more well known, The Caisson Song.)

The Caisson Song, written in 1908 by Lieutenant Edmund L. Gruber, an officer stationed in the Phillipines, evokes the first line of Shakespeare's poem above, and then it descends into the workmanlike details of the Artillery's craft:

Over hill, over dale
As we hit the dusty trail,
And the Caissons go rolling along.
In and out, hear them shout,
Counter march and right about,
And the Caissons go rolling along

It intrigues with with its physicality and self deprecation, and then the lyrics rise to celebratory refrain:

Then it's hi! hi! hee!
In the field artillery,
Shout out your
numbers loud and strong,
For where e'er you go,
You will always know
That the Caissons go rolling along.

This celebratory and rumbling spirit was noticed by John Philips Sousa, who adapted it into a bona fide hit during World War One. But he faced a little pickle when the original composer, Edmund Gruber, showed up looking for royalties for the song Sousa was led to believe was a product of the Civil War. A good history of the song is here.

Perhaps I am put in this mood after reading a great piece in Rolling Stone this month about what it is like in Iraq. I have friends who have been to Iraq, and their observations seem to confirm the validity of the piece, but on a more literary level, it struck a visceral chord with me.

The military reporting during our current conflict rarely transcends to evoke the actual feelings of the troops on the ground, (despite all the worry about embedded reporters bonding with the troops too much,) but Matt Taibbi seems to have nailed it in his piece, "Fort Apache, Iraq." From my Army experience, I read this as if Matt, through another set of circumstances, could actually be some of the grunts about whom he writes. He captures the just the right self-deprecation, loyalty, and fear. For me, this passage is the most evocative of the general Army experience, combat or no:

Not far from the vicious, chaotic ghetto known as Sadr City, Rustimayah is the smelliest, foulest, most vermin-infested base in the whole American military archipelago. A converted Republican Guard compound, the smallish FOB is sandwiched between a trash-burning facility and a sewage-treatment plant, and when you breathe the air here, it feels like drinking a dog-shit milkshake.

Unlike the gleaming, futuristic prefab trailer camp at Liberty, which with its extensive creature comforts and vast white uniformity recalled a Holiday Inn version of Auschwitz, Rustimayah is just a jumble of old converted Iraqi buildings, filled to the cracks with crud and shit and larvae. An old bookshelf in one of the soldiers' dorms here discharged thousands of tiny fruit flies every time I tried to pull a book out; another time, I exited a latrine and stepped in what I thought was black topsoil, only to have the "soil" explode into a cloud of tiny tsetse flies. Even the half-assed attempts to make the place cheery -- like the Internet cafe-store-hangout called "Baghdaddy's!" not far from the company headquarters -- just made this stinky, edge-of-the-city outpost feel that much sadder.

Anybody who has served an overseas assignment, will instantly recognize the stark contrasts painted by his depictions of the different living quarters. In my own experience, stationed in Korea, there was a decidedly wide gulf between the quality of living at Yongsan, and say Camp Casey and its satellites. These weird, socio-economic divides, into which we were all placed by pretty much chance, were a fountainhead to a stream of feeling that an only be explained as a combination of jealousy, stoicism, comradery, envy, and bonding.

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival, probably decades hence, of our first genuine literary talent from the Iraq/Afganistan front. I have stopped reading the first dispatches such as the atrocious Love My Rifle More than You and the super anectdotal, though occasionally humorous, The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell in hopes that some cream will eventually rise.

In the theatre we still seem to be reliant on Docudrama to represent the truth of the fighting experience of this conflict. But Docudrama, though rooted in facts and first-person, is perhaps tethered too much to ideologies and struggles too much against all these to ascend. Maybe that will change soon. Dark comedies will emerge, romances will emerge, tragedies will emerge. Through the suffering, a masterpiece will be forged, something trying to make sense, through words, what may not be able to be expressed in words.

For now, I think I will reread parts of this Rolling Stone Article, where Taibbi describes a stoic squad leader, Hennes, this way:

At work Hennes had the mildly pissed-off, perpetually put-upon look of a man who has been asked to run a McDonald's in an insane asylum.

And the Army goes rolling along!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Playing the "Persians" Card?

Antoni Cimolini, Director of the Stratford Festival, writes a column today in the Globe and Mail about theatre and democracy/theatre is democracy.

After extolling the virtues of Shakespeare, and recounting an anecdote about protesters at the festival echoeing the cries from their production of Coriolanus, Cimoloni trots out one of the more popular examples in our post 9/11 world: Aeschylus's The Persians.

Those early Greek plays weren't mindless distractions. They were tough. They examined issues of power and morality, and human beings' conduct in society.

I'll never forget seeing a production of The Persians in New York City about a year after Sept. 11. Written in the fifth century BC by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, it's the oldest surviving play in history.

It's about the humiliating defeat of the mighty Persian army, led by King Xerxes, at the hands of the Greeks. Greece at that time was a minor power, and Persia was like the United States, so right away you can see the modern parallel.

Now this is a play written by a Greek, about a stunning Greek victory.You'd expect it to be a self-congratulatory celebration of that victory. But in fact, it's written empathetically from the point of view of the Persians. It shows the Persians, as worse and worse news comes in, being forced to examine their own arrogance and their own mistakes as a superpower. It also, of course, contains a warning to Aeschylus's fellow Greeks not to fall into the same trap.

People who saw this play in New York couldn't help seeing the parallels between what had happened to the Persians 2,500 years ago, and what had just happened to the U.S.

That's what intelligent, thoughtful theatre does:

Before advocates for the importance of the Greek theatre's compassion for their enemies use this vague example again, (or worse, before any more Artistic Directors jot out their performance notes, or choose this play for their next season,) at least check out an article by Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post about just these analogies. Kennicott wrote the article during a run of The Persians at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC.

Kennicott, talking to experts and reading various criticisms, finds scant evidence that Aeschylus was trying any sort of serious empathy. And what is more, he finds less evidence for justification of the play being revived as a modern anti-war play. Looking to the Shakespeare Theatre production he finds the translator taking great liberties to shoehorn the message:

McLaughlin has taken immense liberties with the text, adding, editing and interpolating, even inventing a scene in which Xerxes is comforted by his mother. She indulges in the sentimentality of antiwar literature, the youth of the victims, the arrogance of the leaders.

At a preview last week, knowing glances and titters were exchanged in the audience when her text hammered away at the idea that Xerxes is an undeserving, arrogant, incompetent scion on his father -- a scene that Maureen Dowd might have written about the Bush clan. Words like "barbarian," casually thrown around in other versions, have disappeared from her text. And McLaughlin explicitly echoes the great antiwar poet Wilfred Owen when the herald says that he has seen war, and "the pity of it."

So, yes, this can be an antiwar play, if you try hard enough.

It seems Kennicott comes to the absolute opposite view as Cimoni.
Do Not Rescucitate!

Louise Kennedy in today's Globe dovetails a little with some of the blogosphere ranting we have been doing over unearned revivals. Ms. Kennedy is referring to two local revivals: The Human Comedy at Barrington Stage Company, and Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.

While The Human Comedy suffers from a banal script and characters incongruously matched with a jazzy score. Flowers seems to be living in another time:

I'd also be grateful never to hear the name ``Tommy Flowers" again. A wide-eyed man - child who scrounges along in late-hippie-era New York by sponging off friends, shoplifting, and beating checks, Tommy is apparently meant to charm and shock us. For anyone who's survived more than her share of self-absorbed 30-year-old toddlers, though, he only grates...

...So much effort, so much energy, so much endless invention -- and all in service of a muddled, tedious, and badly dated artifact of Those Zany Times

This is not an uncommon experience at the theatre, and especially not uncommon during stock season. And choosing revivals seems often to be more sentimental, (and we know Oscar Wilde's views on this,) than artistically bold.

More often than not, interesting revivals come from unlikely places. Mark Steyn just reviewed The Contrast, a play from 1787 now being revived at the Theatre of St. Clement. The Mirror Repertory company's production helps Steyn to see:

So, although it belongs to a time when all Americans were young Americans and were just beginning to school themselves in the mores of their new nation, the play is not only well written and efficiently structured but its “contrast” between homespun Yankee virtues and Europhile decadence could hardly be more pertinent.

Steyn concludes:

And if anything older gets exhumed it’s usually the stodgy stuff –second-rank Eugene O’Neill and so on. Is that all there is? Or is it that producers and theater owners don’t trust themselves to know which of the museum pieces can be polished up and which is never going to shine no matter what you do to it?

Louise Kennedy would simplify this skill of polishing up plays in her statement:

Theaters may revive a play for many reasons: its suitability for a particular cast, its perceived appeal to a local audience, its apparently relevant themes, and who knows what else. But surely one reason should be that it's a good play.

There is much more in Steyn's piece, including a review of The Importance of Being Earnest at BAM.
Happy Coincidences!

Back from a July 4th Weekend at Lake Winnepesaukee and looking over the schedule for the First Annual Capital Fringe Festival in Washington D.C.

We have a talented friend, actress and veteran of our theatre company who is living in D.C. now, and happily affiliated with Madcap Players. We are trying like heck to go down and see her fringe show and take in some other fringe stuff as well. (We were actually selected to bring a project down there, but declined when our time slots turned out not to be so promising.)

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Madcap's fringe offering, Pretty Theft, is a play by Adam Szymcowicz, fellow member of the blogosphere, and the playwright of Nerve currently playing Off Broadway in New York.