Friday, December 21, 2007

Hauptmann's The Weavers

I didn't have a chance to see Hauptmann's The Weavers, being produced by Boston University with a cast of 29. The play has a certain status in the canon, but is not really produced that often... well, actually almost never.

Both Thomas Garvey and Bill Marx struggle with the complications the play presents to staging and whether or not the play can find purchase with us today.

Bill Marx:

Of course, to be fair, The Weavers calls for a prohibitively large cast — there are over 40 speaking part companies — so theaters are scared off by the cost and logistics of a production. But the play’s reputation as a dated rabble-rouser (a Teutonic anticipation of Clifford Odets) starring the courageous poor rising up
against corrupt fat cat factory owners, the air thick with speeches about the rottenness of the rich, also works against revivals. And there is some of that fist-waving rhetoric in the script, though most of the harrowing details about the hideous existence of the workers – children dying from eating glue, famished families living off recently buried animals, the workers embrace of a song accusing the upper crust of torture — are taken from newspaper accounts of the
riots. Moreover, what happened to the real life weavers undercuts any facile leftist inspiration — after storming some textile factories the rampaging workers, about 1500 strong, were cut to pieces by the army. There is no sense in the play that things are going to turn out differently.

Thomas Garvey:

Which brings me to the political point of the production. The Weavers is one of the few depictions of capitalism at its unfettered extreme - its middle managers are literally starving their direct reports. Yet this isn't quite what Americans are experiencing from capitalism today (its current exploitations are far more sophisticated and disguised), so even the play's intellectual case seems naive.

As a side note: Carl Rossi, writing about the Weavers on Larry Stark's site muses the following at the end of his review:

Out of these twenty-nine students, how many shall remain in the Boston area? How many shall switch Beans for Apples or Oranges? Either way, the future is theirs if not Boston’s, as well.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

How Dialogue Becomes Memorable

"Don't, Don't!" Gets you forgotten.

"Don't tase me!" Gets you in the news.

"Don't tase me, Bro!" Gets you in the Yale Book of Quotations!

Fred Shapiro, the editor of the volume, explains:

"It's not Shakespeare, but there is a kind of folk eloquence in that. It
wouldn't be a quote if he didn't say 'bro,'" Shapiro said. "That had just the right rhythm to make it memorable."

The quote is in company with the utterances of Miss South Carolina, (her repeated use of "such as" made here verbal flailings so darned memorable,) and the President of Iran, ("In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country.")

As an aside: In your next play, if you want to have a character, an innocent foreigner travelling to the US, pulled aside at the airport, interrogated, then swept away to prison, put in chains and kept up for hours without explanation, what would your description of that character be?

Bet it wouldn't be an Icelandic babe. (hat tip Andrew Sullivan.)

Boston Arts Groups - Merry Christmas And a Happy New Year?

Geoff Edgers in The Boston Globe brings the news that the Boston Foundation is killing the holiday buzz.

"Things are not getting better," said Ann McQueen, the senior program officer at the Boston Foundation who cochaired the study. "Things are trending in the wrong direction."

The report surveyed financial and attendance information for more
than 600 groups in the area, from organizations with budgets of less than $1 million to the city's largest, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Ballet, and Boston Symphony Orchestra. It found that while the number of arts groups grew 17 percent between 1999 and 2004, from 534 to 624, the average revenue of those groups fell by 16 percent. Among museums, total attendance across the city dropped 18 percent in that period, from roughly 1.6 million people to 1.3

"Proliferation isn't necessarily a positive for everybody," said
Mark Volpe, the BSO's managing director. "If the pie isn't growing, it gets more competitive." Smaller organizations generally struggled more than larger ones to keep expenses in check as revenue fell, according to the report. That led the Boston Foundation to suggest that some arts groups should consider "exit strategies."

The Sugan Theatre Company already has.

Carmel O'Reilly, the Sugan's artistic director, said yesterday that
the company, founded in 1992, has not staged a production since April 2006. She said there is a chance Sugan could return, though she said it is also likely it will never stage another production. At its peak, Sugan produced three plays a year and had a budget of a little more than $100,000. But even then, O'Reilly, who did not pay herself for the company's first eight years, earned no more than $15,000 a year.

"For us to develop, we would have needed to have a development
officer and a marketing officer, and to do that you need money," O'Reilly said. "It's the chicken chasing the egg."

Boston Theatre - Getting the Butts in the Seats

From a pre-show piece for the Reindeer Monologues in the Weekly Dig:

So how to market a show with no established name and next to no budget? Take a cue from the Mooninites: guerilla marketing (sans city-wide panic). "If you're a theater company that nobody knows, you need to create a ruckus," Barth explains. "We needed to get butts in seats, and nobody knew who we were."

With that in mind, Harrison set about writing and filming a trailer for Reindeer Monologues, one that would reach the YouTube crowd and -- interweb gods willing -- go viral. The seven-minute "prequel" uses well known Boston locales, area theater folks and the actors to generate buzz about the show. Last I checked, Harrison's vid has already gotten 819 views on YouTube -- that's a wider market than most local fringe troupes could dream of reaching.

The night before I dropped in, the X-Mas Project crew had taken
their guerilla marketing ways to karaoke night at the Charles Playhouse. "I think I marketed a little too hard last night," Barth mutters, rubbing her forehead.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quote of the Day

One of the most boring experiences on Earth is a trash movie without the courage of its lack of convictions.

- Roger Ebert

From his review of Re-Animator

Humana Festival Playwright Lineup

MFA University of Iowa
MFA Brown
MFA UC San Diego
Morehouse College
Dartmouth/Currently at Julliard
MFA Brown
MFA Yale
MFA Yale
MFA Brown
Washington University
MFA UC San Diego

But seriously, Garret has the lineup here.

UPDATE: A few sharp readers noticed that I had one too many Brown MFA's in the list. Right they are. Carly Mensch is currently at Julliard and Graduated from Dartmouth. The Correction is made above.

By the way, somebody also e-mailed me that the Ten Minute Play winners (which I didn't really notice,) include another U of Iowa MFA Grad - Naomi Wallace, as well as a graduate of Yale College.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The State of the Art?

Leonard Jacobs and Rob Kendt are talking about Charles McNulty's piece in the LA Times.

McNulty makes the rallying call to Broadway and playwrights. And Leonard and Rob give their thoughts.

This from McNulty:

Conventional wisdom tells us that American dramatists haven't been as keen to tackle economic issues as their British counterparts. George Bernard Shaw, the grand theatrical observer of the way money makes the world go round, returned to Broadway this
fall in the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of "Pygmalion" with Claire Danes and Jefferson Mays. The play that gave rise to "My Fair Lady" might be hazily remembered as a loquaciously witty entertainment, but it's actually a
critique of capitalism artfully disguised as a Cinderella romance, sans the usual happy ending.

Yet the great subject of our national literature has been the American dream, and no novelist or poet has revealed the corrosive effect of a family's empty-handed pursuit of its promise better than Arthur Miller in his masterpiece, "Death of a Salesman." There is a pipeline, in other words, of serious social drama that runs from Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets and Miller to David Rabe, August Wilson and Kushner, straight to Rebecca Gilman and Christopher Shinn -- and boy, do we need the spigot to be open right now.

Comedy has historically been more adept at reflecting contemporary crises, and America's tradition here is just rich. Whatever you may have thought of Wendy Wasserstein's final play, "Third," seen at the Geffen Playhouse this fall, it was heartening to encounter a protagonist ambling about her darkly humorous plot as nonstop TV coverage of the Iraq war sharply impinges on her daily consciousness.

Rob Kendt:

I for one am not particularly stirred by McNulty's preoccupations or prescriptions--I actually don't hanker much for topical plays that critique late capitalism at yet another of its inevitable crossroads, or for topical plays at all; for me, "topical" plays are too often just that, skin-deep. The problems, and our hopes, run deeper than Blackwater, the Fed, and Jan. 2009.

Followed by Leonard:

McNulty's problem with Broadway is really one of expectations: Because the nation has branded Broadway as representing the finest theatre Americans can create, we naturally expect that it will serve our highest goals and ideals. But fundamentally, Broadway is a business, not a social-service platform, and the result is that those goals and ideals are not prioritized as we might like them to be.

Let's also acknowledge that everything depends on the definition of
"trenchant social vision." One might cite Angels in America from the early 1990s, but I'm not sure one could name five other Broadway plays from that period that unquestionably match Kushner's "trenchant social vision." August Wilson's plays might constitute such a vision, but what other plays on Broadway were contemporaneously as fervent and poetic, as -- indeed -- trenchant.

Boston Theatre - Spontaneous Theater's At It Again

Critic Beverly Creasey, writing on Larry Stark's site, praises another site specific performance by the young Spontaneous crew.

This time they threw up David Ive's Sure Thing this past weekend:

Boy, are you lucky if you live in Allston-Brighton. You go out to one of the chic (and there are oodles to choose from) coffee houses in the area for a latte or a little work on your laptop, and surprise, surprise, you get a play!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Somerville Arts Council - Doin' It Right!

This from the Somerville Arts Council Webpage regarding incentives for Union Square businesses:

Announcing a new cultural economic development initiative. The ArtsUnion ArtSpace Improvement Program (AAIP) provides financial reimbursement to businesses or property owners who desire to improve their physical space for expanded artistic and cultural activity within Union Square.

Similar to a traditional storefront improvement project, but uniquely different, this initiative seeks to further develop and strengthen the physical and cultural infrastructure for arts and culture within Union Square. For example, a restaurant owner may seek funding for a sprinkler system, to adhere to state safety codes, thereby enabling the business to offer live music to patrons. Another example could be a business owner who owns garages within the Square and desires to upgrade them to create and lease artist studios. The projects must specifically relate to physical improvements that expand cultural activity.

Friday Fun

If you don't know The Flight of the Conchords yet...


Arts Council in Britain Disses Text and Narrative?

David Edgar, in a column in the Guardian questions the Council's recent dropping of "New Writing" from its list of priorities:

For almost all of its history, theatre has been made from texts telling
stories. So why does the Arts Council want to prioritise non-text-based theatre doing something else? There is (as yet) no statistical evidence that non-narrative, performance-based devised work is increasing in the repertoire (or proving a particular box-office success). The evidence for an upsurge is largely anecdotal and on the supply side: lots of young people are coming out of university drama departments wanting to do it.

By contrast, the evidence for the power and purchase of the
individually written, narrative-based theatre text is overwelming. There have been periods when television drama or the novel has had its finger more determinedly on the zeitgeist than the theatre. But, despite the inevitable peaks and troughs, new theatre writing has created a mosaic portrait of the past half-century of British life that has not been bettered in any other medium, from the Royal Court dramatists of the late 50s (such as Osborne and Wesker), via state-of-England writers like David Hare and Howard Brenton in the 70s and the remarkable upsurge of women playwrights (including Caryl Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker) that followed, to the "in-yer-face" dramatists of the past decade.

Theatre Education - Dime Museum Policy Change

New Huntington AD Links

Peter Dubois, the new Huntington AD wrote an article for Theatre called, Towards Revitalization.

And American Theatre did a story on him during his tenure at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska.

The articles are both archived and cost money. Maybe some Mirror readers with more resources can take a peek and see what they say?

Mike Daisey Takes on A Huge Topic

Mike Daisey's new monologue has an ambitious title:

How Theater Failed America

One description, from the Seattle Performs website:

I wonder if this monologue will incorporate the incident at the ART last year?

The show is also going to play at the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival.

Boston Theatre-Friday Roundup Snowbound Edition

I was one of the lucky ones yesterday. My normal 30 minute commute was about four hours. My sister called me and my wife periodically throughout the evening as she spent about twelve hours on the roads.

The public, along with Secretary of State Bill Galvin are furious with how things were handled during yesterday's storm.
I don't know how it could have been any better. The commuting traffic in and around Boston is just about gridlocked at any time after 3 PM on a weekday. The only thing that could have helped was a direct intervention by the Governor, declaring a State of Emergency earlier on. But still that would have dumped cars onto the roads right at the storm's beginning.

About two years ago we had a similar snowfall that hit right in the same time of day, with almost identical results. Strike One and Strike Two. What the Mass Highway department and the Governor's office have to do is figure out how to handle this particular type of situation, fast. I'm a patient guy, but three strikes and you are out!

Looks like we are having a white Christmas this year and there is no shortage of Christmas shows to go around the chestnut fire. Majestic, nostalgic, schmaltzy, irreverent or mind-numbing. Take your pick.

A Christmas Carol is playing at any number of venues. I have heard good things about the New Rep version, but if you like a little music in your Carol than you may want to head up to North Shore Music for their flying Marley Show.

For an alternate version, please join Scrooge on the Salem Trolley for a A Salem Trolley Christmas Carol. I play Fezziwig and Old Joe most performances and Mrs. Mirror plays the Ghost of Christmas Past on a few nights. This year there were 83 performances scheduled, more than we have ever done. Most all were sold out, but I believe there are a few seats left.

(By the way, if any of the local press are reading this, please contact Erik Rodenhiser at the Griffen Theater in Salem for a great story. The guy has been playing Ebeneezer Scrooge professionally for 20 years or so. He started this hit show when he was about seventeen years old.)

The Boston Ballet's Nutcracker is at the Opera House to make way for White Christmas at the Wang. I loved Jose Mateo's Nutcracker when I have seen it in years past and this year it is out in Waltham this weekend and in Duxbury next weekend.

I have not seen Black Nativity in a long time, but if you haven't ever experienced it you should go. The Boston show, at the Tremont Temple, is the longest running production of Langston Hugh's creation in the country.

Neil Casey, one of my absolute favorite actors in Boston, is playing the whole gamut of characters in a one man adaptation of a Frank Capra classic. This Wonderful Life is at the Lyric Stage.

John Kuntz is in rehearsals for Copenhagen at the ART this year. (He is blogging about the experience on the ART blog.) So The Santaland Diaries has a different performer. It plays downstage at the New Repertory Theater.

But on to the irreverent, and what better place to start than a production of The Eight: The Reindeer Monlogues starring probably some of the best young actors in Boston's fringe theatre scene. (Full discolosure, I know many of them, but I still stand by that statement.) If you want a little preview, check out the trailer here.

The list would not be complete without Ryan Landry's Silent Night of the Lambs. I missed it last year, but was able to catch it last week. The show is a hoot , and you can get a polaroid taken with you on Cannibal Santa's lap after the show!

And for another alternative, check out No Child by solo performer Nijala Sun at the American Repertory Theater.
(Photo Boston Globe.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

MBTA Charlie Says It's Allll Good!

There was a Green Line collision at the Boylston street T stop this morning and nine passengers were injured.
It sounded like a terrible experience, but look closely at the photo from the Globe this morning.

Charlie, the mascot of our MBTA, is right there with his reassuring smile and his thumbs up!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Heilpern Provides the Wet Blanket

New York seems to be going bananas over Tracy Letts' new play August:Osage County.

Mr John Heilpern provides the following observations:

When it comes to theater, I’m an unapologetic elitist. Before I’m hissed in the streets, I ought to clarify that I believe theater should be completely and democratically open—but popularity isn’t everything.

The only good move that would make theater honestly accessible isn’t to lower artistic standards, but rather the ludicrously high ticket prices. Don’t mess with the art. A theater of excellence is one that takes us up along with it; a dumbed-down theater inevitably takes us down. But we don’t call that theater. We call that television.


Mr. (Peter) Brook’s plea for the uniqueness of theater has never seemed more urgent: How can we sustain a theater of consequence whose raison d’être is that it exists in opposition to the pabulum of TV when the difference between the two is becoming more and more dangerously blurred?

I disagree with Charles Isherwood’s exuberant declaration in The New York Times that Tracy Letts’ saga of dysfunctional family life, August: Osage County, is “flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.” Whether or not he’s right about the gifted Mr. Letts’ ambitious new play, look at the references he uses to authenticate its “turbo-charged” three acts and “blissful” three and a half hours:

“The play has the zip and zingy humor of classic television situation comedy and the absorbing narrative propulsion of a juicy soap opera, too. In other words, this isn’t theater that’s good-for-you theater. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote an immortal line from a beloved sitcom.) It’s theater that continually keeps you hooked with shocks, surprises and delights, although it has a moving, heart-sore core. Watching it is like sitting at home on a rainy night, greedily devouring two, three, four episodes of your favorite series in a row on DVR or DVD.”

No higher compliment from The Times, and death to some of us. Mr.
Isherwood’s most exciting American play in years must surely be a cut above reruns of Sex and the City or The Sopranos. It’s the favorable association with comforting TV sitcoms and juicy soaps that’s meant to bestow The Times’ seal of approval.

Is it any wonder our theater culture is fucked?

Boston Theatre - New AD at The Huntington

WBUR has some reactions from several people, including Dubois himself:

ANDREA SHEA: After DuBois ties up loose ends in New York he'll take over the Huntington in July...and says while he's thrilled...he does anticipate challenges in doing theater in Boston.

PETER DUBOIS: There is a need in Boston and I see it nationally for a theater that's really bringing in the best work from around the country and working with the most exciting artists from around the country and at the same time creating a home for Boston artists so it's really working at it from both ends.

ANDREA SHEA: DuBois says he plans to capitalize on the company's new Calderwood Pavilion in the South End. He also wants to expand the theater's partnership with Boston University.

PETER DUBOIS: I've developed relationships at the Public and living in Europe and even in Alaska that are relationships that I plan to be bringing to the Huntington Theatre and I think the programming is going to represent a really diverse range of what theater means.

Do the Right Thing?

Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing famously used a recurring image system juxtaposing Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

At Lawrence High School a mural painted by student Thuan Tran was recently painted over by janitors.

Here is the mural:

The Boston Globe reports:

They were under orders from the school's superintendent, Wilfredo T. Laboy, who said yesterday that the mural looked like "ghetto art."

Laboy said yesterday that he was trying to protect taxpayers' investment in the $110 million 4-month-old school and said the new principal of the school's Humanities and Leadership Development Academy had made a mistake in granting Tran permission to paint the mural.

"There was a fundamental breakdown in communication," he said. "The adults didn't communicate."

He added that he had a "fundamental problem" with the mural depicting Malcolm X, "because he promoted violence."

"If that went up there, what kind of uproar would there have been?" he said. "In my humble opinion, it looked like urban art, ghetto art . . . I did what I had to do."

Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Boston Theatre - Huntington Has a New Artistic Director

The search is over and the Huntington has its new AD, Peter Dubois, who will be starting in July.

Dubois, 36, comes by way of the Public in New York

At the Huntington, which is Boston's professional theatre company in residence at Boston University, DuBois said he hoped to inventively reimagine the classics, to break ground in musical theater, and to nurture a generation of emerging artists, while at the same time focus on the needs of Boston's institutions and local community.

"I have a strong desire to get as many as people to the table as possible, " he said.

"We are definitely in an era where an artistic leader is not only about one's artistic prowess, but it also means your ability to create an entire vision for the whole organization."

Welcome, Mr. Dubois.

National Theatre

Leonard Jacobs at The Clyde Fitch Report raises the question of a National Theatre.

Here is a little of what the great actress Sarah Bernhardt had to say about an American National Theatre in 1905:

Shakespeare and the Goethe, the Garricks, the Talmas and the Salvinis are not dependent upon a national theatre for recognition. Genius needs not adventitious aids. It makes its own opportunity. But between genius and and talent there is a great gap. Talent, when it is mere talent, must have its opportunity made by the far sighted or made by chance. And it is therefore talent, not genius, which a
national theatre will foster.

Leonard Jacobs throws out the idea that the Regional Theatres have become our National Theatre. This is probably true.

You can join the discussion at Leonard's site.

By the way, if you follow the link for the Bernhardt quote you will get a really fun PDF page from the New York Times 1905, including a little item on the stir Clyde Fitch created by putting the word fudge into one of his plays.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Page 69 - The Money Page

Via Andrew Sullivan a whole blog devoted to Marshall Mcluhan's advice for buying books:

Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book.

Boston Theatre Streamers

I saw David Rabe's Streamers at the Huntington last week.

I have always found Rabe's play, at least on the page, to be one of the better dramatic depictionss of army life. The story takes place in that strange purgatory between training and the mission. Anybody who has served in the armed forces can relate to the rythyms Rabe documents during the course of two days at an Army detatchment in Virginia sometime in 1965. (Fort Lee, VA barracks in photo above.)

The rythyms of a replacement detachment are counted out in mind-numbing routines that fill most of the waking hours . There is always the underlying apprehension about the coming assignment or duty station, especially if it is overseas, but there isn't any outlet for stress aside from normal training.

The duties you are assigned during this period, sometimes called ("being on casual,") are random and sometimes pointless. While on casual duty at Fort Huachuca we moved desks and office furniture from one abandoned building to another almost identical abandoned building in 102 degree heat. During casual detail at a different fort, several soldiers and I dug up and replaced a basketball pole because the contractor who had installed it had in set the rim at about 10 feet 2 inches. (His reasoning was that it had to have a little room to settle over time to the regulation 10 feet.) The batallion commander demanded it be at exactly 10 feet, and we corrected it. Mowing lawns was a common task and KP duty was occasional, but even back then kitchen duties were being taken over by civilian contractors.

In the abundant spare time you could read, you could work out, but, most of all, you could bulls**t. About everything.

The military is intense activity for very brief periods of time, punctuated by an almost endless stream of tall tales, embellishments, metaphysical conversations, debates about military regulations, stories of sexual conquests, (real and imagined,) and infinite lists of gripes. And there are fights. These are usually between people of different MOS's or units who are thrown together in small replacement detachment.

During my enlistment years if you were assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea, you had to pass through the infamous Camp Casey Replacement Detatchment. It was a small sliver of property made up of small wooden buildings and quonset huts that may have been there since the Korean War. It was affectionately called "The Turtle Farm."

The process was simple enough. We were driven from Seoul up to Camp Casey in a bus piloted by a Korean driver who seemed to pay absolutely no attention to the basic concepts of western principles of driving an automobile. (While studying at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey California, one of our instructors, an octagenarian ex-professor from Seoul University, joked that "The Korean people look upon traffic regulations as something that one should aspire to obey.")

We arrived at Camp Casey in the north, went through the Indian Head gate and then we were driven into the fenced off Replacement Detachment. We were billeted in tripled and quadrupled wooden bunks liked merchandise in the backroom of a General Store. In between medical exams and physical training tests, we were to spend our time awaiting a unit to claim us.

I am not kidding. We would go to formation every day and Hummers or Duece and a Half trucks would pull up from various units and grab soldiers who fit the MOS's they needed. Aside from this daily occurence I would do physical training, eat at the mess hall, get my hair cut, and....shoot the s**t.

We were not allowed to leave the Turtle Farm and this rule was of particular annoyance to one sergeant who kept loudly proclaiming how he could hear the ladies "downrange" calling out to him! "So near and yet so far!" he would bark with his ear cocked towards the city outside the gates of Camp Casey. "I'm coming soon ladies!"

This lothario was not in our company for long though, he was picked up by a lone Hummvee at one the first formations. "He's lucky," a bespectacled private, drawled slowly to me. "That's the pathfinder guys. You have to have your shit wired to go there."

"Yeah?" I asked.

"Yeah, I'm gonna get my wings and air assault. Once I get to my unit, I am getting my ass into the schools. Got to be on the training NCO's ass, so you get the schools...."

Perhaps only those who have actually been in the army might comprehend how long this monologue about schools and air assault and airborne could possibly last. The answer is: For all time. It is going on as we speak.

It is the same type of discussions one hears on the set of a big Hollywood movie as a day extra: SAG Waivers, regulations for getting a credit, etc. But imagine you don't get to go home, the shooting doesn't end after a couple of days, and you have to sleep, work, and brush your teeth next to these discussions for the next few years.

I was at the Farm with another MI Linguist from my training and we hung out together. People were very interested in our MOS, mostly because we could speak the language, (a pride of which we were soon humbled when we would meet many tankers, infantry men, etc, who could speak Korean far more fluently just from their adverturous forays out "on the economy," or their courtships and marriages to Korean women.)

In our barracks was an airborne jumpmaster, a good natured guy from Fort Bragg, who would loudly pontificate on current events while we waited around indoors to escape the unbelievably frigid weather. (In Rabe's play the character Billy speaks about the cold of Korea, and it brought shivers to my spine just remembering the shock of those first December days as a Turtle.) The only problem with this NCO's ranting was that he rarely had any of the facts straight. But we all laughed and listened, while flipping through our personnel files or magazines, or polishing our boots.

One day the jumpmaster's subject for our lecture was Michael Jackson's recent troubles with small boys. An opportunity to incorporate many different topics presented itself, and so he started speaking about the Jackson case and all the world events tangential. Not a single fact got in the way of his discussion. Suddenly, my M.I. comrade lying on the next bunk muttered, "Jeez, why don't you read a newspaper sometime."

The barracks went silent and the jumpmaster barked out, "Who said that!??"

I looked over at my friend. His face was getting a little white as he realized that this was not going to be a pleasant experience.


My friend was only a PFC at the time and he hopped to and went to parade rest, facing the hulking jumpmaster who was an E-5. The Sergeant, eyes bulging, asked, "Who are you?"

"Sergeant! PFC Tom Williams! Sergeant!"

"Williams, huh? Williams, you must be one of them KOH-rean linguists, right?

"Sergeant, yes, Sergeant!"

"Williams, you know how I know that you are a KOH-rean linguist?"

"No, sergeant."

"You must be one of those M.I. KOH-rean Linguists cause you're talking S**T!"

Here we had an African-American high school graduate from inner city D.C. face to face with an upper middle class Oregonian with a couple of years of college. The rest of us sat silent, watching and relying, I guess, on the structure of the army and its hierarchy to prevent what could, at any second, become a fight. (In basic training I witnessed a horrible, bloody fistfight in the showers between a country boy and city boy.)

But the sergeant's last quip was so outrageously funny that it had the effect of diffusing the entire situation. People laughed, half out of tension and half out of the comedy. The jumpmaster was a such a skilled military man he knew instinctively that he shouldn't ruin the best line of the day with a beating or a continued disciplinary action.

He let my friend go with a warning to "not believe everything you read in the newspapers."

When I came back from getting a haircut later I heard a couple of guys, several bunks over, talking about the incident and how the MI guys were probably "faggots." They then went into a little improvised skit, the ending of which involved, or course, a simulated sex act. I left quickly out of the barracks undetected.

That night, in the darkness of our billets, there were a few whispered jokes about wanting the MI guys to come over and "service them." Neither of us were gay, but in that in that barracks of probably over 100 soldiers, there must have been, at the very least, one or two gay men. How must they have felt hearing these comments?

I was a resident of the Turtle Farm for only a couple of days, but there were some who were there for weeks, months and, in certain cases, a year. As people move out, others move in to take their place. My rapid progression through the farm was a combination of a desperate shortage of my skillset (Military Intelligence Linguists,) and the fact that I had arrived a couple of days before Christmas and it seemed they wanted to get us processed fast.

I ended up hopping into a Hummvee and taking off to the 102nd Military Intelligence Battalion in a remote corner of Camp Casey called Camp Hovey. As we drove down the road, we looked up to see a brightly lit tree mountain high above the post . "That's the Signal Battalion, they do that every year at this time!"

It was Christmas Eve, and I arrived at Charlie Company during a party at which just about everybody I was introduced to was hammered. The First Sergeant filled out my liberty pass paperwork and assigned me to my squad with a drunken smile.

A few days later we were off to the field for a week. Here it was, after all the training, the real army. During my time in that unit I was to serve with some of the finest people and soldiers I have ever met.

It was later, while serving at another unit, one of these soldiers I had respected, worked alongside and became friends with came out to me. And over the course of the next year, (his last in the army,) he came out to other soldiers he felt he could trust.

One day, while we were working in the motor pool, he told me he was going to go on a date with a gay soldier serving in another company, a different MOS. I asked him who it was. He told me that the circumstances of this soldier were much different than his. This soldier could not, for fear of both administrative and physical reprisals, be at all out.

My enlistment ended about eleven years ago, and I can't imagine that things have changed that much, except, as Thomas Garvey points out, the stretched- thin military has been forced to lighten up a little on their continued pursuit and purge of gay men in the armed services, (a process dramatically well-documented by Marc Wolfe's Another American Asking and Telling.)

The play Streamers has not lost one bit of its timeliness or relevance, the audience has. Many seem to believe the play is dated and its characters stereotyped. Please. I can't think of a recent character as complex and difficult as Billy or Sergeant Cokes. In fact, as a testament to the reality of the young men Rabe has written into his play, the actors in Scott Ellis's production sometimes have difficulty in portraying them. Quirkiness as a substitute for true complexity is not the currency with which Rabe traffics, and the cast works very hard to bleach tics from these portraits. But these roles are people to be inhabited not "played," and maybe the shortened rehearsal periods our regional theaters are having to deal with just can't serve this type of work.

There are other flaws in Ellis's staging, but the work perseveres. The set has too much of a stylized feel and the expansiveness between the bunks dulls some of the immediacy of the events. (I disagree completely with Louise Kennedy who found the set "realistic.") But while I am not sure these choices serve the work, they more than adequately prove its continued relevance. This distancing effect made me see the language is not as rooted in 1965 as I had previously thought, and the audience can listen through the decades and be just as engaged. However, the language also ain't Shakespeare, and so it seems to need a more realistic setting for a production to succeed.

Critics are really split on this one. Carolyn Clay, Thomas Garvey, Sandy Macdonald are on the positive, if not raving, side, whereas Louise Kennedy, Jenna Scherer, Jennifer Brubriski and Bill Marx were underwhelmed.

The sights of the naysayers seemed to be trained more on Rabe's drama than the production itself. Marx even talks about how audience members were leaving at intermission and how a few patrons sitting near him expressed that the play was boring. I will report that I saw people leaving at intermission as well, and I saw many people who seemed disappointed after the show.

However, I also heard a communal gasp when the plays bloody climax begins to unfold. I could feel the focus of attention when the dramatic threads tighten, and I heard some sobbing when Sergeant Cokes delivers his tortured coda, a prelude and epilogue all in one. The young soldiers have just witnessed something they can barely conceive and can barely talk about, and the Sergeant's dark reminiscence delivers the news that they will see more of the inconceivable. And, these visions will haunt them, if they survive, for the rest of their lives.

During war we need artists just as much as we need documentary. Rabe's Streamers, far from a creaky cousin of the well made play, is more experimental than most critics are giving credit. Bill Marx worries that cinema and television has permanently surpassed theatre in its technical and imaginative abilities to convey violence. But Rabe's play, rather than an example of this, may provide an answer.

Rabe doesn't set the violence on the battlefield, in fact, he rarely does. Even in his earlier play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, the protaganist is killed while drinking at a local bar on the economy. His screenplay for DePalma's Casualties of War sets violence either between soldiers or enacted on innocent civilians. In the time for which Streamers is set, the war in Vietnam seems at its most remote. In fact, the gears of war are really just starting to grind, the Marines landed at DaNang and the the troop levels began to swell, and the first major battle of the war was fought in Ia Drang. In Rabe's play, the winds of war blow, but very lightly.

However, the charge that Rabe's plays really aren't about war is misleading. He is intensely interested in violence, and armies, as Colin Powell puts it so succinctly, are the instrument through which we apply state violence. (My drill sergeant was not quite so eloquent, but they are on the same page.) Rabe is constantly congnizant of this connection and he demonstrates an acute awareness that the application of state violence is executed by real human beings and refuses to sugar coat or mythologize these men. Even attempts at minor allusions are denied their completion. One of the veteran Sergeants sees remembers the mayhem of a firefight as an old silent movie. "He was Charlie Chaplin, and I was...I don't know who I was."

It is through this technique and discipline that we can feel such pity for the pain and alienation of Carlyle, a transient soldier overwhelmed by loneliness and terrified of what he sees as his inevitable fate. As my wife pointed out as we walked home, "While Carlyle may be thought of as mentally ill or crazy, he seems to be the only one who has come to grips the reality of their situation." Exactly.

Rooney and Cokes, the two veteran sergeants , dull the pain of their hellish experiences with booze. Carlyle, (in a dynamic performance by Ato Essandoah in the Huntington Production,) sees very clearly on the front end what Rooney and Cokes know from having come out the other side, so he too is swilling liquor all through the evening. Both the veterans and the seer offer the alchohol to the fresh faced young recruits.

Rather than a dose of wisdom, those who know offer ways of numbing the pain. And truth and enlightenment only seems to come after death. Pavlo Hummel dies and gets to watch his life again with the strange and enigmatic Sergeant Towers. In Streamers Cokes's imminent mortality allows him to at least reach towards some type of understanding, and Billy's admission that he made a mistake comes so absurdly late that it elicited laughter from the audience the night I attended. (An odd reaction, that I wished hadn't happened.)

A criticism of Rabe's war plays has always been that the protaganists are arrested by a brutal death before reaching any understanding, maturity, or wisdom. Rather than a flaw, it could be argued that this is the point.

"The potency of myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept that we stumble down a darkly lit corridor of disasters. It hides from view our own impotence and the ordinariness of our own leaders. By turning history into myth we transform random events into a chain of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained."

That is Chris Hedges in his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. The military is internally full of mythology. You sign a contract with an implied understanding that the United States will not put you in harm's way except to defend this country. During basic training you are built up to believe that the better you are at the tasks the better chance you will have at surviving. That Don't Ask Don't Tell works.

This last one is probably the source of much of the shrugging by audiences. The idea that there is actually a place in this country that operates with the same general mentality as Larry Craig's brain must seem so pase to most modern audiences. In fact, many reviewers just couldn't get over the fact that a debate over whether somebody is gay or not could possibly be so grippingly dramatic. After all, aren't we giving same sex benefits to gay men and women these days?

Ask the family of PFC Winchell who was found in 1999 by a fellow soldier in his bunk in the following condition:

Back in the barracks, Winchell struggled to breathe, gurgling on his own blood. Both his eyes were blackened and swollen shut. Blood poured, and brains oozed, from the left side of his head. An Army investigator said it had been shattered "like an eggshell."

A gay soldier, Winchell had been beaten with a baseball bat by another soldier. His homosexuality had played a central role in the assault.

The play, while having obviously riveted theatregoers in its original incarnation, doesn't seem to be striking the solar-plexus as it once did. Maybe in a more intimate setting like the BCA plaza, Black Box, or even the Wimberly or Roberts, the play may be able relay some of its immediacy. For it is immediate and timely.

The Huntington Program has little page referencing the Basic Training experience that recruits go through. One of the pictures is that of a two young women being screamed at by a superior, and the caption indicates that the setting is the United States Air Force Academy. The Air Force Academy, one of the premiere insitutions in the country, recently had an enormous shakeup over sexual assault and harassment of females cadets. It was rampant to such an extent that commands were lost, and during the investigations victims and other women were intimidated.

The volunteer army has continued to insulate more and more Americans from the reality of having to point a loaded weapon at another human being in order to prevent them from pointing it and firing it at you. In basic training my Drill Sergeant said:

"Make no mistake, maggots, as to what your are here for. You are not here to make college tuition, you are not here to learn a skill, you are not here to 'be all that you can be.' You are here to KILL people. To Kill. Now, lateley a lot of Reservist motherf***ckers, were complaining when they have to go over to Kuwait and fight in Desert Storm. 'I signed up for the college money,' they were whining. 'I didn't know that I was gonna have to maybe shoot at another person.' Well, I would say to them the same thing I am gonna say to you, so that there is no misunderstanding. Maggots, there is a REASON that the targets we are practicing on are shaped like PEOPLE!"

But the volunteer army, (which has shrunk to such a point that many people don't even know anybody with relatives in the armed forces,) has also insulated people to the general atmosphere of serving at the will of the United States. While there are abuses and violations in every career and community, the army presents a unique circumstance for us freedom loving Americans: You can't just leave, you can't just quit, people can't come and get you or help you.
This is underscored by the darkly comic line delivered in the play by a soldier, incarcerated by the military police and being interrogated about a violent crime: "That's it, I quit the Army!"
The OIC is incredulous. And so are we.
After all, there is no way out.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Stephen King & John Mellencamp Musical?

In Time Magazine's Q&A with Stephen King, we have this exchange:

Q. So you're a news junkie?

KING: I got hooked by my wife. You'd be surprised, or
maybe you wouldn't be surprised, being that I'm around John Mellancamp a lot — he and I are doing this play. But it's the news 24-7. Always on.

Q.What's this play?

KING:It's called Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. It's a

Q.What's the plan with that?

KING: Hopefully we'll open out of town next year. Maybe in Atlanta, if they have any water left.

Q:When next year?

KING: My guess it probably like June or July. We're at the
point where we've got the director. The music's set. The book's set. We're fairly set. At least until audiences turn up. If they turn up their noses then things change. We're supposed to be, maybe in Atlanta, maybe in Boston, I've
heard talk about California. But we've got to open out of town and see if people like what we've got.

Q:What's the gist of the story?

KING: [Mellencamp] had bought a place in Indiana by a
lake, and he said that the person had told him the place was haunted. Well, you hear that — when you buy a place that's been around for a while in the woods, people are going to say it's haunted. [Apparently], there was some kind of tragedy that involved two brothers and a girl in the fifties — one of the brothers shot the other one apparently in some kind of a drunken game. Killed him. So the other brother and the girl jumped in the car to take the kid to the hospital, because they thought maybe they could save him. They ran into a tree and they were both killed. So apparently the ghosts haunted the place. So John asked me, "Do you think we could turn this into a play?"In a way, he came to me at the right time. He's been doing what he does for a long time, and I've been doing what I do for a long time. John has tried things, he's tried to keep the music fresh, he's continued to release new music, [to] try different things and different formats. And he wanted to graze, to try this idea of doing dramatic music. I've always been up for something that was a little different — just keep turning the earth over, so you don't dig yourself a rut and furnish it, you know what I mean? That's how we got together.

Q: So you expanded that little snippet of a story?

KING: Yeah. That's my job, to take something like that,
which is fairly generic, and make a story out of it that's unique. I [wrote a little and Mellencamp did some music] and then I went to him and said, "We've reached a decision point here. Neither of us knows s--- about theater. The only
thing I know is that, at this point, it either becomes like Andrew Lloyd Webber — and everybody sings everything — or it can be like My Fair Lady, where people actually talk in between the singing. They go blah blah blah and then [he sings] "I could have danced all night." And then they blah blah blah some more.

Q: Well, if it opens in New York, I'll check it out.

KING: It probably will. We're a bit radioactive, because
it has a subtext about homosexuality and it's set in the fifties so they bandy about a lot of pejorative words that were common coinage back then. But, Tennessee Williams got away with it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Genius and Waiting

You would think that an actress should stop reading a review that starts out this way:

The abominable Western twang which is her apology for the English language, has already been accepted with indulgence by the admiring and lachyrmose observers - including the weeping writer - of her acting.

But you'd be wrong. The New York Times review of L'Article 47 goes on to read:

This was in 1882.

Many theatre historians have realized that Miss Clara Morris, while often the subject of this type of dichotomy in many of her notices, was simply way ahead of her time. While virtually untrained, she dominated the theatre world with a strange mix of method and naturalistic acting techniques combined with an almost superhuman intuition of emotional beats and rythyms and their effect on an audience.

Read Miss Morris's description of her triumphant performance as Emilia in Othello. Her secret, timing her delivery with the bells:

...I trailed about after Desdemona--picked up the fatal
handkerchief--spoke a line here and there as Shakespeare wills she should, and bided my time as all Emilias must. Now I had noticed that many Emilias when they gave the alarm--cried out their "Murder! Murder!" against all the noise of the tolling bells, and came back upon the stage spent, and without voice or breath to finish their big scene with, and people thought them weak in consequence. A
long hanging bar of steel is generally used for the alarm, and blows struck upon it send forth a vibrating clangor that completely fills a theatre. I made an agreement with the prompter that he was not to strike the bar until I held up my hand to him. Then he was to strike one blow each time I raised my hand, and when I threw up both hands he was to raise Cain, until I was on the stage again. So
with throat trained by much shouting, when in the last act I cried: "I care not for thy sword; I'll make thee known,/Though I lost twenty lives." I turned, and crying "Help! help, ho! help!" ran off shouting, "The Moor has killed my mistress!" then, taking breath, gave the long-sustained, ever-rising, blood-curdling cry: "Murder! Murder! Murder!" One hand up, and one long clanging peal of a bell. "Murder! Murder! Murder!" One hand up and bell. "Murder! Murder! Murder!" Both hands up, and pandemonium broken loose--and, oh, joy! the audience applauding furiously.

"One--two--three--four," I counted with closed lips, then with a
fresh breath I burst upon the stage, followed by armed men, and with one last long full-throated cry of "Murder! the Moor has killed my mistress!" stood waiting for the applause to let me go on. A trick? yes, a small trick--a mere pretence to more breath than I really had, but it aroused the audience, it touched their imagination. They saw the horror-stricken woman racing through the night--waking the empty streets to life by that ever-thrilling cry of "Murder!"

You can get that anecdote and much more at Wayne Turney's Clara Morris Web Page.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Since the War - American Theatre?

George Hunka's latest post for the Guardian laments the loss of book-length criticism of American Drama.

He compares the yawning void of our criticism to the recent publication of Michael Billington's State of the Nation. (Number 970 on Amazon in the UK.)

Forgive me if I indulge in a bit of woozy nostalgia, but it's hard to
resist. With the publication in England this month of Michael Billington's State of the Nation, his history of straight drama in the postwar UK, I have to confess a little cross-Atlantic envy. (And I just checked this morning on its sales rank at - number 970! Not bad for a book on drama and theatre in the electronic-media-soaked television age.) Meanwhile, in Australia, critic
Hilary Glow has just published a book about that country's recent drama (and "the public agenda," as the subtitle of the book has it), Power Plays.

We could use a book like Billington's about postwar American drama; a lot has happened here since 1945 too. But who would write it? Billington is the chief theatre critic for the daily print Guardian; if you're waiting for a similar volume from one of the current New York Times critics for theatre, for example, you may have a long wait.

Who would write that volume here in the U.S?

I have a perfect candidate. Arthur Holmberg taught a fascinating class I took at Harvard Extension called, appropriately, American Drama Since 1945.

Mr. Holmberg, aside from being a nice fellow, and one one of the best lecturers I have ever had, is author of several volumes, including The Theatre of Robert Wilson. (Which I believe he was writing when I took the course.)

Don't know where he is currently, but I believe he still works with the American Repertory Theatre and teaches as Brandeis.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thankful for this Gift

An old man speaks to us from a chaise lounge. He is going for a swim, he tells us. His doctors have warned him not to, but he does anyway.

"We have, in our lives, the opportunity to create our own spaces, not predetermine them by the calculations of how much stress the walls will withstand. The walls, can be light as air, membranes that we move about to our own best intentions. The supports for our habitations, merely have to come from other sources. Not the walls. Anyway, I am going swimming. Who cares what these experts think."

He swims and returns to his cottage, a house projected.

He thinks he is lost, his house is not there, but he meets a group of young men with an American flag, and starts talking to them. They think he is crazy to be looking for a house here on this empty lot.

Lights begin to shoot from the ground in circles, matching the position of the pillars and he begins to dig, projected is the inverse of his house, under the ground.

He sweats and digs, pulling out a raw block of concrete, browned from the rain. "Breton," he muses.

An Indian man appears. "Are you using that?"

"It appears to be extra. But I am not sure that they are finished."

"I am not sure I am finished. May I have it?"

"But they are building a city, friend. The city takes much material."

"And makes much waste. If this is material, and wanted, I will go, but if it is waste to you, it is not to me. And I will have it."

"For what purpose?"

"In the night, I take what is being built and build from it, under it and over it."

"Where do you build, in what area?"

"Chandigarh? You know of it?"

"Where in Chandigarh? I know of the place well, it is all somewhere up here, (points to his head,) most parts. This is exciting. Yes, I know of it. I have the plans somewhere here."

"The plans?"

"I, yes, I...planned the city, the capital, after the partition, I planned it and even designed some of the main buildings."

"I should go.

"Do you know it is a planned city, a new city."

"I am a road inspector. I know the plans."

"And the building you are building is where?"

"I need to be on my way."

"Are you in the city limits? What are you building, maybe it is in my plans?"

"My work is on the outskirts. District IV."

"The lake? Outskirts, no, that is part of the boundary. What are you constructing?"

"You misunderstand, me."

"There is no zoning there. A green boundary around the city to..."

"I am not constructing. And I know why the zoning was implemented. If you have no use for that stone, give it to me, please. If you have use, I will be on the road, now."

"Please, stay. Help me dig, would you? My house has been...inverted. I believe it has been inverted. It is under the ground, and I believe it is upside down."

The Indian Man helps him dig. The old man tells of how he gifted a lake to District IV. The Indian starts to tell of his work:

"I know the lake, and my work is there. When the city was reinvented, a new capitol, there was much left over from the old and the new. I was walking home one night and...a construction site, and all of its beams and concrete and iron bars in a heap. But I saw something there, in the rubble, a half moon of smooth ceramic, bowed out in the middle. Where would it be taken? I picked up another, and another. I put them into my vehicle and kept them there. I drove out though, several times, loading more and more."

The Indian tells of how he took the rubble to moonlit forest and laid the pieces out. As he tells this he pulls pieces from the dirt and begins to lay them out, adjusting them. "A straight piece here. A straight piece there, until... An indian woman appears, holding a basket. He is delighted.

"Beautiful. Beautiful. I began to see, in the rubble, a family, so I constructed more."

The old man and the Indian are interrupted by an official with a flashlight. The official has come in search of the road inspector.

"I am him." The Indian says.

"You are under arrest. The District IV lake region is not to be developed upon."

There is a confrontation. The old man steps in to the argument. He asks why this official arrest for just a few random sculptures.
The official answers:

"There had been reports of activity, constant leavings and goings at the lake during the night. Far up on the hills. You'll follow my story, now. Investigation is necessary. The reports increased, I sent several men to the area over the years, but they came back with no evidence of illicit leavings or goings. You'll appreciate my predicament. Reports continued, but the geography of the lake is difficult and to dispatch men to search such a large area takes them time of which I would appreciate being spent on other endeavours. You'll see my side of things. I went myself to the area. I saw, at first, a wall, with ceramic set into it. A curved wall that ran off to the right, under some trees. You'll imagine my surprise. I followed and came upon, you'll forgive my language, his damn sculptures. You will afford me the opinion."

The old man, says, "But arrest, for a few sculptures, couldn't they stay, hidden there. This man is helping me."

The Official: "You'll forgive my assessement of your capacity. You do not understand the magnitude of the offense. These things were on public land, a clear conservatory of natural beauty. A boundary and gift from those who designed our city after partition."
Old Man: "In his description there is beauty, though not natural, and it seems to me that a few figures may be delightful to come upon in the forest. I mean how can a few pieces of raw and discarded materials create such an offense."
The Official and the Road Inspector are silent.

The Official: "The reports, you'll remember from my detailed account just now, continued for years."


"When I came upon the group of sculptures, these figures, I noticed another curved path, which led me to a waterfall, at which were positioned another group of figures. Then more, and more. You will not misinterpret my awe, but there just seemed to be no end. No end at all. There were, at a rough count, some forty."

"Forty sculptures?"

"No, Forty Acres."

"How many sculptures?" The old man asks, looking to both men.

The road inspector: "I forget."

The official: "Countless."

During the preceding, figures appear, like the sculptures, and begin to help dig.

They finally unearth:

The Old Man rememembers a monastery he built on hillside, and the grass beneath it.

"Is this the offspring?"

Can beauty be made on the windswept plaza of this landmark? Will the mayor build his new monument on the waterfront?

The ability to fight City Hall takes on a new meaning when faced with an entity conceived in the solidity of brute materials.

Who will win?


The preceding was brought to you directly from the mind of a playwright trying to find dramatic and theatrical connections between different ideas that are starting to reach out to one another.

It may not be a play I ever write, it may be one I write and discard, or it may be that it ends up looking nothing like what you seeing here.

But this is the beginning, definitely the beginning. This is the part of the process where I am starting to see connections, hear dialogue, feel a structure/story.

Consider the above an action snapshot of how a play is birthed in my mind.

This is creativity, the gift for which I am thankful.


The architect Le Corbusier can be wikied here.

The inverted Villa Savoye is the award winning project, Park of the Lost Object by Jacky Bowring.

More on Nek Chand's fantasy Rock Garden in Chandigarh here.

Here is an interesting history and evaluation of Boston's City Hall from Walt Lockley.

Geoff Edgers' reporting on the City Hall fights with Mayor Menino is here.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Boston Theatre - Streamers Opens

Streamers opened this week at the Huntington. File the reviews under: "Did they see the same show?"

Louise Kennedy is completely underwhelmed, as is Jenna Scherer in the Herald. While, Thomas Garvey calls it the Best Show of the Year.

Jenna Scherer in the Herald wins the I don't think this is exactly what you meant award:

But “Streamers” is not about war. It’s about untested young men thrown together in tight quarters and faced with an overwhelming possibility.

Nah, doesn't sound like war at all.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

TV Writers Unite!

Theresa Rebeck's new collection of her plays includes an introduction that spends most of its time in defense of her writing for television.

She has a very interesting line of thought in the essay. When she first saw success on the stages of New York she kept being labelled as a "feminist playwright." She thought this was strange because she never considered her plays overtly feminist. (I agree there.) In fact, because one play, Spike Heels, incorporated an incident of sexual harassment it strengthened this view of her. However, as Rebeck points out, the play was not about sexual harassment.

This problem of being identified as a feminist or woman playwright soon went away, but only because it was replaced with a new identity that she has yet to shake until this day. She wryly explains, "I became known as the Playwright Who Writes for Television." This label was affixed after she wrote an essay about her decision to write for NYPD Blue. That essay made its way into the pages of American Theatre and, well, all hell broke loose.

She writes about how very few reviewers can write a review of her work without somehow mentioning this fact.

While that is the overall structure of her introduction, the piece does contains several contradictions and unsupported toss offs that make it appear incredibly defensive. She keeps saying it is no big deal for her to decide to write for television to point where, (I am sorry to any of her fans and to Ms. Rebeck herself,) it really starts to sound as if she is trying to convince herself that it is OK.

For the record, I could really give a crap less if a playwright also writes for television. One blogger put it so succintly, (I can't remember which one):

If Diana Son or Theresa Rebeck were having to take a job in a
bank or as a waitress to support their playwriting we wouldn't be having these discussions.

And I'll go even further: there is some damn good television being written out there.

In The Huffington Post, playwright Jon Robin Baitz pens more or less an open letter to Charles Isherwood, the Critic for the New York Times, in response to Isherwood's article (that was half-facetious by Isherwood's own admission) about how playwrights who are currently writing for television should use the strike to maybe write a few plays.

Baitz criticizes the critics at the Times, as we all do. His main thesis is that the power of Times's critics, and their hostility playwrights doesn't help the situation. But then, surprisingly, Baitz gives a slap in the mouth to an up and coming playwright, and Pulitzer Prize finalist Will Eno.

As a critic, Isherwood is not without value, though many people are still scratching their heads over his almost Olympian celebration of an inscrutable monologue a few years ago at a Union Square theater.

That "monologue" would be Will Eno's Thom Pain which had more bravery in its concept than Baitz's last three plays combined. (Baitz had to back off and publish a P.S. apologizing for taking a swipe at another playwright, probably because he got a lot flack. But he still doesn't name the playwright in his apology.)

At least Rebeck has no problem actually naming those she is outright envious of as far as reviews go. In the aforementioned introduction to her anthology she calls Mamet a misogynist, and admits she was angry at Frank Rich for expressing relief, upon the opening of Mamet's Oleanna, that somebody had finally written a play about sexual harassment. After all, Rebeck says, she had written a play about sexual harassment.

But wait a minute, a few paragraphs before wasn't Ms. Rebeck insisting that her play wasn't about sexual harassment?

After reading these apologies by two leading dramatists I start to feel a little embarassed for them. It seems pettiness and jealousy tend to get the better of them over a real discussion of the issues.

It is depressing on another front as well. It seems that two dramatists who are incredibly successful, (Rebeck has a play on Broadway and Baitz just had one there a little bit ago,) let the critics get to them.

I will admit, I have no idea of the pressures of being a playwright that collects commissions from around the country and is able to get a reading of their latest plays at any number of regional or New York-based theatres. I am sure it must be hell. However, I do empathize with the pain of a bad review, but please.

I can never tell what Baitz and Rebeck are really complaining about here. Reviews are really in the eye of the beholder sometimes. Baitz and Rebeck rarely receive horrible reviews from the Times. From what I have read over the years, the reviews range from mixed to very positive.

Here is Ben Brantley on Rebeck's Omnium Gatherum: (Review titled "A Feisty Feast of Wicked Wit.")

But for a work that might at first be taken as an exceedingly talky allegory, ''Omnium Gatherum'' sustains a fluid, frantic sense of paradox that feels remarkably close to everyday life in the wake of 9/11. Its characters are irresistibly given to breaking off from discussion of cosmic truths to devote equal passion to the taste of well-cooked salmon or Lydia's riveting confessions about her love life.

Ms. Rebeck and Ms. Gersten-Vassilaros savor these moments of pleasure, refusing to discount them as merely frivolous. The most refreshing surprise of ''Omnium Gatherum'' is that it doesn't merely reiterate Sartre's dictum that hell is other people. It hints that heaven, however fleetingly it is felt, is other people, too.

Not a mention of her television writing in the whole review.

Here is a sample of Charles Isherwood's positive review of Rebeck's The Scene:

Ms. Rebeck’s dialogue bristles with biting observations about the obsessions of aspiring New Yorkers who continually rub up against more successful versions of themselves. ...

But “The Scene” certainly makes up in forceful comedy what it may now lack in psychological nuance, and Ms. Rebeck’s dark-hued morality tale contains enough fresh insights into the cultural landscape to freshen what is essentially a classic boy-meets-bad-girl story.

After reading the latest writings from Mr. Baitz and from Ms. Rebeck, I am only left to conclude that they simply want the reviews Mr. Mamet occasionally gets or that Will Eno received for Thom Pain.

So do I, but it is not that simple. At all.

In other words, Baitz and Rebeck don't really have a problem with Times reviews, they just have a problem with who is getting good ones. After all, how can they not get raves when they are being produced all over the country and on Broadway?

Oh, it must be because they write for television!