Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Five Favorite Productions

Last New Year’s Eve, I spent the day flying across the country and arrived to an empty house. I had another semester left on my MFA and was gearing up to return to rehearsal for two different productions. I was happy to be pursuing theatre, a thing I love to an irrational degree, however, there was some sorrow at the high cost of that pursuit including spending most of three years living on the opposite coast from my husband. This New Year’s Eve, my work life is every bit as full. I am about to return to rehearsal on Cressida, begin rehearsals for Feral, and am continuing to write Helen. I am every bit as stressed and scared and excited and humbled and anxious about this set of tasks as I was at the prospect of finishing my MFA. However, tonight I am at home in Portland, there is posole on the stove, and when I crawl into bed my husband will join me and my cat will insist that a purring pillow is way better than a regular pillow. And so it goes.

As a lover of lists and theater, I have decided to make a list of favorite productions or theater going experiences a New Year’s Eve tradition. Last year I wrote on ten, this year I realized that I had already written more than anyone was going to read in regard to five; so I switched my top ten list to a five favorites list. Isn’t alliteration the best? Happy New Years! And to everyone who reads this, thanks. 

1) Party People
directed by Liesel Tommy
at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Party People was the BEST: moving, daring, inspiring, smart, sexy, serious, full of sound and fury signifying plenty. The plot revolves around two young artists putting on a gallery exhibition about the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Veterans of those movements are brought together for the first time in decades, and wounds that perhaps never closed are stretched open. A cursory plot synopsis cannot do justice to the theatrical experience of Party People, which is as much a dance and spoken word piece as a multi-media narrative. Party People raises potent issues of the recent past as well as the present--what became of the civil rights dream, what did the rise and fall of militant freedom movements signal, and what of the counterrevolution that the CIA and the drug war ushered in?

Party People also engaged my inner theatre theorist. Shakespeare mostly owns the history play genre, with ten plays named for English monarchs. Though Shakespeare populates his plays with common folk, rebellion leaders, whores, and soothsayers, the locus of his historical vision is the king. Defined as a genre originating in Early Modern England and flourishing briefly in the 1590s, of which Shakespeare’s Henriad is the exemplar, the history play is heavily sympathetic to the “great man” theory of history. It should come as no surprise that America has never really done the history play as Shakespeare did. * Theatre based on interview projects from Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight, Los Angeles, to Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, to Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s The Exonerated build upon a vision of history grounded in social history and our post-modern preoccupation with contradiction, the problematic nature of memory, multiplicity of sources, and fragmentary nature of texts. Party People seemed to offer a new trajectory for the history play, a transcendent one whose like I hope to see again.

2) Body of an American
by Dan O’Brien
directed by Bill Rauch
at Portland Center Stage

My other favorite play of the year allows me to continue to geek out over the subject of history play. Body of an American recounts the relationship of Dan, a young writer, and Paul, an older photographer and war reporter. Dan is based on the playwright, while Paul is based on journalist Paul Watson, who snapped the infamous Pulitzer-Prize winning photo of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia during the 1994 U.S. military operation. Two actors share the roles of Dan and Paul, as well as a host of other people from an Eskimo artist to a Somali cab driver to NPR’s Fresh Air host, Terry Gross. The program notes explained that through the doubling and sharing of roles, the play hoped to deconstruct the traditional one-man show and reveal something of the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder. The success of the script dividing characters in this way depended in large part upon the vocal virtuosity of the actors, who shifted roles swiftly without the visual aid of costume changes.  Luckily, the actors were extraordinary. The show felt like a radical return to theater’s storytelling roots. Here was a show not afraid of narration, not afraid to speak directly to the audience. Though there were many scenes in which the actors relate to each other as separate distinct characters, the passages in which they seem to jointly soliloquize drew me into the story, as if bundling up before the proverbial campfires of an older time.

That the one-man show is to theater what memoir is to literature may not be an original observation, but it is a useful one, especially for this show. The Body of an American is really Dan’s memoir as his sense of himself and the world, expanded through his complicated relationship to the complicated Paul. The play flashes back and forth between a miniature and a monumental scale; the day to day and the geopolitical. What does it mean to bear witness? What is the price? How do we cope with our own mortality, with loss, with love, with family? The Body of an American is simply a remarkable play, and I hope that it will enjoy another production soon.

3) Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (M/M/C)
adapted and directed by Bill Rauch & Tracy Young
at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

My top three choices of 2012 all confirm my card-carrying nerdom: a transcendent spoken word-dance-multimedia performance piece on the systematic dissolution of the Black and Puerto Rican freedom movements, a deconstruction of the one-man show that contemplates the savagery of geopolitics and the psyche, and a parallel-fusion production of three classic tales of ambition. Yeah, I like the heavy stuff. 

The show was simply one of the most impressive spectacles I have ever witnessed. The black monumental set shared the epic beauty and simple grandeur of Adolphe Appia’s designs for Wagner’s operas. Tradition was on display throughout this radical production: the Grecian robes and giant masks deployed for Medea, the Highlander hair and kilts for Macbeth, and the happy pageantry of pastels for Cinderella. Roger and Hammerstein’s score took turns with the raucous energy of the music written for Medea, a musical for which there is no surviving score. This gesture toward classical cultural assumptions of what each play looked like served to keep the stories familiar and separate. For the first two thirds of the production, most of the joy of watching derived from marveling at how amazingly on point every actor had to be to keep all the wheels spinning. One of the greatest kernels of wisdom a professor ever shared with me was this: some plays rely on the illusion that acting is easy, others rely on our understanding that acting is hard. Medea at one point says “I am in agony”; no one can think that the emotional heights an actor must scale to deliver a line like that convincingly are easy (and Miriam Laube was phenomenal in M/M/C as Medea). In the final third of the production, the actors appeared in character but out of ‘costume,’ wearing all blacks, wigs removed, beards shed.

The stripping down of spectacle in these final movements hinted at the truth in all three plays’ observations of ambition, how it drives us, and its potential price to our humanity. I found the appearance of the actor after this change especially striking in the case of Lady Macbeth and Cinderella. Chris Moore played Lady Macbeth. His original costume made him look like a living copy of the iconic John Singer Sargent painting, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. (For OSF regulars, the costume may have hearkened back to another male performer’s turn as Lady M, that of Greg Linington in Equivocation.) When Chris came out, sans wig, to do the “out, out, damn spot” scene wearing jeans and a t-shirt, it was not anything so simple as “surprise, a guy.” I would wager most of the audience, even those who did not read their program, already knew that. The costuming had not so much hidden that Chris was a man as emphasized that Lady Macbeth is a woman. Asking the audience to accept or remember (since men originally played all the parts in Shakespeare) a male Lady Macbeth at this late stage in the play was a brave choice, made all the braver by the tenderness of this woman trying to wash away the imagined blood of an old man. The other difference that really hit me is seemingly much more trivial. Laura Griffith wore a blonde wig as Cinderella--a really good wig, which totally deceived this patron. The actress was actually a brunette, or at least she was when I saw the show. I am still puzzling over why this unmasking seemed so poignant; my guess is that it has something to do with the reminder that theater is a business and just like television and film there is a hyper-policing of type, particularly type as it relates to “classic” characters like Cinderella.

I would have happily seen Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella three times over.

4) Philaster, or Love Lies a Bleeding
by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
part of the Actor’s Renaissance Season
at the American Shakespeare Center

While we are on the subject of the body, how about a very visibly pregnant actress playing a boy, who is actually a girl disguised as a boy, a fact hidden from the audience until the fifth act? Bet only a couple hundred of you have seen that before, and I bet nearly all of you saw the same production I did. Miriam Donald Burrows gave one of the most winning performances I have ever seen as Bellario or Eufrasia, the courtier’s daughter who disguises herself as a page boy to serve the heroic (and ridiculous) Philaster. The play is an adult fairytale, and the ASC navigated its strange tonal shifts, poetic demands, and serious silliness with pizzazz.

5) A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
directed by Penny Metropolis
at Portland Center Stage

Kate Power’s direction of the American Shakespeare Center’s touring troupe production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared on last year’s list. I doubted that I would see a version of Midsummer Night’s Dream anywhere close to its parallel for years. And then I saw this one. Despite the common text, comparing Kate and Penny’s plays would be a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, since their contexts and styles were so radically different. I treasure my memories of both. I have probably seen at least one production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream every year for the past ten years. In high school, I acted in Midsummer; in college, I stage managed Midsummer; and in grad school, I directed one high school production and co-directed one camp production with elementary and middle-schoolers. I could easily be sick of Midsummer by now, but I’m not and I doubt I ever will be.

So what made this one such a delight? Well, take twelve stellar actors, add a fanciful set and the most amazing costumes – EVER – and you would have this production. The costumes worked both as costumes (doing things like signifying status, grouping characters, and hinting at personality), and as fashion. I wanted to snap out my cell phone and text pictures of the clothes to one of my most fashionable friends throughout the production. Oberon’s cape looked like a top of gorgeous swamp grasses. Titania’s gown was a waterfall of bunched fabric that Rodin would have happily sculpted. The fairies had plants sprouting from their hair. Puck had a sculpted mane and the changeling boy an Afro, both serving as bases for fanciful plumage. Hippolyta wore the best dresses. Hermia wore capris! (Actresses in Shakespeare productions always wearing dresses or skirts is one seemingly innocuous theatrical convention that gets under my feminist skin.) When the lovers including Theseus and Hippolyta appeared on their wedding day, their tuxes and wedding gowns matched without being identical and the flower corsages in their hair recalled the fanciful ‘fros of the fairies.

I had a few bones to pick with this production. They changed Bottom’s profession from a weaver to a gardener, which strikes me as far less poetic an occupation, at least in a play of interwoven plots. They had a talented child actor onstage to frame the play as the dream of the changeling child who belongs as much to Hippolyta as Titania. (The play followed the common doubling maneuver of mechanicals as fairies, Hippolyta as Titania, and Theseus as Oberon.) The elitist Shakespeare scholar in me wanted to scream that the child had no business on that stage! Beyond the lack of textual support for the Indian boy being onstage, I reflexively dislike the easy sentimentality of adding a cute child to anything in order to make it more whimsical, meaningful, romantic, etc. (Later, while listening to Emma Smith’s excellent podcast Approaching Shakespeare, I learned that Adrian Noble’s 1996 film version of Midsummer used the pajama clad boy in much the same way, so I gather my feelings on children onstage/onscreen are a minority opinion. Sigh.) I have to admit, though, that the boy was really good and his weird hair-do made his presence more tolerable.

*I sadly did not get to see Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, also at OSF and consequently do not know where Schenkkan’s treatment of LBJ lies in terms of historical theory sympathies.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

At Work Again

I spent most of October spinning my wheels. I meant to finish the first draft of Helen. I meant to send out cover letters and resumes to Shakespeare festivals across the country, in search of future employment. I planned to draft the press release for Cressida. The list went on. Instead, I read books, went to the gym, and watched more episodes of soapy television dramas and bubbly sitcoms than I care to admit. So when the temp agency called to offer me work on a corporate audit, I decided to take it. And so far, going back to work has helped me get back to the work.

The work right now involves three plays: Cressida, for which rehearsals begin today, Helen, the play I am writing, and Feral by Bruce Hostetler, a new play that Compass Works hired me to direct in January. Feral is a poetic account, moving between “reality and symphony,” of a newly homeless father’s first night on the streets. The source material for the show are interviews with over 500 people who are, or who have lived homeless. The stories are alternately heart breaking, terrifying, and life affirming. These are characters who need and want work in a way that I am fortunate enough to just barely comprehend.

The next three months will be grueling: writing, directing, and producing while holding down this other job. Luckily the office job is a place where I can work on things at a subconscious level, where ideas can percolate as I focus on thousands of lines of data. The other way that the office job is helpful is that it forces me back into relying on the public transit system to get around. Buses and trains teach you a city in a deeper way than driving does. You cross streets you may not otherwise. And the people. You get to watch so many people and wonder about their various walks of life as they come and go.

Reflecting on my month of idleness and this new month of productivity: there are a few things I hope I will remember after the shows close and my corporate contract is up. One is that as hard as I fight it, I do not want to work all the time, I do need rest, and a month of idleness is not the worst thing in the world. Second is that creative work requires a good deal of time not being directly stared at, next time I am working from home, I have to find my equivalent of thousands of lines of data. (Ibsen apparently spent the first year of work on a new play, taking long walks to just think through it’s structure. He didn’t write until the second year. Or at least, so says Fiona Shaw in an interview on “Downstage Center.”) And third, I am someone who needs to get out into the world, who needs the hustle and bustle of a crowd, and the chatter of life around her.

Final thought: One of the best meditations on work is Phillip Levine’s poem “What Work Is.”

The Blue Line, this past summer during idler and warmer times.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Drive, Girl, and Women's Rights

In April, I participated in “Wear All White for Women’s Rights,” a visibility protest. I own almost no white so I borrowed a lacey white sun dress from my roommate for the occasion. That morning, I taught my introduction to drama class and enjoyed seeing some of my students decked out in all white as well. I had rehearsal that evening for a feminist fairytale production of All’s Well That Ends Well (directed by that same roommate). First, however, she and I along with several members of the cast spent the half hour before call at a meet-up for the event, walking around downtown Staunton, following one of the event organizers as she spoke with a news crew about women's rights and recent threats to those rights such as the Virginia ultrasound mandate

Back then, I had no idea that I would choose How I Learned to Drive as my first show to produce and direct when returning to Portland, and I had not even read the play What Every Girl Should Know, which I’m holding a reading of this Thursday. I just knew that I was tired of the politics of reproductive rights and the persistence of sexual abuse and violence. Wearing all white was a small way of expressing those feelings in a public forum. Choosing Drive and Girl as projects for this fall has been a way of carrying those feelings into my work. 

Both How I Learned to Drive and What Every Girl Should Know deal with sexual abuse and sexual education. One of my favorite scenes in How I Learned to Drive is where Li’l Bit asks her mother whether sex hurts. She makes the mistake, however, of asking in front of her grandmother, sparking a fight between the women over just what a mother should teach her daughter about “the facts of life.” In What Every Girl Should Know, the mother of one of the girls, Joan, has been arrested for distributing illicit material, pamphlets about contraception written by Margaret Sanger. Joan and Li’l Bit are both smart girls. Vogel and Byrne, their respective authors, are wise in showing that intelligence is both a strength and a vulnerability.

While How I Learned to Drive is the story of one girl growing up in Maryland in the 1960s, What Every Girl Should Know is the story of four girls living at a Catholic reformatory school in New York City. The year is 1914. Women are agitating for the right to vote. Margaret Sanger - faced with obscenity charges in violation of the Comstack Laws - has fled to Europe. Although curious about the world around them, Theresa, Anne, Lucy, and Joan retreat into their own communal fantasy life in which they travel the world, take lovers, and assassinate their enemies. They seem safe within the confines of their friendship, until one of them becomes pregnant and the fantasy begins to crumble.  At the end of the play, the four girls have to make a decision about how they want to live their lives and about who their teachers are going to be. While How I Learned to Drive puts sexual abuse in the foreground, What Every Girl Should Know lets it be a backdrop to the girls struggles for self determination.

During a production meeting for How I Learned to Drive, my music director (who is also a clinical psychologist) shared how brilliant he finds Vogel’s choice to ground her play in the 1960s, a time just before America began to deal legislatively with child sexual abuse (see Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974), a time when the revelation that public figures like Marilyn Monroe had been sexually abused was shifting the notion that sexual abuse was something to shame women for (see review of “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox). That context made me think about how I hope we are undergoing another cultural shift in which attention turns toward educating potential assailants not to abuse or rape (see "Men Can Stop Rape" campaign as an example).

My hope with How I Learned to Drive is that audiences leave and have conversations with friends and loved ones about sexual abuse and the family dynamics and cultural contexts in which it occurs. My hope with this reading of What Every Girl Should Know is to inspire discussion about sexual education, access to contraception, unplanned pregancies, and the way girlhood has changed since the beginning of the last century. 

How I Learned to Drive runs one more weekend. Friday & Saturday at 8 pm. Sunday at 2 pm at Backdoor Theater 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, Oregon. Show runs 95 minutes with no intermission. Buy tickets here.

What Every Girl Should Know is one night only, this Thursday September 13th at 8 pm, also at Backdoor Theater. The reading is free to How I Learned to Drive ticket holders, otherwise it is $5. See you there! 

On a final note, I am independently producing both How I Learned to Drive and What Every Girl Should Know. You can contribute to How I Learned to Drive here, to all of my ongoing work here, and to the work of What Every Girl Should Know author, Monica Byrne, here. Thanks! 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Love Stories: Lolita and How I Learned to Drive

Li'l Bit and Peck
Photo Credit: Ari Grey
How I Learned to Drive is a love story, a tale of sexual molestation, a family portrait, and a coming of age tale. Paula Vogel has packed a lot of material into this relentless little play. My music director observed after our first run that the play is constantly in transition. How I Learned to Drive never stays in one place or even one year for very long. Instead the play invites the audience to take a road trip with narrator and protagonist Li’l Bit as she revisits memories of an affair with her uncle, Peck, and processes not just how he and the rest of the family shaped her but the choices she made and a time when she had no choice.

Lolita, the novel that How I Learned to Drive pays homage to, spends a lot of time on the road. Humbert uses road trips as a means of distracting and disorienting Lolita. Unlike Peck, Humbert does not teach the object of his affection how to drive. Lolita, however, does get behind the wheel. Humbert observes:

“I could make out Lo ludicrously at the wheel, and the engine was certainly running – though I remembered I had cut it but had not applied the emergency brake; and during the brief space of throb-time that it took me to reach the croaking machine which came to a standstill at last, it dawned upon me that during the last two years little Lo had had ample time to pick up the rudiments of driving” (228-29).

Humbert’s deepest fear that Lolita will leave him is about to come true. He fights tooth and nail to stop her. Peck shares Humbert’s fear. Peck, however, teaches Li’l Bit to drive. He encourages her to go to college. Paula Vogel points out “the thing that I find noble about” Peck is “he taught his niece how to reject him. I think he’s given her the tools and ego development to destroy him.” (1997 Interview)  

It is not that Peck is a good pedophile and Humbert a bad one. Comparing Peck and Humbert is more akin to comparing the murderers, Othello and Iago. Othello and Peck succumb to demons that they cannot disentangle from their angels while Humbert and Iago worship their demons.

Both Lolita and How I Learned to Drive contain a devastating proposal scene near their conclusion. Humbert wants Lolita to leave her husband and come away with him forever. Peck wants to leave his wife and marry Li’l Bit. Lolita rejects Humbert. She stumbles to explain that she would sooner go back to an abusive ex-boyfriend. Humbert imagines her meaning:

“She groped for words. I supplied them mentally (“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life”).

Nabokov does not give the reader much hope for Lolita. She is a pregnant teenager dependent on her husband for fulfillment. Of course, we are seeing her through Humbert’s less than objective eyes. This is the end of the road for her. Lolita may have star billing as the novel’s titular character but the story belongs to Humbert.

Li'l Bit
Photo Credit: Ari Grey
How I Learned to Drive is more of a duet. Li’l Bit’s rejection of Peck is not the end of her story but rather a beginning. The play is a portrait of a woman processing her past and moving beyond it. To do that though, she must not only share the terrible thing Peck did to her, she has to share how he loved her and she loved him. At the end of the day it is that love story that makes How I Learned to Drive so beautiful and unnerving. Sadly most stories of abuse, assault, molestation, and rape do not involve strangers but people who we once loved, people who were supposed to love us. How I Learned to Drive is a fictional reflection of that reality.

Li’l Bit is not broken. As dark and tragic a play as How I Learned to Drive is, it is also full of hope. And humor. If you are in Portland, I hope you will come see it.

How I Learned to Drive opens Friday and shows for six performances: Fridays & Saturdays September 7th, 8th, 14th & 15th at 8 pm and Sundays September 9th & 16th at 2pm at the Backdoor Theater 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Tickets available online. Cast is David M. Brown, Elizabeth Garrett, and Melanie Moseley as The Greek Chorus, Natalie Stringer as Li’l Bit, and Tommy Harrington as Peck.

P.S. I am producing How I Learned to Drive in collaboration with Patrick J. Cox and Tobias Ryan. We are trying to raise about a third of the total production costs through donor contributions. Please visit our campaign page and consider donating. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Going There: Rehearsals Begin

Rehearsals for How I Learned to Drive begin tonight and my car is in the shop. It should be ready in just enough time for me to drive straight from the garage to rehearsal. How I Learned to Drive takes an accepted rite of passage – learning to drive – and uses that experience to anchor a coming of age story that centers on an incestuous relationship between Li’l Bit and her uncle, Peck. The play frames that relationship along a continuum from a dalliance between a young woman and an older married man to a pedophile’s assault of a young girl. Sound intense? It is. It is also extremely thoughtful and very funny.

In a quixotic embrace of How I Learned to Drive’s dominant motif, I have two drives to tell you about. First, a little more background: Paula Vogel wrote How I Learned to Drive as a response to Nabokov’s Lolita. If you have never read Lolita, the book absolutely lives up to its’ reputation. I plan to devote a whole post to the way the book affected my reading of the play in the next few weeks. For now though, I want to share a bit of trivia I have come to treasure. Nabokov wrote part of Lolita in Ashland, Oregon. You can bet I thought about that on my road trip down to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this weekend.

There is something liberating and romantic about road trips. Even when they go wrong, which leads me back to my car in the shop. To keep the story short, my car broke down in Ashland. It broke down next to my motel, a place with all the charm of a jail-house in a country-western song. Luckily, that motel was immediately adjacent to a garage. Two of the nicest mechanics in the history of automotive-maintenance diagnosed it as in need of repairs, that could keep me in the Valley for days. Or they could do a temporary fix and I would make it home safe and sound, so long as I drove slow, did not stop, and kept the air conditioning turned off. I pride myself on being a self-reliant woman, a feminist, however faced with a broken down car it was comforting to have a mechanic call me ‘sweet-heart’ as he taught me how to feather the throttle. (Yes, I realize how that sounds, but that is the actual term for a technique that involves working the brake and accelerator pedal to get a car to not stall out as you shift gears. I did not master this technique, by the way, they ended up having to make another adjustment to help me home.) The experience was a good reminder of why driving is such a potent metaphor: cars offer an illusion of independence and yet the roads we drive on and the help we have (some more than others) in maintaining our cars is testament to our interdependence.

Almost a year ago, I took another road-trip. I did not have a car, but I really needed to get out of Staunton. Two of the finest folks I know agreed to deliver me to another friend’s place in West Virginia. The three of us share a love of bluegrass and country music: Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, you get the idea. Somehow on the drive we ended up listening to Conway Twitty’s You’ve Never Been This Far Before. The reassuring rhythm of that song offers a counterpoint to the lyrics’ more than slightly sinister story a sexual encounter. The song stuck with me and resurfaced when I began work on How I Learned to Drive.

You’ve Never Been This Far Before is from a male perspective and the description of his conquest revolves around the inexperience and clear nervousness the woman or girl feels about the “chance” that they are “taking.” The situation is vague, leaving it to the listener to fill in the details to determine what to make of the singer saying he “doesn’t know” and “doesn’t care” what made her tell some third party that she doesn’t “love him anymore.” What is clear to the man is that she “hasn’t been this far before.” Songs like this one haunt seemingly wholesome music catalogues. The easy-listening sixties sound of Gary Puckett& The Union Gap contains two such titles: Young Girl and This Girl is a Woman Now. (Vogel lists these and others in her script.) These songs work a lot like How I Learned to Drive, using the comfortable and familiar as a counterpoint to the common but dangerous ground they cover.

Going there, exploring uncomfortable parts of human experience, and offering a fictional touchstone that may offer some solace as we stare down a subject in real life, or provoke us to think about a subject before that day comes is one of the main ways that I believe art serves us. And tonight I have my first meeting with the artists who have agreed to go on this journey with me. I am so grateful to them and so excited to dig in. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Helen: In the Company of Women

Cressida is a very isolated young woman. Her lack of female companions distinguishes her from other Shakespearean ingénues: Juliet has both a mother and a Nurse, Cleopatra has Charmian and Isis, Rosalind has Celia, and so forth. Cressida is in the company of Ophelia and Miranda. Of course, Ophelia and Miranda have access to their fathers, whereas Cressida’s dad has turned traitor and fled the country. Cressida is so alone.

Helen is not. She is surrounded by women. Helen has a mother, a sister, and a daughter. Part of the joy of writing Helen is digging into the stories of the women who surround Helen and figuring out how their narratives intersect with hers – and what use they make of each other’s narratives.

In in the interest of keeping this post from becoming a novella, I am going to just profile Helen’s mother, and leave her sister and daughter for later posts. Helen’s mother is the legendary Leda, whom Jove either seduced or raped. It would be nice if the sources could agree on this point, but they do not. I guess I should not be surprised that the sources are ambiguous. They are the works of ancient poets and playwrights and it is not as though either lawyers or artists have resolved the problem of proving or representing rape in the intervening centuries. Sigh. Deep, deep sigh.

Did I mention that Jove was a swan at the time? That’s right. A Swan. Leda hatched Helen and her siblings. Or at least, that’s what both Cesare Sesto (left) and Leda Melzi (right) depict in Leda and the Swan after a lost original by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.

Jove apparently had a penchant for this sort of thing. He transformed Io, a nymph and his mistress, into a cow to hide her from his wife. Ellen McLaughlin includes poor, sweet Io in her terrific adaptation of Euripides’ Helen. Before I started writing my own Helen, I was dying to do McLaughlin’s. One day.

If the tale of Leda and the Swan strikes you as a bit incredible, you are not alone. Margaret Atwood exploits the incredulity of the whole swan business in the fabulous poem Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing. My favorite take on the business of Leda and the Swan, though, is William Butler Yeats’ poem of that title.

Yeats’ vivid description accomplishes that alchemy of great art: turning the fantastic into fact. Jove is a swan, and he is raping Leda, and it is terrible. The question Yeats ends with is whether Leda might have had at that moment a prophetic vision of the fall of Troy and the murder of Agamemnon. Through this suggestion, Yeats marks the beginning of the end at the moment of Helen’s conception. It is a horrifying thought; one that would surely torture Leda and her family, if any of them believed it.

Leda will appear in Helen and like Yeats, I am accepting both that Jove turned into a swan and asserting that he raped Leda. She is an awesome character: a rape survivor, a mother, a wife, and a stateswoman. The way these identities affect each other is complicated, and I think the play is going to be infinitely enriched by Leda’s presence. Now back to, you know, writing the play. 

There is an amazing gallery of Leda and The Swan art over on the Visions of Whimsy blog. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dear Helen

These days find me in Portland, writing a new play. The play is Helen, a companion piece for Cressida, a prequel that starts after Helen, having been abducted by Theseus, returns to Sparta and ends with the dawning of the Trojan war. 

The impetus behind Helen was a nagging sense of guilt, supplied by my inner feminist, during rehearsals for Cressida. When workshopping the play, the cast and I discovered the utility of bashing Helen of Troy. We needed some spark for the affair between Cressida and Diomedes. She loves Troilus deeply and he has no reason to trust her. Both, however, have a rebellious side. They question the war and they hate, hate, HATE Helen. 

In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Diomedes dares to say the following to Paris about Helen:

For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated weight
A Trojan hath been slain. Since she could speak
She hath not given so many good words breath
As, for her, Greeks and Trojans suffered death. (4.1.71-6)

In Cressida, I had Diomedes speak these words to Cressida in response to her raging at the futility of the only two recourses available to Trojan women, prayers and tears. In this new context, Diomedes' lines are meant as proof that Grecians and Trojans, men and women, alike are in the same figurative terrible boat, (they are actually on a literal boat, at the time) and Helen is to blame. The irony that on Cressida - a project whose mission was moving a woman from the margins to the center - so thoroughly disparaged another woman was not lost on me. I joked that the only proper penance was to write a play for Helen.

I am not sure when Helen went from an intriguing joke or fanciful daydream to an artistic mission. Once again, I am starting with Shakespeare and tracing the literary heritage forward and backwards from there. Helen has precious few lines in Troilus and Cressida: however, one of them goes to the heart of the ambiguity of Helen's story. She tells Pandarus, "Let thy song be love: this love will undo us all" (3.1.100). What love is Helen referring to? Does she predict (or, after seven years of warfare, concede) that Paris' love for her spells the downfall of Troy? Or is it her love for him? Or is she thinking of Menelaus' love for her? How does she feel about her estranged husband? Does it matter? Love is a plague on both their houses.

Such a conclusion may feel mature even as it cheats the reader of Helen's story. In Troilus and Cressida  that is alright. That play is not Helen's story. The more I worked on Cressida, the more I came to respect the way Shakespeare interrogates perpetual warfare and the sexual double standard. Someday I'll direct his play. For now though, I want another play. I want Helen's story: a tale of love, adultery, religious visions, rape, and growing up the prettiest girl of all. Helen is a complicated character. Helen will be an apology to her, not for her. 

Head of Helen by Sculptor Antonio Canova

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Leaving Staunton

Sometimes you discover a piece of poetry at the perfect moment when your world aligns with the concerns of the poem in such a way that you experience that delicious delusion that the author wrote this particular poem just for you. I had that serendipitous pleasure the other night when reading Allen Ginsberg’s My Sad Self.

Ginsberg opens the poem with a recollection of observing New York City from the roof top of the RCA building through eyes ostensibly made red from weeping. The sorrow comes from the loss of treasured eras in one’s life – and – the inevitability of those losses. The poem is remarkable. Ginsberg’s typography reinforces a sense of an inner eye meandering down city streets and memories of love affairs and friendship. I find myself, of late, indulging the same sort of exquisite nostalgia that permeates My Sad Self. I am about to graduate with my Masters of Fine Arts and leave the town of Staunton, Virginia.

Staunton is a beautiful little town filled with old Victorian homes in various states of repair. The skyline is littered with steeples. Church bells pronounce the hour. Trains whistle through the night. Yes, there is a troubadour. A chalk graffiti artist has tagged the underpass in my favorite park with the word “LOVE.”

I have experienced a lot of love in Staunton. I directed five plays here. I assisted in some capacity on a half dozen others. I found a handful of kindred spirits: the kinds of collaborators who will fight you because they are going to stand by you over the long haul. It is here that my ear has begun to tune itself to the music of Shakespeare’s meter; that I wrote my first soliloquy. 

And now it is time to go. Another poem comes to mind: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 110. –“Alas, tis true, I have gone here and there / And made myself a motley to the view.” – The arts make for a nomadic existence. Sometimes literally. More than that though, the ephemeral nature of the work means a constant cycle of love and loss. Of course, that is part of the pleasure, the opportunity for reinvention. You have to be willing to start over. But sometimes that requires a mourning period, a time to retrace your steps, to reread the poem that Ginsberg may have written just for you. 

Photo from one of my sentimental walks

P.S. I was going to link to My Sad Self, however, none of the various poetry places on the web do the text justice in terms of the poem's layout. Find it in print.

Also, Staunton has gotten some press lately for its charm. Travel and Leisure listed it as having one of the "Greatest Main Streets in America" and the Smithsonian listed it as one of "The 20 Best Small Towns in America." Just sayin'.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Cressida, Boldness Comes

When Cressida reveals her love for Troilus, she frames her heart as her gift from boldness. Before meeting Cressida, a pining Troilus compares his heart to an open ulcer. Once confronted with the imminent loss of Cressida, Troilus imagines the act of handing her over to that of a priest sacrificing his own heart. In her final speech, Cressida reckons with what her heart now sees.

José Rivera in his “36 Assumptions about Playwriting” quotes William Faulkner as saying “the greatest drama is the heart in conflict with itself.” Shakespeare filled Troilus and Cressida with such conflicts. Troilus does not want to turn Cressida over. But he does. Cressida does not want to betray Troilus. But she does. The fact that neither of them has much choice in the matter does not make it any easier. Rather the antithesis of desire and limit drives the desperation of the play.

The limits in Cressida derive from a stagnant and apathetic political world. As one of my actors observed, the men in Cressida are incredibly high status characters (kings, princes, generals) who have very little power. The network of political and social alliances formed by the Trojan War overwhelms them. Greeks and Trojans, alike, seem to succumb to Gloucester’s vision of the universe in King Lear: “as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport” (4.1). 

Cressida opens tonight at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. Two Performances Only. 8 pm January 30th and 31st. Admission is Free.

Cressida is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. To read more about the adaptation, see my previous post To Cressida, With Love or Notes from the Breach: A Tale of Unmoderated Grief in the Shakespeare Standard.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

To Cressida, With Love

After Cressida confesses “Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day / For many weary months,” Troilus asks “Why was my Cressid then so hard to win?” She replies with one of the best speeches Shakespeare ever wrote: “Hard to seem won, but I was won my lord.” And so was I; I have loved Cressida ever since.

And I’ve been angry at Shakespeare on her behalf, not so much for what she endures as for her final words. The morning after Troilus and Cressida’s first night together, news arrives that the Greeks are willing to hand over a valuable prisoner of war, the Trojan commander, Antenor, in exchange for Cressida. The Grecian commander, Diomedes, has already arrived to deliver her. Troilus promises to sneak into the Grecian camp to see her but cannot prevent her going or promise to aid her in escape. Behind the exchange is Cressida’s own father, Calchas, who knows nothing of his daughter’s new found love. Calchas, a prophet, betrayed Troy, abandoned his daughter and has lived an exile in the Grecian camp ever since. When Cressida arrives at the Greek camp, the generals take turns kissing her in a scene which has variously been interpreted as proof of Cressida’s promiscuity, a cross-cultural misunderstanding, and a gang-rape. Troilus does sneak into the Grecian camp only to see Cressida award Diomedes the sleeve that Troilus gave her at their parting. So after being torn away from her new lover, kissed by all the Grecian generals, and having to come to a heartaching decision about whether to place her trust in Diomedes, what does Shakespeare give Cressida to say? A misogynist soliloquy that ends with one of the worst rhymes in all of Shakespeare: "conclude" and "turpitude."

There are lovers of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida who will emphatically argue that Cressida’s final soliloquy is appropriate. The play is a deeply cynical look at the distance between people’s aspirations and their behavior. Cressida learns to think women are sinners who cannot trust their own eyes because everyone in Troilus and Cressida is invested in rationalizing their own inadequacy rather than striving for a better world.

Such a viewpoint takes into account the epic scale of Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare devotes less stage time to either of the characters for whom he titled the play than he does in Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra. Troilus and Cressida speak roughly 23.5% of the lines in their play; Romeo and Juliet’s lines account for 38.5% of that text, and Antony and Cleopatra out-talk all the lovers with 49% of the dialogue. And while the men speak more than the women in all three plays, Cressida says less than Troilus by a greater proportion. Antony has 5% more lines than Cleopatra. Romeo says a mere 2% more than his Juliet. Whereas, Troilus has double the lines of Cressida. No wonder Cressida can get lost in her own play. It’s not really hers.

So I have given Cressida her own play. From Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida I have sculpted a shorter play, Cressida, that focuses on her journey. The text is still 90% Shakespeare (turpitude aside, the man’s writing is awesome in every sense) and 10% mine. I have added bits of her father’s back story back in – according to The Iliad, Calchas is the one who advises Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter so that the winds return to sail their ships to Troy. Calchas involvement in such an incident disturbs my Cressida. It is one of the earliest lessons she learns about the value of women in her society. I have also restored some elements of Chaucer’s Cressida. In Troilus and Criseyde, Cressida dreams that an eagle rips her heart out and replaces it with his own. (Fantastic.) Chaucer presents the dream as equally violent and erotic, such a dream seemed the perfect premonition for Cressida of the courage she needs. Cressida is a story of love in a time of war; a coming of age tale; a legend of loss. 

If you're near Staunton, Virginia, come see Cressida at the Blackfriars Playhouse. 8 pm. January 30th & 31st.