Sunday, April 12, 2015

This Is Water

“..There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”


--David Foster Wallace 

When I moved to Cambridge, I moved to 1958. And there are some great things here. My son bikes home from school by himself. We have a backyard and the kids walk the dog in the huge park behind the backyard. My children see their grandmother every week. This is a great place to raise a family.

However, the sexism is thick out in the provinces. When I had the opportunity to write a play for an evening of plays set at the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge, I went to the museum looking for inspiration, but all I could find was 1958. All I could be was angry. Because that expensive little temple on Lensfield Road is a temple to white privately-educated brotherhood. So I wrote an angry play - an angry, funny play. In it, Mary Magdelene Jenkins, mother of Violet Jenkins and chaperone of Violet's girls' school trip to the museum tells the story of the fish to the headmistress of the school. Sometimes the things that are the most ubiquitous are the hardest things to find a way to talk about, and tomorrow night, Mary gets to talk about the water. What the headmistress, Esther, and Mary's daughter, Violet, do with the news, well - David Foster Wallace had terrible depression and it finally killed him. Let's leave it at that. East Anglia does not like hearing the news that it is not the singularly most wonderful place in the whole world. The world does not listen to the content if it has an easy objection to the form. And "crazy" is a very popular formal objection.

I write mostly because I am thankful for this moment tomorrow and it feels really special - it feels like real theater. I have been so delighted and fulfilled with the hard work of the talented actresses (Sue Maltby, Flaviana Cruz, Zoe Walker Fagg) and the director (Darren Bender) and the producers (Kim Komlijanec and Trish Rawson of WriteOn) and so pleased at all the wide eyes and nervousness about my controversial play (controversial, I hasten to add, for Cambridge). At every step I felt like I was listened to, and I could speak from the heart, and at every step people spoke from the heart back at me. Darren is a drummer and a producer. His direction has rhythm and a bottom-line orientation but also this generous openness. The conversations in rehearsals were inspiring.

Together we have worked and worked and for one shining twelve minute period tomorrow night all the energy and talent of these good people will come to an ephemeral fruition and Mary will point out the water. I am grateful. This is what I always wanted from theater: people all in a room together (a sold-out room I might add) on a particular night, never to be repeated, finding a way to catch a glimpse of the water.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The View from the Bridge at Wyndham Theatre - SPOILER ALERT

So last week I went to see the much-lauded production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. It originally opened at the Young Vic last year and it is up for every award every in the history of London theatre. The actors deserve their nominations, they are to a person phenomenal. The production of the play, not so much.

In 1989 University of Chicago put on Miller's less known play American Clock. It was unlauded and didn't sell out. But I went to see it and sat in the empty back of the theatre with with my friend Kevin and Arthur Miller. I have been in the same room as him so I am obviously qualified to speak to what he would like and not like. I don't think he would like this production.

First, the set. The play takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn and revolves around a hard working American who lets two illegal immigrants stay in his house. He is in love with his niece, and refuses to let her marry one of the immigrants, Rudolfo, when they fall in love.  The piece is thick with Miller's working class American males, appeasing women, economic reality, frustration and work, work, work. It is intensely kitchen sink. The immigrants challenge Eddie to lift up a chair.

However, the Belgian director has set the piece in an incredibly futuristic sleek glass and steel stage. There is no furniture. There is no Brooklyn closeness. It's like people from 1930's Red Hook found themselves beamed into a stripped-down shiny starship. Hey, guys, the view is not from the Bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise! It's the Brookyln Bridge.  They might have misread that part.

So when Marco, one of the immigrants, challenge Eddie, they have to bring out a chair. An anomaly. It looks out of place on the starship, it's not integral. The American magic of making due, of finding something in your surroundings to become a symbol of power, that was lost when the chair was ceremoniously paraded out.

And it wasn't just the set. It was like a European had walked out of an SNL parody and put on the play. Eddie kisses Rudolpho as well as his niece, as if his incestuous love for his niece is a cynical power play he tries out on the men. Too far. There was an ominous Requiem playing between the scenes (Durufle?), and the play ended in a heavy-handed  shower of blood.

You know, having lived in Europe for the last thirteen years, I am very familiar with the conventional wisdom that Europeans have a higher aesthetic, that their art is better, especially their theater. I have even actually bought into this conventional wisdom on occasion. And when I lived in the United States I did think there was something that was more ineffably cool about being European. But it was obvious to me at Wyndham Theatre that what Europe brought to this play lessened it somehow. It lessened the subtlety and beauty of Miller's simple tale of human struggle. The theatrics made it less theatrical.

I think Arthur Miller wants Eddie to die in a tenement, not in a starship. He dies in a place you could die.

This seems to have sparked an Arthur Miller revival - RSC is doing Death of a Salesman next season - and that's a good thing. I only hope that the American aesthetic will be preserved in that production,  We don't need soaring Lachrymosas and Gothic arches to tell our tales. We can find them simply, sitting in the back of a theater, looking at a crowded, homey stage.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Not Waving But Drowning

the quintessence of British life in one awful, glorious poem:

Not Waving but Drowning

BY STEVIE SMITH
Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   
(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tree by Daniel Kitson and Tim Key

When I went to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green a few years ago, we drove into London and I become incensed watching the pedestrians because apparently everyone had received a memo about wearing topknots and I never got the memo. There I was with my blow-dried hair looking at old doll houses in an old train station, excruciatingly without a topknot. I was 45. I guess 45 is when you stop getting the memos.

I can report from last night at the Old Vic that the memo this year required a combination of dark-rimmed glasses and excruciatingly vitamin D-deficient skin for any gender. Transclucent levels of pale. But men, chin to collar bone, need to look like Montana separatists who spent the winter cleaning their guns and shooting antelope. 

No one's beard is longer than Daniel Kitson's. I don't know how long he has been growing it, I have never seen him live before. He is a phenomenon. His shows famously sell out in a heartbeat. In ten years of him at the Edinburgh Fringe I have never managed to get tickets. But my friend E managed for Tree. 

There is a tree in the play, Daniel is hidden up the tree for the play, hard to see. Underneath the tree a man in a hurry appears with a picnic. They begin to talk. It is easy to be bored with two characters revealing their backstories in anecdotes but this was done with a charm and a mindfulness. They snuck up on the audience, it seemed so innocuous at first, an English eccentric who lives in a tree and a man planning a picnic. Amusing enough, maybe a bit boring at parts -  I mean, are there no confident romantics on this entire island? Does every British man have to have this Hugh Grant-style emotional incapacity/slapstick/acute embarrassment? 

But then in the last twenty minutes of the play something happens, and the parallels between the characters emerge, not at all in a didactic way, in a quietly amazing way. In a subtle way the parallels expand to us, sitting in the audience, staring up at the tree to get a glimpse of the recluse. Our choices are indicted or at least reviewed. What are you committed to and why? How much of it is inertia or is shaped by the world around you? How does  your commitment matter? Do you tell yourself the truth when you answer those questions? 

Gently Kitson questions, and his long beard almost seems a disguise, because how could someone with so much insight care about the memo? 


Monday, December 8, 2014

my perverse obsession

I mean really. Probably once a day I get invited via social media to join the beginning of the peaceful revolution. An invitation to an Occupation, the launch of a political party, a global conference call. A people's assembly. Or a link to a blog post exactly like the ones I was writing three years ago in October 2011. Bloated with optimism, newly enlightened, burning with anger, intent on success.

I love these beautiful actions. I even love the blog posts, even as I slightly cringe at the arrogance required to stand up. Critical mass is not building though, not fast enough. Activists are not organized like say the Evangelical Christians. I heard recently from this consultant that businesses now study Evangelicals because they are so good at training and promoting leaders. In this manner, activists could really use their company and insight. And actually, I think not only in this manner. And that ladies and gentlemen is my perverse obsession. This infernal, unshakeable blight upon my writing, this hopeless certainty. Please wring your hands with me, I am quite overwrought.

No, it's that I can't shake this idea that the ills of the world could be cured if the activists and the Christians united. Formed an alliance. All my previous attempts have abjectly failed, I mean really, it's like they're fending off a lunatic. On both sides.

And yet it remains my perverse obsession. Especially now at Christmas it haunts me, in the darkness, as I think about what is holy, what is sacred. In case you were wondering, the tree is winning over the nativity this year. My Christmas songs are on my ipod and while I was cooking Sunday supper yesterday I got really super mad when O Holy Night got to the third verse:

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains He shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in His name, all oppression shall cease.

You might know as a blog reader how I come out on the whole Peace on Earth thing. We really accept an astonishing amount of war for a people who worship a god of peace and it George-Carlin-Style pisses me off. It's the silence around peace: where are the advocates? Where are the candidates? Call me old-fashioned, but if you really wanted peace couldn't you just stop fighting? (quote, Dr. Who, The Doctor's Daughter (2008))

And how about the oppression? We're not doing so great on that either. Who can escape the ugly truths surfacing about the police? How many Syrians? How many Ukranians? How many petty tyrants made possible by neo-liberal support can we name?

I was very grumpy until the Spectorette's version of Frosty the Snowman came out and I thought about that girl band, those poor impressionable girls controlled by Phil Spector and how oppression and darkness are all around us, even at Christmas. The truth is forces for good could be gathering and falling into place, there will always be darkness to see and I am free to step into lighter moments, as I amuse myself with the ludicrous painfulness of life. How I get so worked up over everything. So then I make a dinner and cuddle a child, read a story, make a lunch, draft a contract, tinker with a play. And I am fine. Until my perverse obsession takes me again. And then I can't breathe.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Sleepless Ones

The Sleepless Ones

What if all the people
who could not sleep
at two or three or four
in the morning
left their houses
and went to the parks
what if hundreds, thousands,
millions
went in their solitude
like a stream
and each told their story
what if there were
old women
fearful if they slept
they would die
and young women
unable to conceive
and husbands
having affairs
and children
fearful of failing
and fathers
worried about paying bills
and men
having business troubles
and women unlucky in love
and those that were in physical
pain
and those who were guilty
what if they all left their houses
like a stream
and the moon
illuminated their way and
they came, each one
to tell their stories
would these be the more troubled
of humanity
or would these be
the more passionate of this world
or those who need to create to live
or would these be
the lonely
ones
and I ask you
if they all came to the parks
at night
and told their stories
would the sun on rising
be more radiant and
again I ask you
would they embrace

~ Lawrence Tirnauer