Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Black Super Hero Magic Mama

Play #131 - Black Super Hero Magic Mama by Inda Craig-Galván

This was the first of the plays off this year's Kilroys list that I happened to get my hands on, and it was (no surprise) a compelling script. The main character Sabrina Jackson is a single black mother who must deal with the death of her 14-year-old son Tramarion at the hands of a white police officer. Overcome with grief, she retreats inward into the world of the comic book hero The Maasai Angel - a character that had been created by her son and his best friend. Of course, family and news media and pretty much everyone have opinions about how she SHOULD be reacting to her loss - what she owes to the people, the movement, etc. And all these outside influences float in and out of her comic book fantasy, where she is actually able to vanquish them in their exaggerated, villainous personas. But all of her epic triumphs lead her closer to The Entity - the big bad that she must face, whether she is ready or not. BSHMM jumps back and forth between past and present, reality and fantasy, and concrete and abstract as it paints a portrait of a mother's suffering and strength in the face of the unthinkable, yet all too common.

It's a clever and heartfelt script that reminds me a bit of Qui Nguyen's She Kills Monsters, but with a much more pointed and mournful core - one that gives voice not only to loss, but to the swirling expectations that rise up after these kinds of tragedies (and yes, the fact that these occurrences are staggeringly plural is all too clear in this play), demanding that the people who have lost the most live up to some strange social responsibility. Without giving any spoilers, at first I thought that I wanted a little bit more from the ending - more resolution, perhaps? - but as I mulled over the vivid trajectory of the play, and the battles that Sabrina/Maasai Angel wages and wins, I think that the simplicity of the ending might be the point. In the aftermath of a shooting like the one in BSHMM, there is no magic battle that solves all problems and sets things right. Eventually there is just the day to day, the going on, the heroism of living. And Craig-Galván's play leads us on this deeply personal journey with action and heart.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Taming

Play #130 - The Taming by Lauren Gunderson

While I was administering my final today for History of Drama and Theatre, I took the opportunity to finally read this play, and it was exactly the delightful revolutionary lozenge my disillusioned mind needed on yet another day when the news was giving me heart palpitations.

The Taming is written for a cast of three women - Katherine, the current Miss Georgia with some pretty wacky ideas about governance; Bianca, the liberal activist blogger; and Pat, the ambitious chief of staff to a conservative Republican senator. The names and a few syntactical nods are really all of Taming of the Shrew that we get in this play, and that's just fine with me. On the eve of the Miss America Pageant, Bianca and Pat wake up in a hotel room unable to find their phones (or pants, in Pat's case), leave the room, or even remember how they got there. These two natural enemies argue about their situation and their rabid dislike for each other, doing a great job of playing up the absurdity of extremity, rather than absurdity of any one side of the partisan divide. This exchange is made all the more delightful by what is one of my favorite stage directions since "Exit, pursued by bear": (Tense Sexy Partisan Pause). Then, enter the beauty queen to explain her plans for fixing what is broken in the great American experiment. The other two women are, of course, hesitant to engage, and after an energetic discussion and even a good ol' farcical chase, we are transported back in time (sort of) to 1787 where James Madison (played by Pat) sweats over the Constitution, which is expected in front of the Convention for a vote any day now. George Washington (played by Katherine) and Charles Pinckney (played by Bianca) offer encouragement and antagonism, respectively. And the brief cameos by Martha Washington and Dolly Madison (both played by Katherine) are a hoot. Finally, after the Founding Fathers reach an "agreement" on what is, by all admissions, a deeply imperfect, if well-intentioned, document, we are back in the present day in our same hotel room as the three women have to decide what direction they will take.

I will admit to being a particular head space right now that predisposed me to love this play, but I really did love this play. It is energetic and silly, while still offering insight and ass-kicking where they are warranted. I look forward to using monologues and scenes from this in acting classes, and I would really love to do this show... pretty much now. Though it premiered back in 2013 before our present political maelstrom had emerged, it does such a great job of speaking to the problems of entrenched partisanship, and honoring the roots of the American experiment in such a positive, sassy way. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Hungry Woman

Play #129 - The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea by Cherrie Moraga

I am not as well versed in Latina writers as I would like to be, so I have been making a concerted effort to broaden my sphere or knowledge and seek out plays by different voices. And this one did not disappoint.

In Moraga's world, we are in a fluid time and place of some dystopian reality: "The near future of a fictional Chicana past." We observe Medea in a prison psychiatric hospital, and we also leap about through time, gathering glimpses of how she ended up there. At this time, the United States has been divided into Gringolandia and Aztlan - the white and Chicano sections of the country. In between the two is Phoenix, AZ - a sort of no-man's land (almost literally) that serves as a "dumping site of every kind of poison and person unwanted by its neighbors." In particular, as far as we are told in this play, those who are dumped here are largely lesbians. Medea and her lover Luna have been exiled here from Aztlan for the last seven years - since Jason discovered them in bed together. The women have with them Medea and Jason's son Chac-Mool (named Adolfo by his father). Now, however, Jason wants to marry a young Apache woman and reclaim his teenage son... and thus the familiar cycle of Medea's tragic choice continues. Surrounding Medea and the other characters are four Aztec warrior women - the Cihuatateo. According to Aztec tradition, childbirth was a battle, and women who went through it were seen as warriors. They act as a chorus - sometimes becoming characters, sometimes chanting and dancing, but always present.

The magic that floats through this world is palpable, and the power of the female body is central to the meaning made by the play. But at the same time, we see the ways in which that power is stifled by patriarchal demands and assumptions. Although this play is over twenty years old, the cry for respect for an intersectional identity is vivid and insistent. And the consequences of refusing to allow a person to be all the things she is, rather than just one of them, are all too real. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Nether

Play #128 - The Nether by Jennifer Haley

This is sort of a cool, unintentional circle of life moment: when I set myself the task at the beginning of 2015 to read one play for every day (a goal of which I have fallen quite short), I started with Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom by Jennifer Haley. So it seems quite fitting that I would finish the year with another play by the same writer.

The Nether takes place "soon" in two locations: an interrogation room and an online world called The Hideaway. In the world of this play, human existence has shifted in large part to the online realm. The real world still exists, but most functions - jobs, education, etc. - happen online. There are even people who make the decision to cross over permanently into the online realm, living offline via life support as their online lives become their real lives. Haley gives us Detective Morris who is investigating Mr. Sims for the online realm that he has created called The Hideaway. It is a place that replicates an 1800s home, and that gives people the opportunity to live without consequences - in particular, as they might pertain to certain proclivities towards children. Morris argues that the behaviors perpetrated there are unacceptable, whereas Sims claims that, since even the "children" are actually adults in the real world, there is no real impropriety.

The play is, like Neighborhood 3, an unsettling investigation of the implications of the intersection of real and virtual life. The twists and turns leave the audience wondering themselves where the boundaries of these worlds - and of human connection - truly lie. There are parts of this play that would, doubtless, be difficult to watch. It's interesting that Haley asks that the actress who plays the virtual girl actually be or seem pre-pubescent, rather than an adult actress playing young. While this might be upsetting for some, Haley argues that the presence of a young performer on stage will assure the audience that the production itself will not go over the line with this character - that the character will never be in real danger. Whereas, with an adult actor, that assumption might not be the case. I suppose she's right, but I also can't help imagining the squirming in our collective seats that might unfold. Luckily, I don't have to imagine! Woolly Mammoth is staging this show in April! I can't wait to see how the drained, technologically centered "real" world and the lush, sensuous "fake" world come to life on stage!

And though I didn't make it to 365... and though I didn't get a chance to do much reading of novels... I would say that 128 plays is not all that shabby!


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Race

Play #127 - Race by David Mamet

First things first: I've clearly fallen far afield from the whole "read a play a day" goal I started the year with. But still... 127 isn't bad!

Okay - full disclosure: I hate David Mamet. But I have this title for a paper that I need to write about him... and the title is too good... so I HAVE to write the paper... even if it means reading a bunch of this gruff, cynical, testosterone. Honestly, the only thing worse would be if I were writing a paper about Neil Labute. Seriously... ugh.

Anyway... I read Race. The story revolves around two male lawyers and their female assistant/intern, as they try to decide whether to take on the defense of a middle aged white man who is accused of raping a young black woman. And, of course, the circumstances surround the case just get uglier and uglier with each passing moment. It seems that Charles, the defendant, came to them after leaving his previous firm, in no small part because Jack and Henry - the partners at this new firm - are white and black respectively. They are not blind to the racial complexities of the case, and they spend a lot of time trying to come up with exactly the right legal tactic to get Charles off the hook. Much of this conversation is complicated by the presence of their assistant Susan who is, herself, a young black woman. The discussions are characteristically crass and cruel as they reflect on the dark, dirty world we live in. There is a manufactured ambiguity about the ending that doesn't seem entirely successful to me, as I don't think the play has built in enough benefit of the doubt for us to buy into the uncertainty. And I don't think the social commentary is as incisive as he would like to think it is.

There are a few scenes and monologues that, for exactly the right, sharp-edged person, could be useful. But overall, I feel like I would be turned off listening to anyone say these things in an audition room or in a theatre. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Blood Relations

Play #126 - Blood Relations by Sharon Pollock

Okay, it's become pretty obvious that the whole "Play a Day" thing has fallen away. But I'm still going to try to read and blog about as many plays as I can. So there!

Blood Relations is a marvelous psychological thriller that brings us the infamous story of Lizzie Borden. You know:

Lizzy Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty one.

In this play, an actress comes to visit her friend Lizzie Borden, as she does fairly regularly, it seems. But today, she finally asks the question: Did you do it? Did you, Lizzie? Lizzie doesn't answer her per se, but lets her step into her shoes instead. The Actress goes on to play the role of Lizzie as she interacts with her father, her sister, her step mother, and her step uncle. And Lizzie herself steps into the role of the maid/narrator, leading The Actress through what might have happened in those days leading up to the death of her father and step mother. By the end, The Actress is pretty sure she has the answer, but Lizzie doesn't give us the satisfaction.

It's a very cool play (by a prolific Canadian playwright, which is also cool, eh!) with a wonderful sense of theatricality and the macabre. It does a great job of reviving this infamous mystery - and keeping it present and exciting. There are a lot of great roles for women, and the storytelling is clever. I look forward to working on this one some time!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream

For the last four summers, I've spent a month in Moscow seeing some of the most exciting theatre I can imagine. It's hard to explain exactly what is so magical about what we see over there, but a lot of it boils down to theatricality. They are not so tied down to "realism" as we are in the US. They are interested in imagination, in vivid visual communication, in using imagery at least as powerfully as text. There is an understanding that theatre is unique in its ability to make magic happen in front of our eyes.

That was what I saw in Julie Taymor's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was broadcast as part of Fathom's series of live theatre in movie theatres, and the closest location for us was in Gettysburg, PA. So we drove two hours and sat in a nearly empty theatre waiting. Eventually we probably ended up with about 20 people. And those 20 people shared a remarkable evening together.

The film was preceded by a brief interview with Julie Taymor - sort of a full screen version of director's notes in the playbill. She talked about the way in which her Puck invites the audience to dream, and the ways in which the characters experience all the nightmares of love before embarking on their happy marriages. The images laid over her introduction, in my opinion, gave a little too much away, but they also elevated our expectations. We couldn't wait to begin.

The sheer inventiveness of the staging was a delight. The use of flowing white cloth as clouds, dresses, the bower, walls, a cyc... and whatever it needed to be was deliciously theatrical and so well choreographed. The fairies spoke in this beautiful, discordant almost-chant. They were mostly children, and Taymor used other performers in black or in fairy garb to move them around, allowing their movements to feel fluid and other-worldly. The forest was made out of bamboo and chorus members - it was something that the lovers had to negotiate in a very real way as they made their way beyond the gates of "civilized" society. The use of shadow and projections was discerning and powerful, taking every advantage of the technology and budget available, but without beating you over the head with it. The lovers were charming - particularly Helena. The way they slowly lost their clothes as they lost their minds was similar to the way things progressed in a production I was in several years ago - down to Lysander taking a good, sultry whiff of Helena's shoe. Bottom's donkey head was amazing! It was all out donkey, but it also retained the nose and facial hair of the actor, so it was sort of delightfully cartoony. Plus, the actor had two little hand pieces that controlled the mouth and lips of the head, which created such a realistic, but still delightfully theatrical effect! Puck was an amazing, double-jointed, slightly androgynous figure whose strangeness made our dear Robin Goodfellow a clear denizen of this dream world. Oberon was so beautiful - his fluidity of movement and resonant voice were out of this world. And his journey from gleefully tormeting his wife to growing tired of the silliness was articulated better than I have ever seen it before. Titania was sexy and powerful and had these awesome lights on her costume that kept her face constantly lit, so sometimes it seemed like her head was just floating. The mechanicals were Brooklyn workmen with personality and passion coming out their ears. The rotund black man playing Wall was a particular favorite for me (Greenville folks: Mr. Jason may well have a doppelganger!). And after all the hilarity of Pyramus and Thisbe, a moment that stopped me in my tracks was Thisbe's discovery of the dead Pyramus. It turned out that Flute could really act - and he had the audience on stage, in the live theatre, and in the movie theatre holding our breath. It was really beautiful. 

This ended up being one of my favorite kinds of productions to see: it's one that gave me tons of ideas, but not necessarily the ideas that I saw. The imagery and interpretation were exciting - and I'm sure I'll end up stealing some things from this production one day. But much more exciting was the ideas I found myself coming up with. The production was inspiring. I found myself seeing things in this familiar script (one I've performed twice and seen... I don't know how many times) that I hadn't seen before, or that I was seeing in a new light. And I walked away with ideas of my own that had grown out of being so close to such excellent work. I love watching good theatre that makes me want to make good theatre.