Monday, October 24, 2022

For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday

For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday 

By Sarah Ruhl

This play has been on my to-read list for an embarrassingly long time, and I'm so glad one of my students finally gave me the nudge I needed to finish reading it.

For Peter Pan is a three act play that follows five grown siblings as they hold vigil in their dying father's hospital room (in the first act, anyway). He finally does pass at the end of the first act, and the second act takes us back to the family home where the siblings snack and reminisce and argue about politics, all while the ghost of their father putters about, mostly unnoticed by his children. Finally, in the third act, in true Ruhl-ian fashion, the characters transform into Peter Pan and his Neverland crew, where "I won't grow up" crashes head long into the inevitability of age.

I probably should have known better than to read a play that Ruhl wrote as a gift to her mother in a public space, but read it in an airport I did. And there is nothing quite like openly weeping in front of a bunch of strangers. There is so much to love in this gorgeous, loving meditation on family and aging and youth and memory. As I myself age, I read a lot more plays that I am now too old for than I do plays I look forward to growing into, so this was a nice treat as an actor. But in invoking Peter Pan, one of the few truly magical characters of our canon, it is also a love letter to the possibility of theatre to keep us all a little younger and a little more full of wonder.

Monday, June 20, 2022

On the Exhale

I have completely lost any semblance of counting the plays that I am reading. I read SO MANY PLAYS this semester.


Play #?

On the Exhale by Martín Zimmerman

Content Notification: Elementary school shooting, self harm

I ordered this play after the shooting in Uvalde, when I was looking for plays that have dealt with shootings. Feeling that sort of powerless thing so many artists feel in the aftermath of yet another horrific and entirely avoidable tragedy. I'm a person who believes that art can change things. So I wanted to see what other people who believe that have done.

The unnamed protagonist of this one woman play begins by explaining an uncomfortably familiar anxiety in education these days - the fear that any one of us might be next. Specifically she is in higher education, which brings it close to home for me. For this character, however, her 1st grade son and his classmates turn out to be next. A single mother of a now deceased child, she struggles with how to find any tangible connection to her son and what happened - since all the witnesses are also fatal casualties of the attack. She is surprised to discover that she finds connection in an impulse purchase and subsequent firing of the exact same type of automatic rifle that killed her son. The character wrestles with the ugliness of the act and the strange allure of the instrument of death. But when she testifies in front of a bored congress, she finds herself unsatisfied with shooting ranges and teeters dangerously on the edge of another kind of catharsis.

This is an interesting play, and for about the first two thirds, I think it does what it is doing very well. The plot that unfolds once she zeros in on a heartless and disinterested senator near the end feels a bit too contrived for my taste, especially in a play that feels so grounded and truthful until that point. I would be curious to see how this plays out on stage. I'm attracted to its horrifying relevance, but am not convinced that it ends up earning its place. It's hard to say.

One interesting tidbit worth noting is that the playwright specifies that the gun itself should not appear onstage; rather the actor must "use her body to suggest the weapon." Remembering back to the Tony Awards performance by the cast of Hamilton the weekend of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, I remember the power of their absent weapons that night. We all know what a gun looks like. I think the playwright is right that the trauma of staring at an automatic rifle onstage in front of us might just be too much. We can fill in the blanks, and the horror is still all too real.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Am I Blue?

I read plays 1 & 2 for 2022 as part of my participation in the Hedgepig Ensemble's Expand the Canon project, so I can't post anything about them. So that leads me to...

Play #3

Am I Blue? - Beth Henley 

A student of mine is interested in directing this one-act as part of her senior seminar, so I needed to give it a read. It's classically Beth Henley - dark and sweet and strange. John Polk is drinking himself drunk enough to indulge in the birthday gift he received from his frat brothers - a night with a sex worker - when Ashbe rushes over to his table, having just stolen ash trays from a bar down the street. Both of them are too young to be in this bar, so they both get kicked out and end up back at Ashbe's apartment where they talk about jealousy and anger and coming of age and sex and affection. And eventually, they simply dance the night away. 

It's a dated piece, set in 1968, but there is also a timelessness to the youth of the two characters. Henley is always so good at constructing melancholy and the glimmer of hope that lies just beyond the edges. And those edges, in this play at least, are not as far away as the characters might hope. There are a few little persnickety things from the time period that contemporary audiences might balk at - mentions of "the Orient" and referring to the sex workers as "whores." But the core of the piece is smart and sweet and oh so human. There's a lot of charm in these few pages.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Spiderman: No Way Home - SPOILERS

I went to see a movie today - and that was weird, because I haven't really done that much in the last two years, what with the pandemic raging on and on. But for the sake of Marvel (and my husband's sanity), we strapped on our N95s and sat far away from everyone else for 2 1/2 hours of Marvel-tude that people have been crowing all over facebook is one of the best Marvel movies of all time and, well... 


Oh, by the way, from here on out, there be spoilers. So allow me to post this picture of my cat if you need time/space to escape from the spoiler-palooza below.

Tilly judges me for all the spoilers I am about to lay down.

Okay - here we go with the spoiler-rich content:

No really. This is ALL SPOILERS.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

I started off more or less on board with this movie. We joined the action immediately where the previous movie left off and were thrown headlong into the forced celebrity of the now-outed Peter Parker. The stakes were high and clear, and particularly hard on a 17-year-old boy, which it is always easy to forget that he is. He enlists the help of a fairly selfish and sometimes sophomoric wizard in the form of Dr. Strange, and of course the spell goes wrong. So far, so good. Bad guys from alternate spider-verses start to turn up and wreak havoc, but we have the means to collect them and send them back to their timelines. It all makes sense (even if, like me, you skipped all the Andrew Garfield movies). But when they realize that all of these baddies were taken just before they died, and sending them back will surely sentence them to that very same death, Peter Parker balks. He can't just send them back to die! He can fix them! And why does he believe this? Because Aunt May tells him that it is his responsibility to fix them.

So, let's imagine that, at that point, everything goes exactly as he plans (which, of course, it won't, but for the sake of argument, let's just follow this out). He would have all these baddies, make them goodies, and send them back to the moment before their deaths... fighting with a Spiderman who doesn't know that they have been instantaneously re-good-ified. So, either they still die, now making their respective Spidermen outright murderers, OR they go back all fixed, magically survive, and completely rupture their extant timelines!

But, May insists, keeping these uber-evil baddies in Happy's apartment and playing mad doctor with them is totally the right thing to do. And we're supposed to just accept that because she still says it while standing in the rubble of said apartment and bleeding out from wounds inflicted by the Green Goblin... WHO NEVER BELONGED HERE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

This bizarre, forced, intractable morality espoused by Aunt May is a deeply flawed and, frankly, selfish version of selflessness. May was arguing for the complete destruction of numerous timelines with no sense of the possible implications of that, because... "we help people." And this oversimplified insistence on finite "death bad/help good" morality gave us a May who was, not to mince words, stupid. It was unfair to her as a character to make her so myopic and childish that she refuses (or is unable) to even consider the larger ramifications of altering multiple universes, even as Peter attempts to make that case to her along the way. In fact, though he tells her that they aren't really his responsibility, I would argue that it really is his responsibility, and it turns out that the most responsible thing to do - for everyone in all of these universes - was just to put everyone back where they came from. Imposing an external morality onto a bunch of people from realities they can't possibly understand just because Aunt May is really nice seems... well... dumb.

So, while the movie certainly had its moments, and it was fun to see the three Spidermen playing together (though I still have no idea how Andrew Garfield is supposed to keep all that hair flat under his mask - do they cover that in his movies?), the fundamental conflict was so corrupted by the violence done to May as a thinking, intelligent person, that the rest of the movie became fruits of a poisonous tree for me.

The previous phases of the MCU were a huge undertaking - highs and lows to be sure - all leading up to a truly satisfying Endgame. As we shift into this new phase, there are bound to be growing pains, and I will try to chalk this movie up to that. But if I am going to avoid what would be very understandable Marvel fatigue over the course of the next 20-some-odd projects they have and haven't announced, I'm going to need them to treat their characters (and surprise - particularly their women characters) with a little more nuance and respect.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A Doll's House, Part 2

It has been 3 years since I posted one of these... so many plays I have read in that time, that I know I wish I had a zippy little paragraph about to reference. Ah well - here we go again!

Play #137 

A Doll's House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath

I haven't had much time to read plays these days - everything is moving at some absurd, breakneck pace, and my ability to focus on much beyond the task in front of me has definitely been hindered. That said, a week or two ago, when I was discussing A Doll's House with an independent study student I'm working with this term, we started talking about Lucas Hnath's sequel, and it suddenly bothered me that I hadn't read it. So, in a fit of focus that I really must find a way to find more regularly, I sat down and read it in an afternoon. And I am really glad I did!

The play takes place 15 years after the end of Ibsen's story, with Nora coming home to ask her husband to make their divorce official - something he failed to do in her absence, and that is now potentially creating significant legal difficulties for her. In her time away from her family, Nora has created a successful life for herself as a revolutionary feminist writer, and a man whose wife was inspired by Nora's writing to leave him has threatened to undo everything she has achieved. On her return, she has to reckon with Torvald, of course, but she also comes to terms with how her departure and return affected her nursemaid Anne-Marie, and her daughter Emmy - who is now grown and engaged. I found the humanization of Torvald welcome and still complex enough not to turn it into a story about a man who was wronged. Nora saw herself in her daughter and was willing to make some real sacrifices to keep Emmy from treading a path that Nora knew all too well. It felt stylistically in tune with Ibsen's original, while also managing to feel contemporary. It complicates Nora's actions without taking the wind out of her strength. I found it an interesting intellectual exercise with the potential - in the hands of the right actors and director - for genuine emotional insight. And I'll just say it: I want to play Nora, like, right this instant. 

Also - there are some pretty good monologues in here, so a play of many applications!

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Felt Fragile

Here's an uncharacteristically emotionally candid post from me, posted on my blog where it's unlikely that anyone other than a stray bot will read it. So, wandering code beast, if you're not up for wallowing in the misery of planning for classes in a Covid world, feel free to drop your awesome offer on Ray-Bans or ED medications in the comments and skip on by. Don't worry - I'm sure I'll post a cat picture on my instagram in a few minutes and the algorithms will right themselves once more.

For this fall, I'm prepping a class that I last taught during Spring 2020. Going back through my daily class notes, I have just arrived at Mar 9, 2020 - the day when we started having conversations with our students about how things might change if the situation got bad. "This is all out of an abundance of caution," my notes copied from the faculty emails said, and we were so hopeful that none of these contingencies would end up being necessary. A week later, we sent all our students home.

Here we are a year and a half later, with almost less certainty than we had back then. We have vaccines, but we have variants. And how long until the hateful, willfully ignorant hordes incubate for us a fancy new variant that skirts the few defenses that we have? How many people will be sacrificed to the egos of our stubborn politicians and our myopic neighbors?

What will classes look like? What do we do for the students who are forced to miss class due to a 2 week quarantine? (In a lecture based class this is one thing - but I'm teaching Improv!) What do we do if WE are forced to miss class due to a 2 week quarantine? What of the plays we've already started designing? What of the students who are looking to a theatre industry whose position is so precarious that it's hard to conceive of what world we are preparing them for?

My natural cynicism already has me believing that things are going to get worse before they get better... but how much worse?

I'm angry. I am so so angry right now, and I don't know what to do with all of that anger (aside from my daily ritual of shaking it up in the cocktail mixer of my psyche, along with my festering anxiety, and a little fear zest as a garnish).

So... that's a little text-based selfie from me. What's the instagram lingo? Felt fragile. Might delete later. IDK. I really DK.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Eat and You Belong to Us

Play #136

Eat and You Belong to Us by MJ Kaufman

I honestly can't quite say what I thought of this play. I tried to explain it to my husband, and found that any sort of summary was woefully inadequate. The play centers around the family of wives Karen and Sally. Their teenage child Jamie is genderqueer and prefers that they alternate her pronouns between she and xe, as an expression of how much "she" Jamie actually is. The "she" part of Jamie's identity, xe insists, is part of xer connection to Joan of Arc, who xe suspects xe may have have some relation to. The final element of the family is Grands - Karen's parent (formerly her mother) - who, in xer 80s, has decided to undergo "gender affirmative" surgery (a term I have never heard, but one that I think is deeply important). Karen is having a hard time following all of these changes - calling her mother "Grands" or her parent instead of "Mom," and learning her daughter's preferred pronouns - but Sally is pushing Karen to try to find her way into accepting her family members as they ask to be. After a particularly frustrating argument, Jamie runs out to the field outside the family home where she is surrounded by a handful of Joan of Arcs who whisk her away to a battlefield in 15th Century France. There, like these other Joans before her, Jamie must take on the role of Joan - leading the army, facing up to patriarchal forces that surround her, and eventually even being burned at the stake. What starts out as a great adventure eventually gives way to the painful realities of the battlefield when a frightened young soldier she had comforted ends up being killed in battle. While Jamie is back in France, Karen and Sally fret for days about their missing daughter, while also starting to get to know the gay male couple from next door, Ted and Joe. Eventually, Grands and Jamie share their Joan of Arc moment and are able to return home.

The play deals with a lot of layers of identity, which is interesting and even a little confusing on the page, but I think that it would become a great deal clearer in performance. It asks a lot of complicated questions, and has a lot of fun with how we deal with expectations and ideals when they don't quite live up to what we had hoped. An interesting play that I probably need to read a few more times before I really have a strong grasp of it, but I would venture to say that it's probably worth the additional reads.