Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Long Christmas Ride Home

Play #12: The Long Christmas Ride Home by Paula Vogel

I love these plays that are so beautifully theatrical! I'm not saying that there aren't marvelous "realistic" plays out there - of course there are - but it's these plays that invest so heavily in magic that only belongs to theatre (as opposed to film), that inspire me and scare me and just plain make me happy. The Long Christmas Ride Home follows a family of a mother, father, two daughters and a son who head to church and then their grandparents' house on Christmas. However, the children are played for most of the performance by Bunraku puppets. If you're unfamiliar with this Japanese puppetry style, here's a picture:
From Britannica Kids
For the first part of the play, lines are only spoken by two narrators - a man and a woman. They are the parents, but they also provide all the narration and inner life of the children. The children fight and play and get carsick and whine... just like any kids. The father daydreams about the woman with whom he is having an affair. The mother daydreams about how she could regain her husband's interest - maybe another child? They sit through the Christmas service in which the Unitarian Universalist minister talks about Japanese art and philosophy as a way to understand their role in the world. Then the family heads to their maternal grandparents' house where they receive gifts, and the evening devolves into fighting until their grandfather kicks them out and they get back in the car to head home. On the way home, the father raises his hand to hit his wife... and the action splinters. The puppeteer behind the eldest daughter splits off and enacts the same night 25 years in the future when her boyfriend finds out she is pregnant with another man's child. She is left out on the street in the cold and almost decides to sleep on a snow drift - which would certainly have killed her at that temperature, but a wind blows and wakes her, and she runs to find her car. The action returns again to the slap, and then the youngest daughter splinters off to enact the same night 24 years in the future when she stands outside having followed her lover Naomi to the apartment of her new lover. She is about to shoot herself when a wind blows and she decides to live. Finally, the brother splinters off from the car to enact a night 20 years in the future when, after his boyfriend has kicked him out and taken up with a new, younger man, he goes to a club and hooks up with a stranger who gives him AIDS. He reflects on that moment, on his death, and on the ability that he has to return to earth on this night each year to check on his sisters. In the end, the puppet children are all back in the car as it skids to the edge of a pond in the moments after their father hit their mother. They join together in their fear - the children literally linking arms - and the father manages to get the car out of danger, and they head home.

Like Baltimore Waltz, there is a clear reference to Vogel's own beloved brother who died of AIDS in the character of Stephen, but so much more than a story of personal loss for her, it is a story of family connections that are so inextricably part of our lives. In both of the girls' future scenes, they mention the loss of Stephen - they feel his absence. But even in death he is there for them at their darkest moments, protecting them. The description of death in this play might be one of my favorites I have ever read - the idea that our loved ones return regularly to watch over us, that we subconsciously feel their presence. It's poetic and comforting and so beautifully realized in this piece. The use of all the puppets (from the children to the man in the bar with Stephen to the "two naked lesbian law student puppets," etc.) is extremely intimidating to me as a director - finding the ways to interact with the puppet world vs. the world of the humans, finding the rules of a world that works this way and then communicating those rules effectively to an audience that would be so unfamiliar with the mode. But what an exciting challenge it would be to have the opportunity to stage this! This is definitely one I'm going to have to put on my bucket list - partly because it scares me. But so far, some of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a director have been working on plays that I was afraid of. and I really do believe that theatre needs to cultivate its own theatricality more... and man, is Vogel just one of the absolute grand-dames of theatricality!

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