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 were 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.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Goodbye Charles

Play #125 - Goodbye Charles by Gabriel Davis

This is a weird little one-act about a woman named Jill whose husband Charles, after a year and a half of their distant marriage, has suddenly disappeared and demanded a divorce. The story is told by little memory vignettes that pop in and out of the conversation as Jill relates her woes to her friend Barb (who has problems of her own). There are expeditions to Mt. Everest, deceitful cheesemongers, support groups for commitment-phobics, awkward dates, leprechaun ex-husbands... and more freakin' typos than can reasonably be excused in a middle school essay. But still, the play itself is sort of fun, lends itself to some interesting staging conventions to keep the pace clipping along, and there are decent monologues for 20-somethings, which is always valuable. And, when you get down to brass tacks, the central idea that happiness can't be attained by trying to force people into our own idea of it, is pretty swell too.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls

Play #124 - The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls by Meg Miroshnik

Well, it's clear that my "play a day" endeavor has fallen by the wayside. But I still have an awful lot of plays to read, so I'm going to keep going and see how far I can catch up! And that starts with a very cool little play that made my Russian heart happy! I was supposed to be in Moscow this month for my fifth summer, but life intervened... and this little play made me feel just a little less homesick for dear Москва!

The story starts out with Annie (the Americanized version of her Russian name Anya) who had come to the US when she was just a child with her mother Olga. Now, Olga is sending her back for a few months to improve her Russian and to "reap her rewards." While there, she will be staying with her not-really-Aunt Yaroslava Yanovna. While she's there she meets Masha, Katya, and Nastya who all have their own skazka (fairy tale) to tell. But, as is often the case in fairy tales, things are not always what they seem. Auntie Yaroslava may well be the fairytale witch Baba Yaga. Masha may not be exaggerating when she calls her boyfriend a bear. And things never go well for the evil queen, now do they? Deliciously contemporary twists on old stories skip back and forth across the stage (along with some dastardly enchanted potatoes... for realsies), and we can't help but wonder what it really means to live "happily ever after"... or if anyone ever does.

The play is full of stories and fantasy. It bends reality, asks for some creativity in staging, and it's written for six women, which is always a plus in my book. The dark tone is so affectionately and authentically Russian, it would be such an exciting journey for the cast and the audience alike!