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.