Sunday, August 13, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Nothomb, Wilde, Frangione, Wright

An eclectic Script Reading Roundup today: a French-language play I found at a Little Free Library, an excellent edition of Oscar Wilde's best plays, a reread of a Canadian Christmas dramedy I originally blogged about in 2010, and an epic adaptation of my favorite children's fantasy trilogy.

Les CombustiblesLes Combustibles by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Les combustibles, the first and only play by popular French-language author Amélie Nothomb, is a fable about the role of literature in times of turmoil. It’s the second winter of a siege, and at the University, there is no fuel other than the books on the shelves. The cynical Professor, his assistant Daniel, and Daniel’s girlfriend Marina debate whether they should burn the books to keep warm, or whether that would be a pyrrhic victory for humanity.

I read Les combustibles in French after picking it up from my local Little Free Library, figuring that I’m probably the only person in the neighborhood who’d be interested in reading a French-language play. (An English translation exists under the title Human Rites, a somewhat irrelevant pun – a more accurate title might be Kindling.) The writing was elegant and easy to read, and I enjoyed following the characters’ arguments. At times, however, the intellectual combat is so tidy that it’s easy to forget that the characters are desperate and starving. Also, it can be hard to understand their anguish about burning the books. This isn’t Fahrenheit 451; presumably, other copies of these books still exist in other collections, in cities that are not currently under siege. As such, destroying the Professor’s library doesn’t mean irreparably destroying human knowledge. Maybe I’m heartless, but in that situation, I’d say, burn the books and save yourself!

It was also annoying that the only female character is a beautiful, waiflike 20-year-old whom the stage directions constantly compare to a child or an angel. Naturally, both of the male characters have sex with her, and neither of them seem to respect her. I’m used to this kind of stuff from male playwrights, but not necessarily from women.


Les combustibles, la première et seule pièce de théâtre par Amélie Nothomb, est une fable à propos du rôle de la littérature aux temps troublés. C’est le deuxième hiver d’un siège, et pour combustible, chez l’Université, il n’y a que les livres. Le Professeur cynique, son assistant Daniel, et Marina la petite-amie de Daniel, débattent s’ils doivent brûler les livres afin de réchauffer, ou si cela serait, pour l'humanité, une victoire à la Pyrrhus.

J’ai lu Les combustibles en français après l’avoir pris de la Petite Bibliothèque Gratuite du coin, en supposant que je sois la seule personne dans mon quartier qui s’intéresse à lire une pièce en français. (Il y a une traduction en anglais avec le titre Human Rites, un jeu de mots assez hors sujet – un titre plus exact serait peut-être Kindling.) L’écriture était élégante et facile à lire, et j’aimais suivre les arguments des personnages. Cependant, parfois, le combat intellectuel est tellement rangé qu’on oublie que les personnages sont désespérés et affamés. Aussi, c’est peut-être difficile de comprendre leur angoisse à propos de brûler les livres. Ceci n’est pas Fahrenheit 451; probablement, d’autres exemplaires de ces livres existent encore dans des autres collections, dans des villes qui ne sont pas assiégées. Alors, la destruction de la bibliothèque du Professeur ne signifie pas la destruction irréparable des connaissances humaines. Peut-être que je suis cruelle, mais dans cette situation, je dirais: brûlez les livres, sauvez vous-mêmes!

De plus, c’était ennuyeux que le seul personnage féminin est une jeune femme de 20 ans, belle et frêle, comparée avec une enfante ou un ange dans les indications scéniques. Naturellement, les deux personnages masculins font l’amour avec elle et ne semblent pas la respecter. J’ai l’habitude de voir ces bêtises chez les dramaturges masculins, mais pas forcement chez les femmes.

The Importance of Being Earnest and Other PlaysThe Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's easy to give Oscar Wilde's collected plays five stars just because he was so brilliant and The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most perfect comedies ever written, but where this Penguin Classics edition really excels is in Richard Allen Cave’s introduction and notes. Cave reminds us that these are not just collections of witty lines, they are plays, and Wilde was a man of the theater. The endnotes are full of information about the sets, costumes, and stage business of the original productions, and sometimes even include Cave's thoughts on moments that are particularly difficult to pull off in performance. Some people might find his opinions too obtrusive, but I loved this level of detail and think that all aspiring directors of Wilde plays should peruse this edition, since Cave has thought so much about how these plays work onstage.

The edition collects all of Wilde’s major, mature plays and even throws in his one-act Florentine Tragedy for good measure (though it's a rather weak play, requiring you to slog through a lot of sub-Shakespearean blank verse for the reward of a sword fight and a twist ending). There are his three Society Comedies (Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband), which blend melodrama, satire, social commentary, and aphorisms; his decadent and pageant-like Salome ; and the incomparable Earnest.

Reading all of these plays in a row, I realized that the scope of Wilde's characterization was wider than I'd given him credit for. For instance, though the three Society Comedies all feature an aristocratic dandy character, each dandy has a very different personality and function. Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan is an irresponsible romantic; Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is an unscrupulous cad; Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband is his play’s moral conscience. I was also impressed with the variety of female characters and the amount of stage time they receive. Young actresses love the Gwendolen-Cecily scene from Earnest, of course, and there are other all-female scenes in the Society Comedies that are even longer and more complex. Good roles for women aren't rare in classic drama, but it's quite unusual to see 6 distinctly characterized women talk for 12 pages without any men interrupting, as they do in Act Two of A Woman of No Importance!

Cariboo MagiCariboo Magi by Lucia Frangione
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Programming a holiday-season play can be really tough for theaters, especially small indie theaters that want to do something a little quirkier than A Christmas Carol. Where to find a play that is Christmassy but not overtly religious, cheerful but not cloying? Well, Lucia Frangione's Cariboo Magi feels like it was written to solve this problem. You could even interpret it as a meta-commentary on the challenges of staging a Christmas play: it's about a desperate, ragtag theater troupe that travels to the goldfields of British Columbia, circa Christmas 1870. Their final product--a mash-up of the Nativity story, Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, and The Last of the Mohicans--must be seen to be believed!

Frangione, an actress as well as a playwright, wrote herself a fab starring role as Madame Fanny Dubeau, the theater troupe's leader, whose "elegant veneer thinly hides a cunning, avaricious businesswoman." But the other characters are also vividly drawn: there's Joe Mackey, a Chinese-Canadian miner and lovelorn poet; Reverend William Teller, an alcoholic, self-pitying minister; and Marta Reddy, a hot-tempered German girl who is eight months pregnant. There are no villains here, just four misfits who act tough but are all lost or wounded in some way. Fittingly for a Christmas tale, in the end they are all healed and uplifted. But it's not Christianity or even "the Christmas spirit" that saves them--it's the power of theater.

His Dark MaterialsHis Dark Materials by Nicholas Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Golden Compass was my favorite book when I was 9 years old and I grew up to be a playwright, so I found it very rewarding to read and consider Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy. I enjoyed its self-assurance, its willingness to deviate from the novels in order to tell a story that makes sense onstage. Characters with similar functions are combined: Tony Makarios and Billy Costa; Serafina Pekkala and Mary Malone. Some plot-holes are filled: I really like how it rewrites Lord Boreal’s theft of the alethiometer so it doesn't involve Lyra’s foolish failure to recognize him. And at least one of the play’s innovations—having Lyra learn the truth of her parentage from Mrs. Coulter herself, rather than from the gyptians—is so emotionally compelling that the otherwise lackluster film version used it too.

I have to disagree with my friend Stuart, though, about whether the play seems less anti-religion than the books. On the contrary, I think the atheist themes are more explicit in the play version. But this means it feels better integrated. The books can feel like a bit of a bait-and-switch: the first book mostly reads like a thrilling fantasy-adventure where Dust is a MacGuffin, while the later books push an anti-religion, pro-Dust agenda. In the play, religion is depicted as sinister and oppressive from the start. The people in Lyra’s world are constantly praying to “the Authority,” and the role of Fra Pavel, a high Church official, is expanded into a real villain part.

Of course, in order to condense 1200 pages of fiction into a 2-part play, the action has to move insanely fast. (In the books, Lyra’s stay at Bolvangar covers nearly 70 pages; in the play, it covers 11 pages.) I do wonder how an audience who’s not familiar with the books would react to the play version, especially the relentless pace of the action. I also wonder if I’d find it too rushed, were I to see it staged. That’s unlikely to happen, however: this epic drama requires vast resources and I don’t think anyone besides the UK’s National Theatre has produced it. Still, I enjoyed reading it and thinking about dramatic structure, theatricality, and how an adapter can wield his subtle knife to show us new worlds.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Acting in ShortLived Finals, August 3-5

Andrew Chung as Borkul the Orc and me as Elanil the Elf. Photo courtesy PianoFight.
Hey, remember how in mid-June, I was performing in the first weekend of PianoFight's audience-judged short play competition, ShortLived?

Well, the play I'm in—"All the Worlds are Stages" by Ruben Grijalva—won that round handily, so we're competing again in the finals this weekend! The whole team from June is coming back with dreams of glory: director Alejandro Emmanuel Torres and actors Andrew Chung, Tony Cirimele, and Danielle Doyle.

The championship-round performances, which feature the winning plays from all six weekends plus two "wild cards," are selling out fast. If they haven't all gone, you can get tickets here. Shows are Thursday through Saturday at 7 PM, with an additional Friday show at 9:30.

ShortLived has been getting some nice press, too—some of which uses the above production photo of me and Andrew:

Monday, July 31, 2017

On s'est connus: Jeanne Moreau

I think of this as the iconic Moreau look. Bare face, cat eyes, unfussy hair, and the plainest little black dress.
Sometime in my teens (was it when I started studying French in college?), my mom decided we needed to watch Jules and Jim. Mom said she'd seen it years earlier but "the only thing I remember about it is that she sings a little song with a guitar."

"She" was Jeanne Moreau, of course, and the song was "Le Tourbillon," a perfect little grace note of suspended time in the middle of this perfect, daring, how-the-fuck-did-Truffaut-pull-this-off-before-he-was-thirty film.

I think of this as my introduction to Jeanne Moreau, though I guess technically I'd seen her as the old lady in the frame story of Ever After, her distinctive voice grown gravelly with time and lending a gravitas to the film's final lines that you don't often find in children's fairy-tale films.

But in the years to come, she became my favorite French actress. She was intense and sexy and had a piercing kind of intelligence. She was never an ingenue (the early-career glossy publicity photos where she tries to look like a '50s ingenue are kind of hilarious). She was always a fully grown, if petite, woman who needed the rougher edges of the French New Wave, handheld cameras and minimal makeup and intelligent scripts and complex characters. She did her best work after she was thirty. She had Resting Sad Face (like me). She had a tart little voice, like green apples, and even recorded some other jazz-pop songs besides "Le Tourbillon." The Lovers, a movie she made in 1958 that included a nude love scene, eventually prompted the famous U.S. Supreme Court case where Justice Potter Stewart ruled "That's not obscene, I can't define pornography but I know it when I see it." She was the first woman elected to the French Academy of Fine Arts. (Although, as praiseworthy as that is, it's also kind of shameful that it took until 2001 to break that glass ceiling.) She was Maggie the Cat in the French premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and can you even imagine?

I watch her movies and I want to take up smoking and wander around cities at night being intense and brooding and melancholy and restless and dissatisfied. One thing I think we don't talk about enough is how there are a lot of male stars who embody a disaffected, brooding quality, but among women, there's pretty much only Jeanne Moreau. Women, too, sometimes want to be romantic existentialists. Women, too, want film-star icons who were uncompromising and iconoclastic, lonely and proud.

I did feel a physical shock on reading the news that she died but, if I take a step back, I mean... she was 89. She worked with the best filmmakers of her era. She smoked like a chimney and made it to the end of her ninth decade on Earth. I sang "Le tourbillon" in the shower this morning. RIP et adieu, Mme Moreau.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Grandeur" at the Magic Theatre: a protean figure in a conventional play

Carl Lumbly is music legend Gil Scott-Heron and Rafael Jordan is journalist Steve Barron in Grandeur at the Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
The set for Grandeur, the new play by Han Ong at the Magic Theatre, doesn’t look particularly grand at first glance: it’s a hoarder’s apartment in Harlem, with stacks of books and videocassettes and shabby old ‘60s furniture. But when the show begins and its central character, Gil Scott-Heron (Carl Lumbly) takes his seat in an old armchair, his face illuminated by a solitary lamp, there is no doubt that we are in the presence of majesty. In Lumbly’s portrayal, Scott-Heron is a wily old enchanter, a Prospero laying traps for the young and ingenuous. Later on, he plays with a Rubik’s cube as though it were a piece of spell-casting apparatus.

In Grandeur, the young person who must evade Scott-Heron’s traps is one Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), a freelance journalist on assignment for the New York Review of Books. (It’s a somewhat distracting coincidence that this character’s name is just one consonant away from “Steve Bannon.”) Steve is an earnest and preppy black man whose face is hardly visible behind his mop of hair—it’s like he knows he shouldn’t steal the spotlight from Gil, a much stronger personality with many more stories to tell.

We also meet Scott-Heron’s caretaker, Julie (Safiya Fredericks), who mixes abiding affection for the old man with exasperation at his shortcomings, not least of which is his addiction to crack cocaine. Julie is also on hand to inform Steve of his role in all of this: “You’re death. You know that right? I mean not death-death but […] like a herald.” This heavy-handed metaphor gets under Steve’s skin and causes him to have an unconvincing breakdown near the top of Act 2.

Much more compelling is Scott-Heron’s anti-capitalist political rant, revealing his ambivalence toward the rappers who came after him. They sample his records and call him the “Godfather of Rap,” but their materialistic values are far different from his own. There’s also an implied contrast between the way Scott-Heron plays with language in his jazzman-poet fashion and the way a reporter uses language to pin down facts with precision.

Grandeur is obviously an attempt to wrestle with Scott-Heron’s legacy and his contradictions. It takes place in the last year of the musician’s life, just after he has released his first album in 16 years. (While Steve Barron and his NYRB article are fictitious, The New Yorker published an excellent profile of Scott-Heron, written by Alec Wilkinson, around this time. I’ve read hundreds of New Yorker profiles but this one has stuck with me.) But although Scott-Heron was undoubtedly a dramatic personality—brilliant and flawed, irascible and damaged—Grandeur is not, itself, a very dramatic show. It’s too bad that a play about an innovative and charismatic musician should have such a well-worn structure and setup.

Grandeur, by Han Ong, directed by Loretta Greco, is playing at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco through June 25. More information here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Acting in ShortLived round 1 at PianoFight, June 15-17

Last year, I participated in PianoFight's audience-judged theater competition ShortLived as a playwright... this year, for a change, I am acting in a ShortLived play!

For three performances, tonight through Saturday, I am playing a video-game elf in "All the Worlds are Stages" by Ruben Grijalva, directed by Alejandro Emmanuel Torres. The other actors in the show are Andrew Chung, Tony Cirimele, and Danielle Doyle. It is a very fun, fast-paced script with some nice twists to it, and for the first time ever, I have to do a bit of stage combat! (Credit to Kyle McReddie for teaching me and Andrew the fight choreography.)

Tickets for this weekend's edition of ShortLived are available here. (Note: show starts at 7 PM, so don't be late!) You'll see 6 new short plays and be asked to rank them. The top-ranked play from this week's batch will move on to compete in the grand-prize round in early August, with a shot at a $5000 prize.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's my lunch hour and I need to run out and get a green eyeliner pencil for my elf costume tonight.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Country House Books: Edward Gorey & Cécile David-Weill

Quick reviews of two books I read recently that take place at two very different kinds of country houses.

 The Dwindling PartyThe Dwindling Party by Edward Gorey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An Edward Gorey pop-up book means that you can almost move and play around inside his elegant but eerie world! And even though The Dwindling Party looks like a kids' book, Gorey doesn't tone down any of his trademark dark humor, in this story of a Victorian family who tours a country house and, one by one, gets eaten by monsters. The verse is a bit verbose and there's really only the one joke throughout, but this is still a fun and interactive distillation of Gorey's style.

The SuitorsThe Suitors by Cécile David-Weill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Oh la la, here’s a book that promises to reveal what French old-money high society is really like! Unlike some authors who write lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous novels but have no firsthand experience with the world they describe, Cécile David-Weill comes by it honestly: her father and grandfather were chairmen of the Lazard Frères bank. As such, The Suitors could function as a handbook for how to behave (and how not to behave) if you are invited to a house party hosted by a fancy French family. They will love you if you are polite, gracious, and quietly elegant; they will despise you if you are effusive or ostentatious or try-hard. It’s rather like old-money American WASP society with more of an emphasis on good food, art collecting, and philosophical conversation.

Unfortunately, while David-Weill knows a lot about high society and the people who frequent it, she hasn’t figured out how to embed this knowledge in a captivating story. Her set-up is a fine premise for a romantic comedy: two sisters in their early 30s, learning that their parents wish to sell the family’s summer villa on the Cap d’Antibes, make a half-serious attempt to find wealthy husbands so that the property can stay in the family. But The Suitors quickly becomes an endless list of descriptions of the family’s houseguests and servants, their foibles and faux pas. Some of the observations are keen, but there are just too many characters and too little narrative drive. Scenes that are intended as farce or as drama fall flat, get resolved within a page or two, and are quickly forgotten. Worst of all are the moments when David-Weill tries to convince us that her characters are paragons of wit, charm, and decorum: the jokes they make are at best unfunny and at worst truly distasteful (as when the narrator tells her sister that her “shorty pajama set” is “an invitation to rape”).

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Like something out of Balzac or Colette

The happy couple: Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron. Photo: AFP/Getty.
It has come to my attention that not nearly enough Americans know that the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has a love life like something out of a Balzac novel. And because Macron won the first round of the presidential election today and it looks like (fingers crossed) he’ll defeat his Fascist opponent in the second round, I feel justified in being a total gossip and telling you this very French, very juicy story.

OK, so Emmanuel Macron is a fresh-faced 39-year-old who started his own, centrist/independent political party. The established parties in France imploded this year; Macron surged to the top of the polls despite having an unpopular economic-reform law named after him in 2015. I could say a lot more about the wacky French presidential race of 2017, but you didn’t come here for politics, you came here for gossip.

Well, Macron is married to a woman named Brigitte, who is 24 years older than him and has grown children of her own from a previous marriage. Already, this is pretty unusual, even if younger-man older-woman relationships have more of a place in European culture than in American. (In Colette’s novel Chéri, Chéri and Léa are also 24 years apart.) It’s also been pointed out that 24 years is the same age disparity between Donald and Melania Trump – we just think it’s strange when a woman is the one who’s older.

But Donald was never Melania’s high school teacher.

That’s right: Macron is married to his former high school literature and drama teacher.

Now do you see why I am obsessed with this story?

Both of the Macrons are coy about how, exactly, the romance progressed. Brigitte is quoted as saying “Nobody will ever know at what moment our story became a love story. That belongs to us. That is our secret.” (Of course, giving quotes like this to the media practically invites everyone to speculate about the details of this “secret love story” and the French are eating it up.)

But what’s known is this: they grew very close when Emmanuel was in 11th grade and worked with Brigitte to adapt The Art of Comedy by Eduardo di Filippo. Then, he transferred to a high school in Paris for his senior year—some accounts say his parents made him transfer to put a stop to the relationship, some say that Brigitte herself asked him to go away. But before leaving for the capital, the boy promised his teacher, “I will come back and I will marry you.”

So maybe this isn’t exactly like a classic French novel after all. In a novel, the boy would still make this rash romantic promise, but either he wouldn’t follow through with it, or circumstances would intervene to thwart the couple’s love. But that didn’t happen here: Brigitte eventually divorced her husband, joined Emmanuel in Paris, and married him in 2007. She has been quoted as saying “We rub and polish each other's brains,” which is pretty much the greatest innuendo I’ve ever heard and is my new #RelationshipGoals.

In short: everybody should hope that Macron wins the second round on May 7, not only so that the Fascists will be defeated, but also so that France can continue its grand tradition of having leaders with scandalous love lives.