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.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Workshop Production of "You'll Not Feel the Drowning," April 13-22


My play You'll Not Feel the Drowning, an hourlong drama about life in an earthquake zone, the bleak beauty of the Oregon coast, and the giant squids that lurk in our hearts, has been in development with Custom Made Theatre's Undiscovered Works program for the last year. Custom Made is now granting it a 6-performance developmental workshop at the EXIT Theatre. I've been hard at work this month in a whirlwind rehearsal process, and we open tonight!

If you're in the Bay Area, I'd be honored if you can attend, especially as this script is still in development and we will be soliciting audience feedback. (There's a space for comments on the back of the playbill, and there'll be talk-backs after the Friday performances.) I'll be at all of the shows, too, so please feel free to say hello if you're there.

The details:
  • Directed by Gabriel A. Ross, dramaturgy by Allie Moss, tech by Linda Huang
  • Cast: Terry Bamberger as Susan, Maria Giere Marquis as Laura, and Jason W. Wong as Greg
  • 6 performances: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 PM, April 13-22
  • All performances at the EXIT Studio, 156 Eddy Street in San Francisco, near the Powell BART/MUNI station
  • Facebook event
  • Tickets 
Hope to see you there!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Sentimental Journey through France and Austria: "The Baltimore Waltz" at Magic Theatre

Anna (Lauren English) gets a diagnosis from The Third Man (Greg Jackson)
while her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone) looks on. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Last night, after I saw Magic Theatre’s production of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, I waited for a bus in a driving rainstorm and eavesdropped on two middle-aged women discussing Trump’s airstrike in Syria. “I’m just waiting for World War III to start,” said one. “Yeah, I look up and expect a nuclear bomb to fall on us any day now,” said the other. I’ve been having similar thoughts—how could I not? I’m about to turn 30 and I have serious doubts that I will make it to 40. And in response, I’ve thought a lot about chucking it all and going on a hedonistic spree—traveling and eating good food and hobnobbing with interesting people. Voraciousness in the face of death.

So I can relate to Anna, the heroine of The Baltimore Waltz, an American woman in her early 30s who receives a fatal diagnosis of Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD) and responds by taking a tour of the great cities of Europe and having a lot of sex. Lauren English’s performance as Anna shows a woman shaking off her good-girl inhibitions and letting her instincts drive her. Accompanying Anna on her European trip is her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone, precise and dapper in flannel pajamas, velvet slippers, and a suit jacket). Every other character in the show—doctors, waiters, European locals—is played by Greg Jackson, who seems to have made a specialty of quick-change comic versatility: his bio also lists credits for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and The 39 Steps.

Carl & Anna in the Parisian croissant-bed. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
There’s a strong sense of whimsy to The Baltimore Waltz, as Carl and Anna travel through a primary-colored, storybook version of Europe. (It’s probably significant that both characters work with children in their day jobs: he is a children’s librarian and she is a first-grade teacher.) In Paris, the headboard of the bed is decorated with croissants and the stagehands wear berets; in Amsterdam, the bed has a tulip-patterned coverlet and the stagehands wear Dutch bonnets.

Indeed, if The Baltimore Waltz were ever made into a movie, I think it should be directed by Wes Anderson, that most whimsical of filmmakers. It already features a lot of Anderson motifs: a caper-style plot, train journeys with stylish luggage, Central European bellhops who wear those funny little caps, characters who seem suspended between childhood and adulthood, allusions to classic cinema (The Third Man, in this case). This production reinforces the Anderson connection by having the actors take their bows to Joe Dassin’s song “Les Champs-Elysées,” which also plays at the end of The Darjeeling Limited. 

The trick with whimsy in theater or cinema, of course, is to employ it in service of a deeper emotion. Eventually, The Baltimore Waltz reveals that there is a heartbreaking reason for all of the kookiness and stereotypes of Carl and Anna’s European trip. Childlike escapist fantasies can be a defense mechanism against real, adult pain.

The Baltimore Waltz plays at Magic Theatre through April 16, 2017. I received a free ticket through the Magic Theatre’s press office.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Foote, Shakespeare, Goldman

In this month's edition of Script Reading Roundup (brief thoughts on plays that I've read): three plays about British Isles royalty and one play about a little old lady from Texas.

The Trip to BountifulThe Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I’ve waited a long time. Just to get to Bountiful. Twenty years I’ve been walkin’ the streets of the city, lost and grieving. And as I’ve grown older and my time approaches, I’ve made one promise to myself, to see my home again… before I die…”

Such is the premise of Horton Foote’s elegiac drama The Trip to Bountiful. Mrs. Carrie Watts lives in a cramped apartment in Houston with her kind but weak-willed son Ludie and her frivolous, overbearing daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. For years, she has been trying to sneak away to her East Texas hometown, Bountiful, and each time, her relatives catch her before she can leave Houston. But one day…

The Trip to Bountiful is largely a touching character study, but there is a surprising amount of suspense as we watch to see how Mrs. Watts will make her escape. I also liked how Mrs. Watts is kind of an opaque figure during Act One (which is dominated by Jessie Mae’s chattering) but comes into her own when she sets out on her journey.

Admittedly, it’s disconcerting to see that according to the stage directions, Mrs. Watts is only 60. She seems much older than the 60-year-old women I know nowadays; indeed, in recent productions, the role is often taken by a more elderly actress. (Cicely Tyson was 88 when she played Mrs. Watts on Broadway in 2013!) At any rate, it is a lovely role for an older lady who can project an unpretentious, middle-American dignity. It is not a “diva” role; quite the opposite.

Another Southern writer famously said “You can’t go home again.” The Trip to Bountiful complicates that statement: when Mrs. Watts returns to Bountiful, she finds it diminished, abandoned, a ghost town. But nonetheless, it is still home.

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All right, Shakespeare, you win: I don’t hate Macbeth. But it took me a long time to get to this point. As a teenager, I saw a terrible production of Macbeth and then acted in a terrible production of Macbeth; later, I saw a few more productions that didn’t do much to change my prejudiced mind, and wrote an essay about how Macbeth is the most over-produced Shakespeare play merely because every middle-aged white male actor thinks he should play the Thane of Cawdor. By that point, my hatred of Macbeth had hardened into a kind of shtick: I found it amusingly contrarian to say I hated this play that everyone else seems to adore, so I played up my dislike for it.

But I’m nearly 30 now, so the time has come to put away childish things and admit on the Internet that Macbeth is never going to be my favorite Shakespeare play, but I certainly don’t think it’s bad.

How did I get to this point? Seeing Sleep No More in New York City helped—it’s not every Shakespeare play that lends itself to transformation into a physical-theater gothic-noir haunted house. The introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition helped, or at least allowed me to forgive my high-school drama teachers for not doing any cross-gender casting (which resulted in me playing a non-speaking ensemble member while boys who couldn’t speak blank verse played all the thanes). The Pelican editor, Stephen Orgel, digs deep into how the play presents women as a disruptive or antagonistic force, and managed to convince me that putting female thanes in Macbeth might well make a hash of its themes. Reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human helped; one of my objections to Macbeth was always that the minor characters do not have much personality, but Bloom suggests that that’s intentional. If the “secondary males in the play” are “wrapped in a common grayness,” Bloom says, it is only so that we more readily identify with Macbeth and “journey inward to [his] heart of darkness.” Or, in other words: Marissa, stop thinking that you’ve found a flaw in Shakespeare; the man was a genius and he knew exactly what he was doing.

So, all right: assuming that competent actors play them, Macbeth and his Lady are fascinating characters. The play moves swiftly and its language obsessively focuses on a few major threads of imagery: blood, shipwrecks, birds, sleep, nighttime and darkness. That imagery, plus the supernatural elements, give Macbeth a unique atmosphere among Shakespeare’s plays, even though I hate it when productions focus on the supernatural bits at the expense of everything else. (A pitfall that has beset Macbeth almost from the start, it seems; the Hecate character is an interpolation by Thomas Middleton. Jacobean audiences couldn’t get enough of those witches!) The scene where Macduff learns the news of his family’s death will wreck me every time. And, even though we know Macbeth is a murderous tyrant who deserves what’s coming to him, Shakespeare somehow makes us sympathize with his paranoia, terror, and nihilism.

I still think Macbeth is not a great choice to produce in a high school or college setting. And I still think there are probably too many productions of it overall.

But no, I don’t hate it.

CymbelineCymbeline by William Shakespeare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t recount the plot of Cymbeline out loud without bursting into giggles. Which is kind of odd: this play is not really considered a comedy in the same way as A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night are, yet I can describe the stories of those plays with a straight face. Cymbeline, though… when I try to explain the sequence of events that result in the heroine waking up next to a headless body and mistaking it for that of her husband, I can’t stop laughing.

As other people have said, this play feels like what would result if you fed all of Shakespeare’s other plays into an extremely intelligent super-computer and asked it to produce something “Shakespearean.” It’s easy to imagine that Shakespeare knew he was at the end of his career and decided to play around with his pet motifs, including some winks at the audience. I mean, the play begins with two unnamed lords saying, basically, “Remember when King Cymbeline’s two little boys vanished without a trace? I wonder what happened to them.” (Gee, do you think that’ll become important later on in the story?) And by the end, Shakespeare has thrown so many plotlines into the play that it takes a scene nearly 500 lines long to resolve everyone’s story.

Very little in Cymbeline is profound, but a lot of it is awfully fun. Princess Imogen is a delightful heroine, the role of the self-involved dolt Prince Cloten can be hilarious in the right hands, and there are many other nice opportunities for comedians and character actors. The most difficult role is probably that of Imogen’s husband Posthumus, because it’s very hard to feel sympathy for him after he makes a wager on his wife’s fidelity. (One possible solution, which I saw in a production in summer 2015: portray Posthumus as extremely drunk at the time he makes the wager.) Overall, I think Cymbeline can be a charming, amusing, and unexpected choice for summertime Shakespeare in the Park companies, or for high schools who don’t want to stage Twelfth Night or Midsummer for the umpteenth time. Because, trust me, it’s as funny as either of them.

The Lion in WinterThe Lion in Winter by James Goldman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where has The Lion in Winter been all my life? Why didn’t I read it when I was 16 years old and equally obsessed with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (It really reads like a cross between those two plays.) As a lover of eloquent dialogue, larger-than-life characters, handsome men and strong women, why did I wait so long to encounter this brilliance?

James Goldman’s play is based on real-life political intrigues involving King Henry II, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three ambitious sons, and the French royal family, though with dramatic license taken to make it juicier. Taking place over a period of less than 24 hours, the plot is a complex swirl of alliances, manipulations, and betrayals, with various territories, marriages, and thrones used as bargaining chips.

Goldman makes no attempt to write dialogue that sounds “medieval,” or to replicate the exact circumstances of court life in 1183. (The royal family decks the halls with Christmas holly themselves—there are no servants or minor courtiers to be seen.) But at the same time, he grants his characters their full measure of dignity and charisma. He humanizes them but he does not cut them down to size. They are wittier, more attractive, more passionate, more conniving than everyday people, and I love all of these glorious monsters.

In one of the play’s most famous lines, Eleanor shouts “Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is eleven eighty-three and we’re barbarians.” And indeed, the metaphor I keep thinking of to describe this play is a jeweled dagger. It is elegant and cutting, hard and glittering, extravagant and yet just right.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

After All, Miss, This is France: Historical Accuracy and the New "Beauty and the Beast"

I saw the new live-action Beauty and the Beast on Saturday and I've been overthinking it ever since. (This is what happens when a bookish Millennial girl with degrees in Drama and French sees a remake of a beloved childhood classic about a bookish French girl.) So I have a few things to say about the adaptation, the changes it makes, and its historical accuracy or lack thereof.

Are you reading Shakespeare there? (CGI) Dan Stevens as the Beast, Emma Watson as Belle.
I appreciated some of the changes to the new version: the filling in of plot holes, and the attempt to show more of how Belle and the Beast's relationship develops. To that end, the filmmakers have included scenes where the characters bond over Shakespeare. (Belle is pleased to be living with a fellow book-lover and reads to the Beast from Midsummer's "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" speech.) Cute, but also rather anachronistic. In France in the 1700s, it's just possible that the Beast might have translated versions of Shakespeare's plays in that vast library of his, but it's unlikely that both he and Belle would revere Shakespeare above all other authors. At that time, the French still saw Shakespeare as déclassé, an uncultured Englishman writing sprawling plays that did not respect the all-important Three Unities. Belle and the Beast would be much more likely to read and discuss literature from their own country: the plays of Racine and Corneille, or maybe the essays of Montaigne. It's fun to imagine them reading Corneille's The Illusion, a play that has themes about artifice and looking deeper, and features a magic mirror that can show you what your loved ones are doing! (Also, it's a delightful play that was far ahead of its time.)

Another change in the new version is the addition of a lot of unnecessary backstory about Belle's family. We learn that Belle and her father Maurice moved to their "provincial" village when she was a baby, after her mother died of the plague. At first, this sounds slightly odd: wasn't plague a medieval disease, and doesn't this movie take place in the 1700s? (Why not smallpox or tuberculosis?) However, there were scattered outbreaks of plague long after the medieval Black Death epidemic, including a really devastating one in Marseille in 1720 (the Great Plague of Marseille). And if we assume that that outbreak killed Belle's mother, and further assume that Belle is about 20 years old when the main action of Beauty and the Beast takes place, we can pinpoint the exact setting of the film as 1740 — which was the year the original French "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale was published! Brilliant!

The only problem with this theory is that the film makes clear that Belle and Maurice are from Paris, not Marseille, and as far as I can tell from Wikipedia, there were no Parisian plague outbreaks in the 1700s. I am left angrily shaking my fist at the screenwriters: "It would have been so easy to say they are from Marseille and not Paris and it would have been a great Easter egg for us history nerds!"

I suspect that both of these matters — having Belle and the Beast discuss Shakespeare, and saying that Belle and Maurice come from Paris — can be traced to a larger problem with movies made for mass audiences: the fear of including information that isn't 100% familiar to everyone. Belle and Maurice are Parisian, not Marseillais, because American audiences can be trusted to know where Paris is but may have never heard of Marseille. Belle and the Beast read Shakespeare, not Racine or Corneille, because those French authors are not part of Anglo-American culture. (I do like that they also show the Beast reading Arthurian romances; this strikes me as historically plausible, understandable to a modern American audience, and not quite as much of a lazy choice as Shakespeare.) Perhaps this is even why Belle's mother dies of the plague, rather than of something like tuberculosis. I suppose I shouldn't be looking to a nostalgia-flavored Disney remake to expose people to unfamiliar ideas, but it makes me sad when mass culture doesn't take the opportunity to try to tell a mass audience something they may not have heard before.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"The Bell" by Iris Murdoch is a perfect English novel

Last November, I joined a book club for the first time. There's about 6 of us, we meet once a month, we focus on literary fiction. I had worried about what it would mean to outsource a significant portion of my literary reading to the dictates of the club, but I've discovered some wonderful books and authors through it. Like Iris Murdoch!

 The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love stories in which people retreat from the world with noble intentions, only to find that sex gets in the way. I love English novels where attractive young men go bathing naked in the woods and then other characters run across them and nothing will ever be the same. I love novels that are purportedly “character-driven” and “philosophical,” yet have a climax in which a whole lot of crazy stuff happens, and it’s shocking and inevitable all at once. I love novels with a vein of black comedy running through them that is so subtle, and so dark, that no one else in my book club thought it was a comedy at all. I love it when an author can make me hate a minor character* so much that I write Bastard in the margin practically every time he appears. I love it when an author sees through to the heart of her characters, especially when she reveals their self-deceptions and mixed motivations. I love novels in which there are patterns and symbols galore, waiting to be deciphered, yet the characters and their predicaments feel real, not the product of an airless literary exercise.

All of this is to say that I loved The Bell and I definitely want to check out more of Iris Murdoch’s huge oeuvre. (I shouldn't really be surprised; one of my most-read authors is A.S. Byatt, who was Murdoch’s protégée.) As I noted above, Murdoch is skilled at both plotting and characterization; I was also really impressed by how she sets the scene. Most of The Bell takes place in a single location: an English country house and its surroundings, which include a moat-like lake, some outbuildings, and a convent of enclosed nuns. Murdoch describes this fictional setting so precisely that I could draw you a detailed map of it, or wander through it in my imagination. Of course, when I do that, I also can’t help picturing her characters, with all their contradictions and foibles, running around the landscape too.

*Paul Greenfield, in this instance

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Iambs and Anagrams and Anapests, Oh My

Some sentences from my reading that have jumped out at me lately.
[Leon had said] "I can't help but picture an armada of floating parties." But the men were serious and reserved and afraid of pirates.
—From Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
This stopped me in my tracks, and not in a good way. In my copy of Station Eleven, the word "pirates" is printed almost directly below the word "parties," and I got weirdly distracted when I realized they were anagrams. Was it intentional wordplay? Inadvertent? What did it mean? I'm inclined to think it was unintentional (I'm enjoying Station Eleven, but its prose is not flashy or full of wordplay) and that an editor should have noticed how distracting it is. Then again, it can take a few editing passes to spot something like this. I like to think I have a good ear, yet I nonetheless wrote a line of dialogue containing the words "tectonics" and "ironic" (yeowch! inadvertent rhyme!) in my latest script, and didn't notice it till an actor read it aloud.
There's some pocket of rot in the oak of their soul that can only be patched up by watches.
From the March 20 New Yorker article on watch collecting, by Gary Shteyngart.
No, wait, forget what I said above about wordplay being distracting and worthy of removal by an editor. This sentence, this I love. The metaphor! The assonance and slant rhymes! The anapests! All in a sentence that purportedly was not even composed by Shteyngart, but is a quote from a watch-collecting acquaintance of his! I read it while on MUNI and then wanted to run around the city chanting it. It reminded me of another New Yorker sentence that had a similar effect on me, from an April 2014 article on caving, by Burkhard Bilger: "Their digestif has come to grief against a fissure wall." Perfect iambic rhythm and a jaunty internal rhyme on "digestif" and "grief"!