Saturday, April 12, 2008

Infinite variety, boundless bounty

The production of Antony and Cleopatra that started it all (OSF, 2003). Photo found at

My Dynamo project is--hard to believe--over with, after two performances of my play The Rose of Youth yesterday. You know how it is when you anticipate something for so long and it finally arrives, and after that you aren't sure what to do with yourself? That's where I'm at right now. I can't even see the big picture yet, but can only isolate small moments. Here's one of them: about my friend Rachel, the founder of Dynamo, and someone I've known for a really long time, but never so closely as now.

I first met Rachel nearly five years ago, at the OSF Summer Seminar for high-schoolers. Among the plays we saw that summer was a really terrific, intimate production of Antony and Cleopatra, which made a big impression on me. Indeed, I wouldn't have written The Rose of Youth if that production of A&C hadn't alerted me to the play's beauty and power.

That summer, OSF also had a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio on loan from Paul Allen's collection. A curator lectured to us on the history of the Folio and then invited us, in small groups, to gaze upon this priceless book. It was kept in a secured, controlled environment, in a plexiglass case, resting upon a special stand that could hold it open without straining its binding. It was open to Enobarbus' famous speech from Antony and Cleopatra:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.
The curator told us that he'd done this on purpose: though these lines refer to Cleopatra, they work equally well to describe the bounty, the timelessness, the richness of Shakespeare's oeuvre. It was a moment of awe.

After that summer, Rachel and I lost touch, but we both ended up at Vassar--I still remember the shock of recognition when I ran into her at freshman registration. We both did a lot of theater--together and separately--until she invited me to be a playwright/collaborator on Dynamo a year ago. All last fall, we and the other two founders (Thane and Molly) worked closely on this project, getting to know one another better--and though I knew Rachel liked my play, I was still so grateful and flattered when she offered to direct its world premiere in early March.

When we read my play out loud for the first time, there was one scene that simply did not work. I had had Antony's death scene as a play-within-the-play, but that made things too slow and tragic. I needed a different Shakespeare scene, and promised to find one by the next day--praying that something else in Antony and Cleopatra would work. To my great relief, I found one: Act 4 Scene 4, where Cleopatra arms Antony before he goes off to battle. It is shorter than Antony's death scene, lighter in tone, and altogether better. I emailed the new scene to Rachel and the other company members before I went to bed that night.

The next day, I ran into Rachel in the cafeteria. While she went to buy food, I sat at a table musing on my great good fortune to have found a scene to substitute for Antony's death. I silently thanked Shakespeare for the gift of his writing, from which I can continually draw new pleasure and insight. This reminded me of those beautiful lines from Romeo and Juliet:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.
And this, in turn, reminded me of "infinite variety" and the Enobarbus speech, and as I pondered these two quotes--two among thousands of Shakespeare's gifts to us--I found myself tearing up. Thoughts of seeing the First Folio at Ashland led to thoughts of meeting Rachel, and how that summer we never could have predicted we'd wind up here, founding a theater ensemble, her directing a play I'd written... I thought of Rachel's generosity, and our ensemble's, but most of all Shakespeare's. So I sat there in the cafeteria, getting all verklempt, then looked up, wiped my eyes, and waved to Rachel--who sat down, and began discussing the nuts-and-bolts of staging my play.

I think that that is how I would like to remember this project.


Marc Acito said...

Theater moves me in ways that no other art form does. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story and good luck.

Mead said...

Congratulations, Ms M. You and your colleagues are all to be hosannaed for taking it upon yourselves to create the Dynamo structure to make sure new work gets done. Good on you!

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Marissa said...

Thanks, Messrs. M&M! I think all of us Dynamo participants have had similar moments during our project, so you can bet that we'll be keeping this up...doing new plays and spreading the joy of theater. Watch out, here we come!