Sunday, April 27, 2008

Lesbians, Tomboys, and a Queen

Overt the weekend I saw/heard three different shows, one about lesbians, one about a tomboy, one about a queen. Witches and bitches also made an appearance. Read on...

On Friday I saw a student production of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. Though in one sense, it's a 1930s melodrama with a retrograde view of lesbianism, I was amazed that much of it still felt relevant. It's funny that I wrote the other day about girl-on-girl bullying being a good subject for a play, because for me, that was the most powerful part of The Children's Hour. The words and methods used by bullies may have changed since 1934 (no little girl in 2008 is going to ask other girls to swear loyalty to her "with the solemn oath of a knight," as Mary Tilford does), but the underlying motivations have not. And even though every woman knows that 13-year-old girls can be downright vicious, it's still almost a taboo subject--seeing it represented onstage is still surprising. As is the fact that The Children's Hour has just one male character in it, and otherwise completely concerns itself with female points-of-view! Makes me wonder how far we've really come since 1934...

The other thing that surprised me about The Children's Hour was its language: several "goddamns" and one character referred to as an "old bitch." When writing The Rose of Youth, which takes place in 1934, I consciously tried not to use swear words. I had one (male) character say "goddamn," in a scene with another man, and wondered if even that was too strong. Guess I shouldn't have worried so much!

Still, it was a challenge to write a whole play without using 21st-century locutions such as "like," "y'know," and "I mean." And a challenge to keep the actors from inserting "y'know" and "I mean" into the script where it didn't belong! No playwright likes to hear actors add or change words, but it's even more jarring when the additions seem to come from a whole different decade than the rest of the script!

On Saturday afternoon I listened to the Met opera broadcast of La Fille du Régiment, starring two of my favorite singers, Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay. Really great work all around, though I was disappointed to miss most of Flórez's Act II aria "Pour me rapprocher de Marie" when the streaming audio on my computer decided to misbehave. And after studying French for nearly four years, it is a real thrill to be able to listen to an opera and understand the singers! I've known the melody of "Pour mon âme" since I was 4 years old, but the words only recently...

La Fille du Régiment, with its spoken dialogue, also made me see the kinship of comic opera and musical comedy. When Tonio, Marie, and Sulpice launched into the energetic trio "Tous les trois réunis" (The three of us reunited) in Act II, it reminded me of nothing so much as those cheery musical-comedy songs pledging friendship and happiness. "Together Wherever We Go" from Gypsy or "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along...that kind of thing. And during Marie's music lesson, as her aunt instructs her to sing "plus fort!" then "plus doux!" (Louder! Sweeter!) how could I help being reminded of "Anything you can sing, I can sing louder"? Come to think of it, Marie has a lot in common with Annie illiterate tomboy, delighting in simple pleasures, kind and loyal to a fault.

Don't they look similar? Reba McEntire as Annie, Natalie Dessay as Marie.

My operatic day continued when I went to see the Vassar music department's production of Dido and Aeneas. This is an odd little piece, with Aeneas perhaps the most under-characterized hero of any opera ever written. The Vassar production tried to remedy that by interpolating another Purcell aria ("What shall I do to show how much I love her?") for him at the end of Act 2.

The singers performed in real Restoration-theater style, which means lots of poses and gestures to accompany the singing. A few of the singers were skilled enough to infuse emotion into these gestures; most looked merely like they were striking attitudes. But, I realized, if you are a singer who can't really act, it's better to aim for dignity and simplicity, than to try to do too much. During the final chorus after Dido's death, the girl who played Belinda (Dido's handmaiden) switched positions every five seconds, grimacing, dabbing at her eyes, burying her face in her hands, in an attempt to convince us of Belinda's sadness. But it was distracting, and seemed as if she was flailing around, unsure of what to do. Much better to find one pose and hold it.

My favorite part of Dido and Aeneas is the witches' "ho-ho-ho" chorus. It amuses me to know that the stereotype of gleefully cackling witches has been around since 1689.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Oh, to Be in England... that April's here? Perhaps, though never having visited the British Isles, I'm not currently craving the pleasures of an English springtime. Instead, I am fascinated by the news that 21-year-old writer Polly Stenham's play That Face, a smash hit at the Royal Court Theatre, will transfer to the West End.

I got the link from Mr. Excitement, who labeled it simply "Things That Would Never Happen Here." Ha, how true... And for someone like me, it's especially gobsmacking--to know that someone only a few months older than me, a sister playwright if you will, is getting a 10-week commercial run in the West End.

That Face is described as a drama about a troubled upper-middle-class family, dealing with issues such as drug & alcohol abuse, parent-child relations, and girl-on-girl bullying. The latter subject strikes me as especially fresh, an excellent choice for a bold young female playwright. Polly has said, "Give me a 14-year-old girl who's angry! That's an age and a species of the human race that can do some bad things. There are hormones everywhere." Agreed.

Stenham got this opportunity via the Royal Court's program for young seems almost too easy! "It's not elitist; it's open to anyone aged 13-25. You just go in and read plays and write little scenes. I really believe that with that behind you, anyone could have a good shot at doing something like this [...] They said write a play, if you want, for The Young Writers' Festival, and I thought I'd give it a go."

And so, like many American theater artists, I sigh over how good things are in Britain, and with a trace of envy, wish Polly Stenham all the best.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bill T. Jones at Vassar

I don't really follow modern dance, but one of the dancer-choreographers I am most familiar with is Bill T. Jones. I came to him via musical theater, wowed by his choreography for Spring Awakening. (It's not traditional Broadway dance at all, but I think "Totally Fucked" might be the most exciting production number I've ever seen.) Last semester I did a brief report on Jones for my intro modern dance course, so I learned more about his dance company and his penchant for choreographing pieces that address political and social topics. And yesterday, Jones came to Vassar to give a lecture--which I attended.

Jones' topic was his work-in-progress, a piece about "the legacy of Abraham Lincoln," commissioned by the Ravinia Festival for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth (in 2009). He read us some speeches of Lincoln's that have inspired him, concluding with the "With malice toward none, with charity for all" speech (and for a dancer, he's got a good voice!). He talked about accepting the commission, his cynicism toward all the money being spent to celebrate Lincoln's birthday, but also being moved to tears when he got to see Lincoln's top hat up close. He thinks that the piece may involve dramatizing the conflict between the 5-year-old boy taught that "the guy on the penny" was a great American hero, and the 56-year-old man who no longer believes in heroes.

Jones talked a lot about the difficulties of making art that has a political viewpoint. He said that he began his career at a time when Minimalism and Formalism were the prevailing styles, and it was seen as vulgar to care about content instead of form. Even today, the dance establishment does not always like Jones' politically minded pieces...and Jones agonizes about how to stage and dramatize issues like freedom, slavery, religion... since he cannot simply rely on the aesthetic beauty of his dancers and his music, as some choreographers do. With this Lincoln piece, he hardly knew where to begin, and is slowly finding his way into it. However, one thing he definitely does not want to do is make it about that other Illinois politician, Barack Obama--that's too simplistic.

The only dancing Jones did was a series of poses that flowed into one another like tai chi moves--giving each pose an apt name, sometimes serious ("Apollo Belvedere"), sometimes amusing ("Nineteenth-Century Melodrama: Eek, a Mouse"). He repeated the series four or five times, narrating the names of the poses but also talking about other stuff, too, while doing it. I'd be interested to know if some of this ends up in the final version of the Lincoln piece (working title: "A Good Man").

As a highly verbal person, it is sometimes hard for me to enjoy abstract arts like dance or symphonic music, so I enjoyed hearing a renowned choreographer discuss the thought process that goes into his work.

Photo from

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dov'è Gregory Peck?

A year ago today, I was visiting Rome for the first time. It was spring break in France, and I chose to take a bus tour of Italy with a group of French people (I assumed most of them would be students; they weren't). Rome was our last stop, after Pisa, Florence and Siena.

Now, thanks to a lifelong love of Audrey Hepburn and a pirated videocassette from my grandfather, I've seen Roman Holiday so often I've practically memorized it. Some of its lines have even become catchphrases in my house: we say "You have my permission to withdraw" when we want to make someone go away, just as Princess Ann (Audrey) does in the movie. The bus tour gave us only two days in Rome, but look how much fun Audrey had in half that time! So I was determined to hit the same tourist spots that she did (and you can imagine my disappointment when we got to the Mouth of Truth fifteen minutes after it closed).

I always seem to get a sunburn on the first sunny days of the year, and I got a pretty bad one in Rome, from hanging out too long by the Trevi Fountain and on the Spanish Steps. But I simply had to go to the Spanish Steps and eat a gelato, like Audrey in the movie! Since Gregory Peck was nowhere to be found (nor Eddie Albert with that funny camera concealed in his cigarette-lighter), I had to attempt to take a picture of myself and my rapidly melting gelato:

After I finished the gelato, I sat on the Steps and found a discarded copy of Le Monde. It was a special issue devoted to the French presidential elections (which were happening in a few days) so I read it with interest. Then a young man approached me. He was decidedly not a handsome, well-tailored Gregory Peck type. He was a weedy-looking little punk in a baggy T-shirt; the kind who trolls the tourist districts looking for young foreign women.

He saw my Le Monde and asked "Francese?"

I took a deep breath. I did not feel like launching into a complicated explanation about being an American studying in France. The last thing I wanted was more attention from this guy. I assumed that the word "American" is catnip to these men's ears, whereas if I were actually French, he might leave a fellow European alone. I'd been in France for over three months by this point, and knew enough about the country to make up a convincing lie about living there, if need be. I'd been developing a good French accent and conversation skills, and assumed that I knew more of the French language than he did. So, even if it were a lie, pretending to be French might be the simplest solution...

"Oui," I said.

And he left me alone! My plan had worked!

On the long bus ride back to France, I ended up watching Roman Holiday yet again--or, I should say, Vacances romaines, because they showed the French-dubbed version. While I missed hearing some of Audrey's line readings (she won the Oscar for it after all), I didn't find it incongruous that her character spoke French. Audrey practically seems French anyway--so petite and refined, and half of her movies take place in Paris.

But when it comes to Gregory Peck, that's another story. His character, Joe Bradley, is supposed to be the quintessential American newspaperman, so it doesn't work if he speaks French and calls himself "Zhoh Broad-lay." Also, in the script, Joe is slightly disreputable: having gambled away his money, he plans to sell Princess Ann's story to the newspapers. But because Gregory Peck, that icon of decency and moral fiber, plays Joe, he remains likable throughout. Speaking French, however, Joe becomes downright sleazy. When Ann wakes up in Joe's bed, wearing his pajamas, the French-language dubber puts a salacious spin on "Zhoh"'s lines. This one little change causes the movie to lose a great deal of charm.

Yes, Gregory Peck was one-of-a-kind, and though I hoped to run into a modern version of him on the Spanish Steps, that seems unlikely, these days.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

April Grab-Bag

Perhaps it was a little disingenuous at the end of my last post, to write "This is how I would like to remember this project." After all, that was just one of the many facets of Dynamo, and I don't want to privilege one aspect over another, not when I have so many worthy memories. And also, tearful Shakespeare-induced gratitude is nice, but the bigger news from this project is that The Rose of Youth won Vassar's playwriting prize, the Marilyn Swartz Seven contest! So after our first show on Friday there was a wine-and-cheese reception, and free pizza for the cast, and an award for me. Here I am (with bouquet):

Again, it felt so strange to walk down that ramp and accept the award...ever since I first heard of the Seven Contest, I imagined winning it someday, just as I had always dreamed of seeing my play about Vassar performed at Vassar. So to have both those things happen, in an instant, on April 11, was quite surreal.

Now that Dynamo's over, it's nice to remember that, oh yeah, I have a life as a college student outside of the theater. Some of the things I've been enjoying:
  • Lying in the grass in front of the Drama building, scooting further and further back as the afternoon wears on and the shadows come creeping across the grass, and reading The New Yorker. I just finished the article in this week's "Journeys" issue about the woman who went swimming in the Arctic Ocean. How nice to be warm and safe on the Vassar campus, not surrounded by icebergs and jellyfish and 30-degree water!
  • Cooking for myself! I didn't feel like anything too elaborate tonight, so I made one of my quickest and easiest meals, Pseudo-Bruschetta (my own invention). Brush crusty bread with olive oil, maybe rub it with garlic, and toast it in oven. Meanwhile, heat some olive oil in a skillet, then dump in a can of cannelloni beans. Mash the beans with a potato masher, the back of a fork, whatever, while stirring them around. You want them to give up their liquid, then you want to reduce that liquid into a thicker paste. When beans are mostly thickened, add a can of tuna fish packed in oil. Then dice 2 plum tomatoes, add to the mixture, and cook until just heated through. Serve with toasted bread, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and parmesan cheese.
  • But I'm also grateful to generous relatives who take me out to dinner. My parents treated me and Rachel to a great meal on Saturday; and tomorrow my uncle and aunt are coming to Poughkeepsie to attend a wedding, and are going to take me out to eat, too!
  • Having my windows open and hearing the Vassar chapel bells every day at 12:30 and 5 PM. I'm going to miss them when I go.
  • Making fun of the Miscellany News, its typos, the silly things it says about drama kids, the obviously made-up questions submitted to our sex columnist. E.g. "Can you tell me about syphilis?" Though this did lead to the greatest headline I have seen in a while: "Tolstoy Contracted Syphilis, And So Could You."
  • Catching up on my work for all my other classes... This week I have given a presentation on The Taming of the Shrew, another on nineteenth-century perceptions of female hysteria in France, worked on a new one-act play, and read about fin-de-siècle Vienna and Budapest.
And now, because I was just reminded that Mr. Lehrer turned 80...and because the Pope is visiting America...and because I want to prove to my dad (a Lehrer fan) that I'm not mad at him, though we have been bickering via e-mail for the last two days... here is Tom Lehrer singing "The Vatican Rag."

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.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

2 Weeks, 2 Adam Bock Plays

My blogging has been light here as of late, because I've been so busy with schoolwork and Dynamo. (Last week, while stage-managing and revising The Rose of Youth, I worked on Dynamo an average of 8 hours a day. Oof.) But I do want to write about the other show I saw when I was in New York--The Drunken City by Adam Bock.

Various states of inebriation. Photo by Joan Marcus from

Admittedly, after the 3.5-hour grandeur of August: Osage County, an 80-minute romantic comedy like The Drunken City would have to be really spectacular for it not to seem like a letdown. And even if I hadn't seen August the night before, I'd probably still have considered The Drunken City an intermittently amusing trifle. It's about three bachelorettes who, in the fog of drunkenness, nevertheless discover new insights into themselves--especially when one is tempted by a handsome stranger, Frank. The play is neither as rollickingly funny or as deeply insightful as it wants to be.

There are only a few unpredictable things about The Drunken City: first, its three heroines are suburbanites, not the Carrie Bradshaw types I was expecting. Cassie Beck, playing Marnie, especially reminded me of an ultra-suburban, wholesome blonde girl who I met last summer, and I enjoyed that I could "recognize" this character. Marnie ends up as the protagonist, which is the other surprising thing: at first, I thought that Melissa (Maria Dizzia) would be the main character. She seems like the ringleader of the three women, the most put-together and sensible, and she is facing a big emotional issue: as Marnie and Linda prepare to get married, Melissa has just broken off her own engagement. But by the end of the play, Melissa turns completely unsympathetic and judgmental, and her story is not resolved in any satisfactory way.

I admire the production's commitment to multi-racial casting (Linda was Asian, Frank was black, and Bob was Latino), but I thought Linda's role, played by Sue Jean Kim, awfully stereotyped. She is pure comic relief--the petite Asian girl who can't hold her liquor and talks in goofy non-sequiturs, and in her few lucid moments, compares the city to a "sleeping dragon"--which seems like an Orientalist cliché.

I'm a bit surprised that the play just got a Lortel nomination for costume design, though it was pretty hilarious to have Melissa wear a whistle shaped like a penis. Note to the costume team: please launder Eddie's (Barrett Foa) shirt after every performance. It's already very predictable that he will end up in a clinch with Bob (Alfredo Narciso), a flour-dusted baker, and being able to see last night's flour smudges on Eddie's shirt just increases the predictability.

About a week after seeing The Drunken City, I got a chance to see another Bock play, The Typographer's Dream, presented by a Vassar student-theater organization. (Our school newspaper wrote an article about it but referred to the playwright as "Adam Block" throughout. Argh.) This play involves a perky geographer, a shy stenographer, and a distraught typographer talking about the pros and cons of their jobs. I really did like the choice to stage it in a classroom so that it felt like "an event that Vassar...might put together, inviting people to come talk to students about their jobs," as the director said in the newspaper article. The actors were all good, especially in dealing with Bock's language, although I thought it could have been more clear from the get-go that the three characters are all friends in real life, and didn't just meet at the career panel. Not sure whether this was the fault of the actors or the script.

I think I ended up liking The Typographer's Dream better than The Drunken City, and I'm not sure whether that's because it's actually a better play, or just a function of the circumstances in which I saw the two productions. Well, Typographer felt less clichéd because there aren't actually a lot of plays about people's relationship to their jobs, compared to the vast amount of romantic comedies (like The Drunken City). But also, there's something more appealing about seeing a modestly scaled dramatic work put on by a bunch of college kids, rather than at an important New York nonprofit theater. Would I have been more annoyed with Typographer if I had seen it at Playwrights Horizons? Would I have been more forgiving of Drunken if I'd seen it at Vassar with some of my friends in the cast?

I am grateful to my 4 years at Vassar for exposing me to all different kinds of theater via student and departmental productions, but wonder what it's going to be like when I graduate (in seven weeks!). As a playwright, I'll still need to see all kinds of plays, but I'll feel resentful if I spend my money on something that turns out to be lightweight or trivial.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The shoures soote

"Wheat Field in Rain" by Vincent Van Gogh. Image from

I seem to be developing a habit of shouting defiantly into the face of rainstorms. It combines several of my passions: for quotations, for heightened emotions, and for wet weather (blame my Oregon heart). Here are two examples I recall:

Between my junior and senior years of high school, I participated in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Summer Seminar, a 2-week program that taught 70 or so kids about the inner workings of a big repertory theater. We lived in dormitories and had to walk about a mile to get to town. On our second or third evening there, we were walking to see Richard II in the outdoor (Elizabethan) theater, when the skies opened and it started pouring down rain. So, naturally, as the high-school theater geeks we were, we started quoting.

The Seminar had made us memorize a choral speech from a Greek tragedy, and it felt appropriate to shout that out as the winds and rain raged: "Come, Furies, dance! Link arms for the dancing hand-to-hand." Then we switched to King Lear: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!"

But it only rained harder, and perhaps spurred on by our Greek, Zeus even started hurling his thunderbolts. We decided we needed to appease the gods. That's when I got my brilliant idea. My voice loaded with irony, I yelled at the top of my lungs, "Shall I compare thee to a SUMMER'S day? Thou art more LOVELY and more TEMPERATE!"

The rain stopped eventually, though I don't know if my plea for temperance did much good: the show didn't get canceled and we spent a damp and chilly evening watching it.

Now, today, April 1, in Poughkeepsie, was a warm, muggy day--very unpleasant. But thunderstorms were predicted for tonight, and I was grateful--they're the only compensation for East Coast humidity, in my opinion. I love how the temperature will suddenly plummet and the skies release torrents of rain. You understand where that phrase, "the weather broke," came from. And tonight, during rehearsal, we had a real humdinger of a storm. The drumming rain and whistling wind echoed through the theater. When we took five, some of the guys took their shirts off and frolicked in the rain. One of them began singing an art song by Tosti, called "Aprile."

"Aprile," I thought, "that's like Aprill..." and the words I had to memorize in a high-school Chaucer class flooded back. I stood under the awning of the theater and shouted as loud as I could:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour!
The shouting made me feel strong and defiant, as if the rain were running fast through my veins too; or perhaps it was Chaucer's language, still powerful after 400 years. Ah yes, rain on, you shoures soote, you.