Thursday, December 16, 2010

Notes on Two Theatrical Sequels

There's been a lot of talk about how 2010-2011 is the year of multi-part plays in Bay Area theater. Three theaters teaming up to present The Brother/Sister Plays, Shotgun producing both The Salt Plays and The Norman Conquests, Sleepwalkers producing the This World and After trilogy... there's a lot of theater to see and, as you can tell, I haven't always been good about writing up what I see. It's even worse when I've written an enthusiastic blog post about the first play in a duology or trilogy, and then neglect to share my thoughts after I see the second play. Herewith, some catching up...

Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet (at ACT, closed in November) -- I basically enjoyed this play, and after the harrowing drama of In the Red & Brown Water and The Brothers Size, it is nice to know that Tarell Alvin McCraney can write a coming-of-age comedy. As I recall, there were some hilarious lines in this play. True to its title, one of the best words to describe this play is "sweet." However, the ending of it was incredibly anticlimactic. It would have been anticlimactic if Marcus were just a stand-alone play (the characters spend all of Act II worrying that a Katrina-like hurricane is going to hit their bayou town, but the hurricane never shows up) and it's even worse considering that Marcus is not a stand-alone play, but the conclusion of an ambitious trilogy. We know from Red and Brown Water and Brothers Size that McCraney can write unflinching, emotionally gripping finales... why did he falter when writing the ending of Marcus?

Also, part of me wonders whether ACT shouldn't have produced In the Red and Brown Water and Marin produced Marcus, instead of the other way around. Red & Brown Water is the biggest play of the trilogy -- the most characters, the most overtly mythological themes, the most stylized. So mightn't it be better in ACT, the biggest theater; and mightn't Marcus, a gentle comedy, be better in the medium-sized Marin Theater? Then again, ACT has the most tickets to sell and the most subscribers to please. Under those circumstances, Marcus is probably the most crowd-pleasing show of the trilogy, and the safest bet.

I really need to buy and read the whole trilogy of plays now; despite my occasional caveats, this is exciting writing, and I am sure I can learn from it.

The Salt Plays, Part II: Of the Earth (at Shotgun Players through January 16) -- After producing writer-director Jon Tracy's innovative Iliad adaptation In the Wound at John Hinkel Park this summer, Shotgun presents the sequel, an adaptation of The Odyssey, in their indoor space. One of the most thrilling aspects of In the Wound was its huge cast and innovatively staged fight scenes; I feared that Of the Earth, an indoor play with just eight actors, would be more sedate and conventional. I shouldn't have worried, though: the staging is imaginative, very physical (the taiko drums return!) and makes good use of the space. For instance, video is incorporated into the production, something that obviously could not happen at John Hinkel Park. A five-woman ensemble plays all of the roles besides Odysseus, Telemachus, and Penelope: they transform themselves into Greek gods and goddesses, Odysseus' crew, Circe, the suitors. You haven't lived till you've seen five women, using nothing but their bodies, some ladders, and a lighting instrument, come together and characterize the Cyclops. It is an amazing theatrical moment.

The Salt Plays are a very unconventional take on Greek mythology. For instance, the gods are given different motivations than they have in Homer: the driving force of the play is Zeus' insistence that Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena must atone for having caused the Trojan War, and must punish Odysseus for killing Iphigenia. It is exciting to watch such a fresh take on such old myths, but some plot points in both In the Wound and Of the Earth were unclear. At times, Jon Tracy seems to pack too much into each of these plays -- the text is dense, and on top of that the staging is complex and physical.

I love what Tracy does with most of the mythological figures, but I don't like the way he's characterized Penelope. Usually, Penelope is one of my favorite characters -- seriously, read The Odyssey and be amazed at how such a strong, well-rounded female character appears in a poem that was written in the eighth century B.C. But in the Salt Plays, she seems kind of one-dimensional and weak. The play captures the part of her that is a loving mother and faithful wife, but not the intelligence and cunning that draws Odysseus to her (and she to him). Tracy presents Odysseus as an antihero, full of flaws, and Penelope as the perfect woman -- whereas the The Odyssey makes the point that Odysseus and Penelope are an evenly matched pair. (A very radical point, for such an ancient work.) I love how The Salt Plays treat the other female characters, and in particular how Of the Earth has actresses portray Zeus and Poseidon -- it's just a shame that, in this telling, Penelope becomes a more conventional ingenue.

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