Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Kissing in Manhattan": Anti-Feminist Fables

I thought that David Schickler's collection of linked short stories Kissing in Manhattan, a hit when it was published back in 2001, would be the ideal thing to read on my first trip to New York City in 2.5 years. It was supposed to be charming, capturing the romance and magic of New York. While I knew not to expect miracles from it (I picked up the paperback from a friend who was downsizing his book collection; he warned me "it's the kind of short-story collection that makes the bestseller list," by which he meant "it's relentlessly middlebrow") I at least expected to find it agreeable. Instead, it just made me angry. Despite being set in New York City at the turn of the millennium, it propounds the most antiquated ideas about gender roles.

Just about every female character in the book is a gorgeous, willowy thing in a satin cocktail dress. They either ache to be dominated by a cruel alpha male, or they play perverse sexual games that involve humiliating the beta males. The stories tend to be told from the male characters' point of view, so they lack insight into why the women behave this way. Meanwhile, the male characters fall into two varieties: aggressive and horny alpha males or shy nice-guy beta males. That's reductive, to be sure. But at least the men are not objectified the way the women are.

Kissing in Manhattan
is a collection of male sexual fantasies disguised as middlebrow literary fiction. And that's not what I bargained for.

The book begins with the short "Checkers and Donna," about a woman who has always secretly wished to "belong to a man," and has rape fantasies. Donna finally meets her match in Checkers, a crude and loud man who drives a muscle car. I thought this story was pretty weak, but I wasn't ready to write off the whole book just because of one story that was built around "men are from Mars and women are from Venus" nonsense. Who knew what the rest of the collection would hold?

But the second story, "Jacob's Bath," made clear that the attitude of "Checkers and Donna" ("Goddamnit, who the hell do you women think you are?... Don't you understand how perfect it is when a guy says 'Hey, sexy mama' to a girl because that's all he can say?") was not a one-off. In this story, the character of Rachel Wolf is praised for being a loving and loyal wife and mother, who gives her husband Jacob a bath every night:
The woman was there to strengthen the man, to quench his thirst, and the man loved the woman and he was grateful. It wasn't about equity: Jacob never bathed Rachel. He was ready to perform a lifetime of chores for her, but this isn't about that [...]

[Rachel] told how Jacob's bath wasn't about sex, but about devotion, and love. She even admitted, because she thought her friend needed her to, that Jacob had once had an affair, an affair she'd known about the entire time it went on. [...]

"The bastard," whispered Susan.

Rachel stiffened. "He was home every night for his bath."

"But he lied to you! He was cheating!"

Rachel stared at her friend, who didn't understand men.

"I was devoted to him," she said evenly. "I was his wife, and I loved him. The affair stopped."
And meanwhile, Rachel's friend Susan, a high-powered New York Times editorial columnist, is denigrated for being a spinster who actually cares about the world at large:
She was well into her sixties, and she'd never married, or been to Disneyland, or learned to sing. Instead, she'd drawn a bead on the large, savage habits of the globe: murder, extortion, hatred, crimes against women and the earth. She'd stared long at these awful truths. The problem was, as Nietzsche said, when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. That New Year's morning Susan March made a terrible realization: she craved baseness. Some fiber of her soul longed to kill, as Mr. Bruce did, or to cleanse countries with napalm, or to be taken viciously by a man on the steps of a church. Not only did Susan want these atrocities, she wanted them so badly that she'd never erected the means to fight them off. She had no husband, no children, no balm to ease her days. And her arrogance, her pride in her lifelong, clear-eyed independence, died hard that New Year's morning.
And it goes on from there. A story about a gorgeous paralegal who gives her employer a bad case of blue balls ("Serendipity"). Several stories about Patrick Rigg, who ties a different naked, beautiful woman to his bed every night.

Schickler got his book deal for Kissing in Manhattan on the strength of his short story "The Smoker," published in The New Yorker's debut fiction issue. And "The Smoker" is indeed a pretty great story, and the highlight of this collection: funny, absurd, good dialogue. I had read it in a New Yorker short-story anthology, and it had made me curious to read more of Schickler's work. But unfortunately, when placed in the context of the rest of Kissing in Manhattan, "The Smoker" becomes less enjoyable. It is the story of 31-year-old Douglas, a nebbishy English teacher at a private girls' school, who gets invited to dinner chez Nicole, his brightest student. Then Nicole's parents announce that they want to arrange a marriage between their daughter and her teacher. It's an entertaining tale, but at the same time, isn't it just one more sexual fantasy? Nicole is not as powerless nor as submissive as some of Schickler's other female characters, but she's still too good to be true: a beautiful, brilliant 19-year-old who just wants to make her lonely English teacher happy.

Of course male authors should be allowed to let their sexual fantasies inspire their writing. But they need to be honest that that is what they are doing. Kissing in Manhattan was billed as tender and charming and romantic, but as a woman, I found that there was nothing for me in it. The whimsy and magical realism of this book coexists uneasily with its lubricious side.

Furthermore, a more talented or risk-taking author would interrogate his sexual fantasies, not just produce fiction that replicates his favorite erotic scenarios. He would ask why men and women are drawn to dominance and submission and other forms of erotic games-playing. He'd come up with more satisfactory motivations for his characters' kinks and quirks (and also dial down the overall amount of quirkiness in his book). He might write about a woman like Rachel Wolf--after all, in the real world, women exist who know their husbands are having affairs but don't utter a peep--but he would make her a more complex character, rather than viewing her as perfect and saintly.

My friend was right. Kissing in Manhattan is indeed the kind of short fiction that makes the bestseller list. I hope it's happy there, in the company of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Get your "Arabian Nights" tix now!

Interrupting my break-from-blogging for a quick announcement.

Tickets to the special presentation of Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights just went on sale at Berkeley Rep. I saw this show two years ago and it's one of the most gorgeous pieces of theater I have ever seen. It truly feels good for the soul. I can't wait to see it again (I will be sharing it with my parents when they visit me over Christmas).

These tickets are going to go FAST, so I urge all Bay Area theater lovers to seize the chance to see this beautiful show! You know I am not usually such a shill... but for The Arabian Nights, I will happily make an exception. Don't miss out!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Autumn in New Yo-o-ork...



...is where I will be for the next few days. My first trip back to the East Coast since I graduated from college!

Back on Tuesday.

Outline of the Post on "In the Red and Brown Water" That I Don't Have Time to Actually Write

OK, it's been two weeks since I saw In the Red and Brown Water at Marin Theater, and even though it's closed, I wanted to write about it, because I loved The Brothers Size so much and Tarell Alvin McCraney is important. But I have to accept that I don't have time to write the full, formal post that I had planned. Herewith, the outline of what I was going to write:
  • Apology for the blog post being mostly a comparison of Red and Brown Water to Brothers Size, and not a consideration of Red and Brown Water in its own right; also, apology for spending more time on criticism than commendation.
  • Acknowledgement that, while there was good stuff in Red and Brown Water, I preferred Brothers Size.
  • Citation of other sources to back me up on this. Sam Hurwitt's reservations with Red and Brown Water: "It's hard to connect with [Oya, the heroine]. She's a cipher, full of promise unexpressed as she wastes away in nameless discontent." Lynn Ruth Miller: "The dance was powerful, the presentation disturbing and strong and the acting wonderful to see and yet…and yet…were those characters people we know? Did they respond to the forces that threatened them in ways we understand? In contrast, Magic Theatre’s production of The Brothers Size, magnificently directed by Octavio Solis, is immediate, compelling and unforgettable because it is a story that reflects every one of us. Every character is so real, we feel he is us on that stage, agonizing about human loyalties, sexuality, right and wrong."
  • Recognition that Red and Brown Water is a more complex/ambitious play than Brothers Size, but that also means that there are more ways it could go wrong. Discussion of how McCraney has some difficulty handling the passage of time and the sequence of events in this play. Time passes really quickly in Act I (Oya's mother is mildly ill one moment and dead the next; by the end of the act, Oya has already taken two lovers), and by comparison, not a lot happens in Act II.
  • Reference to my "Law of Timespans": a story that covers a short period of time is more likely to be good than one that takes place over a long period of time. This could also be extended to the number of characters/plotlines encompassed by a work of narrative art. Brothers Size covers about a month, and has 3 characters; Red and Brown Water covers several years and has 9 actors, some of whom play multiple roles. This is why Red and Brown comes across as "promising" while Brothers Size comes across as a more complete work of art.
  • Mythical, mystical, ritualistic Red and Brown Water versus more naturalistic and "muscular" Brothers Size. Is it just a personal predilection that I prefer the naturalistic and streamlined play, or is one storytelling mode inherently "better" than the other? After all, theater did develop out of myth and ritual...
  • Commendation of McCraney's decision to name his characters after the Afro-Cuban deities, the orishas, and have them take on the personality characteristics of their namesake deity. When I first heard of the Brother/Sister plays, a year or so ago, I thought that this sounded pretentious. But, in the same way that I have come around to loving plays based on Greek myths, I've come around to McCraney's use of the Afro-Cuban mythos. I like the extra layer it gives the play.
  • Suggestion that McCraney's decision to make In the Red and Brown Water a loose adaptation of Lorca's play Yerma might have been one layer too many, though. Like Sam Hurwitt, I didn't really find the Yerma element of the play -- Oya's thwarted desire to have a child -- very convincing.
  • Another consideration of McCraney's device of having the characters speak their stage directions aloud. Because there are more characters in Red and Brown Water than Brothers Size, the characters have to do this more frequently, and it does start to wear on you after a while. Also, many of the actors in the Marin production seemed to speak their stage directions almost apologetically, as if they didn't like having to say these lines. The exception was Aldo Billingslea, who played the virile warrior Shango. Every time he came onstage and said "Enter Shango," he was confident, bold, and perfectly in character.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Halloween Reading: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle"

I often try to read something scary around Halloween. For the past 2 years, I stuck with the classics: Frankenstein, Dracula. This year, I thought I'd probably read something like Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but instead, ended up reading Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

My friend Stuart recommended it to me, saying that I would love the narrator, Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood. "She's 18 years old, she's beautiful, and she's a murderess!" said Stuart.

From this description I imagined that Merricat would be some kind of high-school femme-fatale or chilly blonde ice queen. It turns out that she's much more idiosyncratic, and much scarier, than that (and my friend may have misremembered the novel a bit... Merricat's older sister, Constance, is supposed to be the beautiful one). Merricat may be 18, but her development seems to have been arrested at age 12 or so... the same age as she was when her whole family, except for her sister Constance and her uncle Julian, died of arsenic poisoning.

As Jonathan Lethem writes in the introduction to my edition, Merricat is a "feral, presexual tomboy" with an unforgettable voice. She must be one of the best "unreliable narrators" of all time. Her story contains no supernatural horror elements like Dracula or Frankenstein, but I found it much creepier, and much more of a gripping read, than either of those novels. Perhaps it's creepy precisely because it is not supernatural; it is a frightening portrait of a psychologically damaged girl and her codependent relationship with her older sister.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is definitely one of the best novels I've read this year, along with the similarly creepy and page-turning The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (my review). Interestingly, both Tartt and Jackson have ties to Bennington, VT; Jackson was married to a professor at Bennington College, and, 30 or so years later, Tartt was a student there. And both of these novels take place in a Bennington-like, northern New England setting. There must be something in the water up in Vermont...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bill Irwin Brings Old-School Vaudeville Charm to "Scapin"

(Bill Irwin, playing Scapin in ACT's production, to Steven Anthony Jones, playing Argante. A paraphrased scene.)

IRWIN: And you don't want to have to hire a lawyer--they'll take all your money! They know what I'm talking about. (To audience) Raise your hand if you're a lawyer. Or if you're married to a lawyer. Or if you work with lawyers--

ME: (in the mezzanine, groaning, afraid that Irwin will make us do something embarrassing) Oh God--I just started a job at a law firm...

IRWIN: (continued) Or if you owe money to a lawyer... Just raise your hand. (To Jones) There! See all those people with their hands up?

JONES: Yes... But what about those young people, way up in the top rows?

IRWIN: The ones in the cheap seats?

JONES: Yes...

IRWIN: They are paralegals, Sir.

(General laughter. I'm sure I laughed harder than anybody. Because I work as a legal assistant now, and I was sitting in the cheap seats. Oh, Bill Irwin, if I didn't love you already, I would have to love you for that.)
So, I'm very glad that, on the spur of the moment, I bought a $10 second-balcony seat to Wednesday night's performance of Scapin. And even happier that, because the show didn't sell well, ACT closed the second balcony and upgraded everyone to the mezzanine. It was well worth it to see Bill Irwin, performing in a Molière play that he adapted and directed to best allow him to display his comic talents.

Irwin just turned 60, but he looks and moves like a man 15 years younger--his energy is incredible. Dressed in baggy pants and tailcoat, he plays the scheming Scapin, a lovable rogue who tricks miserly old men out of their money and tries to help out two silly young couples. But really, Scapin the play is an excuse to see Irwin perform several interpolated comedy routines that aren't in the original script, talk in silly voices/accents, dress in drag, do hat tricks, and frequently break out into rubber-limbed dance moves.

I didn't mind the loose adaptation, because Molière's original Scapin is a fairly predictable comedy that involves some unbelievable coincidences at the end. (In this production, which is full of "meta" jokes, signs that read "An Unbelievable Coincidence!" pop out of the wings at the appropriate moment.) And besides, Irwin is such a terrific performer, full of old-school vaudevillian charm. I see a lot of live theater, but I've never seen anyone like him.

There are several other great comic performances in Scapin. Geoff Hoyle (Irwin's colleague from his Pickle Family Circus days) plays Scapin's miserly master, whom Scapin persuades to hide in a large sack, and then proceeds to wallop with a slapstick. Jud Williford plays Sylvestre, another servant, much more dimwitted than Scapin, but with moments of surprising intelligence. Williford and Irwin do a hilarious routine in Act I where Scapin pretends to be clairvoyant, but is really watching Sylvestre act out a story using charades.

Scapin is still a pretty lightweight play, and the adaptation isn't perfect--there is a chase scene at the end that is motivated only by the desire to have a chase scene; the story is nearly wrapped up and there is really no reason for the characters to run around like crazy. But I'm glad to have seen it for Irwin's performance. I'm only sorry to have discovered him so late in his career!

Scapin runs through October 23 at ACT; and because it doesn't seem to be selling out, you may be able to get a sweet deal on it...

Photo: Bill Irwin as Scapin, Geoff Hoyle as Geronte. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Sooner or Later," I'll Write Better Blog Posts. In the Meantime...



An old favorite: Stephen Sondheim

A new favorite (after seeing Scapin at ACT last night): Bill Irwin

So I have to post this video of Karen Ziemba singing, and Bill Irwin clowning, to Sondheim's "Sooner or Later," from Dick Tracy. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Billy Collins, Plagiarist?

Billy Collins has a poem in The New Yorker musing on Zeno's paradox:
Not long after we had sat down to dinner
at a long table in a restaurant in Chicago
and were deeply engrossed in the heavy menus
one of us--a bearded man with a colorful tie--
asked if any one of us had ever considered
applying the paradoxes of Zeno to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

[...]
If, the man with the tie continued,
an object moving through space
will never reach its destination because it is always
limited to cutting the distance to its goal in half,

then it turns out that St. Sebastian did not die
from the wounds inflicted by the arrows.
No, the cause of death was fright at the spectacle of their endless approach.
St. Sebastian, according to Zeno, would have died of a heart attack.
Well, this is suspiciously similar to Tom Stoppard's explanation of Zeno's paradox, in his play Jumpers:
It was precisely this notion of infinite series which in the sixth century BC led the Greek philosopher Zeno to conclude that since an arrow shot towards a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was, as I will now demonstrate, that though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and Saint Sebastian died of fright.
This is too strange to be a coincidence, right? Collins has to have somehow gotten the seed for his poem from Stoppard, doesn't he?

Maybe the dinner party actually happened as described in the poem, and Collins overheard "a bearded man in a tie" trying to pass Stoppard's idea off as his own original thought, but Collins wasn't aware of this, and wrote the poem in perfect innocence. Maybe the bearded man acknowledged that his Zeno-Sebastian speech was inspired by a line of Stoppard's, but Collins decided to leave that out of the poem. Or maybe there wasn't any dinner party, and the bearded man is fictitious-- a framework invented by Collins to hide the fact that he had really gotten the idea for his poem by reading or seeing Jumpers (or just by reading Stoppard's wikiquote page). What I like about this is that, even though Collins doesn't credit Stoppard, his poem still acknowledges the deeper truth: the Zeno-Sebastian idea is not original to Collins, he got it from someone else.

Some among us might simply call Collins' poem an "allusion" to Stoppard, or a work "inspired by" a line of his. And I might buy that reasoning if the Stoppard quotation were more well-known, or recognizable. (I mean, if Collins had written a poem playing off the idea of "beauty is truth, truth beauty," I wouldn't write a blog post excoriating him for plagiarizing Keats!) But, in my opinion, there is something not quite right about building an entire poem around an idea that another writer had, and then not crediting that writer.

Also, am I wrong in thinking that Stoppard's way of phrasing this idea is more snappy, more economical, more memorable, more, dare I say, poetic than Collins'? "Saint Sebastian died of fright" is much better than "No, the cause of death was fright at the spectacle of their endless approach. / St. Sebastian, according to Zeno, would have died of a heart attack." That's why I remembered the Stoppard quote, after all these years...

Monday, October 11, 2010

R.I.P. Joan Sutherland

When I heard this morning that Joan Sutherland had died, I fired up the following -- Joan Sutherland & Marilyn Horne singing the "Mira, O Norma" duet -- on my iPod:



Granted, Joan Sutherland is a singer I find it easier to admire than to love. Her technique was impeccable, but the problem is that when I watch videos of her singing, I am always aware of how impeccable it is -- how her mouth is carefully positioned just so to form every note. The obituary in The Independent praises Sutherland's glowing high notes and coloratura, but also criticizes her for "amorphous diction" and "lack of brightness of tone." Truth to be told, that's kind of how I've always felt.

But still, a voice with Sutherland's kind of power and control and agility doesn't come along often -- a voice that makes people want to produce difficult and neglected works in order to give that voice a chance to shine. It is thanks to Sutherland that operas such as I Puritani got rediscovered and are now part of standard operatic repertoire. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Moreover, this music is part of my childhood. My mom saw Sutherland and Horne perform Norma in the early '80s in SF, and I grew up listening to their version of the Norma duet. As with Pavarotti's death a few years ago, this brings up some of my earliest memories.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Sunset Challenge

Because I want to support new theater.

Because I so appreciated Octavio Solis' direction of The Brothers Size at the Magic Theater.

Because Campo Santo is awesome.

Because after the cheap-ticket-and-free-glass-of-wine at the Magic last week, I could stand to give them a little more of my money.

Because I'm tickled pink at the thought of a new play called Sunset that takes place in my neighborhood, the Sunset District of San Francisco.

Because I do unto others as I would have them do unto me: if I ever become a well-known playwright, I'd sure as hell like it if total strangers donated money to help support the development of my new play!

This is my way of saying that I just contributed $20 to the Octavio SUNSET Challenge, which is seeking to raise $10,000 within the next week to commission and develop a new play, Sunset, by local favorite Octavio Solis (in collaboration with Campo Santo). All donated funds will be matched 100% by the San Francisco Foundation’s Artists Matching Commission.

I'm excited to see what comes out of this...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fedoras, Trilbys, Baby Dolls and Merry Widows

Q: What do the fedora, the trilby, the baby doll and the merry widow have in common?

A: They would all be good costumes for a pinup-girl photo shoot?

Q: That's true... but I had a different answer in mind...

A: They are all items of clothing named after plays! Or operettas, or movies...

Of course theater and, later, film, have always influenced fashion trends. Think of T-shirt sales plummeting after Clark Gable went without an undershirt in It Happened One Night, then two decades later, rising again after Marlon Brando wore his T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire. But in this post I specifically want to look at clothing items named after the works of art they appeared in... I mean no one calls a T-shirt a Streetcar or a Kowalski, though wouldn't it be awesome if that were the case?

The fedora and its narrower-brimmed cousin, the trilby, were named after popular Victorian melodramas, Fédora by Victorien Sardou and Trilby by Paul Potter, adapting George Du Maurier's novel. Both of these plays are in turn named after their heroines. When the world-famous Sarah Bernhardt, playing Princess Fédora, wore a soft felt hat, she was quickly copied by men and women alike. A few years later, Trilby came along. This story of a tone-deaf young woman (Trilby) turned into a famous singer through the efforts of a malevolent hypnotist (Svengali) was immensely popular--and introduced the word "Svengali" and the euphemism "in the altogether" to the English language. And introduced a jaunty short-brimmed felt hat to the world of fashion! I can't determine whether the trilby hat was worn by Trilby herself, or another character in the play, though.

(For much more about fedoras, check out my other blog...)


There are actually two kinds of clothing that can be called a "merry widow": a ladies' hat with an enormous brim, and a longline bra or corset. The hat is named after a style worn by actress Lily Elsie in the London premiere of the operetta The Merry Widow, in 1907. Big hats were already popular at the time, so "Merry Widow" proved to be a catchy name for them. Then, in 1955, after the release of a film version of The Merry Widow that featured Lana Turner in lingerie, Warners' introduced a corset called the "Merry Widow," and that name stuck, too.


The nymphet title character of Baby Doll, the 1956 movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, spends much of the film wearing a very short, very loose nightgown. In the 1950s, this was scandalous, but a decade later, the baby-doll style was incredibly popular for both nightgowns and day dresses.

These are all the clothing items I can think of that are named after play or movie titles... are there any others that I'm forgetting?

Images: Lily Elsie in a merry widow (and The Merry Widow), Carroll Baker in a baby doll (and Baby Doll).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sizing up "Brothers Size," at the Magic


Last Friday, kind of on the spur of the moment, I went to see The Brothers Size at the Magic Theater. It was a night full of "I love my town, I love my life" moments. My friend Marisela posted on Facebook that the Magic was offering half-price tickets to that night's performance of The Brothers Size; at 6:30 PM, I called the box office to take advantage of it. The MUNI buses worked smoothly and efficiently to take me to Fort Mason, where the Magic is located. In the parking lot outside, the Off-the-Grid street food festival was taking place, so I got some yummy paella for just $5. Inside the theater, a friend of mine was working concessions, and let me have a glass of wine for free after discovering that she was unable to make change for my $20 bill. Taylor Mac was in town for initial rehearsals of The Lily's Revenge (SO excited about that--though it's still 6 months away!) and I sat in the same row as him during the post-show talk-back!

But, most important and most thrilling was that I got introduced to the work--and the world--of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. This young man (turning 30 this month) is already considered one of the most important playwrights in the country--and with The Brothers Size, it was easy to see why.

This fall, three Bay Area theaters are each presenting one of the plays in McCraney's trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays. After seeing Brothers Size, I scrambled to find someone with whom to travel to Marin and see In the Red and Brown Water at Marin Theatre Co., before it closed on October 10. Fortunately, I was able to attend Red and Brown Water last night. (The third play, Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet opens at the end of the month at ACT.)

So now I have a LOT to say about McCraney, his work, the plays considered individually and in comparison with one another, the productions I saw... and I think I'll have to split my thoughts into multiple blog posts. First up: The Brothers Size. Though it's the middle play of the trilogy, it's the one I saw first (and the one McCraney wrote first, actually), so I want to begin there.

The Brothers Size. Eighty minutes, three actors. It feels like a very tight, streamlined play--yet at the same time it allows for bursts of lyricism and dream sequences. The intensity of the characters' emotions is what keeps the play pushing relentlessly forward until its powerful conclusion.

In a nutshell, The Brothers Size is about two brothers who are very different from one another, who hate each other fiercely and love each other fiercely. It's certainly not the only play to ever tackle this subject, but that's because this love-hate clash is a strong basis for drama. Ogun Size is a hardworking auto mechanic in a poor African-American community in Louisiana. His ne'er-do-well younger brother, Oshoosi, has just been released from jail and has come to live with him. The third character in the play is Elegba, a young man who grew up with the brothers and became Oshoosi's partner in crime (and in prison).

The relationship between the brothers is very well-written and, at the Magic, perfectly performed by Joshua Elijah Reese (Ogun) and Tobie Windham (Oshoosi). I was surprised to read in Reese's playbill bio that he had studied dance in college; not that he was clumsy or ungraceful, but he was so grounded as Ogun, such a solid, steady presence in his heavy work boots. Meanwhile, Windham plays Oshoosi as a charming scamp who flirts shamelessly with the audience (I was in the front row and he made eye contact with me on three separate occasions). He wears thin-soled sneakers and is constantly in motion, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

I wasn't quite as impressed by the character of Elegba. He is supposed to be a mysterious, dangerous, trickster figure. But I felt that in this play he was less mysterious than nebulous.

One of the most distinctive features of McCraney's writing is that he has his characters speak their stage directions in the third person: "Ogun enters," "Oshoosi smiles impishly." I am not usually a fan of this device (cf. one of my old posts about its use in a play called Doris to Darlene) and had worried that I would dislike McCraney's plays because of it. But, I have to say that in The Brothers Size, it worked about half the time--more than I was expecting it would! It can indeed add an extra dimension to the play, calling your attention to something you might not have noticed otherwise. But it can also feel slow and redundant. There's a scene early in the play where Oshoosi hangs around the garage and annoys Ogun, who is fixing a car (see photo at top of post). Ogun keeps sliding out from under the car and then sliding back under it, and every time he does this, he narrates it. Meanwhile Oshoosi is narrating his own actions too. The effect of this is to make the scene take twice as long as it would otherwise, which therefore blunts its force.

Thus, my favorite parts of the play did not involve showy theatrical devices--but rather good, solid dramatic writing. Highlights include a grimly funny scene where the three men talk about what it's like, as a black man, to be pulled over by the police; and Ogun's monologue when he finally explodes and gives Oshoosi a "do you know how hard it is for me to be your brother?" speech.

The Brothers Size is a powerful drama and the Magic Theater gives it a production that makes it easy to understand why the theatre world is buzzing about Tarell Alvin McCraney. I highly recommend it--it plays through October 17.

Image: Tobie Windham and Joshua Elijah Reese as Oshoosi and Ogun Size at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Three Stages of French Manhood

Love this photo:

Did you know that François Truffaut gave his Cannes film festival prize money (Best Director, The 400 Blows) to Jean Cocteau, to help him finance Testament of Orpheus? I like to think that they are hashing this out at the moment this picture was taken... and boring the young Jean-Pierre Léaud in the process.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Submission Opportunity: The 2011 SF Olympians Festival

I am pleased to announce that I will be co-producing the 2011 San Francisco Olympians Festival (executive producer: Stuart Bousel; other co-producers: Nirmala Nataraj and Claire Rice) and that we are currently seeking submissions from local writers! OK, we've already sent our Facebook invite to >200 theater artists, so if you are a Bay Area playwright who reads my blog, there's a very high chance you've seen this already. However, on the off-chance you were unaware of this opportunity, here is information about what we have up our sleeves for the second edition of this highly successful festival!
After an amazing summer of playing to packed houses and critical acclaim, we have expanded this year's subject roster all the way up to the heavens to center around myth based constellations, planets, moons and other forces associated with the heavens and the sky, the night and the day, and those powers of nature generally celestial. We're looking to do a combination of full lengths and shorts and encourage applicants to be as creative as possible in their treatment of the core subject.

Rules for the festival are simple: get a proposal in by October 15. It can be as short as a sentence and no longer than 500 words, and you can submit as many proposals as you like. Plays can be very reverent of the subject matter or totally off the wall, and every shade in between. The figure in question does not have to be the main character of your play, but they must be a presence and the core concept must reflect the nature of their myth. Since some of these figures are very obscure, writers who pursue those figures are encouraged to explore that freedom.

For more information, check out last year's festival at www.sfolympians.com and submit your questions, proposals, etc. to sfolympians@gmail.com.

Selected writers will be given a dramatic reading of their work for one night of the festival, which happens the entire month of October in 2011. Writers will be responsible for casting and orchestrating the rehearsal process for their reading; in return the producing company, No Nude Men, will provide the venue and marketing for the event, and will award the writer and their casts a portion of their box office for that night. No Nude Men Productions will not retain any rights to your work following the end of the festival and does not require any subsequent credit. Think of it as enrolling into a creative writing class where you make a little money, meet some incredible fellow thespians, and get to be a part of something cool in exchange for some time and creativity you know you're just itching to use in the service of the muse.

All writers must live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area and be able to attend production meetings (which are few and far between) and the festival itself.

We look forward to bringing you another amazing month of new work and hope you can be a part of it!

FULL LENGTHS (80+ Minutes)
  • Orion
  • Uranus
  • Gemini
  • Hecate
ONE-ACTS (30-55 Minutes)
  • Icarus
  • Phaethon
  • Perseus
SHORTS (5-25 Minutes)
  • Scorpio
  • Pegasus
  • Cetus
  • Cassiopeia
  • Cepheus
  • Boreas
  • Zephyrus
  • Eos
  • Metis
  • Io
  • Leda
  • Callisto
  • Ganymede
  • Elara
  • Himalia