Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Domestic Goddess: "Juno en Victoria" by Stuart Bousel

Juno en Victoria, currently playing at Stage Werx in a production by Wily West Productions, is doubly distinguished: the second Stuart Bousel play to premiere in June (the first was Edenites) and the second Olympians Festival play to receive a full production (after Hermes, in March). Fortunately, it lives up to its pedigree!

One of my favorite aspects of the Olympians Festival is how the writers re-contextualize ancient myths, setting them in other historical eras where they will resonate better. Thus, Juno en Victoria re-imagines the story of Hera, goddess of marriage, as a Victorian comedy of manners -- a perfect match of theme and time period. When Hera says at one point, "I am my marriage," it doesn't sound like hyperbole, but the simple truth. Stuart is also a literature nerd who gets a kick out of mashing up Greek mythology with Victorian fiction and history, and the play is rife with fanservice allusions.

(Geeky playwriting tangent: I am also impressed by the way Edenites and Juno display Stuart's command of two very different dramatic structures. Edenites is a series of short scenes modeled after a talky '90s indie movie, while Juno is an old-fashioned three-act, one-set, drawing-room comedy. Interestingly, though, both plays deviate from the norm by including several direct-address monologues. I felt that the monologues worked a little better in Edenites than in Juno, although the penultimate monologue in Juno is one of the play's best jokes, and Hera's concluding speech is a knockout.)

The play takes place during an English summer in the High Victorian era, at Zeus and Hera's country house. They seem like a happy couple, and their youngest daughter Hebe is about to make an excellent marriage to Heracles (amusingly portrayed as a Bertie Wooster-ish twit). The main action of the play, though, focuses on Hera and her spinster sister, Hestia. Hestia suspects that Zeus is philandering again, and is determined to find out the identity of Zeus's new paramour. Hera, meanwhile, appears unconcerned by her husband's dalliances; thus we (and Hestia) wonder whether Hera is just putting on a front. Adding some Cockney attitude to the cast of characters are the family's servants, Iris and Ganymede.

With Edenites, I felt like the male and female roles were equally well written and performed, but, for personal reasons, I connected to the women's stories more. Juno en Victoria, though, is unquestionably the women's play. The men are supporting characters, Zeus never appears onstage (though his presence looms large), and the women in the cast also seem to inhabit their roles more fully. Kalinda Wang, as Iris, is no glittering rainbow-goddess, but an embittered young woman who gives full voice to her working-class resentment. Kat Bushnell is a vivacious Hebe, making a memorable entrance where she trips, breaks a tea-set, and curses like a sailor.

The play's innovative characterizations -- Heracles as a likable idiot rather than a hero; Hebe as a Victorian girl who clearly won't just lie back and think of England on her wedding night -- show that Stuart's love for Greek mythology and the Victorian era never crosses the line into slavish reverence. Nowhere is this more evident than in his treatment of Hera and Hestia, the central characters. In myth, Hestia is the modest and self-effacing virgin goddess who gives up her throne to Dionysus. In Juno en Victoria, Hestia is a meddling busybody with a sharp tongue. At the staged reading of Juno en Victoria (then called Hera) last summer, I was seated behind a pillar and couldn't see any of Celeste Russi's performance as Hestia. Nonetheless, her dry line readings and impeccable comic timing had me in stitches. Fortunately, Russi is reprising the role of Hestia in this production, and she's even better when you can see her as well as hear her.

Most importantly, of course, there is Hera. In myth, Hera is often portrayed as a nagging shrew, but the Hera of this play is complex and sympathetic. As Hera, the lovely Michelle Jasso perfectly embodies the Victorian ideal of "the angel in the house" (perhaps we should say "the goddess in the house"?). Her characterization reminded me of Elizabeth McGovern on Downton Abbey -- warm, understanding, irresistibly cozy, and surprisingly open-minded. She is dignified and gracious, the perfect hostess, but possesses a secret, steely strength.

In the Victorian era, A Doll's House shocked audiences by showing a charming wife and mother who left her marriage when she realized it was built on a lie. In our own time, Juno en Victoria is surprising because it investigates the psychology of a wife and mother who chooses not to leave her marriage, though she knows it is based on a lie. But could you really expect the goddess of marriage to behave differently?

Juno en Victoria plays at Stage Werx through July 2. Tickets here.

Disclosure: this play was written by my friend Stuart Bousel, directed by my friend Claire Rice, and is associated with the Olympians Festival, for which I am a co-producer...

Top image: Celeste Russi as Hestia, Michelle Jasso as Hera. Bottom image: Michelle Jasso as Hera, Kat Bushnell as Hebe.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Pleiades" Reading, Part 1: "The Virgin Suicides," "The Big House," and Wendy Wasserstein

As I work on Pleiades, my latest full-length play, here are some brief thoughts about the books I've been reading as informal research, to educate me about the world of the play or just to get me in the mood to write it.

First up, Jeffrey Eugenides' acclaimed debut novel, The Virgin Suicides. (I also re-watched the film version, which I had last seen when I was in high school.) Reason: The Virgin Suicides is a novel about five beautiful sisters in a wealthy community in the 1970s, and Pleiades is a play about seven beautiful sisters in a wealthy community in the 1970s.

I admired the novel, but I don't think that it will have much influence on the play that I'm writing. The Virgin Suicides is noted for its first-person-plural narration -- it's told from the perspective of the men who were once the Lisbon sisters' neighbors and schoolmates, and still mourn their deaths twenty years later. As such, one of the novel's main themes is how men romanticize beautiful women and see them as unfathomable mysteries. Because of the unusual narration, the novel cannot present the Lisbon sisters' actual thoughts; everything is filtered through the narrators' haze of memory and longing and conjecture and tragedy. Again, this is very effective. But it's the opposite of what I want to do with Pleiades -- I want my female characters to have subjectivity, to speak for themselves.

The film version is remarkably faithful to the novel -- it has a male narrator who speaks in the first-person-plural and everything -- and yet the tone is somehow different. It captures the girls more intimately, sometimes showing their perspective in close-up, while the novel presents the girls as shadowy and elusive. Maybe that's just because the teen boys' voyeuristic fascination with the Lisbon sisters can't be effectively reproduced on film. Or maybe it's because Sofia Coppola brought a young woman's perspective to the material. The book is about what it's like to observe adolescent girls and wonder at their mystery; the film is more about what it's like to be an adolescent girl. As such, the movie has become a touchstone for a generation of romantic, dreamy girls who admire its aesthetics -- which is maybe the most disturbing thing about this disturbing story, when you think about it.

I read about The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home on some blog a couple of months ago, and immediately added it to my reading list. I had decided to set Pleiades at a summer home in the Hamptons, only to realize that I didn't actually know much about summer houses, the Hamptons, WASP culture, etc. So it was quite serendipitous that I stumbled across The Big House, a National Book Award finalist in 2003. The author is George Howe Colt, a poet, journalist, and descendant of Boston Brahmins. Colt, like the girls in Pleiades, is also a Baby Boomer; I think that a minor theme of Pleiades will be the decline of WASP culture in the '60s-'70s, and that's also a theme of The Big House.

The Big House is a combination of memoir, family history, and investigation of/paean to Boston Brahmin summer rituals. Colt's great-grandfather Ned Atkinson built a shingled summer mansion at Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod in 1902, and through the entire 20th century, it served as the heart of the family. The last chapters of the book deal with the need to sell the house as it became a "white elephant" burden to them in the 1990s, but I found these narrative sections less compelling than the earlier parts of the book, where Colt merely attempts to create a sense of place. He has a marvelous eye for detail, and lovingly describes both the objects and the people that filled the Big House.

Colt is nostalgic and proud of his heritage, but realizes that not everything about his house or his family were perfect. His tales of hidden WASP dysfunction almost make me want to write a whole series of plays about the Greek gods as upper-class Americans in the Gilded Age and beyond. (This is kind of similar to Francesca Zambello's production of the Ring cycle, currently at the San Francisco Opera. It is called the "American Ring" and portrays the Norse gods as a dysfunctional, wealthy family in Great Gatsby-style costumes. I haven't seen it, but a friend of mine is really enjoying it.) Reading The Big House also taught me that the American old-money upper class isn't as monolithic as it first appears. Colt's family were frugal, practical Boston Brahmins who summered on rugged Cape Cod, but I want my Pleiades to be a little more relaxed and pleasure-seeking. Their family is based in the New York area, rather than Boston. They live in Connecticut and summer in the Hamptons.

I was obsessed with Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others my senior year of high school -- and if you love a play as a teenager, chances are that it will stick with you for the rest of your life. So when I realized that I would be writing a play about a group of young women in the early 1970s, I started referring to it as "my Uncommon Women and Others play" and decided that I needed to reread some Wasserstein. After all, what other playwright did as much as her to chronicle the second-wave feminist movement? I'm even including a "consciousness-raising party" scene in Pleiades as a tribute to the consciousness-raising scene in The Heidi Chronicles.

Uncommon Women serves as a fascinating time capsule of the social and sexual mores of its era. For instance, in 1971: being a female college student who masturbates = weird. Being a female college student who hangs out on the quads of men's colleges with the explicit goal of picking up guys and sleeping with them = normal. In 2011, it's the other way around. (Progress!)

But rereading these plays, I am also struck by how sad they are, how their humor masks anger, confusion, and unfulfilled longings. In high school, I think I loved Uncommon Women for its portrayal of funny, gutsy young women with strong friendships. But now, the final line of the play, Rita's "When we're... forty-five, we can be really fucking amazing" just breaks my heart.

Or, take the ending of The Heidi Chronicles, where Heidi proclaims that her newly adopted baby, Judy, will be "a heroine for the twenty-first!" I'm sure that when the play premiered in 1989, Baby Boomer women found this sentiment inspirational: "maybe life has been difficult for us, but it will be so much better for our daughters!" But I am basically the same age as Judy, and it is the twenty-first century, and I don't feel much like a heroine, and life still feels difficult and full of glass ceilings and boys' clubs and politicians who want to set back women's rights. Did you see the survey yesterday showing that young American men overwhelmingly would prefer a son to a daughter -- and even worse, a women in the comments section saying "I am a woman in my twenties, and I would much prefer to have a male child rather than a female child. ... It continues to be (and may always be) easier for a man to succeed along many of the metrics by which society defines success: income, title, athletic prowess, sexual satisfaction. It's not that I don't want women to fight the good fight to equalize opportunities for both genders. I do, and I think of myself as fighting this fight. At the same time, I want to afford my children every advantage possible, and one major advantage is being male." God, that pisses me off. To live in a world where a woman can argue that internalized self-loathing is a rational reaction.

Here's a link to a blog post I wrote about Wendy Wasserstein three years ago. Because I identify as a feminist and a playwright (and am very aware that playwriting is still a male-dominated profession) I think that I will be wrestling with Wasserstein's legacy, and the work that she left behind, for a long time to come...

I'm not yet done with my Pleiades script or with reading books that I hope will inspire me. Next up: Cheerful Money by Tad Friend (another WASP memoir) and The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (early '70s feminist classic, which I first learned about via a mention in Uncommon Women and Others)!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Those Hedonistic "Edenites": Stuart Bousel's New Play at the Exit Theatre

There's a stereotype that most plays by young (and even not-so-young) writers will be autobiographical in nature, attempts to transform their own life experiences into theater and maybe get revenge on a few ex-lovers while they're at it. But, in my experience, that hasn't really been the case. My playwright friends are writing about the Greek financial crisis or zombies invading small-town Texas -- not about everyday life in San Francisco at the beginning of the 2010s. And I can't remember the last time I saw a play that made no bones about being autobiographical. Thus, there is something oddly refreshing about my friend Stuart Bousel's Edenites: A Play About San Francisco, described in its self-mocking press release as "a stylish piece of theatrical fluff, pretty much an exercise in drama as therapy, in which actual experiences are being thrown up on stage by the writer in a flagrant attempt to make sense of his own life." Edenites is honest about the way we live now (e.g. it admits that many 30-somethings still live with roommates), without trying too hard to be trendy or hip (no name-dropping and just the right amount of San Francisco in-jokes). You may find that the play invites you to make sense of your own life too.

Edenites is an ensemble comedy-drama about a group of people in their mid-30s, centered around Hugo (Kai Morrison), a San Francisco gay man in an open relationship. Normally, Hugo is content to live off his trust fund, date the pop-culture buff Xavier (Brian Martin) and have flings with other men, such as the seductive Aurillio (John Caldon). But during the week Edenites takes place, two things happen to shake Hugo out of his aimlessness and complacency. First, his old friend Chester (Ryan Hebert) comes from Tucson for a visit. Then, for the first time, Hugo sleeps with a woman -- the outspoken bisexual Lisa (Kristin Broadbear).

Hugo's other friends aren't much more successful at personal relationships. Chester is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend Imogen (Xanadu Bruggers), a successful novelist who happens to be in San Francisco on a book tour. The married couple Trent and Jenny (Ben Kruer and Megan Briggs) are stressed out with a new baby in the house. Rounding out the cast are Kira Shaw as Hugo's hipster roommate and Chris Struett as a queeny bookstore owner.

I mention all of the actors by name because one of the strengths of Edenites is its cast, largely made up of what we might call the Stuart Bousel Stock Company. (Three of the actors were in Stuart's recent production of M. Butterfly at Custom Made, and others of them have also been in Bouselian projects.) I was struck by how well they all lived in their characters' skins, not only acting as they spoke their own lines, but reacting to their fellow performers and Stuart's funny and bittersweet scenarios. Perhaps it helps that some of the actors, notably Brian Martin, are modeling their characters after real people whom we and Stuart know.

And a strong cast is key to the success of Edenites, because the play is all about exploring the depths of its characters -- showing how they surprise one another and even surprise themselves. Imogen may be successful and stylish (as played by the redheaded Bruggers in white blouse and pencil skirt, she looks like a 21st-century Joan Holloway), but her story proves that "it's a comfort to know that even famous people don't have their shit together" -- one of the lines that really resonated with me. Lisa may at first seem like a spoiled, sex-crazed barfly, but she earns a round of applause when she stands up for herself, chews out an old friend, and triumphantly proclaims "I am a flower!" Jenny chafes under the role of "new mom" and becomes neurotic, angry, and self-loathing; I love these kinds of female characters and Briggs gives an excellent portrayal.

All right, I probably related to the women's stories more than I did to the theme of gay men in open relationships, which forms another major part of Edenites. But this has to do more with my own experiences and expectations, than with Stuart's writing or direction. Speaking of direction, I love how he re-configured the Exit Stage Left into a theater-in-the-round format.

The relationships and situations in Edenites are universal enough that it could probably be re-written to take place in Seattle or Chicago or other liberal/ gay-friendly U.S. cities. Still, it doesn't lie when it bills itself as "A Play About San Francisco." It captures the way that, in this city, you will never stop running into people from your past. It captures our hedonism, our snootiness, our greed -- the defense mechanisms we use to hide our sentimentality, which is what really defines us. In Edenites, there's a leitmotif of characters moving to New York, a sense that New York is where all the really ambitious and predatory people go, leaving the San Franciscans frolicking in the Garden of Eden. I'm reminded of the eternal wisdom of "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen": "Live in New York once, but leave before it makes you hard; live in California once, but leave before it makes you soft." Over the course of the play, Hugo learns that he's far less jaded, and far more easily hurt, than he thought he was. I talked to Stuart about this theme afterwards. "Yes, exactly," he said. "The characters all think they're so tough -- but we can see that they're bleeding all over the stage."

Edenites plays at the Exit Stage Left through June 25.

Disclosure (if it weren't obvious): Stuart is clearly a friend of mine, and he comped me my ticket to Edenites.

Image: Edenites poster designed by Cody Rishell.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dinner Parties with the Ray Bryant Trio

"Angel Eyes," recorded by Ray Bryant in 1957

When I was growing up, my parents would always play the classic Ray Bryant Trio album whenever we had guests over for dinner. To this day, it strikes me as the epitome of what adults ought to play at dinner parties -- sophisticated jazz piano, a mix of ballads and uptempo numbers, the harmonies tangy but never atonal. Midcentury modern music, Bryant playing the piano like a virtuoso but still seeming to hold something in reserve, like the cool cat he was. (The album seemed all the more mysterious and sophisticated because, for some bizarre reason, we owned a Japanese import edition and I therefore couldn't learn the song titles or read the liner notes.)

I always assumed that Bryant was long dead, perhaps because his music speaks of such a far-off time, but it turns out that he died this week at the age of 79. It's weird, I feel both surprised that he was alive up till now, as well as sadness at his passing. I suppose I hadn't realized just how young he was (age 25) when he recorded the Ray Bryant Trio album, which makes his achievement all the more amazing! (Did people just look older in the 1950s? That photo of him on the album cover looks like no 25-year-old I know these days.) Also, I learned from his obituary that "Ray" was a nickname and his full name was Raphael Homer Bryant -- how cool is that? May he rest in peace.