Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Books

previous years: 2009, 2008, 2007

The annual list -- with links to blog posts I've written about these books (fewer this year than in years past) and/or brief commentary.

1. The Play That Changed My Life, by various American playwrights (essays). Recommended, but it's a lightweight read. As I said at the time, "Very pleasant and inspirational, but also working overtime to give the impression that everything is fine with the American theater, and that American playwrights are like one big happy family. It tries to stanch the bleeding, whereas Outrageous Fortune does the opposite--it tears away the bandages and the blindfolds."

2. Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, by Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss (hard data and shrewd analysis about being a playwright today). Highly recommended. I seriously think that this book has changed my life -- made me less likely to play into the "system" or go to grad school in playwriting, more likely to focus on making good theater with people I respect. Written about here and here.

3. Angels & Insects, by A.S. Byatt (two novellas). I recommend the first novella and have mixed feelings about the second.

4. Plays of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt (plays). Oh how I love Chekhov. Why did I wait so long to experience Three Sisters?

5. Quills and Other Plays, by Doug Wright (plays). Wright has such a vivid theatrical imagination! Anyone know what he's up to these days? It seems like we haven't heard from him since Grey Gardens, and that's a shame.

6. Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, by Chuck Palahniuk (offbeat travel guide). Keep Portland Weird! A portrait of my hometown before the hipsters discovered it. I gave my copy to my parents after I was done and tried to persuade them to put it in our guest bedroom -- though it might upset guests of more delicate sensibilities.

7. Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard (play). Reading it, my opinion is the same as when I saw it on Broadway: it doesn't work as a play. The first act is particularly undramatic.

8. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (novel). Highly recommended.

9. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh (novel). Recommended: it really has everything you want from a "classic" novel, with its mood of rueful nostalgia and loss, moving from schoolboy high jinks to hard-won wisdom.

10. The Garden Party and Other Plays, by Vaclav Havel and various translators (plays). I first read this when I was in high school, full of admiration for this playwright-turned-president, but at the time I didn't really get Havel's absurdist writing style. Now, I do. I found the "Vanek" plays (Audience, Unveiling, and Protest) particularly rewarding this time around.

11. The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West (novel). Mixed feelings: it's charming, but unstructured and not particularly deep. I'd have loved this book if I read it at the age of 12 or 14, but as an adult, it's not my favorite.

12. The Virgin in the Garden, by A.S. Byatt (novel). Written about here (in 2007). The perfect example of a book that I will love unto death, even if no one else does. Frederica Potter reminds me so uncomfortably of myself at age 17 or so...

13. Five Plays, by Jean Cocteau and various translators (plays). Recommended: a good overview of the many different styles of plays that Cocteau wrote at different points in his career. I also prefer the translation of Orphée in this volume to the one that's in Book #16 on this list. (But I still want to do my own translation of Orphée in 2011).

14. A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster (novel). Recommended: there are many contemporary novels written from a postcolonial perspective about the evils of imperialism, but it is amazing to have a novel from the height of the imperialist epoch, written by an Englishman, about this topic. Also, Forster has written two of my favorite concluding paragraphs of all time (here and in A Room with a View).

15. R.U.R., by Karel Capek, translated by Claudia Novack (play). The play that invented the word "robot" (in 1920) and bears an amazing resemblance to a modern alien-invasion or zombie movie -- a small group of humans hide out and hope that the robots (aliens, zombies) won't kill them.

16. The Infernal Machine and Other Plays, by Jean Cocteau and various translators (plays). Mixed feelings: I like the selection of Cocteau plays in Five Plays better as an introduction to his work, but was still happy to read all of these.

17. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman (novel). Mixed feelings: as someone who was obsessed with fantasy novels in my youth, I really wanted to love this deconstruction of the Narnia/Harry Potter books. The plot was gripping enough, but somehow the writing felt skimpy; it didn't suck me into the worlds of Brakebills and Fillory, the way I got sucked into Hogwarts or Narnia. I wanted more detail, more enchantment. Nonetheless, when the sequel comes out, I'll probably read it.

18. The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton (novel). Recommended: The Age of Innocence is still my favorite, but this comes close. Poor, doomed Lily Bart! Wharton writes so well about what it feels like to be intelligent, beautiful, moneyed, and still be powerless to make anything happen the way you want it to.

19. Collected Shorter Plays, by Samuel Beckett (plays). Recommended: I appreciate Beckett more and more, the older I get.

20. Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, by Michael Chabon (essays). Recommended: I bought it because I really wanted to read Chabon's essay on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (one of my favorite authors writing about another), and some of the other pieces in this collection are really valuable as well, though others are lightweight.

21. Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco (memoir). Oh, Paris in the twenties! Somehow, Glassco (a 19-year-old Canadian kid) got to meet just about all the important figures of this era, and have sex with half of them. Gossipy, dishy, and a great deal of fun.

22. Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik (essays). Recommended. Gopnik can occasionally get a bit cutesy or sentimental, because he loves his subjects (his family, Paris, art) so much. But hey, I'm prone to nostalgia for Paris too, and at least this book is a portrait of the city that I know, with its contemporary flaws and quirks, not the mythologized Paris of the twenties.

23. Cariboo Magi, by Lucia Frangione (play). Recommended.

24. Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, by Susan Quinn (theater history). Recommended.

25. The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt (novel). Very mixed feelings. You know, sometimes I use the phrase "mixed feelings" to indicate "I felt pretty 'meh' about it, but maybe other people will like it." Here, my feelings are truly mixed, from highs to lows. There were parts of this book I found very dry, and then I cried three times in the last fifty pages.

26. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Geoffrey Wall (novel). Highly recommended. This is one of my favorite books, for its pointed observations that make me laugh out loud or else pierce me through the heart (sometimes both at the same time, in their dark and cynical truths).

27. Sentimental Education, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Robert Baldick and Geoffrey Wall (novel). Mixed feelings: while Madame Bovary is so tight and pointed and snarky, I felt like this was a whole lot of blather about nothing. I know the point is that Flaubert considered the men of his generation a bunch of aimless wafflers, but it is not very fun to read about for 400 pages. The characters of Madame Bovary are just as flawed as those of Sentimental Education, but they come alive in a way that the others don't.

28. The Clean House & Other Plays, by Sarah Ruhl (plays). Recommended: I go back and forth on what I think of Sarah Ruhl, but if you're involved in theater this decade, you've got to know her work and form opinions about it... and this volume, containing two of Ruhl's most acclaimed plays (Eurydice, The Clean House) and two lesser-known ones (Melancholy Play, Late: a cowboy song) is an excellent introduction to her voice as a writer.

29. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (novella). Highly recommended.

30. Kissing in Manhattan, by David Schickler (short stories). To be avoided.

31. No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments, by Brooke Berman (memoir). Mixed feelings.

32. The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, by H. P. Lovecraft (stories). This dense volume may be a little too much Lovecraft for one time, but, thanks to the Theater Pubbers, I enjoyed the encouragement to check out his work. While his tales didn't really curdle my blood (the language is too verbose and hysterical for that), I've developed a taste for this true American weirdo. Also, if my experience is any indication, men love women who read Lovecraft on public transit. Two different guys struck up conversations with me when they saw what I was reading -- that doesn't usually happen to me.

33. Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre, by John Lahr (theater criticism and profiles). Recommended: New Yorker criticism of productions of the 1990s of plays from a variety of eras (including some that I have never heard of before and would love to see or read). Very interesting to read at the same time I was reading Book #35 on this list, because Lahr thinks Sondheim ruined musical theater.

34. Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kushner (play). Mixed feelings: the Homebody's monologue is amazing, and taught me at least a dozen new vocabulary words, but I don't know how well the rest of the play will come off as drama. I'd like to see this one, though, to make up my own mind.

35. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, by Stephen Sondheim (Exactly what it says on the tin). Highly, highly, highly recommended. I can't even describe how fortunate I feel that this book even exists -- when was the last time a bona fide artistic genius decided to write a book on his craft, and produced one that was this honest and engaging? Absolutely studded with items of interest from a great man of the theater. Can't wait for Volume Two -- I predict it might be the best thing I will read in 2011.

Of these books, about five of them were rereads (The Virgin in the Garden, Madame Bovary, and the majority of Chekhov's, Havel's, and Ruhl's plays) -- the rest were new to me. 35 books (plus innumerable issues of The New Yorker) is about par for the course for me -- last year I read 42, but I wasn't going to the theater nearly so often in 2009!

Most of the books (18) were by Americans, though the British (7 books) and French (4 books) made a respectable showing, and the Russians, Czechs, Irish, and Canadians also showed up. Eleven of the books were by women and 22 by men (two had multiple authors). There was a pretty even split of 10 non-fiction, 14 fiction, and 11 drama. (I count Sondheim's book as "non-fiction" even though it also could fall in the "drama" category. Also, many of these non-fiction books are books about the theater, so my reading tastes do have a certain narrowness to them.)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Theatergoing 2010

This was the first year in which I kept a list of the plays I saw, in addition to my traditional list of the books I read. (2010 book list coming tomorrow!) It was also my busiest year of theatergoing ever, as I plunged head first into the marvels of the San Francisco theater scene.

Unlike with my book list, I will not offer comments on everything that I saw, but I will link to blog entries I may have written about these shows.

The list is in chronological order and divided into a few categories.

  1. Aurélia’s Oratorio, by Victoria Thierrée Chaplin, at Berkeley Rep
  2. Phèdre, by Jean Racine, translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker, at ACT
  3. Coming Home, by Athol Fugard, at Berkeley Rep
  4. Oedipus El Rey, by Luis Alfaro, at Magic Theater
  5. Bay One-Acts Program 1, by various local writers, produced by Three Wise Monkeys
  6. Bay One-Acts Program 2, by various local writers, produced by Three Wise Monkeys
  7. Valentine's Day Pageant, by various local writers, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  8. Mirrors in Every Corner, by Chinaka Hodge, at Intersection for the Arts
  9. The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Dominique Lozano, at ACT
  10. Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, by Naomi Iizuka, at Berkeley Rep
  11. O Lovely Glowworm, by Glen Berger, performed by ACT's MFA students
  12. How to Ride a Bus in San Francisco, by various local writers, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  13. …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, by Marcus Gardley, at Cutting Ball
  14. Audience, by Vaclav Havel, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  15. An Accident, by Lydia Stryk, at Magic Theatre
  16. ShortLived 2, by various local writers, produced by PianoFight
  17. Girlfriend, music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet, book by Todd Almond, at Berkeley Rep
  18. ShortLived 3, by various local writers, produced by PianoFight
  19. Terroristka, by Rebecca Bella, produced by Threshold Theater
  20. SF Stories, by various local writers, produced by Wily West Productions
  21. Giant Bones, by Stuart Bousel, adapted from stories by Peter S. Beagle, produced by No Nude Men
  22. ShortLived 5, by various local writers, produced by PianoFight
  23. Best of PlayGround, by various local writers, produced by PlayGround
  24. 1001, by Jason Grote, produced by Just Theater
  25. Forever Never Comes by Enrique Urueta, produced by Crowded Fire
  26. ShortLived Championship, by various local writers, produced by PianoFight
  27. The Tosca Project, by Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli, at ACT
  28. Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett, at Cutting Ball
  29. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, by George Bernard Shaw, at California Shakespeare Theater
  30. Agnes the Barbarian, by Jason Harding, produced by Thunderbird Theater
  31. Vanguardia, short experimental plays by Latino playwrights, at Cutting Ball
  32. Pint-Sized Plays, by various local writers (including me), at San Francisco Theater Pub
  33. This World is Good by J. C. Lee, produced by Sleepwalkers Theater
  34. In the Wound, by Jon Tracy, produced by Shotgun Players
  35. Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, at Marin Shakespeare
  36. Alice in Wonderland, adapted by Brian Markley, at AtmosTheatre/Theater in the Woods
  37. Wilde Card, short plays by Oscar Wilde, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  38. Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress, at Aurora Theater
  39. The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, at Magic Theater
  40. In the Red and Brown Water, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, at Marin Theater Co.
  41. Scapin, by Molière, adapted by Bill Irwin, at ACT
  42. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Jeffrey Lane, produced by Lincoln Center Theater on Broadway
  43. Habibi, by Sharif Abu-Hamdeh, at Intersection for the Arts
  44. Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, at Magic Theater
  45. The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Rob Melrose, at Cutting Ball
  46. Menage à Plot: A Surf ‘n’ Turf Adventure, by Kelly Anneken, Megan Cohen and Evan Winchester, produced by PianoFight
  47. Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, at ACT
  48. Boys Together Clinging, adapted by Ryan Hayes from Walt Whitman's poetry, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  49. Ruth and the Sea, by Morgan Ludlow, produced by Wily West Productions
  50. Of the Earth, by Jon Tracy, produced by Shotgun Players
  51. Coraline, book by David Greenspan, music and lyrics by Stephin Merritt, at SF Playhouse
  52. Code Red, by various local writers (including myself), at San Francisco Theater Pub
  53. The Arabian Nights, adapted by Mary Zimmerman, at Berkeley Rep
  1. Cyclops by Euripides, translated by Bennett Fisher, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  2. Medea, by Euripides, at Cutting Ball
  3. Medea, by Seneca, at Cutting Ball
  4. Women Beware Women, by Thomas Middleton, at Cutting Ball
  5. Storm, by August Strindberg, translated by Paul Walsh, at Cutting Ball
  6. The Phoenician Women, by Euripides, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  7. The Antiquarian’s Family, by Carlo Goldoni, translated by Beatrice Basso, at Cutting Ball
  8. Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  9. Seven Against Thebes, by Aeschylus, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  10. Antigone, by Sophocles, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  11. Dionysus Bromios, by Nathan Tucker, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  12. Apollo’s Gift, by Garrett Groeneveld, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  13. The Life Poseidon, by Dana Constance, Bryce Alleman, and Kathy Hicks, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  14. Hermes (The Many Shifts), by Bennett Fisher, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  15. Artemis, by M. R. Fall, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  16. Zeus Story, by Helen Noakes, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  17. Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, translated by Bennett Fisher, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  18. Demeter’s Daughter, by Claire Rice, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  19. Aphrodite: A Romance in Infomercials, by Nirmala Nataraj, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  20. Ares, by Sean Kelly, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  21. Athena, by Ashley Cowan, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  22. Hera: Juno en Victoria, by Stuart Bousel, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  23. Hephaestus, by Evelyn Jean Pine, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  24. Andromache, by Euripides, at Cutting Ball
  25. The Shunned House, adapted by Kai Morrison from H. P. Lovecraft, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  26. Lovecraft Shorts, adapted by Ignacio Zulueta, Nathan Tucker, and Nirmala Nataraj from H. P. Lovecraft, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  27. Epicoene, by Ben Jonson, at Cutting Ball

  1. Becket, by Jean Anouilh
  2. Pericles, by William Shakespeare
  3. The Dunwich Horror, adapted by Stuart Bousel from H. P. Lovecraft, and Lovecraft’s Follies, by James Schevill
  4. Metamorphoses, by Mary Zimmerman
  5. Sweeney Todd, by George Dibden Pitt
  6. Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand (event hosted by moi)
That's 86 events -- and that's not even counting the occasional benefit evening, rehearsal, night of drinking with playwrights, impromptu bullshit session about the state of the American theater, or the time I spent working on my own writing. 86 plays in 365 days -- that means that on 23.5% of the days of the year, I was doing something theatrical. MY GOD. I have never before been confronted with such overwhelming evidence of my insanity. It's amazing that I got anything else accomplished.

And some awards/highlights/opinions:

Top 3 Full Productions, Unranked (listed chronologically)
Mirrors in Every Corner
The Brothers Size

The Tempest
The Next Five:
Oedipus El Rey
Giant Bones
Mrs. Warren's Profession
In the Wound
Trouble in Mind
Excellent in 2009, Excellent Again in 2010 (or, Rounding out the Top 10):
Krapp's Last Tape
The Arabian Nights

Favorite Musical:
I Enjoyed It, Despite the Critics
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
The Tempest
Favorite Short Plays:
Inner Dialogue, by Kirk Shimano (part of PianoFight's ShortLived)
The Philadelphian
, by Sam Leichter (part of the Bay One-Acts)

Three Little Words
, by Tim Bauer (part of the Bay One-Acts)
Favorite Olympians Festival Plays:
I Enjoyed Being Introduced to the Work of These Playwrights:
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Chinaka Hodge
Alice Childress
Marcus Gardley
Luis Alfaro
Sharif Abu-Hamdeh
and all of the Olympians writers
I could go on and on (I haven't even mentioned my favorite performers, or directors, or indelible little MOMENTS that I will cherish forever)... but maybe, instead, I should put 2010 behind me and take a bit of a breather! Indeed, I have a feeling that in 2011 I will be a slightly more judicious theatergoer. I'm not jaded or anything -- I enjoyed a lot of what I saw in 2010, and only saw a few real duds. However, I know that I can't keep this up forever. 2010 was my year to binge on San Francisco theater. 2011 just might be my year to retrench, see a bit less theater, work a bit more on my own stuff (so that my own plays can start appearing on these kinds of lists in 2012 or 2013...)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pagan Christmas, or Magic is Everywhere

My parents came to visit me over the holiday weekend. It was the first time I hosted them for Christmas, rather than going to my childhood home -- which led to some "Wow! I'm an adult!" moments.

Religion-wise, the three of us range from "Catholic-raised agnostic who wants to be more spiritual" (me) to "Attends Catholic church but is cagey whether she actually believes it" (Mom) to "Liberal, believing Catholic who also enjoys Eastern spiritual traditions" (Dad). So we didn't mind having what my mother called a "pagan Christmas." On Christmas Eve, we went to see The Arabian Nights at Berkeley Rep -- i.e., we journeyed to the People's Republic of Berkeley to see a play rife with ribaldry, based on folklore from the Muslim world. How un-American of us!

The Arabian Nights was just as good this time as it was nearly two years ago, and I was so happy to be able to share it with my parents. (That's one of the negatives of theater: as such an ephemeral art form, it is rare to be able to share your favorite theater pieces with everyone you love.) Even the prologue -- the transformation of the theater from a bare stage to a rich panoply of Oriental carpets and hanging lamps -- moved me to tears. And I cried again at the ending, a parable about the importance of telling stories and sharing one's wisdom. The moral of this tale is that stories "come from God." (And how moving, how ineffably moving, that this is the first time the word "God" is used in the play. In the other scenes, the characters consistently say "Allah" to mean "God" -- and Westerners are apt to forget that the two words are synonyms, because "Allah" sounds so exotic. Then, in the last scene, they say "God," and it socks you in the gut.)

So, maybe I'm not a pagan after all. Because theater -- intensely felt, humanistic theater -- is my religion. Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights is a religious experience and the perfect show on which to end my busiest-ever year of theatergoing.

Last week I participated in the holiday Theater Pub show, a collection of monologues and scenes about "How I Learned the Truth about Santa Claus." And that got me thinking about how Santa Claus himself is a form of theater -- a costume we put on, a lie we tell, a charade we keep up, a character we portray, because it makes the world a more interesting and entertaining and happy place. We talk about "the magic of theater," but we also talk about "the magic of Christmas," and in both cases we are referring to a similar kind of emotion. The red velvet curtain of the theater bespeaks the same promise of wonder and delight as the red velvet suit of Santa Claus.

When I was a high school freshman (ten years ago!) I was in a community theater show called Holiday Magic Breakfast Theatre. We were a bunch of teenagers dressing up and singing Christmas carols and Disney songs for an audience of children ten-and-under, serving them breakfast, and concluding with a visit from Santa. At the time, I thought that the title (indeed, the whole show) was pretty cheesy. I wore a tacky calico Christmas dress and pranced around the room belting out "Winter Wonderland" while little kiddies and their parents ate soggy pancakes. But now that I'm older, I can appreciate it more, what we did -- it may not have been Great Theater, but it got such a warm response every time. And "Holiday Magic Breakfast Theater" -- are there four lovelier words in the English language?

Santa Claus is magic.
Theater is magic, and magic is theater, as Shakespeare teaches us in The Tempest. (And, theater is therapy is magic, as Cutting Ball's The Tempest taught me earlier this year.)
Theater is storytelling.
Stories come from God.
God is love.
Love is magic.
God is omnipresent.
Theater is Santa Claus is magic is love is God is omnipresent.

Happy holidays.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"The New Yorker" and I Have the Same Ideas

In the skit/performance-art piece/year-end Theater Pub silliness that I performed on Monday night, I wrote a joke involving Santa Claus and Wikileaks. The premise of my skit was that I had only recently learned that Santa wasn't real, and the proof came from checking out Wikileaks:
I thought, there must be some diplomatic cables leaked from the North Pole, from Santa’s workshop! I thought he must have a highly trained staff of diplomatic elves, in little business suits—he is on friendly terms with just about every government in the world, and that is not easy to do! I was sure I’d find some communiqué where he pleaded with Kim Jong Il to be allowed to visit North Korea this year… or maybe once some of Rudolph’s reindeer shit accidentally got into Vladimir Putin’s stocking and nearly provoked an international incident! But there weren’t any cables. Just a message from that Julian Assange saying “Seriously, it doesn’t even count as a leak to tell you that Santa isn’t real.” So that’s it! There’s no Santa! No reindeer! No cute little diplomatic elves! None of it is real…
And then, two days before the performance, I received my holiday issue of The New Yorker in the mail, and discovered a humor column about Santa and Wikileaks--this time purporting to publish cables leaked by "a disgruntled elf" that revealed the inner workings of Santa's regime. Subsequently, I have also seen "Santa and Wikileaks" jokes pop up in a viral video and on Huffington Post, which means that this trope is officially played out.

But anyway, I was not happy when I saw the New Yorker humor piece. I thought I would either have to cut one of my best jokes, or have everyone think that I stole it from The New Yorker. In the end, the joke stayed, and nobody accused me of plagiarism. (After all, I had given the joke the twist of "I thought there'd be Santa documents on Wikileaks, but there weren't," whereas most iterations of this joke are the straightforward "Santa's Naughty List gets published on Wikileaks! Oh noes!") But for a few days there, it felt like a playwright's worst nightmare: someone "scoops" you on an idea, or a premise, or a joke, that you'd worked hard on!

Meanwhile, I've been working through the New Yorker holiday double issue, and on my commute home today I read the short story, "Escape from Spiderhead," by George Saunders. It is a terrific story -- one of my favorites of the year. It concerns a facility where imprisoned criminals are used as guinea pigs to test powerful, mind-altering pharmaceuticals -- including a drug that can alter your brain chemistry to make you fall madly in love with whoever you're sitting next to. So it's sci-fi, but the kind that uses sci-fi tropes to explore what it means to be human. It is very powerful.

Now, without revealing too much of what I'm working on, I recently began writing a play based on the idea that, in the near future, scientists will develop a "love potion" drug that will alter your brain chemistry to make you fall in love with a specific person. It will use a vaguely sci-fi premise to explore what it means to be human, what it means to love, et cetera.

So, naturally, I was a bit annoyed that Saunders had written such a great story, using a similar premise! (And twice in one issue, the New Yorker publishes something similar to something I'm working on... what are the odds of that?) However, I don't see it as a reason to give up on my own play. For one thing, Saunders' story goes in a very different direction than I intend my play to go. I've gained a reputation this year for being cruel to my characters, but the ending of "Escape from Spiderhead" is far darker and crueler and more brilliantly twisted than my own play will be.

For another, I think the Santa/Wikileaks thing annoyed me because I didn't find the humor column in The New Yorker particularly funny. So, I thought, not only would people assume that I had stolen a joke from The New Yorker, they would assume I had stolen a lame joke from The New Yorker. Whereas, because George Saunders is so awesome, I wouldn't mind it if people thought I stole my premise from him, as long as I developed it differently. I could call it a homage, and people would respect that!

There's an excellent interview with George Saunders on the New Yorker Book Bench blog. I really liked what he had to say about the ending of his story, in response to a question about whether his protagonist makes the "right" decision:
I don’t know that it was the right one. But I think it was the most interesting one. That’s a funny thing about writing stories. We have that illusion that we are “deciding” what to make a character do, in order to “convey our message” or something like that. But, at least in my experience, you are often more like a river-rafting guide who’s been paid a bonus to purposely steer your clients into the roughest possible water. It’s as if the writer has to keep asking, What choice is going to give off the maximum bumpage? And if you go that way—in the direction of the biggest bump—then the thematics of the story will change; but it’s not really your decision to make. The energy of the story dictates it.
That's how I often feel as a writer -- it's why I have this tendency to be cruel to my characters, to put them in agonizing situations and keep raising the stakes. Cruelty causes maximum bumpage.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

See Me Do Performance Art on Monday

On Monday, I'll participate in my second Theater Pub show of 2010, and this time, I won't just be a writer -- I'll be a performer! It'll be my first time onstage in 2.5 years, and I'm (intentionally) going to make a complete fool of myself. All in the service of comedy.

The show is Code Red, an exploration of "the moment Kris Kringle lost his jingle and how the mystery of Santa was spoiled forever," conceived and directed by my friend Leigh Shaw. Leigh and I perform a scene together (written by me with input from her), and there are also hilarious monologues, scenes, and poetry from Kai Morrison, Dan Kurtz, Charles Lewis III, Maura McGowan, John Paul Poritz, Sunil Patel, and Xanadu Bruggers -- and comedy Christmas songs by McPuzo and Trotsky, who are quickly becoming the bards of Theater Pub.

Theater Pub has been a big part of my life in 2010, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate the holidays than to behave like a complete idiot in front of all my new theater friends!

Oh, and just 'cause I like to be really pretentious, I'm not calling my piece in Code Red a "play," I'm calling it "performance art." That's because I'm not playing a separate, fictitious character, I'm playing a version of myself (and so is Leigh), and the whole thing gets very meta. We expose one lie only to tell a whole new set of lies. Fourth walls will be broken. Minds will be blown.

Theater Pub: Code Red is a one-night-only event, 8 PM on Monday December 20. As always, it's at Cafe Royale, at Post & Leavenworth Streets, San Francisco.

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.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Pleiades" and Other Olympians Festival News

My lack of blogging over the past week can be attributed to a busy work schedule, the approaching holiday season, and my taking time to work on other theater/writing projects.

But maybe you'd like to hear about these other projects?

I told you a couple of months ago that I am associate-producing the 2011 San Francisco Olympians Festival, and that we were seeking submissions. But I forgot to give you an update: we've announced our 2011 lineup and performance dates! Unlike the 2010 Festival, which featured 12 full-length plays, the 2011 festival is a mix of full-lengths, one-acts, and shorts, all based on Greek mythology that deals with the planets and constellations.

The reading of my full-length play, Pleiades, will take place October 22 of next year. Full schedule here.

I've started work on Pleiades -- I love the first part of writing a play, when you can feel the characters taking on a life of their own, and the play taking on a distinctive tone/style/vocabulary. The play is defining itself, and not yet giving me grief and causing me frustration... we'll see how long this lasts!

We have our first writers' meeting tomorrow evening and I'm very excited to meet everyone and see what they're bringing to the table.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Believe it or Not, I Enjoyed the "Women on the Verge" Musical

Yes, even though Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown got awful reviews, when I saw a preview performance of it toward the end of October, I had a good time. And lest you think that I was merely dazzled because I hadn't seen a Broadway musical in four years, the friend who I was with also liked it... and she lives in New York and sees practically every Broadway show.

Women on the Verge is not going on my list of "favorite" or "greatest" musicals, but I enjoyed myself, and without feeling like I was enjoying something that was "beneath me." As I read through the collected reviews on StageGrade, my opinions probably align best with John Lahr's or Jesse Oxenfeld's (both in the "B" range). I liked how the show is a genuine musical comedy that didn't feel the need to poke fun at the fact that it's a musical comedy. It felt old-fashioned, in the sense that it's a musical that mostly just aimed to please, but it wasn't hokey, or a nostalgia trip. I enjoyed the farce plot and the crazy complications and the emphasis on female characters.

My friend and I agreed that the Women on the Verge creative team must have had Nine on the brain. Just like Nine, Women on the Verge is based on a well-known foreign film that came out about 20 years before the musical did. These shows offer Americans the chance to see a show with "exotic, passionate" Mediterranean flavor, eavesdropping on the messed-up love lives of a big ensemble of characters. And both have lots of great roles for women.

(Mightn't it be fun to produce Nine and Women on the Verge in rep?) (This is why I am not a producer.) (Oops, except that I am.)

Probably my favorite part of the show was the cast that Lincoln Center Theatre assembled to bring the outsize characters to life. Patti LuPone plays Lucia, who is at least as crazy and as vengeful as that other famous Lucia (I mean the one from Lammermoor). She kicks up her heels to a '60s-style pop number in Act One, gives the full diva treatment to a ballad of lament called "Invisible" in Act Two, and makes all of her one-liners more funny than they have any right to be. LuPone has pointed out that this is her first time creating a role in a new musical in 35 years, and she's obviously having the time of her life.

Even better is Laura Benanti, who, as everyone will tell you, steals the show in the role of Candela, a ditzy fashion model. She is gorgeous and hilarious, and her patter song "Model Behavior" is the highlight of the night. There aren't enough patter songs -- particularly patter songs for women -- in the modern musical theater! Indeed, David Yazbek's score could have used a few more of them, especially if he wants to convey the sense of being "on the verge of a nervous breakdown." The main character, Pepa, played by Sherie Rene Scott, mostly has bland ballads to sing--and Scott, la pobrecita, is unfortunately upstaged by special effects (a burning bed) during her big solo.

The Broadway staging featured elaborate projections that have been the source of much criticism. However, because my seat was high up in the balcony, I didn't really notice the projections upstage, because I was mostly focused on the actors downstage. Perhaps this is one show where it's better to sit in the balcony than in the orchestra?

I won't comment too much more on Women on the Verge, because it was still a work in progress the night I saw it (October 24). I gather that the opening number of the show is now a lively salute to Madrid, but when I saw it, the "Madrid" song was at the start of Act II, and Act I opened with all the women singing a yearning song called "My Crazy Heart." I also hope that the production team had a chance to work up a better set for the scenes that take place at the courthouse. As I mentioned, the show is full of colorful, shifting projections. But, during the courthouse scenes, the stage was bare and white, save two drops painted with sketchy Ionic columns, like something from a high-school play. Hideous and very cheap-looking, especially compared with the color and motion that otherwise filled the stage.

As I said, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is not a great musical--the score just doesn't contain enough first-rate songs. But it was a perfectly entertaining evening of theater, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from going to see it, particularly if they want to see some excellent musical-comedy performances from LuPone and Benanti.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Theater, the Thief of Time

In 99Seats' post on Parabasis today, he mentions a theater teacher of his who "told me that theatre must justify its theft of time. Theatre, he argued, was a time-intensive, not at all convenient, required dressing up (back in the day, anyways). It asked a lot of its audience and needed to repay that with worth. This has stuck with me and leaves me irrationally angry at bad theatre. It smacks of disrespect to me."

Tony Kushner said something similar when I heard him speak earlier this month. He wasn't talking so much about bad theater as about boring theater, but he made the same point as 99Seats: because theater is a time-intensive activity, bad or boring theater is a moral outrage. It's not just that you're giving your audience nothing in return for their attention -- you are in fact taking something from them, their precious leisure time, and that's something they can never get back. Or, as Kushner put it in his memorable, hyperbolic way, "This is what I tell my students: let's say you have a bad play that takes 2 hours to perform, and it's playing eight shows a week for an audience of 500*, well, you can do the calculations and figure out how many of their hours you're wasting, and it doesn't take long before you've killed a two-year-old child."**

*Of course I think Kushner was being wildly optimistic about the size of audiences that a young playwright can expect to receive in this day and age!

**Calculations, for the math geeks in the house: 2 hrs/show * 8 shows/week * 500 people/show = 8,000 man-hours. A 2-year-old child = 2 yrs * 365 days/yr * 24 hrs/day = 17,520 hours. The show would need to play for only a little more than two weeks in order to have wasted two years' worth of its audience members' time!

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Maybe it's 'cause you're a girl"

I spent Thanksgiving with friends that I met doing theater, meaning that before the turkey came out of the oven, I got into a debate with someone about whether The Light in the Piazza is a great musical or not. I am an enthusiastic fan of this musical; my friend is not all that impressed with it. At one point in our conversation, he said, "Maybe it's 'cause you're a girl."

"Really?" I said. I felt slightly patronized.

"It's just, in my experience, the people I know who've loved this show the most have all been young women. And I have to wonder if it's because this show is an unabashed, sentimental romance, and we don't get a lot of those in the theater nowadays, so it feeds some kind of hunger."

"Huh, maybe," I said. "I can see your point. But I don't just relate to it on the level of romantic fantasy. It's not that I want to be Clara--"

"Of course you don't, Marissa--you'd never want to have the mental age of a 10-year-old!"

"Ha, ha -- I mean, the reason I like the show is not because I want to go to Florence and fall in love with a handsome Italian. It's really the mother's story, after all... and I thought that that was very well done."

I do see my friend's point about The Light in the Piazza feeding a hunger for a musical that is a real, rapturous love story. After all, I saw it when I was still in my teens, and far more liable to be swept off my feet by romance. I remember that the guy I had a crush on at the time told me he'd been to see The Light in the Piazza, and hated it -- he'd left at intermission. "Oh no!" I thought. "How can I possibly be in love with someone who hates The Light in the Piazza?" It was as though by rejecting this musical, he had also rejected me, and my love, and the way I feel and express love. Which would seem to prove my friend's theory correct. Nowadays, though, I'm still a fan of The Light in the Piazza, but it wouldn't bother me if I had a crush on a guy who hated it!

But I want to return to my friend's other comment, "maybe it's 'cause you're a girl," and my feeling vaguely patronized by that remark. I want to ask: did I have a right to feel patronized?

On the one hand, I bristle at the suggestion that men and women have inherently different reactions to works of art. It seems awfully reductive, saying that gender trumps all. Also, it's a slippery slope from "because you're a girl, you have different taste than me" to "because you're a girl, you have worse taste than me." We were trying to have an argument about aesthetic merit, after all.

On the other hand, don't I praise works of art that I feel capture the essence of being a woman, plays and novels that touch something in me that stories about men do not? (Of course, I can also be moved by works of art that feature male protagonists! But I must admit that they move me in a different way.) Aren't I annoyed when theater companies produce far more male than female playwrights in a season? Don't I always say "Female playwrights are still in the minority, so I think it's very important to tell women's stories in my writing?"

Well, I can't have it both ways. Either women and men are inherently different, or they're not. If I want to go on touting the importance of women's stories and female authors, I must realize that such stories don't necessarily speak to a male audience, and not be bothered when someone suggests that I might have liked a certain work of art "because I'm a girl." Conversely, if I feel patronized when someone suggests that I liked something "because I'm a girl" -- that is, if I want to take gender out of discussions of artistic merit -- I can't complain about theaters that produce plays by men four times as often as they produce plays by women, as long as the work that ends up onstage is good.

It's a thorny issue, and logical consistency is a real pain.* I guess I just can't decide whether it is more feminist to say "I am a woman, I am proud to be a woman, hear me roar," or to say "I am so secure in who I am that I don't need to keep mentioning that I'm a woman, and the best way to stop sexism is to stop insisting that the sexes are fundamentally different."

*I was going to say "logical consitency is a bitch," but that would just open up a whole 'nother can of worms about gender and language and whether I am a self-loathing female if I use the word "bitch" in this context!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Glad I Got 'Em Into My Life

I've been having to work a lot of overtime at my job lately, which I can't say is much fun. But it feels like some kind of compensation that the Beatles are finally on iTunes. I'm adding their music to my iPod and it's really helping me get through the workday.

Prior to this, I'd had some Beatles music in my collection: Sergeant Pepper, The White Album, Abbey Road, and Let it Be, which I had ripped from CDs in my parents' music collection. But they don't own CDs of the other Beatles albums, and I hate buying physical CDs because I think that wastes natural resources, and I don't believe in illegally downloading stuff (and don't care if that marks me as hopelessly uncool [though if I were really concerned with legality, I wouldn't have ripped these four CDs in the first place]). I longed for the day when I could finally have the rest of my favorite Beatles songs in my collection, legally and conveniently.

Moreover, I had recently come to realize that I was unfamiliar with a good portion of the Beatles' output. OK, I was by no means as unaware as a friend of mine who claimed that she didn't recognize "Hey Jude" when the rest of us were singing it at karaoke last year. But, for instance, I don't think I'd heard "Got To Get You Into My Life" until this past spring -- when I heard someone sing it at karaoke. Or, I recall a post of Mead Hunter's from June, where he discussed the Oregon weather, and linked to a video of the Beatles singing "Rain." I was floored: here was a terrific mid-period Beatles song, with gorgeous harmonies and lyrics that indeed touched my Oregonian soul, that I had never heard before.

Yes, though I was raised by baby-boomer parents who introduced me to the Beatles at a young age, there were still great songs I had yet to discover. (I remember my mom giving me Beatles 101 lessons, teaching me how to tell the difference between "a John song" and "a Paul song," and schooling me in the "Paul is Dead" mythos.) My lack of exposure to Rubber Soul and Revolver struck me as particularly problematic. So those were the first two albums I downloaded when the Beatles came on iTunes, plus a few of my favorite individual songs: "Rain" and "Ticket to Ride." I don't know why, but I am obsessed with "Ticket to Ride" -- it's become my favorite song to listen to at the start of a workday. And one night last week, when I left my office at around 6:30 PM, and outdoors it was dark and rainy, I turned my iPod back on and listened to "Rain" loud as I splashed through the puddles. Nothing could have been more exhilarating.

One thing that's been interesting to see on iTunes is which Beatles songs and albums are most frequently downloaded. It seems like uplifting ballads and late-period songs/albums are what's most popular with customers. So, at the time I'm writing this, the most frequently downloaded Beatles song is "Here Comes the Sun," followed by "Let it Be," "In My Life," "Come Together," and "Blackbird." IMO, the top three are excellent choices (and isn't it nice that it's a ballad apiece from George, Paul, and John), but there are lots of Beatles songs that are better than "Come Together," and "Blackbird" is sentimental drivel. Moreover, the Beatles made some of the most exuberant and joyful pop music that's ever been created, yet none of the top five songs really evoke that -- so this list gives a skewed sense of what the group could do. The most frequently downloaded albums are Abbey Road, Sergeant Pepper, and The White Album, followed by two greatest-hits compilations.

Again, you can't really argue against the greatness of those three late albums, and yet, I feel compelled to stick up for the mid-period Beatles, the ones I have been enjoying the most lately, on Rubber Soul and Revolver. I get the sense that people think it's cooler to like late-period Beatles, when their lyrics were oblique and psychedelic and their music rocked harder and heavier. But The White Album is so fragmented and full of novelty songs, and Abbey Road has a kind of darkness to it... you can tell that these are products of a troubled band. So I'm throwing in my lot with the mid-60s Beatles, when they had started writing about subjects other than romantic love, and were experimenting with different instruments and production techniques, but were still a cohesive and tight group that loved making music together. To me, this is when the Beatles achieve the sublime (what can I say, I'm a sucker for great harmonies).

I've been excitedly touting the Beatles to my friends this past week, and I feel a little weird doing that. First, doesn't everyone already know that the Beatles are the greatest rock group of all time -- don't I look like a bit of an idiot for talking about how great they are? Second, doesn't it make me sound pathetic to be talking about a group that split up forty years ago -- that my parents listened to in their youth? Shouldn't I be seeking out hip new indie music from 2010?

But the Beatles are classic, and they still crop up everywhere. Last night, I finally got around to seeing The Social Network -- one of the first major Hollywood movies to deal with my generation, Generation Y, and our attitudes toward class and gender and friendship and business and the Internet. And what song did David Fincher choose to play over the final moments of his film that attempts to hit the Zeitgeist sweet spot, to define those of us who came of age during the mid-2000s?

"Baby, You're a Rich Man." The Beatles, 1967.

Somehow, I felt vindicated.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"The Tempest" at Cutting Ball: A Freudian Wet Dream

The Cutting Ball Theater opened its 2010-2011 season with a three-actor version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Taking place in a therapist's office at the bottom of a swimming pool.

Come again?

This was perhaps the most unusual directorial conceit of any Shakespeare production I've ever seen -- and I thought it was terrific.

(The usual disclaimers apply: I'm on the literary committee at Cutting Ball, think they are a fab bunch of people, and got invited to the gala opening of this production -- paid for my ticket, but still.)

As director Rob Melrose sees it, The Tempest is full of plots and subplots that reflect one another. To take an obvious example, Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban plot to overthrow Prospero in a bumbling, comic fashion; while, fifteen years ago, Antonio and Alonzo successfully overthrew Prospero in a way that wasn't funny at all. Or, Prospero must relinquish his control over his daughter Miranda and his sprite-servant Ariel... both of whom are young, feminine figures who have grown under Prospero's care, and now clamor for freedom. Melrose writes in the playbill: "Our three-person Tempest hopes to illuminate the many connections between the characters, encouraging a reading of the play similar to Freud's reading of fairy tales, where some characters are treated as aspects of other characters."

This Tempest is a slippery production that allows resonances and double meanings; sometimes it requires you to hold two contradictory ideas in your head simultaneously. Are the characters on a Mediterranean island, or in a therapist's office? (The early scenes imply that Prospero is a psychoanalyst and Miranda is his patient -- she hallucinates the tempest that opens the play, writhing about on the therapist's couch. But this conceit seems forgotten for large chunks of the show.) Is it a story about a middle-aged patriarch (Prospero) who must relinquish his daughter (Miranda/Ariel) to the young man who loves her (Ferdinand/Caliban)? Or could all of the characters even be aspects of one person, and the whole play be the story of a man who must learn how to integrate his id (Caliban) with his superego (Ariel)?

I knew that this concept had the potential to confuse the audience -- even to confuse me, because I do not know The Tempest by heart. I've never studied it, and had seen only one prior production, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2001. (Tangent: When Julie Taymor's movie of The Tempest comes out next month, people will make a big deal that Helen Mirren plays the lead role as "Prospera." Well, OSF did this nearly 10 years ago. And it turned Prospera's usurping sibling into "Antonia.") Nonetheless, I didn't reread the play before going to Cutting Ball. I truly believe that good theater should be accessible to anyone, even if it is "experimental" theater, even if the audience hasn't "done their homework."

But I wasn't confused by the Cutting Ball production, except in the aforementioned sense of having to hold two contradictory ideas in my head simultaneously -- which is, I think, intentional confusion, a workout for the brain, rather than incoherence. The brilliance of Shakespeare's play still came across and the doubling threw certain themes into high relief, such as "is Man inherently good or inherently evil?" And I finally realized why the last words of the play are "set me free"; no other line could be more appropriate.

Much has been written about how The Tempest is Shakespeare's last play, and Prospero's magical artifice is a metaphor for the playwright's artifice, and Prospero's decision to renounce magic represents Shakespeare's farewell to the stage. The Cutting Ball production adds another layer by suggesting that therapy = magic = theatre. When I realized this, I was moved, perhaps because my roommate is in training to be a therapist and she and I have had many fruitful conversations about the intersections between therapy and theatre.

This is a very clever production, yet what amazed me the most is the way that the cleverness reinforced the themes and the emotion of the play, rather than detracting from it. One could say that Melrose has "deconstructed" The Tempest, yet "deconstruction" implies something far colder and more clinical than this production. Melrose doesn't neglect the hilarity of the Trinculo and Stephano scenes, or the sweetness of the Miranda and Ferdinand ones -- though he does imbue them with other layers, due to the double-casting. For instance, there's a scene in the original script where Trinculo hides with Caliban under his overcoat when it starts to rain. When Stephano comes across them, he is confused to see four legs sticking out from under the coat, shivering from the cold. But Melrose stages this in such a way that you wonder: are they shivering, under that coat, or are they having sex? Because Trinculo is also Miranda, and Caliban is also Ferdinand, and Stephano is also Prospero...

There are two especially dazzling moments in the second act. First is the wedding masque Prospero stages for Ferdinand and Miranda. In this production, the masque is a fragmented, sped-up version of the play we have just seen: there are audio and video snippets of the actors reciting key lines from earlier scenes. Second is the climax, which is the only moment in the entire production when one of the actors must "have a conversation with himself" (i.e. switch rapidly back and forth between two roles, playing both sides of a dialogue). It's amazing, on a technical level, that Rob Melrose was able to adapt The Tempest for three actors and only require someone to "have a conversation with himself" the one time. But it's even more amazing on an emotional level. Along with the masque scene, it reinforces the themes of coming to terms with the different aspects of one's self, integrating the many roles one plays into a coherent whole. These scenes make everything fall into place.

Still, I realize that this production might best be understood by people who are familiar with other experimental theater, or have an affinity with abstract and dream-like art. (In his director's note, Melrose name-checks David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, and Haruki Murakami.) If I were younger, I think I would have complimented the production by saying "it was really cool how the actors were able to each play so many different roles." Well, it is cool. But the point of the doubling is not just to prove that Cutting Ball's actors are virtuosos, or to do the play on the cheap--there's more to it than that.

Still, much credit is due to actors David Sinaiko (Prospero/Alonso/Stephano), Caitlyn Louchard (Miranda/Ariel/Gonzalo/Trinculo/Sebastian), and Donell Hill (Caliban/Ferdinand/Antonio). Sinaiko speaks the Shakespearean verse with great ease and naturalness; his is a more accessible, low-key Prospero than one might find in other productions. Louchard excels in a very difficult assignment: five different roles, and each one of them a character who is caught in the middle between Sinaiko and Hill. She makes each of her characters distinct, using different voices and physicalities, and also has a lovely singing voice in Ariel's songs. I found Hill most convincing when he played the genial Ferdinand (he also played the genial Mr. Martin in The Bald Soprano at Cutting Ball last year, again opposite Louchard) and didn't think he had quite enough twisted rage in him to be an ideal Caliban. But then, maybe that's the point of this production: every young man has potential to be both Caliban and Ferdinand.

I found Cutting Ball's three-actor Tempest weird and delightful, rich and strange, in the way that theater should be... and particularly in the way that any good production of The Tempest should be! O brave new world, that has such theatre in it! It is rough, but real, magic.

The Tempest has been extended at Cutting Ball through December 19.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Playwriting is Lasagna

"[Tony Kushner] has compared the [playwriting] process to making a proper lasagne: 'All the yummy nutritious ingredients you’ve thrown into it have almost-but-not-quite succeeded in overwhelming the design. A play should have barely been rescued from the mess it might just as easily have been.'"
--"The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide To Himself," New York magazine
"If I think I'm going to do research for a particular play, my inner child rebels and I won't do it. So I do research by constantly reading things that excite and interest me and I don't know yet if it's going to be a play. [...] I just kept sort of laying in all this reading because of being excited and not knowing for sure a play would come out of it. But then I realized I was getting close ... It's like making lasagna. One book is the noodles and a couple of movies are the sauce... And then one day, suddenly, I know it's the moment to put it in the oven and start writing."
--Liz Duffy Adams, quoted in the Magic Theatre's playbill for Or,

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Playwrights in Person, part 3: Tony Kushner

I hope neither Brooke Berman nor Liz Duffy Adams would feel offended if I said that, in retrospect, seeing them in person felt like the soup and salad courses of a fancy dinner, and seeing Tony Kushner speak at the Herbst Theater on November 6 felt like the main dish. (This, despite the fact that I chatted with Berman and asked Adams a question during a talk-back, whereas I didn't directly communicate with Kushner at all.) Face it, Tony Kushner is the author of the most important and influential American play of my lifetime, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear him speak in person.

Kushner had come to town for the opening of a new exhibit at the Museum of Performance and Design, "More Life! Angels in America at Twenty" (which I have not yet seen). His talk on Saturday took the form of an hour-long chat with the museum director, with some time for questions from the audience.

I was disappointed that the Herbst Theater was only half full--I'd thought that the San Francisco gay community would have turned out in force. I sat with about six of my friends toward the back of the theater; so the "young San Francisco theater community" made a respectable showing, at least.

One gets the impression from reading Kushner's work, or articles about him, that he is extremely intelligent, agonizingly self-conscious, and never quite at his ease. Seeing him in person bore this out; the applause embarrassed him, and his three-piece suit was a little too big for him. And yet, it is so fascinating to listen to him talk and argue, to hear him employ million-dollar words and instantly quotable phrases. For instance, he said that if he were writing Angels in America now, he'd have a harder time feeling sympathy for the Mormon characters, because the Mormon church nowadays is so much more politically active than it used to be (cf. Prop. 8). But, twenty years ago, the Mormon church "did not yet engage in the kind of sulfurous evangelism that has come to define them." Yes, Tony Kushner can come up with phrases like "sulfurous evangelism" when speaking off the cuff. I was dazzled.

I'm always fascinated to learn what shaped my favorite works of art, especially when it happened in unexpected ways. Kushner talked about how the Eureka Theater, in San Francisco, commissioned him to write Angels in America when all he had was the seed of an idea for a play about AIDS and Roy Cohn. Even though this original idea implied a lot of gay male characters, the Eureka had three resident actresses, and Kushner was instructed to include parts for all of them. Thus, we get Hannah, Harper, and a female Angel. And I think the play is immeasurably stronger--it becomes universal--because it includes such great roles for women.

He wrote the early drafts of the play while living in San Francisco, going to the Café Flore (an always-bustling café on a street corner in the Castro--it still exists) and doing his writing there. Evidently, early drafts of the play have a whole parallel plotline that takes place in S.F., before Kushner decided to set all of it in New York City (and assorted metaphysical realms). I've always wondered, though, if he ever considered having any of Angels in America take place in Los Angeles--the City of Angels?

San Francisco is still a presence in the finished script; there's the Angel's "Heaven is a City Much Like San Francisco speech" (sound familiar?), and Harper's decision to move there at the end of the play--where San Francisco is presented as a place of hope and healing.

"Poor Harper," joked Kushner, "someone pointed out to me once that she leaves her gay husband only to move to San Francisco... I mean, what was she thinking?"

At one point during the talk, Kushner defended himself against the charge that he "preaches to the choir" by saying "Historically, haven't some of the most renowned preachers been the ones who preached to the choir?" This must be one of his new "things" to work into his speeches; I found a similar quote in a recent LA Times article. "A great preacher starts with the doubt and uncertainty and skepticism that are the necessary concomitants of faith... He starts in the scary places, in the places where God is silent, in the places where God seems cruel, in the places where the world is not just and where people are ground to dust by monstrous, even satanic, forces where God doesn't intervene. Or where you ceaselessly betray God in your heart and your actions. You start there and progress toward whatever hope for change and light you can find. It's true of the prophets, it's true of John Donne, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King. And it's true of artists."

(Of course Kushner didn't put it quite the same way when I heard him speak, though I do recall that he specifically mentioned John Donne that time, too.)

One of the audience members asked whether Kushner tries to convey a message with his plays, and if so, what it is. Kushner replied that he doesn't think the theater is the right place to convey messages. "If I really had a message," he said, "if all I were trying to do with my plays were to say something like You Should Be Nicer to Gay People, Because Gay People are People Too, I'd put it on a billboard... I'd write it on a fortune cookie! I wouldn't make people sit through a seven-hour play! And then everyone could read their fortune cookies and see the message and go home and watch Project Runway. And they'd probably be a lot happier... although maybe not this year." Whereupon Kushner launched on a hilarious tangent about how much he adores Project Runway, how excited he was when he met Michael Kors recently, and how much he disagrees with the most recent choice of winner. I must say, I had expected Kushner would talk about his disappointment with recent election results... but the results of the 2010 midterm elections, not the results of Project Runway!

I think it is disingenuous of Kushner to say that his plays are not meant to convey any message. Because I think that drama can be a subtler, but more effective way, of getting a message across. Reading a slogan like "Gay People Are People Too" takes five seconds and is quickly forgotten. But to see a seven-hour drama about the lives of five gay men--all of them fascinating, complex characters who are defined by so much more than their sexual orientation--that conveys the message "gay people are people too," and in a much more compelling way. I feel like Kushner probably knows this, but for whatever reason, he won't say it in public.

Kushner concluded by saying something similar to this passage from the above-mentioned LA Times article: "I don't think my plays are polemical. I don't think you can be if you deal in paradox and contradiction. Everyone has principles, an ideological program to which they are more or less consciously adherent, ways in which they fail or ways in which their lives don't fit comfortably with what they profess to believe. And if you're not nuts and you have some kind of inner life, you experience those contradictions as internal stresses that have to be reconciled."

But I recall it as being even more beautifully phrased than this. Something about how it's terrible to write a play about something that you have a black-and-white opinion about... but the only thing that's worse is to write a play about something that you don't have a black-and-white opinion about. It's a contradiction, a paradox, and if you're going to be a playwright, you have to embrace this ambiguity.

It was the perfect note on which to end the talk. I turned to my friend in the seat next to me and we both breathed "Wow..." simultaneously. Tony Kushner. There's no one like him.

For more on Kushner and his unique position in the American theatre, I also recommend this New York Magazine profile of him from last month.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Playwrights in Person, part 2: Liz Duffy Adams (plus "Or," at the Magic)

When I went to see a preview performance of Or, at the Magic Theatre on Friday 11/5, playwright Liz Duffy Adams was in the house, and participated in a talk-back after the show. I have actually met Liz Duffy Adams on two other occasions, not that she would remember me -- first when I was an intern at JAW the summer they workshopped her play The Listener, and then last February at a Playwrights' Pub Night. So I didn't say hello to her, though I did ask her a question during the talk-back.

Or, (yes, that's the title) is a farce inspired by the life of Aphra Behn, the first woman to earn a living as a playwright. According to the show of hands at the talk-back, I was one of only 2 people in the audience to have read any Aphra Behn -- chalk it up to my majoring in drama at a former women's college, and being a proud female playwright with a nerdy interest in my predecessors. Under the "favorite quotes" section on Facebook, I have had, for several years, this morsel of Behn:
If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves, I lay down my quill--no, not so much as to make comparisons, because I will be kinder to my brothers than they have been to a defenseless woman--for I am not content to write for a third day only. I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero, and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful world, and scorn its fickle favors.
I am no longer sure if, like Aphra, I "value fame as much as if I had been born a hero." But I am amazed at the guts it took for her to write this in the late 1600s--I find it inspirational, and so I keep it on my Facebook profile.

Clearly, Liz Duffy Adams also finds Aphra Behn an inspirational figure (and Or, has Aphra speak this very quote). The Aphra of Or, is a confident, alluring woman who can seduce both men and women, help thwart Catholic plots against King Charles' life, and, in between all this romantic and political intrigue, find the time to write masterful plays and poems. Yes, she is a superheroine! But somehow, that made me less interested in the play. I have often thought that if your reason for writing a play is to tell other people "So-and-so (or Such-and-such) is Really Awesome," the resulting play is not likely to be very good, because it will lack dramatic tension. So, watching Or, I already knew that Aphra Behn was Really Awesome, and therefore wanted more from the play. Considering the difficulties of being a female writer in 1600s England, I thought that the play's Aphra should have had more moments of vulnerability, instead of sailing through her life with such aplomb. Somehow, she manages to "have it all": enough time for indolent sensual pleasures, and enough time for writing! OK, I'm jealous.

One of the gimmicks of Or, is that this classic door-slamming farce is performed with just three actors; one (at the Magic, Natacha Roi) plays Aphra, and two others take on all the rest of the parts. Maggie Mason was hilarious and captivating in the female roles: saucy actress Nell Gwynne, surly housemaid Maria, and imperious impresario Lady Davenant (whose mile-a-minute monologue was the highlight of the play). But I thought that Ben Huber, in the male roles, didn't do enough to distinguish King Charles II from secret agent William Scot, and his voice sounded dismayingly Southern California. (The actors in this production employ their natural accents. Roi and Huber are American; Mason is English.)

At the talk-back after the show, I asked Liz Duffy Adams a very muddled, very playwright-nerdy question that went something like this: "When you're writing a play that's set in the past--and clearly you did a lot of research for this--how do you balance the desire to be faithful to what you know of the past, and to teach the audience about it, with the desire to just tell a story, you know, the requirements of drama?"

"I don't know, that's something I was asking myself all through the writing process," said Adams. "Did I succeed? You tell me."

I asked this question for a couple of reasons. Partly because I wrestle with this question when writing a play that's set in the past -- how to balance my desire to cram all my research and tons of themes into the play, with the need to make things clear and not leave too many loose threads. (I was recently talking with a friend about my play that takes place in the 1930s, agreeing with him that it suffers from my trying to cram everything in.) For, while I like big, ambitious, geeky plays, I also think that the primary purpose of theater is not to educate. Or, at least, not to educate about historical facts... it is to educate about human behavior and the human heart.

And I wasn't sure whether Adams had completely succeeded at achieving this balance between cleverness and emotion -- despite the breezy, farcical, "this is not a staid old history lesson" tone of her play. It seemed, from the questions people asked during the talk-back, that their primary interest in Or, was historic: they wanted to know if these events had "really happened" (Was Aphra Behn really a spy? Was she really King Charles' lover?). And they valued Adams not so much for her original writing and construction of a farce plot involving these characters, but rather for introducing them to Aphra Behn, and to an era of British history that many people are not familiar with. Wouldn't it have been better if they were so taken with Adams' writing that they had been full of questions about how she came up with this plot, these characters in these configurations? Or if they had talked about what the play made them feel, not what made them think? Or am I just an unredeemable playwriting-nerd?

Well, if I can be a woman and an unredeemable playwriting nerd, I guess I have Aphra Behn to thank for that.

Image: Maggie Mason as Nell Gwynne, Natacha Roi as Aphra Behn. Photo by Jennifer Reiley (found on the Magic Theater's Facebook photos page).