Sunday, March 27, 2011

Will Eno's Mesmerizing Meta-Theater

I loved Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) when Cutting Ball produced it two years ago, so I was excited to see the theater company's latest offering, Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays by Will Eno. Even better, the playwright was there in person and did a "talk-forward" (i.e., a pre-show talk) with director Rob Melrose on opening night.

At the talk-forward, Eno said that he wrote Lady Grey, the evening's flagship play, at around the same time he wrote Thom Pain, because he wanted to explore similar motifs and themes, but with "feminine energy." I have said before that Thom Pain is really hard to describe to someone who's never seen it, but Lady Grey is really easy to describe -- it truly is the female version of Thom Pain. Both are one-person shows where the performer tells deadpan jokes, reminisces about lost love, and tells a disjointed story about a child who may or may not be a younger version of themself. He/she seems to enjoy the audience's discomfort, but also to detest it -- to seek the audience's approval even as he/she scorns it.

At times I wondered whether the differences between Thom Pain and Lady Grey -- between "masculine energy" and "feminine energy" -- just reinforce gender stereotypes. For instance, even though Lady Grey has an ambivalent relationship with the audience and at one point even curses everyone in the theater, she seems much more insecure, much more concerned than Thom Pain about whether the audience likes her or not. Furthermore, Thom's story has to do with the endurance of pain (he tells the story of a little boy getting stung by a swarm of bees), while Lady Grey's story is more about sexuality (she tells the story of a little girl who strips naked for Show and Tell).

But, you know, maybe these gender differences are realistic. In a society where female bodies are more sexualized than male bodies, perhaps a woman would be likelier to say "maybe you'd like me better if I took my clothes off" when in front of an audience. And in general, women are more concerned with whether other people like them. Didn't I just say the other day that male artists tend to be Bad Boys and female artists tend to be Dutiful Daughters? That's certainly an apt description of Thom Pain versus Lady Grey. Moreover, in Lady Grey, Eno draws effective parallels between physical nudity and emotional nudity/vulnerability. It's not cheap or meretricious.

After Lady Grey, there's an intermission -- and then you come back and take your seat for Intermission, a four-character play about 15 minutes long. All of the reviews have singled this play out as the highlight of Cutting Ball's production, and I have to agree -- it's a gem of a script and earns a slot on my Favorite Short Plays of All Time list. Perhaps it doesn't sound like much on paper: a younger couple and an older couple, dressed up to see a show at an ACT-type theater, spend intermission discussing the play that they're watching, and other topics such as sorrow and loss. Eno has great fun lampooning bad playwriting in the snatches of dialogue we get to hear from the play-within-the-play, a melodrama about assisted suicide (this is all the funnier because ACT actually produced a melodrama about assisted suicide, The Quality of Life, two years ago). The jokes zing, but there is also pain and wisdom and questioning here. Eno certainly doubts the value of mediocre, manipulative plays like the one seen by the characters of Intermission -- and one of the characters even seems to doubt the value of all theater, all fiction and artifice. Intermission itself, though, proves a rebuttal to Eno's doubts. It is valuable theater.

The final play of the evening, Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, is another one-man show, worthwhile because it lets the great David Sinaiko rant, rave, be sardonic, knock over furniture, play a love scene, a mad scene, and a death scene within a 10-minute span, and greedily eat a carnation (which is one of the funniest things I've seen all year). There is more philosophizing here about the nature of theater and life, but I most enjoyed this play as an entertainment/vaudeville, and I think there's value in that, too.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays is at the Cutting Ball Theater through April 10.

Image: Actors David Sinaiko, Gwyneth Richards, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, and Danielle O'Hare in Intermission.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Importance of Hype in an Ephemeral Industry

I was talking with a friend last night about some of the ethical quandaries I feel as a blogger who regularly writes about plays she attends.

As I get increasingly involved in the San Francisco theater, I am increasingly reluctant to write negative reviews. It just seems cowardly to congratulate someone to their face and then lambaste them online. And I don't think the solution is necessarily to lambaste them to their faces, either.

So my general policy is that if I disliked a show or felt "meh" about it, I won't blog about it. But then, in and of itself, doesn't the fact of my not-blogging imply that I disliked the show? Couldn't an astute reader of my blog read between the lines of my unwritten posts and figure out my implied criticism?

As for the plays that I like and recommend and blog about: If I have a generally positive/enthusiastic opinion of a play, I'll gladly write a blog post to praise it. And yet, maybe there were still some elements of the play or production that I disliked -- but I am not willing to discuss them in print, for the above-mentioned reasons. So I gloss over those elements in my review. The result is a blog post that doesn't tell the full story.

And then, I feel like that is a problem because theater is such an ephemeral art form. When a production is over, the only evidence that remains is the script, the production photos, the reviews and articles that people have written about it, and people's memories of the show (which are notoriously unreliable).

Therefore, if you are dishonest in a theater review, you are basically rewriting history. Let's say you didn't really like one of the actors in a show, but you're unwilling to single that person out and critique their performance on your blog, so you write "All of the actors are great!" Months or years from now, someone will read your review and believe what you said, because there is no other evidence to contradict it. What was a lie (a white lie, told for the sake of saving face) becomes the truth.

So, this is my ethical quandary: because the theater is an ephemeral art form, I believe that people who write about it are obliged to be as honest as possible. Hell, I even feel guilty when I write a review that doesn't include every single thought I had about the production, because I think it's unfair for those thoughts to be lost to history. And yet, because I am a theater practitioner, I am also obliged to be polite and politic -- frankly, I don't want to become known as a critic with a waspish wit and a poison pen. I want to be a booster for the theater and my friends' contributions to it, and I'd like them to do the same for me, should they ever be in a position to do so! And I feel these two ethical obligations clashing with each other all the time.

I explained this to my friend, and she said "Now I know why you theater people are so big on hype."


"Because no one is able to see every show -- so, as you said, when it's over, all that's left are things like reviews and photos -- and hype. And you have to believe the hype, because you have nothing to compare it with; the show is over and you can't see it for yourself."

It's so true. People say that Hollywood is built on hype, but sooner or later, a movie gets made, it premieres, and it stays in that form for decades to come. Film critics who were not even born at the time the movie came out can watch it, form their own opinions, add to the critical conversation/consensus, evaluate and reevaluate the movie. The same goes for literature and recorded music.

People who write about theater do not have that luxury. That's why I feel it is so important to write about theater, and also why it throws me into ethical dilemmas.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Playwriting, Failure, and the Fear of Failure

I've been:
  • following the discussion taking place on blogs and among my Facebook friends in response to "The Real Reasons Playwrights Fail" by Mat Smart
  • thinking about a conversation I had with a Female Playwriting Friend (FPF) Monday night about writing and the fear of writing and the perils of making excuses or comparing yourself to other people
  • reading a New Yorker article on a Hollywood therapist who specializes in treating creatively blocked screenwriters and other artistic types
A lot of the commentary on Smart's post focus on how he is an inherently privileged dude -- straight, white, male, writing linear plays -- and therefore his experience cannot mirror that of other writers, who belong to minority groups or write less marketable plays. There might be something to this, but I think it's more complicated than just "shut up, straight white dude, you can never understand me."

FPF and I both reject the idea that there is something inherently different about men and women. And yet, there's an attitude that we see more often in men than in women -- the "If you just did what I do, you'd be successful too" attitude, which can morph into "I know the right way to go about things and you're doing it wrong."

FPF and I have been on the receiving end of this attitude before. A few weeks ago, a male playwriting friend (MPF) said to us, "What I don't get is writers who don't like to write, to sit down and put pen to paper." And we both felt personally indicted by this, even though it's not clear whether it was meant as an indictment of our work habits. This is, of course, very similar to Mat Smart's stuff about "you have to love" working on your play for six hours every day after working your 9 to 5 temp job, or else you're not serious about playwriting and are obviously a worthless weakling.

And unfortunately, I am easily persuaded by this. I see my friends working hard, working damn hard, sacrificing other aspects of their lives in pursuit of artistic success, and being rewarded for it. I do feel guilty about how little I write. Because I am prone to melodrama and overstatement, I am perversely drawn to pronouncements like "you must have an inner fire that compels you to write six hours a day, no matter what, or you will NEVER be a playwright!" Every year, I tell myself that this is the year I am really going to be a playwright, the year I hunker down and churn out the sentences, the year I read more than I ever have read before and write more than I read. And every year, I falter.

I'm afraid of failure, is what it comes down to. Afraid of spending all that time cooped up at my desk only to produce a mediocre product. But someone who says "If you just worked as hard as me, you'd be as successful as me" is also the kind of person who tends to be unafraid -- the kind of writer who is extremely prolific and will fail often and learn from those failures.

Neither males nor females have a monopoly on failing and learning from failure. But, I think, because males often start out from a privileged/advantaged position, they get the sense that they have more chances in life and it's OK to fail. Coming from a more precarious or disadvantaged group, you don't have that same comfort with error and uncertainty. I have never felt that it would be OK for me to fail; failure would shame me. To make a totally reductive generalization, male artists tend to be Bad Boys and female artists tend to be Dutiful Daughters.

So I'm trying to take some lessons from the New Yorker article, use some of therapist Barry Michels' tricks without having to pay $300 an hour to hear them from him. Some insights:
  • " '[Writers] procrastinate because they have no external authority figure demanding that they write... Often I explain to the patient that there is an authority figure he's answerable to, but it's not human. It's Time itself that's passing inexorably. That's why they call it Father Time. Every time you procrastinate or waste time, you're defying this authority figure.' Procrastination, he says, is a 'spurious form of immortality,' the ego's way of claiming that it has all the time in the world; writing, by extension, is a kind of death. He gives procrastinators a tool he calls the Arbitrary Use of Time Moment, which asks them to sit in front of their computers for a fixed amount of time each day. 'You say, "I'm surrendering myself to the archetypal Father, Chronos," ' he says. ' "I'm surrendering to him because he has hegemony over me."'"
  • Michels' patients often "[vacillate] between thinking [they] are God's gift to mankind and thinking [they] are garbage." This is activated by a mixture of "petulance, rage, arrogance, hypersensitivity, a sense of victimization, and, above all, a resistance to process."
  • Another technique is "Reversal of Desire," which "helps a patient face something he's avoiding and involves another silent scream--'Bring it on!'--addressed to an imaginary cloud of pain. while pushing into the center of the cloud, the patient says, 'I love pain,' and then, 'Pain sets me free.'"
I guess it's really all about acceptance and submission to a larger discipline -- accepting that time is passing, accepting the process, accepting the pain. And I love the idea that "procrastination is a spurious form of immortality" -- it makes you feel immortal while you're doing it, but when you die and leave no work behind, you're dead. Whereas writing may be a "form of death," but if you do it well, and leave a legacy of the written word behind, it actually can make you immortal.

And some of this is similar to the advice offered in this classic column about writing and womanhood and the fear of writing, which I think I basically ought to memorize: Write Like A Motherfucker

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a play to write. About sisterhood.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How "Jane Eyre" Saved My Life

In 2007, I spent a semester abroad in France. While I hoped to make friends with my host family and other French people, I also knew that my study-abroad experience would be significantly enhanced if I became friends with the other American college students in my program, giving me a ready-made group of companions with whom to visit museums and eat baguettes and live the expat life.

So, as soon as I touched down on French soil, I tried to find myself a group of friends. I fell in with some people who I liked a lot—they were smart and curious and spoke French to each other even when the teachers weren't listening. We had some fun times together, first in Bordeaux, then in Paris.

Then, after about a month, I found myself being ostracized—subtly, but methodically. I don't even know what I had done to offend the others, unless it all started the time I knocked over a bottle of red wine and stained an expensive tablecloth when we cooked dinner at one girl's apartment. And I had thought that this kind of ostracism was a vestige of middle school, but here we were in our third year of college and I was being shunned.

The worst part was, before I got kicked out of the group, I had seen them ostracize another girl who wanted to be part of it. This should have been my first hint that these were not good people. But I was so desperate to belong that I went along with it, helping to snub this other girl. And then they turned around and did the same thing to me; I could see it happening, but was powerless to stop it.

Having lost my group of friends, I felt rudderless. I went to see way too many classic American movies (Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, etc.) at the cheap three-euro theater on the Left Bank. I went on a date with a sketchy guy who hit on me in the Métro. And I did a whole lot of solitary museum-going.

I also tried to find consolation in books. The stereotypical thing would have been to "dress in black and read Camus," as the song goes, and there's a part of me that wishes I had spent more time in France sitting in cafes and reading French-language literature. But I already had a lot of school assignments in French; doing my pleasure reading in French would have been too much of a chore.

Miraculously, the one English book I had brought with me was The Virgin in the Garden, by A.S. Byatt, which is now one of my favorites. Its heroine, 17-year-old Frederica Potter, is unpopular with her schoolmates and sometimes hard for the reader to like, but also bold and indomitable. I identified with her, and I adored her.

Then, it came time to choose a new English-language book. Though Parisian bookstores obviously carry a limited selection in English, several of them had a good stock of Penguin Classics. And I have a thing for Penguin Classics; I try to buy as many of them as I can, and I love the way their black spines look on my shelf. At the time, I was also trying to reread classic books that I had disliked when I was younger, in order to see if I got more out of them this time.

All of these factors are what led me to consider rereading Jane Eyre when I was in Paris. I'd originally read it when I was 12 years old, and had not liked it very much. My mother, a fan of Wuthering Heights but not Jane Eyre, finds Jane an insipid heroine, and I think her attitude had rubbed off on me. Also, at 12, I was reading a lot of fantasy books with kickass heroines, so I found it hard to appreciate Jane's quieter virtues. Moreover I was turned off by the constant references to Christian morality, and sentimental scenes like the death of Helen Burns failed to move me.

So I took the latest Penguin Classics edition of Jane Eyre off the shelf of the Parisian bookstore, and perused the back cover. And there, in Penguin-orange type, contrasting with the elegant black background, was a quote from the novel:

You probably can't quite read that, but it says, "The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself."

That was when I knew that I had to reread this book. I knew that it would become a lifeline for me.

So I made my way around Paris, solitary, friendless, but sustained by reading Jane Eyre—reading it voraciously, living in its pages. I burned with Jane's passions and marveled at the fact that I had ever found her insipid. The Penguin Classics introduction takes pains to point out that Jane Eyre is a very angry book, which primed me to focus on the restless, independent side of Jane's character, not the self-effacing Christian.

I think there's a popular misconception that Jane Eyre is nothing but a love story, but there's far more to it than that. Perhaps, if you read it at a time when romantic concerns are foremost in your mind, you will focus on the relationship between Jane and Rochester. But if you aren't preoccupied with romance, if what you seek is a sense of strength and self-worth despite misfortune—and especially if you are a woman—the novel has so much to offer in that vein. I am therefore grateful that Penguin Classics chose to promote the book with the quotation about self-respect, and not one of the more romantic or gothic passages of the novel. As I said, I'd probably never have reread it otherwise, and it would not now have a place in my heart.

Jane's voice is infectious; when I recently reread the novel again in anticipation of the new film version, its vocabulary got inside my head and caused me to talk and write like a Victorian. For instance, I found myself saying that I was "in low spirits" instead of "in a funk" or "depressed."

More and more, too, I find myself marveling at Charlotte Brontë's achievement—writing this long novel by hand, inventing this incredibly powerful and resonant story, sprinkling the text with rich patterns of imagery and themes. Now, not only do I try to be inspired by Jane's strengths and virtues, I also try to be inspired by Brontë's example. If she could write this novel by hand in less than a year, at a time when her sisters had already had their first books accepted for publication while her own was rejected—then there is no reason why I should complain about the difficulty of being a writer, nor fail to be as prolific as I wish.

The Brontës read extensively, and wrote stories and poems, to survive a harsh childhood and adolescence. The plot of Jane Eyre kicks into motion when young Jane slips away to read a book and is punished for it; and throughout the novel, she quotes and alludes to dozens of works of literature. Perhaps I will never have Charlotte Brontë's extraordinary writing talent, or Jane Eyre's sense of self and comfort with being alone (because I was lonely in France, though I tried my hardest to survive it). But one thing that these women and I will always have in common is that we take comfort from literature. Perhaps the pious Jane would take issue with my saying this, but for me, four years ago, her story was a secular, feminist scripture.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The OTHER Catholic European Country That Begins with an "I"

It may be Saint Patrick's Day, but an Italian friend of mine posted on Facebook that it is also the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy! I know they say that everyone is part Irish on Saint Patrick's Day... but the rest of the year, I am 0% Irish and 25% Italian.

In honor of my heritage, and so that this significant anniversary does not pass by overlooked, here is "Va, pensiero" (The Hebrew Slaves' Chorus) from Verdi's Nabucco, which became an anthem for the Risorgimento patriots.

Sentimental Irish songs like "Danny Boy" don't make me cry, but when I hear Verdi's big crescendo on the line "O mia patria, si bella e perduta!" (O my country, so lovely and so lost), it gets me every time.

Performed by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, 2002. I remember watching this production on TV when I was in high school!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Hermes," an Olympians Festival Success Story

It's been eight months since I devoted my weekends to working the box office at the San Francisco Olympians Festival -- and it's seven months until Olympians Festival II: Heavenly Bodies, for which I am a writer and associate producer. Don't mistake this for a lull or a fallow period, though! I'm hard at work on my play -- and feeling inspired by seeing Bennett Fisher's Hermes, a script from last summer's Olympians Festival, in a full production this month.

Hermes was one of my favorite plays last summer, and I'm happy that so many more people now have the chance to see it. It's a fast-moving drama about four American derivatives traders devising shady ways to profit from the Greek financial crisis. When they cross one ethical line too many, they attract the attention of Hermes -- god of business, money, liars and thieves. While Hermes is a very angry play, enraged at the manipulation of the financial markets by amoral and rapacious actors, it is also very funny. Hermes comes back to earth in the form of a fratty bro who enjoys giving people stupid nicknames and punching them in the balls.

Stuart Bousel, founder and producer of No Nude Men and the Olympians Festival, says Hermes merits a full production because it embodies the original goal of the festival: to prove the continuing relevance and power of Greek mythology. Ben Fisher doesn't just retell a myth about Hermes, he invents a new one, and explores an aspect of Hermes' personality that often goes unremarked upon. (We tend to think of Hermes as a cheerful trickster, not an amoral bully.) The Greek gods were very human gods, each representing a different aspect of human nature or human life. Because the themes that they embodied are still with us today, so, too, are the gods themselves.

Not only is Hermes a great example of the relevance of Greek mythology, but it is also a great example of the relevance and power of theater itself. As I said, this play centers on the Greek financial crisis -- a real event that happened just one year ago. This kind of rapid response to world events is something that theater (especially small, non-commercial theater) can do but other narrative art forms, such as fiction and film, have more trouble achieving. In Act II of Hermes, the god causes the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, to erupt, stranding the human characters in Europe. When I saw this scene in the July reading of Hermes -- just three months after the volcano had erupted in real life -- I was amazed at the audacity and cleverness of it. When was the last time you saw a play that even referenced an event that happened so recently? And Ben does more than reference the event -- he works it into the plot and mythological framework of the play.

The craftsmanship of Hermes therefore fascinates me: it was written almost in real time, reacting to events in the outside world. When you've got a commission to write a play about Hermes, and various factors conspire to cause a debt crisis in Greece -- Greece, of all places! -- you'd damn well better take advantage of that. And yet, despite the immediacy of the piece, it also has a reflective side, finding interesting things to say about greed, power, and the similarity between gods and debt: "both are substitutes for more tangible assets."

Helping to make the intangible words on a page into a tangible full production are director Tore Ingersoll-Thorpe and six talented actors, all of whom are skilled at delivering the tangy dialogue. Juliana Egley, Geoffrey Nolan, Carl Lucania and Brian Markley play the derivatives traders, Lauren Spencer plays the goddess Hestia (a bartender and waitress), and Brian Trybom plays Hermes. You'll never look at this god the same way again -- and that's the point of the Olympians Festival, isn't it?

plays at the Exit Stage Left through March 26 -- details and tickets here.

Photo by Claire Ann Rice. Brian Trybom as Hermes, Geoffrey Nolan as Jack.

Monday, March 14, 2011

More on adaptation, and the heart versus the head

A couple more thoughts that are rolling around in my head after I wrote my last post:
  • I'm amazed that, in my discussion of adapting classic works of literature and whether you can really enjoy a dramatic adaptation of a novel you've read, I didn't expand this to discuss theater --how this might apply to producing/directing classic plays. I think most theatergoers have experienced the phenomenon of going to see a production of a Shakespeare play (or other classic) where the director is so keen to put his own spin on the material that it prevents you from engaging with the play. You know, flash and dazzle productions where you can admire the artists' cleverness, but not connect on an emotional level. I'm not saying that all "concept" productions of Shakespeare are like this, and still less that no modern production of Shakespeare can succeed on an emotional level. But I do have a marked preference for productions whose goal is to "engage deeply with the text" rather than "go by the Rule of Cool."
  • In an email, my dad called me out on the following claim, "I tend to believe that art that taps into your emotional, subconscious brain is more valuable than art that welcomes cool, distanced consideration." Do I really believe that? (Or maybe I believe it more strongly than my dad does.) I think this is one reason why I have trouble appreciating contemporary conceptual art. I'm not one of those people who says that art (visual art) must be beautiful, but I do think it must be visceral -- touching you at a level beyond language. Just as with conceptual productions of classic plays, some conceptual art pieces do succeed on a visceral level as well as an intellectual one, and some don't... which is why I consider the visceral pieces to be more fully successful.
  • There's a quasi-spiritual aspect to all of this. We have a godlike omniscience when we watch an adaptation of a classic novel and know in advance what will happen, which can also lead to a godlike sense of superiority and boredom. When we watch an unfamiliar story, living and suffering along with the characters, we are not gods -- or perhaps we are like Jesus, making the characters' suffering our own.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On "Masterpiece Theatre" and adapting the classics

After Downton Abbey ended, I wanted more Masterpiece Theatre in my life (my job has been stressful and I need to escape into British costume dramas), so I watched the rerun of the 2009 miniseries of Emma. And I just finished rereading Jane Eyre in anticipation of the new movie version. This has got me thinking about the challenges of adapting classic literature and how we watch and judge adaptations differently from original stories.

Roughly speaking, the more movies or plays you see, the better you get at predicting where the plot is going or what the writer will do next. This tendency becomes even more pronounced if you have formally studied dramatic writing. I distinctly remember realizing that I had started to watch plays "like a playwright," attuned to their construction and the tricks the writer uses, rather than just enjoying the drama as it unfolds.

When you're watching an adaptation of a familiar novel, rather than an original or unfamiliar story, it is even easier to recognize what the screenwriter is doing. What point of view does she take? What does she choose to emphasize that other adaptations leave out? Has she created any new scenes? All these are examples of the writer trying to put a new spin on old material -- but they are also writers' tricks that can easily lead to predictability.

For instance, the writer of the Emma miniseries chose to emphasize the narrowness of Emma's world. Though Emma is in her early twenties, she has hardly left the village of Highbury -- never visited London or the seaside. I can't remember Jane Austen particularly emphasizing this theme, because in her era it was not so unusual for a young lady to live a circumscribed life. But it is a valid reading of the novel, suggesting that Emma plays matchmaker because she desperately needs some excitement. And I can understand a 21st-century screenwriter wishing to highlight this theme, and thereby contrast Emma's era and our own.

So, during the first episodes of the miniseries, Emma kept commenting that she had never seen the sea. After the second or third time this happened, I turned to my roommate and said "What do you want to bet that the last shot of this is going to be Emma and Mr. Knightley walking on the beach?"

OK, so I was wrong. They're not on the beach -- they're on the cliffs of Dover.

But really, this wasn't hard to predict. All I did was pay attention to what the screenwriter had expanded and emphasized (Emma's desire to finally see the ocean), and added that to my knowledge of what a Masterpiece Theatre audience would appreciate (a picturesque, romantic final image) and my knowledge of Austen's story (Emma and Mr. Knightley get married). Craftsmanship, writers' tricks, that's all.

Moments like this, though, are why I find it hard to really absorb myself into movie adaptations. Because the plot cannot surprise me, I pay far more attention to the mechanics of the film, the choices made by the writer, actors, director, even the costumer! So I process it with my rational, judgmental, distanced brain, rather than my subconscious, emotional, immediate brain. However, I tend to believe that art that taps into your emotional, subconscious brain is more valuable than art that welcomes cool, distanced consideration.

Watching a movie adaptation of a novel I've read, I judge the actors harder than I judge actors in an original story, forcing them to compete with my memories of the book and my own ideas about what Emma Woodhouse or Mr. Darcy or Jane Eyre is "really" like. I get very attached to my preconceived notions. I think Michael Fassbender is very talented and very attractive, but when I heard he was cast in the new Jane Eyre movie, my first thought was "But isn't Rochester supposed to have black hair and eyes?"

Even when I haven't read the source novel, watching a movie adaptation can be problematic. For instance, you may still have picked up some preconceived notions about the characters or plot floating in the pop-culture ether. (I would wager that many people who have never read Jane Eyre are well aware that Jane is plain-looking and Mr. Rochester has a mad wife in the attic.) Or, if you truly know nothing about the story of Emma, but the first episode hooks you and you can't wait another week for the continuation, you can always just run out and buy the book. Or, you can watch the movie adaptation, and then feel guilty that you haven't actually read the novel, and think that you ought to read it, but you probably won't read it, because you already know the story!

I think maybe it's for all of these reasons that Downton Abbey was such a big success upon its premiere. People want the pleasures of a literary costume drama -- lots of characters, beautiful clothing and decor, a chance to escape to another era, touches of melodrama in the plotting -- without the literary pedigree. You can enjoy Maggie Smith's hilarious performance unfettered instead of saying "but the Dowager Countess wasn't like that in the book..." Even though some of the plot elements are familiar or predictable, there are also several surprises that keep the series lively. I found it much easier to really care about the characters of Downton Abbey because I, like them, had no idea what would happen next. Whereas, even though Emma was a well-done miniseries and Emma's gradual gaining of self-awareness is a good story, I knew all along where it would end up -- her and Mr. Knightley and a stroll on the beach.

Images from Emma (2009) with Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley. For the record, I enjoyed their performances, even if I thought the age difference between them should have been more evident!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Girl in the Boys' Club: "What We're Up Against" by Theresa Rebeck

A good friend of mine, knowing that playwriting can be a bit of a boys' club, recently forwarded me Molly Lambert's article In Which We Teach You How To Be a Woman in Any Boys' Club from (also seen on Jezebel). Good essay; I enjoyed it. And, more than anything, I wished that I could forward it to Eliza, a young woman I met last week -- a smart and driven architect working at a firm that's a poisonous, hostile boys' club.

But I can't actually forward it to Eliza, because she is a fictitious character: the heroine of Theresa Rebeck's play What We're Up Against, currently in its world premiere at the Magic Theatre. Still, it's funny how much Rebeck's play comes across as a dramatization of the situations brought up in Lambert's article. Lambert talks a lot about what you should do if there are two women in the boys' club -- you and someone else -- and the same situation arises in What We're Up Against. There is another woman at the architecture firm besides Eliza: Janice, a mediocre architect who is happy to be the token woman in the boys' club. I liked how Theresa Rebeck is willing to show that not all women are feminists devoted to shaking up the status quo. But I thought that sometimes Janice was portrayed as unbelievably stupid (it is one thing to be a mediocre architect; it is another thing to say "Why can't we just rip all those air ducts out, anyway?"). And the play would have been more complex if there were a clearer sense that Janice was sometimes playing a role, emphasizing her femininity and helplessness so that her co-workers would continue to like her. As it is, she really did seem just that naive.

Eliza, on the other hand, is a tough cookie who is sick of being passed over -- especially when Weber, a man who has not been at the firm for as long as she has, is the new golden boy. Her co-workers tell her that, in architecture, no one does anything interesting their first ten years, but Eliza can't help feeling that gender plays a part. And she hasn't even heard how her co-workers Stu and Ben talk about her behind her back: the first scene of the play features the men saying that Eliza is a "bitch" and a "cunt" after she pulls a stunt to get their attention. "This is what we're up against," one of them says; I love how Rebeck's title can cut both ways. The men feel threatened by their female colleague, but "what we're up against" also refers to the sexism that we, as women, are up against.

I also liked how Rebeck is willing to make Eliza unlikable at times. Even though Eliza's cause is just, she sometimes goes about things the wrong way. She can be abrasive, she can be too unaware of what other people think of her, she can miscalculate and overreach. I couldn't help comparing her to Amanda, the heroine of Sarah Treem's A Feminine Ending, another recent-ish play about a young woman in a boys' club (Amanda is an oboist and aspiring classical-music composer). Amanda has her flaws -- she's insecure, and she can act impulsively -- but those flaws are a lot more endearing than Eliza's flaws. And I think that a play is stronger when its main character is not wholly admirable. At the very least, it helps redeem Rebeck from the charge that she is being one-sided and polemical.

Rebeck has a good grasp of the way that workplace sexism manifests itself in the 21st century. Unlike in the Mad Men era, none of the men make lewd remarks about Eliza, even though she is an attractive young woman. The oldest man, Stu, has the most reductive view of gender. The youngest man, Weber, definitely feels threatened by Eliza, but less because of her gender than because she's simply better than him. He's happy to join the old boys' club because it works to his benefit, but he is less inherently sexist than Stu.

I don't want to oversell What We're Up Against. It realistically portrays an important part of modern life that is not often shown onstage: office politics crossed with gender politics. But it is sometimes hard to care about the architects' project of redesigning a shopping mall, and the supporting characters could use more complexity. The first scene (in which the theme of sexism is the most prominent) is funny but a bit heavy-handed, and the subsequent scenes take too long to deepen the themes.

But I enjoy seeing feminist themes in mainstream theater, and I appreciate that Rebeck has written the role of Eliza, which allows an actress to portray emotions and qualities that are uncommon in roles written for young women, but which are very easy to relate to.

What We're Up Against is at San Francisco's Magic Theatre through March 6.

Photo from Magic Theatre. Sarah Nealis as Eliza; Rod Knapp as Ben.