Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Les Belles-Soeurs" -- Fifteen Squabbling Quebecoises

After reading and enjoying Michel Tremblay's play Albertine, in Five Times, I decided I should read his most famous work for the stage, Les Belles-Soeurs. Les Belles-Soeurs

Les Belles-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michel Tremblay’s play Les Belles-Soeurs is raucous, energetic, and boisterous -- and, because women so rarely get to be boisterous onstage, it’s revolutionary. The play plunks you down in the kitchen of Germaine, a middle-aged housewife in 1960s Montreal. She’s just won a million department-store coupons in a contest, and she’s invited fourteen of her neighbors to help her paste the coupons into booklets. Gossip, squabbling, scandal, and even a brawl ensue.

John Van Burek and Bill Glassco have translated Tremblay’s working-class Quebecois French into working-class North American English. Generally, it’s effective, but sometimes it makes the characters sound like refugees from a 1930s B-movie: “Sure, he promised me the moon. We were gonna be happy. He was raking it in, I thought everything was roses.”

There aren’t a lot of admirable characters in Les Belles-Soeurs. At times, Tremblay seems to mock these women and encourage the audience to feel superior to them. Yet the play ultimately blames the women’s faults -- their small-mindedness, their hypocrisy, their catty jealousy -- on the society they live in. Poverty, Catholicism, provincialism and patriarchy have conspired to make these women what they are. The high point of the play is the monologue where Rose, a self-described “class clown,” drops her façade and reveals her underlying rage and despair: “Goddamn sex! It’s never that way in the movies, is it? Oh no, in the movies it’s always fun! Besides, who cares about a woman who’s gotta spend her life with a pig ‘cause she said yes to him once? Well, I’m telling you, no fucking movie was ever this sad. Because movies don’t last a lifetime!”

I don’t think I’d like to spend a lifetime with Germaine and her friends, either, but I didn’t mind spending two hours with them.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

"The Dryad of Suburbia" - staged reading Nov. 5

2014 is my fourth year participating in the San Francisco Olympians Festival as a writer. My contribution this year is a 10-minute play, The Dryad of Suburbia, which is part of the festival's "Nymphs! Nymphs! Nymphs!" night on Wednesday, November 5.

(At least two people have already inquired whether there will be nudity on this evening. Highly unlikely, as it's a staged reading. But I'm pleased that the evening's title has done its job and grabbed people's attention.)

You can find out more about The Dryad of Suburbia on the festival's website. Yes, that page has changed since the last time I linked to it, back in January. Back then, I thought I was going to write a play about a Dryad encountering a Druid. I clung to that idea for months without writing a word -- because I was unable to hear my characters' voices. At the eleventh hour, I scrapped that idea and banged out The Dryad of Suburbia in a mad rush. I wrote about this experience in more detail for my Theater Pub column this week.

My new play is about a contemporary, suburban couple whose young daughter has become convinced that she is a "tree spirit." When I was writing it, I had no idea that Cody Rishell, the poster artist for Nymph Night, was designing a suite of posters that show little girls playing with their nymph friends! It's like we were tuned into the same wavelength. The Dryads poster (above) is astoundingly perfect -- I am a very happy playwright! You can check out all of the Nymph posters on Cody's website.

The reading of The Dryad of Suburbia will be directed by Valerie Fachman and feature actors Colleen Egan and Nick Trengove. The other "Nymphs!" playwrights are Sam Bertken, Leah Halper, Sam Hurwitt, Carol Lashof, Bridgette Dutta Portman, Jennifer Lynne Roberts, and Siyu Song.

It's all happening at 8 PM on November 5 at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco's scenic Tenderloin. RSVP to the Facebook event here. Tickets $10 at the door.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Playwrights and their Gallbladders

The lack of posts here on marissabidilla in 2014 doesn't mean that my life has suddenly become boring. Rather, it means that life has been pretty overwhelming this year, events and feelings all happening too fast for me to blog about them. E.g.: I self-produced a play, and then four days after it closed, I was in the hospital getting my gallbladder removed.

Despite all the things that life is throwing at me, I've continued to write for the San Francisco Theater Pub blog every two weeks. I'll try to be better about linking to my pieces as they come out, but in the meantime, here are links to three of my columns that center around my recent health crisis.

I wrote "Through the Fog, Step by Step," in late August, two days after getting diagnosed with gallstones. At the time, I didn't feel ready to discuss my condition publicly, so I wrote in more abstract terms about the feeling of wanting the summer to be over, and the need to take things one day at a time. (My editor noted that I wrote this piece on "four hours of sleep." Yeah, because my gallstone pain had kept me up half the night.)

The day after my surgery, I begged off of writing a column and asked my editor to post a short video clip from Scrubs that seemed relevant. (It was ostensibly Comedy Month on the blog. Not that I had a lot to laugh about.)

In "Things of Darkness and of Light," from two weeks ago, I wrote more directly about the experience of getting diagnosed with gallstones, and how I made peace with it.

Oddly enough, British playwright Mark Ravenhill also wrote an essay this month about getting his gallbladder removed. His experience of gallstones resonates with me so much: the terrible pain that comes as soon as you lie down, the way you attribute it to "indigestion" at first, the way you avoid food in the hopes that the pain will go away. Plus, just like Ravenhill, having gallstones caused me to muse on medieval medicine's "four humours," in which the black bile of the gallbladder was thought to make people melancholy (melan means "black" and chole means "bile" in Greek). His piece is also good on the science-y stuff (he and I both know more than we ever wanted to know about what the gallbladder does and why it's not essential), then takes a philosophical turn.

I also appreciated the gallbladder comics on The Awkward Yeti, forwarded to me by a sympathetic friend a couple of days before my surgery. Poor little gallbladder!

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Albertine, in Five Times" -- A French-Canadian "Three Tall Women"

Edward Albee's Three Tall Women has been on my mind this past week. Marian Seldes, who starred in its original production, passed away; and my friend and collaborator Katja Rivera will be directing the show next month at the Custom Made Theatre. Browsing the Plays section of a local used bookstore on Friday night, I came across a play I'd never heard of whose premise sounded strikingly similar to that of the Albee play. Of course, I bought and read it... and I'm very glad to have discovered it!
Albertine in Five Times

Albertine in Five Times by Michel Tremblay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The easiest way to describe Albertine, in Five Times might be to call it the French-Canadian equivalent of Three Tall Women. Like Edward Albee's award-winning play, Albertine is a character study of a woman born in the early 20th century, in which multiple actresses play the protagonist at various ages of her life. The five Albertines (plus a sixth actress who plays Albertine's sister, Madeleine) converse with one another across space and time. They argue and accuse and debate the best attitude to take toward life and its hardships. Should you act with rage or with resignation? Blot out the past or confront it?

Although written by a man, Albertine is a fiercely feminist play, full of anger at the limited options that the patriarchal society of mid-century Québec afforded to women. I was also intrigued to learn that Michel Tremblay has written many other plays and novels about Albertine and her extended family, and that they are based on his own relatives. (Does this mean that Tremblay is the French-Canadian August Wilson, rather than its Edward Albee? Tremblay's series is called "Traversée du Siècle" -- Crossing the Century -- while Wilson's plays are the "Century Cycle"...)

In the circles I run in, there are a lot of conversations going on lately about women in theater, feminist-themed plays, the lack of good roles for women in general and for middle-aged or elderly women in particular, etc. Albertine, in Five Times features six powerful roles for women between the ages of 30 and 70, and as such, I think it deserves to be better-known outside of Canada. 40-year-old Albertine is bitter and exasperated; 50-year-old Albertine has turned her back on the past and is determined to make the best of things; 60-year-old Albertine, her past having caught up with her, has started popping pills. Even the 30-year-old Albertine is no ingenue; she's a war widow with an 11-year-old daughter. Each of the five Albertines represents a specific age and a specific point of view. But together, they show us the complexity of this woman's life.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Running Down a Dream" -- a Saturday Write Fever monologue

I went to Saturday Write Fever last night for the first time in over a year and was given the prompt "Running down a dream." I wrote the following monologue in 30 minutes. It was performed by a woman named Loretta (whose last name I didn't catch).

The speaker is onstage at a TED-type conference. He/she uses a wheelchair.

"Ah, the irony of fate. Ah, how the gods are laughing." That's what everyone said, or thought, after I got in the accident that snapped my spinal cord at the fifth vertebra and left me unable to use my legs. Me, the world-famous ultramarathoner! Winner of the Ironman triathlon three years in a row! That, on my record-breaking fourth attempt, my bike and I should go careering off the side of that volcano... that I should be paralyzed for life, incontinent, as helpless as a baby... Ah, how the gods laughed!

There were many times I wished I had been killed rather than paralyzed.

There were times I tried to finish the job. See these scars on my wrists? Or the hours I spent trying to rig a noose that would tighten if I whizzed away in my electric wheelchair...

For months, for years, there was only one experience that made me happy. When I slept. When I dreamed. In dreams I could walk! In dreams, I was whole! I got a prescription for sleeping pills. My legs had already withered, now my other muscles withered too, as I spent more and more time flat on my back in the realm of dreams.

And then a kind friend introduced me to the concept of lucid dreaming and I learned that I could not only walk, I could run! I could FLY! I could climb and jump and dance like Fred Astaire and Mikhail Baryshnikov rolled into one!

But lucid dreaming is not easy. To catch a dream in the right way. To be both aware and not-aware. To think. To not wake up. And then, even if you do get the knack of it... you still have to wake up eventually! You still have to eat, or use the toilet...

But each time I awoke from a lucid dream, each time I opened my eyelids and saw my broken body, it hurt me afresh. It snapped my spinal cord all over again.

There is so much pain in being awake, why do we even allow ourselves to wake up at all? Why did we not evolve to live forever in the limitless world of dreams?

And that is when I discovered my true purpose. It was not, actually, to run races and win triathlons. It was to unlock the world of dreams for everyone. To make it so you can fall asleep and have sweet, restorative, refreshing dreams for months!

Working with a team of scientists at Johns Hopkins, I have developed Somnola -- a pill that allows uninterrupted sleep of up to 500 hours at a time, and also enhances lucid dreaming. With no side effects!

Somnola will end wars and violence and hatred. It will end misery and poverty and anguish. We will all be asleep, dreaming our beautiful dreams. And in that sleep, what dreams may come!

And gods, who's laughing now?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Marian Seldes and the last of the grande dames

When I took a course on Fairy Tales in college, we spent a class session performing scenes from Ondine, by Jean Giraudoux. I secretly hoped to be cast as Ondine because Audrey Hepburn originated the role on Broadway, and I'd idolized Audrey since I was four years old. So at first, I was slightly disappointed to be cast as Bertha, the "other woman" in the play's love triangle. Then I saw that the role of Bertha was originated by Marian Seldes, and I decided that that was probably better, anyway. Wasn't it better to be a complex and passionate human woman instead of a naive, unworldly water nymph?

I never got to see Marian Seldes onstage, and this memory may not sound like much, but I remember it as a decisive moment in my personal development. Be striking, be "handsome," be impressive. Don't be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

With the passing of Seldes, Elaine Stritch, and Lauren Bacall this year -- grande dames who each, in their own way, exuded a larger-than-life theatrical personality -- it truly feels like the end of an era.

RIP, Ms. Seldes.

Seldes as Bertha in Ondine, 1950s.