Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Four By Euripides

Considering my years-long involvement with a Greek-mythology theater festival and my years-long obsession with Donna Tartt's The Secret History, it's shameful to admit that I didn't read Bacchae till last July. And additionally a bit strange to write a review of these plays six months after reading them. Ah well...

 Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, RhesusEuripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus by Euripides
Bacchae and Cyclops translated by William Arrowsmith
Iphigenia in Aulis translated by Charles R. Walker
Rhesus translated by Richmond Lattimore
edited by David Grene, Richmond Lattimore, Mark Griffith & Glen W. Most

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting mix of plays, displaying variety even while working within the limits and conventions of Greek drama. Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis are two of the last plays Euripides wrote—Bacchae has strong horror elements to it, while Iphigenia in Aulis is more of a traditional tragedy in which noble figures face agonizing choices. Cyclops is the only extant Greek satyr play, a burlesque of the episode in The Odyssey where Odysseus must save his men from a man-eating cyclops. And Rhesus is a wartime tragedy set in Troy, which may or may not have actually been written by Euripides.

I found Iphigenia in Aulis the most well-plotted, psychologically penetrating, and downright tragic of these plays, as the characters go back and forth on whether to sacrifice Iphigenia. Bacchae is also great, especially its choral hymns in praise of Dionysus' mountainside cult and wild rites. Euripides makes clear why so many people are drawn to Dionysus, as well as the terrible costs of denying his energies.

Rhesus did not hold my attention nearly so well, perhaps because its stakes are lower. It's the story of a noble prince of Thrace, who comes to aid the Trojans, but is ambushed and killed by Greek spies before he can do anything. Sure, that's not a happy story, but it's not nearly so tragic as tearing your son limb from limb while under the influence of religious mania (Bacchae) or being forced to kill your daughter in order to ensure a favorable wind to sail to Troy (Iphigenia in Aulis).

As this was my first time reading all of these plays, I cannot comment much on the translations, though I did find the Rhesus translation a bit awkward—it refers several times to a soldiers' "bivouac," and that word took me right out of the play.

View all my reviews

Sunday, January 24, 2016

2015 Ends, 2016 Begins on the Theater Pub Blog

I sang in the Theater Pub holiday musical this year, too! This is Stuart Bousel and me as the Specialist and his Assistant in "Go To The Mirror," from Tommy. Photo by Paul Anderson.
Time for another round-up of my contributions to the San Francisco Theater Pub blog over the past few months.

In early December, my fellow Theater Pub blogger Ashley Cowan and I teamed up for a special two-part piece looking at the ups and downs of being a tall actress. (I'm 5'8", Ashley is 5'9".) We interviewed other tall ladies and shared some of our own stories about typecasting and insecurities, triumphs and inspirations. Ashley's Part One; my Part Two.

Theater Pub's year-end tradition is to ask each blogger to contribute a Top 5 list. This time around, I chose to write about five delightfully surprising performances that I saw onstage in 2015, from Bay Area actors Madeline H.D. Brown, Adam Magill, Heather Orth, Thomas Gorrebeeck, and Siobhan Marie Doherty.

For the second year in a row (see my acceptance speech from last year), my friend Stuart Bousel cited me in his annual "Stuey Awards" honoring Excellence in Bay Area Theater. My 2015 Stuey is shared with everyone who worked on the Olympians Festival staged reading of Tethys and Oceanus -- which I was nervous as hell about, but came off really beautifully. I don't quite agree with Stuart's conclusion that Tethys "feels like it could be lifted and fully produced as-is," but I'm flattered that he thinks so, and the success of the reading has definitely made me excited to continue working on this script. Stuart also gave a brief nod to our rock-music duet in Tommy -- ha!

I began 2016 by writing about one of the best books I read in 2015: the memoir How To Be a Heroine, by my friend, the playwright Samantha Ellis. In particular, I was drawn to the sections of Samantha's book where she describes the tensions between being a people-pleasing good girl and being a self-actualized artist. I recommend it to any female artist who's working through those types of issues.

This week, because Theater Pub is currently producing short plays inspired by the indie-rock musician Morrissey (two performances left! See it Monday or Tuesday evening), I decided to look at the flip side of that. That is, I highlighted four indie-rock songs inspired by theater, by the Decemberists, the Magnetic Fields, St. Vincent, and the Weakerthans.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Mustang" and the cinema of sisterhood

I admit I have a kind of reflexive habit to root for France when they are nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. I’m a Francophile, France tends to make good movies, they haven’t won Best Foreign Film in over twenty years, so why not root for them?

This year, though, I’ll be rooting for France out of something more than habit. Yesterday I went to see their nominated film, Mustang, and found it a lovely and accomplished piece of cinema. Moreover, it feels like an important film: an unabashedly feminine and feminist work, and one of the only female-directed films to score any Oscar nominations this year. (The only other nominations for female-helmed films are are three Documentary Shorts, one Documentary Feature, and a Best Song nod for Fifty Shades of Grey.) I am impressed with France for choosing a Turkish-language, Turkish-set film by a first-time director for their Oscar submission, and impressed that the Academy nominated it.

Mustang is the story of five sisters, ranging in age from maybe 11 to 17. Their parents are dead and they live with their grandmother and uncle in a small town on the Black Sea. (An incidental pleasure of Mustang was learning how beautiful this part of the world is, with rugged wooded mountains above smooth blue waters.) After the girls are caught horsing around with boys at the beach, their relatives lock them in the house, remove anything that might “corrupt” them, and set about trying to marry them off. But the girls fight back and sneak out and engage in many acts of overt and covert defiance. Their willpower and love and loyalty and lust for life cannot be contained.

So yes, there’s more than a hint of “what if The Virgin Suicides, but Turkish,” about this set-up. But then again, despite its female director, The Virgin Suicides is really a study of the male gaze, the fascination that the neighborhood boys have for the beautiful but inaccessible Lisbon sisters. Whereas Mustang is a wonderful example of the female gaze in cinema. It’s narrated by Lale, the youngest sister. Moreover, as a woman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven is able to film these teenage girls in a way that honors their beauty and their power but never feels the least bit prurient or exploitative. And, while the situation of the Mustang sisters is much worse than that of the Virgin Suicides girls (no one ever threatened to marry the Lisbon sisters off against their will) they fight back more fiercely, they do not succumb to despair.

It’s a simple, fable-like story, but very well told. The climax is super tense and there were gasps in the movie theater at several moments when the girls were in danger. There’s also some interesting commentary on how older women often keenly enforce patriarchal values but on occasion will support the girls’ rebellion.

And, okay, since I self-produced a play in the summer of 2014 about beautiful long-haired young sisters struggling against patriarchal expectations (in fact my play’s poster has some similarities to the Mustang poster), this movie hits a particular soft spot of mine, but I can’t remember the last time I saw such a powerful depiction of sisterhood in cinema.