, , ,

The Authentic Within Inauthentic Authenticity

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 1 comments

Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice, and all fashionable vices pass for virtue --Molière

I know many of you who read this blog have been wondering, “Where are all the foxy females that are legendary to Flux?” I mean, we’ve all read entries from those irresistible studmuffins Jason, Joe, Gus and (sigh) Isaiah, but I think it’s time we had un peu de pouvoir aux femmes in this blog. Alors, voilá: Sassy-c! This past Friday, I experienced The National Theatre of the United States of America’s version of Molière’s Don Juan—“a production so authentic that it rivals in authenticity Molière’s own 1665 production at the Palais-Royal in Paris.” Right...perhaps it was the two-foot plastic swords, the 75-minute running time, or Mozart’s (née 1756) Requiem Mass that made me question that claim.

But no matter—this is exactly the point the NTUSA wants to make. In their curtain speech, they reference this claim of “authenticity” and justify it by saying that the costumes are made with “authentic fabric”, the lines are spoken by “actual actors” and they say the words “exactly as they are written on the page.” And it’s this sort of tongue-in-cheek “F-you” to theatrical convention that defines the artistic statement of the piece.

We begin the show with a rousing musical number introducing the cast, each brandishing a golden phallus as they circle around us, the audience, who must swivel on our centrally-placed stools in order to take in all the entertainment. We then meet Don Juan, played by NTUSA member, Yehuda Duenyas, and follow his lusty tale of hedonism and vice in devotedly Catholic Sicily. Don Juan has the unfortunate penchant for luring young girls from their paths of honest maidenhood with promises of marriage, only to leave them in the cold when he tires of them. His latest “conquest”, Doña Elvira (played by Aimee McCormick Ford), left the convent to follow Don Juan and is now chasing him, begging him to profess his love for her (or at the very least, be man enough to own up to the wrongs that he has done). He, of course, callously tosses her off and sets sail with his unwilling servant, Sganarelle (Jesse Hawley), in search of more escapades. Along the way, he proposes marriage to local peasant girls and continues to flee in disguise from jealous husbands and vengeful brothers. It’s at this point that we see what may be Don Juan’s only selfless act in the whole piece: he aids a man who is being attacked by three robbers. The man he helps turns out to be one of Doña Elvira’s brothers, and when he discovers Don Juan’s identity, he lets him go free as it is the “honorable” thing to do.

We then move on to a tomb, where Don Juan jestingly invites the statue of a dead commander (a man he has slain) to dinner, who forebodingly accepts. Despite the warnings of Sganarelle, Doña Elvira and even Don Juan’s father, our shallow protagonist continues to live his life only to satisfy his selfish needs. As the play progresses, we see more and more that if Don Juan does not turn from his chosen path, he will only come to know damnation and suffering. At one point, Don Juan seemingly converts to the life of a monastic and renounces his sins, but we soon discover he is using the church as a disguise to continue his wicked ways. In the end, the dead commander invites Don Juan back to his tomb for another meal, but is instead swallowed up in the great fiery maw of hell. The final moment features a lonely Sganarelle, eerily lit by a single candle, crying in fear, not of the sudden loss of his master, but of the sudden loss of his wages.

If this production succeeds in one thing, it is to highlight the topical theme of religious and social hypocrisy prevalent not only in our time, but throughout the ages. None are exempt from scrutiny, as the valets, the peasants, the bourgeois, even Don Juan’s “victims” all display characteristics of a distasteful nature…it is just that Don Juan has learned how to attractively construe his vice into a “fashionable virtue”. Molière was a keen satirist and the fact that this production maintains a faithfulness to Molière’s social criticism makes it more authentic than 17th century fabric and impeccable French pronunciation. And how authentic a piece was Molière intending to create? His play was produced in French 1665; a Castellano version was produced 30 years earlier in Spain and the original Don Juan is an Italian legend (Don Giovanni) based on a 14th Century fictional libertine. In the end, it’s not facsimile that creates “authentic” theatre—it’s the ability to move with the flux (ha-ha) of the times and still create art that speaks to someone.

As for this performance, director Jonathan Jacobs demands a lot from his audience as we are squeezed onto tiny (and sometimes painful) stools and are kept on our toes as the staging swirls around us. However, the high energy cast keeps the pace brisk, and the incredible sound design by Jody Elff (one of the highlights of the show), lighting by Katie Ruben and scene construction team took me to convents, forests, echoing tombs and lavish love pads, all with a simple 90 degree turn on my stool. Mr. Duenyas as Don Juan certainly has stage presence and looks as if he was ripped from orgies featured in Abercrombie ads. And Jesse Hawley as Sganarelle has her moments of comedic flair. In truth, I liked the idea of casting a somewhat androgynous Don Juan and a female Sganarelle, as this could have provided an opportunity to display how seductive a beast Don Juan can be, to men and women alike. However, this production did not really see this idea through. The moments that spoke most to me were when it seemed like Don Juan might almost be swayed to see how his hypocritical actions were hurting those around him. This was portrayed honestly by Ryan Bronz as Don Carlos, brother to Doña Elvira, who seeks out Don Juan to kill him, but will not break the code of honor when his enemy saves his life. Matt Kalman as Don Luis, Don Juan’s father, also gives a stirring performance as he begs his only son to change his ways, then violently rips away his patronage when he sees that he is not reaching his selfish boy.

There is much to offer in “shock value” in this piece, including the aforementioned golden phalli, bare-bottomed servants, a grotesquely real statue of Christ on the cross, and many acts of sexual simulation, often times played upon a mannequin’s leg and pelvis. But for me, it was the tangible moments of human connection, conflict and hubris elegantly played with the social commentary (along with the gorgeous sound design) that struck a chord within me. At these times, I found an authenticity within the NTUSA’s inauthentically authentic production.
Read the full story

, ,

August: Schulenburg Osage County

Tuesday, February 26, 2008 0 comments

Man, I've been wanting to make that joke since I saw the show almost two weeks ago, but I haven't had a chance to sit down and write my thoughts.

I will not write an extended critique of the production, which has already received more than enough coverage from writers far better, and more qualified, than I. But I can't help reviewing it just a little:

Suffice it to say that the show is long but excellent, with no weak link in the large ensemble cast. The unfolded doll-house set alone is worth the (high) price of admission, as is Deanna Dunagan's memorable performance as the matriarch of the family slowly self-destructing over the course of the show. The entire second act takes place around a table, but your eyes never wander from the goings-on, and the credit for that rightly goes to both director Anna D. Shapiro and writer Tracy Letts, who has somehow found something new and brilliant to say about the dysfunctional American family. Only the sound design, which at one point unnecessarily intrudes with a loud gong sound, is not up to the superb standard set by the rest of the production, but thankfully the moment is gone quickly and we get back to the amazing work on display at the Imperial Theatre.

So that's out of the way. What I really wanted to write about, as a member of Flux, is Steppenwolf, the 30-plus-year old company to thank for creating, producing, directing, and performing this great new work (all but two of the actors in the Broadway version premiered the play in Chicago last summer). Here's the blurb they put in the playbill:

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights. Our mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theatre by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon. Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of 41 ensemble members whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting, film-making and textual adaptation.
Nurturing artists. Repeatable creative relationships. A company of actors, directors, and playwrights committed to ensemble performance. As I read this I couldn't help but think: wouldn't it be great to be making theater like this in thirty years?

And then I thought: isn't it great to making theater like this right now?

Yes, it is. Stick around, folks. Flux '08 is gonna rock your socks. Read the full story


Daren Taylor and The Movement Company

Monday, February 18, 2008 0 comments

I just received an email from Flux Sunday participant and friend Daren Taylor about two shows his company is putting on at Strawberry. This is exciting because I've known Daren as a great actor, writer and collaborator; but didn't know he was also leading a company!

To find out more information about The Movement Company, or to purchase tickets for their show, check out their website here.

With Flux, we've seen Daren play everything from boy geniuses to former American presidents; and so I'm very much looking forward to finding out more about his new company. Read the full story


What does that fancy pants word mean? And why does it appear as a title in a post on a theatre blog? Read on, dear reader, read on.

Reading the Sunday Time Magazine, I found a fascinating article by Robin Marantz Henig on the scientific reasons for why children play. Being an adult who spend as much time as possible engaged in play, I though this article might shed some interesting light on why exactly that is.

And the most interesting part of that article is this notion of equifinality; "an idea from systems theory that says there are usually more ways than one to arrive at a particular end". The idea is that play, in contrast to more formalized systems of learning, encourages children to find alternate solutions to problems. As adults, we settle for '"false endpoints" because we're in a hurry and don't have time to examine other solutions. And when we teach children, we generally teach them the straightest line to any given point. But play is the point, and because play is so much fun, children are likely to keep at it even after several solutions are found. The ability to find multiple solutions to singular problems was once a useful evolutionary tool before data entry and assembly lines and rote learning became the norm.

The article goes on to offer many other interesting concepts for why children play, but this concept of equifinality resonated with me deeply. In a previous comment on Jeffrey Jones blog (which represents the best source for theories on alternative play structures I have found), I attempted this:

"That is not to say I understand the psychology of the characters, or the morals of their actions, or the meaning of the changes. I can’t write a term paper on the indecisions of Hamlet or the immolations of Hedda (or I could, but would rather not). But I have experienced the actions and changes they created and endured, and carry that visceral experience into what little understanding I have of my own life. Moments from these plays come back to me in snatches of dialogue or in stage images, and some aspect of my changing life becomes quickened, I become more aware, my own actions amplified by the lives I’ve experienced in a theatre."

And it was this idea of equifinality that struck me so forcefully - the idea that theatre (or any story-telling medium for that matter) has existed for thousands of years because it serves an evolutionary purpose; that through the play of theatre, adults become reawakened to the fact that there are "more ways than one to arrive at a particular end". Meaning that what I was nearly able to say in that paragraph on Jeffrey's blog is this:

Theatre exists to amplify the possibilities of human experience. Having lived through the journey of a character, we are viscerally awakened to the fact there are more ways than one to arrive at a particular end.

This is not a moral journey, because often theatre show truly cruel and horrific ways to particular ends. But remembering that cruelty is one of the many possibilities of human experience is a necessary thing; and so while theatre is not a moral act, the amplification of possibility it provides can act as a liberating force against fundamentalist views of human nature. As the majority of political systems strive to narrow down the possibilities of human experience, and the majority of financial systems attempt to categorize and commodify them; theatre emerges as a necessary force to remind and reawaken, to amplify and protect, those possibilities.

And, of course, because it is only play, it is also simply fun; and in trying to understand what biological urge has made it such a damn good time, its important not to overthink its importance; its important just to play. Read the full story

, , , , , ,

Trying, by Erin Browne

(This is not a picture of playwright Erin Browne, which alas I could not find. This is a picture of Elise Link, who so memorably played Belle Walker in Trying.)

This last Sunday we finished reading through Erin Browne's beautiful and sad play Trying, and due to my own chaotic running of the day, we did not have time to discuss it. And it is a play people should be talking about!

The plot is straightforward and simple: two sisters, Lena (19) and Chels (21) are left by their parents after something horrible happens. Fending for themselves is made more difficult by their poverty, and Chels' pregnancy. This hardship draws them together, even as Lena the younger struggles to find her own identity independent of her family.

After a fight of sorts, Lena goes to buy a book, her current means of escape. But the nature of the book she purchases prompts the clerk, Belle Walker, to ask Lena out on a date. Flustered and flattered, Lean eventually accepts.

And eventually tells her sister, who at first views her sister's relationship with a woman with confusion, then hopeful amusement. As Walker and Lena's relationship deepens into something more than a fling, however; Chels recognizes that her sister may be leaving her just when she needs her most. The conflicting pulls of love and family, desire and duty, play subtly out at Lena tries to have them both, and realizing she can't, decides between the two.

The first play of Erin's Flux worked through on our Sunday's was Narrator 1, a fascinating, theatrical exploration of how the inner life of characters in novels was mirrored in real life by that of their novelists. In that play, Erin mined great comic and ironic power from the theatricalization (word?) of that subtext.

In Trying, however, that subtext is buried more traditionally beneath the words, causing the ironic power to become heartbreakingly sincere. Each of the scenes is so simple: a girl buys a book and gets out asked on a date; a dinner to meet the family is thrown; lovers talk about their scars and are accepted in spite or because of them; people knit and nervously eat fast food and try to ignore each other while reading; but through it all, a simple question begins to grow, until it becomes almost unbearable - can Lena be there for her sister and for her new love? And then that question becomes something even more difficult - is it even possible for Lena to have a different kind of life than the one she grew up with? And if so, does it mean leaving that good parts of the life she grew up with behind? These questions of identity become so powerful because they are so deeply rooted in incompatible relationships of love.

And the process of working through this play was particularly exciting because it featured the strengths of the Flux Sunday structure: we were able to see different directors and different actors takes on the roles while simultaneously seeing certain artists return to the play every week. Elise Link's Walker, Anja Braanstorm's Chels, Hannah Rose Peck's Lena and Cotton Wright's work in both roles and as a director brought a growing understanding to their work on the play every week; and that work culminated in the final two beautiful scenes last Sunday (and I must also mention Gretchen Polous' work as a lovely first time Lena!)

We're still figuring out how to make these Sundays run better; and I regret we didn't have a chance to talk about the play as a company; but I encourage all who read this blog and loved the play to leave a comment or start a discussion about something I missed in this lovely work. And it is my hope to continue to use this blog as a shared memory of our three hours of weekly work. Thanks to everyone and to Erin for Trying! Read the full story

, , , , , , , ,

Flux Sunday, February 17th


Due to the chaos of casting, this particular Sunday was more disorganized than any in recent memory. But in spite of that, it held a particular power, as both Trying and Honey Fist played out their last scenes.

One of the problems I have as a playwright is being so consistently surprised and seduced by what my characters' say that I let them go on for longer than they should. This was especially clear in the reading of the final scene of Honey Fist, a play of mine we have been working on for many months, off and on again. And because it had been so long since I'd worked on the play, I really let Gretyl (Christina Shipp) and Stu (Greg Waller, pictured here in a very different role as Zynth in Rue) go on longer than they should.
Into this verbal flood I flung Scott Ebersold, a director I'm particularly excited about bringing into the Flux Sunday process. And he did a great job of finding the need coursing through the rivers of language, and giving a shape to the scene.
And a particular highlight was Christina figuring out exactly what Gretyl wants in this strange final scene - all at once the epiphany hit her and she knew more about the character than I did!

Sandwiched between the book ends of endings, three plays about love gave a welcome dose of beginnings. Katherine Burger's Way Deep continued to cast its spell of young love, and Rob Ackerman's new short gave Nancy Franklin a tour de force as a woman in equal thrall to her love for her boyfriend and her fear of alien invasion.
And David Ian Lee's Sleeper gave us a more unusual love scene - two friends, brought together in the Pashtun by the kidnapping of an American, figure out how far is too far in the pursuit of what's right. While the scene seems on the surface to be about two terrorists plotting evil acts; it really is about how far the love between these two friends can go. This very human exploration of how the love of God, country and brotherhood drives fundamentalism was made especially fascinating by Candice Holdorf's gender-bending portrayal of the more fiercely devout of the two.

But the day belonged above all to Trying, and I will post separately about that play. Read the full story

, , , , , , , , ,

Flux Sunday, January 27th

Er...strike that, reverse it.
But as our mission statement plainly states, we do value the multi-faceted theatre artist. And that flexibility was plainly on display on this particular Sunday (as it is here to the left as Cotton Wright stretches skyward as Thalia in Rue).

Short on our regular dose of directors, Flux membership stepped up to direct our five scenes. The result was one of the smoothest run Flux Sunday's I can remember.

Jeremy Basescu's A Wonderful Wife returned, directed in a long scene by Flux Associate (and frequent blogger) Isaiah Tanenbaum. This tea and saucer Pinter-esque exploration of a family politely falling apart as the father takes a mistress came to a boil; and that boil provided several Flux Sunday veterans a chance to push their work in places I'd not yet seen it go. David Douglas Smith and Jane Taylor kept up a smooth veneer only to shatter it suddenly; and Brian Pracht, as their stunned son, battled to make sense of the ruins of his family in his most daring work yet. Isaiah's work as a director kept the action moving, with Candice Holdorf's mistress the still center of poison in the center of the family circling around her.

Directing Adam Szymkowicz's Open Hearts was Christina Shipp, and it was a joy to watch her unique style of directing again. Some directors work clinically, by diagnosing the needs, objectives and obstacles and laying them before the actors as the cure; Christina, on the other hand, incarnates those needs, objectives and obstacles by living them in front of you; the urgency and stakes are palpably communicated like one guitar ringing a chord into another. And it paid off, with a passionately crazed take on this nearly penultimate scene.

Also exciting was Katherine Burger's Way Deep, a lovely play of hers she is transforming into a musical, and Rob Ackerman's Calculating Route 5, a hilarious short on a GPS system navigating a tricky new relationship. And we came once scene closer to completing Erin Browne's Trying, as Cotton lovingly directed the dinner table scene where Lena's choice between her pregnant sister and her passionate new girlfriend becomes ever more starkly clear.

Four Flux Members directing and five great scenes, and it ran so smoothly; like the little clam before the storm of the casting process descended upon us. But more on that anon. Read the full story

, , ,

Good News from Fractured Atlas

Tuesday, February 12, 2008 0 comments

The wonderful organization Fractured Atlas has just awarded Flux our first grant! Thanks go to Heather and Kelly for their great work on this. Onward and upward and one step at a time. Read the full story

, , ,

Crimes of the Heart

Friday, February 8, 2008 0 comments

Isaiah here again. Hi!

So, if you're like me (and lord knows, why wouldn't you want to be?) you listen to NPR in the shower, and as a result you've been deluged with ads featuring Kathleen Turner's sultry contralto beckoning you to see Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" at Roundabout's 6th Avenue space, the Laura Pels Theatre. This is a trick! The actress -- famous for a variety of roles, including the leads in Romancing the Stone, Peggy Sue Got Married, and on Broadway as Mrs. Robinson in the Broadway adaptation of The Graduate -- is NOT in the show. Instead, Roudabout's production is her directorial debut. So don't go if you're looking for autographs from Helena Handbasket.

There, that's out of the way. Now on to the show itself.

The play centers around three sisters living in Mississippi, and takes place in the home maintained by the eldest, Lenny. All have problems with men: Lenny is turning 30 and worried she'll never find a man; the middle, Meg, has run off to Hollywood to pursue a singing career and carefree sex; the youngest, Babe, is on trial for shooting her husband. Oh, and it's set (and was written, and premiered) in the mid-70's.

And therein lies the central challenge facing Roundabout, or anyone, in producing the play today: it's 30 years old, and it hasn't aged particularly well. Its one-set design means that characters must find contrived reasons to enter and exit (and in the case of Babe, be present at all -- by rights she should be in jail); its dialogue is stilted and over-expository; its secondary characters serve more as foils than as fully developed people. These are challenges that are mostly met by the cast, particularly Sarah Paulson, whose Meg is simultaneously world-weary and optimistic -- a lover of life, whose love has not been returned. Also worthy of praise is Lily Rabe, who brings a delightful youth and exuberance to Babe; she seems content to chatter in the kitchen until the whole shooting-her-husband thing blows over.

Any play that features three sisters mired in personal problems is liable to draw comparisons to that other play about three sisters mired in personal problems. This isn't helped by Lenny's imminent spinsterism, Meg's love of love affairs, or Babe's all-consuming innocence. And the entirely-too-abstract possibility of jail and a too-pat ending aren't enough to pull this play off of the path that Chekhov so expertly explored over a century ago.

Still, this play about three sisters is entirely engrossing and exciting in those all-too-brief scenes when those three sisters are on stage, together, and allowed to act as sisters do. There are fights about long-forgotten transgressions, secrets kept from one another suddenly thrown out into the open, and of course moments of familial love and devotion. The play positively sizzles when it backs off and lets Lenny, Meg, and Babe go at it. Other powerful moments: a card game dealt but not begun; a character so engrossed in a phone call that blatant signs of doom are ignored; a birthday wish furtively made on a cookie with a candle; an obnoxious interloper at last chased away with a broom. And there are some brilliant monologues and scenes here that many, if not all, theater students have had the pleasure of exploring in a class somewhere.

Finally, kudos to Kathleen Turner for taking on a role on the other side of the footlights. There are enough strong moments to showcase an excellent sense of both comedy and pathos; one hopes that the next play she directs has the material to consistently employ her considerable level of talent. Read the full story

Church of Want

Thursday, February 7, 2008 2 comments

Or a church of need. Or maybe a church of desire, if people completely forget that's a Bon Jovi song. Or even if they don't.

What am I talking about? Well, just lately a bunch of posts from other bloggers have me thinking hard of why I do theatre and what kind of theatre I want to do. When Flux as a company gets to talk about these questions, its usually at our annual retreat, and with our last retreat full of busy preparation for the here and now, those big simmering questions were only glanced at and glided over. Though maybe those questions are best answered through the plays we develop and produce, and not through endless question and answer.

Regardless, I had a break through here inspired by Jeffrey Jones' use of the words "Fundamental constituents of theatre", which he calls human behavior. But I think human behavior is not the atom (or quark) of theatre; rather, it is human action. Suit the action to the word, not the word to the behavior. And what separates action from behavior? Need, desire, want. And what is the cause and the result of action? Change.

Action=Change=Need, bound together by some unseen force like the nucleus of an atom; the ceaseless cause of each other like some nuclear reaction. Something changes, causing me to need, causing me to act, causing you to change, causing you to need, and so on we go.

And because the time in a play is compressed the way gravity compresses gas into a star; our action=change=need must also be compressed; must have enough vital energy to matter.

Heather and Christina and I were recently working on Other Bodies, and time and again, when a scene wasn't working, it wasn't working because I as playwright had lost sight of action=change=need. My characters weren't acting on desire, or the desire was too weak to matter. It's just that simple. When you find the human need, the action comes, the change happens, and the play gets interesting again.

And like DNA, this a=c=n can be the building blocks of vastly weird beings; plays with too many arms or not enough eyes or wings or all purple; but as long as the plays have desire coded into their DNA, they are living things. Without a=c=n, no cleverness in the world is enough to put air in its lungs. With a=c=n, the wildest and most imaginative stage languages are possible.

Because if a character's desire is compressed theatrically enough to matter, the language they use will of necessity express itself in fascinating ways; it will have to be verse; they'll break into song; they'll need to waltz; they'll desire three minutes of pure silence; the size of their desires truly followed will manifest itself in the language of theatre, until the language itself needs something. The language of the play, both aural and visual, will itself need, will itself act, will itself change.

And that language of need will itself infect the themes of the play with want; these themes will not be simple spoon fed morals; but restless gut-stewing middle of the night ahas and gone agains; will be as restlessly changing as the characters and stage languages that caused them to spark to life.

Because we have grown up on Stanislavski we've become immune to the power of his ideas; like a penicillin losing its power against a virus from overuse. But the idea of action=change=need as the DNA of theatre is as young as the Poetics and the Advice to the Players. The word action, and the need beneath it and thenchange that follows it, is at the heart of all great theatre; and is as new as the first time every time it is truly played.

Change, flux, you can never step in the same river twice.
Action to the word, word to the action.
Need, want, desire.

So why a church? Well first and most obviously, they are both communal spaces. And as such, they can only and ever be local, no matter what distant masters they claim to serve, when a theatre or a church matters, it matters because it is speaking to the number of people who fit in the pews.

But because a church (or whatever word for a sacred communal space you prefer) uses a shared ritual to commune with something divine. In theatre, that divinity becomes those shared mysteries of why and how and what else. But what shared rituals does theatre have to commune with those mysteries? Human desire. Human action. Human change. The ritual act of representing our actions, our desires, and how we change.

But that's just where I am today. Tomorrow I'll be somewhere else. Read the full story