Apr 30, 2013

Suffering Made Flesh

photo by Paul Kolnik
This is something of a genre by now, the not-quite-believer's Passion play: from The Last Temptation of Christ to Jesus of Montreal to Corpus Christi to The Gospel According to the Other Mary to, now, The Testament of Mary, the new solo-show staging for Broadway by actress Fiona Shaw and her longtime creative partner, director Deborah Warner, of Colm Tóibín's novella about the mother of Jesus (which just minutes ago received a Tony nomination for best play, though not, pointedly, for performance or direction; update: This snub has apparently led to a premature closing announcement of this coming Sunday, May 5).

It's a genre to which I'm instinctively drawn as both an everyday Christian believer myself and as a cultural consumer. I think it's because, except perhaps in the realm of music, I have a mistrust of purportedly pious works of art, of hagiographies, of tidy narratives, of attempts to rationalize or simplify the complexity and mystery of faith. I hate seeing religious material turned into reassuring pabulum with all the edges smoothed off, let alone turned into costume-drama kitsch; and I may flatter myself, but I think I've always been left cold by the kind of religious authority that has simply stood on authority, and seemed to be hiding something from me, Wizard of Oz-like, and asked me please not to mind the man behind the curtain. It has been my great good fortune to find teachers and guides throughout my life who have taken quite the opposite tack, who have shown themselves open to the world, to doubt, to questioning, even to what others might call blasphemy, and have modeled for me an approach that says, in effect, God is bigger than all that; if God exists, what harm could questioning do?

Another way to say this is that one reason I think I'm drawn to these not-quite-believers' Gospels is that I'm a fan of what artists do, and what artists do at their best is not hagiography. What's the point of grappling with this material in a work of art if you're not hitting at it, wrestling with it, doing it the profound honor of taking it seriously as dramatic literature about lived experience rather than as mere received wisdom? This is not to say that artists in this realm can do no wrong, for they themselves are prone to their own rationalizations and blind spots; if the Passion and its meaning are subjects too large and terrible to be approached lightly, neither can they be treated neutrally, and these artists, in their various ways, bring their own aversions and axes-to-grind to the enterprise, the most obvious one being their simple artist's need to change or challenge the offiicial story, which is where they always run into trouble with a certain kind of believer. For myself, I always find it fascinating to watch any serious artist grapple with this material; it may bear many things, even outright hostility, but it does not withstand indifference.

These were the impulses I recognized behind Scorsese's earnest, slightly woolly film of Nicholas Kazantzakis' Last Temptation, and behind Peter Sellars' and John Adams' prickly, sensuous, shattering Gospel According to the Other Mary. I discerned them again in the new Shaw/Warner/Tóibín concoction about Mary, which gives this iconic figure a voice and presence she doesn't have in the canonical Gospels, and which tries to imagine her searing grief after her son's death, and her scathing attitude about his followers, who seem to be propagating crazy, even creepy things about him. I'll have to confess something up front here: As a Protestant, even a partly Jesuit-educated one, Mary is a blind spot for me. I don't have an iota of special devotion or veneration for her; I taught myself the Hail Mary prayer in high school, more out of curiosity than anything (and as a side benefit I finally got the pun behind that underwear brand name), but I have never been taught, let alone believed, that praying to her, or to any saint, was a worthwhile practice. So there's a whole level on which The Testament of Mary, both its deconstructive and its reconstructive project (which Jesse Green's review astutely notes near the end), doesn't resonate with me as it surely would with anyone raised Catholic.

I bring few received ideas about Mary, in other words, except the usual puzzlement about the virgin birth (really, was that necessary?) and her seemingly distant relationship with her prodigy son, who seemed to have a tendency to wander away and/or rebuke her publicly. You could hardly ask for a more visceral portrait of confused, consumptive grief than Shaw's very contemporary, very contrary Mary; and Testament's most moving moments, as has been generally noted, involve her recounting of the Crucifixion and her anguished surrender to it. Less effective overall, for me, were the busy, artsy staging, the actorly business (gutting a fish, pulling on though never lighting hand-rolled cigarettes, nibbling on something from a bag), the schmacting that had Shaw upturning tables and twitching and screaming, like a parody of an Oscar reel. I felt in these gestures not showing-off, as some critics have alleged, so much as the artists' sincere frustration at the inadequacy of language and theater to portray the cosmic grief and suffering at hand; but this was a frustration I shared with them, through which I could not glimpse or feel said grief and suffering. (I would very much like to see this script in a less fussy staging, a la David Hare's of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, another portrait of maternal loss.)

As for Tóibín's interpretive project, and he has one, this ran along two tracks: humanization and critique. I was generally on board with the first agenda, in which he strives to give this iconic mother's grief full human due, and in so doing has her voicing anger, denial, and resignation about her dead son and his hangers-on. Much of this, even her ultimate "blasphemy" (weeping that if Jesus' death was needed to "save the world," it wasn't worth it), is entirely in the realm of imaginative empathy. I'm not sure, in fact, that I'd want to meet a Mary who told me coolly that, you see, well, her son had to die. (And more seriously, the question of why Jesus had to die is one that no believer should find themselves explaining away too easily; it should always be hard.)

Nor was I given much pause by Mary's skepticism about Jesus' followers, whom she calls "misfits"; this, in my experience, represents a fairly orthodox reading of the apostles' lack of education, low social status, and general comic bumbling (apologies to Terry Teachout). Where I started to question the show's take was in its notion that said "misfits" nevertheless had already developed a clear, even crusading sense of the doctrines of immaculate conception, substitutional atonement, etc., that the church would only later reify from the whirlwind of events around Jesus' ministry and death. This Mary recalls hearing her son call himself unambiguously the son of God, and of meeting starry-eyed disciples who sound like Jonestown cultists, who believe in advance of Jesus' death that it will effect some kind of redemption. To me, these sound suspiciously like Tóibín's proxy arguments with the priests and councils who came later, long after Mary; and her characterization of their doctrines, since they're not onstage to defend themselves, have a tin-eared, hectoring sound.

That said, in imagining and inhabiting Mary's grief, and by posing it as an explicit challenge to any palliative dogma that would explain it away, these artists have done a service, in their fitfully effective way, to any thinking, feeling believer, as well as to any who can encounter this intense work on its own odd terms (it's certainly not for everyone, and I have some sympathy for the view, almost self-parodied here, that it's all actorly fol-de-rol). After all, if we can't look suffering in the eye without theologizing it, even the very suffering that is at the center of our theology, what good is our theology, after all? It's here that I think I may be missing out on some of what I understand to be the Catholic experience of the saints and Mary, who serve to personify faith practice in ways no Protestant "relationship with Christ" seems to do. In its insistence on the primacy of personal experience, on feeling the wounds, The Testament of Mary, for all its heterodoxies, feels very close to Mary indeed.

UPDATE: The Catholic weekly America, for whom I occasionally review, has a fascinating review of their own; Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's objection to it surprised (and somewhat chastened) me.

Apr 29, 2013

"I Can Talk in a Fine Circle": Eliza Bent's Hotel Colors

If Eliza Bent's new play The Hotel Colors hits the ear at an odd angle, that is by design: When we hear the play's six Italian characters, holed up together in a tatty hostel in Rome, utter lines like, "I ask excuse of Formal You," or, "It is not just. You have no furs on your legs," we're hearing Bent's odd, idiosyncratic "literal" translations from the Italian that is their native tongue. The premise is roughly that because these six are from different parts of the country, they're speaking in a slightly stilted formal Italian with each other, all the better to be understood—that is, all except Irish Nick, who's spent time in Dublin and who talks in slangy, recognizable-to-us contemporary English (or, as he tells a girl from Sardinia, "I don't speak normal"). The action that ensues, within the span of one eventful day and night, includes several calls home, a nosebleed makeout session, the singing of songs and the eating of pizza, and a strenuous party game called "Bite the Bag" (pretty self-explanatory, actually).

Bent's play, which opens May 8 at the Bushwick Starr, represents her first full-length production as a just-a-playwright (she's performed in her own self-penned work as well as in a number of plays with the acclaimed Half-Straddle; she's not performing in Hotel Colors*). She got her masters in playwriting at Brooklyn College with Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney, and happens to be co-associate editor with me at American Theatre. We decided to conduct an interview about her play via g-chat. What follows is an edited transcript, in literal English.

Rob Weinert-Kendt: I enjoyed the play, and found it moving, too. It was less strange to read than I thought it would be—either that or I just got used to the language.

Eliza Bent: Bravo.

RWK: Can you tell me about the inspiration for it? And then about the writing process. I'm particularly interested in whether you conceived the lines in Italian, then translated them back, or vice versa, or both.

EB: Va bene, I will tell it to you. I wrote the play because it was my first semester in graduate school and I was freaking out about what to write. Like, I had forgotten almost that going to grad school for playwriting meant writing a play.

RWK: Ha!

EB: In any case, I was interested in Beckett and how he has those sparse, poetic plays. And how when you speak another language (in his case French) you just gotta say what you mean. So Mac Wellman was like, "Write a play using your Italian." And of course also, "Give yourself some stupid restraints"...Actually he'd say "stoopid"...the stoopider the better.

So I was like, "Va bene," and would mess around with these little exercises. At first it was maybe going to be about a class learning Italian but I realized that'd be a ripoff of that Dutch film Bread and Tulips.

RWK: Don't mess with the Dutch.

EB: At any rate, a hostel seemed like a good idea, or at least an idea. And I always have found hostels to be sort of amazing and dreadful and hopeful and depressing.

RWK: Yeah, I almost smoked crack at one once.

EB: EW! Rob, I cannot handle these personal details of your life.

RWK: Sorry. I mean, it was offered and I was like, um, I have to go.

EB: Damn dude. What country?

RWK: U.S.!


RWK: I was cheap.

EB: Clearly.

RWK: Anyhooo...I wanted to get back to your writing process, how you came up with the lines...

EB: Right, in terms of the language experiment, I would think of the line in Italian and then very quickly do a literal translation.

RWK: Right, I wondered, because with a line like, "That is exaggerated," for example, that reads like it's supposed to mean, "That is too much." So did you first think of the English phrase "too much," then translate that into some Italian word which means literally "too much," and it comes back "exaggerated"? Or do the Italians actually have a version of that phrase that when translated comes out as "that is exaggerated"? Does this make sense?

EB: In Italian people say "e esagerato." It kinda means too much but it also means that it's an exageration...to be over the top. But I love the sense of "exaggeration" as being totally over the top. And it's often said with a bit of a sigh or irked air. [here i would demonstrate for you in real life]

RWK: It's not hard to imagine. :)

So I do want to ask larger questions about the play but can I also ask really specific things about lines that I like or intrigued/puzzled me?

EB: Yes, of course. Ma certo.

RWK: Like the exclamation, "Porcine misery"—that is priceless. Is that like saying, "fucking hell"?

EB: Hahahaha, that's a good one. We actually have changed that to "pig misery." "Porca miseria" is the Italian. People were like, "'Porcine' is too weird." And in Italian I think "porca" is actually like slut or prostitute; it's not a nice term. But it always sounded like pig or pork to me. Allora, I made it so.

RWK: Oh, darn, I love "porcine misery," but you're right, it probably doesn't roll off the tongue. But your answer raises a few questions: One, isn't part of the point of the play to make these actors say stuff that doesn't roll off the tongue easily? And two, it sounds like you have some unreliable translations in there (I noticed a few others, like "Hippocrates" for "hypocrites" and "limpid" for "limp"). Is that part of the game, too?

EB: Sure. I mean...I'm not some amazing translator. That was part of the fun. Because as I was translating the play from brain to computer screen, my "translations," so to speak, aren't at all like Beckett. It's florid and weird and idiosyncratic.

RWK: Right.

EB: Hippocrates is a fave. Limpid is correct, though.

RWK: But limpid means "clear," no?

EB: I don't concern myself with meanings of words!

RWK: I saw you mention in another interview that this raised issues about language and communication, and how much we can't say with words, etc. Was it your intention at the start to examine these things, or did you discover a lot of these levels/meanings as you wrote? What surprised you or challenged you the most as you wrote this?

EB: I mean...yeah, talking is hard. Or at least...this is something that I think about a lot, both when I lived in Italy, when I do work with Half Straddle, and also in writing this play.

I remember in my youth as an undergrad kind of trembling when I was reading stuff by Saussure and those dudes about the limits of language, and it's curious how when you learn another language you can be freed, in a sense, from yourself. When I would have little arguments with my boyfriend in Italy it was vexing. I would always start to speak in English which would upset him, but actually being forced to use the words I knew helped me express the things I wanted to say...well, usually...whereas in English I can talk in a fine circle and get nowhere close to what it is I mean to say. And I think probably everyone feels that sometimes.

In terms of what surprised me as I wrote? I don't know...maybe how quickly it all came out in a jumble, and I didn't have a desk so I was writing in my bed in my old apartment. And I watched a lot of "Jersey Shore." Maybe that was a surprise: watching "Jersey Shore" was a little treat for when I'd write some stuff.

RWK: Those folks are Italian-American, aren't they?

EB: They are...but that has nothing to do with it...and everything to do with it.

RWK: Mmm.

EB: It's like they are living in an extended hostel. And going to the gym and going tanning and being very party-focused. And something about those confessionals was compelling to me, in terms of putting those confessionals with the characters in the play.

RWK: Did you like spending time with your characters, or was it like any relationship: sometimes you loved them but you needed a break, too? Or were any of them really hard to write/spend time with?

EB: Hahahaha. Um, no. I love the characters!

RWK: Which one is you? (half kidding)

EB: Oh please. They are all aspects of me.

RWK: Oh, good answer.

EB: But like they are also inspired in part by some people that I knew and met in Italy. Like there's a real Irish Nick out there. I am the most uncreative person ever.

RWK: Wow, was he as annoying/hilarious in real life?

EB: He was intense. He would give sloppy kisses on the cheek and you'd kind of have to wipe it off.

RWK: So I just really had one more question: Is "Bite the Bag" a real game?

EB: Yes. I have only played it once, on Fire Island. But a Canadian was leading the charge.

*This line has been corrected, per Eliza's comment below.

Apr 25, 2013

Stew & Heidi: The Final Installment

In the last installment of my long interview with Stew and Heidi Rodewald (here's part 1, and here's part 2), we talk more about Shakespeare, why Homer was a bluesman, and how the theater world, for all its hidebound traditions and protocols, ultimately gives them more freedom than the music world.

Stew: I do have an ego when it comes to music, but even then, I love what other people come up with. Where I don’t have an ego is in playwriting, I really don’t; I feel like it’s a fucking privilege and a joke that someone even calls me a playwright, that I get to write things down that people say. I feel like it’s hilarious. I feel like they’re gonna take me away to jail one day and say, "He’s got a Tony?" It’s a joke. I’m this guy that walked out of a rehearsal room, and suddenly I’m writing things and people are studying them and memorizing them. These people can memorize Hamlet, and I’m like, “Say this, man.”

American theatre is still a literature-based art, and I feel like it’s a performative art; I feel it’s like a form of music. A lot of people look at it like it's something about literature. And I just don’t think that. You know why it’s not literature? Because even someone like Edward Albee—Albee, most of his plays are more rock and roll than any rock musical that’s ever been onstage, period. Why? Because you feel like something weird is gonna happen; something maybe bad is gonna happen. You’re not sure what’s gonna happen. That’s the rock and roll thing: Is he so drunk that he’s gonna fall down? Is he gonna really grab that chick in the front row? Is he gonna start screaming forever and they’re going to have to stop him? Is James Brown really going unconscious and crazy?

Q: Anything could happen.

Stew: You can construct some plays where you’re really concerned that some shit might go down. I think we get so trapped in this idea that it’s literature. I think the words are music, actually. I really think if we look at it like music, it allows us to step off that. This insistence on understanding everything...Nobody understands what the hell Bob Dylan is talking about; nobody really knows.

Q: But when you're listening to him, you know what he means.

Stew: Exactly.

Heidi: Do you know how many times, looking at the lyrics in a script, people are like, "What?" And we're like, "Well, no, you gotta hear the song."

Q: One difference I've noted talking to musicians who work in theater is the way it's rehearsed, and of course then the performance schedule.

Stew: I never like the way theatre rehearsals run, being told when to break.

Heidi: But I gotta say, being in a rehearsal—it's such a luxury that we were in there and got to do that. How many bands aren’t at that point, to have somebody pay to get all these people in the room.

Stew: Yeah, the biggest luxury in theater for a rock musician is that people are sittin’ there and they’re not going anywhere until that break happens. That in itself was hilarious to me. I was like, "Wow, you mean, they’re just gonna come here and we can do anything we want? That’s cool." When we're dealing with musicians, you gotta keep 'em there. But our director, Joanna Settle, will be like, "Is this is a six out of one or eight out of whatever?" I can’t think that way. Sometimes a rock band rehearsal is an hour and a half, sometimes it’s six hours. You don’t know.

Heidi: We’re used to showing up and getting some coffee.

Stew: I think it’s a privilege to be able to survive from your art in America. But I do wish there was some flexibility in the way theater is created, so that the institutions could allow for chance and the kind of zaniness that can happen in a rock and roll rehearsal. For me it should be so loose, or there should be moments...Like a free day every week, a free rehearsal, everyone walk in and be free. You don’t how many times actors look at us and go, "We never get to do anything like this, where people just jam." Sometimes the first 45 minutes of our rehearsals would just be the musicians playing some crazy shit. That makes them feel like they’re in the play and not actors anymore. It’s nothing we invented. I was talking to some theater person once about this stuff, and they were saying, "All these ideas are so innovative," and I was saying, "They’re not innovative at all, they’re like 300 million years old. They’re just music ideas; they’re the way people make music." It might be new for theatre. I don’t think it’s new for theatre, either, actually.

I mean, come on, man. Shakespeare is the scariest thing for anybody who didn’t get trained in it. I never learned it in school, and every time it came up I was always scared, because I never understood what was going on. But once I started doing a little bit of reading and realizing that the milieu of a lot of his work—rough neighborhood, people standing, holding alcohol while watching the play, people hooting at the crowd, people hooting at the stage, men dressed as women—I’m like: We’ve played that club all of our lives. That’s where we grew up. Moliere and his boys and girls comin’ into a town at noon, and he’d be like, "Yeah, what’s the local gossip?" And then they would integrate into the show. That’s what bands do—when you come into town you ask, "What team’s playing?" So you go, “Hey, go Dodgers!” They’re gonna love it; they know you’re not from there. It always works; they know you don’t care, but it’s bonding, bonding—all these tricks.

The more I read about the old stuff—like, come on, man, The Odyssey. Thank God I bought a translation of The Odyssey that had a really long foreword, and they talked about how it used to be performed by some guy with a lute and some guy with a robe, who would show up and crash parties, and go, “Hey, we’ve got this tune called the fuckin’ Odyssey.” And then they would go and play and sing this fucking thing and get money. I’m like, that’s exactly what blues guys have been doing forever.

Heidi: They probably came up with their own thing every time.

Stew: The roots of it are closer to rock and roll, so I feel very close to theatre. I don’t necessarily feel close to what you call the professional theatre.

Q: I'll push back just a little on the theater-isn't-literature point. I mean, one of the great things about theater is that it's a place where words and meaning are still taken really seriously.

Stew: Which is amazing. For me, the sweetest thing and the greatest thing about us being adopted by this world was that they were kinda looking at us like—the rock people always thought we had witty words and everything, but the theatre people were the first to go, “Yeah, we want you to tell these stories. We hear these stories.”

Heidi: When we started at the Public Theatre, we were getting paid to show up and hang around and have Stew tell stories, and have us all sit around going, "What are we going to do?" It was this amazing freedom—theater gave us that. And then at Sundance Theater Institute, their whole thing is about risks. It’s crazy, because theater—as much as we’re saying everything’s all locked in, they were the ones who really appreciated the words and said, "Do whatever the hell you want to do."

Stew: They paid us a really big compliment and supported us in a way that we would never have been supported in the rock world. It’s not like we were spring chickens, which is a big deal in rock and roll. They heard the stories and took them seriously.

Heidi: One of the great quotes was at Sundance, what Oskar Eustis said after our first big presentation when everyone gives their notes. All he said was, “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Stew: Everyone just closed their little notebooks after that. It was a very radical thing for him to do. He wasn’t even at the Public then. That was such a rock and roll note, to say, "Just let them do their fucking thing."

The dramaturg Janice Paran said something great; she said that with a lot of plays, the epiphanies are in the text, where the character realizes something, and she was like, "The epiphanies in this play are in the actual music, in the sound of the music." I was like, "Wow, I didn’t know that, but thanks for telling me! You’re right." That’s the beauty of dramaturgy, someone can show you a way to think about your own work. No one ever did that for any of our records.

Apr 24, 2013

The Notes: Stew & Heidi, Part II

photo 2012 by Stephen P. Marsh
In this second installment of my talk with Stew and Heidi about rock and theater (part 1 here), we get deeper into the divide between the two, and talk about how they've bridged it.

Q: How did you navigate your first theater collaboration?

Heidi: We were lucky, we had already been through so much—we were so like beaten down by the music side of things, so that in theater, every step along the way we weren't afraid to question everything. They told us, "We don’t put the band in the program," I think that was our first thing where we were like, Why? And we wanted to bring our band out from L.A.

Stew: Our first struggle with the Public Theater was that they wanted us to use New York musicians. We were like, "You don’t understand, this is a band." They didn’t understand that this was not an orchestra pit. And when we initially said, "We don’t want musical theater singers," a lot of people said, "That’s not possible. You can’t do that in a musical. You can’t have people who quote-unquote can’t sing," and we’re like, "We don’t want people that can’t sing—we just don’t want people that sing like that." We want people that sing like me and Heidi sing, which is like human beings that have a voice. I’m stealing that from David Cale, our actor in The Total Bent; I was trying to explain to him how I like people to sing in theater, and he goes, "Oh, you mean like human beings."

So we’ve been living this divide between what is theater and what is music. And I pay theater the highest compliment: as much as I worship music, I think music is theater. All music. I think any time you’re doing it in front of somebody, it’s theater. But I’m into the inherent drama in music, not music as a servant of narrative. The absolute best moment in Total Bent is when one of our actors, our lead, during a rehearsal, goes over in the middle of a song and starts playing drums, the theatre—it electrifies the house. It’s like, Oh my God, this is actually happening! You couldn’t write that. I had no idea that was going to happen.

Heidi: Along the same lines as that, a friend of ours from L.A., said, and I thought this was great, when he saw us on Broadway, he said, “I felt like I was watching a real band—I felt like you could fuck up. Like something could go wrong.” And you don’t feel like that when you see a Broadway show. And it was a compliment to think we were actually human beings up there who were being ourselves.

Stew: We bring a kind of a learned swagger, a studied swagger, to the stage, and the actors bring this learned precision, this timing, which we kind of don’t have. What happened in Passing Strange, and what happens in every single play we do after that, is that there’s this learning process, this give and take between the actors and the musicians, so that the actors teach us about timing—how to get a laugh when you say something and then look, when to turn, literally to the second, I learned this by watching them onstage how they got laughs. And they learned some swagger from us.

Q: You say you're not in Total Bent, but part of the authenticity of Passing Strange was that you were in it. Are you going to be in any future shows?

Stew: We’re looking into whether we’re in Family Album (the show for Oregon Shakes) or not, actually. We’re investigating that in a workshop, so we’re going to have understudies on hand. It’s going to be a fun experiment to see. I’m torn. I’m certainly not dying to be in a play, but I’ll be in it if it needs it. This is really the experiment. It’s one thing for me to be talking to Daniel Breaker or Colman Domingo about rock performance when they’re doing a character that I wrote, but Family Album is going to be someone loosely based on me—my character, as Heidi's is based on her. So this is the first time that we’ve ever actually gone to someone and said, "You’re kinda gonna be us."

Q: Other people have played "you," though—you had an understudy on Broadway for Passing Strange, and that show has had a number of other productions. Have you seen any of them?

Stew: The productions that I’ve seen have been really wonderful. The farther away they get from us, the better. I’ve loved them. There was a college production where the narrator was a Greek chorus. There was no fat guy standing there singing; there was a bunch of kids there singing. I couldn’t stop thinking about how brilliant that was. There should be an all-female version. I would just hope that people would get a clue from the kinda show it is that they’re encouraged to reinvent. To “cover” it in an interesting way. To me, it’s like an album, and then you do covers. I’m fine for the covers to be freaky and weird.

Q: Have you learned anything valuable from the way theater is done, and on the other hand, are there things that drive you crazy about it?

Stew: The thing I love most about the theater are notes. No one ever does that with albums. I love hearing what people have to say. Often dramaturgs are very careful, and they speak in this kind of euphemistic way, and I’m like, "No, tell me what sucked. My ego’s not so fragile. If I like it, I’m going to keep it in whether you like or not; I didn’t get this far changing things because someone didn’t like it. I’m confident enough to want your notes, including the stuff you don’t like, you know?" I think it’s great that everyone chimes in and everyone cares. I’ve gotten some of the most amazing notes from everyone—from Oskar Eustis, who’s one of the greatest dramaturgs around, all the way down to some assistant of mine who just got out of Yale and has never held a theater job, but he’ll be like, "Yeah, I think it would be cool to see the father in this kinda situation, because you normally see him in that kind of situation," and I’m like, "Boom, that’s a great idea."

Heidi: Also, the bad notes make you stronger; they actually made us talk about stuff and go, "No, this is why we're going to stick with this." It’s good to hear bad stuff.

Stew: There were monologues and things that people said we should take out, like uniformly, there were opinions about certain things in our plays where more official theater people have said, "That’s not moving the story forward," blah blah blah. And we go, "That’s a great note, thank you, but we’re going to keep doing what we want, because there must be something there." It was striking a chord.

Heidi: Because it’s not a science; you can’t always go, "This relates to that..." It’s like listening to a record.

Stew: Something has to be said for this business of the rules, the Aristotelian situation, and in particular the idea of what’s supposed to happen to a character. My big contribution to theater theory is this: I think in theater, normal theater, drama, the protagonist is supposed to change. Fine, you can have that. In rock and roll, the audience is supposed to change. The protagonist doesn’t change. Bob Dylan doesn’t change; Bowie doesn’t change.

Q: But Bowie changes clothes.

Stew: Right, they change clothes, they change songs, they change the wig. But you are supposed to walk away from that concert changed. So the cathartic experience—I’m not saying the cathartic experience doesn’t exist in rock and roll, absolutely. But we don’t change; we’re just telling you the fuckin’ story. And if we are going through changes, those changes are only 3:58 long. It’s “Diamond Dogs” one minute, and it’s “Golden Years” the next. Those songs have nothing to do with each other, and it doesn’t matter; they create a narrative at the end of the day, at the end of the concert. They don’t create a necessarily logical narrative, but I think it’s completely valid to call it a narrative. You look at every David Bowie song in that set, I defy you to find a logical narrative, but you will absolutely find an emotional narrative in that that makes total fucking sense, that makes just as much sense as the most hardcore Aristotelian play you’ve ever heard of.

Heidi: I think we’re really lucky to be our age; I remember the first band I was in, where it was like, “The first song on the first side of the album, and the last song…” It’s so much fun to talk about. We’ve kind of carried that on, we’ve kind of thought that way.

Stew: If it’s done right, a well-sequenced record has a kind of story, even if it’s done by the producer after the artist has gone off to do a tour. Even if it’s by chance, you receive it, and it tells you something, the way it’s put together. Whether it’s a Cagean flip of the I Ching, or it’s something that’s completely thought out.

Heidi: In theater, everybody spends so much time talking about why things work and why they don’t, and what’s so beautiful is sometimes you just can’t explain it. That just works and I don’t know why. It felt right.

Stew: This is why, if musical theater was made more like rock bands make music, you’d have more moments like the moment in Total Bent where our lead goes and plays drums suddenly, because I would never write that. I would never be able to write that scene. We were just standing around, and we said, Why don’t you go get on the drums? And now it’s a showstopping moment in the show. I never could have written that, sitting at home at 7 a.m., “Lead singer walks over to drum set and starts playing in the middle of a song.” Most of the best melodies in Passing Strange were written when we were standing around waiting for fucking something to happen. We got a section of Passing Strange, “Why you wanna leave/Right when it was starting to feel real.” It’s like a main melody. That came up literally while we were standing there waiting for somebody to move something; I started humming it, and I asked the guy next to me, whoever the workshop actor was, "Sing this with me," and then we all started singing it. I would have never written that at home. That’s how rock band rehearsals go. That kind of looseness, giving it up.

Next: The final installment looks at Albee, Moliere, Shakespeare, and Homer through a rock and roll lens.

Apr 23, 2013

Drinking With Stew (and Heidi)

If you made a list of the singer/songwriters whose work pointed them toward the theater, let alone made them seem likely to have a Broadway show built around them, let's be honest, would Stew—the pop polymath of The Negro Problem and L.A.'s Crazy Sound All-Stars—have made the cut? After 2007/8's Passing Strange, obviously, yes, but it took a big leap of faith on the part of the Public Theater to see in Stew's tunefully bemused tall tales (which he co-composes, it should always be noted, with Heidi Rodewald) a play, or plays, waiting to be born. (I actually floated a theory about why relatively obscure indie-rock auteurs make better theater-makers than giant pop stars back then, and in the age of Once I think it still holds up.)

Stew and Rodewald are sticking with the theater thing, with a new show in development with the Public (The Total Bent) and series of new commissions, including one for Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I had a beer with Stew and Rodewald a little while ago for my big American Theatre story on band-created musicals (something of a fleshing-out of the above indie-musical post), but was able to use a mere fraction of Stew's perorations on the subject in that vast, multi-sourced story. It was my wife, who happened to glimpse some of the interview transcript on the back of some scratch paper at home, who reminded me how intensely entertaining and quotable Stew's interview/lecture was, and insisted it be shared with the world.

Herewith, then, the first part of a lightly edited transcript of my evening with Stew (and Heidi), which I'll publish in a series (now up: parts 2 & 3).

Q: So you're sticking with the theater thing—you two make musicals now.

Stew: Our thing is weird because we really stumbled into another career—literally stumbled, no intention, and then were pretty unusually successful. I tried to write a play, and didn't know how, didn't know how to make a musical, Heidi and I didn't know how to do any of these things, and we kind of got to the pinnacle of what you're supposed to, and pretty much in no time. When we closed on Broadway, everybody else was like, "So now all the projects," and we were like, "Actually, we want to take some time off, play some shows, play some dive bars, see if we really want to do this theatre thing." It really took two years to figure out if we actually—I mean, we kept writing stuff, but we didn't really have this hardcore focus. I remember doing a workshop shortly after we closed of a new play; and I wasn't even into it, I was just kinda doin' it 'cause I was supposed to. It was like, I'm a successful Broadway playwright now and I'm supposed to do that, and I wasn't really feelin' it. I was like, "This is cool, it's fun, but I just think I wanna play these shows."

So we did these shows that nobody in theatre world knew about; we did these song cycles, one at St. Ann's Warehouse called Making It, we made a record of it, which is kind of about my and Heidi's relationship, going from point A to point B, to this weird Broadway experience. Which we were in, but it was a concert. Then we did this thing called Brooklyn Omnibus, and we did that at BAM, and again, it was a song cycle with a band onstage, heavy video projections, all of our backup vocals were actors. For us it was another hybrid. It was sort of like the Passing Strange experience, but leaning more toward our comfort zone, which was a concert. Those were completely unrecognized by the theatre community.

Now we're back with three commissions: Public Theatre, Oregon Shakes and Studio Theatre. Last summer we did a lab of The Total Bent at the Public, which for me was just a total joy. The theatre looked at it like a live workshop, and I looked at it like a play that we were doing in the moment, and there's going to be another version in 2014. The theatre mentality sometimes is like, you're working toward something, and for me, music is about whatever it sounds like tonight is valid. The Total Bent, which does not have Heidi and I in it, is about trying to find that thing in the actor that kind of connects them to what I feel rock and roll performers have, or all music performers have. I think all music performers are actors. Every guy in a band who knows that 500 people are watching him, he's not going to stand exactly like that when he’s at home. But the beauty of the musician as an actor is that they’re really smart actors, they’re smart enough to know that the game is really making it look like it’s natural.

What’s the best, the thing we all want out of acting is that it looks real, right? Musicians do that all the time. They pose, and you think that pose is the first time they’ve done that on tour, and they make it look spontaneous. Musicians do this naturally. And they’re just like actors: They hit the mark. Pete Townshend jumps the same way every time, but it doesn’t make it any less dramatic when he does it. It’s like when you come out at the top of Romeo and Juliet and you say here’s what the play’s about; that doesn’t ruin it for anybody, does it? Annie Dorsen, when we were doing Passing Strange, she said, "This play needs something to tell people what they’re going to see. Like in Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, he comes out and says it." And I’m like, "Really, that doesn’t fuck it up for them?" And she’s like, "No, theatre audiences are weird. They kinda don’t mind knowing." And I realized, you know what? Rock and roll crowds really don’t mind either. People go to see the Who, in the old days, to see what level of destruction Moon is going to render his drum set, and you go to see how high Townshend is going to jump, and when he’s going to jump. But at the same time, what they seemed to do is make it feel new every time. And that’s something…

When I go into schools, I talk only about rock and roll and what rock and roll has to do with theatre, because I don’t know anything about theatre, but I know something about playing a club at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, and what you do on that first song to get people to stay there. And to me that’s drama. Drama is like, we gotta do something in these first two songs to make these people be late for their job tomorrow.

Q: The Total Bent has musician/actors in it?

Stew: Some of them are learning the instruments in the play. We don’t like musical theater actors so much. I have learned that a great actor can do anything. Even sing. Certainly sing in a rock band. A great actor maybe can’t necessarily sing Oklahoma!, but a great actor can sing any song of mine. I’m convinced of it, because I’m not a great singer either, but I buy the songs I’m singing, and I sell it. I’ve seen actors who literally don’t have singer on their resume kill on our songs. Daniel Breaker, I don’t think he’d ever been in a musical. I’ve seen guys in workshops who say, “Oh, I don’t sing, man, I’m sorry,” and I say, “Dude, take this tape home and fucking learn it,” and they come back and they nail it.

Q: Of course, there are a number of good actors who also happen to sing and play really well, and not just "musical theater" types.

Stew: We’ll try anybody out. But there’s something about rock and roll, which is really just folk music—which means it’s the music that folks play. Folks can’t play classical music, regular folks can’t play jazz; you have to study that. But folks—anybody in this bar can learn “On Top of Old Smokey” within the next half hour, I can teach anybody in this room to do that; that’s folk music. It’s three chords and we can all do it. So to me it’s about getting someone to connect with that, which is actually not that difficult, really, but mentally I think that’s difficult, because they have such a formal approach to acting and performing. Rock bands are about taking that guy who hangs out with you, and going, “You know what? You’re the singer, you’re the bass player.” It’s functional.

Heidi: "What’s needed? OK, I’ll be that." That’s how I joined my first band. I actually lied and said I played bass when I didn’t, because they needed bass player.

Stew: That’s the way rock bands work.

Heidi: It’s like joining a club, you just want to be a part of it.

Stew: Yeah, and you pretty much have to do whatever isn’t being done. If there’s not a drummer, you’re going to play drums. I remember we forced this guy on our block to play bass. This was my first band in junior high. We even told him what bass to buy: He had to buy a Paul McCartney violin bass.

Heidi: You told him what to buy?

Stew: We told him what bass to buy. He was practically crying. My friend and I were guitar players, and this guy wanted to hang out with us, and we said, "OK, you have to play bass, and you have to play that kind of bass." He really wanted to play something else, like drums. But that kind of functional, informal, just-among-friends kind of vibe is to me what rock and roll is really about. And we like to try to bring that to the stage, to the theatre, and to get actors to believe that, that they really are musicians, that they could be in a rock band. And most of them figure it out pretty quickly. We’ll do things where we’ll do a gig with them, a real gig. Invite them a real gig. The Passing Strange band had gigs. As soon as you get a guy up in front of a crowd, he’s like, "Oh, here’s what it is."

Next: What Stew and Heidi love most about theater.

Apr 18, 2013

The Pong of Dissent

My recent post on why I depart from the chorus of hallelujahs for Matilda led the paper of record to ask me to write about my (relatively) lonely position (though I see that Feingold has now joined the dissenters). The Times was less interested in me re-litigating my case against the show than in reflecting on the disorienting experience of feeling alienated from the crowd:
I try not to look too closely at reviews before I see a show, and when I go back and read them after the fact, I find myself alternately reassured and challenged, even at times persuaded to see a show differently in retrospect. But when my feelings are as divergent from the reviews as they were about “Matilda,” browsing through the raves can feel like an out-of-body experience, a near-Orwellian process in which my own memories are being subtly changed or replaced, my misgivings unseated by effusions. With every point I concedeyes, that song was charming, now that I think of itI feel more and more unmoored from myself, and from the experience I could swear I had in that theater that night. Can that be taken away from me? Even if I might wish it so, I would hope not.
Read the whole thing here.

Apr 17, 2013

Drury's Lane

A passage from We Are Proud To Present a Presentation etc. in which one actor coaxes another into the right emotion for a scene.

I don't usually get the chance, or at least I seldom take the opportunity, to revisit plays I've enjoyed. One happy exception is when I have occasion to write about them or their author, as was the case with Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose play We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, made such a splash last winter at Soho Rep. I wrote a little about it, in relation to the film Lincoln, here, and am happy to report that it's nearly as stimulating to read as it was to experience (and not only because of the emoticons shown in the excerpt above).

Given that that play showed Jackie's facility for writing for an ensemble, and that her new play, Social Creatures, was commissioned by Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., for its resident acting company, I smelled a story. Jackie's not the first playwright to write so well for ensembles of actors, but most writers who are able to do it so well are also members of theater companies themselves, which Jackie is not. And there's something about her approach—her economical dialogue and witty, transformative stage directions—that marks her as an especially sly, tricky but serious-minded new playwright to watch.

On the strength of that hunch, I was able to sell the paper of record on a story about Jackie, which you can read here.

Apr 16, 2013

Dahl's House

A human moment at last (photo by Joan Marcus)
It’s hard to wear a smile and a sneer at the same time, but Matilda the Musical sure does try. This new British import is both day-glo bright and unsettingly spidery, as if Terry Gilliam had designed a Disneyland ride. Sounds like fun, no? I had some. Though I did eventually relax into it and enjoy its considerable craftiness and undeniable spirit, it took me about an act and a half, at which point the show goes full-bore Gothic and the story takes some divertingly illogical turns. More importantly, it took me getting over trying too hard to parse how—as the critics have helpfully instructed us—Matilda is somehow subversive, revolutionary, empowering, genre-busting, etc.

On the sneering side of the ledger, Matilda feels for all the world like it’s satirizing something. But what? The brash opening depicts a gaggle of parents spoiling their bratty children, but these are pointedly the opposite of the family dynamic we’ll spend most of the show with: between the idealized, long-suffering genius Matilda and her selfish and tasteless parents, who are inexplicably horrified by her bookishness and independence. The clownish exaggeration of these parents’ attitudes is a cue, or I thought it was, that something else is going on; might these two broadly drawn caricatures of cartoon idiots be meant to personify the dumbed-down mass culture that makes brainiacs and dreamers like Matilda feel increasingly like freaks, outcasts? It’s a link I had to struggle to see, just as I later wondered if the concern of Matilda’s milquetoast schoolteacher, Miss Honey, for her precocious young charge was meant to suggest the recognizable heartbreak of an outsider watching helplessly as a promising child is stifled by an impoverished or dysfunctional home life. Again, this seemed like a stretch.

But if I felt I was working too hard to read these levels
—something I started to do early on, since I wasn’t feeling anything, either amusement or empathy, for most of the first act and some of the secondI gave up, and finally gave in, in the face of Miss Trunchbull, the mincing, abusive Gestapo headmistress of Matilda’s school. In Bertie Carvel’s definitive performancepart Lithgow-in-drag, part Frau Blucher, all deviled hamthis top-heavy hunchback is a sui generis bogeywoman, and when she’s onstage, she feels like the reason the show exists. And Carvel’s resplendent, unhinged camp was finally my cue, and my permission, to stop taking any of this seriously; his Trunchbull is a self-contained, self-referential comic confection, not a sendup of any recognizable human being or class. And this gave the game away; while Carvel helps make Matilda digestible as an entertainment, he also lets us know that this is all no more nourishing, or long-lasting, than candy (and not the magical Wonka kind).

There are other reasons to find the second act more inviting than the first. While it rationalizes Trunchbull into a fantastical story-within-a-story intuited by Matilda, and uses some genuinely pleasing stagecraft to do so, the show also eases up on its relentless hard sell for a few beatific moments in which the children onstage behave like actual human children: the catchy run-on song “When I Grow Up” and Matilda’s lovely reverie about “Quiet.”

That last is also one of the few in which Matilda, at least as played by the impressive but impassive Milly Shapiro (three other young actresses alternate in the role), seems recognizably human. Other critics seem to disagree, but at the risk of sounding like Thaddeus Bristol, I found Shapiro oddly distancing and disconnected, a self-possessed little musical-theater robot with a strong voice and a disarming stare, which is never more affecting than when she’s looking out searchingly into the spotlight and holding still for her next vocal cue. But I should probably blame the conception of the role more than the performer; this Matilda is a plaster saint, persecuted and all-knowing and ever in the right, even when she’s concocting funny pranks on her mean dad or throwing a mild tantrum about Trunchbull’s depradations.

Perhaps Dahl conceived her as a sort of avenging angel—I haven’t read the book (though perhaps I will; my 3-year-old has just enjoyed a chapter-a-night read-through of
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). If so, chalk that up as another reason I didn’t quite cotton to Matilda the Musical; there’s a certain smugness in its vision of innocent youth and genius besieged on all sides by uncomprehending parents and teachers, John Hughes multiplied by Roger Waters. This may get Dahl’s general sympathies right, it seems to me, but ignores his gimlet eye for children’s nastiness, too (again, this is based on my reading of other Dahl works, not Matilda).

The smugness goes straight to the heart of show’s self-regard:
This isn’t your average treacly children’s entertainment, it all but bleats at us. When, near the end, a kindly librarian tells us, “Not all stories have happy endings,” the creators are saying, “See, we’re not feeding you pabulum; this is the real deal.”

And then Matilda and Miss Honey walk blissfully into the sunset. Bullshit.

Update: The excellent discussion this post inspired on Facebook (here) is reprinted below...

Raven Snook Awesome post. I too have mixed feeling about Matilda but was won over by the end. I am a sentimental fool though and always have been and I agree, for all its subversiveness and darkness what got me in the end was the good old fashioned emotion of the second act, the villain getting her comeuppance, and the kids wistfully singing about a childhood I increasingly miss as I get older.

Raven Snook I should add that I was surprised by how much my seven-year-old loved it, but she did.

Rob Weinert-Kendt Well, as a kid's show, it's pretty special. But it was hyped as so much more.

Raven Snook I agree it's not your typical Broadway family fare, but I do think the New Vic has brought in a few shows that, while not quite as spectacular in terms of set and such, are also dark and complicated for kids' shows, like the environmental Hansel & Gretel a few years back. All their dark shows come from England though. What is in their water?

Jason Zinoman Great piece, Rob. I guess i don't see the musical as so dark. I actually would have liked it more if it was more gleefully amoral and straightforward about its own smugness. In other words, it doesn't pander to kids, but it doesn't challenge them either. It's a book and a show celebrating the smart kid surrounded by cretins. Thankfully, it doesn't turn Matilda into cookie cutter lovable, but it also don't show how precocious smart bookish kids can also be pretty know-it-all annoying, not to mention downright cold. I mean, Matilda enjoys taking revenge against her dad. She enjoys it in the book. I don't see that joy in the musical. And she shakes her dad's hand at the end when he leaves. Say what you want about that, but it's cold. I kind of think the show would be more interesting if it celebrated her while also slightly mocking them. Might also just be a question of performance. I wanted the show to have a little more Shockheaded Peter. The reason I love Roald Dahl is he treats kids like adults. Not sure this show does. Tho I agree the villainess was amazing. Give him a Tony pronto.

Rob Weinert-Kendt We are total New Vic groupies

Raven Snook It will be interesting to see two men in drag duke it out for the Tony for best actor... although I wonder if Bertie will be up for supporting while Billy [Porter, from Kinky Boots] will be up for lead. And yes, I am openly a New Vic groupie. I am honestly shocked families spend $100+ per ticket for Broadway shows when the top ticket price at the New Vic is $38.

Jason Zinoman Hell, the spacious waiting room where your kid can color half an hour before the show should make the New Vic shows more expensive than Broadway.

Jason Zinoman Seems like while Raven liked Matilda a little more than Rob and me, we all liked it less than the rest of the critics who gushed. I wonder if the fact we all have kids has something to do with that.

Raven Snook I think most of the gushing has to do with the fact that it's different, for Broadway anyway. And that the kids aren't cookie cutter cute. And that it seems to have more on its mind. And that the first half of the season was brutal.

Julie Haverkate Nice piece, though naturally I disagree Though I agree that it's not innovative in any sense, I have little problem with its alternating tones (I quite liked its sporadicalness in sentimentality/satire). But the fact that you didn't grow up with the book (shall I age myself and tell you I was 7 when it was published?) says something. I haven't read any of Dahl's books since I was young, but I have a strong recollection of them; he is one of the few authors (and I read a shit ton) that made a large impression on me. This show brought it all back, vividly. I don't think it's near perfect, but it was so, so delightful to be back in that world, and to come at it this time from my adult perspective. Ignore the hype and enjoy the ride, I say. Raven: I imagine Bertie will be up for supporting, so both men should garner a Tony, which delights me.

David Cote As a critic who gushed (but would never call Matilda "revolutionary"), I can appreciate Rob's Monday-morning quarterbacking, but as usual I think he's straw-manning a bit. Matilda is a deliberate mix of fairy-tale and satire, it's trying to avoid being a treacly kids' show, but also have plenty of wonder and innocence, and I think it mostly succeeds. It's got levels, which is nice for a show primarily aimed at families. It's broadly (coarsely, if you want) anti-authoritarian and that means that there's not a single decent (living) parent in it. All the adult authority figures, except for the doctor in the beginning and Miss Honey are wretched hypocrites and sadistic creeps. It's a musical about being a gifted kid facing the prospect of growing up into an awful adult. If the musical were only sweet or only sour—as Rob wants?—it would get boring pretty damn fast.
Susan Jonas I love the book. I give it to all my friends 's kids. It is extremely subversive and Dahlesque dark. Sorry if the adaptation loses that.

Rob Weinert-Kendt Good points, all. What I was wrestling with in my post was my experience of not enjoying the show very much, and as with my dissent on the Baker/Gold Vanya, I searched my own expectations and tried to name and explain my lack of enjoyment, and maybe in the process I've overstepped. It's genuinely odd to try to persuade each other why we should or shouldn't have liked something we couldn't help liking or not liking viscerally, but then, if we didn't have that impulse, none of us would be critics, right?

Jason Zinoman I am pretty much on the same page with Rob on this show, though I suspect he has a stronger critique rooted in the construction of the show. But the most interesting issue is one Cote brings up in this sentence: "It's a musical about being a gifted kid facing the prospect of growing up into an awful adult." I think that's right and perceptive. Or is should say: That's what the musical wants to be: Matilda is growing up into an awful adult. Of course the adults are awful. Adults are always awful in kid's stories. What makes Dahl different is his lack of sentiment about kids. As someone reading the book right now, although not done yet, I think the show gets weak in the knees portraying this. To some extent, I understand: Making a non-lovable tyke is hard for a musical, as it is for Hollywood. There aren't many Welcome to the Dollhouses. And building an entire musical around an impassive, smugly smart little girl may be doomed, emotionally. But I don't believe that. The theme the book hits hard and the musical just taps on is revenge. Matilda takes revenge in the book over and over again with pranks against her parents. Pranks mean something shitty to Dahl. See The Twits (which also uses glue as a weapon). Anyways, since she's smarter than them, she succeeds. If she was an adults, we'd all agree she's a horrible, nasty prick. Their sins are calling her stupid (the worst thing in the world to a 10 year old smart kid) and not caring about books and favoring her brother -- bad stuff, but hardly capital offenses. I think the musical starts slow and picks up steam in the second act and the reason is that it doesn't show us the joy of revenge. Nothing is more quintessentially Dahl than delighting in violence and cruelty. One message of his books I get is that he cares more about childhood pleasure and joy than any morality. And sometimes, pleasure comes from doing naughty things. That is a message that resonates with kids. And I bet would resonate with Broadway audiences. But that little girl's face has no joy in it. I realize that it's a choice, and it's a bold one in a way, since it's such the opposite of mugging, ingratiating kid. But I think the show would better serve the material and the audience if they made another choice. She can be smart and adult without coming off like a robot -- or even worse, an adult's idea of a smart kid.
David Cote Good points, but I would say that Matilda is not on her way to growing up into a bad person. And as a kid, she may be impassive but I wouldn't call her smug. She's a prodigy in a world that doesn't respect intellectual gifts. Except for Miss Honey. Is it a grotesquely exaggerated world rendered crass & cartoonish in both book and musical for effect? Absolutely. I don't think anyone is going to Dahl for realism. I read the book too and it takes some interesting turns in the last third, where Matilda's telekinetic powers push the plot along and defeat the villain, but where she actually takes a backseat to Miss Honey's story and sheer plot mechanics. In fact, while Matilda is the hero of the story, she's also a bit of a cipher, an observer and catalyst. Less so in the book. But the deal with the devil that the creators of the musical made is having kids play kids. It's both impressive and fundamentally limiting. If you'd had a convincingly petite, young-looking 18- or 20-year-old play Matilda, you'd have gotten a lot more nuanced acting and we'd get to know this little girl more. Instead, Matilda is more of a device and plot-delivery system than a fully realized person on stage. And having 4 actresses playing her only emphasizes her cipher-ness. None of this prevented me from enjoying the show's visual and musical treats. Maybe some of the kid-trying-not-to-be-cute-and-seeming-blank caused you Jason and Rob, to project a little on her. Lastly, it's not really about revenge, it's about being small and standing up for yourself. Or maybe: not winning small battles like glueing your horrid dad's hat to his head but defeating a horrible criminal like Trunchbull.
Jason Zinoman Think this is smart and a good discussion. And I plead guilty of projection. And you're completely right: It's a very cartoonish world, which makes it more interesting to me too. And i also think it should change the way we read the story. So when we learn from the get-go that she's a 4-year-old reading Dickens, we know this is not a realistic story about a prodigy. It's a fantasy. And it's a manipulative one, in the best sense of the term. So the reason I think it's about revenge -- and I think there is a huge amount of room for disagreement here -- is how the stakes are set up at the start. So many kids stories imagine a world where the kid battles unimaginable powers. It's a very popular tactic because it's how kids (and adults) often feel. But this book is different. From the start, we see Matilda able to defeat everyone. She has the unimaginable power (it's Honey's role to notice this). It's her family who are victims as much as she is. But they are far less able to control their world, although her dad tries through conning people. I guess here is where I may read a bit into the book because of my interepetation of Dahl. In a battle between a lying con man who tricks people to buy cars (her dad) and a kid who righteously calls him out while also announcing that she's qualified to "punish" him, I don't think Dahl clearly favors one over the other. And while he conceded to some conventions too, what he cared about was not moral lessons or underdogs triumphing. Sometimes they did, but that's not what animated his stories. At least for me. So again I may be projecting what I love about his stories. But I am also struggling with why this musical didn't speak to me in the way his books do.
David Cote I think you lay out the tale's internal contradictions (or is that complexity?) beautifully. And I just have time to note this: In the original MS draft of Matilda that Dahl sent to his publisher, the title girl was a nasty little trouble-maker who used her telekinetic powers to fix horse races and who came to a tragic ending. His publisher was appalled. He rewrote the story. I think I've got that right.
Jason Zinoman Fascinating. Also goes to show that obsessing over what Dahl did may be misplaced. Book was collaborative, just like the musical. Think your point about age of actor is also real interesting. There's a lot to like and chew on. People should see it. I may go again.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Here's a big caveat: I think my wife would have liked the show more than I did, and had I gone with her rather than my fellow skeptic, Mr. Zinoman, I may have felt and thought differently about the show, more than I care to admit. (Or if I'd taken my son, who I actually think could handle it, but not sure I'd want him to.) And because I had such a different experience from most of humanity, I may even try to see it again myself, either to see if I can enjoy it more or to figure out more reasons why it rubbed me the wrong way.
Jason Zinoman Christ, look at that man backtrack! If I took my kid and she liked it, I would have disliked the show more, because my kid has fucking horrible taste in shows. Trust me. Because I love her, I won't shame her on Facebook by listing the awful productions she described as "Great!" And she couldn't sit through Van Hove. What a philistine.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Hey, I'll say it out loud: Oliver liked that claptrap "Cinderella." He couldn't tell me a thing about it afterward but when it was over, he jumped up and screamed, "More show!" I can't wait for Penny to be old enough to pull off a Zinoman-style postshow throwdown.

Apr 12, 2013

Tension and Release

NOTE: Next week I'll see Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park for the third time, after taking it in on Broadway and at Woolly Mammoth, when I visit Baltimore's Center Stage, where it's running in rep with another play inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha's Place, by Centerstage a.d. Kwame Kwei-Armah. Until I'm able to weigh in with a comparison of all three productions, I reprint below a story I wrote for American Theatre's October, 2011 issue, when the play was in the midst of several productions nationwide after winning the Pulitzer the previous spring.

Forty years ago, the Jeffersons moved into the Bunkers’ quiet Astoria, Queens, neighborhood, but not before Archie—that cigar-chomping avatar of Nixon’s “Silent Majority”—did his level best to stop them. In a 1971 episode of the pioneering TV sitcom “All in the Family,” Archie reaches out to one of his few black acquaintances, the young dry-cleaning delivery man, Lionel, and asks him to persuade the new black neighbors to reconsider, even offering to buy back the house with money pooled together from among the Bunkers’ white neighbors.

“They’ll be happier with their own kind,” says Lionel, anticipating Archie’s argument (and not letting on that it’s his family that’s movin’ on in). “You took the words right out of my mouth,” Archie replies, reasoning, “There’s not a chicken shack or a rib joint within miles of here.” Lionel feigns surprise and drawls, with dripping sarcasm, “No ribs? Lawd Awmighty, what is we gonna do?”

A pair of moments in Bruce Norris’s searing social satire of American race and real estate, Clybourne Park, echo this racism-baiting minstrelsy, not to mention the topical fearlessness of “All in the Family.” When Karl Lindner, a nerdy white homeowner in 1959 Chicago with a similar buy-out-the-black-interlopers scheme, suggests to a black couple that they wouldn’t like the offerings at the local grocery, the black man, Albert, deadpans, “Do they carry collards and pig feet? Cuz I sho couldn’t shop where they didn’ sell no pig feet.”

In the second act, set in 2009, after the neighborhood has gone through the depressingly familiar cycle of white flight, racial ghettoization and revitalization/gentrification, the tables have turned; now it’s the black couple, firmly ensconced on the block, that is skeptical of the white influx. But the male half of that couple, Kevin, still can’t resist messing with the assembled Caucasians; after watching them dance gingerly around the subject of the neighborhood’s former “trouble” with drugs and crime, he gestures to his wife and says, with a flawless poker face, “Cuz ya know, the two of us wuz both crackheads.”

As an index of how far we haven’t come on the ever-urgent issues of race and class, Clybourne Park is a masterfully constructed double-decker house of cards, and not all of them are race cards: There’s also a framing ghost story invoking America’s foreign wars, and running themes of tourism and territorialism that ground the play’s ostensibly black-and-white drama in a broader context of post-colonial anxiety and evolutionary determinism.

But with its echoes not only of a vintage TV sitcom but of the even older play that inspired it, 1959’s Raisin in the Sun, Bruce Norris’s wrenchingly funny, deeply unsettling Pulitzer winner is also a reminder of how timid and politically correct our theatrical discourse has become. (David Mamet’s Race might count as an antidote if it were less strenuously vying to be one.) It’s not just that Norris confronts comfortable, well-heeled theatre audiences where they live, literally, with topics they’d rather avoid, and makes them laugh in the bargain; nor is it just the sneaky craft with which he scrambles our sympathies, making us see ourselves both in a group of fearful, vulnerable racists and in a smug klatch of self-righteous contemporary liberals. It’s that Clybourne Park has become, in a series of acclaimed productions throughout the U.S. (and one in London), a flashpoint, a pressure valve—a referendum on the decorum of our purportedly post-racial society, in which a black family occupies the most prestigious address in the country, even as the “Chocolate City” they live in recently shed its black-majority status in the face of a surge of gentrification.

Indeed, though ostensibly set in Chicago, the play may have resonated most strongly in our capital city, in a production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company that bowed in the spring of 2010, then returned this past summer to break box-office records. For artistic director Howard Shalwitz, who directed the production, rehearsals modeled the engagement the play would demand of its audiences.

“Even though Bruce’s main target of satire is the white people, there are always black and white people in the room,” Shalwitz points out. “The challenge is to play each character from their own point of view and not make a commentary from the outside. That led us into many complicated conversations—I felt like we went through the experience of the play in the rehearsal hall.” The result, by opening night, was that “the actors felt like they became citizen-actors—they conceived of their roles as a part of their citizenship.”

For Pam MacKinnon, who directed the world premiere in February 2010 at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, rehearsals also modeled the play’s central rhythm of tension-and-release, from the repressed 1950s of the first act to the second act’s latter-day free-for-all.

“It definitely brought up huge issues,” says MacKinnon. In particular, she said, actresses forced to appear docile or infantilized in the first act—Crystal Dickinson, who played the black maid, Francine, and Annie Parisse, who played Karl’s smiling deaf wife, Betsy—occasionally chafed at their characters’ oppression, and relished the relative expressive freedom of the characters they played in the second act (the self-possessed Lena and the explosively pregnant Lindsey, respectively).

“It was hard for them to be there in the first act and not have the equipment, the language, to respond the way they felt they would,” says MacKinnon, who will also direct the play at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum and on Broadway.

“Their inward response was clear to them, but they had no external manifestation of that response in the script. So, though I usually try to work on a play in order, in this case we started to split our days between the acts to give the actors a pressure valve; we would never spend a whole day in just one act or the other. It became a rehearsal-hall rhythm, both obeying Bruce’s worlds and trying to connect to these deliciously complicated people.”

You might think that Amy Morton, who directed the current Chicago production at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, feels that Clybourne Park has finally come home. Norris, after all, is a Steppenwolf colleague, and Morton has directed and performed his work before. But in fact, Chicago audiences may be uniquely equipped to see the play’s universality.

“Bruce is very purposefully unspecific about the exact location of the house,” says Morton. “He’s included Chicago street names, but they don’t have any relation to each other.” And though she says she’d prefer to leave the “macrocosmic view to the audience,” she acknowledges a comparison to Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County (in which she originated the role of Barbara), whose larger themes lurked unmistakably outside the dark family comedy at its center. In Clybourne, too, “The house is a big character,” Morton concedes, “and there’s a ghost in the house. With the changes that happen to the house between Act 1 and Act 2, if you wanna view the house as the country...” She leaves the thought hanging.

If Washington, D.C., and Chicago audiences recognized their own real-estate stories in the play, audiences in the famously progressive Bay Area—where Clybourne Park played earlier this year—responded most strongly to the play’s scabrous, air-clearing discourse.

“When Steve in Act 2 says, ‘Can we talk about race?’ the room would just go crazy,” says Jonathan Moscone, who directed the play at the American Conservatory Theater. “Bay Area audiences know they live inside a bubble of political correctness, and this play goes further down the road than anyone expects it to in upsetting that.”

He singles out a moment in the second act, when Steve—the white guy who asked for a dialogue about race, only to see it degenerate into a frenzy of name-calling—complains about “white suburban assholes still driving around with the yellow-ribbon magnets on their SUVs in support of some bullshit war.” Says Moscone, “That would get the audience applauding most nights. And then the next line, where Kevin, the black character, responds that he has three yellow ribbons—one for each member of his family serving overseas—completely threw them off.”

Indeed, it’s something you can almost imagine a modern-day Lionel Jefferson saying to a yuppified Meathead. But if Clybourne Park were merely a series of tart one-liners, it might be little more than a stage sitcom. Moscone, who calls Norris a “modern-day Molière,” thinks the play sticks because it transcends topicality. “I had people say to me, ‘I’m from Chicago, I know about white flight,’“ says Moscone. “People think they know what this play is about, but I think they experience it beyond their understanding.”