Sunday, May 25, 2014

On This Date

Here's an excerpt from Bobby Cramer:
I first met Bobby Cramer on Sunday, May 25, 1980, a little over two months before my eighteenth birthday. He was a year older than me. I had heard of him and his family, but it wasn’t until the Memorial Day Tea Dance at the country club that I actually met him in person.
I don't remember why I chose that particular date, and I certainly didn't have any idea that the calendars of 1980 and 2014 would align so that May 25 would fall on a Sunday in each year.  After all, I wrote that passage in 1995.  All I remember was that's where and when I knew that Richard, the narrator, and Bobby first met.

I'm not sure why dates are important to me, but when I began writing the novel, it needed a starting point because I knew where I wanted it to end.  So far, throughout all the years, I've kept that perspective.  I've also had to remind myself that certain things we take for granted thirty-four years later -- the internet, cell phones, social media -- and changes in life views -- the AIDS crisis, political winds and the acceptance of marriage equality -- were not there or were just being thought of.  I was also looking back on recent history in 1995 at the callow age of 42.  Now it seems like antiquity... at least to some.

I've tried to be faithful to the time and to events that were going on in the story's time frame, but they are not big players.  The hostage crisis in Iran is mentioned in passing, as is the eruption of Mount St. Helen's and the presidential election of 1980.  But in the day-to-day lives of the people in Bobby Cramer, they get little more than passing mention because in our own lives, do they really touch us deeply?  Some do, but mostly they are outside of the frame of the daily lives you and I think about, and so it is with my characters.  They are ripples.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reading Writing

I have been sharing my novel writing -- both Bobby Cramer and The Purer, Brighter Years -- with people by reading them sections and chapters out loud.  It reveals a lot.

I started sharing The Purer, Brighter Years when I joined a little writing group about a year ago.  (By the way, you might recall that I wrote a play of the same name a long, long time ago.  That play was done once in a staged reading in Traverse City, Michigan, and has never been heard from again.  I re-claimed the title.)  The responses to it from my fellow writers was good, both in terms of positive feedback and insights and suggestions.  But it also made me aware of what works and what doesn't, and as I read the pages -- no more than ten -- out loud, I immediately saw things that could be cut, heard what clunked and what sang, and found whole passages that could be thrown out.  I also found places where I needed more exposition, explanation, and insight.

When I started with the group, I purposely avoided sharing Bobby Cramer with them.  For one thing, reading a 1,200 page novel ten pages a week meant it would take two years to get to where I am now, and I'm still writing.  Second, Bobby was never meant to be published.  I just wanted to write the story for myself, explore his character and his life, and leave it as my own private work.

That's how it was going until a couple of months ago when I was having lunch with a colleague at work and we got to talking about my writing.  I boldly offered to read her some of The Purer, Brighter Years, and she took me up on it.  So every day at lunch I would read her a chapter, and we'd discuss it.  Since I was doing it almost every day, within a few weeks I had read her everything I'd written in that story... and left her hanging with a real cliffhanger that I'm still working on.  Now what?

Despite my vow, I started reading her Bobby Cramer.  As I did, I started reading it over and over again, and I started editing, cutting, adding, and now I'm on track to finish it before I finish reading it aloud.  (Not to worry about PBY; there's time to finish it, too.)

What I've learned in the process is that there are things my subconscious writer does that I'm not even aware of in telling the story.  Parallelisms, confluence of moments, contrasts of characters, climaxes and denouements that flow from telling the tale and listening to the inner Bobby and the rest of the cast.  It may not be Chaucer or Fitzgerald, but it amazes me that in hearing the story out loud, in my own voice, how much more I'm learning about the people that I'm writing about.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Promise

I know... It's been almost a year since I wrote anything on this blog.  If you stopped by here and think I've dropped off the face of the earth, well, I haven't.  I've been spending most of my time over at Bark Bark Woof Woof and haven't had the time to stop by here and catch up.

On the writing front, I've been making a lot of progress on the novel Bobby Cramer.  Seriously.  It is up to 1,206 pages (Courier 12 pitch double space) and I've been sharing it with a friend at work, one section at a time.  More to come, but right now it's like being back from a long break.

I've also been working on the story that started out as "Untitled" and has grown into a novel with a tentative title of The Purer, Brighter Years.  I've been sharing it with the writer's group that I joined last March and they've been very helpful in shaping it.

So... I make this promise.  I will post here at Bobby Cramer at least once a week, and I will be writing about writing.  I'll save the politics for BBWW.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Measure for Measure and Mary Stuart

By coincidence or karma, the two plays we saw last night were both about power: the lust for it and the consequences of it.  Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Schiller's Mary Stuart (in a new translation by Peter Oswald) both look at what happens when people try to grasp for something that is invisible and intangible.

Measure for Measure, directed by Stratford veteran Martha Henry, was placed in post-war Vienna and tells the tale of the Duke Vincentio enforcing strict moral laws, including the death penalty for having sex out of wedlock.  Seriously.  Just such a case has arisen; Claudio and Juliet have visible proof that they have been engaging in pre-marital sex, and the unhappy couple face the gallows.  And in a test of his own power structure, the Duke decides to take off for the far reaches, turning power over to his deputy Angelo, only so that he -- the Duke -- can sneak back into town disguised as a friar and see how Angelo is doing with his new-found powers.

As expected, Angelo makes a hash of it.  Isabel, a nun and the sister of Claudio, pleads with Angelo to grant her brother clemency.  Sure, replies Angelo... if you'll sleep with me.

The story goes on from there in typical Shakespearean semi-comic fashion, concluding with all being worked out, [spoiler alert] the young lovers being saved, and Angelo getting his comeuppance.  There are the usual comic characters, including Elbow, a constable who does a nice bit of reminding us of the constable in Young Frankenstein.

Ms. Henry's direction is smooth and swift, and the cast, as always, is comfortable in bringing out the nuances of Shakespeare's language, even if it does -- as happens to me -- take a few moments for my Shakespeare translation device to kick in.

The point of the play is that political hypocrisy and sexual misconduct is as universal as ever in high office.  We all recognize the characters here; we've seen them paraded across cable TV and Buzzfeed, and there's a cottage industry of unmasking the anti-abortion congressman who paid for his mistress's two abortions or the anti-gay crusader hiring a well-muscled "intern" to travel with him to Aruba.  Shakespeare and Ms. Henry and the cast do a neat job with it.  My only quibble is that Shakespeare himself seems to exact some rather intentional cruelty on sympathetic characters; for instance, allowing Isabel to think that her brother has been executed until the very last minute, and the Duke colluding on this falsehood.  If we are to be relieved by the happy outcome, it's a bit of a torture to mete it out in such small measures.

-------------------------

Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned and then executed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1587.  There's no record of them ever meeting face to face to work out their claims to the English throne, so Friedrich Schiller, the Romantic poet, gave us a fictional "what if" in his play Mary Stuart. In this new version by Peter Oswald and directed by Antoni Cimolino, the queens meet on a field of battle -- literally -- and the outcome, while never in doubt by history's telling, becomes a drama about power, gender politics, and religious fanaticism that sounds awfully familiar to the audience in the 21st century.

Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna, both Stratford stalwarts, take on their roles as dueling queens with gusto, and although I was unfamiliar with the play before I saw it, I can imagine that both Schiller and Oswald had fun imagining what these two powerful personalities had to say to each other because it truly comes across in the dialogue and Mr. Cimolino's inventive blocking.

As a tale for our age, it's not hard to grasp the connection between the hard-core religious zealots of that time -- Catholic vs. Protestant -- and our own.  People who are willing to kill and die for their faith is nothing new and nothing the theatre hasn't dealt with before, but we Westerners -- the "enlightened ones" -- like to think that it's only those Others who do such crazy things such as invite martyrdom and suicide or incite rioting against the infidels and blasphemers.  Even when you take into consideration the Crusades and the Inquisition, those are thought of as both medieval and, well, uncivilized.  But the brutality of the faith ran strong in 16th century Britain, and you can't turn on the TV or the internet today and see its descendants carrying forth against the abortionists and the radical homosexuals.

Mary and Elizabeth were rivals not just for the throne but for the faith.  We know how that turned out, but we're really haven't changed much since then.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Fiddler on the Roof

The world is made up of little communities, each with their customs, traditions, and stories.  It doesn't matter where you come from; we all have a sense of tribalism, whether it's through religion, ethnicity, or even sexual orientation.  Humans cluster in like-minded groups.  It's our nature.

This simple fact is what makes Fiddler on the Roof so compelling and such a universal story.  A shtetl in Russia in 1905 isn't much different than a neighborhood in Los Angeles or a pueblo in New Mexico: they are bound together by common bonds, and even when the bonds are frayed or broken, there is still a sense of community, of belonging, of purpose.

I had a hard time getting through the performance of Fiddler on the Roof at Stratford.  It wasn't because the production was terrible; quite the opposite.  It was magnificent in every detail, from the casting of all the roles to the set, which often consisted of little houses that represented the town of Anatevka like a table model.  The music was flawless, the choreography and staging on a par with anything you'd expect on Broadway, and the story itself; clear and passionate, humorous and heart-rending.  And I spent a great deal of time flashing back to 1972, when, at the tender age of 19, I performed a very, very small role in a production of the musical at the University of Miami.

Our cast had a large Jewish contingent.  Many of the cast members had family who had either survived or been lost in the Holocaust.  For them, the story of Jews scratching out a living in what is now the Ukraine under the thumb of Tsarist Russia, always under the cloud of the pogrom yet to come, made the story of family, tradition, and faith all the more important and immediate.  And when I, a naive young kid from the Midwest who only knew from Judaism what you learn from friends at a private high school where the only question was how well did you clean up at the bar mitzvah, began to immerse myself in the story of Tevye the milkman and the town of Anatevka, my world expanded to understand that not only was there life outside of my cocoon of WASP culture, it wasn't so much different than the traditions I grew up with and accepted as my way of life.  Except no one was trying to wipe me and my way of life off the face of the earth.  For what was supposed to be a small part in a musical comedy, it was a lesson of life that still strikes me to the core more than forty years later.

Fiddler on the Roof is about Jews in Russia in 1905.  But it could be about the Puritans in 1605, the Quakers in 1650, the Native Americans on the Trail of Tears in 1831, the Irish in 1848, the Palestinians in 1948, or Cubans in 1959.  It's about all of us.  The theme of Tradition that runs through the play is what binds it together.  From the opening number to the last notes as the people of the town leave after being forced out, holding on to small things -- a pot, a shoe, a book, a faith -- keep the tribe and life together even as they are scattered to the winds to end up in Chicago, Jerusalem, or Miami. 

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Stratford 2013 -- Blithe Spirit

The first Broadway musical I ever saw was High Spirits.  It was in September 1964 at the Alvin Theatre, and it starred Tammy Grimes, Edward Woodward, and Beatrice Lillie.  Written and directed by Noel Coward, it was the musical version of his play Blithe Spirit.

I don't remember much about the musical except that Beatrice Lillie was a hoot as Madame Arcati, the ditzy medium in bunny slippers who rode a bicycle across the stage and conjured up spirits with a ouija board.  I'm told the critics were not kind to the show, but it had a respectable run (375 performances).  If it didn't tear up Broadway, though, it wasn't because of the source material.

Blithe Spirit is one of Mr. Coward's more farcical plays, but it contains the comedy of manners that he's famous for in works such as Private Lives or Present Laughter.  In this production at Stratford under the direction of Brian Bedford, the dialogue crackles along and the pace is fast enough that there are no gaps.  And the acting is finely tuned; plays like this run the risk of being over-arch and overly clever, but Mr. Bedford knows that understatement is an element of farce as well as over-the-top.

It does not hurt that there is an element of situation comedy throughout the play.  Characters speaking to ghosts to the befuddlement of the unknowing other people in the room was a staple of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, but Mr. Coward uses it to the right degree so that it doesn't become a worn-out gimmick even to an audience who has seen it before.

There is not a lot of depth to the play beyond the comedy and the situation, but when you consider that the play was written in the middle of the London Blitz, opening in July 1941, Londoners needed something light and funny.  It worked; the play was a huge hit, and when it came across the ocean to New York, it ran for years.  This production shows why.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Waiting for Godot

When I was a Very Serious Theatre Student in high school and college, I, along with my fellow VSTS's, studied the works of Samuel Beckett as if they were the Sacred Scrolls that contained the Cosmic Truths of Real Theatre.  That melodramatic stuff by Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller was so self-important and strenuous when it tugged at the heartstrings, and comedy by the likes of Neil Simon was barely worthy of a glance.  Inge?  Middle American sophistry.  And when they labeled Beckett's work as "Theatre of the Absurd," there was some far deeper meaning to the words than just being "absurd."  Nothing absurd like the Marx Brothers or Abbot and Costello.  Even Charlie Chaplin, with all his introspection, didn't rise to the level of Beckett's definition of  "absurd."  There had to be depth beyond what the audience saw.  After all, Beckett was Irish and who knew more about depth than the Irish.  And he lived in Paris and wrote in French.  We just knew there had to be something more to his works.  Every word, every phrase, had to be dissected, parsed and analyzed, and many a night we spent trying -- as we did with Pinter -- to plumb the depths of his heaviosity, accompanied, of course, by chemical enhancements and Pop Tarts.

All these years later, it becomes clear that Samuel Beckett not only appreciated the absurdity of Charlie Chaplain, the Marx Brothers, and even Abbot and Costello, but he emulated them.  Waiting for Godot (and, by the way, it's pronounced "GOD-oh," not "Go-DOH."  As Brian Dennehy explained in a Q & A session after the performance, "Godot" is Dublin slum slang for God.  Beckett was from Dublin.)  The characters in the play are comic pairings of the same style as the comic geniuses as Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, and the dialogue in some scenes is evocative of Who's on First.  The overall effect is stunningly simple, and the blade of Beckett's wit and meaning slips effortlessly to the bone.

The context of the play is also important.  Beckett wrote it shortly after the end of World War II, a time when Europe was as desolate as the scene he describes for the play: "A country road.  A tree.  Evening."  Beckett himself barely survived being arrested by the Nazis in occupied Paris in 1942, and spent the war working with the French Resistance.  If he'd been caught, he would have most likely been executed.  That, along with the desperate devastation he saw around him, surely played a role in his work.  And Waiting for Godot shows it, but not in the way you might think.

In spite of the desolate setting, the poor and struggling characters, even the pain and sorrow that they bear and inflict on each other, and like the leaves that appear on the branches of the bare and seemingly lifeless tree, there is hope, albeit faint.  [Spoiler alert]  And while Godot does not arrive as promised, Vladimir and Estragon will be back to wait for him.  "Nothing to be done."

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Hey, I'm Back!

What, it's only been a year, right?

The Stratford Festival Theatre

Welcome to Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.  This year we are seeing Waiting for Godot, Blithe Spirit, Fiddler on the Roof, Measure for Measure, and Mary Stuart.

I have never seen a full production of Godot; this one has Brian Dennehy in it, so I can’t wait.  I’ve never seen Blithe Spirit, but I saw the musical version of it in 1964.  It was called High Spirits, and it was by Noel Coward as well.  Fiddler on the Roof?  Oy, been in it… forty plus years ago at the University of Miami Ring Theatre.  I played the Russian priest… what else?  And I have never seen Measure for Measure or Mary Stuart.

I'll be posting my reviews/thoughts about the shows here, so check in and see what I've got to say

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Saturday, August 04, 2012

Stratford 2012 - The Matchmaker

Maybe it's just me, but Stratford's production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker didn't strike too many sparks.

For someone who grew up hearing the tunes from Hello, Dolly! done by everyone from Louis Armstrong to teenagers in high school theatre, it's easy to see why the play, originally called The Merchant of Yonkers (and a flop) in 1938 and then revised at the behest of Stratford's founding director Sir Tyrone Guthrie as The Matchmaker in 1955 and then to London and Broadway, made such a great musical: there's a lot of room for musical numbers in the plot. It's played as a farce with mistaken identities, slamming doors, people hiding under tables; all the usual elements that make plays like Noises Off work so well. But it's also a comedy of manners, poking fun at the conventions of society of the time (the 1890's), and while that kind of play can have great farcical moments -- the screen scene in The School For Scandal is a fine example -- it just seemed to run a little flat in this play. Maybe it's because Mr. Wilder allows for several moments of breaking down the fourth wall and having the characters speak directly to the audience, including Dolly's speech at the end of the play. That has a monumental impact in Our Town, but here it's a little disconcerting. It does not help that the characters are looking back at the people and the play with a hefty helping of cynicism.

Tom McCamus, who does characters with his voice the way some do them with their entire body, was Horace Vandergelder, the tightfisted half-a-millionaire. He controls his niece Ermengard (Cara Ricketts) with an iron hand, threatens her intended Ambrose Kemper (Skye Brandon), and terrorizes his employees, the adventure-seeking Cornelius Hackl (Michael Shara) and the shy and overreacting Barnaby Tucker (Josh Epstein). The set-up from the git-go is that he will be defied by everyone, including the title character, Dolly Gallagher Levi (Seana McKenna). Ms. McKenna brings a charm to the part that isn't overpowering, and she reveals some of the vulnerability in Dolly that makes her appealing, but the play really isn't about her; the real matchmaker is Horace.

As I noted earlier, it's easy to see how this could be a musical, and if you know Hello Dolly!, you'll hear the cues for the musical numbers that Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman picked up and turned into standards. And there is a musical theme running through this production: the lights in the show come up on Ambrose wistfully singing "The Sidewalks of New York," and that tune is the lietmotif all the way through to the curtain call. And while the song itself is a playful look at a town of long ago, one couldn't help notice that it was done in a slightly acidic tone, as if warning us that adventures can be perilous; even dangerous.

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Friday, August 03, 2012

Stratford 2012 - 42nd Street

"The two most beautiful words in the English language: 'musical comedy.'" - Justin Marshall, the director of Pretty Lady.

That sums up the whole idea of 42nd Street, the musical comedy that pays tribute to all the other musical comedies by pulling out all the cliches of Broadway musicals, putting on their tap shoes, and hoofing their way across the stage of the Festival Theatre at Stratford. The story is so well-known -- a girl gets off the bus from Allentown and through luck and compound fractures becomes the toast of Broadway in the smash hit Pretty Lady -- that it's been done, re-done, and parodied (Dames At Sea). The cast has all the types: the young ingenue; the handsome boy tenor; the tough-as-nails/heart-of-gold chorine; the wisecracker; the hard-bitten director; the prima donna star; and even a few mob thugs. You hardly need a synopsis or a program. All you have to do is sit back and listen for the cues to the music, hum along to songs you know, and try to keep your feet from tapping along.

Stratford hasn't always done musicals. When I started coming on a regular basis in the early 1970's, the chances of seeing a show like 42nd Street were as rare as seeing palm trees along the Avon River. Yes, they have always produced modern plays by Canadian and American playwrights, including Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Robert Patrick's Kennedy's Children was done here in the early 1970's, and they've done stunning works with avant-garde and adventures like Treasure Island. They'd also done their share of Gilbert & Sullivan (The Pirates of Penzance is a regular) along with operettas like Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne. But they also realized that they needed to fill the seats with audiences that weren't into heavy or classical dramas; there was gold in the blue-hair crowd from Toronto, Buffalo, Detroit, and Toledo, and they wanted shows like Oklahoma!, Camelot, My Fair Lady, and for the aging boomers, Jesus Christ Superstar. They had the theatres, they had the talent, and they had the need. And it has worked: productions like Hello Dolly! pay the way for plays like Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, so while the grandparents enjoyed the Broadway show and mom and dad absorbed the culture of Henry V, the gay grandson enjoyed the not-too-subtle subtext of Mr. Marlowe. It's business... but it's also good theatre, and it brings in the audiences who might otherwise turn up their scholarly noses at something they might consider shallow and see what Stratford can do with it. It can be an eye-opener to a larger perspective on something as playful as the "Peanuts" musical, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Or it could be just plain fun and dazzling as the production of 42nd Street. The music is by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, with the book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, and based on the original production directed by Gower Champion. (There's a Broadway legend story that goes along with the original production: Gower Champion died the afternoon of opening night in August 1980.) Director Gary Griffin has a fine cast with Cynthia Dale as the prima donna star who dominates the show until her accident; Kyle Blair is the handsome young tenor, Sean Arbuckle is the tough director, and Jennifer Rider-Shaw is the starry-eyed kid from Allentown who pulls off the smash. The supporting cast is terrific, but it's really an ensemble show, and they can all sing and dance. And they do, right up to the second bow.

My only quibble is that this production was staged on the thrust stage of the Festival Theatre, which I doubt was intended for a full-tilt Broadway tap dance show. It doesn't leave you a lot of room for scenery -- although you don't need much -- and it must have been interesting to choreograph twenty or so dancers on the small space. But it does allow for imaginative and three-dimensional staging that you wouldn't get on the stage of the traditional proscenium house at the Avon, and there's something to be said for, in the words of my late dance teacher Paul Avery, "doing it up brown" on the same stage that saw William Shatner perform Julius Caesar and Irene Worth play Hedda Gabler. And there's not a wrong step or a sour note in the whole show. Sir Tyrone Guthrie would be proud, and I'll bet he would have been tapping along.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Stratford 2012 - A Word or Two

The stage is set with a desk and chair, a director's chair, a small podium, and a winding staircase of books that cantilevers over the stage like an impossible sculpture; in the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, toppling to the skies. The lights come up on an elderly gentleman sitting at the foot of this literary tower, and the words come forth.

This is supposed to be a one-man show: Christopher Plummer, actor (everything from Hamlet to The Sound of Music to Star Trek VI) and director, but it is not really just one man there. He is in the company of Lewis Carroll, George Bernard Shaw, William Shakespeare, A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock, Ogden Nash, Emily Dickinson, Christopher Marlowe, Oscar Wilde, the Bible, Archibald MacLeish, and many others. He tells us of his love for words, for language, for sharing the mysteries of life and longing and love through the words; of growing up in Montreal and of his family that read aloud after dinner when he was a boy, and discovering the stage and theatre. In his memoir, In Spite of Myself, Mr. Plummer is very candid about his faults, his excesses, and his ambitions, and he brings them with him to this tale as well. He's unfailingly honest, wistful, rueful, joyful, and all through his own words and those of writers he loves.

Even though it was in the Avon Theatre, a converted movie house that seats over a thousand people, it is an intimate performance, and even though I was in the fourth row center, I knew he was reaching and touching the people in the back row of the balcony. Not because he's that powerful an actor -- although he is, and a single raised eyebrow from him carries for miles -- but because what he was sharing was so deeply felt. And it should; this is a performance that he created and produced on his own and has toured with before. This is a labor of love.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Stratford 2012 -- Cymbeline

The program notes tell us that Cymbeline is thought to be the last play Shakespeare wrote. If it is, then it is a sort of grand finale of all of his works, combining elements of every style and genre that he used in the rest of the canon. There are hints of Hamlet, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Julius Caesar, and even a touch of A Midsummer Night's Dream; and probably a few I missed (oh, yes, A Winter's Tale seems to be in there, too).

The plot follows a typical Shakespearean route: a king banishes his daughter for botching an arranged marriage to a dolt; she chooses a nice but poor fellow, and then we get into jealousy, trickery, false accusations of adultery, cross-dressing as a boy as a disguise to hide out, stolen babies, old retainers who take pity on the banished, rustic rubes in the woods, crashing battle scenes, a deus ex machina appearance by a Roman god, the inevitable climactic scene where all is revealed and all are reconciled, and a few Agatha Christie revelations are thrown in for good measure.

Even the most dedicated Shakespeare scholar -- and I am by any measure not one -- would have trouble explaining the plot or filling in the holes, but this is the kind of play that Stratford does very well, and this production does not disappoint. As we were going in to the theatre, I warned my parents that the running time on this production was three hours -- and it was -- and we were seeing the play in the Tom Patterson Theatre, a converted curling rink with hard chairs. Wow, what a first night. But the play moved along quickly and the acting was up to their usual superb standards. Director Antoni Cimolino, who is to assume the duties of Artistic Director for the festival next year, chose wisely in his casting of the roles, including Cara Ricketts as Imogen, the daughter who is the focus of so many troubles. The title role was played by Geraint Wyn Davies, who has been with the company for nine seasons and has moved gracefully from playing the young hunk to the mature father figure. Graham Abbey has the unenviable task of playing Posthumus, the love interest for Imogen. I sometimes think Shakespeare wrote roles like that almost as an afterthought; he gets battered about, he's not got a lot of driving action in the plot, and in this case, he gets the daylights kicked out of him by both the Romans and the Britons. The course of true love never did run smooth, right? But he ends up with the woman he loves, and all's well that... well, you get the idea. (One thing Stratford used to fall short on was the casting of men with the builds to play the parts, and the PYSBO (Put Your Shirt Back On) quotient was high. I'm happy to report they're getting better at it, or they've added a gym to the green room.)

The supporting roles were also done well and in full dimension; Michael Sharo as the aptly-named Cloten plays the thick-necked dull-witted brute to perfection, and his comeuppance is shocking but not unsatisfying, and Tom McCamus plays an oily villain to perfection. The set design was minimal, as is necessary on the elongated thrust stage of the Patterson, but that didn't stop them from using lights, fog, and costumes to good effect.

If this was indeed the Bard's last work, it was a retrospective rather than a eulogy. There were no heavy speeches, few quotable or memorable lines, and rather than leave the stage strewn with corpses, he gives us a happy if not wistful exeunt omnes. Not a bad way to go.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

How Firm A Foundation

This is the paper I presented at the 31st annual William Inge Theatre Festival's scholars conference at Independence Community College, Independence, Kansas, on April 21, 2012.

How Firm a Foundation

Faith and Practice in the Works of William Inge


One of the bedrocks of life in a small town in America is going to church. As an observer and chronicler of small town life, William Inge uses faith and practice as a subtext in his plays and novels. Although there is very little outward acknowledgement of expressed faith, it weaves its way into the characters and stories as a subtle presence. Through his writings, Inge expresses an almost wistful view of religion, as if he is an outsider with his nose pressed against the stained glass, wishing he could believe fully in the power of God as a guiding force in his life so that it might relieve him of his perceived failings, and a sense of envy in the apparent fulfillment found by those who do believe in making their life complete.

If you Google “churches in Independence, Kansas,” you will get about thirty-seven hits. That’s an impressive number for a town with a population of just over nine thousand souls; it works out to about one church for every 256 people. The churches run the gamut from mainline Catholic and Protestant to evangelical non-denominational, and there’s even a Quaker meeting. (If you’re looking for a synagogue, though, you have to go to Tulsa.) It’s not hard to imagine that there were probably just as many places of worship in Independence when William Inge was growing up, and according to the 1920 census, which was taken when he was seven years old, the population was over eleven thousand, so chances are there were probably a few more.

In many respects, that is not a remarkable fact. Small towns in America, whether they are in New England or New Mexico, have always had faith communities at their heart. Whether it is the iconic white steeple at the center of town in Vermont, the adobe mission in Taos, or the red brick Georgian on the corner here in Independence, we have made it the foundation of our culture to the point that membership is not required to be a part of the congregation. It provides a gathering place in times of joy or sorrow, celebration or commiseration, a shelter in the time of storms, and a refuge for the faithful when the outside world becomes overwhelming or a threat. And while the church itself may be open only on Sunday (or Wednesday night for bingo), it makes its presence felt in every corner of the town, even in places where religion or a profession of faith may not have be welcome.

It is impossible to imagine a more pervasive or defining force in our civilization. Everything we do, think, or learn, is instilled by the nebulous belief in a supreme being and the practice of worship, even if there is no formal schooling or professed acceptance of faith. It defines us as clearly as our race, our gender, our social standing or ethnicity. We are born into it and have it woven into the fabric of our lives and identity that it becomes practically inseparable. And yet… the sense of belonging and participating can be a distancing factor as well if, for some reason, either by instinct or learned behavior, we find that we are apart from this force, somehow at odds with the tenets and teachings, and subliminally ostracized from the rest of the flock. Somehow, something keeps us from fully accepting – and being fully accepted by – the practice of worship as a part of our lives. And it is not at all hard to imagine what it must have been like to grow up in a place like Independence in the 1920’s where worship was as natural as breathing and yet still feel estranged from it by some inner awareness that you did not find comfort or even felt hostility or bigotry emanating from this institution dedicated to unconditional love and peace… for those who believe.

That must have been what William Inge felt as he grew up here, surrounded on all sides by the faithful. Something deep inside him must have told him he was not unconditionally welcome, or he could not accept it if he was. In his autobiographical novel, My Son is a Splendid Driver, published in 1971, the Hansen family’s church affiliation is tangential – the denomination is not mentioned – and religion is given either lip service or used as a cudgel of bigotry against those who are Not Our Kind: for example, the Holt family across the street with their Catholicism, or the Jewish couple that owns the clothing store downtown. Oh, they’re nice enough people until they do something awful like marry one of your kids.

In the evangelical tradition that is pervasive in many of the faiths in the Midwest, a fundamental tenet is that the believer must develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Statements of faith begin with the declaration of the moment when the believer accepts Christ as their personal savior on a one-to-one basis in the same way someone might declare their relationship with a spouse. This foundation of faith takes on an intimate characteristic: you become one with Christ and therefore you define your relationship with God in those terms.

For William Inge, it seemed to be a strained relationship. If the narrative in My Son was his own life story, God was, to use one of his own phrases, “an ornery bastard.” God exacts a price for living a life of leisure and lust; he takes away precious children with the stroke of a razor blade, and he visits gloom upon an aging relative by prolonging her life to the point that she is begging to die. This is not the kind and loving God of the New Testament, but rather the vengeful and exacting God of the Old, who controls each life and promises destruction for those who are not suitably obedient. And yet this is also the God that delivers the peace and tranquility of the promise of everlasting life in the rainbow at the end of the Flood, and later on, in the name of his son Jesus Christ, whom God himself tested and punished while on Earth. It is the paradox of faith that you must be both afraid of the wrath of God yet also forgiven for all your sins in the name of his son. This contrast of hope and resurrection with fear and anguish was the undercurrent of faith in the eyes of a small-town boy who knew, deep in his heart and never spoken out loud, that he could never be acceptable in the eyes of the Lord as seen through the eyes of the faithful that surrounded him.

His mother sees God as a harsh and judgmental figure, cursing her personally with a faithless husband who infects her with a venereal disease, and punishes her for her lack of faith by burdening her and her family with hateful relatives and, worst of all, taking her beloved eldest son for no other reason other than what seems to be pure spite. If she had a distant relationship with God before, this cemented her estrangement from him, and she viewed others who went to church as hypocrites and show-offs. In a passage from My Son is a Splendid Driver, Mrs. Hansen lays out her feelings neatly in observing her neighbor:
“Every morning on the front porch we would see Mrs. Holt leave her house and start for the Catholic church, on her way to mass.

‘She doesn’t miss a day,’ Mother observed. There was a dedication about the woman that always gave us pause. ‘I wish I had a God to pray to now,’ Mother sometimes said, ‘but I don’t seem able to find Him.’

Mother had stopped going to church. ‘Church isn’t the place to go with your troubles. Church is just a place to go when you’re feeling good and have a new hat to wear.’ There was a little bitterness in what she said, a little self-pity, but there was also truth. Our minister would have been the last person in the world she could have talked to, to have lifted the curse she felt upon her and save her from feeling damned. She would have embarrassed the man into speechlessness had she gone to him with her story. He would have been unable to look at her or my father without coloring.

Most of our morality, I was beginning to think, was based on a refusal to recognize sin. Our entire religious heritage, it seemed to me, was one of refusal to deal with it.” (1)
When her son dies suddenly from blood poisoning, leaving a young wife pregnant with their son, Mrs. Hansen is inconsolable and finds no comfort in faith or in the inconsequential platitudes of “it is God’s will.” She cries out,
“‘Oh, my son! God give him back! He wasn’t meant to die!’
But God was stern, and unrelenting. He doesn’t end our griefs, Mother had to learn; He can only help us to endure them.”(2)
Of course Inge could not shake his fist at God in his plays and expect to see them performed. Instead, they are layered with the sense of presence of religion as the foundation of everyday life. Few of the characters are depicted as particularly imbued with religious fervor, and with the exception of Sammy in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, no one’s specific denomination is mentioned. Even then, because he is Jewish, he is seen as an outsider (and comes to an unhappy end.) But faith and practice is always present, and most of the characters in the plays and novels are, if not practicing members of a community, aware and respectful of it, if not terrified. In Picnic, Hal is welcomed into the community and told when the local bible study meets, taking it as a matter of faith that he is both a Christian and a Baptist.

In a more sobering aspect, so to speak, Doc in Come Back, Little Sheba is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, a group that is based in the belief in a Higher Power – God as we understand him – and that it is a part of the journey of recovery by relying in part on the spiritual power. It is not a religious practice; there is no service or ritual other than the meeting and sharing and spoken prayer, and it is open to all faiths or those who have none. But its members strive to turning over the problems and sorrows that led to the alcoholics’ behavior to God and thereby free themselves to work toward healing. “Let Go and Let God” is one of the more common aphorisms in the AA lexicon. And since Inge acknowledged his alcoholism by joining AA in 1948, it seems as if he found that if he could not find God in the pews of the churches of Independence, nor in the bottom of a Scotch bottle, at least the awareness of a spiritual presence gave him comfort and shelter that eluded him for his entire life. And when he saw the effect it had on the people he cared about, he marveled at it. He summed it up in a passage in My Son where Joey meets up with Betsy, an old friend from college while in a bookstore in Kansas City. They had become friends because they were both outcasts; Inge because of his shyness and repressed feelings, and Betsy because she was, in the words of the time, “a wanton woman,” who had flaunted the rigid mores and racial barriers of the time. When they meet years later, it is a heartfelt reunion, including her telling him of thrill of seeing A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. She tells Joey that she would have made a wonderful Blanche.
“After a moment, she said, ‘You know something, Joey? We never learn what life is all about until we fail.’

I asked her to explain.

‘Well, it’s as though I had wanted all the time to become an actress just to have my own way about something, and I really don’t know what the something was. But I was ambitious in the wrong way. It’s almost as though I wanted to be a brilliant success in the theater in order to have vengeance on someone… I don’t know who. Maybe the world. So I missed. I know I had talent, but I was using it in the wrong way. It was I who messed up my chances. I alone. I had to give up my conception of what my life was going to be, do you see? My will had to be overcome. I had to learn that there’s a stronger will that works behind the entire universe that sometimes stops us in our headstrong way and says No. And then you have to surrender to a real life, Joey. The life that’s really yours…. Understand what I mean? Or am I being too metaphysical, or something?’

‘I think I understand something of what you mean, Betsy. I think I do.’ After lunch, we parted. All the rest of the day, I thought of Betsy, feeling somehow I had witnessed one of Christ’s miracles.”(3)
If William Inge could not find comfort or acceptance in faith in God and his church, then at least he does see that faith is not something that is inherently religious. Faith is the belief in things unseen, intangible. You can’t put your hands on it; you can’t take it apart to see what makes it work. And yet, we all have faith in something. It doesn’t have to be in God. It can be faith in knowing that we have friends we can count on, a family who cares for us, or faith in our own abilities to make the right choices because we learned that we human beings rely on others and ourselves to be good and moral people with no need to prove it every time. It may be called “trust” or “love” or nothing more than just the basic human instinct that we all carry within us to take care of our fellow man and mankind. But to some degree we all have it, and even when we see horrible things happen – war, destruction, bigotry, and hatred – we are able to say that we have faith in knowing that that is not truly who we are.

But we speak of faith in the present tense. It is in the here and now: you have faith in God, or your friends or the other qualities, but when we look to the future, it isn’t so much faith that we rely on; it is hope. And hope is an even more powerful force than faith. You can rely on your faith, but you put your hope in the future. It is even more nebulous than faith, for in some cases, faith can be proven or disproven. A child may have had faith in Santa Claus, for instance, but at some point he will know that Santa is really a marketing gimmick exploited by F.A.O. Schwarz and your dad is the one who ate the cookies left by the fireplace. But that child never lost hope that he would get presents under the tree, whether they were brought by a jolly old elf and eight tiny reindeer or the guy in the UPS truck. Or we may have hope in the long term; that we will live a good and happy life and that no matter what comes along in the next year or four years or ten or so; no matter what demons and perils and tragedies and losses and battles we face, we have hope we will make it through, putting our faith in that hope. It is, as Emily Dickinson said, “the thing with feathers that perches in the Soul – and sings the tune without the Words – and never stops – at all.”

There is a kind of guarded optimism and hope is in Inge’s plays, even if it is but a faint glimmer. After all, God is still that ornery bastard. But we see Madge run off to Tulsa chasing a man we know will never amount to anything, hoping that she can change him and find happiness. In Bus Stop we see Bo and Cherie get on the bus and head for the West with little more than hope. In both cases, though, we see them leaving behind wistful and lonely friends and family. In Come Back, Little Sheba, Doc and Lola are barely able to speak to each other until Lola finally admits that Sheba is never going to come back, but life must go on. So many of Inge’s stories end with apparent sadness, yet each does seem to offer just a tad of hope because the people in them have their faith shaken but not lost, their hope dented but not destroyed, and a solemn acceptance that while the future may not be all roses and rainbows, at least there is something to live for.

After he parted from his meeting with Betsy, Joey muses,
“And yet, though she had asked me to come out to visit her and her husband, I know it was unlikely that I would. I could not help feeling apart from them, for they had already become a fixed part of what outsiders call with some derision, some envy, the normal world, the world of people who come home at night to ordinary meals, enjoy ordinary companionship, and suffer ordinary appetites and desires, a world I often curse, like Lucifer the heaven from which he had been expelled, knowing I am not Lucifer and that it is a false heaven I long at times to return to, wishing to God I could still find comfort in its solidarity and mirage of warmth, feeling at times I would be willing to hate Negroes, or condemn Jews, and pretend to worship God while I worshipped Mammon, if I could feel once again the assurance of belonging to the great mass of people who live their lives without conscience or reflection, and subscribe to mass opinion as my father subscribed to Time magazine, never challenging its precepts.

But once the mold is cast, the form cannot be changed. The shape of me could no longer fit into other people’s houses. I cannot claim that Betsy and her husband are hypocrites because they are happy. But sometimes, in spells of bitterness and isolation, happiness in itself has seemed an hypocrisy. And if I hated their happiness, it was because I felt a stranger to it, and a stranger to their welcome. It was a happiness that made me feel more alone.” (4)
Within two years of publishing those words, William Inge let the feelings of being the stranger win out. He tried to find solace in reaching out to the Catholic church, but it was not enough, and on a quiet evening in June of 1973, he went into the garage in his home in Hollywood and sat behind the wheel of his car for the last time. While he may have given his plays and his characters some sense of hope, he could never reconcile his own distance from his faith-filled hometown and friends. In the words of a character in a play by another author, hope was his greatest weakness.

Notes

1. William Inge, My Son is a Splendid Driver (Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1971) p. 152-153.
2. Inge, p. 110.
3. Inge, p. 214.
4. Inge, p. 214-215.

Bibliography

Inge, William. Four Plays. New York: Grove Weidenfeld. 1958.
--------------. My Son is a Splendid Driver. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1971.
Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge. University of Kansas Press. 1989.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Stratford 2011 - Politically Incorrect

As a part of my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I put on my theatre scholar's cap to review the plays we're seeing.

Honesty may be the best policy, but it doesn't always work in politics and in affairs of the heart. At least that seems to be the point in Molière's brilliant and stylishly-produced comedy The Misanthrope at Stratford.

The story centers around Alceste, a man who has vowed to speak frankly about his opinions, foregoing the niceties of 18th century Paris society where politeness and social amenities are the Rule. It gets him into trouble with his friends as well as the woman he loves, and even when his honesty is put to the test both in court and in winning his love, he has to pay a price.

The timelessness of the play doesn't hurt, either. Today we seem to be awash in people offering their unvarnished opinions of everything, from (ahem) bloggers to the cult of personalities that develop around the folks on cable TV who claim to speak their mind and damn the consequences. Everyone from Glenn Beck to Rush Limbaugh to Keith Olbermann to presidential candidates hold forth and frequently get in trouble for their candor. And, as Molière proves in this play, it often becomes less about the moment of truth than it does about the person speaking it. Rather than "listen to what I'm saying," it becomes "listen to ME!" And when honesty becomes secondary to personality, both lose.

The production at Stratford is beautiful in all respects. The Festival stage is a gilded wedding cake of a Paris home at the hands of designer John Lee Beatty, and the costumes, by Robin Fraser Paye, are equally stunning. The translation is by Richard Wilbur, done in rhyming couplets, and it captures both the voice and the taste of the era in its wit and charm, and it is deftly directed by David Grindley.

The performances are all stand-out, including Ben Carlson as Alceste and Sarah Topham as Célimène, his love interest and exact opposite when it comes to social decorum. The pace is quick, the staging choreographed beautifully, and the points of the story are rapier-like, not cudgeled. Stratford may be renown for its productions of Shakespeare, but they know how to do comedy of manners as well.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stratford 2011 - Falstaff 2.0

As a part of my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I put on my theatre scholar's cap to review the plays we're seeing.

Each year that we come to Stratford, we make an effort to see something we've never seen before. That's the case with Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor; it was a new one for me.

Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth commanded that Shakespeare write a play about Sir John Falstaff in love. According to scholarship, that's not exactly true, but it's a nice little legend, and it explains how a character from Henry IV can show up in England some 200 years after his death in Henry V. In this play, Falstaff has been rebooted from the hard-drinking rowdy confidante of Prince Hal to become a broke and dissipated sot without much of a touch of Harry in the night. The only connection between the two Falstaffs is the name. In this case, Falstaff is not so much in love as he is in lust and looking for money, and since both desires can lead a man to foolishness, the women he has set his sights on use him as their foil.

This play also serves as an outlier in Shakespeare's canon. It is the only play of his that takes place in Elizabethan England, in sync with Shakespeare's own life. The characters aren't named Antonio or Romeo, there's no magic spells or ancient curses to be fought or heeded, and the plot isn't based on a recycled story or rewrought history of English kings and dynasties (although it does contain elements of stories by translated by William Painter). It is, in many ways, a precursor to the comedies that would come along a hundred years later, after the time of Cromwell when public theatre was banned, and the stage was being restored and influenced by the Renaissance making its way to England from the continent. If you didn't know it was Shakespeare, you would think you were seeing something by such writers as William Wycherly or John Dryden.

The plot is not all that different than a lot of Shakespeare's previous comedies; there's mistaken identity, disguises, attempts at adultery, and strong women who pretend to be at the mercy of the menfolk but are really the ones in charge. Of course there are young lovers who are determined to marry against their parents' wishes, and of course it all ends happily, even if there are some loose ends left untied. (I guess even Shakespeare struggled with finding a good ending.)

The production on the Festival stage under the able direction of Frank Galanti is thoroughly enjoyable. Laura Condlin as Mistress Page and Lucy Peacock as Mistress Ford, are the nominal merry wives, and they have a great deal of fun. The plotting husbands are played to the hilt by Tom McCamus as Master Page and Tom Rooney as Master Ford. Geraint Wyn Davies hams it up well as Sir John Falstaff, who is treated more like the butt of jokes rather than the driver of the plot; he's painted almost like Malvolio in Twelfth Night and even has a couple of goofy companions to round out the company. The thankless roles of the young lovers, Fenton and Miss Ann Page, are played with winsome charm by Trent Pardy and Andrea Runge, but as in most of Shakespeare's comedies, they don't get to have as much fun as the rest of the intriguers.

This is not your Henry's Falstaff, but he's still a basketful of laughs.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stratford 2011 - Harold Pinter's Comic Stylings

As a part of my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I put on my theatre scholar's cap to review the plays we're seeing.

I remember sitting through numerous graduate school seminars in theatre where we plumbed the depths of every line in a Harold Pinter play, trying to come up with the inner meanings of his long pauses and seemingly disconnected simple phrases. The plots were deceptively simple, we thought, because there had to be something more. How else could Pinter achieve the total heaviosity that we were told was there?

Even after working on two different productions of The Birthday Party, one under the direction of Emily Mann at the University of Minnesota, I was sure that there was some greater depth to Pinter's work than what we saw on the surface; maybe I had not achieved the elusive level of understanding, and all I saw was just the inane conversation between people I didn't care about. But all the wise and insightful articles and critiques of his work hinted that there was much, much more. And so I sought it out.

Well, I finally figured it out yesterday at the hands of a truly great production of The Homecoming here at Stratford: Harold Pinter was a comic genius. Not in the fashion of the Marx Brothers or Mel Brooks, but in crafting characters and situations that really are truly comic. Instead of being menacing, Brian Dennehy gives Max, the patriarch of his dysfunctional collection of sons and brothers, a blustery tone in an almost Homer Simpson way that lets you appreciate his ineffectualness. His in-home sons Lenny and Joey are echoes of their father; Lenny, the seething and conniving pimp, and Joey, the muscular, inarticulate, slightly goofy boxer who lives for the moment. All of them are perfect for playing off each other.

As in all Pinter plays, there is a menacing intruder who disrupts the flow. In this case it's the arrival of Max's son Teddy, a professor of philosophy who lives in the U.S, and his wife Ruth, who immediately sizes up the family dynamic and plays each of the men like a fine Stradivarius. It's all done in a claustrophobic set of a dingy home in London that cries out for more room, even after long-ago attempts to make the space bigger.

This production doesn't play for the broad laughs; director Jennifer Tarver and her cast knew just the right touches to bring about the laughter -- both broad and nervous -- in this production. The casting is perfect, and Mr. Dennehy, who has a presence on stage that is both vulnerable and menacing in everything I've seen him in, is the quintessential English working class dad. Stephen Ouimette is always a delight to watch for his understated archness, and Cara Ricketts as Ruth is just plain fascinating. Kudos also to Ian Lake as Joey and Mike Shara as the seemingly dense Teddy, the professor who appears to not know what is happening right under his nose, but really does get it.

I suppose it's rather Pinteresque that I learned more about Pinter's work in two hours yesterday than I did in all those seminars way back in grad school. Who knew?

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Inge Festival 2011, Day 3 - Cool Times

After the thunderstorms swept through Independence on Thursday night, the weather turned cold, windy, and rainy. It did not, however, put a damper on the festival.

Friday morning for me began with a discussion of Inge's relationship with the press and drama critics, always a dicey area for playwrights, and for Inge in particular. For some reason he was viewed by several critics as lucky; he seemingly came out of nowhere in 1952 to conquer Broadway with four hit plays in a row and elbow his way into the stratosphere of American theatre next to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Of course, he was not an overnight sensation; his ascendancy had been a long and winding trip, including stints teaching and other occupations and even spending a couple of years as the critic at large for a St. Louis newspaper. His first play, Come Back, Little Sheba, had taken years to get into shape and had endured a lot of rejection before getting to the stage. The same thing happened with Picnic, and when it finally made it to Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, it had been through a lot, including a stormy relationship with the director, Joshua Logan, and the version of the play that we've come to know was despised by the author, who felt that he was bullied into making the play have a "happy ending."

It would be inevitable that Inge -- like his fellow playwrights of the era -- would hit the wall and produce unsuccessful plays. For some, they accepted this with a begrudging awareness that they have done their best work. But for Inge, the combination of flops and his internal demons of addiction and repression became too much and he committed suicide in 1973. The common practice -- especially with Inge -- is to blame the critics for sneering at his works as dated and sentimental. But it was more than just rejection by the press; it was Inge's own inability to believe in himself and shrug off the critics. It's not easy to do, but he seemed to let it -- along with his own demons -- lead him to the end. And it was a terrible loss.

Friday afternoon I presented my paper for the scholar's conference; "Plain Speaking - The Voices of William Inge". I examined Inge's use of everyday dialogue and the sometimes clumsy way his characters speak as the reflection of the true heart and soul of the characters, and how Inge often used the silences between the characters as powerful moments in his plays. It forces the actors to examine their roles with more precision and care, and to listen carefully to what the other characters are saying.

Last night was the gala dinner with performances by Elizabeth Wilson, Sheldon Harnick, Daisy Egan (the youngest person ever to win a Tony for her performance in The Secret Garden), and reminiscences of the last 30 years of Inge Festivals. I'm glad I've been here for twenty of them.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Inge Festival 2011, Day 2 - Another Opn'n', Another Show

The 2011 William Inge Theatre Festival kicked off Wednesday night with a wonderful concert performance of A Doctor In Spite of Himself, a musical version of the play by Moliere. The entire production -- music, books, and lyrics -- were written by Sheldon Harnick, who, with the late Jerry Bock, gave us such theatre legends as Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, and The Rothschilds. With a cast made up of local talent and guest artists John Schuck and Alan Safier, it was a delightful evening of great music and Moliere's humor and satire.

Today we had workshops and classes, including session on acting and auditioning for local high school students taught by working actors from New York and Los Angeles, including Barbara Dana, and a look at the critics process as envisioned by Dan Sullivan, the former drama critic of the Los Angeles Times.

Tonight we had a staged reading Horsedreams by Dael Orlandersmith, winner of the New Voices award presented annually by the Inge Festival. It was a collection of monologues; an interesting approach to theatre and not exactly what I envision a play to be. However, there were some interesting characters, and I think the play -- if I can call it that -- has some potential if it can overcome the limitation of having the characters address the audience and rarely interact with each other.

And on a purely shameless self-promotion note, copies of Can't Live Without You are selling.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Inge Festival 2011, Day 1 - Welcome to Independence

Greetings from Independence, Kansas, home of the 30th annual William Inge Festival. This is my 20th trip here, starting in 1991, when Edward Albee was the guest of honor, and I've only missed one -- 2002 when I was directing a production of Grease (and would have been far happier to be here than doing that).

The flight from Albuquerque to Dallas and then on to Tulsa were uneventful (except for a child two rows behind me who was working her banshee audition), and the weather here is beautiful; clear and warm, and so likely to be for the rest of the week.

My first stop was at the William Inge Theatre on the campus of Independence Community College, which is the the host of the festival. There I dropped off the supply of Can't Live Without You scripts (on sale for the incredibly low price of $10) and greeting old friends. Tonight will be a performance of a new musical by Sheldon Harnick (Inge honoree in 2007), A Doctor In Spite of Himself.

Tomorrow begins the workshops and sessions with actors and guests. My big moment is Friday when I am at the Scholar's Conference.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lanford Wilson -- 1937-2011

There have been a lot of influential people in my life. My parents, of course, and my siblings, my former partner, caring teachers, good friends, and, not surprisingly, writers. I can think of several who shaped my views and helped me form my own voice as a writer. One of the most influential was -- and will always be -- Lanford Wilson. He died Thursday at the age of 73.

The first play of his that I read was Fifth of July. I was in grad school at the University of Colorado in 1983 and had not yet decided what I would write my thesis on. I was kicking around some ideas about the realistic theatre movement and not really excited about it. Then one day I happened to pick up a copy of the play that was lying on one of my office-mates' desk. I sat down and read the entire play in one sitting, completely absorbed in the world he had created of the Talley family -- Ken, the gay Vietnam vet who had lost both legs in the war; and his lover Jed; June, Ken's sister and her daughter Shirley; Aunt Sally, who carried around the ashes of her beloved husband Matt in a candy box, and all of them in this rambling old farmhouse in rural Missouri. The voices were so real I could hear them, and when I saw the play filmed with love by his longtime collaborator and director Marshall W. Mason, I knew I had found not just a kindred spirit as a writer, but someone who knew the same people I did and felt as deeply about them.

I immediately sought out as many of his plays as I could find; Talley's Folly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that tells of the romance between Matt and Sally in 1944; The Hot L Baltimore, an ensemble play about a run-down hotel and the characters who inhabit the lobby; Balm in Gilead; Serenading Louie; The Gingham Dog; The Rimers of Eldritch; The Mound Builders; Lemon Sky; Angels Fall; early one-acts from his days and nights at the Caffe Cino, scene studies and exercises for the Circle Repertory Company that he founded with Marshall W. Mason, Tanya Berezin, and Rob Thirkield in 1969. They ranged from wildly funny to scary dark and everything in between, all with his distinctive lyrical touch of wit, charm, and acidic bite when necessary. I never read a play of his that didn't instill a sense of wonder and enjoyment, even when he wrote characters that made me cringe. His world is not populated with grand heroes or dastardly villains; they're ordinary people learning to cope, love, care, and in many respects they are outsiders who know all too well that the world is not giving them some great reward. His plays deal with the dramas and traumas of life, but not on a grand scale; loss and sorrow as well as joy and love are expressed with a touch or a word, not with long heartfelt speeches, and that makes them all that much more powerful.

I knew almost immediately that I had found what I was looking for, and when I proposed to my doctoral committee a study of the collaboration of Lanford Wilson and Marshall W. Mason at the Circle Rep, it was accepted. I also knew I had to get in touch with him, so I wrote to his agent, Bridget Aschenberg, requesting to meet him and interview him. Ms. Aschenberg, who had a reputation for being terse, wrote back and said she would consider it but not to get my hopes up. I was disappointed, but then my adviser suggested that I simply go around the agent and contact Mr. Wilson directly through the theatre. I did, and within a week I had a hand-written response expressing delight that someone wanted to write about him and told me to let him know when I would be in New York and we could meet. In March 1985 I took the plunge and went to New York to begin my research and interview both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Mason. I remember distinctly walking up the flight of stairs to the offices of the Circle Rep, located in a slightly run-down Art Deco style building in Greenwich Village that also housed the rehearsal space. My appointment with Mr. Wilson was on the book, but -- oh no -- he was stuck out at his house on Long Island, laid up with sciatica. Sag Harbor was hours away and I was on a shoe-string budget. But then the phone rang. It was him. He apologized profusely for missing our appointment, and he said, "Please call me Lance; why don't we just chat for a while?" So we did, and we found out that we had a lot of things in common. We must have talked for an hour, and I stopped taking notes after the first five minutes because it was like talking to a friend.

Later that day I went to a local pub with Marshall W. Mason, who graciously answered all my questions into my little mini-recorder, and then invited me to watch a play reading of a new work the next afternoon. I got to watch him work as a director and learned more in one afternoon than all of the classes I'd taken on directing in my college career. I also took notes because back in Boulder I was in the middle of directing a production of Fifth of July. The notes were the first thing I unpacked when I got home.

Later that summer I drove all the way across country -- making a stop in Stratford, Ontario -- to see a performance of the final play in the Talley series, Talley & Son in Saratoga Springs, New York. It was the third of three and rounded out my studies of the Wilson/Mason collaboration. After the performance I sat up until two a.m. with them talking about their work, listening to their stories, meeting their company (including Helen Stenborg), and knowing that my doctoral thesis had now become a labor of love.

In 2001, with much prodding from me and several other fans of his work, the William Inge Theatre Festival honored Lanford Wilson with their Distinguished Achievement in American Theatre award. In one respect, Lance didn't want the award; he told me that he had a lot more to do and it was too early to be recognized for his work. Marshall Mason once said, "Lanford still hasn't written a play as good as [A] Streetcar [Named Desire]. He may not. Whatever. He will have written plays that no one else could have written... He'll find his own niche in history. We'll see."
"Matt didn’t believe in death and I don’t either.... There’s no such thing. It goes on and then it stops. You can’t worry about the stopping, you have to worry about the going on." – Sally Talley, Fifth of July.
Photo by Maxine Hicks.

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Stratford 2010 - The Shaw Festival

We added a side trip this year to Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, and our first visit to the Shaw Festival. It's been going on for almost fifty years, and we've always talked about it, so we finally made our way from Stratford to NOTL -- about a three-hour drive -- and went to see Shaw's 1904 play John Bull's Other Island.

The town itself is very charming, with its Victorian-style homes and shops, more of a New England flavor than the Midwestern ambiance of Stratford's cornfields. It is also very popular; that is to say, the sidewalks were packed with tourists from all over, including, I'm sure, those making sidetrips from seeing Niagara Falls or weekenders from Toronto. We stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel, smack dab in the middle of all of the tourism. It's a charming place, rambling over several buildings on the main street, and the rooms are lovely in that genially overstuffed Victorian way.

We had dinner at a very highly recommended Italian restaurant -- Ristorante Giardino -- and then went to the play at the Court Theatre, one of several venues for the festival, and the original space for the festival. The name is true to the place; the theatre is on the second floor of the city's old courthouse. It's a black-box space, three-quarters thrust, with room for about three hundred in the audience.

The play itself was new to me. I've seen or read most of Shaw's best-known works, but this comedy, written in 1904 at the urging of William Butler Yeats, was one I'd never read or seen. Frankly, I don't know why; it's funny, touching, and as is the case with most of Shaw's plays, loaded with political commentary and insight. His views of the relationship between England and Ireland are sharp and pointed; his characters -- both the English and the Irish -- are fully drawn, and in doing so, he manages to explode stereotypes and exploit them as well.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Two civil engineers from England come to Ireland to see about transforming a small village into a tourist resort, replete with a golf course and a hotel (a nod to NOTL?). Tom Broadbent (Benedict Campbell) is a typical English businessman of the time; exceedingly polite and an easy mark for the doubting and deliberate Irish hosts. He is accompanied by Larry Doyle (Graeme Somerville), his business partner, and an Irishman from the town they're going to develop. Naturally Mr. Doyle is torn between his roots, his ambitions, and his feelings -- pride mixed with shame -- about his family and his homeland. Along the way, in typical Shaw fashion, we get comic scenes and political lectures about the struggle for Ireland's identity, and Shaw, being an Irishman who himself moved to London, much like Larry Doyle, makes the outcome a true question. And it is amazing how prescient he would be about the resolution and the revolution in Ireland years before came to be. More than a hundred years later, it's still a question.

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Friday, August 06, 2010

Stratford 2010 - Evita

Day 3

Evita has been called a rock opera or, in the terms used here at Stratford, an "electric musical." But if we're going to go by the strict definition of what an opera is, then there's no need for an adjective. It's an opera in that it is all sung with only a few lines of spoken dialogue, and it certainly requires the talents of trained voices. That it uses contemporary musical forms -- or at least contemporary to the time it was written in 1976 -- doesn't disqualify it as an opera any more than the use of jazz does Porgy and Bess or Spanish folk music does in Carmen. (By the way, one of the other similarities Evita has with Carmen is that both of the composers were foreigners writing about other lands and cultures; Bizet was a Frenchman writing about Spanish workers, and Andrew Lloyd Weber is an Englishman writing about an Argentinian power couple.) So it's an opera. And I usually hate operas.

I have sat through several of them and despised them for their convoluted plots, the imponderable language, and the exaggerated characters and vocalizations. But Evita puts it in a different perspective. The plot line is straightforward, there are five major roles, no subplots, the music is both well done and appropriate for both the time and the action. Chilina Kennedy was brilliant as Evita, as was Juan Chioran as Juan Peron. Josh Young, who sang Che, the narrator/commentator, was excellent as well, bringing just the right touch of cynicism to a character that stands in for the people of Argentina and the outside world watching the pageantry of forced enthusiasm for a dictator.

The theme of Evita is, as director Gary Griffin put it in his director's note, "...our need for icons. Why do we worship people like Eva Perón – or, more recently, Princess Diana and Michael Jackson? What is it about us (for we create our icons as much as they fashion themselves) that causes us to invest so deeply in people we know only as public figures?" It's probably a search for something in common with them; after all, the biggest sellers in the magazine racks are the People magazines or the National Enquirers when they show us pictures of celebrities without the make-up and the glitz; when we see Brad Pitt shopping at the grocery store. Evita and the story behind it is that on a scale that touched millions of lives in real ways in a real place in our living memory. And it provides a cautionary tale for our own political celebrities: how soon will someone come up with a version of "Don't Cry For Me, Wasilla"?

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Stratford 2010 - Dangerous Liaisons and The Tempest

Day 2

Every once in a while, just to prove they're like any other theatre company, Stratford will produce a clunker. I've seen lousy productions here, such as the 1973 Othello with an actor playing the title role whose accent was so thick that he was virtually unintelligible, and in the early 1980's they did Miss Julie by August Stridberg that set my teeth on edge. This year it is Dangerous Liaisons by Christopher Hampton.

It is the stage version of the novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos that has been filmed several times, including a version in 1988 with John Malkovich and Glenn Close, and a hip 90's version called Cruel Intentions with Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Whatever. What I saw today was a thoroughly unlikable production of a thoroughly unlikable play about thoroughly unlikable people. Even the glorious Martha Henry and the occasional flashes of humor from Tom McCamus as Valmont couldn't save this cold and jarring production. The settings on the Festival stage were a mixture of Rococo furniture and what appeared to be clear Lucite chairs in the Rococo style but see-through. I'm not sure whether this was done for effect or to give the audience a clearer view of the action. (They've been able to use non-transparent furniture on the thrust stage for as long as I've been going there without any ill effect.) The music was also a combination of period-style pieces interjected with what could only be called Queen on crack with harpsichords.

The plot revolves around a couple of bored rich French aristocrats on the eve of the French Revolution making bets that involve sexual conquest and deception. It includes rape, sexual assault, subjugation, denigration, and driving people to madness for sport. At the end when they are held accountable, the regret is less about realizing they did wrong then it does about preserving their good name, and while the epilogue hints at the doom that lies in wait for all the aristocracy of France in 1785, it's overly dramatic and therefore silly.

I'm sure there is some reason the good people of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival chose this work, and I'm sure they thought they could do a production that makes the point about how cruel the rich can be. This wasn't it.

*

On the other hand, tonight's production of The Tempest was what made me fall in love with theatre in general and what keeps me coming back to Stratford year after year. Starring Christopher Plummer as Prospero, it had all the ingredients that make the Stratford festival what it has always been for me: a stunning production with all the joy and staging that make you forget you're sitting in a theatre, acting that is so natural that it makes the poetry come alive. Even the rather cookie-cutter roles of Ferdinand and Miranda, the young lovers, were played to full effect by Gareth Potter and Trish Lindström. Ariel, the sprite, was magically done by Julyana Soelistyo to the degree that she was, in many ways, the soul of the play and on equal footing with the power and presence of Mr. Plummer. Caliban, the half-human slave of Prospero, becomes a sympathetic figure in the portrayal by Dion Johnstone, and the comic relief parts of Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies) and Trinculo (Bruce Dow) were wonderfully done. The bad guys -- Prospero's brother and usurper and his fellow conspirators -- were done with the touch of evil that is required of such roles, but unlike previous productions where they are treated as pawns of Prospero, there was some depth and even some softness in their plight of being stranded by the storm that Prospero called forth to bring them to him for his vengeance.

Christopher Plummer had some mighty large shoes to fill. The last man to play the role of Prospero on the Festival Stage was William Hutt in his farewell performance in 2005. I saw that performance and thought it was masterful, but Mr. Plummer more than adequately honored both the role and the memory of Mr. Hutt. Bringing his own touch to the role and playing Prospero as a father to Miranda that had touches of a dad in it (the scene where he blesses the engagement of Ferdinand and Miranda has Dad-meets-Boyfriend all over it) proves -- again -- that Mr. Plummer is an actor that not just plays the role but takes the character to his heart in a way that few actors truly do. Rather than dominate the stage, he knows his part and his place as one of the ensemble.

Thanks to this production, The Tempest is becoming one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.

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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Stratford 2010 - Jacques Brel...

The name of the show -- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris -- is sadly incorrect. The Flemish songwriter died in 1978. But that doesn't mean his works are gone, and the song cycle that was put together by Mort Shulman and Eric Blau when the title was true is still alive and doing very well at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

The original format -- two men, two women, and a small orchestra -- hasn't been changed since the first time it was staged in 1968 and it is still effective. The direction of Stafford Arima and the powerful voices of Jewelle Blackman, Brent Carver, Michael Nadajewski, and Robin Hutton (subbing for Nathalie Nadon) handled the music and the lyrics very well. The musical direction by Laura Burton, using new orchestrations by Rick Fox, were impeccable. The stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre, which is a converted curling rink, served the staging well; Brel is a production best served in an intimate venue, and since Stratford is a long way from Greenwich Village, this was as good a place as any to do it.

There is no through-line or plot to the song cycle; each one stands on its own. But the overall theme of Brel's songs -- cynical, poignant, and often dripping with acidic commentary on life and love -- combine to give you a somewhat sardonic look at life through his eyes. But just when you think he's dug the scalpel in, he pulls you in another direction; giddy, distraught, mocking, and sometimes cruel. But just when you think you've seen his life through the haze of cigarette smoke in a boozy nightclub on the Left Bank, the final song, "If We Only Have Love," is an anthem to uplifting hope and promise. Gotcha.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

Pictures From The Inge

I finally got around to downloading the rest of my pictures from the William Inge Festival... a week after. Here are just a few memories of good friends and good times.

Artistic Director Peter Ellenstein welcomes us to the Festival.


Tom Jones, lyricist of The Fantasticks and last year's honoree, teaches on the joy of writing great plays.


The Scholars Conference - Jef Petersen, Sue Abbottson, David Savran, Jackson Bryer, and host Lesley Simpson.


Marcel LaFlamme, curator of the Inge Collection at ICC, chats with Paula Vogel.


Barbara Dana entertains at the Gala Dinner.


See you in 2011.

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