Review


Originally published by HowlRound on November 10, 2015

This piece is a follow up to an earlier preview of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Read the original piece here.

Was it Oz? Well, it took me about as long to recover from my weekend in DC as I imagine it took Dorothy to settle back in to Kansas. I was on a theatre high for weeks after a visit to see as much of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as I could over three days—which is actually not much given that forty-eight women have new plays in this festival.

Destiny of Desire
First up was Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías, directed by José Luis Valenzuela, at Arena Stage. When I spoke with Zacarías in September, she described her show featured a troupe of actors doing a telenovela. The women in the acting company, she said, are not pleased with where their characters are going, so it becomes about “What happens when women take destiny in their own hands and start changing the script? What happens when we go off the path that is expected of us and test new things?”

Esperanza America as Pilar Castillo, Elia Saldaña as Victoria del Rio, and Fidel Gomez as Doctor Diego in Destiny of Desire. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Given this description I was therefore surprised that, though the show contained many Brechtian elements, such as visible lighting apparatus and the interruption of the action by actors delivering sometimes humorous, sometimes sobering factoids about love, marriage, family, and Latina/o life into microphones, the actors in the telenovela never actually acknowledged that they were actors or that they were “changing the script.” The reality was something much more subtle, wherein all of the typical devices of a telenovela were employed (swapped babies, mysterious deaths, fabulous costumes) without question, yet merely by focusing the narrative on the two young women— who according to the usual structure, have little authority over their own lives— Zacarías allows us to watch them, in the most Brechtian sense, nevertheless persist in making their own choices about how to get what they want. The overall effect was hilarious, moving, and a truly insightful look at Latina/o life in relation to pop culture.

Animal
Saturday I treated myself to a matinee of Animal by Claire Lizzimore, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, at Studio Theatre. Animal was in one of the theatre’s smaller spaces, while Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica played the main stage. (Because Chimerica was not a world premiere, it could not technically be part of the festival.)

Animal, on the other hand, is the kind of new play that, like an adolescent human, is still actively forming its neural pathways. The theatre provided copies of the script to attendees at their afternoon panel discussion, “Playwright as Hybrid Artist,” featuring Lizzimore and other Festival playwrights who also act, direct, or design. Studio Literary Manager, Adrien-Alice Hansel, made sure to let us know that the script has changed just since that recent printing.

Joel David Santner and Kate Eastwood Norris (foreground), and Cody Nickell (background) in Animal at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

For a play so tender its formation, Animal packs a powerful punch. The artful blend between what is real and what is not subtly invites the audience into the worldview of the protagonist, Rachel—a woman enduring a mental illness, the diagnosis of which we only learn at the end. Kate Eastwood Norris’ defiant yet empathetic portrayal drives the show and the audience’s emotional response, and though she doesn’t miss a beat, our hearts do.

This show is written to be done with a small cast in a small space with a minimal set, so the next time anyone tries to tell you that they just can’t find plays by women that they can afford to do, or that have central protagonists that both men and women can connect to, tell them about Animal.

Queens Girl in the World
Saturday night I saw Queens Girl in the World by Caleen Sinette Jennings, directed by Eleanor Holdridge at Theater J. Developed by Theater J’s Locally Grown: Community Supported Art initiative, this one-woman show tells the story of a young black girl (Jacqueline) whose parents transfer her from a neighborhood school in Queens to a progressive school in Greenwich Village. Set in 1962, references to historical events like the assassination of Malcolm X resonate as strongly as the decision of the heroine to stop wearing bobby socks, a moment that becomes both personal and political when uses this a period-specific metaphor for the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Jacqueline’s encounters with Jewish culture awaken her to the vast world outside her neighborhood just as the Civil Rights Movement is awakening her political consciousness and awareness of her own racial identity. All the while, Jacqueline endures everything most young women do, like crushes and BFFs. Turns out, you can learn a lot when you look at the world through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. This show is a tour-de-force for its lead, played by Dawn Ursula.

Dawn Ursula as Jacqueline in Queens Girl in the World. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Women Laughing Alone with Salad
Woolly Mammoth’s production of Women Laughing Alone with Salad by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Kip Fagan, is both the most financially supported production of one of Callaghan’s plays I have ever seen, and probably not coincidentally the best. In fact, the question of whether or not new plays by women can really be expected to succeed when they are given only half the resources of productions of new plays by men came up at Woolly’s post-show panel discussion on gender parity. At the panel, Callaghan and other activist theatre women spoke about the Summit, the Kilroys, the Pipeline, and The Count, and shared their successful strategies and tactics to advance gender parity in the not-for-profit theatre. During the panel, Callaghan barely managed to contain her frustration with inequality in professional theatre. In her play, she gives full voice to the frustration she feels at the way women are treated and places the blame squarely on the media for promulgating the mythology of beauty as value. The production was loud, bold, angry, funny, sexy, disturbing, disorienting, political, and personal, with a second act that is Churchill-ian in both structure and effect.

Kimberly Gilbert, Janet Ulrich Brooks, and Meghan Reardon in Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The post-show panelists repeatedly pointed out that no hard evidence suggests that shows by women do worse than those by men when they are given the same resources for development and production. If you invest in the works of Sheila Callaghan, you will reap the rewards.

Uprising
Uprising by Gabrielle Fulton, directed by Thomas W. Jones, at MetroStage was my surprise find of the weekend. As industry weekends are intended to do, I met Fulton at the “Playwright as Hybrid Artist” panel and was able to get tickets to see her show in Alexandria, VA, on my last night there.

Set in pre-Civil War America in a community of free blacks, the inciting event of this play is the arrival of Osbourne Perry Anderson, the only surviving African American at the Harper’s Ferry Raid, seeking refuge after John Brown’s failed revolution. The play with music goes on to question the nature of freedom, work, love, motherhood, and history through an epic use of music, dance, sound, dialogue, and projections. The quality of the production rivaled all that I saw at the area’s more metropolitan theatres and the intimacy of the space was well suited to a story at turns philosophical and heart-wrenchingly personal.

Anthony Manough as Ossie and Cynthia D. Barker as Sal in Uprising. Photo by Chris Banks.

Union is particularly adept at decentering the historical figure of Anderson in favor of the fictional Sal, a free black and a repository of the history of being enslaved, raped, and separated from family that is particular to women of color. While Osbourne remains a fixed figure whose fate is determined before the play begins, Sal, though influenced and affected by the forces around her, makes her own decisions, using what little freedom she has to determine her own fate, ignoring the dire warnings of everyone around her. Despite all she’s lived through and even when no one else seems to trust her, Sal trusts herself.

Trust in women is not something you find often today—in some cases we are not trusted to make our own medical decisions, to raise children, to be single, to be married, to manage budgets, and to work at the highest levels. But the people who put together the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and the collaborators that made world-premiere productions possible for so many playwrights clearly placed not only their trust, but also their resources, behind women.

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival has also set a precedent and created a template that can be used across the country. Assuming you invest in the production, there is simply no truth in the excuse that producing plays by women is a financial risk. In fact, I’m willing to bet that almost any producer in DC who participated in the festival will tell you: Trusting women pays.

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Originally published by Ms. Magazine on October 30, 2015

Film.12664.linh-hon-lai-vangApparently the spirits of Halloween can be quick to respond this time of year, because no sooner did I wish for a Gothic horror-based film that enables its young heroine to save herself and even her family without the help of men, whether dead or alive, than I found one on Netflix: Haunter, starring Abigail Breslin, is this feminist guide to horror movies’ runner-up for top pic this season.

Like all Gothic thrillers, Haunter centers around a house: A large house, full of mysterious rooms, previously unnoticed doors, and its fair share of ghosts. Like most Gothic thrillers, it also centers around a young woman who has become, against her will, trapped in that house. Like the good Gothic thrillers, whether the young woman in Haunter is seeing ghosts or something else or is simply going mad is gradually clarified through a series of carefully placed dramatic reveals. And like the best story in any genre, Haunter empowers the young woman—well, women, really—at the heart of the story to solve their own problems.

Breslin’s disenchanted teen could have lived in any era, but the “Siouxsie and the Banshees” tee and the posters on the walls of her room place her squarely in the early ’80s. Her house, on the other hand, has seemingly been occupied by similar young women since the late Victorian era—women trapped there by one particularly insidious person, first as a boy and then a man, who commands his house even after his death as if it were his castle. This legacy of patriarchal terror is so powerful as to be able to infect every family that lives there, even after the home’s original serial killer has died. Only one individual in each of three decades, all 30 years apart, is able to step outside of the cycle and break it, and that is the 16-year-old daughter. Despite its twists, turns, and well-timed reveals, Haunter delivers a pretty clear message: It is up to young women to save themselves, and the best way to do that is to ally themselves with other young women.

Fem Points:

+4 for a central female character who is a badass teen but has nothing at all to do with Katniss Everdeen

+2 for getting that when teenage girls describe their experiences, they may sound crazy, but they are actually the only ones speaking the truth

By contrast, there’s at least one on-demand film that you can, without a doubt, not waste your time on this year. The Hole has all of the promise that Haunter lives up to, yet falls far, far short. Obviously scripted to appeal to Gen Xers in its depiction of a modern-day latch-key kid and the vaseline-y looks of many of the shots, The Hole could have been an endearing film about a family making do in circumstances they didn’t foresee. Instead, it merely re-indicts single moms for opening up a hole for evil to enter and destroy their children (get it? open up a hole?). If it weren’t for the eldest male child in this family, no fewer than three teenagers would have lost their lives before the adult in charge so much as noticed. Note to filmmakers: I am a member of Gen X, and guess what, we lived! Even the ones who had divorced parents! They did not die by anything that came out of or went into their mother’s holes!

Fem Points:

-4 points for making something that should have been easy such a failure instead

-2 points for use of sexy-teenage-girl-next-door trope without any commentary at all

-A million for dissing single moms

If you can only watch one horror movie this season, the winner is clear: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not only written and directed by a woman, but it’s also truly suspenseful, conscious of all the tropes it evokes while still being truly original, and … did I mention written and directed by a woman?

Fem Points:

A jillion bazillion

title_bannerThis article was originally published by Ms. Magazine on July 8, 2015.

A sighting of that rare bird called feminist science fiction is truly a thing to celebrate. It does exist, sometimes by accident (see Alien), and sometimes on purpose (see almost anything by Octavia Butler). With Advantageous, a film written by Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang, directed by Phang and starring Kim, the feminism is entirely purposeful.

Influenced during her studies at Pomona College by the work of such experimental filmmakers asCheryl Dunye and Alexandra Juhasz, Phang has always tried to represent a diverse world in her films and to tell stories about identity, specifically Asian and Asian American identities. Speaking on the phone from her San Francisco office, she told the Ms. Blog that when the Independent Film and Television Service approached her seeking proposals for science fiction shorts, she jumped at the chance to make an Asian American woman the center of the film. When actor Ken Jeong (The Hangover, “Community”) saw the short, he was so moved that he offered to help turn it into a feature, and that feature went on to win the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision at Sundance.

The central character in Advantageous, Gwen Koh (Kim), is the spokesperson and head of The Center for Advanced Health and Living, a cosmetic surgery company that has developed a way for the aged and infirm to move their consciousness into a younger, healthier body. When the center decides that Koh is too old to continue as their spokesperson—just as her daughter is entering an elite and very expensive private school—she decides to undergo the body-changing procedure herself.

In reality, she has been manipulated into making this decision by the real head of the center, played by a (somewhat ironically) beautifully aging Jennifer Ehle. Though this happens in a future in which cosmetic surgery has become much more than a matter of lift and tuck, Koh’s struggle with whether and how to change her body for the sake of her daughter and her career, combined with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the corporation, casts a complicated light on the present struggles of women trying to succeed in both career and motherhood while facing the social pressure to stay young and be perfect.

Not coincidentally, Koh, in collaboration with the company, chooses not only a young body into which to transition, but also a more ethnically ambiguous one (Freya Adams). Phang said that she cast Adams “not just because she’s a great actor, but also because she was able to play someone with a universal look. So the audience has to explore what is it about her that makes them want her to be the look of their company.”

Koh isn’t eager to take the extreme step of cosmetic surgery, so before undergoing the transition she attempts to find work through an agency she has worked with in the past. She discovers, however, that the voice on the other end of the phone is not only not a genuine supporter of her work, but isn’t even human, leading to one of the most profound conversations in the film:

Gwen: Drake, are you human being?

Drake: That’s a funny question. How do you define a human being?

Gwen: Do you have blood running through your veins? Do you get thirsty?

Drake: That is a definition of a human being?

Gwen: I didn’t know.

Drake: That sounds more like a human being. Not to know.

To say that Advantageous is a meditation on the meaning of life sounds cliché, but I can find no more fitting phrase. Both the mother and daughter at the center of the film spend the film’s duration in the pursuit of fulfillment, improvement, and a seemingly ever-elusive kind of achievement, and the tempo of the film ensures that both the characters and audience have plenty of time to think about what fulfillment really means.

Phang considers herself an idealist, and it is true that in this film, to a certain extent, daughter and mother both secure the kind of success for themselves that this near-future world believes to be paramount. But, as with the kind of feminist art that intends to make its audience think, most of the questions about the actual meaning of human existence are left unanswered. The 12-year-old daughter, Jules, (Samantha Kim) states twice—once to her original mother and once to her mother-in-a-new-body—“I don’t know why I’m alive.” Though her mother offers a few answers, and different ones each time, the meditative quality of the daughter’s question and her mother’s answers makes it hard to believe that either finds much comfort in them.

In fact, even the background moments of buildings being blown up by terrorists are greeted not with terror but with an attitude of resignation that such things cannot be helped, and the process of changing bodies is more like the passage of time during sleep than the usual explosive, special-effects ridden climaxes of most science fiction movies. The most gripping moments of the film are found in the reactions of Gwen’s family to the consequences of her choice, beautifully revealing that even in a world where technology has become advanced enough to change the nature of life, being human is still a matter of feeling intimacy, love, and loss, of wanting to understand something that is inevitably just out of our reach and, ultimately, of accepting that no matter how successful or rich you are and no matter how technologically advanced our culture is, being human is mostly a matter of not knowing.

Phang is already hard at work on her next two films: One is a science fiction romance adapted from a play by Dominic Mah called Look for Water. The other is a film about climate change based on the work of real-life scientist Inez Fung, which she hopes will inspire audiences to reengage with climate change issues before it’s too late. She was recently awarded a $40,000 Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant from the San Francisco Film Society to support herself while developing these projects, something Phang told the Ms. Blog she wouldn’t be able to live without:

I am fortunate to live in a time when organizations understand that in order to have sustainable media careers, women need support of some sort. The SFFS has a visionary program called Filmmaker360 that aims to change the representation of women in genre films by supporting women creators, which is a big deal for me and a big deal for women.

Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix.

This review is dedicated to Michele Kort, who taught me how to be journalist and how to live in the human state of not knowing.

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Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

Originally published by HowlRound on March 26, 2015

Hayes Thigpen, Austin Smith, and Amber Gray. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, first presented in New York in 1859, bears more than a striking resemblance to its better-known stage sister, George Aiken’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which premiered in 1852. Both plays, in their attempts to create sympathy for slaves while also depicting actual black people as minstrels, have been called both abolitionist and racist. Both writers attempted to appease Southerners by making the villain and “bad” slave owner a transplant from the North, while the Southerners themselves are shown as loving and gentle with their slaves. Both plays encourage the kind of spectacle that mid-nineteenth century audiences expected: Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s flight of Eliza with her child across the river, while being chased by bloodhounds, can easily be likened to the explosion of a steamboat in Act Four of The Octoroon. Most importantly, both plays aim to create sympathy for enslaved people by centering their plots on a female octoroon (a person who is 1/8th black). White audiences then, were encouraged to empathize with a slave who looked just like them—not only do real octoroons often look white, but in both original productions, the characters were also played by white actors.

The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin spawned dozens of different adaptations, and the stage plays quickly became proto-minstrel shows, advertising the use of “real negroes” alongside live dogs and, in one case, an elephant, as part of their spectacle. But while Eliza’s flight across the ford has lived on in shows as recent as The King and I and resonances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Topsy can be seen everywhere, The Octoroon has largely faded from American memory and is only occasionally taught in American theatre history classes, probably because anthologists and professors find it slightly less offensive than Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Until now, that is. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted The Octoroon into An Octoroon. A Theater for a New Audience remount of Soho Repertory’s original production, directed by Sarah Benson, runs through March 29th at the Polonksy Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Jacobs-Jenkins’ version keeps many of the original characters, much of the dialogue, and the entire plot of The Octoroon. In fact most of his take on the story is embodied in the actors and staging instead of the text: Whereas in the 1859 production, the black characters were played by white actors in blackface, in An Octoroon, a black actor (Austin Smith) plays both the white hero, George, and white villain, M’Closky, in white face; a white actor (Haynes Thigpen) plays the Native American character, Wahnotee, in red face; and a “racially ambiguous ” actor (Ian Lassiter) who looks Native American plays two black characters, Pete and Paul, in blackface.

Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.

Jacobs-Jenkins also reframes the play by writing a sort of prologue in which Smith plays a character named BJJ, who introduces himself as a black playwright and bemoans the tendency of critics to assume that all of his plays—even the one about farm animals—are attempting to deconstruct the race problem in America. Thigpen enters, watching BJJ a while before introducing himself as Dion Boucicault and bemoaning the fact that today he is all but forgotten as a playwright at all.

Smith and Thigpen don their respective white and red faces on stage, and, after Thigpen performs a stereotypical Native American dance to techno music under rave-like lighting, we enter Boucicault’s world, where George; M’Closky; Pete; Paul; the white woman, Dora; and the octoroon, Zoe, speak much of Boucicault’s text with the same melodramatic flair one can imagine actors in 1859 employing, but without most of the spectacle. Set designer Mimi Lien beautifully evokes a plantation with nothing more than a white stage covered with cotton. The playwright characters of Smith and Thigpen narrate the explosion of the steamboat. Director Sarah Benson adds to this Brechtian style by ending several violent scenes with the actors helping one another off the ground and offstage, as if to remind us that these people are not really trying to hurt one another.

Through these devices, as well as performance on stage by cellist Lester St. Louis  and the occasional appearance of a mystery man in a rabbit costume, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps reminding his audience that race, and therefore “the race problem in America,” is not just a matter of DNA (as it is for the octoroon), but rather a matter of DNA and history, heritage, and performance. All the time that has passed since 1859 serves only to make this mix more complicated. Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.

What is conspicuously missing from the play is any commentary on the intersection of sex and gender with race. Though Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the original plot, in which George falls in love with Zoe but is prohibited from marrying her because of her racial heritage, all the while being courted by Dora, a rich white woman desperate for a husband to spend her money on, none of the narration deals with the disenfranchisement of these women. Additionally, while the three male actors play characters of different races, the central character, Zoe, is played by a light-skinned, bi-racial actor (Amber Gray), the white woman is played by a white woman (Mary Wiseman), and the two female slaves are played by black actors (Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand), indicating that the same fluidity of identity embodied by the men does not apply to them.

Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Furthermore, both Zoe and Dora speak the original text written by Boucicault, with only the length of Dora’s dress in any way removing her from her historical position, and are not given any opportunities for direct address or to engage in contemporary dialogue. And whereas Boucicault’s Zoe is given the opportunity, after she is sold to the villain M’Closky, to kill herself on stage, making a profound point about her unwillingness to go back to being a slave, Jacobs-Jenkins’ Zoe leaves stage with her poison never to be seen again. Finally, the two female slaves, played wonderfully by Aharanwa and Armand, speak neither in the manner of the educated playwright characters nor in the slave dialect of Boucicault’s slaves, but rather in a kind of urbanese reminiscent of Orange is the New Black’s Tastee and Poussey. Whether Jacobs-Jenkins intends to draw a straight line from slavery to contemporary urban culture, however, is unclear, as neither he nor the actors offer any explicit commentary on the women’s characterizations.

Without the deconstruction of sex and gender that would be accomplished by cross-racial casting, cross-sex casting, or having those actors speak for themselves directly to the audience, as the men do, the use of the dialect can be read to imply that contemporary black women willingly maintain a slave mentality—one of them uses modern language to repeatedly declare her excitement at being sold to work as a slave on a boat!—despite years of progress. On the other hand, if the playwright intends to show that ghettos have replaced slavery as a means of oppressing African Americans, or that black women have not gained as many rights as black men have since slavery, some commentary from the on-stage playwrights about the women characters would have helped clarify that point.

Instead, in the midst of a very funny, very moving, wonderfully designed, directed, and acted production of a play about the complexity of American identities and their unresolvable connection to our legacy of slavery and genocide, the central female character has become not more complex but rather more generic. She is no longer the octoroon, she is an octoroon.

Perry Ojeda and Patti Cohenour in South Coast Repertory's 2014 p

Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

The great Southern writer Elizabeth Spencer wrote her most famous story, “The Light in the Piazza, ” while living abroad. She had left the small town in which she grew up, Carollton, Miss., on a Guggenheim Fellowship for Italy. There she also wrote The Voice at the Back Door, about race relations in the South. This novel provoked the disapproval of her parents and her community.

As racial tension reached a boiling point, Spencer’s father had chosen to align with segregationists. Even her mother, who used to read to her and encouraged her to write, was appalled that her daughter had written so honestly about race in the South. The Voice at the Back Door was voted as the Pulitzer Prize winner in 1957, but rather than give it to her, the Pulitzer board decided not to bestow a prize that year.

Rejected by her parents and under constant pressure to stop writing, Spencer (who’s still with us at age 92)  spent the next 25 years living in Europe and Canada. It is, perhaps, this distance that allowed her to write a deeply personal work about the strength it takes to defy the “moonlight and magnolia” romanticization of the white Southern patriarchy. The Light in the Piazza was Spencer’s first story about a woman, and for the rest of her career she continued to write specifically about women who break the rules.

The Light in the Piazza tells the story of Margaret Johnson, who has taken her mentally challenged daughter, Clara, on a trip to Italy. Clara falls in love with an Italian man, and Margaret must determine whether to let her daughter marry him, in defiance of her husband’s wishes. The story was made into a Tony-Award winning Broadway musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel in 2005. The musical is currently running at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.

Clara, whose disability is described vaguely as an inability to mature emotionally, clearly stands in for a young Spencer who, by virtue of being a writer, an artist and a woman with ambition, was marked early in her life as “different.” Like Clara, Spencer met the love of her life in Italy. Like Clara, Spencer’s father was not in attendance at or supportive of her wedding. But whereas the fictional Margaret chooses to endorse her daughter’s choice and enable her marriage to her lover, Spencer’s mother was as almost as uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s choices as her father was.

In The Light in the Piazza, Spencer has envisioned a world in which her mother’s support of her youthful creativity–her “difference”–continued into her adulthood. In reality, Spencer rarely visited Carollton, and her husband and her family never got along. But in the musical, Margaret Johnson manages to defy her husband and empower her daughter to follow her heart, come what may.

Patti Cohenour and Erin Mackey in South Coast Repertory's 2014 pIn a new documentary about her life, Landscapes of the Heart, named after Spencer’s autobiography, the writer cites a class she took in college in modern literature as a major inspiration. The modern sensibility of the The Light in the Piazza story is mirrored in the modernist music composed by Guettel, who is the grandson of Richard Rodgers. But unlike the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Guettel’s songs aren’t hummable. They are closer to something by Schoenberg: cascades of sound that never quite resolve. For the most part, it works–the music illuminates the refraction of identity at the heart of the story and hints at a musical realization of light.

Though Margaret makes the choice to defy her husband and support her daughter, the story ends without any real resolution as to whether Clara will actually be okay. Likewise, this production doesn’t quite complete itself; I didn’t even realize the finale was happening until the curtain call began.

As adorable as Clara and her Italian lover are, the story is clearly about Margaret. It is the mother’s choice whether or not to support her daughter’s rebellion that constitutes the central action of this story–not the innocence of her child or the sexy young man with whom she falls in love–making this an unusual plot for a Broadway musical. The modern music adds to the challenge of crafting a crowd-pleasing show, and the South Coast Repertory production suffers from a lack of focus on the central conflict. Moments that could have served to emphasize the central character’s rebellion– such as the revelation that she has her own savings account and the fact that she shares an illicit kiss with the married father of her daughter’s lover–are glossed over in favor of the younger characters’ love story.

The success of The Light in the Piazza (it won eight Tony Awards) proves, yet again, that stories by women–even women in their late 40s!–do sell tickets and do make great art . I look forward to a production of Light in the Piazza directed by a woman (both the Broadway and the SCR directors are male) that places Margaret firmly at the center of the story. Clara’s storyline may be unresolved, but Margaret has made her choice. She has said, essentially, “Fuck the patriarchy.”

The Light in the Piazza runs through February 23 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.

 Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

Originally posted at HowlRound

Before he shot himself in the head, Kurt Cobain wrote a suicide note in which he said, “I still can’t get over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone. There’s good in all of us and I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad.”

Before they do their own fair share of shooting, the characters in Anton Chekhov’s unfinished play Platonov (1878), an early dramatic work written while he was a schoolboy, say much the same thing—at least they do in Jay Scheib’s adaptation titled Platonov, or The Disinherited, which recently ran at the La Jolla Playhouse Without Walls Festival. Chekhov never saw a production of the play, but it has had several high-profile adaptations and productions in the last few decades and is occasionally even staged in its full four-hour glory. The author used elements from this early piece—a drunk doctor, the decline of an aristocratic estate, extramarital affairs, and revenge by gunfire—freely in his later works, lending any performance a sense of déjà vu: If you’ve seen any Chekhov, you’ve seen parts of Platonov.

Platonov begins with the dinner party of a young widow named Anna (Judy Bauerlein). Her stepson Sergey (Jon Morris); his wife Sonya (Natalie Thomas); Platonov, a country school teacher (Mikéah Ernest Jennings); his wife Sasha (Ayesha Jordan); her sister Nicole, a doctor (Virginia Newcomb); and wealthy investor Porfiry Glagoyev (Todd Blakesley), are her guests. Porfiry wants to sleep with Anna, Anna wants to sleep with Platonov, Platonov wants to sleep with Sonya, and Nicole just wants to get drunk. Anna’s servant Jacob (Laine Rettmer) spends most of the play attempting to manage the chaos that ensues, and when Porfiry fails to save Anna’s estate, Jacob manages to convert her sobriety into success by buying it herself.

Scheib’s adaptation of the play, which freely alludes to its author’s dramatic oeuvre, is post-modern because of the connections it makes to the world of rock and roll and specifically, grunge. Thankfully, these connections are not aesthetic but rather philosophical: Drugs, sex, alcohol, and even the sound of a guitar (played live) serve to amplify a Chekhovian worldview, but there is no plaid and all of the actors appear to have washed their hair.

Turns out, it’s not much of a leap. The central characters in this play are at a turning point in their lives. They can’t figure out how they got where they are. They are obsessed with whether it is too late to change course, and convinced that their potential has gone to waste, are rededicating themselves to living fully and in excess. They will woo whom they want, screw whom they want, drink and do coke as much as they want, and not apologize for it. They are living the spirit of punk as defined by Cobain himself: “Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want.”

Though some points of connection—Sonya’s tuberculosis might remind hardcore Cobain fans of his chronic bronchitis and Chekhov fans of his death from the same disease—are too esoteric for the average audience member, they are not incidental, nor are they a “concept” in which the director simply lays one world down on top of another. The marriage of Chekhov’s world with Cobain’s works because at the center of both is an overwhelming sense of capital-A Alienation.

Platonov‘s Porfiry Glagoyev like Cobain, suffers from an “ability to feel [that] is too great to ever possibly endure.” In fact it makes him “so fucking sad” that he has a heart attack. Porfiry, who is slightly older than the other characters, sees civilization’s downfall in our ever-increasing demand, to paraphrase Smells Like Teen Spirit, that someone better entertain us because we are here now:

Today there’s there’s just this pathetic little desire to get what you want and be gratified somehow. But Nobody really sacrifices for real anything really. Nobody feels really within a frame of real feeling and so no one dares to really love and feel real even real fucking and that really feeling loved hard sideways feeling. You know?

The characters in Platonov are alienated from their jobs (the doctor drinks too much to preserve anyone’s health) and economic situations (the widowed Anna does nothing to prevent her estate being sold out from under her). They are alienated both from their pasts (Platonov, now a mere schoolteacher, was once a promising intellectual and artist) and their futures (Sonya settled for safety in her marriage but now cannot bear the boredom she foresees). They are alienated from their own feelings and use alcohol to try to get in touch with them, the result being the kind of selfish indulgence seen only in addicts and rock stars.

In the site-specific production of the WOW Festival, Schieb made the theme of alienation literal by limiting the audience’s view of the performance. Neither the stage nor the seating was raked, making it difficult to see the live action for everyone except those in the first row. Scheib himself stood on stage with a camera which projected footage live to a screen that everyone could see. For some scenes, the actors went inside a room with only a small window and the audience could see only that at which Scheib pointed the camera. The result was reminiscent of the voyeurism of reality TV, in which the audience watches something presumably private being made [selectively] public.

Platonov Jay Scheib Anton Chekhov adaptation HowlRoundAs with reality TV, the camera’s control over the narrative complicates the question of authorship, a question that mirrors not just the seeming post-structuralism of the piece but also the existential debate at the heart of the drama. Just as the audience wonders whether these are Chekhov’s characters or Scheib’s and imagines what’s happening that we can’t see, the characters ponder whether following one’s passions is even possible or whether the endings to their stories have already been written.

I wish the use of the camera and the obstructed views had evolved as the story unfolded—as it was, the frustration of not being able to see the live action eventually overshadowed my interest in the experience. However, though actual emotional connection to the characters was inhibited by the verfremdungseffekt, close-ups of people enduring both pain and ecstasy did ensure that the audience’s experience was as visceral as it is upon hearing the music of Kurt Cobain, whose sound Rolling Stone described as “a grenade detonating in your car radio.”

In this adaptation, the titular character of Platonov is one of the least interesting. Though most of the other characters are in love with him, I was never quite sure why. The most interesting character is Jacob: in Chekhov a male servant, in Scheib’s version a lesbian who rose to fame as an opinion-maker but managed to drink away her fortune. Jacob shared Cobain’s inability to manage success, but unlike Cobain, her suicide attempt failed and at the beginning of the play, she is sober and putting the pieces of her life back together, working whatever jobs she can to pay the bills. In true Chekhovian fashion, by the end of the play she is the owner of an estate that its aristocratic owners mismanaged into bankruptcy.

It’s not the sort of ending that makes one feel that everything is going to be all right for everyone, but it’s a better ending than Cobain saw. Scheib’s Platonov, therefore, leaves open the possibility of recovery—of a life lived fully but without dependence on substances to feel and to really live. Cobain himself said, “Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self esteem,” but he never stopped struggling with addiction. Perhaps Jacob has more in common with Cobain’s wife Courtney Love, who said of herself, “I’m a survivor. At least that’s what everyone tells me.”

Originally published by HowlRound

Theatre_Movement_Bazaar_01_0 (1)The 2013 Radar L.A. interdisciplinary theater festival brought artists from around the world to perform alongside and in collaboration with Los Angeles theater artists. Presented by REDCAT and CalArts in association with Center Theatre Group, and curated by Mark Murphy of REDCAT, Diane Rodriguez of Center Theatre Group, and Mark Russell of The Public Theater in New York (yeah, it was that collaborative), this year’s festival featured 18 productions from the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Japan, and the Netherlands.

The first Radar L.A. was held two years ago when TCG held their annual conference here. Co-curator Diane Rodriguez told me that she and her collaborators had already begun discussing creating a festival with national range, and the conference provided a perfect opportunity to launch it. This year, she says, though some professional theater makers came from elsewhere for a symposium that was part of the festival, the local audience also turned out in droves.

The festival expanded its geographical reach to include The Getty Villa in Malibu, the Grand Central Market, and theaters downtown as well as the Kirk Douglas Theatre and REDCAT. And this time around, the festival not only presented existing interdisciplinary theater pieces, it also commissioned and co-produced new work from both local and international artists.

I managed to take in five shows, including two solo performances, a collaboration between a Los Angeles theater company and one from the Netherlands, a deconstructed version of Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters created by a local group, and Prometheus Bound.

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King and Trieu Tran in Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam used the instability of identity inherent in solo shows to tell stories about that most volatile of subjects: race in America. Theatre Movement Bazaar‘s Track 3 used a combination of spoken text, song, and dance to tell the whole story of Three Sisters in seventy five minutes using nothing more than a table, chairs, a few books, and some teacups.

One of my favorite shows, Hospital, resulted from a collaboration between a local performance group called The Los Angeles Poverty Department and the Netherlands-based collective Wunderbaum. Reminiscent of the WPA’s Living Newspapers—a Depression-era theatrical tradition that showcased current political events, Hospital uses the story of one real-life participant in the health care systems of both the United States and the Netherlands to address the larger health care issues facing both countries.

This combination of music, dance, video, and personal narrative, delivered both through reenactments and direct address, was at once both a defense and a criticism of Obamacare as well as of the Netherlands’ entirely nationalized health care system. Much like Living Newspapers existed to address national problems with concrete proposals, Hospital even goes so far as to pose a possible long-term solution to our collective health-care woes.

The largest-scale production I saw was Travis Preston‘s Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. Preston, who commissioned this new version of Aeschylus’s metaphysical tragedy, said he was looking for a translation that uses language to clarify the internal action that moves the play—after all, the only physical action dictated by the text is Prometheus getting nailed to a rock.

What movement existed in performance derived from Preston’s use of the amphitheater, such as the aisles between sections of the audience and the acoustic effects of such open-air stone theaters; a chorus of twelve women that moved and spoke as one; and the turning of a massive metal wheel that represented the rock to which Prometheus was tethered.

Preston added that through extended workshops and rehearsals, he found that “the piece resisted any decorative impulses.” He aimed rather to invoke the kind of iconography that would allow the audience to infer and project their own meanings onto the performance. The wheel spoke simultaneously of industrialization and of the medieval wheel of fortune, while the Chorus seemed to embody both water and birds. Live musicians gave even the most philosophical portions of the text forward motion, while also creating a meditative rhythm that harkened back to the communal nature of Attic tragedy as originally performed.

Based on audience feedback, Preston found that audiences brought their own interpretations to the images on stage, including that of a black man in bondage (Prometheus was played by Ron Cephas Jones). Preston shared, “I didn’t cast Ron because he was black, but he was black. It’s undeniable that people saw it through the prism of slavery and the condition of people of color throughout the world.”

By not making the production an explicit commentary on slavery or race relations, Preston enabled the audience to make that connection themselves, providing for a far more imaginative and less didactic experience than simply setting the play in antiquity would have.

Similarly, though Preston believes the play to be proto-Christian in its emphasis on sacrifice, the lack of overt Christian symbols allowed the audience to read the performance both from a religious perspective, in which the essential questions it asks are about obedience and sacrifice, and from an existential one, in which the question is whether life really consists of anything more than suffering.

The combination of dance, music, and spoken text used in Prometheus Bound perfectly encapsulated Radar L.A.’s interdisciplinary focus. As to the future of the festival, Murphy shared the specific role he wants Radar L.A. to play in creating new work in Los Angeles.

“It’s important that the local work and local artists have a larger context in which the field is evolving and what important developments there are elsewhere that might influence the way we work. In particular because of the unique geographical location of LA and its demographics, some of the cultural influences that are most relevant are from Latin America and the Pacific Rim,” he continued. “Aesthetically, which is where we can blur the boundaries of states and governments, we’re interested in finding new ways to tell story, a narrative that is expressed or constructed through imagery, choreography, and other forms in addition to spoken word.”

The feminist in me cannot help but point out that ticket prices for Radar L.A. and the connected symposium are high enough that audience members and participants are, as one symposium attendee pointed out, “sitting in seats of privilege.” Nonetheless, Radar L.A. confirmed a suspicion I’ve had for some time now: That Los Angeles is currently one of the most interesting places to make and see theater in America.

[Mic drop. She exits.]

***

Images:
Track 3 by Theatre Movement Bazaar. Photo credit: Joey Bernheimer.
Marleen Scholten, Maartje Remmers, John Malpede, Linda Harris, Walter Fears, and other cast members in Wunderbaum/LAPD’s Hospital at Radar L.A. festival. Photo credit: Steven Gunther.
Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus; Mirjana Jokovic as Io carried by the Chorus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.

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