Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Art of the State

So the Sunnis are declaring that there's more torture going on under the U.S. occupation of Iraq than there was under Saddam Hussein -- not an easy feat; we really had to work for that one. But that aside, I have to wonder:
  1. If the recent Iraqi Interior Ministry's investigation is correct, where does systematic prisoner abuse end and the ever-shifting U.S. definition of torture begin?
  2. The Administration and Chucky Krauthammer have been trying to parse a moral argument for the use of torture. Cheney wants to make provision for it; Chucky wants to start using it as soon as possible. Cheney sees torture as justified; Chucky sees it as imperative. Both men draw on the Ticking Time Bomb scenario which states:
      1. There's a bomb in NYC
      2. It's going to go off in 1 hour
      3. We've got a guy who knows something about it
      4. He won't talk
  3. Now ... since the recent investigation found 120 abuse cases in two of Iraq's 1000 prisons, is it safe to assume that the Iraqi police forces followed our advice and thereby prevented 120 bombs from exploding? Golly, that's a relief!
Maybe I'm confusing garden variety prisoner abuse (negligence) with sanctioned torture (malice). That's why I ask #1 up there.

But, here's what I don't understand about the Ticking Time Bomb scenario. I can't make qualified statements about the efficacy of torture -- I don't know if it's more or less effective than, say, executing the hypothetical prisoner's family in front of his eyes. What I want to know is: How did we come to learn the first 3 of the above-mentioned 4 conditions which would logically satisfy Krauthammer and the Administration?

In the Ticking Time Bomb scenario, we suddenly have the intelligence capability to know the location, method, and timing of an attack -- when has this ever happened? And how do we know the hypothetical guy knows where it is? The Ticking Time Bomb scenario operates on the premise that we can practically SEE the little LED screen ticking away and, better than that, we can see into the head of this prisoner and know what he knows, we just need him to tell us that he knows what we hope he knows.

I believe this gauntlet of conditions necessary to legalize the use of torture would never happen. More likely, we would resort to torture to obtain the information (conditions 1-3) to construct a Ticking Time Bomb scenario in the first place. Does anyone realize what an achievement it would be to even HAVE knowledge of conditions 1-3? Has this Administration ever come that close to profiling an attack at home or abroad?

ART of the STATE

The Ticking Time Bomb scenario (Bomb in New York! Millions Dead! One hour! One suspect!) is not drawn from existing military After-Action reports or Lessons Learned in any of the Anti-Terrorism/Force-Protection literature that I've read. And I've read plenty. One of my first jobs out of college was to help design Level III AT/FP training modules for the Joint Chiefs. I studied the Khobar Towers incident, the USS Cole Incident and 9/11 and none of the after-action reports said:

"Damn, we HAD a guy in our prison who knew about this and he would have told us how to stop it. If only we'd been allowed to pull out his fingernails while force-feeding him a shit-milkshake as we raped his daughter with a rolled-up copy of the King James Bible! Damn you, liberals back home! Damn you!"

No. Khobar Towers, USS Cole, the African Embassy bombings, and 9/11 didn't happen because we were weak in our interrogation room tactics. The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario doesn't come from military history or even the responsible projection of future military action. It has been manufactured by columnists and the Administration. The TTBS doesn't wash historically, tactically, or even on the basis of its own closed system of logic.

For whatever it's worth, it doesn't have an ethical basis, either. The instant we codify the use of torture, we forfeit the right to be outraged when one of our people comes back missing his thumbs and testicles.

Krauthammer is a trained psychiatrist so I can only assume he's working from some post-conventional morality a la Kohlberg. Developmentally, we start out believing only in rules that benefit ourselves. Then we switch to strict obedience of social contracts. Finally, we find ourselves rushing to the hospital with a loved-one bleeding to death in the back seat and we violate a social contract by running a red light to get there in time. That third stage is morally justified, even though it violates a social law. But here's the catch -- you have to have the social law in the first place. You can't make social laws from a post-conventional viewpoint. Social laws constitute the conventional morality behind the traffic light. Post-conventional morality lets you violate the law under certain conditions (civil disobedience, as Andrew Sullivan recently explained, and the TTBS, and saving a dying loved one).

And get this! The legal system is there to let you enunciate post-conventional violations of conventional law -- often to the validation of the perpetrator who may, on deliberate reflection of the evidence, be exonerated. But just as I can manufacture a hypothetical to validate my violation of basic traffic laws, that doesn't mean I'm asking for the abolition of traffic law.

So go back to your psych 101 book, Chucky. Taking post-conventional exceptions and trying to legislate them as conventional law doesn't advance our quest for Justice. It takes it back to pre-conventional (egocentric) standards. I would expect this mincing of terms from the Administration -- but not from Krauthammer.

STATES of ART

Pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. These are not dialectical states in the evolution of social justice. The evolution of social justice stops, for the purposes of Kohlberg's schema, at Phase II: the Conventional. Since the torture debate is still a social justice issue (no matter what side you're on), we have to stop there, too, with an eye on what post-conventional entitlements might exist. The American Right repeatedly mistakes Pre for Post: hurling us forward into Middle Ages.

I find a similar confusion in the art world that can only be clarified by borrowing Ken Wilber's Pre-Trans Fallacy. In short: it's easy to mistake Pre for Post when we deal with aesthetics and philosophy, too. That's why so much absurdist and postmodern theatre is just pre-rational bullshit instead of the enlightened, trans-rational artifice it often claims to be.

More on that later.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Cold Fusion Solved!

Oh ... crap. I just forgot. Had the frickin' formula here somewhere. Sorry, that's my way of saying I was on the verge of a really great post and then lost the whole thing like a fart in the ether. Does someone have "A Fart In The Ether" as a blog title yet? I'm sure it's somewhere.

The cold fusion reference comes in as my cover story because I just spent a couple hours pouring over a handful of well-written theatre blogs and the debate du jour seems to be about postmodernism, minimalism, the utility of theatre, etc. And wrangling with avowed postmodernists over the validity of their methods (to say nothing of the larger philosophy) feels rather like trying to discover cold fusion using an eighth-grade science book, two bunson burners, a dead cow heart, and one pair of unsterilized latex gloves. Only less exciting.

Anyway, those of you who've tracked the conversation back to this summer can probably guess my position on all this. But I wanted to share these gentlemen with the rest of you because they're really keeping me on my toes. In a fit of giddy sensory-overload I fear I blathered my way to embarrassment with a few hasty posts -- a crime I've dodged on this sight by not posting so much anymore. But I want to get back into the fray and these guys remind me how much I have to learn and how much I already love talking about this stuff. Please meet Steve, Scott, George, and Matt.
  1. Steven Oxman. Theatre Matters. You can't post comments on this blog, but that's just as well. Steve is a television and theatre critic for Variety, but he's also done time at the LA Times and has first-person accounts of other hefty critics out there in NYC. He puts out at least one well-wrought essay a day and also works as a primary source dashboard for print articles on theatre. He's also generously linked over to and commented on other bloggers like ...
  2. George Hunka. Superfluities. Where Theatre Matters reads like the kid-brother hobby channel version of an already-established critic, Superfluities is more blogocentric. I don't mean that disparagingly; George has very organized, far-reaching, and well-read web of links to the larger theatre blogging community and he marshalls the traffic of ideas pretty well. He's also a critic for nytheatre.com and appears to have either read everything in the world or made honest effort to try. I don't jive with every conclusion he comes to, but as an e-scholar he's great.
  3. Scott Walters. Theatre Ideas. Scott is a professor and director in Asheville, NC. He volleys back and forth with the above-mentioned blogs, but goes the extra step by offering a synthesis to issues the other blogs skitter around. Plus he writes posts with titles like: "How to Help the Audience, Part Two" and "Synthesis" -- to give you some idea of what he's up to. Scott takes what George and Steve are chewing on and teases out some pretty exciting conclusions.
  4. Matt J. Theatre Conversation and Political Frustration. Matt is a grad student in Long Island. No, that's not why he's #4 here. Like Scott, Matt is eager to resolve or transcend issues generated by the other guys. His post "On the Postmodern Critique" triggered the latest round of internal links and comments. He's got the refreshing perspective of someone who's a) frustrated with what he's learned and b) eager to find an answer through informed conversation. Hence the title.
From what I can tell, the most successful blogs these days are about 36% original content, 11% personal journaling, and 53% creative hyperlinking. It seems the goal is to balance between proprietary pith and active redirection to some place more interesting. People are choosing blogs the way they might choose morning radio personalities: Can you give me a brief buffet-table survey of the five most link-worthy things in the universe every other hour? Can you add a delicious coating of vitamin snark to make it all go down easier? Well, these guys are a great place to start if you're looking for deeper theatre conversation. Only they're not just spitting out quotable nuggets, they're actually trying to advance a larger discussion. And all of them ... I mean all of them ... spell much better than I do.

Anyone heard from Trillum lately? Well ... whomever and wherever you are: I thought of you a lot as I jockeyed around these other blogs.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Harvest Update

So I’m back. Back from a lot of things. Back from moving my crap across town, back from Passion Play and back from NYC. I mention them all in one breath because they all came on top of each other and kept me away from the keyboard this past month. Hauling my crap came right on the heels of closing the last show and just when I got my new place set up, I had to hop on the intrepid Chinatown Bus.

DAN’S TUMORS

I’m also back from a guest-blogging stint for longtime best friend and prolific bastard, Dan Stroeh. Dan describes his life with more integrity and texture than I ever could, so check out his latest adventures here. After spending a year on the road, Dan came back home to find some weakness in his hands. Dan was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis about eight years ago. It became the subject for his autobiographical one-man show it is no desert which will be published by Samuel French as soon as Dan digs out the proofs from his desk drawer and turns the damn things in. But this latest symptom required spinal surgery at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. So he's close and I get to check in every day, but the whole procedure requires him to be on some synthetic morphine painkillers for another week.

A brief biography: Dan used to be a soccer star. He tore his quad, left the game, and went into acting where he again flourished. Then he was diagnosed with this rare genetic disease and had to bow out of theatre for a year of chemo. So he turned to writing, composed this hit play, and made that his new destiny. At every bizarre turn, he adapts and triumphs and I don't know of many people who can do that. Now the disease is threatening his dexterity at the keyboard. So the whole crew is rallied around him at NIH. But Dan, being the emotionally mature fellow he is, decided to set up a blog to chronicle his recovery. And it's my job to render that story in TV-PG terms for friends and family. Check it out.

NEW YORK THEATRE WORKSHOP

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Way back in April, PJ heard that the New York Theatre Workshop’s Artistic Director had seen columbinus at Round House and was interested in “workshopping” the play before submitting it to their staff for production. Now … the phrase “workshop” can mean many things. Sometimes it means a prospective director or producer wants to “see” the play on its feet or simply have it “read” aloud before they can determine its “worth.” More often it means a prospective director or producer wants to “mount” the play with the understanding that certain parts … we’ll call them “bad” parts … will be rewritten or taken out. I’m reminded of Nicky Silver’s preface to Raised in Captivity where he talks about “workshopping” the play Pterodactyls with a director who loved everything about the script. Except the dinosaur.

We didn’t do anything that drastic to columbinus. And I’ve been with this play longer as a “workshop” than I have as an actual production, so I shouldn’t complain. But there was a push to slim it down to one act. Gradually, we realized that cutting the “Bittersweet Symphony” sequence wouldn’t work, that we really did need all that naturalistic pre-slaughter plotting from the boys, and that the archetypes from Act One couldn’t be streamlined or distilled much more than they already were. So the result was a non-tech version that was, let’s say, more efficient. Spry. Compact. Vega. Nano. Whatever. All I know is that our edits made certain emotional high notes harder to hit because there was less of that naturalistic chaff surrounding bursts of heightened feeling/language. Of course, that might also have something to do with the venue -- we were performing it for the NYTW staff in their rehearsal room, using a stage configuration that was smaller than any we’ve used so far, with the higher-ups sitting inches away from our faces, spit, gun barrels, etc. So the urge to scream from the depths of a broken soul was dampened somewhat. But all told, we made a good showing. The soonest anyone in NYC would produce the play is next season, and that’s an eternity in actor-years.

CEREBROPORN

But here’s where it gets interesting for me. I picked up a play to read on the bus -- judging strictly by its cover and its endorsement from Tom Stoppard. It’s called Bach at Leipzig (see sidebar) by one Itamar Moses. And it’s wonderful. Stoppard’s blessing makes sense since the thing reads and plays like a Stoppardian mindfuck. Well ... “mindfuck” might be harsh. Let’s say ... mind fondle. Yes. Yes. Quite. The play scores a mental “second base” in the annals of cerebro-porn. Just as Stoppard’s Arcadia had patches of dialogue constructed like the geometric fractals it discusses, and just as Hapgood obeys an alternating current of waveform and particle structure for its discussion of the nature of light, so too does Bach at Leipzig emulate in form the subject of fugal exposition. For reasons I’ve articulated poorly in the past, farce seems to be the most viable genre for such heady dramaturgical conceits. But if Bach at Leipzig scores only a second-base hit, I think it’s because, like all art-about-art plays, Bach finds itself with little else to discuss but its own engine.

SCHOTT: I do not know what they will call this age, but it’s chief characteristic seems to be a profound lack of enlightenment.

That said, it’s a pretty kick-ass engine. The real story of the Leipzig audition can be found in any musical history book. Plot spoilers here are really structure spoilers. Revealing a revelatory passage means revealing a code you’ll enjoy figuring out yourself. At the beginning of Act Two, after one character unwittingly deconstructs everything that’s come before, the audience erupted into admiring applause. Here are the lines that followed:

FASCH: What can follow next save thunderous applause? If you like that sort of thing.

It was about here that I started to wonder if the playwright was playing us like an organ -- and if the phrase “cerebroporn” had been coined yet. Because even though there’s nothing but Y-chromosomes in this play’s code (even the token philanderer, Steindorff, "just wants to be a dancer," if you catch my meaning) -- the act of watching the playwright stack his tricks like dominoes and then generously topple them for my amusement is rather like watching porn.

Think about it. If porn is out there so you can pretend your way into sexual adventures with a very specific catharsis in mind; if it’s highest function is to let us forget ourselves, to pursue pleasure and achieve it momentarily without the effort of seduction ... then I think certain plays play on different organs the same way. In Leipzig we get the momentary pleasure of watching a bunch of musical and theological concepts unfold before our eyes. But it’s only as they’re being deconstructed. The laborious encoding and decoding process has already been done for us. And just as we’re made to feel more sexy/virile/attractive by watching porn, so are we briefly exalted for existing when we watch plays like this. No effort required. But we feel smarter somehow. Now, all y’all Platonists in the hizzy gone be all like “bitch, learning IS remembering so gives me my ticket outta da cave, muthuhfuckuh.” Well, to that I say … ah … never mind.

There’s a lovely passage about the nature of theatre that’s ushered into the discussion by a double-plated shield of irony:

FASCH: I saw Moliere performed at his Illustre Theatre in Paris once. I hated it. I chafed under the artifice. It depicted a world in which we are as bestringed as any cello and thus banished … meaning. The characters all happened to disagree about whatever was centrally at stake; every action was designed to further events; people always entered at exactly the proper moment … The Creator’s hand was all too clear.
KAUFMANN: What is the alternative?
FASCH: To write a play in which the demands of its form do not supersede the truthfulness of its content! To stop hiding what we are behind tired conventions: the dues ex machina; or the messenger who arrives with insanely detailed knowledge of tremendous events approaching from a distance; or, or, the fool who suddenly speaks wisdom—
KAUFMANN: But … forgive me, Fasch … what’s the difference?
FASCH: Between …?
KAUFMANN: Between the form and the content? Rather … how is it possible to write … formlessly? What is the difference, finally, between choices that lead to a destiny and a destiny prefigured by certain choices? Let’s say you are the Creator. And you wish to give your characters choice. As you write, the choices are yours. As the play is performed, the choices are theirs. Your audience is aware of both, so both are true. And, it seems to me, you cannot deny one without denying the other. Where those onstage have control, so do you. Where you have none, neither do they. After all, if you seat your characters in an unchanging place, at the mercy of some unseen force, conversing to no purpose, passing time … Well, there is no destiny in that world, to be sure, but no choice, either. And even that is a form. A formless form. Ha-ha. This old world, Fasch, will be new again, and again, and so after us will come new forms we cannot imagine, because we do not yet need them to explain the world to ourselves. Which is, in the end, all they are meant for: not to hide what we are. But to remind us.
FASCH: (Pause.) Yes. (Pause.) Well. (Pause.) I still hate Moliere.
KAUFMANN: The discipline remains unperfected. That is why there are still playwrights.

See? Juuuuust barely made it. We need the acknowledgement of Predictability itself to excuse such a predictable course of events. Now, none of this fooled Charles Isherwood in his review in The Times. But Chuck has taken to squelching new playwrights by comparing them to their established forbears. He used Sarah Ruhl’s age and Tony Kushner’s Angels to dismiss Passion Play. And he slammed Bach for not being Jumpers or Amadeus. I think he’s right to some extent. And he offers a cute metaphor for the difference -- so cute, in fact, it made me wonder if he’d been saving it in a cookie jar for just the right review. All I know is: the audience loved it. And on the level of cerebroporn, it works great.

But just to give you a more specific idea of what I’m talking about, check out some of these lines:

FASCH: I shall try, as you asked, to limit what you describe as ‘the all too numerous terms of endearment” I employ when addressing you in writing. If they do, as you say, “diminish,” you, that was never my intent. As a musician, the only thing I wish to diminish is the occasional seventh.

Oh, SNAP! Ha ha! Heh. Get it? Yeah, I had to ask someone. But fortunately for us groundlings, there’s also dialogue that plays like a gussied up version of the movie Airplane:

LENCK: They’ve been keeping us waiting for some time, don’t you think?
GRAUPNER: In what sense?
LENCK: In the sense that we began waiting quite some time ago and the waiting period has yet to conclude.
(Act II, scene 2)

STEWARDESS: Captain, there’s trouble in the cockpit!
CAPTAIN: What is it?
STEWARDESS: It’s the little room at the front of the plane, but that’s not important.
(Act II, scene 5)

Anyway, I had a great time. And I really don't understand how Chuck and his chums can be so snooty with this play and then call Doubt a "crackling intellectual detective story!" At least Bach at Leipzig, required some research and philosophical integrity.

Funny enough, while I was up there, Theatre J called and asked if I could help out with a reading for a play they’re considering for next season. It’s called The Four of Us. By Itamar Moses. So I’m staring at the marquee for his play, which I randomly chose to read on my way there, and I get a call to check out another one of his plays back home. All this in 48 hours. I love wacky moments of synchronicity like that. Like when you learn a new word and suddenly everyone from your grandma to the homeless guy on the subway is saying it.

HOMELESS GUY: Got any spare change? I've been scrounging through the detritus of suburbia to no avail.

GRANDMA: Where's my cerebro-porn?

Maybe NYC keeps its beleaguered and angry citizenry hooked and planted with this feeling. Chances are your average walk takes you past at least one film crew, one important building, or one political/economic/artistic celebrity every day. How easy to feel like you’re at the center of everything.

So, until tomorrow ... how cool is this?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Post-Passion

So first of all, watch this.

A couple summers ago, when there wasn't much work floating across the desk at WILL Interactive, Grady Weatherford (of Rorschach fame) decided that the best use of our time would be self-education through music video composition. We took whatever footage we had on our machines and spun them together using whatever music we could find. Our clients that year ranged from the Pentagon to McGraw Hill publishing. So the available footage featured a lot of terrorist threat cells mixed with college students and military folk. We also had an abundance of stock footage from the Air Force -- everything from missile strikes to the broccoli they serve in the mess hall. Grady's video featured terrorists scheming to "Drench" by Gomez. And my video was a fake movie preview threaded together from an anti-terrorism training film and a sociology textbook film. Because we use the same actors over and over again, many of them became unwitting double-agents in the "story" and the result was pretty operatic trailer for a thriller flick called "The Gaysian Conspiracy."

Anyway. Most of you out there already know that story and have seen the videos I'm talking about. But that link for "Shining!" takes the cake. Hilarious. The funniest thing I've seen since Judith Miller tried to explain her behavior by citing notes for "Valerie Flame," not "Valerie Plame."

Yeah.

Imagine if the Senate Watergate investigation stopped because their notes revealed criminal behavior by one "Richard Mixon." I guess that would have exonnerated the guy, right? What the hell do they expect us to believe next? There was a time when I thought our new national myth was being written by Roald Dahl. Then I thought Brothers Grimm. Now, it appears to be Lewis Carrol. Would it make any difference if Bush got up and said:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
I wouldn't be surprised. At least that sampling rhymes.

More coming soon on the end of Passion Play and the next incarnation of Columbinus at the New York Theatre Workshop. In the meantime, I have a few questions for everyone out there:
  1. How do you delete unwanted comments? The word-identification gadget is supposed to prevent "robots" and spammers from crowding the view, but how do I get rid of the ones that are already there? I'm sure the Help section could tell me, but screw that.
  2. If The Shining can be re-mixed into a plausible feel-good movie of the summer, what other movies could be likewise re-mixed beyond recognition?
  3. Shouldn't there be an Oscar category for Best Trailer?

Monday, October 03, 2005

And Back Again

Some of you have asked what I think of "Passion Play" and I remember resisting discussion before we went up. But now that it's open with two weeks to go, and now that all the local critics have weighed in for the record, I feel free to spill. Not in some meta-critical analysis, but just from my own snooty insider monsterist vantage point.

When you throw epic storytelling, religion, politics, and art into the mix as your starting point, comparisons to Kushner are inevitable, I suppose. Brecht is the missing link.* The thing that'll probably make Ruhl's name is her dexterity with such issues coupled with the ability to resist (transcend?) Brechtian tactics along the way. I think we take it for granted that any play that's remotely self-aware or now-centered must be either emulating Brecht or betraying him. I don't think that's fair to Brecht, for one (the dude himself took some time to evolve into the coffeehouse reference he is today**). Second, it may be a sign that he's rightfully dominated our sense of what theatre can accomplish politically (a feat unmatched since Ibsen), but as we revise the esoteric/economic/aesthetic issues (monsterism v. minimalism) we should also revise the social/utilitarian issues (Brecht&Kushner v. anyone willing to step up to the plate). This is not meant as a critique of Brecht or Kushner; merely a call to evaluate theatre, even political theatre, in different terms.

I liked Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House because it worked the odd double-magic of indulging Albee-esque themes and characters while "getting over" them by the end.*** The best legitimate criticism I heard for that play was from one of you splendid posters out there. Does The Clean House merely tap that condescending Noble Savage/Mystic Other story in a new, clever, sweet-smelling way? I wondered the same thing with Guare's Six Degrees of Separation where the ostensibly rich Manhattenite audience was encouraged to resist the anecdotalization of struggling poor black people. As a challenge to middle-class social awareness, Guare's play is pretty weak. As a lovely metaphor for the sublime interconnectedness of human relationships, it's beautiful. To a fault. But The Clean House is more concerned with breaking down the commodification/pathologizing of passion than breaking down walls in race/class relations.

With Passion Play, the stakes are higher. And instead of mining the history of Jesus-induced art for its political import, Sarah's decided to go one better and offer a new, trans-rational substitute for the whole mess. She's more interested in the earth, wind, fire, and water of the story. Literally. If you've seen the show or read the reviews, you know that much is made of shifting earth, redemptive wind, red skies, flowing water and fish. And I guess when you're playing with such raw ingredients, it's easy to see metaphoric significance in every last detail.

This kind of super-saturated imagery can be self-defeating after a while -- it's hard to tell if there's a specific, crystalizing theme or call-to-action underneath all the lovely stage poetry. When Pontius says in his final speech that he doesn't "know if [America] needs more religion or less of it," it's kind of a letdown for me. This playwright had the courage and imagaination to forgo the typical Jesus-Judas/Jesus-Mary/Jesus-Jew/Jesus-Christians axis for a long examination of the Jesus contra Pontius relationship. Since that relationship is decidedly political, I think many people want a tangible (if not definitive) political message by the end. Of all the questions raised, "Does this country need more religion or less of it?" should be pretty easy to answer. Instead, we get a final image that's more of a meditation than a mandate.

Which is great. It doesn't devalue the political discussion Ruhl raises. It just means that her concerns are less "horizontal" and earth-bound than we'd expect for a play that discusses Jesus, Reagan, history, Hitler, homosexuality and Vietnam, among other things. The first act lays the groundwork for this odd hyper-elliptical superstructure. In Elizabethan England, political and religious identity are insperable and Ruhl doesn't try to pry them apart for analysis yet. Instead, we're invited to accept this fusion as it stands. Unchallenged. The red sky IS the power/wrath/wisdom of God for all intents and purposes. We needn't dissect the midieval imagery any more than the band of English villagers would because truly empathizing with them requires an abandonment of our privileged secular-atheist hindsight. Even the Village Idiot (read: voice of reason) isn't an enlightened time-traveler. She's a product of her time just like Elizabeth was. It's only after we accept their reality that we're free to critique it, change it, pick it apart.

I like that approach a hell of a lot better than more cleverly-telescoped portraits of recent history like The Heidi Chronicles in which Wasserstein's title protagonist is simply ahead of her time. Watching Heidi find her way to the progressive 90s sexual politics with which we're so comfortable and proud is like watching Mystery Science Theatre 3000 -- we get to scoff at those bumbling retro morons! "That's what they call a lazer beam?! Ha ha!" "That's what they call a modern woman?! Ha ha!" With all due respect, Vogel's Minneola Twins works the same self-congratualtory slight-of-mind: the 20th-century American woman is reduced to one of two frantic, conflicted Types. Housewife or bra-burner. Conservative or liberal. Virgin or whore. Big Breasts or Flat Chest. Forrest or Jenny. You name it. Amping them up and swirling them around for two hours doesn't transcend them.

So Hegel junkies will love Passion Playbecause it works in units of three instead of two? Well, yeah, kind of. Maybe it's transcendent to a fault. Lord knows there's a dialectic looming behind every character -- if only because of their play-to-play arc (their Arc of Incarnation) instead of their internal, dramatic arc. I'm sure it'll be easy to belt out a few hundred undergrad essays because of this ample smorgasboard of one-two-three theses. As near as I can tell, God herself is the bass tone of the whole composition. The actors are the treble and the leaders (Elizabeth, Hitler, Nixon, and Reagan) chime in on tenor. These elements don't always harmonize well; Trey's City Paper review articulates this weakness better than I can. So what results is more of a tone poem than a grand opera. But Ruhl never betrays the terms she sets at the beginning and in my book that makes Passion Play more engaging and useful than a lot of other political plays out there.

Maybe this is just a roundabout way for me to shield the play from criticism I'd ordinarily throw its way. I can't be completely objective about it because I'm still in the middle of it. Honestly, I'm more queasy about the play's discussion of war than its discussion of politics. But that's an ongoing issue with me. Art about war makes me nervous, period. From "Guernica" to Saving Private Ryan, I still don't think we get it as artists. Even at its most effective, art about war comes across as either unwitting recruitment material or evasive thanatophilic fortune-cookie sentiment for me. When frat boys quote the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket with glee or virgin film students emulate the neo-Wellesian lap dissolves from Apocalypse Now ... I get the uneasy feeling we're more interested in war for its ripe catalog of beautiful/silly images than for its immediate, physical consequences. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader explains this very well w/r/t film (see Ryan link above and sidebar link).

And so with Passion Play, I'm hungry for an answer to Pontius by the end. By Act III, he's a delusional Vietnam vet stalking the streets with nothing but the voice of the playwright to keep him warm at night. He has a handful of great speeches at the end, but there's a lesson he's missing -- one that would not only resurrect the Mary and Jesus characters to their rightful prominence in the composition, but would maybe give the Pontius character something of an actual dramatic conflict to resolve before his lovely apotheosis at the end. If you haven't seen the play, don't read any further; I'd like to hear what y'all think on your own terms. But here goes ...

In all his incarnations, the Pontius character talks a lot about responsibility and sacrifice. But it's unclear what he learns about the subject when he's not telling everyone else what they should be learning. I think the counterpoint should come from Mary when the drunk drifter comes at her door demanding a shower and toothbrush in exchange for his wartime service. Put simple: it's no longer a sacrifice when you keep demanding reparation for it. It's no longer responsibility when you keep blaming others for your lot in life. Pontius can't be an inspiring figure for us if he's still a victim by the end -- a man whose hands are tied, not washed. Moreover, Pontius can't have any kind of moral authority (as a character OR as an example for an ideal leader) when he rejects the very people who DO honor his sacrifice and then shouts them down as reflecting surfaces for another diatribe about the nature of democracy and war. When he finishes, we get this button:

MARY: I'm sorry for the bad things that have happened to you.
PONTINUS: I don't want your pity.
MARY: Then what DO you want?!
PONTIUS: A shower.

No. Not really. I always wanted Mary to tear him a new one in that scene. Or failing that, maybe the poor woman could just let loose about the hell she's been through to give the character/scene/play/night some worthy conflict ... even if it's just necessary coverage before P's final conclusion takes shape. To be sure, some of this will fix itself in future productions, drafts, casting choices, etc. But for now, I still love this monster.

FOOTNOTES

*Seriously! Have you seen pictures of him?

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Sorry. Inner frat boy crept out for a moment.

**My super-erudite friend Nicole Preszler and I agreed long ago that you know you've achieved classic status when you no longer qualify for the school of thought that's named after you. It's why Titus Andronicus can be dismissed as "pre-Shakespeare" and The Cryptogram can be celebrated as "post-Mamet." They're both regarded as lesser plays. Mostly because they fail to accurately foretell or fulfill the lofty signature of the author. Ditto with Brecht and Kushner.

***more to the point: she dared to WRITE a theme in the first place (!), instead of leaving the characters (and the audience) to wallow in pre-rational misery the way Albee most likely would have with the same story.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Between Scenes ...

... I have been reading as much as I can. It's difficult with a show like mine. Often, when playing ensemble parts, I find myself with nice manageable chunks of backstage downtime. Not the ultra-cushy kind where I can completely clock out, but enough time to, say, fashion a canoe out of some raw wood in the shop. Or chew a chapter off a book between appearances. But Passion Play is so tightly woven that I spend my time either on stage or changing into whatever bizarre ensemble is required for the next time on stage. It's great because I'm always working -- no disenchantment from us non-marquee characters because we're moving too much to feel out of the action completely. But I'm left with these useless dollops of time (3-4min max) throughout the night. This is a bad thing for an already-scatterbrained actor who's trying to quit smoking next week.

Nevertheless. I read Brooklyn Boy by Donald Margulies and Stuff Happens by David Hare backstage this week.

Brooklyn Boy

I've complained about Margulies before, so I'll leave my snotty generalization in the archives where it belongs. Brooklyn Boy seems to me a loose post-Pulitzer grab-bag of dropped quotes from Collected Stories, Sight Unseen, Dinner with Friends, and Found a Peanut. Unlike those earlier plays of his, he remains almost suspiciously linear in his storytelling. I'd like to think this newfound respect for the rotation of the earth is born of a) general maturation, outgrowing the superficial pretentious flair that time-shifting created for Sight Unseen, or better yet: b) an actual desire to mirror the play's message about mortality and aging with a plot that lurches, like Man, fitfully to its natural conclusion. Who knows.

Like Sight Unseen, this play centers around an artist who has "arrived" and must now shrug his way through the scornful, jealous eyes of his unfamous friends, family, and lovers. I find such protagonists tedious because, as problems go, this isn't too bad. I didn't give two shits if Waxman found his inspiration again after hitting it rich. I'm sure it's a phase that all ultra-successful artists go through (Margulies himself admits as much in his preface to Brooklyn Boy -- post-Pultizer life in New Haven being pretty rough on the soul, apparently). The whole play worked overtime to make Waxman sympathetic but all I saw was a lucky, talented guy surrounded by insecure jerks whose only real crime was being placed in the same scene as each other.

In Collected Stories, Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy, we see the same rarified conflict: art vs. the art-maker. In Collected Stories, it was "Look what happens when you appropriate someone's life for your fiction!" In Sight Unseen it was "Look what happens when your muse is no longer useful to you!" In Brooklyn Boy it's "Look what happens when your art doesn't make daddy love you more!" To be fair, I think this latest woe-is-me struggling (yet famous) artist story is his most honest to date. Maybe because it's got less clever, unearned non-linear time fuckery going on. I didn't find many of my original judgements abated by the needlessly labrythine context-shifting Margulies pulled in Sight Unseen. And I simply didn't find the predictably savage interplay of tutor-and-mentor to be emotionally signficant for anyone who wasn't a neophyte writer or venerated elder craftsperson. Look at the string of heartaches Margulies throws at his latest rich artist protagonist:

  1. Father doesn't understand because I'm so unapproachably literary and smart. This makes father's death hard to deal with.
  2. Old best friend resents me because he's stuck in the same neighborhood working in his dead father's deli while I'm on the New York Times Bestseller List.
  3. Old best friend moves from petty jealousy to pitiful plug for fame-by-association.
  4. Wife, also a writer, is divorcing me because she can't stand how friggin' successful I am. She's also had a handful of miscarriages, so you can imagine her discomfort at being around such a rich, renowned, virile writer as myself. What's more, she knows this is a silly reason for divorcing someone you supposedly love, but nevermind. Her divorce is presented as another casualty of blinding fame, to be endured, for the most part, by the main character only.
  5. Flakey girl from the book reading only wants me for my fame. I just want to cuddle ... why can't she understand how noble I am and how superficial she is?
  6. Flakey movie producer and her flakey pet star want to de-Jew my story when it moves to screen. Apparently, those Hollywood types only think about money! It sure stiffles art-making. Have I sold out? I sure didn't think about "just money" when I sold them my book, that's for sure. I needed the option money to buy my new apartment now that my wife (see#4) is leaving me! Man, the West Coast is pretty far from Brooklyn!
  7. What do I do with all dad's shit now that he's dead? Should I be more Jewish or something?
  8. Wow. My dad just materialized and told me everything I wanted to hear. Too bad it never happened when he was alive. But isn't that just like life?
Would you feel sorry for this guy? I find it hard. Of course the death of the father is tough. But I don't see any new deathbed regrets or remedies for old deathbed regrets here. And the rising action is just a string of episodes about how hard it is to be a bestselling author these days. Boo-frickin-hoo. The first and last scenes respectfully address the issue at hand, but the rest ... oy.

Stuff Happens

I bought this with Pirandello's Henry IV adapted by Tom Stoppard and they make lovely companion texts for each other. Stuff Happens gets its title from a Donald Rumsfeld quote. When asked to explain the chaos in Iraq, he said something to the effect of "stuff happens." The Bush kiddies have spit forth so much quotable corruption, it's hard to keep up. I'm just thrilled a British playwright honed in on one absurdity to guide a Situation Room drama about the build up to the Iraq War. Sure, a lot of history has happened in the eleven months since the publishing of his play. But the thing crackles along, dodging between speeches we already know and speculated backstage conversations that sound really juicy when given the studied stage treatement of David Hare. Colin Powell, in particular, belts out a couple arias about the nature of war and you have to stop and wonder if the man was capable of such focused expression. But Shakespeare was doing the same thing when he gave words to kings long dead and less eloquent. Exciting.

The play stars everybody. The whole Bush Administration is featured, as well as the whole Blair Administration. The French government hops in. As do Saddam, McCain, and countless other journalists and side players. I have no idea how you'd produce this thing with less than thirty actors. But again, it's an allowance we'll make for any Plantagenet family drama -- why not for the dynasty next door?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

On the bright side ...

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I should be able to tell a Photoshop fake when I see one, but this looks pretty good. Digital crop marks aside, would anyone doubt for a second that this might have happened?

I'm still here. Just finding my bearings again after opening. Damn, those Arena kids really know how to, ahem, christen a new show. Quite the spread. We said goodbye to Miss Ruhl last night. I haven't been able to run in a long time and my attitude is feeling it.

Reactions to the show are pretty funny. We'll make a small mistake with a line or a costume piece, sending audience members into lenghtly, privileged dissertations on the metaphoric significance -- but then the same people come up and ask, "What's with the red sky? And the fish? I don't get the fish." Ach.

I'll never forget a woman at the talk-back to The Clean House this past July. This should be funny for anyone who saw it. She raised her hand and asked Sarah:

"Yes. Why Portugese? I have a couple objections to that. A) It's neither French nor Spanish and B) Not many people speak it. I don't know about everyone else, but I had a really hard time understanding what the maids were saying!"

Now, bear in mind, the SUBTEXT of this woman's comment sounded like this ...

"Ha ha! You dumbass! What were you thinking writing characters that only Brazilians would understand ver batim?! How many Brazilians are there in the world, anyway? Like, 86? Ha ha! I think you made a mistake there, Miss Pulitzer Finalist!"

So I don't get it. Roving playwright-buddy Dan Stroeh was back in town briefly and he reminded me that Lee Blessing (or some such name) advises his students to write about the audience that's going to bankroll the theatre who'll produce your play. So high-strung OCD women in "Metaphysical Connecticut" should be able to grasp this stuff, since they'll be flocking to it when the production finally lands in NYC, right? I don't know how that adage applies to something like Passion Play -- it's all over the place. Strange how many Christian audience members don't know their source material.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Passion T-Minus #891234123 and Counting

So after the flying carpenter was rigged and the three fish-headed puppets shed their $10k kimonos ... after Mary's flood and Hitler's march had been choreographed ... after the wind machines were realigned and the sky cyclorama was bled through every shade of crimson to get juuuuust the right hue ... we might be close to the beginning of the end of phase one of tech.

Just a quick post while we're running backstage to practice quick-change 87: Nazi Officer becomes Jewish Priest in ninety seconds. I'm really going to eat all my words on Monsterism with this one.

As you may have heard from Backstage or Theaterboy, our first preview is this Saturday night. Invited dress rehersal the night before. Not that that helps anyone out there already in a show, but ... if ya wanna see this thing before all rewrites are barred for good, go for it.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

I Believe In Symmetry

I know the statute of limitations for gushing about Bright Eyes may have passed long ago, but bear with me. Sometime last March, I think, I was helping the venerable Grady Weatherford move into his apartment when the saucy creative team of Fritzsky&Stiles, LLC plugged in I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. Now, my daily intake of new music is pretty pathetic -- especially in the digital age where there are no excuses to miss the latest flood of wicked 1's and 0's. But damn, I was struck by this group.

Funny thing is: I thought I was in on some insider, indie-rock phenomenon. So I scampered off to Juneau, bought everything they made, played it all the time (cut with heavy doses of whatever East European symphonic Renee Gier offers me), and became something of a missionary for this group. Then I get back to DC and find out that not only are they VERY well-known, but verging on over-exposure, according to the Washington Post!

So anyway. I'm behind the curve, but I'm getting better. Time was, I was a good eighteen months behind the pop. Now, I think I'm down to fourteen months, six days, nine hours, and twelve minutes. It's hard to keep up. But for those of you who may not have yet sampled Connor Oberst's music, I would hope the sheer brilliance of his lyrics can compel you ...

Some plans were made and rice was thrown
A house was built, a baby born
How time can move both fast and slow
Amazes me

And so I raise my glass to symmetry
To the second hand and its accuracy
To the actual size of everything
The desert is the sand
You can't hold it in your hand
It won't bow to your demands
There's no difference you can make
There's no difference you can make
And if it seems like an accident
A collage of senselessness
You aren't looking hard enough
I wasn't looking hard enough

An argument for consciousness
The instinct of the blind insect
Who makes love to the flower bed
And dies in the first freeze
Oh I want to learn such simple things
No politics, no history
Till what I want and what I need
Can finally be the same

I just got myself to blame
Leave everything up to fate
When there's choices I could make
When there's choices I could make
Yeah, my heart needs a polygraph
Always so eager to pack my bags
When I really wanna stay
When I really wanna stay

When I wanna stay (x4)

The arc of time, the stench of sex
The innocence you can't protect
Each quarter note, each marble step
Walk up and down that lonely treble clef
Each wanting the next one
Each wanting the next one to arrive
Each wanting the next one
Each wanting the next one to arrive

An argument for consciousness
The instinct of the blind insect
Who never thinks not to accept its fate
That's faith, there's happiness in death
You give to the next one
You give to the next on down the line
You give to the next one
You get to the next on down the line

The levity of longing that
Distills each dream inside my head
By morning watered down again
On silver stars I wish and wish and wish

Move on to the next one
Move on to the next one down the line
Move on to the next one
Move on to the next one down the line

You get to the next one
You get to the next on down the line
You get to the next one
You get to the next on down the line


Now check this out. In a song about succumbing to fate, instinct, chance, etc -- the writer has actually used the passive voice to sum up his life in the first stanza. Is that cool or what? The final strains do indeed "walk up and down that lonely treble clef," and the whole melody jaunts about from jingle to anthem so quickly that you can't tell if Connor's condemning or celebrating the "blind insect" for its faith. Amazing.

Anyway, I thought my posts of late were a little heavy on condemnation, so I went looking for something that makes me smile.

Frog Prince & Footnotes

Frog Prince

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Get your position here

Interactive democracy! Love it. Last spring, during rehearsals for one of the bi-annual Me in a Dress plays I seem to be getting, a group of protesters marched by Theatre J. The only thing shocking about their polite curbside mandate was how few of them there were. Mitch Hebert and Dan DeRaey looked up and rolled their eyes, not out of contempt, but out of some kindred woe, heightened all the more by the fact that they grew up in an era of genuinely dangerous frontline activism. The scrappy assemblage of street shouters -- who were out to bring down Bush, the WTO, the Religious Right, and probably, like, the State of Georgia while they were at it -- was so emaciated that they almost did their buffet-table of causes more harm than good simply by showing up to show how small the Movement was.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tactical divide, I have a great friend who has moved to a commune just a couple hours south of us. She periodically visits DC to tell tales of polyamorous tofu-munching, hammock-weaving bliss (this not cruel exaggeration, this is actually what they do, I promise), and we usually get into a discussion about activism, collectivism, Bush ... the usual anti-establishment syllabus. You can read wondefully candid descriptions of all this at her blog.

So I gotta wonder: between the flesh-and-blood fuzz-busting activism of the 60s and 70s, and the Aphrodite Shrugged mentality of the communards -- what's the next channel gonna be? Howard Dean's grass roots internet fundraising was an exciting innovation until it wasn't. Is there a better method out there?

FOOTNOTES for Cafe Anthropic

*
I am well aware that every generation regards itself as the keystone scene in history. I am also aware that it was never true until now. Believe me. I grew up as Francis Fuckyamama was positing The End of History to mainstream acclaim -- so I know the hubris of the target market group. But I can't resist a handy correlation between the social/economic/scientific jubilation of the late 90s and the similarly insular joy of being a know-it-all college senior. Likewise, there is an easy association between the surreal, chaotic string of events that defined the early 21st century and the equally bizarre, disorienting soul shock that is adult life outside academia. Circumspect? Self-indulgent? I don't know. But after watching my parents and my parents parents willingly align themsevles to these schematic generational labels ("The Greatest Generation!" "The ME Generation!" "The Gen-X Generation!" "The 22/7 Generation!"), I'm all too eager to find my historical niche. If it can be argued that such labels aren't altogether destructive or minimizing.

**Having said all that (* above), I might be over-reaching here: I often fear that plays set in well-packaged decades like the 60s are only shielding us from moral judgement instead of encouraging us to seriously evaluate our own generation. I think of the movie Forrest Gump, where the basic messages are: tis a gift to be stupid, all the wars we fought were great and just, all the counter-culture freaks were the abusive hostile ones, and if you're born in a trailer and vote Democratic like Jenny, you'll probably end up with a black eye, a shattered soul, visible track lines, and a case of AIDS. Liberal movies make the same mistake by imposing given progressive mores on characters that was merely guilty of being born before us. It's the unearned valor that comes from watching all those paranoid, evil Nazis in Spielberg movies and then declaring that we, of course, would never succomb to the obviously evil political climate of the day! We'd be the lone resisters! The vanguard of the righteous! So with Doubt, I wonder how much of our righteous rage for authority structures is neutered by the knowledge that: "Oh, that was back when people were stupid." Of course this isn't always the case. And Shanley may have intended to suggest the opposite ("Look how little has changed ... in our country, in our confessionals, in our justice system, in our discourse."). And maybe my understanding of the 60s is too colored by groovy journalistic filters (all told, it wasn't that long ago). Either way, I'd appreciate a daring dive into the here and now if we're going to talk about religiosity and scandal. It's harder to do.

***Now I'm really going out on a limb. So if you're with me so far, maybe you'll take a wacky leap into esoterica with me, too. I'm sure you've heard of the church/theatre metaphor before. There's a reason that one persists: theatre sits deep in the history of human discourse. But it sits even deeper in the history of human spirituality. The willingness to pretend, to consciously enter a reality based on faith, is at the heart of all spiritual activity, too. A bad play/movie, like a greedy televangelist, can abuse that faith and send us off with a counterfeit soul. I'm not out to censor anyone who does that, but it's upsetting how clever aesthetics, like clever Showman-shaman, can take your tithe without giving you real enlightenment.

All right. Enough of this frou-frou crap. Tomorrow's essay: Moby -- Has the Oracle Returned?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Cafe Anthropic

I don’t know what zeitgeist seminar the Yale kids take when they’re gearing up for their final MFA composition, but it always amazes me when catchphrases sprout simultaneously in a delicious super-meme. It also makes slacker editorializing that much easier because I can hit a bunch of stuff at once. So as I watch Bush put his official armchair philosophy seal of approval on Intelligent Design and then watch The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow in its final weekend at Studio Theatre, I have to wonder which came first: the artifice or the idea? They seem inseparable, sure, but recognizing the difference helps cut through all the bullshit the radcons are using to justify their plug for I.D. in the public school system. And tracking which hip metaphysics the playwrights are using this week can help explain why their stories so often seem incomplete (or with Shanley’s Doubt, why they seem downright corrupt).

Intelligent Design

I’m getting into an area where I’m almost too exasperated to write. All these little jibes about the nature of theatre usually don‘t go farther than this trusty e-cabal on tundratastic. And the fate of theatre affects, first, those of us who make it. But the fate of an entire culture -- if a culture’s respect for reason and democracy is directly related to how that civilization survives and thrives -- is altogether too daunting to consider sometimes. Sorry. Oft have I shrugged! Oft, I say! As a guy thrown into the real world just as it was falling apart,* I find it hard to juggle the normal Act One of My Life bullshit with Act Two of the New American Century. But here’s another shout in the ether, for whatever it’s worth.

When certain members of the federal government shun public education with one hand, strip it of its funding with the other, and then marvel at why it doesn’t seem to work anymore … when they’ve spent five years wearing their scripture on their sleeve (from Operation Infinite Justice to the 10 Commandments displays in Texas) … when these same people now masquerade as scientists and offer an official-sounding theory that negates the very idea of science … I want to scream. Not write a blog entry. That the showdown over Intelligent Design has been cast as a policy issue -- with those same poor public schools as the battleground -- only makes me foiqjweofiaQHWEI9HFIASDFA even more. And then I read some pitch-perfect satire on the subject and feel better for about twelve minutes -- until I realize that basically every word in that spoof could have come out of the president's mouth.

The advocates of Intelligent Design have as the base of their argument the meager fact that evolution doesn’t seem to cover all the leaps and gaps in the grand history of biochemical life on earth. That evolution (with all its imperfections and missing links) still soundly refutes the idea that the earth is 6000 years old doesn’t seem to enter into it. They want to kick Darwin down to size by taking the reasonable doubt built into any scientific theory and prying it open wide enough to fit their god into the cosmos. At every turn, they present not proof for Intelligent Design, merely doubt for Evolution.

Veteran readers of this blog may have noticed that the words "proof" and "doubt" have figured significantly in our previous discussions about theatre, too! How about that?! We'll get back to that shortly, I promise.

At this point, most reasonable people offer a simple reiteration of the difference between a theory and a law. But the radcons don’t understand that they can’t take advantage of Evolution’s data gaps without affirming the existence of Evolution in the first place. Clearly natural selection takes place in the world. The question is whether it’s responsible for every last genetic innovation in existence. Either way, the absence of total continuity in one system does not equal the presence of evidence for any replacement system you care to dream up.

Astrophysicists go through this all the time with the Anthropic Principle -- which, if I'm getting it correctly, says that the universe was built the way it was so we could understand how it was built the way it was. Sounds circular to us mortals, and I think it is. But Stephen Hawking hopped on the Anthropic bandwagon a few years ago, for whatever that's worth to you. The A.P. makes a handy companion piece for I.D. since the one discusses cosmological design and the other discusses biochemical design. But there's no method for proving either of them.

It reminds me of Arlen Specter’s Magic Bullet Theory. In the end, the MBT isn’t laughable because it might have happened, but because its elaborate (and strictly probabilistic) grounding does not disprove more compelling conspiracy theories. In an effort to tidy up a national tragedy (i.e. to bring it back to the simple live-TV melodrama everyone saw in 1963) the Warren Commission hammered any contradictory evidence back to the three bullets. So weak was their case that one of the bullets had to be Magical. Sure, it counts as a theory. But as proof of a single shooter, it’s on weaker statistical ground than Evolution ever was. And you don’t see the right-wing bitching for higher standards on that one.

Imagine if the Administration applied its new-found scientific rigor to, say, a certain war in which the phrase “massive intelligence failure” was bandied about not once, but twice in the course of two years. 9/11 was a M.I.F. As was the build-up to Iraq. How is it that a President who can’t remember which of his children is diabetic is permitted even to speak of M.I.F.’s or, more audaciously, the concept of Intelligent Design?

Proof of Doubt

Meanwhile, in Theatreland …

We have assholes like John Patrick Shanley celebrating the idea of collective doubt as though it were actually a) revolutionary or b) useful. What infuriated me most about his play was learning that he and the director and the actor playing Father Flynn had a get-together to decide what the real verdict/backstory was! After eleven excruciating scenes that culminate with no conclusion, the writer, the director, and the actor actually know the answer! Isn't that great? They just don’t want to tell us because, hey, that’s life. Now think about this for a moment. Is this play demonstrating the reasonable doubt we all feel for authority structures, holy and otherwise? Or is it just the umpteenth subjectivist mindfuck tossed off by a lazy writer who believes that Descartes for Dummies is really thought-provoking stuff? And what kind of thoughts are being provoked? Any? Or are we merely … provoked?

Doubt falls short on all the juicy Monsterist screeds I’ve been yakking about for the last month, so I won’t go into that again. But there’s something worse going on here. For all practical reasons, Shanely and his premiere team supplant the corrupt patriarchy of the story with a more sinister and self-defeating aesthetic corruption. Obviously the creator, the director, and the poor actor need to know what the real Flynn storyline is if they’re going to flesh it out and ground the character on stage. But after we leave the theatre, we get nowhere because the playwright wants to withhold our capacity for judgment while reserving for himself the right to marvel at how the world is filled with such ethically gray situations.

Were Shanley to explore an area of genuine, universal ambiguity (by, say, ripping open some of those above-mentioned cracks in Evolution) he might be onto something. Perhaps something that directly relates to faith and collective insecurity. Instead, we have a rectory-bound whodunnit where the real answer is anyone’s guess because no one (including the playwright) is courageous enough to engage in a truly heroic fight for the truth. So we just shrug at the existing power structure -- shielded from consequence all the more by Shanley’s groundless decision to set his play in the 1960s** -- and go home arguing in the car about whether or not the priest molested the kid. As for the stern emperor penguin who fights the good fight … well … would it be a PLOT SPOILER for me to reveal here that after her defrocking crusade SHE HAS DOUBTS?!?!?!?! Shit! I never saw that coming! So where does that leave us? And why should we care when the artists involved have already made up their minds?

Shanley seems to believe he’s doing us a larger civic service. And one could easily conclude from his play's booming popularity that JPS has tapped into something provacative here. His preface to the reader’s edition waxes philosophical at every turn. The injustice of the 1960s Catholic clergy pecking order is offered as an analog to the present -- not just socially, but somehow epistemologically, too. For all the weaknesses and frustrations in his story … for all the unanswered questions … we’re told “Hey, man. Isn’t that just like life?” Not when someone knows the answers but purposely withholds them.

In countless interviews, Shanley bemoans the state of our national discourse. He talks about how cable news has degenerated into a contest of wills, where facts and rational argument rarely enter into our quest for truth. I agree. But then he writes a play purposely designed to send people home shrieking from the same sense of subjectivist entitlement! When asked why he’s written it that way, he switches from weak, uninformed sociological speculation to weak, uninformed philosophical speculation: he equates certainty with corruption and doubt with enlightenment.

Personally, I don't need to spend more time with intractable personailties or implacable situations. I need a way to get through them. Shouldn't art be a place where we actually have a shot at figuring things out? Where the fight we should have fought can be demonstrated for our study? Where the audience can put aside its collective doubt with that splendid "suspension of disbelief?" Doesn't the textbook term "suspension of disbelief" negate the whole circus of doubt that Shanley's so eager to conjure***? I'm not saying we should abandon critical thinking -- I'm saying that perpetual criticism (i.e. cynicism) is just as useless as blind certainty. But "blind" is the operative word. Not certainty. Doubt is where we start the search for knowledge. It's shouldn't be where we end up.

The final message? As near as I can tell? It doesn’t matter what side you’re on because you can never know anything for sure. So instead of investigating further, checking your premises, refining your method, or putting your name/life on the line, why don’t you just perpetually doubt everything because, damn it, if I had to find a crystalline infinitive to sum up human consciousness it’d be … “to doubt.” Never mind the fact that such glib reductionism is WAY more smarmy and closed-minded that any manifest religion out there. Apparently, the only way to avoid sending an innocent man to jail or to protect an at-risk child from pedophilia is to never get out of bed in the morning. Why bother? The weatherman said it’d be sunny today. But I have my doubts.

All sorts of people capitalize on collective uncertainty. And ya know what kids? Uncertainty exists. It’s there for you right around the corner whenever you care to look. The debate shouldn’t be about the primacy of doubt -- in art, science, OR religion. It should be about what we’re going to do about it. So we can all grow up, re-read our low-cal Kant book from freshman year, and move on … or we can choose to sink in frustration with those five weak senses that God or whomever gave us.

But we do NOT have to sit and listen to the perennial polemic about doubt versus certainty, especially when our moderators -- be they Bush or Shanley -- are the ones manufacturing the doubt in the first place.

Jenny Chow

It’s been a few days since I saw this in a packed-to-the-stone-rafters audience at Studio Theatre. I can’t think of anything new to say about it. Except that Jimmy Flannagan has perfected scene-stealing hilarity. This guy bounced from Gus in Arcadia to Man with Bags to Kimberly Akimbo to columbinus and now to one of the most sublime stoners I’ve ever seen in The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. James, I don’t know if you’re reading, but damn: you rock. And thanks for the shout-out with "EXTREME!!" -- splendid ad-lib.

The rest of the play was cool. And I remember all the criticism about the unearned ending and an underwritten, needlessly evil mother character. I agree for the most part -- OCD Jenny’s final meltdown is catalyzed by a particularly nasty suck-it-up-and-deal stunt from her adopted mother. It’s a move that no real mother would ever pull, especially after living with an OCD kid for that long. That it sends Jenny round the bend also doesn’t make much sense. But the final image of God sobbing helplessly and fluttering her hands in the dark after she fearfully expels her greatest creation is an arresting moment in its own right. Maybe my viewing was too clouded by the catchphrase “Intelligent Design,” but I saw a digital deity rendered pathetic and lonely because she needs her creations to experience Creation.

Footnotes

Coming shortly ...

Mass Transit

A brief overview:
  • 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier that was declared a total loss when a young, sporty urbanite in a Toyata slammed into my passenger side door, causing irreversible frame damage last Christmas. Because this happened in the Dulles Airport parking lot, we were both declared at fault (the absence of stop signs meant nothing to my insurance company).
  • 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that was fun to drive, but was recalled by the manufacturer for a handful of electronic problems, chief among them being the automatic anti-theft fuel-pump shutoff device that would demonstrate its efficacy by shutting off fuel when I would drive it.
  • 198? Ford Festiva lent to me in Juneau, whose hatch-back flew open on windy days, became airborn, and whose brakes grinded away to a Flinstone's foot pedal. The mechanics said I was lucky to be alive.
  • And now: a 30 year old VW convertable Bug lent to me for a few days last week by some friends I was housesitting for. This car had the wackiest transmission I've ever seen. But last Friday night, it also CAUGHT FIRE as I was riding back from rehearsal. Imagine me in a white flaming convertible Bug in SW DC after dark as roving gangs of local kids shout: "Mmm! You on fire, motherfucker! Get out the car!"
I haven't had the best of luck with moving vehicles lately. But that's also why I haven't been able to post as often as I like. Becuase every time I turn around ...

I have a lovely post about Doubt, Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, Intelligent Design, and other stuff coming soon. But right now I gotta catch a bus.

Instead of VW Bug, it really should be the VW Moth.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Folly of the Moment

I really liked that title -- as a runner-up for the grand re-naming contest. Thing is, I can't think of any folly to share at the moment. Passion Play is about as exciting as it gets. I almost wish I was working on something less inspirational; wish I could scatter the fun projects and distribute them more evenly over the next couple years. Because I know it won't always be like this and it'd be handy to have some creative-capital account for the dry seasons.

Starting to chip away at the back-log of unread classics. Confederacy of Dunces to start, followed by a handful of Shakespeare titles courtesy of Maestro Deeker.

In the absence of any new thoughts, could y'all tell me if this blog appears weird in your browser window? I'm on Firefox and it looks OK, but on a friend's AOL browser, the side-bar was shifted below the text, instead of right next to it. I've been dropping code into the template with no real respect for the order, so ... maybe it's just a fluke.

I'm apartment hunting right now, so once I get myself settled there will be a lovely housewarming buffet of bloggage.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Reason to Believe

Been a while, kids. Sorry. I just scrambled to finish a promo for my company in which I take samples of our earlier military brain-washing films and synch them up to pseudofunky techno music to advertise for future clients. Consequently, my obsession with archival footage and subliminal fast-cuts has made this demo subversively good. To the point where it truly belies the quality of the product it pitches. Most of our films are a bunch of guys in matching uniforms sitting around a table saying things like, "XO, get the fit-reps and our Class III AT/FP training done stat, our we're gonna have serious trouble if the CNC puddle-jumps the QRF after the "fast Charlie" pulls his rojors."

Always followed by ...

"Yes, sir."

In my demo version, this same movie comes across as, let's say, borderline Bruckheimer. We got night vision! We got flying ... things! We got lasers! We got dead people! We got badass sound effects! Amp it all up with a shamefully potent dose of jingoistic symbol-mongering, and ... there ya go!

Now understand: the whole enterprise is less fraudulent than you think. All our stuff trains military people to avoid the clusterfucks for which they are so often berated on the front pages. The officer class in the Pentagon is actually a fairly progressive group of people who loved working under Bill Clinton because they got to tell him what to do. They hate Bush becuase his aim is political while theirs is strictly strategic. Plus, most officers have seen a good number of Presidents and will out-live the current one -- so their perspective is less encumbered by political reality. True, they spawn freaky shit like DARPA -- which, if memory serves, is currently working on a project to kill the enemy through telepathy or nanotechnological killer robots that fit comfortably inside a hydrogen molecule. So we stay away from that shit. We're not into recruiting either. Or administration propaganda. But my are we patriotic.

The Clean House

Saw this with the cast last Wednesday evening. I remember a friend at Woolly slipping me a manuscript version last year and loving it then. For some blessed reason, Rhul's playful insertion of supertitles aligned nobly with the "foreign movie" motif being discussed by the characters -- instead of being the kind of pomo overlay that objectifies the characters because it can't handle real human emotion without mocking it. So when we see a title saying "They fall in love" and then "They fall in love some more," it amplifies and celebrates the characters feelings instead of commodifying them or making them ironic. Rock on.

But what I love about the play is that it offers a course for its characters that acknowledges their obsessive nature without chaining them to it -- they aren't reduced to a few cruel tics or left to drool on themselves like lobotomized animals. No. They're high strung and out of control, but they're matched by characters who are equally vivid because of their passion. The story is about how the high-strung group comes to understand and join the passionate group. And in this progression, the author thankfully resists pathologizing passion or elevating neurosis. In short, Ruhl offers an ideal for human relationships that cruises through Albee territory while offering the suggestion that we don't have to be stuck there. Thank. Christ.

So yes. Me likey.

Spectacle v. the Circus

H offers and interesting query: "When does impossibilty [of the Rivera variety] become spectacle? Where does theatre end, and the circus begin?"

When effects are offered for their momentary, transient thrill (or to wake up an audience before intermission) -- when, in short, they are their own reward, we've got the circus. When effects amplify (or grow out of) the plot, characters, and theme, we've got theatre. Same could be said for movies, of course. But theatre needs to err towards the spectacular for reasons that have nothing to do with the competing all-you-can-eat buffet of flashy escapism offered by television and movies. And circuses.

Theatre is polysensual, to offer a pretentious term. You use eyes and ears, but also your skin, your nose, and your mouth. It's also three-dimensional and context-bound (most literally: in terms of time and place). Now, HD3D will be in your living room before you retire, so even when that proprietary distinction goes digital, you'll still have this medium that requires a community of strangers to occupy the same room for three hours. Burnt to its essentials, theatre doesn't seem to stand a chance -- unless the stories are likewise bound to these essentials. Novels fail upon adaptation to the screen because the singular joy of psychological insight can't be translated to the other medium. Film is image and audio-based. Prose is language-based. And theatre is time/space based. Some productions get a little obnoxious in their forthright declarations "THIS IS A LIVE HUMAN BEING YOU'RE WATCHING MASTURBATE! A LIVE HUMAN I TELL YOU!" -- and making theatricality itself the subject is a fun easy-out that every new playwright tries ONCE, thinking it's the greatest innovation in the world.* But the rest of us should just thank Pirandello and move on. I guess the difference is this: don't smash down the fourth wall, just remind the audience that the fourth wall is right behind them. And the other three are being shared, too.

Now, we forget these distinctions when we try to wedge theatre into some historical schema. Elitists think humanity is degenerating, ergo: people evacuate the theatre because there's no fire. Were a fire to actually break out, these drool-encrusted plebeians would stay and gawk because that's all they want from the media. So the snobs think. Conservatives and postmodernists think humanity is progressing (kind of), ergo: culture abandons theatre for the same reason it abandoned the barter system. Capitalism delivered a superior, digital discourse which must be better because it's making more money. So the rest of the country thinks.

But historical speculation aside, we run into a fuckload of cross-media friction along the way. Rosencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead was an absolute failure as a film because the whole frickin' play was about the locus of backstage v. centerstage action. And there will always be some jackass Jane Austen purist who can't abide Emma Thompson's negligent exclusion of some crucial passage from the book.

Even in non-fiction: the cross-media friction has doubled-back on itself. Time was, print journalism was yellow and not to be trusted. Then TV took the mantle of national discourse and kicked it even lower. Until TV proved likewise corruptible and print jockeyed back to a respectible position on the information highway. I think the return was prompted by the proliferation of the internet (which is still a mostly print-based medium) and the honest desire to hold information sources static and accountable. No one could possibly enumerate the sundry lies churned out by a day's worth of FOX News. And that's the point. Murdoch knows that TV is a transient, giddy medium with a weak tether to permanent record. TV celebrates the removal of context for total subjectivist control -- it's its greatest gift to the viewer.

With print, you can't write a lie without willfully sending out a permanent copy in black and white for millions of people to save as irrefutable evidence. The recent scandals surrounding plagiarism and source-faking shouldn't diminish our faith in print, it should make us thankful that there's still a medium capable of self-scrutiny and justice. Could you imagine if every damn falsehood tossed out by the Bush Administration and its constituent televisual media drones were to be investigated? Nevermind the volume of falsehoods, it's the pace at which they come out that makes such watchdogging impossible.

More to the point: televisual accountability, in any real sense, is impossible because it amounts to a rational retro-fit for an irrational medium. You can't hold an image accountable for anything -- buried in the act of visual perception is a willful surrender to subjectivism. Language, syntax, logic ... these require a democracy of symbol-makers, with each member active in the defense of rational discourse. Pictures may speak a thousand words, but it's all at once. And rarely do those thousand words line up into a whole argument.

Anyway, that's the slacker MacLuhan/Postman/Chomsky way of explaining it w/r/t other cross-media comparisons. My only point is that I don't think you can evaluate theatre on some ascending axis for the evolution of media. Rarely has the migration to a new domiant medium resulted in the complete transcendence of its predocessor.** Each medium has its own essentials, its own benefits and liabilities. We'll make more progress, artistically, when we view media through a nominal (not hierarchical) schema. Because the space between the sympathetic magic of ancient Greece and the pomo hyper-realism of 21st century America is not just history taking its course. Or blind positivism. Or neo-Hegelian determinism. Innovation radiates through history in a geometric pattern, not a strict linear one.

Given this, we can evaluate the gradual exodus away from theatre in a more honest (and, I think, more encouraging) context. People didn't just leave theatre for cheap thrills down the street. They left because they learned how to read and write. Because music and politics and religion could be enjoyed and examined exclusively -- and were better for it. Because some stories are just cooler on the movie screen. Because the internet brings people closer to a democratic, interactive community of thought. Because the printing press gave us a tangible document of those thoughts -- all innovations that supplant a previously exclusive function of live theatre, without completely transcending it.

Take heart, kids. All this really means is that live theatre rests at the core of the history of human discourse. Something of the seminal magic remains. We just need to find it instead of bitching about our imaginary competition.


*Consequently, fledgling screenwriters tend to hate Charlie Kauffman more than they admire him. That he was able to hoodwink a studio into buying his noxiously self-referential Adaptation was an insult to anyone who dabbled in solipsistic bullshit to finish an overdue essay in undergrad, but wisely abandonned it out of courtesy for the audience. Everyone has a play about playwriting, a movie about movie-making, a painting about painting, etc, etc. Some people have more than one! But like the senseless infinity of two mirrors facing each other ... these works bear the illusion of depth only.

**And rarely has the true predocessor been correctly identified. Boleslavsky's Acting: The First Six Lessons comes to mind. In it, he tries to comfort his fictional everystudent (the "Creature") by explaining the benefits of film without really easing her specific axieties about an image-based medium. He's essentially less perceptive than the make-believe protege he's constructed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Passion Plays

Stepping off the second day of table-work for Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play, I'm tempted to tie together the previous discussion about Monsterism, Doubt by Shanely, and Jose Rivera's 36 theses ... but maybe it's better to examine them individually for now.

Passion Play

I love this massive, crazy opus that verges on collapse every step of the way. The suspense doesn't come from the story -- we all know the story -- it comes from watching the grand architecture of the whole composition. Symbols and stage-pictures planted almost subliminally in Part One end up bursting past the proscenium in Part Three. Characters are reincarnated as themselves, but their relationships morph form epoch to epoch. Just when you think the iconography has been bolted down, Sarah inverts it when you're not looking. There are no simple superimpositions a la Terrence McNally (Corpus Christi), no doubter-in-disguise meta-narrative like Scorsese (Last Temptation ...) and no forensic fetishism like Mel Gibson (Passion of the ...).

Finally ... and best of all ... can ya feel it coming? ... the individual scenes play like parables, but they require the particular magic of live theatre to make sense! Amen! The Pirandellian elements stay within the confines of a pretty obvious premise -- they're never used as a back-door climax for lackluster plot mechanics. And when the fourth wall does get teased off its support beams, it's for the purpose of illumination, not deconstruction.

I know most of that's just vague insider gushing, but I'm not gonna write too much more about a script that's still being re-written and hasn't been put on its feet yet. Suffice it to say that I'm excited as hell to watch another crazy-big-shoot-the-moon project develop. Between The Tattooed Girl, columbinus and this, I haven't worked with a fixed text in almost ten months. And it feels great.

36 Assumptions

I'll trade you one Jose Rivera action figure for two vintage Artaud playing cards! I love most of the advice in this list (see post below). Much of it could apply to writers of any stripe, not just playwrights -- specifically, assumptions 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20 - 28, 31, 32, and 36. Some I wouldn't pass on to writers of any stripe. Specifically, assumptions 15, 17, and 33. I think you should writer from your organs (#15), but the brain doesn't have to be last in the list. Especially if you're counting vestigal nipples. And while it's important to find your tribe (#17), most rites of passage come from courageously stepping outside the tribe into the wilderness. I love my fellow roundtable chums, but I wouldn't be half the writer I am now if I didn't hang with Dan Stroeh, who writes brilliantly from a completely different corner of the universe. Finally, I don't know who counts as "having a vested interest in my future" (#33), but I've gotten some pretty good advice from people who didn't give two shits about the shelf-life of my scribblings. I might be confusing Rivera's terms there, but it seems to say you should evaluate the person before you evaluate the advice. Sometimes good advice stands on its own. And it can tumble out of the mouth of the most cruel, unwitting sage.

Rivera's premium on structure is refreshing (#4, 20, 23, 26). As is his articulation of the medium (#2 and 5). The bits I like best are the ones that sharpen the writer's sense of theatricality (#9, 10, 14, 16, 19, 30, and especially 35). Yes, we should write at least one impossible thing in each script. Writing from your senses is crucial because theatre is the only place you can take in information from all of your senses at the same time. Re-writing the laws of gravity is just plain fun (although, I don't think realism is AS artificial as any other genre).

And last: writing in layers. Goes hand-in-hand with writing for all 5 senses because even most film-makers have abandonned the idea of placing more than one thought-per-frame on the screen. The gestalt in live theatre isn't merely handy, it's compulsory. That's why my eyes drift to the light plot when a writer makes me sit there to watch people conversing for three hours.

Wiggity.