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?