Thursday, February 24, 2011

Prayer to playwrights and poets

Emile Zola, I sat at your seat in Le Grand Vefour on my 40th birthday celebration after having seen Terese Raquin. I call upon you. The manliest man in Paris, that's what Mark Twain called you when you called the French people and government out on being racist. I don't want to be a man, but put in me your brave spirit of truth and also grant me an income that allows me to toast you at Le Grand Vefour again.

Vaclav Havel, you changed the direction of your people with the power of your plays for good in a way that shows the best of what humans are capable of. To me greater than a messiah who dies is the playwright who lives to serve. The wider world needs your power. I would like it now, please, for this play.

Shakespeare, you explained the darkest and lightest parts of our own souls better than anyone. This is me right now. I am trying to figure out the connection between Hecuba and him. What was it? And isn't it exhausting how quickly we can switch between the darkness and the light? And weren't you brave at the end always facing the murder, the cannibalism. And now the whole world loves your plays and you in ways you could never imagine. There was this other guy, Shaw. He said the quality of a play is the quality of its ideas. You had marvelously resonant ideas about humans. May I please have as much insight as you?

And George Bernard Shaw, I am going to pray the hardest to you. Because you were the one who said that all great truths begin as blasphemies. I hope you are right because this play is blasphemous in the extreme. And we all know from our Christian upbringing that the one sin that god can never forgive is blaspheming the holy spirit. At Wheaton I used to torture my friends by accusing them of blaspheming the holy spirit but I always used to end up laughing about what it meant. A nervous laugh, to be sure, but a laugh.

Please help me to not be so easily discouraged. Please keep me with this play a little longer. I need to finish it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The play

I have set myself the hardest task yet in my life: to look back with compassion on the hardest, blackest parts of my adolescence. So painful. My body is a wreck, each day some new phenomenon gives me trouble. All your life is in your muscles and anyone who says differently is just plain wrong. This stuff is coming out. It's coming out of my muscles, it's not even my play sometimes, it's like the play written by my muscles. And my strongest muscle is my heart. So hah! All that crap about pink hearts and girls. Women have warrior's hearts. They should be depicted as enormous and powerful. Whoever sold us this pink thing with girls take note: this is where the market should be heading.

The more time I take selfishly very selfishly to write this play, the happier my children seem to be. This is in part because of the endless supply of candy, hot cross buns and hot chocolate.

In part I think I am able to write this play only because I am in this place that I hate so much. Even though I hate it, my children are happy here and are in a powerfully good environment. Not just benign or stimulating, although it is that too, but actually saturated with virtue and quests for the arts. It is great here for them and they are happy, and I couldn't write this play otherwise.

The more I work on this play the more I love my husband too.

So every spare second, sometimes an amazing four or five hours a day, I am writing. Hence I am not writing the blog much, it seems to me the times I have updated the blog is when the time has come for me to write a scene that is kind of scary to me. I mean, to me I am really writing a horror play as well as a comedy as well as a coming-of-age story. It examines the underlying belief culture of Evangelical Christianity and how powerful that force was and is in American culture. I am Vaclav Havelling the shit out of this play and I don't care who knows it.

Now I am thinking about a scene that I know is important - just to consider, not to necessarily have in the play at all -- the sort of suicidal thoughts.

If you have gone through as much depression in your life or even if you haven't, you know the key to surviving being suicidal is to not think about suicide. Under any circumstances. All reality starts as thought, so give suicide as little chance as possible for becoming a reality by not considering it.

Luckily now I am not depressed and this is a play, this is my chance. This is my chance to get it right. To look at it and see it for what it was and not be scared. It is really useful and to me perhaps the first purpose of drama that I am writing this as a play. I can make it theatrical and emphasize the characters and change what happened in ways that really make the whole thing a play, a thing for the stage. All that is good, right? It's still really fucking terrifying to me to even think a little bit about suicide. You know why? I mean, the bout I had after I got out of the hospital in 2004? It was so bad. I would fall to the ground sobbing, attacked by an instant depth of sorrow I pray you will never know. I used to have a lot of time built into my weekly schedule where I would just sit there and breath and hold on to the table and very actively not think about killing myself.

You know what, that whole thing puts my brain in hyperdrive and has made me what I am today, a playwright, so I have to accept that this is a thing about myself.

I find myself in the play treading lightly over the most painful subjects. I really give the audience the softest option when it comes to showing the pain of adolescence. Yet when I even describe little bits of the play to people they start crying with sympathy. Everyone else seems like quite the fucking amateur when it comes to suffering, I'll tell you that. That was SUCH A WELSH thing to say!!!! Because it's freaking obnoxious and also devastatingly true!

But really, there is a lot of comedy in the play. Bop and Skippy figure in quite a bit of it and Bop and Skippy are hilarious. I sent them an e-mail the other day telling them how much I was digging just thinking about us and what we used to do and how we used to talk and what we used to talk about and that I loved the way the play was coming out with a lot of them in it. And that, I hoped, was adequate compensation for the fact that Skip was turning into the comic relief. Although the more I think about it, the more I realize that actually, Skippy always was the comic relief.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review of Wicked from 2006

In 1996 Gregory Maguire wrote an ingenious novel about Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. In Maguire’s sensitive, intelligent backstory, Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba started out as college roommates and fast friends. Elphaba the brilliant student spoke out against the persecution of talking animals. And also everyone was creeped out over her green skin so they hated her. Glinda was pretty, mostly vapid and had political ambitions that gave her a certain moral flexibility. The ruling Wizard, oddly reminiscent of Hitler, Nixon and President Logan of 24, uses an annoying innocent from Kansas to martyr Elphaba. Glinda ends up in a powerful cabinet position. It’s a fabulous read.

In 2003, an adaptation of the story opened on Broadway as a musical. Friends returned from New York wide-eyed and spellbound. I was intrigued. When I think of big selling musicals, I don’t think of themes like the evils of totalitarianism or the importance of sisterhood .

I shelled out £55 per ticket – stratospheric price -- and watched. First of all, I was in the second row and mesmerized by the way Idina Mendes’ green makeup did not run or smear on her clothes or any other person she touched. Second, the set was a wonder – fantastical, magical, soaring art deco. A rain shower done with fast-moving pelts of yellow lights is particularly impressive. Third, the material is a goldmine. Truly. The film of the Wizard of Oz is never explicitly mentioned, but the musical is in continual homage to the images – from Glinda descending in a bubble to those ruby slippers. These images, and, more importantly, the characters, are important to the shared history of Americans. They are absolutely electrically charged with meaning.

It’s almost to the level of Jesus Christ Superstar, which I think paved the way for Wicked by plucking our most revered icons from scriptures and putting them on stage. Jesus Christ Superstar maybe turned my perception of Jesus around by fifteen degrees or so, though. Wicked got me one hundred and eighty, about-face, holy shit. How could I have been so naïve as to believe that the Wicked Witch of the West really was wicked? How could I have been blinded by Glinda’s beauty and not seen the slimy, two-faced political savvy?

But, you know, I saw the movie (read the scriptures) every year. The movie was true.

Elphaba is freakin’ bright green. She is also a beacon of honour, integrity, compassion and courage. Unfortunately, in our world one is as rare as the other. Truly virtuous people are about as feasible and welcome in Oz (or any other world) as are the bright green.

The musical didn’t go that far. It didn’t have to - the ideas stayed with me and that’s important. For that and for the set, I would recommend it.

Allow me to trash the songs though before I finish. They are all forgettable pop rubbish. The lyrics are done in a very personal “I feel so bad/good/green . . .” which is very wrong. The characters and dialogue evoked Harry Potter on an acid trip in Kansas with midgets. The songs could have easily gone in the same weird, wonderful, post-modern direction. Instead, they were painfully sincere and simple. If the lyricists had paid attention to the lessons of Wicked, they would have realized that in today’s world, sincere and simple can’t be trusted anymore.

Another play review of mine: Equus

A Review of Equus at the Gielgud

© Rachel Mariner 2007

“What does a person have to do to get sympathy in today’s world? Blind animals?”

-- Mrs Strang, Equus.

At the first night of previews for Equus, the stage was very crowded – sixty members of the audience share the stage with a cast of fourteen, Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter, The Harry Potter Movies, Richard Griffiths, The History Boys, and Richard Griffith’s recent weight loss. Through these crowds it was possible to glimpse the point of the play, but hard to glimpse its greatness. The stage was just too crowded.

Schaffer is a great playwright and this is a great play, done well. Equus (like Griffith’s last play, History Boys) premiered in London one year and won the Tony for best play in New York the next. It tells the story of Alan Strang (Radcliffe), a 17-year-old who is in a mental hospital for blinding six horses with a nasty sharp tool and Martin Dysart (Griffiths), the small town child psychiatrist who agrees to treat him.

The play unpacks the story of Alan Strang’s life and ingeniously makes Alan’s horse dalliances inevitable and pitiable. His mother is a devout Christian with a penchant for story-telling, his father is a repressed, angry atheist. Alan is a truly wonderful person, passionate and creative, but the only vocabulary he has to express this magnificence are bible stories from his mother and pictures of horses from his father.

So Alan forces these limited stories, full of pain and judgment, into his inner world – a world much more compelling and real for him than the outer world-- his lousy day job at an appliance store and his lousy home life, dominated by his parents’ fractious marriage. The supreme and controlling ritual in his inner life is a homoerotic midnight union with the horses whose stables he mucks out on the weekends – the spirit of Equus. The ritual is compelling and compassionately portrayed: it has its own scriptures, stories, canons and rules.

Alan’s vibrant inner life and bleak outer life co-exist uneasily until the night he first explores his sexuality with another person. He has the cute stable maid out on a date. She suggests a porn movie and all goes swimmingly until they run into Alan’s father. Drag. Then the cute stable maid wants to do it in the stables in front of his all-seeing slave-gods, the horses. He has to stop this all-seeing eye. He blinds them. (Yes, Mrs. Strang, he does have to blind animals in order to get sympathy. Thus we have made the world.)

This play illustrates why it is so hard to be a parent. Every dynamic in your life, every nuance of your relationship with your partner, every story you tell your child and, more importantly, every story that you unwittingly act out in front of your child is absorbed by them – it is their prison sentence and their freedom, their most blessed understanding of life and the source of all their confusion. And we don’t know as parents or as shrinks why some stories harden into rules and some don’t. It’s all very complicated.

Alan Strang had no stories other than his mother’s lurid tales of religious martyrdom and his father’s repressive exhortations to diligence and abhorrence of sloth. So these are the stories that snapped together, like magnets, to make a chain of ritual that bound Alan to his only expressions of pleasure. As a mother of a three-year-old, this play made me nervous. I went to see the play last night and tonight I read stories to my kid until my tongue cramped and my voice went hoarse. I want him to have a wide vocabulary for his suffering and his joy.

The set is simple and effective, the six lasciviously gay-seeming men who play the horses are wonderful. The costumes of the horses, the horseshoes and bridles and bits, are fetish wear.

Our Beatrice in our trip through Alan Strang’s psyche is the brutally honest Martin Dysart, the shrink who understands that to shrink someone is to take away their pain but also take away their personhood, their fire. Even as he heals Alan, Martin reveals his own strictured woundedness – his lousy marriage, his doubts on life. Dysart says at one point that he is big enough for psychiatry but psychiatry is not big enough for him. I nodded knowingly (and I was on stage so maybe some of the many canoodling ancient gay couples in the audience saw me). I am, as it turns out, more than big enough for the law but the law is not big enough for me – that is why I am trying to be a playwright.

And, get this – it’s not only Dysart to whom I claim superior understanding. Alan Strang too. I am Bipolar I, I have done strange things, I have been sequestered in a mental hospital. I know what it is like to have the passion and the creativity but only the hobbled vocabulary of Christianity. I understand how both Martin and Alan are too much for what they are.

Griffiths is a superior actor. With a cunning, realistic yet fake smile he brings alive the Copenhagen-like speeches -- the pronouncements of psychiatry theory. Radcliffe is a superior actor. Whenever his interaction with another character was banal or pedestrian, he absolutely shined. He is a cast in search of a farce.

But Radcliffe is Harry Potter, and that is not an association that is left at the door. I wish it was, but the sighing fifteen-year-old girls next to me for the ten minute nude scene decided otherwise. Radcliffe is the face of a boy best beloved by many, many children. When his character suffers, Harry Potter suffers. I found my self wondering whether it was better to be orphaned, like Potter, or to suffer the parents of Alan Strang. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m pretty sure that it was distracting to worry about it.

Also, Radcliffe is uber-normal. He has not known the pain and repression necessary to be Alan Strang and he hasn’t found it with this director. Alan Strang is truly nuts - like me when I was really crazy – he operates on a completely different plane than his sane counterparts. Neural superhighways of normality dominate the human race. Crazy people have jumped track and are operating in strange neural back allies and uncharted wilderness. Radcliffe aspired to play a crazy person, but it was clear to this crazy person that he didn’t have the life experience or the imagination to successfully jump the tracks. Lucky him. Radcliffe is cute and successful – he is not abnormal like us crazies, he is uber-normal. He will be a great actor in farces and comedies, I have no doubt.

I thought at least the shrink – Dysart -- would be free of this mantle of past celebrity associations but Griffiths is so steeped in History Boys that I found this problematic too. This play is simultaneously a love letter and a ruthless damnation of psychiatry, in the person of Martin Dysart. Griffiths is morbidly obese. This fact inescapably influences our understanding of both psychiatry and his character Dysart – his vulnerability, his sexuality, and his relationship to the prosecutor.

I was so excited to have these tickets that I put on eyeliner and my good earrings and felt I was at a real event. But in the end, it didn’t make my top five. Leave this one for the people who don’t read theatre reviews. They’ll like it fine.

St Joan: Burn, baby Burn

An old theatre review of mine I came across from 2007. A clue about the play I want to write:

So a week ago I went to check out this production of GB Shaw's famous 1923 play. I had an ulterior motive - I played Joan in a community production in Corning, New York in the early 1980's and I wanted to see how my perceptions had matured and sharpened over time.

Back then, young and naive, I thought every scene without me - Joan - was boring. Now, at age 40, having experienced childbirth, madness and true love, I . . . I still think that every scene without Joan is boring. The trial scene kicks ass, but overall it's not the greatest play.

It's a great production - the best part being Anne Marie Duff, who plays Joan with an Irish accent and a fiery spirit. (Sorry. Whoops.) The Dauphin was the very comic embodiment of the word fopp. Yay for gay! He was funny.

The opening and the battle were heavily choreographed by some upstart and the result was kind of strange. The Siege of Orleans comes off as a kind of Stomp routine - lots of rhythmic banging of chairs. It gently lulled my companion to sleep which I am pretty sure was not the desired effect.

The best part- the part that makes it worth sitting through the preceding three hours - is the trial scene and burning of Joan. In the words of Paris Hilton, that was hot. No, seriously - she is so terrified of being burned alive. I felt it way up in the £10 seats and that's some good acting. The unfolding of the trial is marvelously set up in the preceding three hours so that every line by Joan's accusers is powerful.

I read some other reviews of the show, notably West End Whingers (who I love) which commented on the relevance of the play to life now. Repression of people who represent a threat to the status quo, the cruel perpetuation of power at the heart of every institution, virulent hatred of the English (I'm kidding!!) (not really) (no, really).

And yes, the play is relevant to our life now for those reasons. So much so that a week later I'm wondering why the National bothered to revive it. Oh, look, someone sincere and brave is being crushed by an unresponsive power structure. Shocker! A woman is being told to question the evidence of her own senses and is written off as insane because her views are inconveniently insurgent in nature. Quel suprise! Religion perpetrates a grave misjustice. Color me flabbergasted! BORING!

I know this maybe isn't the place for it, but man, I'll tell you what I want to see: I want to see the play where Joan doesn't get burned. I want to see the play where people listen to her. I want to see the play where compassion triumphs over the exigencies of the sovereign. I want to see the play that takes on the social constructs of madness, rebellion, law and order and sees what happens when they are turned inside out.

That's the kind of play they should be putting on at the National. That's the kind of play we need to see now - not another affectionate rehashing of how very very bad the social order is and how crazy women who stand up for themselves always die but a imagining of what else the world could be.

Look at what is at the National now - Enchantment, Emperor Jones, Rafta Rafta - apologist potrayals of the inflexibility of social structure and the impossibility of change.

Ah, you say the work of the playwright is to hold a mirror up, not to point the way forward. Well, I don't know. Vaclav Havel might disagree. I certainly do. Color me Pat Benatar. All fired up.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Play

So I am IN IT with the play right now and I kind of want to tell you this but I kind of don't: I am really happy doing this, I feel so much joy. I am the recipient of some gift, my writing seems to have improved exponentially and every spare minute is going into the crafting. I didn't want to tell you in case you are having a shitty time right now. Who wants to read about other people's happiness? Yech.

Now I am seeing the ten years that preceded this play as preparation and for one sweet moment, life is balanced and good.

I am writing about a party I threw when I was fifteen. I was caught, spectacularly and unforgettably, by my parents who had no idea of my manifold wicked ways. In the context of being an adolescent girl in an Evangelical Christian household in a small town in New York in 1983, it was an unparalleled formative experience.

My whole life the memory of that party had filled me with shame and the fact that people in Corning were still interested in talking about it 27 years later annoyed me massively, really, really bothered me. I went to one high school friend's wedding in Eastern Europe a while back and her father cornered me at the reception and just asked me all these questions about it. It was so uncomfortable and awful.

Now that I am older and wiser, though, I know that enlightenment requires you to look precisely at the things that seem uncomfortable and awful to you in order to figure them out. Trying to see it all as a play with characters and themes and plot and a historical and cultural context, well, it is cathartic and amazing.

The wind is strong today, it's unseasonably warm and the gusts are so strong that bike traffic is getting blown to the curb. In my upbringing I learned that the Greek word for Spirit was the same as the Greek word for wind. That always made the wind so magical to me. The wind is blowing away all the pointless shame, and brings the words to the page. It's all magic. It's good.

It is simply marvelous how far we have come since those times. The play is Precious meets Happy Days, a sort of Brighton Beach Memoirs meets The Exorcist.