When Stage Productions Fail

Rose, red

photo: Vineetha Nair, creative commons license

Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?

The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.

This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.

What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.

My notes for the producers:

  • The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
  • Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
  • Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
  • Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
  • Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.

Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.

This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.

Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?

Jane Austen’s Dark Side

birdcages

photo: Kirk Maddison, creative commons license

Mikita Brottman recently wrote in The American Scholar about the virtues of going deeply into a narrow subject, such as Jane Austen did in her fictional world. How often do we feel that in the sweep of novels that cover centuries and generations we have lost the particular that made the years and the individuals vivid and unique? How much more can be revealed by Austen and her magnifying glass for social mores? Stuff that’s not so pretty, Brottman thinks.

Austen is a popular fan fiction subject, with 1,266 entries, pastiches, and spinoffs on the Archive of Our Own fanfic website. The author, dead almost 200 years, is on coffee mugs, and board books, coloring books, air fresheners, iPhone covers, and teapot cookies. (This may be the place to recall that when I showed up at the local post office wearing my “I ♥ Mr. Darcy” t-shirt, the clerk said, “Oh, that must be your husband!” “No, Pride and Prejudice.” “Is that a tv show?”) All these commercial incarnations underscore the bright, romantic view of Janeworld.

What was Jane really saying?

Brottman’s favorite novel Austen novel these days is Mansfield Park, with its self-effacing heroine, Fanny Price. MP has long been thought Austen’s “problem novel” and “difficult” (interesting critique from another fan here). Over time, the other, better-known novels have become less romantic for Brottman because their heroines’ world was so small—an accurate portrayal for the times. Austen herself likened her writing to “painting with a ‘fine brush’ on ‘a little bit—two inches—of ivory.’” I’ll be interested to see what Whit Stillman does with Austen in his recently released movie, Love and Friendship.

While we may remember with deep nostalgia the innocence of our adolescent ideas about love and destiny, our visions of a rich and handsome partner, and our longing to move in a refined, elegant world (“someday, my prince will come”), maybe it’s “time to give up on childhood fantasies,” says the fanfic author heleanna, who writes as The Butterfly Dreamer and has her own take on overcoming Mansfield Park’s constraints.

Below the surface of balls and calling cards, Austen is not romantic at all, Brottman believes, but rather “a very dark writer.” Under the taffeta and lace, “these well-bred young women are trapped like rats,” prisoners of rigid social rules and expectations. As some 150 years later poet Maya Angelou wrote about a different set of social constraints, “I know why the caged bird sings.”

(Brottman is a prolific author and cultural commentator. I’d like to read her brand new book The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison, published June 7.)

Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person”

bookshare, Flannery O'Connor, peacock

Bookshare box outside Flannery O’Connor’s girlhood home with an adored peacock (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Late last year author David Griffith wrote a timely essay in The Paris Review about Flannery O’Connor’s infrequently anthologized short story, “The Displaced Person.”* He was inspired to do so by the ongoing political debates over immigration. First published as a short story in 1955, the story was made into a tv movie with John Housman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Irene Worth in 1977.

O’Connor generally avoided stories that tried to make a particular point about social issues. Topical writing can sink unpleasantly into polemics or become outdated. Think about the reservations people now have about The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the McCarthy era witch hunts. Griffith says O’Connor’s story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” is another exception. (It’s the unforgettable tale of the mother who gets on the bus wearing her distinctive hat.) It manages both to avoid lecturing the reader as well as remaining relevant, as the bigotry it lampoons has not disappeared and constantly shifts to new targets. As have suspicion and resentment of “the displaced.”

More important, says Griffith, “To be topical, (O’Connor) thought, was to risk arguing for social changes that couldn’t be brought about by mere idealism, but by the hard, messy, and sometimes violent work of transforming hearts.” We hear that in the current campaign as well. Idealistic, pie-in-the-sky proposals from politicians that have not a wisp of a chance to become anyone’s reality. When we think about the desperate parents of Guatemala, who were willing to part with their beloved children and send them impossibly far away to the United States to keep them safe (only to find they weren’t welcome here), the difficulty of transforming greedy hearts is abundantly clear.

Griffith, like other students of O’Connor’s works, would argue that in fact many of her characters are displaced persons—if not literally, he says, then figuratively: “morally rudderless, existentially lost, or both.” And their displacement comes from their inability to love their neighbor. One way Griffith describes displacement is being “without a community to care for you” and, I’d add, “to care about.” The loss of caring community certainly describes the situation facing migrants all over the world today. They did not ask for their home countries—their caring communities—to become disastrous, murderous places.

“The Displaced Person,” Griffith concludes,“carries a dark moral force without recourse to didacticism or sentimentality.” The character in this post-World War II story has been displaced through the intolerance and hatred spawned by the Third Reich. Yet O’Connor does not refer to the war itself, but instead focuses “on the long shadow cast by this kind of evil,” a shadow that at the time of her writing extended all the way to Milledgeville, Georgia, and that in 2016 is deepening across our beloved country.

*If you search for “The Displaced Person full text,” the Gordon State College link has it as a rather funky pdf.