Seeing a Play Twice: The In-Between

This fall I’m taking a five-week ZOOM course on “How to Watch a Play,” led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Theater J. Prior to the first class, everyone watched online a 2018 production of the Tony-award-winning play Red by John Logan. I’d seen it a few years ago and didn’t remember it all that well.

This London version had Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko (born in 1903; committed suicide in 1970) and Alfred Enoch as his assistant, Ken. In the script, Ken arrives to help Rothko with the task of creating nearly 40 enormous canvases to hang in Manhattan’s then-new Seagram Building. He stretches canvas, he mixes paint. Red paint. The paintings are undeniably red, in varying shades, and it’s a tribute to both artist and playwright that audience members can go from “my kid could do that” to “I get it” in about 90 minutes.

A filmed play has plusses and minuses. Closeups are an advantage. Actors and directors manage stage elements so that you’re looking in the right place at the right time; with the camera, the decision where to look is made for you. What’s lost is the sense of community a live audience provides. (Adam cited a 2017 study that found audience members’ hearts begin to beat in sync.)

Adam distinguishes between a play and a production. The play is the script. Everything that brings it to life (actors, sets, costumes, lighting, music) is the production. And, when it comes to production, he says, “Everything’s a choice.”

When you see different productions of the same play, those choices become apparent. One version may be immensely enjoyable, another a big disappointment. A few years ago, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre produced an intimate version of My Fair Lady with no orchestra, just two pianos. A delightful choice. We’ve seen six or seven productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—from Broadway to community theater—and enjoyed each one. Great choices.

Then, the disasters: Romeo and Juliet in a tiny theater where the set design included a traditional second-floor balcony and, when Juliet was up there, the audience could see her only from the knees down; a particularly awful Hamlet (referred to at our house as “the nude Hamlet”); and A Christmas Carol with Tiny Tim played by an adult. Cue eyeroll. Yet, whatever their choices, a production team doesn’t totally control your reactions. External factors intrude. Say you eat a bad dinner before the show, or an actor reminds you of someone you loathe (or love!), or the set calls to mind your terrifying Aunt Gertrude’s living room. Between my first and second viewing of Red, as it happens, I visited Houston and saw the Rothko Chapel, hung all around with his large, dark, ominous paintings. Because of that experience, when Rothko says, “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend. . . One day the black will swallow the red,” I took so much more from that line. To me, that’s exactly what happened with Rothko, both literally and metaphorically.

How Was That Movie?

popcorn

Ann Hornaday’s book Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies might sound like a superfluous entry in a list of how-to-do-it guides. What prep do you need? Sure, you can just relax and let the movie experience wash over you, but Hornaday’s deconstruction of the process makes viewing a richer experience.

Hornaday, a movie reviewer for the Washington Post, has organized the book usefully, too—with chapters on screenplays, acting, production design, cinematography, directing, and various technical aspects. She approaches each review with the following three questions.

What was the artist (the screenwriter, the director, an individual actor) trying to achieve? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Not sure? A fluffy confection of a comedy can be just as satisfying and successful (often more so) than a serious drama. A movie hollow at its core can try to distract you with a glitzy surface and stellar cast. But if you find yourself saying “whaaaat?”, a vague purpose or the cross-purposes of too many off-screen cooks may be at fault.

Did they achieve it? Here’s where it’s fun to see several versions of the same material, if you can. The 1996 and 2020 Emmas (Gwyneth Paltrow and Anya Taylor-Joy) up against Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless. On successive nights, I watched Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989). Same story, very different movies. Critics liked DL, but I liked both, and Valmont has the added allure of a young Colin Firth. Or the two excellent Truman Capote biopics (Toby Jones vs. Daniel Craig). Even a fresh conception of a familiar classic can succeed spectacularly: Caesar Must Die is a documentary about prisoners in Rome’s infamous Rebibbia prison being cast, rehearsing, and producing Julius Caesar. Astonishing.

Was it worth doing? Now, there’s a question. And, each of us will have different metrics for arriving at the answer. But if you’ve ever walked out of a theater asking yourself “Why?” perhaps it’s because the answer—at least for you—was “no.” The Wolf of Wall Street, 1917, and The Greatest Showman were films that, for me, weren’t worth the ticket price.

Keeping these three questions in the back of your mind may help if you want to go beyond “Loved it!” or “It was crap!” when you get the inevitable, “So, what did you think?”

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.