Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Caroline, or Change

Performance Date: 02.20.10
The Gallery Players

“A sad and lovely collage-like valentine/meditation on a time and place from his memory.”

Not the best sentence ever written, but that was how I described to a friend my impression of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, which I saw for the first time at The Gallery Players in Brooklyn last week.

Whether explicitly or not, I write a lot about memory in this blog.  When I sit down to write, I often begin by jotting down what I remember of a play, and from those memories I eventually spin out what you’ve been reading here.  It’s a process my dad used to teach his freshman writing students back in the day, and which he later taught me when I began writing essays in high school.  Write down what you remember, contemplate what connections those memories share, and before you know it you’ve got a solid argument for why Gatsby was so great.  The exercise – rather baldly on display in my Smudge post a few weeks back – leverages the idea that we tend to remember most clearly that which we only partly understand.  We remember the things that contain some mystery for us, or are significant to us in some way that is not entirely clear.

Caroline, or Change has that feel to it.  While only semi-autobiographical, the musical feels like the well-worn worry blanket of a playwright grappling to understand a few very affecting memories from his childhood.  As if Kushner had always carried with him the memory of a particularly troubling fight he had as a child with the maid who worked in his house, when he had said something searing and awful and could never quite comprehend why.  And from that disquieting memory, he constructed this quilt of historic context, sensory impression, and personal narrative to reconcile for himself what happened.  I guess that’s a very romantic imagining to suggest for such a cerebral playwright, and the quilt and blanket imagery is too sweet for the what Caroline, or Change is in sum.  But at least in Gallery’s revival, there is that fuzzy, stitched-together quality to the show, that quality of memory we all experience when recalling something huge that happened long ago.

I suppose fuzzy and stitched-together make it sound like the production was unclear or lacked cohesion.  That wasn't the case at all.  On the contrary, in fact.  I found the production not only clear and cohesive, but also moving, passionate, well-designed, and blessed with a tremendously talented orchestra and cast.  I think it might be the best thing I’ve seen at Gallery, which is saying something because I feel like Gallery keeps getting better and better every time I go.

Now, I want to return to the topic of memory and see where that path gets me in relation to Caroline.  The interesting thing is that it has now been five days since I wrote the first half of this post, and in the intervening time my memory of the show has altered from that first blush impression.  Now when I think of it, I most recall elements that actually give some balance to that stitched-together quality I first noted.  I recall the washing machine and the dryer – both the geometric representations of them in the set and the performers who personified them.  I recall their muscularity, the Washing Machine in her swishing and rolling physicality, the Dryer in his deep baritone and darting eyes.  I recall Caroline’s face, a strained mask of grief and rage, as she sings of doing laundry in a basement sixteen feet beneath the sea.  And I recall the music – a score not composed to be especially remembered melodically, and so I remember it instead as music that thumped and groaned, knocked and wailed.

And I think this, now, gives a better impression of what Caroline, or Change is "in sum," as I put it.  A worry blanket of memory, yes -- at least for me -- but one that is sculpted into something muscular and alive.  Something that still knocks and wails in my mind even five days later.  Something I clearly find worth remembering.

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