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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tell a Friend about A Year of Plays

Hello Dear Readers,

This week we are exactly halfway into my Year of Plays -- Week 26 -- and I wanted to take a brief moment for a few words, and to ask you for some help.

It started as a lark, but I now find I'm really in love with this idea that we can talk and write about art without reviewing it.  The idea isn't to disguise our opinions but to remind ourselves that picking over what we don't like is only one slim part of what can be a much larger, much richer conversation.  I've gotten so much value out of retraining my brain to think this way that I want more people to give it a try.

This is why I've set a personal goal to double (maybe even triple?) my readership of A Year of Plays -- and I need your help to do it!

If you also support the idea of creating a richer public discourse about art, please tell a friend -- or two!  Click on the "Email Post" icon at the bottom of every post, use the "Share A Year of Plays" gadget over there in the sidebar, or just mention it over a beer.  Help spread the idea that our conversations about art are not limited to talking about the bits that didn't work!

Finally, thank you!  I so thoroughly enjoy writing this blog that it comes as a giant ladleful of drippings-and-cream gravy that anyone should read it or enjoy doing so.  (Great, now I've made myself hungry for turkey.)  Your support is tremendously encouraging and I thank you for it.

Now go read below about A View from the Bridge!


A View from the Bridge

Performance Date: 02.12.10
Cort Theatre

I didn’t major in theater.  In fact, aside from a few great experiences doing high school plays, I had nothing to do with theater until I took my first acting class at 24.  I never took Theater History, a seminar on Great Plays, or even a survey of dramatic literature.  As a result, there are many, shameful gaps in my theater knowledge.

The benefit of this ignorance is that I now occasionally have the pleasure of going to the theater, as a 10-year veteran actor, and encountering a classic play for the very first time.  And it is such a pleasure, I have to tell you.  To be in the hands of a master playwright with no preconceived notion of how the story will or should unfold is utterly delicious.  Especially when the production is good and the cast remarkable.  As was the case last week with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge on Broadway.

So, full disclosure # 1:  I’m a huge Arthur Miller fan.  I mean, how can you not be?   He’s amazing.  I know there must be people out there who say they don’t like Miller, but I think they must be lying in order to sound contrary and cool.  In fact, I like Arthur Miller so much that if you don’t like Arthur Miller, I am deeply suspicious of you and I don’t think we can be friends.  I’m just sayin’.  Granted, I only know four of his thirty-five or so stage plays.  But those four – All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and now A View from the Bridge – are more than enough to make up for even a million lesser attempts.

Full disclosure # 2:  I know the guy who plays Rodolpho in this production.  In fact, I’m guessing 3 out of 4 of my readers either know the guy who plays Rodolpho, or happen to be the guy himself.  He’s an ACT alum named Morgan Spector and for the 25% of you aren’t acquainted with him, there are two things you should know: 1) he landed his plum role by way of a true Cinderella story, as an understudy called to replace the original actor after an injury forced him to leave the show; and 2) what eclipses that good fortune is Morgan’s great talent and hard work.  He is the very epitome of the idea that luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation.  Mad props.

Full disclosure #3:  Antoinette LaVecchia of How to Be a Good Italian Daughter (In Spite of Myself) is also in the ensemble cast.  She had me in stitches over drinks post-show and a lovelier, funnier woman cannot be found, well, anywhere.  (Incidentally, this means I now have two pathways that make me exactly 2 degrees separated from both Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson.  I admit I take great delight in that.)

Okay, have I gotten this far without really writing about the play?  Gee, my posts are getting lengthy.  I guess I like to hear myself write.

So here’s the thing.  The great Miller plays are like the Golden Ratio.  They are perfectly proportioned and possess a rhythm and beauty that reflect some kind of inherent natural order.  It sounds hyperbolic, but I think I mean it more literally than you imagine.

Take a look at the Fibonacci spiral, a geometric figure that approximates the proportions of the Golden Ratio and is famously exhibited in nature by the nautilus shell.  Overall, the shape is simple and pleasing to look at.  Although not symmetrical and potentially infinite in size, there is a balance to the figure that makes it feel complete.  Looking closer, there is more pleasure to be derived in noticing the structure of the shape.  Each turn of the spiral is a proportionally identical curve, and each curve relates to the ones before and after it in exactly the same proportional way.  Finally, there is a tension in the spiral that is compelling, if not exactly pleasurable.  It begins in what feels like an expansive amount of space, but then quickly – very quickly – it turns inward, tighter and tighter, into what feels like an impossibly small little knot.  Something vast and free becomes something cramped and definite in the blink of an eye.

So it is with Miller.  The four great plays I named all possess those same qualities.  Asymmetrical – no bookending scenes or coming full circle, just a linear march through time – but balanced and complete.  Pleasingly simple overall, but possessing careful structure that unfolds in a proportional way.  A compelling tension, both pleasing and not pleasurable at all, of an inescapable fate coming nearer and nearer with every turn of the plot.  In other words, a man – Eddie Carbone, Willy Loman, John Proctor, Joe Keller – once possessed of a future that was vast and free, turns inward again and again upon his own fatal flaws, and thus marches towards a cramped and definite end of his own making.

Wow.  I just made that up right now.  But I think it’s pretty good.  I think I might be a genius.  I think I’ll sit here all smug and proud.  That is until someone with a theater history education notices, discredits me, and I implode into a private spiral of shame.  Because pride does go before the fall.  Just ask Willy Loman, John Proctor, or Eddie Carbone.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Performance date: 02.04.10
Women's Project, The Julia Miles Theater

I’ve been thinking a lot about pictures.

I took an on-camera acting class this week that was organized around the following idea: what a film or video camera captures is a series of pictures juxtaposed to tell a story.  The pictures move fast – 24 or 30 frames per second – but that’s really what you’re dealing with in Film and TV land.  A series of pictures telling a story.  The question then occurred to me – is it really different in Theater land?  Or is it actually the same?

This promptly opened a Pandora’s box in my brain that I am still sorting through.  So forgive me as I take you on a road that will end at no clear destination.  You're thrilled, I'm sure.

One of the most popularly held beliefs in the acting community is that acting for film and television is different than acting for stage.  We’ve all heard tell of brilliant film and TV actors seeming to suck wind on stage, and many highly experienced theater actors (not excluding myself) tend to suck wind on camera.  So we assume the two must be different.  Okay, but how?  The clearest reasons I can see are:
  1. In theater, we are not perceiving the illusion of movement on a two-dimensional screen, but actual continuous movement in three-dimensional space;

  2. In addition to seeing and hearing, we also perceive theater energetically (for example, when we notice an actor who has “presence”) as well as via smell and taste (e.g. the yummy bacon from Barrow Street’s Our Town).
But here’s the thing.  Despite these differences, doesn’t storytelling on stage ultimately depend on pictures just as much as storytelling on screen?  What else is the director doing when she blocks a show?  Why else is it an asset when an actor has “stage sense,” or the ability to intuitively determine where he should place himself on stage?  What else are designers are for?  Furthermore, couldn’t it stand to reason that we process real, live action in the same way a camera does?  That is, that we capture a series of pictures in our memory and infer a story from them?  I’d need a cognitive scientist to answer that, but I can tell you this – when I think of a play I’ve seen, I usually remember it in pictures.

Take for instance the performance I saw last week of Smudge, a dark comedy about a young couple who give birth to a “smudge” – a female, possibly non-baby creature that the audience never sees.  When I think of this play, the following pictures come to mind:

  • The mother huddled near a filing cabinet, eating a forkful of cheesecake straight from the box, and remaining as far as she can from her daughter’s feeding- and breathing-tube infested carriage;

  • The baby itself, which is only described and never shown, but in my imagination is a peach-colored, comma-shaped, armless, claw-tailed creature, with a single giant aquamarine eye;

  • Stacks of generic white bankers boxes, demarcating areas of the stage, all labeled with binary numbers – 11000.11, 0101, 0.11110, etc;

  • The mother sitting on the floor with a pair of scissors, snipping the arms off a pile of baby onesies;

  • A giant koosh-ball-like “stuffed animal” the mother creates from all the snipped-off arms and dangles tauntingly in front of the carriage from several feet away.

These pictures tell me a lot about the play.  They tell me that the play contains grotesque absurdity (cheesecake, koosh-ball, armless onesies) and cruelty (distant mom).  It concerns itself with categorization (boxes, binary numbers, demarcation).  It centers around a monstrous image (the baby) that we are never shown but left to vividly imagine.   Taking a few more cognitive leaps, I can say the play is about grappling with incongruity, with experience that defies categorization, and about nightmarish, faceless fear.

Yet none of that occurred to me as I watched the play.  As I watched it, I was more engaged in the emotional journey of each character, and waiting to see how the story would turn out.  As I watched it, the play was just about this young couple coping with having a non-baby daughter.  It was about how I was horrified by the mother but then understood and felt for her.  It was about wondering what would happen to the baby.  Not about incongruity, but about emotion and plot.

So here I am at the end of the post – and as promised, at no clear destination.  I have no idea what any of this means.  I’m sorting through my Pandora’s box but it remains a jumbled mess.  In the jumble, I see potentially misguided beliefs about stage and screen acting, tantalizing questions about cognitive science, and really fantastic images from a very intriguing play.  An incongruous pile that defies categorization.  An unclear mess.  Yes, in fact, a smudge.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

As You Like It

Performance Date: 01.29.10
Bridge Project at BAM Harvey Theater

Blast!  I’ve been through four false starts to this blog post already and I’m not any closer to saying what I want to say.  Okay, gloves are off.  I’m throwing cleverness and insight to the wind.  Transitions and subtlety are out too.  I’m making a list:

1) I saw As You Like It at BAM.  Part of the Bridge Project – Sam Mendes’s three-year long valentine to transatlantic collaboration and classic plays.

2) It made me think a lot about performing Shakespeare.  A topic I quite like.

3) Once upon a time, specifically during my three years of grad school and the year or two immediately following, I had a white-knuckle grip on Shakespeare performance technique. 

4) This is the thing about grad school.  You go (and by you, I mean me) and your teachers tell you that what they are giving you are tools.  You’re supposed take them, put them in your toolbox, and then pull them out when you need them.  But that’s not what happens.  Instead, you (and by you, I mean me) take what they say and turn it into gospel.  Those tools become the Ark of the Covenant, and you hold on to that holy structure as tight as your grubby little hands will let you.  White knuckles, people.  Tight.  Because you’re frightened to death of being awful and these tools are probably your only salvation.

5) I wish I could tell you what the result of this white-knuckle grip looks like.  But I can only tell you what it feels like.  It feels great.  It feels like you are the conductor of a massive orchestra that is your body and voice and brain and you are playing THE CRAP out of that Shakespeare.  Just TEARING IT UP like the brilliant apex of acting that you are.  Like you are laying REVELATIONS out upon that stage.  Like no one has ever harnessed the lessons of a masters-level education like you are doing at this VERY MOMENT.  You.  Are.  Awesome.

6) This is what I think it actually looks like:  An unnaturally tense person with an abnormally expanded chest, who is possibly experiencing the shimmering instability of a manic episode, bellowing in a peculiar not-quite-British accent and gasping for breath every two-thirds of a sentence.

7) Needless to say, nothing has pleased me more over the past five years than to observe in myself the gradual loosening of my fearful and misguided grip on all those holy tools.

8) That said, there are still a few things I believe about performing Shakespeare.  Here are four of them:

9) Move it along.  The iambic heartbeat beneath the lines is a perpetual, unceasing rhythm that begs to keep pulsing.  So keep it moving.  Don't labor over every word.  Don't pause where none is indicated.

10) No trochees in the second or fifth foot.  Seems weirdly specific and picky but I actually think it’s right.  It sounds herky-jerky when you put a stressed-unstressed foot in those positions.  The unceasing rhythm gets thrown and it’s like a train going off the tracks.  Supposedly, and it’s probably debatable, Shakespeare never wrote a trochee in the second or fifth foot, with Lear’s “Never never never never never” being a notable exception.  

10.5)  I think I’ve just uncovered the origin of the phrase, “Never say never.”

11) Understand the logic.  Don’t skip over anything.  Follow the logic from the beginning of a speech to the end until you can see how it hangs together as a whole.  It’s important.

12) In fact, choose logic over emotion.  By all means, stay open to what the language triggers in you emotionally – in fact you must – but don’t go searching for it.  Usually, if you understand the logic of what you’re saying, the emotion will come.

13) Those four things – 9, 10, 11, and 12 – are my real Ark of the Covenant.  The tenets I try to keep to in all those Shakespeare auditions I go to, and the tenets I’ll keep to when I’m cast in the final round of Bridge Project plays next year.  That’s right.  Are you listening Sam Mendes?

14) Everything else I’ve learned is finally just a tool in my toolbox.  The tools include maintaining the “integrity of the line” (i.e. finding reason to briefly breathe or pause at the end of every line), leveraging consonant sounds and length of vowels, exploring the use of monosyllabic vs. polysyllabic words, mining every possible resonance of every single word (a.k.a “dropping in”), and connecting emotionally to the character.  Great, useful tools, but ones I don’t rely on all the time.  

15) Finally, back to As You Like It.  In the performance I saw, the cast as a whole were experts at moving the text along, conveying logic, and not indulging in emotion.  I did hear a couple misplaced trochees from one actor, but I’m probably the only nerd who noticed or cared.

16) And yet ultimately, there was too much logic and not enough heart on stage that night.  At least for me.  With a few gorgeous exceptions (Jacques, I’m talking to you), most of the evening lacked the spark of life and human connection.  Which just goes to show you that there is still something sublimely indefinable about great performances.  

17) P.S.  I know that #15 and #16 sounded suspiciously like a review, and this blog is supposed to talk about art without reviewing it.  But as Shakespeare apparently said, according to my diligent research, "Never say never."  Or as we used to say on the schoolyard, “Tough noogies.”