Sunday, April 12, 2015

This Is Water

“..There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

--David Foster Wallace 

When I moved to Cambridge, I moved to 1958. And there are some great things here. My son bikes home from school by himself. We have a backyard and the kids walk the dog in the huge park behind the backyard. My children see their grandmother every week. This is a great place to raise a family.

However, the sexism is thick out in the provinces. When I had the opportunity to write a play for an evening of plays set at the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge, I went to the museum looking for inspiration, but all I could find was 1958. All I could be was angry. Because that expensive little temple on Lensfield Road is a temple to white privately-educated brotherhood. So I wrote an angry play - an angry, funny play. In it, Mary Magdelene Jenkins, mother of Violet Jenkins and chaperone of Violet's girls' school trip to the museum tells the story of the fish to the headmistress of the school. Sometimes the things that are the most ubiquitous are the hardest things to find a way to talk about, and tomorrow night, Mary gets to talk about the water. What the headmistress, Esther, and Mary's daughter, Violet, do with the news, well - David Foster Wallace had terrible depression and it finally killed him. Let's leave it at that. East Anglia does not like hearing the news that it is not the singularly most wonderful place in the whole world. The world does not listen to the content if it has an easy objection to the form. And "crazy" is a very popular formal objection.

I write mostly because I am thankful for this moment tomorrow and it feels really special - it feels like real theater. I have been so delighted and fulfilled with the hard work of the talented actresses (Sue Maltby, Flaviana Cruz, Zoe Walker Fagg) and the director (Darren Bender) and the producers (Kim Komlijanec and Trish Rawson of WriteOn) and so pleased at all the wide eyes and nervousness about my controversial play (controversial, I hasten to add, for Cambridge). At every step I felt like I was listened to, and I could speak from the heart, and at every step people spoke from the heart back at me. Darren is a drummer and a producer. His direction has rhythm and a bottom-line orientation but also this generous openness. The conversations in rehearsals were inspiring.

Together we have worked and worked and for one shining twelve minute period tomorrow night all the energy and talent of these good people will come to an ephemeral fruition and Mary will point out the water. I am grateful. This is what I always wanted from theater: people all in a room together (a sold-out room I might add) on a particular night, never to be repeated, finding a way to catch a glimpse of the water.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The View from the Bridge at Wyndham Theatre - SPOILER ALERT

So last week I went to see the much-lauded production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. It originally opened at the Young Vic last year and it is up for every award every in the history of London theatre. The actors deserve their nominations, they are to a person phenomenal. The production of the play, not so much.

In 1989 University of Chicago put on Miller's less known play American Clock. It was unlauded and didn't sell out. But I went to see it and sat in the empty back of the theatre with with my friend Kevin and Arthur Miller. I have been in the same room as him so I am obviously qualified to speak to what he would like and not like. I don't think he would like this production.

First, the set. The play takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn and revolves around a hard working American who lets two illegal immigrants stay in his house. He is in love with his niece, and refuses to let her marry one of the immigrants, Rudolfo, when they fall in love.  The piece is thick with Miller's working class American males, appeasing women, economic reality, frustration and work, work, work. It is intensely kitchen sink. The immigrants challenge Eddie to lift up a chair.

However, the Belgian director has set the piece in an incredibly futuristic sleek glass and steel stage. There is no furniture. There is no Brooklyn closeness. It's like people from 1930's Red Hook found themselves beamed into a stripped-down shiny starship. Hey, guys, the view is not from the Bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise! It's the Brookyln Bridge.  They might have misread that part.

So when Marco, one of the immigrants, challenge Eddie, they have to bring out a chair. An anomaly. It looks out of place on the starship, it's not integral. The American magic of making due, of finding something in your surroundings to become a symbol of power, that was lost when the chair was ceremoniously paraded out.

And it wasn't just the set. It was like a European had walked out of an SNL parody and put on the play. Eddie kisses Rudolpho as well as his niece, as if his incestuous love for his niece is a cynical power play he tries out on the men. Too far. There was an ominous Requiem playing between the scenes (Durufle?), and the play ended in a heavy-handed  shower of blood.

You know, having lived in Europe for the last thirteen years, I am very familiar with the conventional wisdom that Europeans have a higher aesthetic, that their art is better, especially their theater. I have even actually bought into this conventional wisdom on occasion. And when I lived in the United States I did think there was something that was more ineffably cool about being European. But it was obvious to me at Wyndham Theatre that what Europe brought to this play lessened it somehow. It lessened the subtlety and beauty of Miller's simple tale of human struggle. The theatrics made it less theatrical.

I think Arthur Miller wants Eddie to die in a tenement, not in a starship. He dies in a place you could die.

This seems to have sparked an Arthur Miller revival - RSC is doing Death of a Salesman next season - and that's a good thing. I only hope that the American aesthetic will be preserved in that production,  We don't need soaring Lachrymosas and Gothic arches to tell our tales. We can find them simply, sitting in the back of a theater, looking at a crowded, homey stage.