Thursday, April 13, 2017

Workshop Production of "You'll Not Feel the Drowning," April 13-22


My play You'll Not Feel the Drowning, an hourlong drama about life in an earthquake zone, the bleak beauty of the Oregon coast, and the giant squids that lurk in our hearts, has been in development with Custom Made Theatre's Undiscovered Works program for the last year. Custom Made is now granting it a 6-performance developmental workshop at the EXIT Theatre. I've been hard at work this month in a whirlwind rehearsal process, and we open tonight!

If you're in the Bay Area, I'd be honored if you can attend, especially as this script is still in development and we will be soliciting audience feedback. (There's a space for comments on the back of the playbill, and there'll be talk-backs after the Friday performances.) I'll be at all of the shows, too, so please feel free to say hello if you're there.

The details:
  • Directed by Gabriel A. Ross, dramaturgy by Allie Moss, tech by Linda Huang
  • Cast: Terry Bamberger as Susan, Maria Giere Marquis as Laura, and Jason W. Wong as Greg
  • 6 performances: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 PM, April 13-22
  • All performances at the EXIT Studio, 156 Eddy Street in San Francisco, near the Powell BART/MUNI station
  • Facebook event
  • Tickets 
Hope to see you there!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Sentimental Journey through France and Austria: "The Baltimore Waltz" at Magic Theatre

Anna (Lauren English) gets a diagnosis from The Third Man (Greg Jackson)
while her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone) looks on. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Last night, after I saw Magic Theatre’s production of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, I waited for a bus in a driving rainstorm and eavesdropped on two middle-aged women discussing Trump’s airstrike in Syria. “I’m just waiting for World War III to start,” said one. “Yeah, I look up and expect a nuclear bomb to fall on us any day now,” said the other. I’ve been having similar thoughts—how could I not? I’m about to turn 30 and I have serious doubts that I will make it to 40. And in response, I’ve thought a lot about chucking it all and going on a hedonistic spree—traveling and eating good food and hobnobbing with interesting people. Voraciousness in the face of death.

So I can relate to Anna, the heroine of The Baltimore Waltz, an American woman in her early 30s who receives a fatal diagnosis of Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD) and responds by taking a tour of the great cities of Europe and having a lot of sex. Lauren English’s performance as Anna shows a woman shaking off her good-girl inhibitions and letting her instincts drive her. Accompanying Anna on her European trip is her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone, precise and dapper in flannel pajamas, velvet slippers, and a suit jacket). Every other character in the show—doctors, waiters, European locals—is played by Greg Jackson, who seems to have made a specialty of quick-change comic versatility: his bio also lists credits for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and The 39 Steps.

Carl & Anna in the Parisian croissant-bed. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
There’s a strong sense of whimsy to The Baltimore Waltz, as Carl and Anna travel through a primary-colored, storybook version of Europe. (It’s probably significant that both characters work with children in their day jobs: he is a children’s librarian and she is a first-grade teacher.) In Paris, the headboard of the bed is decorated with croissants and the stagehands wear berets; in Amsterdam, the bed has a tulip-patterned coverlet and the stagehands wear Dutch bonnets.

Indeed, if The Baltimore Waltz were ever made into a movie, I think it should be directed by Wes Anderson, that most whimsical of filmmakers. It already features a lot of Anderson motifs: a caper-style plot, train journeys with stylish luggage, Central European bellhops who wear those funny little caps, characters who seem suspended between childhood and adulthood, allusions to classic cinema (The Third Man, in this case). This production reinforces the Anderson connection by having the actors take their bows to Joe Dassin’s song “Les Champs-Elysées,” which also plays at the end of The Darjeeling Limited. 

The trick with whimsy in theater or cinema, of course, is to employ it in service of a deeper emotion. Eventually, The Baltimore Waltz reveals that there is a heartbreaking reason for all of the kookiness and stereotypes of Carl and Anna’s European trip. Childlike escapist fantasies can be a defense mechanism against real, adult pain.

The Baltimore Waltz plays at Magic Theatre through April 16, 2017. I received a free ticket through the Magic Theatre’s press office.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Foote, Shakespeare, Goldman

In this month's edition of Script Reading Roundup (brief thoughts on plays that I've read): three plays about British Isles royalty and one play about a little old lady from Texas.

The Trip to BountifulThe Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I’ve waited a long time. Just to get to Bountiful. Twenty years I’ve been walkin’ the streets of the city, lost and grieving. And as I’ve grown older and my time approaches, I’ve made one promise to myself, to see my home again… before I die…”

Such is the premise of Horton Foote’s elegiac drama The Trip to Bountiful. Mrs. Carrie Watts lives in a cramped apartment in Houston with her kind but weak-willed son Ludie and her frivolous, overbearing daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. For years, she has been trying to sneak away to her East Texas hometown, Bountiful, and each time, her relatives catch her before she can leave Houston. But one day…

The Trip to Bountiful is largely a touching character study, but there is a surprising amount of suspense as we watch to see how Mrs. Watts will make her escape. I also liked how Mrs. Watts is kind of an opaque figure during Act One (which is dominated by Jessie Mae’s chattering) but comes into her own when she sets out on her journey.

Admittedly, it’s disconcerting to see that according to the stage directions, Mrs. Watts is only 60. She seems much older than the 60-year-old women I know nowadays; indeed, in recent productions, the role is often taken by a more elderly actress. (Cicely Tyson was 88 when she played Mrs. Watts on Broadway in 2013!) At any rate, it is a lovely role for an older lady who can project an unpretentious, middle-American dignity. It is not a “diva” role; quite the opposite.

Another Southern writer famously said “You can’t go home again.” The Trip to Bountiful complicates that statement: when Mrs. Watts returns to Bountiful, she finds it diminished, abandoned, a ghost town. But nonetheless, it is still home.

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All right, Shakespeare, you win: I don’t hate Macbeth. But it took me a long time to get to this point. As a teenager, I saw a terrible production of Macbeth and then acted in a terrible production of Macbeth; later, I saw a few more productions that didn’t do much to change my prejudiced mind, and wrote an essay about how Macbeth is the most over-produced Shakespeare play merely because every middle-aged white male actor thinks he should play the Thane of Cawdor. By that point, my hatred of Macbeth had hardened into a kind of shtick: I found it amusingly contrarian to say I hated this play that everyone else seems to adore, so I played up my dislike for it.

But I’m nearly 30 now, so the time has come to put away childish things and admit on the Internet that Macbeth is never going to be my favorite Shakespeare play, but I certainly don’t think it’s bad.

How did I get to this point? Seeing Sleep No More in New York City helped—it’s not every Shakespeare play that lends itself to transformation into a physical-theater gothic-noir haunted house. The introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition helped, or at least allowed me to forgive my high-school drama teachers for not doing any cross-gender casting (which resulted in me playing a non-speaking ensemble member while boys who couldn’t speak blank verse played all the thanes). The Pelican editor, Stephen Orgel, digs deep into how the play presents women as a disruptive or antagonistic force, and managed to convince me that putting female thanes in Macbeth might well make a hash of its themes. Reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human helped; one of my objections to Macbeth was always that the minor characters do not have much personality, but Bloom suggests that that’s intentional. If the “secondary males in the play” are “wrapped in a common grayness,” Bloom says, it is only so that we more readily identify with Macbeth and “journey inward to [his] heart of darkness.” Or, in other words: Marissa, stop thinking that you’ve found a flaw in Shakespeare; the man was a genius and he knew exactly what he was doing.

So, all right: assuming that competent actors play them, Macbeth and his Lady are fascinating characters. The play moves swiftly and its language obsessively focuses on a few major threads of imagery: blood, shipwrecks, birds, sleep, nighttime and darkness. That imagery, plus the supernatural elements, give Macbeth a unique atmosphere among Shakespeare’s plays, even though I hate it when productions focus on the supernatural bits at the expense of everything else. (A pitfall that has beset Macbeth almost from the start, it seems; the Hecate character is an interpolation by Thomas Middleton. Jacobean audiences couldn’t get enough of those witches!) The scene where Macduff learns the news of his family’s death will wreck me every time. And, even though we know Macbeth is a murderous tyrant who deserves what’s coming to him, Shakespeare somehow makes us sympathize with his paranoia, terror, and nihilism.

I still think Macbeth is not a great choice to produce in a high school or college setting. And I still think there are probably too many productions of it overall.

But no, I don’t hate it.

CymbelineCymbeline by William Shakespeare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t recount the plot of Cymbeline out loud without bursting into giggles. Which is kind of odd: this play is not really considered a comedy in the same way as A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night are, yet I can describe the stories of those plays with a straight face. Cymbeline, though… when I try to explain the sequence of events that result in the heroine waking up next to a headless body and mistaking it for that of her husband, I can’t stop laughing.

As other people have said, this play feels like what would result if you fed all of Shakespeare’s other plays into an extremely intelligent super-computer and asked it to produce something “Shakespearean.” It’s easy to imagine that Shakespeare knew he was at the end of his career and decided to play around with his pet motifs, including some winks at the audience. I mean, the play begins with two unnamed lords saying, basically, “Remember when King Cymbeline’s two little boys vanished without a trace? I wonder what happened to them.” (Gee, do you think that’ll become important later on in the story?) And by the end, Shakespeare has thrown so many plotlines into the play that it takes a scene nearly 500 lines long to resolve everyone’s story.

Very little in Cymbeline is profound, but a lot of it is awfully fun. Princess Imogen is a delightful heroine, the role of the self-involved dolt Prince Cloten can be hilarious in the right hands, and there are many other nice opportunities for comedians and character actors. The most difficult role is probably that of Imogen’s husband Posthumus, because it’s very hard to feel sympathy for him after he makes a wager on his wife’s fidelity. (One possible solution, which I saw in a production in summer 2015: portray Posthumus as extremely drunk at the time he makes the wager.) Overall, I think Cymbeline can be a charming, amusing, and unexpected choice for summertime Shakespeare in the Park companies, or for high schools who don’t want to stage Twelfth Night or Midsummer for the umpteenth time. Because, trust me, it’s as funny as either of them.

The Lion in WinterThe Lion in Winter by James Goldman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where has The Lion in Winter been all my life? Why didn’t I read it when I was 16 years old and equally obsessed with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (It really reads like a cross between those two plays.) As a lover of eloquent dialogue, larger-than-life characters, handsome men and strong women, why did I wait so long to encounter this brilliance?

James Goldman’s play is based on real-life political intrigues involving King Henry II, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three ambitious sons, and the French royal family, though with dramatic license taken to make it juicier. Taking place over a period of less than 24 hours, the plot is a complex swirl of alliances, manipulations, and betrayals, with various territories, marriages, and thrones used as bargaining chips.

Goldman makes no attempt to write dialogue that sounds “medieval,” or to replicate the exact circumstances of court life in 1183. (The royal family decks the halls with Christmas holly themselves—there are no servants or minor courtiers to be seen.) But at the same time, he grants his characters their full measure of dignity and charisma. He humanizes them but he does not cut them down to size. They are wittier, more attractive, more passionate, more conniving than everyday people, and I love all of these glorious monsters.

In one of the play’s most famous lines, Eleanor shouts “Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is eleven eighty-three and we’re barbarians.” And indeed, the metaphor I keep thinking of to describe this play is a jeweled dagger. It is elegant and cutting, hard and glittering, extravagant and yet just right.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

After All, Miss, This is France: Historical Accuracy and the New "Beauty and the Beast"

I saw the new live-action Beauty and the Beast on Saturday and I've been overthinking it ever since. (This is what happens when a bookish Millennial girl with degrees in Drama and French sees a remake of a beloved childhood classic about a bookish French girl.) So I have a few things to say about the adaptation, the changes it makes, and its historical accuracy or lack thereof.

Are you reading Shakespeare there? (CGI) Dan Stevens as the Beast, Emma Watson as Belle.
I appreciated some of the changes to the new version: the filling in of plot holes, and the attempt to show more of how Belle and the Beast's relationship develops. To that end, the filmmakers have included scenes where the characters bond over Shakespeare. (Belle is pleased to be living with a fellow book-lover and reads to the Beast from Midsummer's "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" speech.) Cute, but also rather anachronistic. In France in the 1700s, it's just possible that the Beast might have translated versions of Shakespeare's plays in that vast library of his, but it's unlikely that both he and Belle would revere Shakespeare above all other authors. At that time, the French still saw Shakespeare as déclassé, an uncultured Englishman writing sprawling plays that did not respect the all-important Three Unities. Belle and the Beast would be much more likely to read and discuss literature from their own country: the plays of Racine and Corneille, or maybe the essays of Montaigne. It's fun to imagine them reading Corneille's The Illusion, a play that has themes about artifice and looking deeper, and features a magic mirror that can show you what your loved ones are doing! (Also, it's a delightful play that was far ahead of its time.)

Another change in the new version is the addition of a lot of unnecessary backstory about Belle's family. We learn that Belle and her father Maurice moved to their "provincial" village when she was a baby, after her mother died of the plague. At first, this sounds slightly odd: wasn't plague a medieval disease, and doesn't this movie take place in the 1700s? (Why not smallpox or tuberculosis?) However, there were scattered outbreaks of plague long after the medieval Black Death epidemic, including a really devastating one in Marseille in 1720 (the Great Plague of Marseille). And if we assume that that outbreak killed Belle's mother, and further assume that Belle is about 20 years old when the main action of Beauty and the Beast takes place, we can pinpoint the exact setting of the film as 1740 — which was the year the original French "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale was published! Brilliant!

The only problem with this theory is that the film makes clear that Belle and Maurice are from Paris, not Marseille, and as far as I can tell from Wikipedia, there were no Parisian plague outbreaks in the 1700s. I am left angrily shaking my fist at the screenwriters: "It would have been so easy to say they are from Marseille and not Paris and it would have been a great Easter egg for us history nerds!"

I suspect that both of these matters — having Belle and the Beast discuss Shakespeare, and saying that Belle and Maurice come from Paris — can be traced to a larger problem with movies made for mass audiences: the fear of including information that isn't 100% familiar to everyone. Belle and Maurice are Parisian, not Marseillais, because American audiences can be trusted to know where Paris is but may have never heard of Marseille. Belle and the Beast read Shakespeare, not Racine or Corneille, because those French authors are not part of Anglo-American culture. (I do like that they also show the Beast reading Arthurian romances; this strikes me as historically plausible, understandable to a modern American audience, and not quite as much of a lazy choice as Shakespeare.) Perhaps this is even why Belle's mother dies of the plague, rather than of something like tuberculosis. I suppose I shouldn't be looking to a nostalgia-flavored Disney remake to expose people to unfamiliar ideas, but it makes me sad when mass culture doesn't take the opportunity to try to tell a mass audience something they may not have heard before.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"The Bell" by Iris Murdoch is a perfect English novel

Last November, I joined a book club for the first time. There's about 6 of us, we meet once a month, we focus on literary fiction. I had worried about what it would mean to outsource a significant portion of my literary reading to the dictates of the club, but I've discovered some wonderful books and authors through it. Like Iris Murdoch!

 The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love stories in which people retreat from the world with noble intentions, only to find that sex gets in the way. I love English novels where attractive young men go bathing naked in the woods and then other characters run across them and nothing will ever be the same. I love novels that are purportedly “character-driven” and “philosophical,” yet have a climax in which a whole lot of crazy stuff happens, and it’s shocking and inevitable all at once. I love novels with a vein of black comedy running through them that is so subtle, and so dark, that no one else in my book club thought it was a comedy at all. I love it when an author can make me hate a minor character* so much that I write Bastard in the margin practically every time he appears. I love it when an author sees through to the heart of her characters, especially when she reveals their self-deceptions and mixed motivations. I love novels in which there are patterns and symbols galore, waiting to be deciphered, yet the characters and their predicaments feel real, not the product of an airless literary exercise.

All of this is to say that I loved The Bell and I definitely want to check out more of Iris Murdoch’s huge oeuvre. (I shouldn't really be surprised; one of my most-read authors is A.S. Byatt, who was Murdoch’s protégée.) As I noted above, Murdoch is skilled at both plotting and characterization; I was also really impressed by how she sets the scene. Most of The Bell takes place in a single location: an English country house and its surroundings, which include a moat-like lake, some outbuildings, and a convent of enclosed nuns. Murdoch describes this fictional setting so precisely that I could draw you a detailed map of it, or wander through it in my imagination. Of course, when I do that, I also can’t help picturing her characters, with all their contradictions and foibles, running around the landscape too.

*Paul Greenfield, in this instance

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Iambs and Anagrams and Anapests, Oh My

Some sentences from my reading that have jumped out at me lately.
[Leon had said] "I can't help but picture an armada of floating parties." But the men were serious and reserved and afraid of pirates.
—From Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
This stopped me in my tracks, and not in a good way. In my copy of Station Eleven, the word "pirates" is printed almost directly below the word "parties," and I got weirdly distracted when I realized they were anagrams. Was it intentional wordplay? Inadvertent? What did it mean? I'm inclined to think it was unintentional (I'm enjoying Station Eleven, but its prose is not flashy or full of wordplay) and that an editor should have noticed how distracting it is. Then again, it can take a few editing passes to spot something like this. I like to think I have a good ear, yet I nonetheless wrote a line of dialogue containing the words "tectonics" and "ironic" (yeowch! inadvertent rhyme!) in my latest script, and didn't notice it till an actor read it aloud.
There's some pocket of rot in the oak of their soul that can only be patched up by watches.
From the March 20 New Yorker article on watch collecting, by Gary Shteyngart.
No, wait, forget what I said above about wordplay being distracting and worthy of removal by an editor. This sentence, this I love. The metaphor! The assonance and slant rhymes! The anapests! All in a sentence that purportedly was not even composed by Shteyngart, but is a quote from a watch-collecting acquaintance of his! I read it while on MUNI and then wanted to run around the city chanting it. It reminded me of another New Yorker sentence that had a similar effect on me, from an April 2014 article on caving, by Burkhard Bilger: "Their digestif has come to grief against a fissure wall." Perfect iambic rhythm and a jaunty internal rhyme on "digestif" and "grief"!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

We'll Serve Anyone (Meaning Anyone) At All


I was rereading Macbeth this weekend and realized that the conceit of the Porter's first speech is basically the same as that of "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd -- making grimly satirical jokes about various British professions, that is, though in a context of damnation rather than cannibalism.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Feminist Defense of LA LA LAND

Mia (Emma Stone) strides ahead of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).
La La Land is one of the most talked-about, most awarded, and most love-it-or-hate-it films of 2016. But in all the critical conversation, I feel like something’s been overlooked: if it wins Best Picture in six hours or so, it’ll be the first Best Picture winner in over a decade to feature a female protagonist.

Much of the La La Land criticism I’ve seen focuses on the male lead, a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and his “out-of-touch,” “white-savior” attitude toward jazz music. Comparatively little attention has been devoted to the female lead, a struggling actress named Mia (Emma Stone). Often, when that happens, it's because the female character is no more than an accessory or a prize for the man—something that still happens depressingly often in prestigious Hollywood movies.

But I want to argue that La La Land is really Mia’s story, and that the movie subtly but persistently centers her perspective. Partly, this is because Stone acts circles around Gosling (IMO). Partly, this is because of my personal connection to the character of Mia: she is a woman in her mid-twenties who self-produces an original play and dates a jazz musician, which were also the defining events of my mid-twenties. But mostly, I think, it’s due to the inherent structure of the film.

Literally and figuratively, La La Land is Mia's story before it is Sebastian's. Her character, her life, her ambitions are introduced to us first. Moreover, her introductory sequence shows her as sympathetic and relatable: she gets coffee spilled on her, gives a thoughtful performance at an audition only to be ignored, goes out to a party with her pals, and gets caught in a jam when her car is towed and her phone dies. Sebastian's introductory scenes make him out to be a far less sympathetic character: his sister calls him out for his jazz-snob pretensions, and he gets fired from a gig as a restaurant pianist because he sees the job as beneath him and can't resist going into jazz improvisations when he was hired to play Christmas tunes. I don’t agree with the charge that La La Land takes an un-critical view of Sebastian; I think the film is well aware of his character flaws. It wants us to think that his attitude to jazz is kind of arrogant, while still being happy for him when he finds professional success.

As the film continues, Mia's backstory is fleshed out more than Sebastian's is. She's the character who gets to sing a climactic solo song, "Audition (The Ones Who Dream)," whose lyrics sum up the movie's message. And I read the fantasy sequence at the end as her fantasy, a trip through her thoughts. (It resembles an old movie musical because Mia loves old movies.) Significantly, Mia gets a surname, “Dolan,” while Sebastian only gets a nickname, “Seb.”

I’ve seen the criticism that Mia succeeds only because of Sebastian: he's the person who suggests that she write and produce a show, and who convinces her to go to the audition that makes her a star. But, while Seb bucks her up when she doubts herself, it’s false to say that her success is entirely due to his influence. Take it from one who knows: self-producing a play is a huge task that requires a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice. And the film doesn’t indicate that Seb gives Mia any practical help with her show, just occasional words of encouragement. Her own talents and ambitions are what allow her to complete the project.

Furthermore, La La Land shows Sebastian benefiting from Mia's advice, too. His longtime dream is to open up a jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick” on the site of a storied former jazz venue that is now a tapas bar. Mia tries to persuade him that “Chicken on a Stick” is a terrible name and that he should consider other locations, but Sebastian seems unmoved. At the end of the movie, though, we see that Sebastian has opened his club, it's in a different location, and it has the name that Mia suggested—“Seb's.” Sebastian's instincts were right when it came to Mia's career, but Mia's instincts were also right when it came to Sebastian's.

Sebastian and Mia look at the stars.
It’s even possible to read the middle of La La Land as a comment on the imbalance of emotional labor in heterosexual relationships. As Mia puts her one-woman show together and Sebastian goes on tour with a jazz-funk ensemble, their relationship becomes more distant and strained. To heal the breach, he suggests that she should join him for a leg of the tour. However, this implies a lack of respect for the work that she is making, which requires her to stay in Los Angeles. (She is self-producing a one-woman show that opens in two weeks and you expect her to fly off to freaking Idaho for you, Seb?) And, while Seb casually asks Mia to drop everything and go on tour with him, he isn't willing to drop out of a band photo shoot in order to see her show. It's not tit-for-tat; it's Sebastian asking Mia to make a sacrifice that he proves unwilling to make himself.

Indeed, La La Land captures the essential loneliness of being a jazzman’s girlfriend. The nights where he's up on stage playing music for swing dancers so you learn to swing dance, too, because otherwise you'd have nothing to do. The fear that he will always love his music more than you, that it will always come first. (My ex didn't like it if I phoned him before 10 PM because it might interrupt his practicing.) Seb thinks it’s disrespectful to talk over jazz music—my ex thought it was disrespectful if I read a book while he and his combo played jazz in a cocktail lounge.

The end of La La Land flashes forward to five years after Mia and Sebastian have gone their separate ways. Our overall impression is that Mia has moved on, while Sebastian hasn't. She has a husband, a baby, her face on billboards, and a room at the Chateau Marmont. Sebastian, it seems, is still single and living in the same apartment. But, when Mia unexpectedly encounters Sebastian at his jazz club, she allows herself to imagine the life they could have had together. Not only does this sequence allow us into Mia’s head in a way that we never are allowed inside Sebastian’s, but also, as this Vogue piece points out, it’s a fantasy of having it all. Mia imagines Sebastian accompanying her to her film shoot in Paris; she doesn’t imagine turning down a career opportunity in order to stay with him.

Admittedly, I wish La La Land gave us more information about what happened to Mia during those five years (and I wish Emma Stone did more to distinguish thirtysomething movie-star Mia from twentysomething struggling-actress Mia). What kinds of roles is Mia playing, how did she meet her husband, is she still writing? But that's because I came to love her character and therefore am hungry to know more about her. Her journey is longer than Seb's and takes her further. I don't feel particularly curious about Seb's life in those five years.

Decades of Hollywood movies have told women that love is the only thing worth having—a message that can be very damaging. Look at some other popular movie musicals that feature aspiring-actress protagonists. Funny Girl is the story of Fanny Brice’s abject, masochistic love for a no-good man. Moulin Rouge suggests that the upside of Satine’s tragic death is that it makes her boyfriend into a true artist. Never do we get the sense that La La Land’s Mia is just there to serve as her boyfriend's muse. And the overall message of the film is refreshingly modern and realistic: it says that love is wonderful and magical, but it’s not more important than your career. That the world needs dreamers, but you need to back up your dreams with hard work and patience.

I recognize that the feminism of La La Land isn't at all radical or intersectional: its female lead is young, white, straight, and beautiful. Nonetheless, I remain mystified as to why so many people are reading it as the story of a self-absorbed white-guy jazz pianist with a girlfriend who happens to be an actress. Why do people fail to recognize that Mia is the real protagonist, that her art matters as much as Sebastian’s does, and that his self-absorption is precisely why their relationship could never work long-term? Have we become so used to narratives that center the male perspective that we can't even recognize a female-centered story when it shows up before us, singing and dancing in Technicolor Cinerama?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

E. Gorey's Book of Practical Cats

It's Edward Gorey's birthday! The delightfully macabre writer and illustrator would have been 92 years old today. As a small token of appreciation, I'm posting my review of the edition of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats that features Gorey's artwork.

The Rum Tum Tugger and his long-suffering owner. Illustration by Edward Gorey.
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the musical Cats on Broadway at the age of 5, but I’d never sat down and read the T.S. Eliot poems that inspired the musical and constitute most of its lyrics. If you can banish the Andrew Lloyd Webber melodies from your head, many of the poems still make for amusing reading. Eliot is able to capture both the mischievousness and the dignity of housecats. The poems about aged cats “Old Deuteronomy” and “Gus the Theater Cat” are touching, and the characterization of “Macavity” as a cat version of Professor Moriarty is great fun.

I’d be wary of giving these poems to a 21st-century child, though: there is some racism against “foreign” animals (Siamese and Persian cats, and Pekingese dogs), and there is only one lady cat who gets a poem devoted to her (the “Old Gumbie Cat,” Jennyanydots).

The reason I bought this edition was its charming Edward Gorey illustrations: Gorey was a famed cat-lover, so this is a perfect match of illustrator and subject. (I particularly like the exasperated expressions on the faces of the Rum Tum Tugger’s owners, and the illustration of Macavity in an opium-den-like environment eating Beluga caviar.) Wouldn’t it be nice if the set and costume design of Cats had drawn inspiration from Gorey’s elegant, whimsical style, rather than going for that tacky ‘80s look?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Reading McCraney's Brother/Sister Plays

In honor of Black History Month and Tarell Alvin McCraney's Oscar nomination for the Moonlight screenplay, I decided to read his Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, which had been sitting on my shelf for a while. These plays made a big impression on me when I saw them in the Bay Area in Fall 2010, but I hadn't revisited them since then. (Click my "Tarell Alvin McCraney" tag to see my earlier posts about this trilogy.) Interesting that, in many cases, my opinions about these plays have remained the same, even though it's 6+ years later and I was reading the scripts instead of seeing them produced!

The Brother/Sister PlaysThe Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(4 stars for In the Red & Brown Water; 5 stars for The Brothers Size; 3 stars for Marcus.)

It’s not every day that a twentysomething playwright writes an ambitious trilogy that blends spoken stage directions, free-verse poetry, Yoruba mythology, and contemporary slang to tell the stories of an African-American community in the Louisiana bayou. But that’s Tarell Alvin McCraney’s achievement in his Brother/Sister Plays.

In the Red & Brown Water is our introduction to this world, and to McCraney’s inimitable voice. However, while the play’s style is unexpected and powerful, the story is kind of clichéd. Oya, the heroine, is torn between two men—the boring but reliable Ogun and the seductive but fickle Shango—and spends most of the second act despondent over her inability to get pregnant. Points to McCraney for trying to write a female-centered play, but I’m not sure he understands women as well as he understands men.

Ogun returns as one of the title characters of The Brothers Size, the trilogy’s centerpiece and masterwork. It is a tightly focused, 3-character drama with an ending that I find almost unbearably moving. The play delves deep into Ogun’s relationship with his younger brother Oshoosi, a charming fuck-up who recently got out of the penitentiary. Toward the end, the brothers lip-synch to a song—the script does not specify what song to use, but when I saw The Brothers Size at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 2010, the production used Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” I can’t imagine a better song choice: this play is really all about the tenderness and vulnerability of black men, the love they have for one another, in a society that refuses to acknowledge that tenderness. (In this, The Brothers Size has some similarities with Moonlight, the acclaimed 2016 film that is based on a different McCraney play.)

Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet has a more lighthearted tone than the other two plays. It depicts the next generation of the community, centering on Marcus, a 16-year-old boy coming to terms with the fact that he is “sweet” (gay). While the play has many charming moments, I find it kind of imbalanced in terms of its structure. An important character shows up out of nowhere at the start of the second act, and the characters talk a lot about how a hurricane is about to hit, but the hurricane never arrives.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Genuinely Sexy Musical Theater Songs

A poll came out last week claiming that musical theater is the "least sexy" music genre. In response, I conducted a poll of my own, asking my Facebook friends to post their choices for genuinely sexy musical theater songs.

The discussion really took off—there were about 70 different songs named—and today, for Valentine's Day, I tweeted out a baker's dozen of my favorites. I tried to limit it to one song per composer (for variety's sake), though I broke that rule at the end.

Presenting the Valentine's Day 2017 Sexy Broadway Playlist.

1. "Play the Music For Me" from Jelly's Last Jam, introduced on Broadway by the great Tonya Pinkins.


2. Another Tonya Pinkins track: "Black is a Moocher" from Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party.


3. It's sexy, it's haunting, and it's based on Plato's Symposium. "The Origin of Love" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.


4. Currently on Broadway and making Tolstoy sexy: Amber Gray singing "Charming" from Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.


5. You knew this was coming. "Say No to This" from Hamilton.


6. Opposites attract and bicker and harmonize really, really well. "Take Me or Leave Me," from Rent.


7. Lots of songs in A Little Night Music are sexy (and check out its original Broadway poster, with the naked lovers hidden in the tree!) but I went with the twisted love triangle of "Now/Later/Soon."


8. I think the ritardando on "I…on…ly… know when he" in "I Could Have Danced All Night" (from My Fair Lady) is sexy, and it really makes the song.


9. How did we get this far in a Sexy Broadway playlist without any Kander & Ebb? Remedying that with "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago.
 

10. Phantom of the Opera fans, I see you and I've got you covered. Time to pass "The Point of No Return."


11. Finishing off with three tracks from the sexiest Golden Age Broadway composer, Cole Porter. Eartha Kitt with a sultry "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."


12. Ella Fitzgerald's classic "Begin the Beguine"—I am still disappointed that 21st-century adulthood involves so few orchestras playing, palms swaying, nights of tropical splendor, and this whole sophisticated brand of sexiness.


13. Porter at the height of his lush, darkly romantic mode: "So in Love" from Kiss Me Kate, as sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell (I was lucky enough to see this onstage as a young teen!).

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Why isn't FUN HOME sold out every night?

The cast of the touring production of Fun Home, at the Curran Theatre through Feb. 19
Fun Home is running at the Curran in San Francisco for one more week and it’s so good that I am angry that it isn’t sold out every night.

(Except I'm not really angry, because this means that if you haven’t gotten a ticket yet, you still can!)

It’s a cliché to say that Fun Home is a highly specific story about Alison Bechdel that also happens to feel universal—in fact, the Curran’s program, with a cover illustration by Bechdel herself, calls that out. (The cartoon features some people outside the theater, saying “That was exactly like MY family! But totally different…”) But it’s true: it will make you think about your family, and coming of age, and coming to terms with the unique issues that troubled your parents and form an unwanted part of your inheritance.

For me, I thought a lot about the grandfather I never knew, who, like Alison Bechdel’s dad, worked long hours at a funeral home (“fun home”). He was a stern taskmaster, and never got to see as much of the world as he would have liked, and died of a sudden heart attack while my dad was still a teenager. I want that whole side of my family to see this show!

In the show, Alison’s lesbian coming-of-age feels universal too, at least for those of us who were cerebral and physically awkward adolescents who experienced life mostly through books. When Alison learns the pleasures of having a physical body that can make love with another’s body, but can’t describe these new sensations in anything other than academic language (“I’m changing my major to sex with Joan!”) it is adorable and heartfelt and true.

Though only 100 minutes long, Fun Home offers so much to think about regarding families, and sexuality, and gender. Alison can come out of the closet while her father Bruce cannot; partly, this is because she was born after the sexual revolution but also, I think, because it’s more socially acceptable to be a lesbian than to be a gay man. But at the same time as Bruce conceals his sexuality, he clings to his male privilege like the archetypal mid-century patriarch (“He wants, he wants,” his wife and children sing) and polices young Alison’s gender expression.

And, as everyone says, Fun Home is a tearjerker; it had my eyes swimming on a couple of occasions. (I tend to well up rather than full-on sob at the theater, no matter how emotionally moved I am.) I do want to throttle the person whose cell phone went off during “Ring of Keys,” though.

Also, the renovated Curran is pulling out all the stops for their inaugural production. I appreciated the chance to get a free glass of rosé and meet the actors in the lobby after the show (something I’ve never seen happen at a national touring production). But even more than that, I appreciated that the Curran didn’t slap any bullshit “handling fees” or “theater restoration fees” on top of the advertised  price when I purchased my ticket. That's something that is, unfortunately, a rarity these days for big theaters that undergo renovation.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Douthit, Karam, Lucas

I'm trying to read more plays in 2017 and also post brief thoughts on what I've read. For my first script review roundup of the year: an obscure play by Lue Morgan Douthit, an acclaimed comedy by Stephen Karam, and two quite different plays by Craig Lucas.

Honor Bright: A Play in Two Acts by Lue Morgan Douthit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Meet Edie Barrett Barnett. She has emotionally distant parents named Charles and Marian, and dutiful older siblings named Chip and Kate, and a loyal family cook/nanny named Sarah, and a boyfriend at Harvard Med named Jessie, and a sensible sidekick named Janet. She has a mischievous streak and a drinking problem and a desperate need to rebel against her family’s strict expectations.

In short, Edie is the epitome of a troubled WASP girl, but that means Honor Bright sometimes feels more like an anthropological study than a drama. The play is a series of vignettes from Edie’s high school and college years, as she tries to figure out how her life became a downward spiral. Edie (played by three different actresses) is a reasonably complex character, but everyone else in the play is a one-dimensional archetype. Maybe that’s because Edie filters the story through her own perspective and fails to recognize the full humanity of her friends and family, but it can feel like she’s stacking the deck. At the same time, the play’s tragedy is how the other characters fail to recognize Edie’s full humanity: unable to understand how alienated she feels, they dismiss her as a “moody” girl who just needs to “get over it.” WASP emotional repression cuts both ways.

The playwright, Lue Morgan Douthit, is best known these days as the longtime dramaturg and literary manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Honor Bright, her M.A. thesis play, was produced Off-Broadway in 1984.

Speech and DebateSpeech & Debate by Stephen Karam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Speech & Debate is about three smart, alienated, awkward high school students in Salem, Oregon, brought together by a sex scandal involving their drama teacher. As a former teenage misfit from Oregon, I may be predisposed to love it. But I think lots of people will enjoy this funny, offbeat, clever script.

The three protagonists—frustrated theater-geek Diwata, dogged journalism-nerd Solomon, and cynical ex-Portlander Howie—are excellent roles for young actors. Stephen Karam expertly wrings humor from how teenagers can be confident and tech-savvy and smarter than adults give them credit for, while also completely unaware of their own vulnerabilities and follies.

Each of the play’s scenes is named and loosely modeled after a speech-and-debate event (Extemporaneous Commentary, Declamation, etc.), and in its 100 minutes, the play makes use of a remarkable range of communication techniques: instant messages, podcasting, interpretive dance, radio journalism, and more. Through this variety of media, the message comes through loud and clear: these kids are desperate to be heard.

Reckless - Acting EditionReckless by Craig Lucas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s an entire sub-genre of American drama in which, through forces beyond her control, a sweet but scattered woman gets thrown into increasingly bizarre situations involving an array of oddball characters. These plays tend to be fast-paced lampoons of television, psychiatry, the nuclear family, and all the other ways in which we try to pretend that everything is all right. And while your initial reaction such a play is likely to be “How wacky!”, by the end of it you may be saying, instead, “How sad!” Christopher Durang has written several plays like this; David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers is another example. And after reading Craig Lucas’ Reckless, from the mid-1980s, I’m willing to bet that it helped codify a lot of the elements of this sub-genre. It’s the story of a young wife and mother named Rachel who is forced to flee her house in bathrobe and slippers one Christmas Eve after her husband confesses he’s hired a hitman to kill her. From there, the play mounts a satirical assault on the institutions and customs of “normal” American life. No one’s who they say they are; psychiatrists are useless; bizarre violent crimes abound. And if Rachel makes a reckless decision or two along the way, it’s only because, as another character says, “life’s been reckless with [her].”

Small Tragedy by Craig Lucas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For most of its length, Small Tragedy is a sharply observed backstage comedy about 6 people in 1990s-era Boston trying to stage a small-scale production of Oedipus Rex. The characters are the usual suspects—the pompous director, the earnest young actor—plus a handsome and taciturn Bosnian refugee, whose presence spurs romantic intrigue as well as conversations about the relevance of Greek tragedy. The dense overlapping dialogue, frequent use of split scenes, and minimal stage directions pose a worthy challenge to directors, actors, readers, and theatergoers.

However, near the end of Act Two, there are some sudden and implausible plot twists, followed by a rushed ending. The mood of the play shifts from easygoing comedy to portentous drama. This all seems intended to illustrate how we (like Oedipus) are willfully oblivious to the true, tragic nature of things, and possibly even make us feel guilty for preferring the low-stakes humor of Act One. But this shift in tone, and this thematic point, seems like it'd be very hard to pull off in performance.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Heartbreaking Kind: On Executive Order 13769

I don't blog about this part of my life much, but I've worked at an immigration law firm for the past 6 years. Sometimes, when I tell people this, they say "Oh, that must be so heartbreaking!" And I explain that my firm doesn't really focus on the heartbreaking kind of immigration law—asylum or refugee cases, say—but on business immigration: visas and green cards for people who are coming to the U.S. to work.

At least, that's what I could say until yesterday.

Executive Order 13769 means that all U.S. immigration law is now "the heartbreaking kind." Before, I could say that I was dealing with laws that were strict but fair. Now, the laws are unconstitutional.

The official immigration-law term for "green card holder" is "LPR"—that's short for Legal Permanent Resident. The green color of the cards, like the greenbacks on our money, seemed to symbolize an unshakeable American promise: "Abide by our laws and principles, and you can live in the U.S. forever." The executive order has torn up those promises, so that LPRs and visa holders and dual nationals who previously experienced no trouble are now being turned away at the airport.

We are denying mercy to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, and denying justice to hundreds of thousands of other people with origins in Muslim-majority countries. This is a betrayal of American values and everyone should be concerned.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Vassar College Presidents’ Names, Ranked by WASPiness

It was announced today that Vassar College’s new president, starting this July, will be Elizabeth Howe Bradley, a professor of public health at Yale.

Dr. Bradley has many qualifications to join the illustrious line of Vassar’s presidents, not least of which is: her name is really WASPy.

Yes, I’m starting to suspect that there’s a little-known provision in the Vassar College by-laws that requires its president to have a WASPy name. Behold: the list of Vassar presidents’ names, ranked by WASPiness.

12. Jonathan Lee Chenette, interim president 2016-2017
“Chenette”? Sounds dainty. Sounds French. Sounds suspiciously foreign and Papist. No wonder he’s only the Interim President.

11. Alan Simpson, president 1964-1977
This is a Boring White Guy Name, which is subtly different from a WASPy name. Mr. Simpson also loses points for being the only person on this list, as far as I can tell, who lacks a middle name.

10. John Howard Raymond, president 1864-1878
Another name that signals “Average White Guy” more than it specifically signals “WASP.” “John Raymond” could be a bank president, but he could also be a truck driver.

9. James Monroe Taylor, president 1886-1914
Ol’ James here gains points for having surnames that belonged to two U.S. Presidents, but loses points for being plain “James Taylor,” like your parents’ favorite folk-rocker, if you leave out his middle name.

8. Samuel Lunt Caldwell, president 1878-1885
Now we’re talking. This is the name of a man who wore mutton chops and a high collar and looked at you with Calvinist disapproval.

7. Elizabeth Howe Bradley, president 2017-
An excellent WASP name, especially by 21st-century standards. Note that her position on this list is provisional until I learn whether she uses a nickname for “Elizabeth” and, if so, what it is. “Liz” or “Beth” would likely keep her ranking the same, but if it’s “Libby” or “Buffy,” she’s definitely moving a few slots further up.

6. Virginia Beatrice Smith, president 1977-1986
Proof that you can possess the U.S.’s most common surname and still sound like a member of the top 1%, provided that your first two names are “Virginia” and “Beatrice.”

5. Frances “Fran” Daly Fergusson, president 1986-2006
A wonderfully WASPy name, with a breezy New England jauntiness in its short form, “Fran Fergusson.” My, she was yar.

4. Sarah Gibson Blanding, president 1946-1964
If I was reading a novel in which a Northeastern schoolteacher or headmistress was named “Sarah Gibson Blanding,” I’d think it was too on-the-nose.

3. Henry Noble MacCracken, president 1915-1946
“Noble”? Now you’re not even trying to be subtle.

2. Catharine “Cappy” Bond Hill, president 2006-2016
SHE WENT BY “CAPPY.”

1. Milo Parker Jewett, president 1861-1864
The first, and still the best. Vassar's been trying for over 150 years, but I don't think they'll ever have a president with a name more WASPy than this.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Memorable Theatergoing 2016 -- "Glass Menagerie" in Paris

When I was in Paris last April, I took myself to see La ménagerie de verre (The Glass Menagerie), directed by Daniel Jeanneteau at the Théâtre National de la Colline. It was definitely a European-style staging: minimalist set, barefoot actors, some stylized movement seemingly influenced by modern dance. But because Glass Menagerie is a memory play (not a work of strict realism), much of the abstraction and minimalism worked for me. The production also made very effective use of scrims: most of the scenes happened behind a veil so when the actors emerged from behind it, it was very powerful.

Moreover, that scene between Laura and Jim is so damn well written, so delicate and romantic and heartbreaking, and the production played it completely straight, and even though I was in the very last row of the theater, I got tears in my eyes when the glass unicorn broke and Laura said "Maintenant il est comme tous les autres chevaux" ("Now he is like all the other horses").

I understood probably 95% of the dialogue; Tennessee Williams doesn't strike me as incredibly hard to translate to French, and the actors spoke fairly slowly. Even now, months later, I can hear Amanda's final words to Tom from this version: "Va à la lune, espèce de reveur... EGOISTE!" ("Go to the moon, you selfish dreamer!") The "pleurosis"/"blue roses" pun, which I thought might be the most difficult bit of the play to translate, actually lent itself to a direct translation: it became "pleurésie"/"Bleu-Rosie." And "gentleman caller" got translated as "galant," which is kind of the best.

And I love going to the theater in France and making the actors do five curtain calls and applauding so much my arms hurt. And I totally got an instant crush on the slim, tousled French dude with hipster glasses and a blazer who was running the theater bookstore. And I went to a café afterwards on Place Gambetta and ordered chocolate mousse and a laughably large carafe of red wine, because I was rusty on the metric system, and when I apologized to the waiter, he reassured me "Well, you'll sleep well tonight, non?" And I giddy-giggled, slightly tipsy from that wine, on an empty Métro car, as I checked Facebook and saw what was happening with my friends, nine hours behind me on the other side of the world. And I changed trains at République station and encountered a cloud of tear gas on the platform: protests about a new labor law were going on above, in the Place de la République. And, mercifully, my train arrived about thirty seconds later, so I just held my breath till I could escape into its cleaner air. And I spoke French the whole night and nobody tried to speak to me in English. And I learned that seeing a beautiful play that brings tears to your eyes will more than make up for minor irritations, like running into a cloud of gas that brings tears to your eyes. And it was one of the best nights I had all year.