Monday, March 25, 2013

Reading Plays Part 2

Here is the follow up to my previous post about plays I've been reading.

Next up on the list: Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill. During my last year at Temple University, we produced Top Girls, also by Churchill. I thought Top Girls was an odd play, it starts so completely differently from the rest of the story and ends rather abruptly. There was much talk about the way Churchill writes language and her portrayals of women. This made me curious about other plays by her. There is the obvious choice of Cloud 9, but I wanted something different, and Vinegar Tom seemed to fit the bill. It is a story about witches, and an eventual witch hunt, but Churchill seemed to go out of her way to show how many acts of women can be seen as "witchcraft." In between each scene (of which there were many) was a song whose lyrics were much more modern in language than the seeming time period of the story. Overall, I was just confused about the relationship of all these elements - the many characters and story lines, the songs with modern lyrics and then the extremely odd final scene that, once again, abruptly ends the play. While there could be an argument that this is a design play, just because something takes place in a period does not make it an inherently design oriented play. I just didn't feel like I was given much to play with.

Then I read Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. His name is one I have heard bandied about, although I couldn't tell you exactly what it was connected with, other than I knew he was a writer of plays. This play was sharply written. Within 2 pages I was sucked in, even though I knew I was on a slippery slope that was going to end in tragedy. Yes, it is not a "design" play, but damn, every single moment, every single WORD was important and related back to something else or lead to things to come. Not one thing spared, not one excess. I know there are many who will argue, but Proof by David Auburn is such a play - a perfect play where every word is important and there is no fat to be trimmed. Rabbit Hole was like that. And it is a play that haunts me a little bit each day when I am having a tantrum off with my 3 year old. This play made me laugh, smile, cry, tense, shocked me, and etc. And then I was mad at the play because it was so perfect and it didn't need me, a designer of any stripe, to exist at all. But there it is, I have admitted out loud to liking multiple plays that are just talk talk talk.

For a change, I thought I'd read Venus by Susan Lori Parks.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Topdog/Underdog and was curious to see other work by her. I read several scenes in Venus and I admit to just being confused. I have no idea what I was reading or how it was to work as a play etc. I gave up rather quickly and have not had the desire to go back. Not good news for a play. Other suggestions for Susan Lori Parks plays?

Ruined by Lynn Nottage was my next choice. Intimate Apparel is a costume designer favorite because you get to make lots of corsets and other fun things, but I didn't want to read the play everyone knows. When I mentioned to several people I was going to read Ruined they made odd faces and hedged a bit, saying only, tell me your thoughts after reading it. So I went into the reading a little hesitant, but quickly found myself unable to put the book down. I would read a few pages and then go off to do other work and then find myself wondering what the different women might be doing, what might happen next, until I couldn't stand it and just had to stop everything and gobble the story up whole. I found it real, and raw and honest and heartbreaking. The copy I read had director's notes in it from a recent production and I found myself once again in that awkward spot, feeling like this is an important story to be told, but so incredibly foreign to me, how could I ever produce it or design it, it would never be "right". Ahh, there were some lovely symbolic moments throughout the story while all around violence threatened and you could always sense that tension. I can't imagine what that would be like on stage. I encourage you to read this play. 

As a reprieve, I read Dead Man's Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl. If you are unfamiliar with the story, you might wonder why it was a reprieve, but Dead Man's Cell Phone is actually quite a comic play with moments of mystery and magic sprinkled throughout, not at all as morbid as the title suggests.  I will admit to cheating with this play as well. I had seen a production of the play a few years ago and was curious to see how these Sarah Ruhl magical moments are written on the page. Naomi Iizuka's plays can have paragraphs poetically describing the moment in between words in her plays. Some of Greg Romero's plays are almost entirely written in stage direction, or at least not in verbal dialogue. The book of the play was small, which should have been my first clue. And then suddenly, there was magic on the page. "Embossed stationery moves through the air slowly, like a snow parade. Lanterns made of embossed paper, houses made of embossed paper, light falling on paper..." So simply written, so incredibly vivid and magical and amazing. Like haiku poetry. A designer's dream text. "And then there is a cell phone ballet". Amazing. So much in so little. I began to notice something while I was reading this play. It felt...quiet. I stashed that thought away for later.

The last play I have read was Dutchman by LeRoi Jones. The mention of this play also got lots of reactions from folks, and the blurb on the back says that this play is" shocking - in language, ideas and anger." I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. And then I was pleasantly surprised by the time and care Jones took in setting up the stage. While perhaps the play could be done with 2 chairs placed anywhere, he felt it was important to clearly show a subway car moving and stopping on a line. We are introduced to a man, and then a rather forward woman. My own experiences and prejudices suggested that this man was going to act outrageously, and I was quite surprised when it was the woman who acted so violently. Perhaps the story was shocking in 1964, but now I feel like similar stories happen all the time. And maybe we should be shocked by them. My take away was surprise that even with such important subject matter, the playwright took the time to set the scene for us and even elaborated on how it evolved with the story, the train car getting larger and larger as the scope of the story grew. I very much enjoyed it.

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