Sublett and Ramadei. Photo by Sam Soule.
I met Micheline Auger in Roland Tec's 2011 self-production boot camp for Dramatist Guild members. I was in pre-production for Eightythree Down. Micheline was there with a raw and reeling slice of mid-Americana called American River. The play just received a beautifully produced premier by ass-kickers Lesser America at Theatre For The New City.
American River takes place in and outside a duplex near Nowhere, USA where twentysomething Liz, played by Laura Ramadei, sells a little meth. There's tons of road noise but at least the bar she works for - used to work for - pays the bills. Liz aspires to be much more than a mere bartender. She'll be a celebrity bartender, a mixologist, certified and everything, and open a lounge...someday. She's not a big time dealer or anything. That's what she tells Connor, her long term on and off boyfriend played by Robbie Collier Sublett, when he comes to take her back home. Connor hasn't seen Liz in at least nine months and a lot has changed. Clean now, out of rehab, working and taking classes at American River College, he plans to become a guidance counselor. He'll help 'kids like us' he tells Liz.
But kids like Liz and Connor, and the Pizza Hat delivery boy, Booger, played by Brendan Speith, with whom they soon join forces, unwittingly perpetuate a vicious cycle of small town dysfunction. Really they’re doing their best, considering the examples set for them. On a million cable channels across our fruited plain, rides get pimped and cribs get tricked out, heiresses get famous and drug-addled starlets get off. Reality television consistently rewards liars and cheats, and big time corporate crooks live the highest of lives. No wonder kids like Liz and Connor become small time criminals. When the best you can do is ten bucks an hour delivering for the Pizza Hat, or stocking shelves at Liquor Locker, there's never much to call your own. And what you do have is always in danger of being razed:
I should tear down that piece of shit mall and build my lounge right on top of it. And I could build a bar - you know, one of those circular bars and right in the middle of it, I'd plant a tree - a big, fucking tree, and that tree would reach up through the roof, so that everyone could see it, and I'd call it the 'Fuck-You Tree' and ten percent of all the profits of my lounge would go to rebuilding people's special places. That's what I'd do. Fuck that fucking town.
Up against Liz’s aspiration to chuck it all and move to Ibiza, and her meth-inspired notion that they should take Booger along with them, Connor’s plans to rescue and marry Liz pretty quickly go awry. At the top of Act Three, the pair are broke, betrayed, way too high and completely drenched by a sudden storm. Liz attempts to resuscitate a rain damaged inflatable palm tree on her cluttered patio, but it's no use. That dream is DOA. By the time Liz's, er, boss Johnny shows up, played by John Patrick Doherty, whatever shit they still have together is going to hit the proverbial turbine. The guy's a shark and Connor's bleeding.
So Lix has to make a choice. No question she loves golden-hearted Connor but, as is pointed out at least twice, ‘guidance counselors make like no money'. With Johnny, she'll get to Vegas at least. It's not Ibiza but it's something, which is better than nothing. How bad can it be? (I keep thinking about the use of Rhianna's S&M in this production - Liz is neither written as or played like a victim, but her choices are similarly baffling – except for the abundance of drugs and the lack of opportunity that define Liz's life.)
A lot of kids are different. It's like they're trying to take a bunch of circles and shove 'em into square pegs.
You think I'm a fucked up circle?
Take Tommy, for example
I'm not like Tommy
He was a friend of yours?
Johnny gives Connor another bump.
Tommy was definitely a fucked up circle.
I mean, he never said a word.
Yeah, cuz he was stoned.
But why was he stoned?
Cuz he was a big fucking stoner.
But the reason he got stoned was because he was fucking bored and- his dad- I mean, it's not like anybody was paying attention- you know, he coulda fucking jumped off a cliff for all they cared-
-- or shoot himself in the head-
Exactly. Like, what does it take for people to, at all, pay attention, or like, I mean it's not like it was, you know, just tommy, but like, our whole fucking class was, in a way, I mean, totally lost, right? So like was anyone listening, or asking, I mean, what the fuck!, as if they really fucking cared cuz if they had, I mean, they would have seen that we were fucking bored, and the tests, the never-ending fucking bubbles of multiple choice bullshit, and like nothing, nothing to inspire us so why not, like take a bunch of fucking oxy and shoot ourselves in the head.
It's seems to me that the problem is less the American river on which young people drift these days than the size and stability of the raft they’re given on which to ride it. Earlier this year, I had occasion to be in the small East Texas town where I was born. My sister and I were struck by the zombie-like countenance of all the young people we saw there. Pumped full of fast food and false hope, they’re not equipped for, and seem oblivious to, the rapids ahead. In American River, delivery boy Booger sports stars and stripes, and count ‘em two American flag watches. Old glory, new tricks: when left holding the bag, he’ll run with as much as he can carry.
Lesser America does this stuff right. Anyone who saw their production of Squealer last year will know what I mean. And the team they have on this one really know their vinyl siding and Daisy Dukes. Set designer Daniel Zimmerman solves all the problems of TNC's cabaret theatre by reorienting the playing space along the room's south wall rather than in its usual lengthwise depths. David Corsello's sound design is done with such great precision, it gives full voice to a fifth character in the play. Marie Yokoyama's lighting strategically turns the same small space from exterior to interior and back again simply and effectively. Jessica Pabst's costuming is spot-on trash-perational.
Director Stephen Brackett has turned a play about people who never do much of anything into a whirlwind of physicality. Under his direction, the play crackles with chem-energy and animal instinct. It’s sexy and scary and funny, constanly shifting, building swiftly and steadily to an inevitable swan-dive.
And the cast of American River is full throttle all in. One of the most impacting moments of the play for me was watching Robbie Collier Sublett as Connor decide whether to snort a line of meth, and riding a sudden rollercoaster of regret and euphoria immediately after. His performance is full of that kind of sudden complexity. Brendan Speith plays the pixieish pizza boy Booger like a buoyant puppy, bringing tawdry sparkle to the drab duplex in a performance that is very funny but too richly layered to be called mere comic relief. John Patrick Doherty exudes an easy menace as big slimy fish in a small dry pond Johnny. He’s dangerous without having to prove it to us.
And it's no secret how I feel about Laura Ramadei. I will try not to embarrass her, or myself, by gushing too much about her work as Liz. Ramadei has a way of conveying big ideas with small moves. She does messy, desperate characters like this one with grace and precision. The effect is a surprising, compelling performance that is so much more that the sum of its well-crafted parts. I hope she’ll do more of Micheline Auger’s plays because she's perfect for just the kind of strong, sexy, unapologetically aimless female character who knows exactly what she wants (if not necessarily how to get it) that Auger writes so well.
I love that urgency in Micheline Auger's stuff, and I am so excited to see play that I have so long loved finally and thrillingly brought to life. Her characters have such an intense need to speak, if not always the vocabulary to do so very eloquently. They work so hard to stay cool, they never quite lose it, but you can sense their roiling just under the surface. Love or hate them, the populace of Auger's plays are fighters. (If you ever get a chance to, check out her her smart, funny indictment of sex scandals and raunch culture The Feminism Of A Soft Merlot. Thanks to the perennial shenanigans of our elected leaders, it will likely remain timely for many years to come.)
American River had a brush with production a couple years ago through another NYC-based organization. I was surprised when it didn’t work out, because the play is so great. But these things generally happen for a good reason. In this case, the reason was Lesser America. This is a perfect match of company, play, and casting. It’s so hard to make these things happen. Seeing this show reminds me that, with a little faith and a lot of patience, all the right bits eventually fall into place.
Go see it. Tix and info HERE.
Meg Gibson and Seth Numrich in Slipping
With productions of Daniel Talbott’s Slipping in Florida and California, and people talking about that play again, I thought I’d go back and take a look at the script. I have an electronic copy in my online library from Indie Theatre Now. You should too. When I was a teenager, I was a huge fan of The Smiths. I felt like no one understood me like Morrissey obviously did, and I imagined that no one in the world could comprehend his deeply English loneliness like me. Me, sixteen years old, with my asymmetrical new wave haircut, listening to Meat Is Murder on my Walkman while grumpily mowing our lawn in suburban Texas. I had this unique and profound connection with a celibate gay alterna-pop star half a world away. Sure. But the things is, I sorta did. There’s something about the pain and pathos of The Smiths stuff – Morrissey’s lyrics and plaintive wail, and the emotional triggering of Jonny Marr’s guitar riffs – there’s something in it that would and did speak to a lonely gay kid in the American suburbs. Their work was the sonic accompaniment to a palpable, visceral ache, a desperate needing that clawed at my heart through much of my teenage years and still, on occasion, slips through the gates of memory and grabs at me again. Which must be why Daniel Talbott specifies in the stage directions of Slipping that Eli listens to The Smiths. Eli’s a teenaged West Coaster transplanted to suburban Iowa after his father’s death. He comes off confident with his omnipresent camera and colour-treated hair but he’s deeply troubled. His being openly gay and the strained relationship with his English professor mother is part of it, but there’s much more, much deeper, into which he may at any moment slip. As with other of Talbott’s work, Slipping is more fragile than it first seems. Like the characters in it, the whole play is delicately balanced on a very sharp edge. Its structure is not that of a traditional ‘well-made play’, thankfully. Constructed of short scenes in many locations, it works the way memory does, skipping relentlessly from one time-space to another. It would be easy to fuck that up in production. (Personally, I’d be terrified to perform this play and firmly believe there should be some kind of qualification process for gaining the rights to do so.)Slipping switchbacks up and down a mountain of emotional memory (and back in forth in time and between San Francisco and Des Moines) in much the same way that Eli’s mood, when he’s not feigning apathy or quip-covering his pain, can so suddenly swing from peaceful to brutal, from openness to anger. It’s treacherous territory, the kind you’d expect to surround a teenage boy who’s recently lost his father, is probably manic-depressive, lives in a town that doesn’t understand him and, despite pretending to have it all together (or at least not care to) is struggling desperately to understand who he is, and what he wants to be. But it’s all too rare to find such brutal truth depicted onstage, let alone so beautifully. Eli’s is an engine stuck in neutral, relentlessly revved, and then finally released at the speed of grief on a tank full of ADHD. His story is told in jump cuts, slow fades, quickly panning away from a happy moment before it goes bad (and you know it will), or lingering obsessively on the particular emptiness of people who need each other desperately, but are disconnected in spite of, or maybe because of that love. The scenes between Eli and his mother, during which only a few words are exchanged, team with longing. When the dam between them finally breaks, it’s devastating. When I was Eli’s age, I was (rather irresponsibly) diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. I’ve been on all kind of meds, though nothing whatsoever for the last ten-plus years. (If I told you what ‘cured’ me, you’d think I was lying.) I’m fine now but I do remember vividly what it felt like to go zero-to-sixty from the depths of emotional paralysis to the delectable heights of love. I remember becoming suddenly cruel to people I loved, respected, and admired, unloading on them and on all the while knowing on some level that it was madness, but being powerless to stop. I’m a very different guy now than I was then, but that mania is still down there, somewhere. When I witness it, even via fiction, it threatens to surface. Slipping triggers it in me. I have to read this play a few pages at a time because it totally freaks me out. I want a cigarette. I want to hit someone. I want to change my name and shave my head and move to Oregon, except I don’t. That kind of quiet panic, the feeling of having words trapped inside me and then spilling out all over in the wrong order, is one of the reasons I became a playwright. I can take the time to say the things on paper that I’m not able to in real life, in real time. Often, in person or on the phone, I try very hard to say what I mean but sometimes it’s like I just don’t know anyone else’s language. So part of what I love about Slipping, what makes it so intense for me, is all that isn’t said. I know we say that about every great play. But in this one, it’s in nearly every line. Lines that are rarely more than five words long. Speeches carefully constructed of flat fragments and heavy silences that somehow, in their simplicity, indicate an inner screaming. Nearly every word these characters say seems to mean something else. I don’t know how Talbott does it. It’s a little spooky. For twenty years, I couldn’t listen to The Smiths at all. A lot of shit went down when I turned sixteen and came out, stuff that even Morrissey couldn’t help me with. Well into my adult life, just the opening strains of ‘How Soon Is Now’ would send me spiraling, Pavlovian, into deep despair. Since then, so much has been resolved, I’m really happy now, and I can even play ‘Ask’ on acoustic guitar. ‘This Charming Man’ is on my ipod. It’s fine. But I have to be careful. Too much of ‘Hand In Glove’ could make me want to hang myself. Similarly, Slipping opens up a world of hurt in me, but it’s a beautiful, meaningful, transforming kind of ache. It’s been that for many people in New York, and thanks to outfits like Indie Theatre Now, across the country. The truth is that people have really not stopped talking about Slipping since its New York production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in 2009. I know a number of people for whom that play became a seminal moment in their theatergoing and/or theatre-making lives. There’s so many deceptively simple moments of poetry in Slipping, but one bit is really haunting me right now. After Eli has sex with Jake, he is describing Chris, his confused, abusive former frenemy, quasi-lover and continuing obsession from San Francisco. In a rare moment, Eli allows himself to be vulnerable, and describes how and why he loved Chris, envisioning him entering the ocean heroically, bleeding, cocky, beautiful, loved by sharks. And in the middle of it, very simply, he says: ELI I was obsessed with him.I wanted him to own me.I felt like he made me real in some way.Made me worth while. And my breath catches in my throat because I remember feeling that way. Sometimes I still do. Maybe even right now. Maybe. The way that Slipping plummets and buoys is dizzying, anguishing, tragic and beautiful. If it seems confusing, it’s because life is confusing. Depression and desire are confusing. Love is confusing. The scene in which Eli outs Jake during pottery class makes me sick with empathy because I have been both of these boys, and because I completely understand what’s actually happening inside them but I’m helpless to do anything about it. It’s the pull of the depths, at once the seduction of slipping away under water and the terror of doing so. The tension between the two. The fear of falling into darkness. The desperate desire to do so. Not being able to control the speed and direction of descent.
On Thursday April 5, word leaked from Kamuzu Central Hospital that Malawian President Bingu Wa Mutharika had died of a heart attack. Uncertainty gripped the tiny sub-Saharan nation. Bingu had, when first elected, forged partnerships with Western governments and NGO’s that led to a surplus of resources in his impoverished country. He created agricultural subsidy programs. And he famously, if reluctantly, pardoned a same-sex couple sentenced to fourteen years hard labor for gross indecency. Praises were sung.
But he also imprisoned journalists and professors who criticized him. He added a clause specifically targeting lesbians to Malawi’s vague but sweeping morality laws. He ousted a foreign minister for questioning his ability to govern. He purchased a luxurious private jet even as his people languished in poverty, purportedly launched a smear campaign against Vice President Joyce Banda, and systematically eliminated any opposition to his brother Peter’s becoming the next Mutharika to take Malawian high office. A friend of mine wrote, in the understated style of Malawians, that his country ‘is going through economic challenges, no fuel, no forex, and increased threats to human rights defenders by the government’ just before nineteen of his countrymen were killed during anti-Bingu demonstrations. At least they knew their enemy.
On Thursday April 5, the same day as Bingu's demise, I went to see an astonishing production of Jose Rivera’s Massacre (Sing To Your Children) at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. It’s terrifying.
Seven average small-town Americans have taken justice into their own hands, and forcibly removed from office a community leader called Joe. Very forcibly in fact, with knives and machetes and ice picks. None had ever done anything so brutal – of course they hadn’t! - but Joe had it coming. When he first came to Granville, USA, he’d brought prosperity with him. But peace of mind came with a price and, over time, Joe pushed each of his would-be killers to a very personal edge. He’d been responsible for deaths, disappearances, chronic illness and failing business. Really they had no choice.
So this band of amateur killers – a car mechanic, a teacher, a single dad – had good reason to lure Joe to his death at a secluded slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town… didn’t they? Decked out in strange disguises that are simultaneously pitiful and frightening, splattered with hot red evidence, and in various states of hysteria, shock, and/or denial, they lock themselves in the slaughterhouse with Joe’s dead body just outside. They hash it all out, relive the gory details, scream, vomit, dance triumphantly, and congratulate one another on their bravery. Who knew the revolution could happen so fast? Dear God, they’ve taken down the devil himself!
Or have they? Soon they begin to question what, exactly, has just taken place. Paranoid, hyper-alerted by every creaking tree or snapping twig outside, they wonder whether Joe is really truly definitely undeniably dead. Doubt creeps in, resentments come out, good citizens turn on one another other. Someone gets put on a meat hook and slammed into a wall. And then things get really scary.
Having cut down their enemy, Rivera’s ad-hoc vigilantes are forced to confront something much scarier: their darkest secrets. Their own worst fears. Everyone has an inner demon or two. There’s nothing like mob justice to bring out the monster in us all. The undeniable spectre of Joe works its way past the slaughterhouse’s barred doors and puts seven tortured souls through a metaphysical meat grinder in quick succession.
Maybe. Exactly what's happened is open to some degree of interpretation, but one thing’s clear: there's no escaping Joe. When we try, he asks us whose betrayal has made our freedom possible. Just when you think you have him vanquished: surprise, motherfucker. You know what they say - Satan’s greatest achievement is convincing us that he doesn’t exist.
Like all of Rattlestick’s shows, Massacre is a nearly visceral experience. It’s dirty and loud, there’s sweat and screaming, vomit and blood and blood and blood. It’s gruesome.
And it is one of the most beautiful plays I have ever heard.
Call it slaughterhouse poetry, or horror-music maybe. While Rivera’s story cuts us open and rips out the secretly still-beating savage inside, he mesmerizes with his words. Even, and maybe especially, the goriest passages in the play are so beautifully crafted I was seduced even as I was repulsed. It’s a weird feeling, to be both horrified and so pleasantly enthralled all at once. But Rivera’s language is that richly layered. It is blood-soaked stuff. Exquisitely crafted. Scary good. Distressingly beautiful.
Rattlestick’s season thus far has just been extraordinary. Even the least interesting show in their ’11-’12 line up was pretty awesome. So it’s no surprise that Massacre’s ensemble cast is mind-blowingly good. Jolly Abraham, Brendan Averett, Dana Eskelson, Jojo Gonzalez, William Jackson Harper, Adrian Martinez, Sona Tatoyan, and Anatol Yusef all deliver powerhouse performances; athletic, nuanced, full-to-bursting. Scenery by The Ken Larson Co. is more than murderously evocative; it’s also all kinds of kinetic, providing director Brian Mertes with a myriad of ways to scare and delight. What Mertes does with the close quarters is amazing. It’s like he’s thrown several wild species into a single small cage and in the carefully orchestrated chaos that ensues, they dance even as they devour one another.
But for me the star of this show is Jose Rivera. His words broke into me, choked me up, wrung my heart, and fucked me like a dagger. While the story of Massacre is keep-you-up-at-night ugly, the play itself is so achingly gorgeous that I feel ridiculous typing words about Rivera’s words. I can’t tell you how it feels. Just go get gutted.
On Monday April 9, after five days of government stonewalling, Malawian Vice President Joyce Banda was sworn in as President of that nation. A champion of education and women's rights, she’s long been the single beacon of hope for a people struggling not only with rampant disease and endemic poverty, but also with chronic despair. Malawians have since been jubilant. Even Bingu's former supporters are sallying forth into the new era. My Malawian friend's facebook status reads, ‘For the first time it felt good to sing the Malawian National Anthem.’ But I’m scared for him, and for his countrymen. Yes, things are looking up. And really Bingu was not exactly Mugabe or Amin. It was always rather difficult to pin down his crimes. But it was just within that grey space that his power lied. It was insidious, the way he soured people against each other. In a resource-starved country where the national courts still try people for witchcraft, it only takes a single seed of doubt to grow a briar of hate and resentment. People like Bingu – and figures like Rivera’s ‘Joe’ – can reap a bumper crop with nothing more than a word or two:"We all know how powerful our thoughts are. Our thoughts make the world." Without a common enemy to blame, the people of Malawi, the citizens of Granville, all of us really…we only have each other. Or, even more terrifying, ourselves. We're our own worst enemies. We're the devils we least know.
Massacre (Sing To Your Children) through May 12 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. 224 Waverly Place, New York, NY 10014. 212-627-2556 or www.rattlestick.org for tix and info.
Apparently, ‘March Madness’ has something to do with basketball. I’d have as likely used it to describe the wild and wonderful past four weeks of my life. It started off in Dallas with David Parr’s A Most Happy Stella, in which I played two roles and sang a jazzy version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ Before even leaving Texas, I was writing for New York Madness’ latest installment of shorts, this one curated by Daniel Talbott on the theme ‘Spiritually Blue Balled’. My play God Head was directed by Roberto Cambeiro and featured Ron Bopst, Todd Flaherty, and Colleen Kennedy. That same day I began another Talbott-related project (see below) and a week later rehearsed and performed a reading of Kathleen Warnock’s lovely That’s Her Way with the exquisite Danielle Quisenberry. This Wednesday I’ll start work on Chris Weikel’s latest, Dead Man’s Chest, in which I play Captain Kidd - a pirate! (You had me at ‘Ahoy.’) And somewhere in there, That Uppity Theatre Company of St. Louis produced my Shiny Pair Of Complications and LCT published an excerpt of Jackson Heights 3am. Madness! March has been leonine both in and out, ides and all. So, speaking of Daniel Talbott, it was just over a year ago I first wrote about the amazing work his Rising Phoenix Rep was doing with their Cino Nights new play series at Jimmy’s No.43. Inspired by the legendary Caffe Cino’s do-it-yourself aesthetic that gave birth in the nineteen-sixties to what became Off-off Broadway, the RPR team have produced some of the best shows I’ve seen these past thirteen months. Their dedication to new plays and the people who make them attracts some of New York’s most dynamic playwrights, directors, and actors, and the excitement surrounding their monthly events has made Cino Nights one of the hottest tickets in town. Everything about what they do inspires me. And this past week I was blessed to be a part of it. I played the role of Captain Nick, a (twisted memory of a) children’s television personality, in Charlotte Miller’s favorites, directed by John DiResta. I love nothing better than being in rehearsal, except for being in rehearsal with brave and generous actors like Jimmy Davis, Addie Johnson Talbott, Seth Numrich, and Amelia Pedlow. Oh my dog, are these guys good. Cino Nights shows are fully mounted plays, usually about an hour in length, designed, rehearsed, and teched in a single week (or less) for one performance only. So there is hardly time for ego-driven proprietary bullshit (not that there'd have been any with this kindhearted crew). Bold choices are made very quickly. The tiny space leaves no room for actors to hide. And a shoestring budget encourages innovative staging and design. It’s an amazing and potentially terrifying ride. I was weirdly calm from beginning to end. I loved being there so much, I guess there just wasn’t room for fear. In Charlotte’s Miller’s favorites, siblings Margaret and Travis’ return to their recently deceased mother's home to clear it out but find themselves trapped there by childhood memories. It’s screamingly funny at times, but also deeply disturbing as old wounds are reopened and nightmares are revived. Captain Nick was one of those nightmares, and I had a blast playing him. Being in a rehearsal room with a playwright as generous as Miller, a director as sharp as DiResta, and a company of such extraordinary actors was, for me, at once humbling and thrilling. I had as much fun watching the others work as I had doing any of my own bits. It was inspiring and challenging and edifying to watch the way Addie and Seth and Jimmy and Amelia worked together. It was magic. Each and all of them gave me chills, made me laugh, and inspired tears. As my fellow Texan Charlotte might say, I was just, like, ‘…gaw!’ The experience made me all the more grateful for the community of theatre people with whom I work and play, and I was already feeling pretty lucky. On this World Theatre Day 2012, I’m reflecting on what it is we do, and how far-reaching the effects may be. It seems so often that we are toiling away in anonymity or, at best, preaching to a proverbial choir. (I recently produced a show in which one performance was absolutely packed – with comps. Sigh.) But if you believe, as I do, in the power of art and the ripple effect of transformational sharing, then there’s really no show too small. Look at something like Cino Nights. That little room at Jimmy’s holds maybe 40 people - if you pack them in and don’t crowd the playing space with more than three or four actors at once. One performance. Little publicity. And yet Rising Phoenix Rep is making a noticible impact on New York theatre. It is encouraging playwrights to try new things, to tackle new subjects, to collaborate in challenging new ways. I love listening to people talk about these plays in the bar afterward – wheels turning, fires igniting. They pass it on. If you were to play Six Degrees Of Rising Phoenix, you’d soon find yourself connecting dots across the country, if not around the world. When I started Hard Sparks, I had a lot of big ideas, and I guess I still do. I start plays with big ideas. I play characters with big ideas in mind. Like a lot of artistically bent types, I do want very much to change the world in great big ways. But when I look at the people I know who are doing it – Daniel and Addie at RPR, Ari Laura Kreith at Theatre 167, Martin and Rochelle at Indie Theatre Now and Joan Lipkin's That Uppity Theatre Co. in St Louis... and even when I think of international companies that face challenges as immense as Belarus Free Theatre did this past year, or Theatre For A Change in Malawi, or Instant Café in Malaysia, or the premier of Doric Wilson’s A Perfect Relationship in India, or the work of slain Palestinian director Juliano Mer-Khamis' Freedom Theatre… I see that it’s all built on tiny moments. Emotional connections. Mucking in. Sharing something deeply personal on an intimate level, each of us a spark. On World Theatre Day, we celebrate the power we share to ignite change, to empower artists, to cross cultural and geopolitical boundaries with an international vocabulary of live performance. On one hand, it’s big heady stuff. I’m dizzy at the thought of it, and awestruck by those who’ve blazed the trails I now humbly, worshipfully follow. But I am also tremendously proud to be part of something so vibrant, so alive, so irrepressibly bad-assed. It would be silly to say I love theatre, it would be like saying I love the hair on the back of my hands. Making plays is simply a part of who I am. Metaphysical DNA. But it is right to say that I love the work and the people with whom I do it. I love rehearsal. And today of all days I am filled with love and gratitude for my fellow theatre-makers. May every month be as mad as this March. ''May your work be compelling and original. May it be profound, touching, contemplative, and unique. May it help us to reflect on the question of what it means to be human, and may that reflection be blessed with heart, sincerity, candor, and grace. May you overcome adversity, censorship, poverty and nihilism, as many of you will most certainly be obliged to do. May you be blessed with the talent and rigor to teach us about the beating of the human heart in all its complexity, and the humility and curiosity to make it your life's work. And may the best of you - for it will only be the best of you, and even then only in the rarest and briefest moments - succeed in framing that most basic of questions, "how do we live?" Godspeed.'' - John Malkovich, International Message delivered to UNESCO in Paris, 22 March 2012.
Seth Numrich and Noah Galvin
Let me make something very clear: Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is a perfectly comfortable and well-heated space in which to see remarkable new plays like Daniel Talbott's Yosemite. I have no doubt that the temperature inside the theater was well above that out-of-doors. Still, one look at Raul Abrego
's wintry set, and there was no way I could take off my coat. Combined with Janie Bullard's ambient sound, it felt positively frigid in there.
And then four extraordinary actors - Kathryn Erbe, Noah Galvin, Seth Numrich, and Libby Woodbridge - entered with ruddy cheeks and running noses. Even bundled in winter gear ( A wonderfully detailed design from costumer Tristin Raines), none broke a sweat under the stage lights except for the amazing Seth Numrich, whose very physical role demanded it. Either director Pablo Pascal kept them all outside in the January air until the calling of 'places,' or they are really really good.
Yosemite is the story of three siblings played by Numrich, Galvin, and Woodbridge, who are sent into the Sierra Nevada foothills to dig a hole deep enough to bury a family secret. Jake, Jer, and Ruby are entrenched in something more than snow, and thicker than the woods around them. Of course the play is not about being cold. Nor is it about National Parks, though I do think it significant, and poetic, that this portrait of poor America is set on a Federally maintained wildlife preserve. Yosemite is really about poverty and the desperate acts it may inspire.
While so many writers struggle to respond to our era's socioeconomic issues in a profound and absolute way, Daniel Talbott simply tells us a compelling story about one very lost family. Other playwrights might attempt something more sweeping, would aim to make some grand statement by showing us a formal portrait of people who've fallen through some proverbial crack. But Yosemite ventures deeper, into an icy crevice. The folks here don't contribute to exit polls. They don't feed statistics. They don't make the headlines. But they do give us a cold hard look at today's America.
And it’s not pretty. Despite the gorgeous surroundings – and even Numrich’s fed-up character notes the beauty of the woods (It’s the ironic timing of his observation that makes it meaningful) – there’s no romancing the brutality of nature, within or without. Things get ugly, and not in an endearing ‘aren’t the country-folk adorable’ kind of way.
I hate that. I hate hearing an overeducated Manhattan audience chuckle knowingly at the charming eccentricities of non-New Yorkers acting wacky, folksy, or just plain dumb. Maybe it’s because of where I’m from, but I don’t like it when a play depicts the darker or less sophisticated parts of rural or suburban America, and then judges, or pities, or makes fun of people for their lack of urbanity. You know what I mean – plays written to point up all that’s wrong with America - ‘America’ being anyone that didn’t graduate from insert-exclusive-conservatory-training-program-here. I sit through those shows thinking ‘This is why they hate Obama.’
Yosemite doesn’t do that. For one thing, these are really complex characters, no stereotypical hillbillies here. They are written to be taken seriously, with great heart and dignity. Talbott doesn’t allow us to feel superior to them. In fact, one of my favorite moments of the play comes when middle sibling Ruby, heartbreakingly played by Libby Woodbridge , goes on a vaguely racist and rather classist rant against the behavior of some local ‘trash’ that prompts her brother Jake (Numrich) to drop his shovel and scream "We're not better!" In fact, he tells her, soon enough they'll be just the same. The story of Yosemite reminds us that with one small misstep, maybe the failure to read a faded blaze, anyone can get avalanched. You are not better than trailer-dwellers who sport Goodwill’s latest. In fact, you’re not really any different.
Having had a taste of the American dreamsicle, Talbott’s characters long for Disneyland. They’ve become disconnected from their own greatest desires. These kids aspire to the commonplace – anonymity, hourly wages, and a bunk in the back of the store. It’s the handiwork of the slightly younger of endemic poverty’s twin offspring, Disease and Despair. It kills.
So, in context, the sibling’s big secret is really less consequential than the circumstances that bore it. In fact, the scandal itself is far less shocking that the matter-of-factness with which it's dealt. It sets a tension in the way the play's characters are knit together, making the whole dynamic ripe for unraveling. That's an absolute banquet for brave actors. Yosemite’s fearless performers quite willingly hurl themselves from icy silence to full-throttle meltdown. (Please pardon all the seasonal analogies, but doing this play must feel like a ski jump or a four-man luge; once the gate comes down, you are gravity’s bitch.)
Now back to me shivering in my front row seat. I was close enough to see all the strings. I could touch the 'snow'. I could have unlaced Libby Woodbridge’s battered pink boots, so it’s not that I actually thought I was in the freezing cold Sierra Nevada Mountains. In fact, it bothers me when people say things like “It was as if I was there!” (Especially if the play is about war, ethnic cleansing, genital mutilation, or Les Miserables. Don’t lie, you did not really think you were in France circa 1788 with people singing, in English, about a bloody revolution - you’d have freaked out and strangled an usher with your commemorative 24601 souvenir t-shirt.)
It bugs me because I think it actually diminishes the work it means to compliment. It explains away the wonder, the mystery and impact - not to mention the very hard work - of what plays can do for people. I don’t want theatre to be ‘real’; I want it to be theatre. I want it to be truthful. (Which is why I bawled when what’s-his-name sang ‘Bring Him Home’ despite the fact that I was well aware of sitting in a cushy chair, in a Broadway theater, wearing an ugly tie.) The onstage replication of real life is not interesting to me. I mean, it’s cool, it’s okay, but it’s the revelation of the soul of a thing that gets me hot.
So why did my teeth chatter through this show? Was it the production’s ‘realness’ – the flawless design, the remarkably dynamic direction, some incredibly complex and nuanced performances, that snowball quality in all of Daniel Talbott’s stuff – a sense of inevitability, even in the silences, that makes an audience at once dread and long for whatever comes next…? Yeah, it’s all of that.
But, put simply, Yosemite has truth enough to make me shiver. It was the combination of a gorgeous set (which ought to be permanent displayed somewhere as art unto itself), powerfully drawn characters, passionate performances, and innovative staging that makes Rattlestick’s latest such a memorable experience. Taken all together, there’s an aching honesty in this show that I think is really exceptional. It’s not comfortable. It’s not cute. It’s really, no, it’s truly cold. And beautifully true.
Yosemite runs through February 26th at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. Info and tickets here.
In March of 2011, I saw a magical piece of theatre called You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase. It was staged in the cafeteria of a primary school in Queens by a company called Theatre 167, and it was unlike anything I’d seen in years. The energy of this collaboratively devised play, its mash-up of styles and the calibre of its performers, made me miss the kind of DIY work I did years ago at the Experimental Theater Wing. So when artistic director Ari Laura Kreith asked me to help write the final installment in their epic Jackson Heights trilogy, I jumped. Now just weeks away from the premier of Jackson Heights 3am, I spoke to Ari by phone during our holiday hiatus from rehearsal. As I've also taken a role in the show, I should have been learning my lines. I typed up our conversation instead.J.Stephen Brantley Having done a few of these shows, I guess you’ve got it mastered by now. It’s all clockwork, right? Easy as proverbial pie?Ari Laura Kreith There are those moments - trying to coordinate twenty-one actors, some flying in from LA, and seven writers working on a single script, and we’ve got holidays and two venues and Equity rules - when it all seems a little impossible! But one of the things that’s amazing is that it really is an ensemble effort—there’s something about this sort of project that really draws in people who think of making theater as “our production” rather than “this is my piece.” So you made the posters, which are amazing, for example, and Jenny Lyn (Bader, company playwright) has done so much to bring our huge unwieldy script into legible and unified form. And finding a TD, Ross DeGraw, who really embraces this adventurous sort of process, has made so much of this possible.JSB I am totally having a bromance with him.ALK Ross is great! And so many other folks like him have helped out. Even relative strangers hear about the project and offer to help out. Plus the logistics do get easier—this time we know how to light the space, which was a huge challenge at first. I knew I wanted to work in three-quarters, and in a found space, because it feels really important for the audience to see one another as they’re sharing this experience. But figuring out how to bring lights into a low-ceilinged venue in a way that didn’t blow circuits and blind the audience and still allowed for creativity and control in the lighting realm was huge. That’s a challenge that Nicole Pearce solved beautifully last year, and knowing how to do it this time, feeling like we have a bit of a rep plot, makes it easier now.JSB Not that you’re replicating what you’ve done before…ALK No, but it’s certainly easier to explore a few new elements at a time, so this year we’re incorporating Andrew Lazarow’s amazing video work, and that feels like a new-yet-manageable piece.JSB Found spaces, shared spaces, non-traditional spaces – I think we’re going to see more and more of that, but it comes with its own challenges.ALK Yeah. Last year we bought chairs, which was crazy—transporting seventy chairs from IKEA. And yes, I brought my kids to IKEA with me to buy the chairs, so I was rolling them on a dolly with a two-year-old and a four-year-old…so anytime I get overwhelmed I focus on things like that, and remind myself that this year all we have to do is bring chairs up from the basement!JSB The trilogy is like an epic love poem to Jackson Heights. How did it begin?ALK Almost as soon as I moved to Jackson Heights, I started thinking about how to express some of the magic of the neighborhood in theatre. I love the way so many cultures come together here, and I wanted to celebrate and share that magic, both with people in the neighborhood and people outside it. For a while, just after Dashiell was born, I was artistic director of a company called Jackson Rep, and I developed and directed two solo shows that felt like they explored specific aspects of the neighborhood—one was Leslie Harrell Dillen's piece about a white woman who traveled to India for her stepdaughter’s wedding to a Sikh man, the other was an interactive show by comedy writer Carl Kissin where he involved members of the audience in his storytelling. And I was really interested in the ways each of these writers explored something specific about the neighborhood, and so I wondered what would happen if more writers got involved and if it became sort of a conversation. That summer, I was in Boulder, Colorado, trying to describe what it feels like to live in Jackson Heights, and it started to feel very urgent to me to create a piece that captured some of these things. So the first piece we created this way, 167 Tongues, was while I was still with Jackson Rep. Such a clear artistic ensemble coalesced around that project, and such a passion for a particular way of working, that it felt right to build a company dedicated to this kind of work. Though we’re ever re-defining what ‘this kind of work’ actually is! So that’s how Theatre 167 was born.JSB There’s something inherently dramatic about the mix of cultures in Jackson Heights. We all felt it that first night when we hit the streets for raw material.ALK I’m in Maryland right now, and it strikes me that our life-on-the-streets and subway time in New York is really a gift.JSB I’m in Texas. The population here is so diverse, and yet people still don’t ‘mix’. I think it has everything to do with cars. With drive-thrus.ALK Right. But in a place like Jackson Heights, we see one another’s lives so constantly and with such taken-for-granted intimacy. We overhear each other’s most intimate conversations. How can we fail to grasp everyone’s fundamental humanity? And I don’t think of that as just a question about cultural difference-or-not, but that we have the opportunity to see deeply into the lives of others on a daily basis.JSB This installment is much darker than the previous two. In some scenes, we see an uglier side of the neighborhood. How do you think it will be received by local audiences?ALK Certainly we deal with some really dark topics—sex trafficking and drug-fueled violence are two of the most obvious. But we aren’t telling those stories in a gratuitous way—we’re looking at the need for connection and love, which are pretty basic and beautiful human impulses. And we’re exploring what happens when those needs aren’t or can’t be met, and how that can twist people.JSB What we kept talking about in meetings was loneliness. I think it was important to all of us that we portray that kind of desperation honestly, but that we also transcend it somehow, that there is connection or at least the potential for it.ALK Ultimately, I think this piece takes us to a place where, for the most part, those needs are met, often in unexpected or unlikely ways. And that will hopefully inspire the audience to think about the humanity of people they might otherwise choose to ignore, and possibly think about how they might have some sort of deeper connection to people they would otherwise look away from. So the journey to those dark places is necessary, I think, so that we can explore ways of moving toward the light.JSB I think people will get that, whether they live in Jackson Heights or not.ALK It’s funny, I guess I haven’t thought too much about how the story will be received, with the exception of clarifying that it’s not appropriate for kids.JSB Yeah this is definitely not You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase.ALK No. But these stories need to be told too, and hopefully even if someone is offended – and I imagine we will have a few walk-outs – they will be inspired to think about these things and explore why they were offended and what it is about that particular story that they think is untellable or unhearable. Part of our company’s mission is to give voice to people whose stories often go untold, and sometimes I think those stories aren’t told because a few vocal audience members are afraid to hear them or are offended by them. And it just seems like an obvious and necessary choice to honor our commitment to the people whose stories are often hidden out of deference to a few.JSB Many directors would balk at the notion of wrangling ten overlapping storylines by seven different playwrights – as would many playwrights. In fact, there’s one who visibly shuddered when I told him about it. So what do you love about working this way?ALK It’s like a huge party with amazing artists! Really! I love working with writers, and I think there’s something beautiful and challenging for writers in this process. When I first became interested in working this way, it was about the stories being told in the piece and how important it felt to truly reveal multiple perspectives on an event. But I’ve really fallen in love with the way it inspires writers to work out of their comfort zone, to explore things that they’ve never written and possibly felt they wouldn’t be allowed to write about because of people’s expectations of their work based on race or culture or sexual orientation or previous style-JSB Or language. I never would have done anything in Bengali were it not for this show, that’s for sure. I was really nervous about writing characters outside my own cultural sphere. It took a lot of help and encouragement from other members of the company, a lot of mutual trust all around.ALK And it takes a particular kind of writer—or a writer at a particular point in their relationship to writing—to embrace that process. It’s about being very generous with one another, being flexible with each individual piece in the service to the whole. We have one character who has changed ethnicity three times as he morphed to contain characters from several scenes. We have central events that have disappeared or moved offstage to allow the overall plot to build. We have scenes that have been written by three people together, with elements and characters from everyone’s stories. And I’m really grateful that everyone allows me to muck about and ask questions and suggest relationships. It’s really magical!JSB There’s been a lot of synchronistic thinking from the very start. I think it’s because we all appreciate each other enough to allow that ‘magic’ in.ALK The respect that everyone has for everyone else as artists, in building and developing and changing…it’s really about finding, together, what works for the piece. And the fact that there’s a shared perspective about how theatre can be a catalyst for a deeper cultural perspective and true compassion is central to allowing that to happen.JSB I love your certainty in that. In fact, you seem pretty fearless, all the way round. Does anything about this work ever frighten you?ALK I suppose I should feel scared bringing everyone into the room together for the first time and being the person who stands up in front and says, “In ten months, we’re going to have a show.” But I’m mostly just curious and excited about what’s going to happen. I tend to be very intuitive about who the collaborators for a particular project need to be, our collaboration being a case in point: I knew you understood and had an affinity for this kind of work and had read some blog entries you’d written, and I knew you were someone who brings great collaborative energy into a room, but I really didn’t know anything about you as a playwright, except that I just knew. And John Keller, who is one of our core actors, he and I laugh about how when he came to audition, he was in and out in three minutes and thought “Well, that did not go well,” but we ended up casting him and creating a role around what he’d brought into the room that day.JSB I thought you’d known him forever. It seems like your sudden instincts lead to long-term collaborations.ALK Yes, balancing out those intuitive, seemingly reckless choices are some truly amazing artistic relationships that developed over time; Jenny Lyn Bader and I have worked together almost since I arrived in New York, and I feel like she knows what I’m thinking better than I do sometimes, or like I can be in rehearsal with one of her scenes and know what she’d say about something even when she’s not in the room. And there are people like Rajesh Bose and Arlene Chico-Lugo, for example, who have been in all three plays in the trilogy and I just can’t imagine working without. It’s been so exciting on this particular project to be able to create roles for them that are really inspired by them as people, and I feel like their depth as people and as actors have really led us in creating that arc.JSB I wanted to write for Rajesh right from the start. And I am just in love with what Arlene is doing as Adela. As a playwright, it’s so exciting and gratifying to have such amazing actors saying your stuff. I know, for me, it’s much less scary when that happens.ALK If there’s one thing that scares me about these projects, it’s just the moments when I think about the hubris of it all—trusting my gut to know who belongs in a particular piece before it even exists, and then as the project evolves, shaping the stories and trusting that ultimately we will be telling something that needs and deserves to be told. Except that I really think the work has its own magnetic pull to it, that it draws the right people and stories together, and truly I’m just another person drawn to serve these stories in some way.JSB How do you get there? What in your background prepared you for making collaboratively devised pieces like JH3am?ALK I did my undergrad at Yale, and really struggled with the town/gown divisions—being at an Ivy League school in the midst of a decaying inner city. I spent my senior year creating an interactive theatre event, working with Yale actors and non-actors, as well as actors and musicians from the New Haven community. We created all these scenes that audience could walk through, exploring ideas of work, play and ritual, and staged the piece off-campus so it would be accessible to all. The experience was amazing: two hours of interactive theatre culminating in a huge dance party with an African dance band. The heartbreaking thing for me was that not one of my professors came. And then, when I did talk to a faculty member, he read me a list of names including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus, and told me I was walking a dangerous path because I should look where they all ended up.JSB Um, yeah, cause those guys all totally wasted their time…ALK Looking at it now, it seems pretty ludicrous, but as an about-to-enter-the-world college senior, it terrified me about my identity as an artist making community-based theatre and made me question whether there was a true home for this kind of work or, indeed, for me, in the theatre. After that, I was an actor for a while, did my MFA in Acting, and while I was in school I started a summer theatre company because I felt like my classmates weren’t being challenged in the ways I thought they should be. And so I started directing there, really to encourage friends to take artistic risks. We did new plays, because I thought it was really amazing that you could do new plays!JSB It is! ALK And I assumed I would stay there building that company and doing that. But then Jeffrey Carlson, an actor who had been one of the original company members before moving to New York to go to Juilliard, he came back and we did a season together and he pushed and challenged me. I loved it, and I realized that was what I needed to grow artistically, was to be in an environment where my collaborators were pushing and inspiring me like that. I never really thought of it that way til this moment, but there are all the things I loved then – community-inspired theatre, new plays, and truly collaborative and challenging artistic relationships – in the work that Theatre 167 is doing now. JSB What’s the most challenging part of running a company like Theatre 167? ALK I think it’s all the stuff that’s challenging about running any small theatre, really. The boring stuff. Where does the money come from, how to find affordable rehearsal space, who wants to go out and hang posters in the cold. Really not worth complaining about. JSB Duly noted. Next question: Your two adorable kids frequently end up in rooms full of all kinds of people, from various countries and of many ethnicities, speaking multiple languages, all getting along. They don’t think it's normal, do they? ALK Of course they do! Don’t you? JSB Well, now, yeah. ALK Part of raising kids in New York is that they get exposed to so much—when my daughter was three, we found a man lying in the street on a freezing cold night and called 911 and she talked about it for weeks after. Sometimes it scares me. But I think it makes them more compassionate people when they understand that life is complicated, that they’re lucky to have a home, that sort of thing. And one of the things my kids are lucky to experience, both growing up in Jackson Heights and growing up around this particular theatre company, is a really glorious, very diverse and joyous culture. JSB Now for the important stuff: Is my horribly offensive, half-naked performance as Leo going to cost you donors and get you banned from using PS69? ALK I’m sure we’ll offend someone. JSB It’s what I do. ALK But your performance isn’t offensive! And Leo is very important. As we look at people whose stories aren’t told or are ignored, Leo is a prime example of someone we want to look away from because he’s in so much pain and doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s so easy to judge people like that, and yet the trajectory of the play reveals the ways that we’re all truly connected. And isn’t that something that we want people to think about, and want our children to learn? I don’t want to give the story away, but things might have turned out very differently if someone had been able to see and reach Leo that night. And I have a deep interest in the Leos of the world, and how we can pull them back from the void. JSB I do too. And it seems possible in theatre, in that arena of what-if. I know bitchy, cynical plays are very fashionable right now, but I still believe in the power of theatre to bring people together. ALK So do I. JSB I mean, this show is hardly sunshine and roses, but if seven playwrights can all get along… ALK And, not to be melodramatic or cheesy, but I feel like there’s something about walking the streets of Jackson Heights that expresses how we can live together as a global community—how we can be celebrate cultural difference and experience commonality. When Elodie was four, she was looking at a photo on the cover of the New York Times magazine; it was an article about a principal who had turned around a low-performing school in the Bronx, and he had been photographed with a number of his students, who were all African American and Latino. Elodie was very curious about the picture, and when I asked her why, she said, “These kids are all different from me.” There was a pause and then she said with admiration, “They’re older.” I love it that this is her world. Theatre 167’s Jackson Heights 3am opens January 13th at PS 69 in Jackson Heights Queens. It will also play two weekends at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows Park. For tickets click here.
Anthony Johnston's Tenderpits
As it is the season of listmaking, I thought I’d pitch in. This is not a best-of list and it will not include Charlie Sheen or Kim Kardashian. It’s just a run-down of my own most memorable theatre-related moments of 2011.
Of course I didn’t see enough theatre, I never do. I didn’t make it to a single Broadway show this year, in fact I missed tons of good stuff all over town. I didn’t even get to see the amazing Bobby Moreno in anything, and as much work as he did in 2011, there’s really no excuse.
But here’s the (very personal, highly subjective) list.Doric Wilson (February 24, 1939 – May 7, 2011). I was lucky enough to perform in three plays by the legendary Doric Wilson this year. Sadly, 2011 was also the year that saw the indomitable playwright, leatherman, and raconteur pass on. I did a TOSOS reading of his The West Street Gang, and then performed an excerpt from A Perfect Relationship at Doric’s birthday tribute in March. He asked, no, demanded that I play Seymour in the annual Pride performance of Street Theatre, and I was thrilled to do so. Unfortunately, Doric wasn’t there to see it. Still, his presence remains undeniable, and being asked to speak at his memorial service was one of the great honors of my life. Thank you Mark Finley for making it all happen.
Doric’s exit was preceded by that of his fellow playwright and Caffe Cino alum, the great Lanford Wilson (April 13, 1937 – March 24, 2011) and by La Mama founder Ellen Stewart (November 7, 1919 — January 13, 2011). Lanford’s memorial service at the Lyceum was one of the greatest theatrical events I’ve ever attended, as funny and moving and inspiring as any of his plays. And while I only met Ms.Stewart once, like so many other downtown performers, I loved her and cherish her legacy.All three were major inspirations for me. Now for the fun stuff:Unforgettable shows: David Adjmi’s Elective Affinities
starring Zoe Caldwell, produced by Soho Rep, piece by piece, and Rising Phoenix Rep
. I was at once unnerved and enchanted. More here
. Dael Orlandersmith’s Horsedreams
at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre
. There’s a lot I could tell you about plays and heroin, since I’ve done a lot of both. But I’m just gonna say this show kicked my ass and pushed all my buttons in the best possible ways. Profound, provocative, dangerous, disturbing…and accurate. Take it from a middle-class white boy who used to cop dope in Harlem.Anthony Johnston’s Tenderpits
at Under St. Marks.This totally bizarre, weirdly sexy, one-wizard tour-de-force took me by complete surprise. Written and performed by one insanely talented diaper-clad Canadian, Tenderpits
was one of the funniest and, well, most tender shows I’d seen in years. I don’t even know how to explain it. There’s drunken moose and ass glitter and a breakdown of Chekhov that had me rolling, as well as a very personal story about love and sex and art and justice, and discovering the magic of New York City, even if you are ‘poor as fuck.’ Johnston is a wonder. And Taylor Mac's The Walk Across America For Mother Earth at LaMaMa. Of course.It was year of amazing performances. A few of my favorites:Alex Hurt
as Hamlet in a four-person version called Elsinore
at NYU. It is amazing what just four actors can do with some plastic sheeting, an umbrella, a bathtub and some major balls.Gillian Lindig
. Holy crap. Max Rhyser
and Spenser Genesy
in Dan Fingerman’s The Austerity Of Hope
. Hotness.Nick Lawson
Holy crap and
filling in for Charles Busch in The Divine Sister.
Not to mention Alison Fraser and Julie Halston. Geniuses, all.Susan Barnes Walker
in Duncan Plaster’s The Wastes Of Time.Carolyn Baeumler
and Jenny Seastone Stern
in The Germ Project
at New Georges.Jacqueline Sydney
and Tyler Lea
in Ethos Perfroming Arts’ The Family Room.
I also have to mention Jackie’s wonderful performances in my play Blood Grass
at the Sam French fest, and in two readings of The Jamb
ut for me the year belonged to Laura Ramadei
. Her performances in Lesser America’s Squealer
, Boomerang’s Much Ado About Nothing
in Central Park, and Jennie Berman Eng’s Exit Carolyn
at The Drilling Company were each so complex, so rich, so funny, and so brave. I’m just astonished by what Ramadei does, every time, and by how effortless it seems. In addition to being an amazing actor, Laura also happens to be a phenomenal fight director. Also...
I saw and heard some pretty awesome theatre design this year. Most memorably – Dust
at The Ontological, Now The Cats With Jewelled Claws
at LaMama, Woodshed Collective’s The Tenant
, New George’s The Germ Project
, and Janie Bullard’s amazing sound for Lake Water
at the IRT.
I acted in a ton of readings involving varying degrees of staging this year. Most memorable were Kathleen Warnock’s That’s Her Way
with the exquisite Danielle Quisenberry, and Chris Weikel’s Secret Identity
in which I played a superhero invented by a bullied gay teenager. As with all of Weikel’s wildly inventive stuff, it was a blast. I even got kissed by a cute twenty-three year old!
Both Warnock and Weikel have studied at the ruby-booted feet of Tina Howe
. I count myself very blessed to be one of ‘the players’ for Tina’s MFA playwriting class at Hunter College. It’s given me the opportunity to play some extraordinary roles in exciting new plays by six astonishingly gifted playwrights. Without a doubt, some of my favorite moments of 2011 happened in that alternately freezing cold / stiflingly hot fifth floor classroom at Hunter. Plays I just can’t stop thinking about:
Micheline Auger’s The Feminism Of A Soft Merlot or How The Donkey Got Punched.
I attended two readings of this remarkable and timely new play, and they did more for me than most full productions would. Auger makes the F-word dirty and dangerous once again. Feminism
I mean. Being a man, I am going to doltishly proclaim Micheline's work both smart and
sexy – wow! -
and hope that my doing so inspires her to write another scathing indictment of the intrinsically misogynistic raunch culture that has lately ruled our nation. She’s not bad…for a girl.Emily DeVoti’s The Upstart
at Rising Phoenix Rep’s Cino Nights. This bare-bones series of one-off performances of new plays continues to amaze the lucky few audience members who pack the tiny basement theatre at Jimmie’s No.43. DeVoti’s play is inspired by the true story of Brigid Hitler, Irish kin to, yes, that
Hitler, and takes a hard look at our connections to history, to racism and gentrification, and the ways in which our little choices become consequential. Actors Edward Carnevale, Julie Kline, and Anne O’Sullivan were phenomenal in a smart, disturbing, unforgettable play.Locker 4173B by Christopher Borg and Joey Rizzolo
, produced by New York Neo-Futurists at The Monkey. This show totally blew me away. Borg and Rizzolo purchased the contents of a couple of storage lockers with the aim a creating a play inspired by whatever they happened to find. They got more than they bargained for, and so did I. Like urban archeologists, they unearth and piece together the fragmented evidence of some very real lives, and create a stunning socio-economic snapshot of today’s America. As the Indiana Joneses of New York performance art, the pair are hysterically funny. But Borg and Rizzolo also ask some hard questions about art, family and cultural identity. Locker 4173B was at once clever and incredibly heartwrenching, and deserves a longer run at some museum-theatre hybrid space. More New Yorkers should see this.And my own stuff:Furbelow.
First there was a staged reading by a cast of fifteen amazing actors at the Hard Sparks
launch party. Then a workshop by The Inkwell
at Woolly Mammoth
in DC. And a reading directed by Rose Lamoureax
in Bridgeport. Too bad it would cost 20K just to costume this fucker.Shiny Pair Of Complications
at Fresh Fruit
. Under the direction of Robert o Cambeiro
, actors Marc Castle
and Wayne Henry
turned my sweet little gay marriage comedy into something really moving. Thanks, guys.Eightythree Down
. My play, directed by dynamo Daniel Talbott
, performed by four of the bravest and most dynamic actors I’ve ever known, Melody Bates
, Ian Holcomb
, Bryan Kaplan
, and Brian Miskell
. This was Hard Sparks’ first full length production and a remarkable experience for me on every level. Working with Daniel aka Dantasia aka T-bott was challenging and inspiring and loads of fun. He moves people to want to do more and to be more, myself included, and I am so grateful to him for pushing me to push myself as both a playwright and a producer. The dude directed something like 700 shows this year, and I am certain that everyone he worked with would speak glowingly of his dedication and generosity. I sure do. And the fearless foursome who performed my play were not only insanely talented and hard-working, but also some of the kindest and most genuine individuals I’ve known. Dear Melody, Ian, Bryan, and Queerbait, thank you a thousand times for giving so much of yourselves to the insanity of Eightythree Down
. I also have to thank the greatest stage management team in the history of downtown theatre, Bertie Michaels
and Alex Mark
: Books, hooray!The Jamb
. With Jonathan Warman
at the healm, we did two readings of my gay coming of middle-age play, one for TOSOS’ Chesley-Chambers series, and the other as a Hard Sparks event. Both times I was filled with gratitude for playmates Hunter Gilmore
, Jackie Sydney
, and Aaron Tone
. Here’s hoping for a full production in 2012!A
s we look toward new projects in 2012, I’ll leave you with some inspiring words from a man whose centennial was celebrated this past year:Make voyages! –Attempt them! –there’s nothing else… - Tennessee Williams, Camino Real
Alternatively: Gorgeous Torture, or, "I love the smell of White Shoulders in the morning."
In David Adjmi
’s Elective Affinities
, a resplendent Zoe Caldwell
as Mrs. Alice Hauptmann welcomes guests into a beautifully appointed parlor as a Chanel-clad spider might a fan club of flies. It's not merely a show but an afternoon tea
, gorgeously produced by Soho Rep
, piece by piece
, and Rising Phoenix Rep
. It was absolutely one of the highest lights of my 2011.
‘Staged’ in a brownstone on the Upper East Side, this is sight-specific performance at its most intimate. There was some wonderful, powerful, alternatively-spaced stuff this year - The Tenant
and Sleep No More
especially. Complete with Earl Grey and candied ginger, Elective Affinities
appears on the more naturalistic side of that spectrum, delightfully so.
Alice’s house is gorgeous, of course. Crystal. Lilies. Nineteenth century portraiture and an appropriately somber staff to take your coat and serve your tea. You’re also greeted by an enormous abstract sculpture, black and roiling, that I’d liken to a giant lava foot. It dominates a mahogany-paneled living room, dwarfing a marble fireplace and a grand piano. From the start, the whole thing is at once lovely and sinister. I was all in.
Upstairs we were greeted, one at a time, by Mrs. Hauptmann herself. When it came my turn, she took my hand and leaned in, looking a bit concerned. ‘I don’t know
you,’ she purred. After I’d introduced myself, she proclaimed my surname a very
I’m fascinated by the idea of the savage inside, and how deeply a surface need be scratched to release it. Alice Hauptmann is certainly the picture of gentility. But one need only introduce the subject of government-sanctioned torture (or a bit of Animal Planet, which Alice gleefully proclaims ‘almost pornographic!’) to bring out her inner brute.
David Adjmi’s script is so sly. The way in which his Alice rationalizes brutality, the coolness with which she excuses, even embraces cruelty, sneaks up on you. It’s seductive, and by the time you realize you may share more of Mrs. Hauptmann’s world view than you’d care to admit, it’s too late. You’re pinned. When she rhapsodizes about the moment in which a gazelle gives up to a predator, she may as well be talking about the audience seated about her, well within striking range. Before I knew it, the teeth of Adjmi’s script sank in deep and I was done for. (I wanted to tell him so afterward, but he has such a smile that I turned shy, sure that I’d say something stupid.)
Mrs. Hauptman talks of having resigned herself to a certain fate. Her Germanic husband thinks her monstrous, as does her (possibly alcoholic) friend Dierdre, simply for speaking her mind. She might have you believe that she’s a doyenne in a doll’s house but I think she’s more like the big savannah cats she admires on the television. She’s patient that way, practically welcoming prey to a watering hole she’s secretly stalked for decades. Alice lacquers her nails blood red.
I was so lucky to have seen this piece, and to be there for a closing night toast. Ms. Caldwell spoke movingly about the passion and dedication of the team behind Elective Affinities
, and it was obvious that everyone involved had tremendous love for the project. Hearing her speak, and talking with people from Rising Phoenix and piece by piece, I was inspired by the generosity with which this show was built. This is no-agenda artistry - no one is out to elevate themselves above anyone else. Instead it’s about creating something meaningful, building and sharing something really special. Ms. Caldwell asserts that it’s not really up to us to designate ourselves artists anyway, that it’s not our call to make. The opulence of the surroundings in which she spoke these words pointed up the willingness of a hardworking team of theatre craftsmen to muck in for the greater good of live performance. For me it was humbling and hope-filled. In a year that brought us ego-driven debacles like The Spidish Play
, I say more power to artists
And it is the power of art itself on which Elective Affinities
finally hangs. The play begins and ends with Alice talking about that hulking sculpture she’s commissioned for the second floor. Her husband thinks it’s growing, and Alice has to admit that it does have a certain terrible power. It lurks and looms, always there like a desperate measure, just the other side of a beautifully paneled pocket door. It’s like survival. Whether a Manhattan dowager or a doe in the jaws of lioness, some instincts simply will not be denied.
Alice eventually admits the sculpture is horrible, but asserts that it is art, nonetheless. It is, paradoxically, beautifully cruel. As with war and torture and plays like Elective Affinities
, you can but define your own life in relation to it, and take your lumps.
One or two?
When people ask me what Eightythree Down is about, I give them some version of my ‘elevator speech.’ Something about New Years Eve 1983, a home invasion, sex, violence, “drugs and guns, if you must know.” But I realized this morning that the play is really about family.
I’m just back from a rehearsal retreat with the company of Eightythree Down. We all went up to Lake Lucille and spent a day and a half at a beautiful old country house there. The place has hosted theatre artists going back to the turn of the last century, and you can feel it. There is something in the stonework, in the creak of the stair. I love places like that, the way they make you part of the past even as they point you forward. I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy lately, and I like those rare moments when I feel like I’ve found my place in the ranks.
When you share an emotional process with people, you form fast bonds. It happens in wartime, during disasters, and at rehearsal. Life gets sped up, and what would have taken years to learn is suddenly common knowledge. Drama throws you into the thick of it, creating and then immediately testing the strength of a tribe. The particular dramas a company faces during production often serve as a sort of mirror of the play. Not that anyone at Lake Lucille was trading cocaine for blow jobs, that I know of...
I’m talking about the way a group of near-strangers can so suddenly become family by sharing a meaningful experience, in this case a creative one rather than something destructive. There must be a ton of plays about surrogate families. It’s no wonder really. What’s baffling is that plays that happen in houses are so rarely rehearsed in them. It’s so useful!
So we mocked up our set in a double parlor with pocket doors bisecting the playing space right down the middle. A rough-hewn parson’s table stood in for Martin’s bed. I watched the action from an ottoman that put me very nearly in it. It was amazing to see the cast just fall right into the play despite being in such a different space.
Director Daniel Talbott and the cast worked through the show moment to moment. There was a lot of laughter. (I love watching actors drop suddenly from real-world playfulness to the depths of drama: magic.) New questions came up, ideas were tried, set stuff tested. I added a few fun lines. The sun must have plopped into the lake when I wasn’t looking and it was time for dinner.
Being suddenly together outside of New York City, just as the characters in Eightythree Down are, seemed to infuse the show with something new. The night out there is a deeper dark. Country air is somehow heavier with sex, even as it soothes. And there was the nearness of water, with its dual nature of healing and destruction – a sense that things can go either way. It all seeped in and made for work that was filled with urgency, with danger, as well as with hope. Our after-dinner run-through was like jumping in the lake, plunged all at once in something bracing, mysterious, and a bit scary but alright as long as we were in it together.
There was other work done at Lake Lucille too, during meals, over wine or coffee, while swimming in the lake and sunning on a raft, and during the viewing of a fantastically bad film. Daniel has a really good sense of when a company just needs to be together, sharing space. That’s how family happens.
When I first met with Daniel to talk about this project, we discussed the way the characters in the play had formed a family, dysfunctional as it may be. It was a major topic during early rehearsals too. Drugs will do that, users band together in weird ways. But these characters are also united by each being an outsider somehow. Dina, Martin, Tony, and Stuart would not have come together during the final hour of 1983 were it not for some seriously messed-up stuff. But what they have in common is a need for connection. Soon enough, they’re bound in much the same way as blood relations would be. Shared experience makes for collective consequence. What would have been separate lives are forever intertwined.
Of course, the company members mounting this little monster of a show treat one another much better than do the play’s characters. It’s important that when you’re dealing with subject matter this potentially dangerous, both emotionally and physically, that everyone looks out and mucks in. As the action of the show has gone deeper into ugliness and desperation, the company has grown closer and kinder. It’s a subtle thing, tribe. It’s funny how family sneaks up on you.
Having met only weeks ago we can already go from bedlam to burgers like it’s nothing. We can sit around a table with everyone talking at once, or fall effortlessly into a collective silence. We tease each other mercilessly. We share secrets. We beat each other up a while, and then we bake pies. Family.
And if there was any doubt of it, they call me Daddy.
I’m into it. Eightythree Down opens September 1st at Under Saint Marks in NYC’s East Village. For tickets visits www.SmartTix.com
Photos by Evan Caccioppoli
I’ve been thinking a lot about ensemble lately: what makes a company, why I want to be in one, and why I feel compelled to write for one. It’s a wondrous thing to behold, the coming together of one-time strangers for the common goal of making cool theatre. And when it happens to you, when you find yourself inside a tight-knit group of dedicated artists, it’s such a gift. For two delightful hours this past Saturday afternoon, I was treated to some beautiful work by what seemed to me a true ensemble. It was Boomerang Theatre’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, staged by Daniel Talbott in Central Park. Daniel has worked on something like seven hundred and fifty different shows since the start of this calendar year, and there’s little sign of his slowing down any time soon. He's a dynamo and his energy seems to be infectious. His Much Ado is intensely physical, joyously so, with a big enthusiastic cast running, leaping, dancing on and about a stone outcropping near the park’s West 69th Street entrance. There is something so very New York about Shakespeare in Central Park, no matter who’s doing it. I’ve seen a number of companies Park the Bard over the past twenty years, but this one is definitely among my all-time favorites. I think I loved watching it because the actors loved doing it. It’s truly an ensemble show – maybe all good shows are? – but I’m going to single out a couple of my favorite players. I loved seeing Nate Miller (Benedick) and Laura Ramadei (Hero) fresh from their run in Lesser America’s Squealer, where their characters could not have been more different than those in Much Ado. As an actor myself, I sometimes cringe when people remark on my being able to play, you know, different characters. As in, during Slap & Tickle, “You were like all feminine as the feminine character, and then, when you were the masculine guy, you were like really masculine!” Yeah, it’s my job. And yet, from the other side of the footlights - or in this case, a row of brightly colored plastic flowers – it is rather astonishing to see Miller and Ramadei go from Squealer’s modern mid-America to Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century Sicily so fully and so freely. They’re both so good. Another one I like is Edward Carnavale. I saw him in a Cino Nights production of Emily DeVoti’s unforgettable play The Upstart. In that one, he gave a really dynamic and complex performance as a rough, racist Brooklyn butcher. In Much Ado he's constable Dogberry’s slapstick sidekick Verges, complete with a duck call. He and Colby Chambers are really comical. And Sara Thigpen is great as smack-talking Beatrice. She’s tough and beautiful all at once, and her performance is not only funny but ultimately really moving. Actually, that was the great surprise in this comedy. It was so emotional, so deeply romantic. In fact, at one point, I had the sort of response I’d more likely expect from a Shakespearian tragedy. I totally teared up watching the Hero’s wedding fall apart when Claudio accuses her of being unchaste. It was actually very much because of what Jelena Stupljanin was doing in that scene, and not with any spoken dialogue. Watching her response to what was unfolding before her was just heartbreaking. It was all so…connected. And maybe that’s what company means. It is connection we’re looking for, as artists, as audiences, as human beings. So it’s no wonder that everyone with a BFA in Acting wants to start a troupe. It’s no wonder that so many of us, myself included, belong to multiple companies. One of those companies is TOSOS, with whom I’ve had the recent pleasure of performing Doric Wilson’s Street Theatre. Some of my cast mates have been doing the show in one form or another since 1983. This year’s Gay Pride performance at the LGBT Centre was my first time as NYPD vice cop Seymour. Doric had asked me to do it last year but I was off with another show. A couple weeks before he died, at a PBS broadcast of Stonewall Uprising, I promised him that this year I'd do it. I’d only known Doric a couple years, and we’d only recently become friends. I was fortunate enough to be in readings of his A Perfect Relationship and The West Street Gang. My experience is that there is something in Doric’s work that inspires an irresistible spirit of cooperation among artists. Maybe it’s because he so often writes about groups of disparate (and desperate) individuals coming together for a common cause. Maybe it’s because as artists, gay or straight, we can strongly identify with being up against it. Whatever it is, I felt it in a major way last Thursday night at the Centre. I did not expect be so moved – after all, I’m the villain in the piece. But I was deeply stirred and so inspired by the generosity of spirit of the actors around me. Many of us had had only had a few rehearsals together. Some had never done a full run of the show. But we were very much united in the spirit of the play. Everyone agreed that something special happened this year. No one expressed a wish that Doric had been around to witness it. We all knew he had. That night after Stonewall Uprising, Doric and I shared a cab downtown. We talked about Stonewall and civil rights. We talked about all the notable homos he’d slept with. (Hollywood A-list and European royalty, if you must know.) And I confessed my not-so-secret fetish for redheads. By the time I got home, he’d emailed me a photo of himself taken in 1967 with a head full of ginger curls. And a dirty caption. Knowing Doric made me feel like I was part of an extraordinary ensemble of artists, gay and straight, whose revolutionary work had spanned decades. He made me feel that I was connected to a legacy, and I am deeply grateful to him for that. Knowing Doric Wilson, however briefly, put me in very good company indeed. Tonight we did an excerpt from Street Theatre for the Spirit Of Pride Celebration at St. John The Divine. I’m not sure how well it went over. Something about gothic architecture makes stuff less funny. But watching Chris Andersson and Michael Lynch work the sanctuary as drag queens Ceil and Boom Boom made me realize how right it was that we were doing queer theatre in a church. As the dean of the Cathedral said in his opening remarks, pride is not just one of the seven deadly sins. It is also that which brings us together to fight for human dignity. Being prideful can be, in the face of injustice, an act of true faith. Taking part in tonight’s event, along with my fellow actors Andersson and Lynch, Christopher Borg, and Bradley Wells, I felt truly proud. I hope the actors in Boomerang’s Much Ado About Nothing feel proud too. I hope they know how fortunate they are. I think it’s really important that actors, and all theatre artists, take a moment now and again to recognize that what we do is nothing short of miraculous. How beautiful it is to be in the business of creation. Much Ado About Nothing continues in Central Park on weekends at 2pm through July 17th. I recommend bringing a blanket as the patch of park where the audience sits is rather spare of grass. And do bring a few bucks to toss in the Boomerang’s hat after the show. Free Shakespeare in the Park really isn’t. It costs these artists more than you might think to bring you such high quality work for no charge.Of course, it takes an audience to complete an ensemble. I don't see nearly as much theatre as I want to. I'm going to try to remedy that this summer. I will look forward to seeing you there!JSB