So first off I want you to know that I’m aware it isn’t the second week of 2014.
I have been reading a play a week. I’ve just been a little backlogged in getting thoughts about them onto (virtual) paper. And I say this mostly because I am super judge-y of folks that start grand resolutions and barely complete the opening stages. And because I assume everyone in outside world is the same as the voices in my mind, I want to appease your judgments.
Clearly, there are times it’s a dark place in my brain.
For the second week of the year 2014 I read The Play About My Dad by Boo Kellebrew. For the uninitiated, a reminder that I’m intentionally not reviewing these works (you can read about why here) but instead free associating on the theatrical elements or ideas this play proposes or makes me think on.
The Play About My Dad is indeed, as the title suggests a play about the playwright and her father. It is also about Hurricane Katrina and the way in which we think about epic disaster on both the very small and personal and very large and overwhelming scales. The piece weaves past and present by jumping between conversations between the playwright and her father, ostensibly writing the play for the audience in this moment in front of us and three other perspectives on Long Beach Mississippi, a town very close to the Gulf and massively affected by the storm. The three other stories center around Essie – a woman who raised Larry (playwright Boo’s father), Neil and Kenny – a pair of EMTs who knew the family when Boo was young, and Rena, Jay and Michael – a family who are caught literally and figuratively over their heads when they try to ride out the storm and who meet Larry (a doctor) when they arrive at a local hospital.
Unlike the play from week 1, this piece is satisfyingly messy in lots of ways and doesn’t wrap up storylines in neat packages. There are little bits scattered through the play – the rift between Essie and her daughter – in which the playwright hints at connections between these characters and the turbulent relationship between the playwright and her father. The show is clearly a metaphor, but an incomplete one, one that seems not wholly processed or understood. I liked this about the work, that like most of us, our deepest interpersonal relationships are not ones that we often have completely sorted out and that this complexity is brought into sharp focus most when we are confronted with extreme calamity.
From the moment it begins there is a meta device at play in this play, one in which the playwright’s father is supposedly speaking to the audience. We hear “Boo” (the playwright’s same name) tell her father to stop putting on his “acting” voice. Later the same character points out the theatrical devices (changing lights to indicate shifts in time) that underpin the staging. “What a funny thing,” I thought as I read, “to draw my attention to the insincerity inherent in acting by one who is in fact acting and therefore inherently insincere themselves.” I looked up the show’s past production to note that in fact the performer was not the playwright’s father (nor did the playwright appear onstage) a fact the audience would ostensible know. It requires a fair amount of mental calculus I think to ask us to become aware to some aspects of the “falseness” while still blissfully suspending our disbelief for others.
This theater trick, one that happens a lot, falls under a category I call: The Betrayal of Fiona Shaw. A while back I saw her at BAM in Rime of The Ancient Mariner. At the start of the piece Ms. Shaw emerges from the wings in a track suit and tennis shoes. She walks out into the house and begins to talk with people one on one. Some are clearly friends she knows, others are strangers she greets and chit chats with. It was literally electric in its effect on the audience. It was one of the most amazing moments of theater I’ve seen in recent memory. She began to bring up men to the stage, one at a time, to try on a hat and strike a pose, ostensibly to take a small part in the story she was about to enact. Her simple presence, us knowing who she was and the fact that she was out among us made the entire room focus their attention like lasers on her. Small children’s arms almost pulled out of their sockets as they vied for a moment onstage. Men around me furtively chatted with their wives about whether they ought to throw themselves into the selection pool. It was fabulous.
And then. And then. And then.
And then Ms. Shaw brings up a guy with a super fake looking trench coat. He clearly has never worn such a coat in real life. She goes through the same motions but this time there’s something awfully rehearsed abut the proceedings. All of the energy and immediacy is gone. I notice he has dance shoes on. I look in the program and I can see there is a second performer in the picture of the show. And he looks exactly like this guy. Back in the performance she pretends as if she is dissatisfied and has him sit, not back in his seat, but in the front row while she selects a few more.
This, what I can now see is a charade, enrages me. All the things that I loved about the moment before now seem fake and tainted. I feel as if I have been tricked and I want to expose the trickster for doing so. So when, as I knew would happen, she goes back to the young dancer man with the shoes and the bad coat, I am nothing but smugly disappointed that I knew the whole thing was a lie.
This is the Betrayal of Fiona Shaw.
It isn’t that theater requires me to pretend. It’s that you take advantage of that generous instinct when you expose or undercut the fantasy with such antics but then require me not to go too far. Get me to think that I might get to be a part of the stage show, then make me feel foolish for have invested the energy to believe I could be in it.
Ms. Shaw’s Betrayal made me want to point out that I know that the actor playing Larry is not actually Boo’s father, nor is Boo actually Boo. Would it be impossible to truly put that person onstage? Maybe… There is something compelling about a “non-actor” (as one sees in some characters in a Wes Anderson movie or a piece like Beasts of the Southern Wild). As a group we discussed what it would be like in a play like this to work with the actual father, discussed the trickiness of this, because unlike a movie you not only have to pull this moment out of someone but get them to do so consistently, over and over again, that this is the endurance power that a theater maker needs. We settled on a wish for another layer for the work that says “I’m not actually the father but I’m going to act as if I am.”
What is barely indicated in the play is sound, a recurring fascination of mine, an element I think would also change this work intensely. I hear the sound of the storm as I read this play and I imagine it coming from everywhere. Again like the previous week’s play, the sense of the rhythm of this world as created by sound that surrounds the space, makes it more than a disengaged visual and binds the bodies of the viewers into the space. Unlike the previous week, the sounds of this world seems to need to be human sized and I kept hearing a chorus of voices rising and falling in layers of sound beds as the piece continued. In this vein, I love the idea of a performance in a place that was as anti-theatrical as the instinct to put the father onstage, to expose the workings. Perhaps it is a room where we see all of the things that make the play happen, capitalize on the power of theater to transform the pedestrian into the magical. Or perhaps we are in a space where there are dark corners and things that can hide unseeable but in plain view. Either way it feels like entrances from wings and “offstage” undercuts the feeling that all of this is happening right now around and among us, that there is no escaping and that we as the audience, just as the characters are bound to ride out this experience until its end. There are no places we can escape here.
Throughout the reading of it, this work made me think about the texture of water. Its undulating, slow amassing, its pelting cold, its fetid stagnation. Water is everywhere in this play – both in the imaginations of the characters and increasingly surrounding them as the story continues – and as a stager of plays I kept thinking, “In performance what would be more powerful if that presence were real or implied?” For the pair of EMTs stuck in an ambulance marking the level as it slowly raises around them, I really really wanted to see and feel real water. And contrastingly, with the family stuck in their attack, I wanted just the opposite – water that is implied through light, through sound, a presence that is ominous and lurking, but never actually visible.
There is something delicious about water in a theater space, an element that feels simultaneously alive and inhuman, one that is so incredibly un-controllable. Its presence en masse seems almost decadent. Why else do we coo at the thought of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses in a pool? It feels like some of the purest kind of spectacle, almost cheap in its ease at satisfying our craving for theatrical effect. While discussing this play I came across a company that created a silent version of The Tempest for DC-based Synetic Theater.
Try and tell me that without the water that production looks half as interesting. In college, I created my first devised work on the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone. It was one from the Zimmerman Metamorphoses actually and tiny Adrienne was so hungry to create in her own rehearsal room the lush grandeur that I saw in that production (three times, no less). In performance one of the buckets of water that we had placed onstage slipped out of the performer’s hands and covered the theater floor in an inch of standing water. The scenes that followed – one lover fighting another not to leave, a god destroying a tiny boat as its occupant’s families watched, the transformation of a sail into the giant wings of a bird – were all utterly transformed as water clung to the bodies and fabric. It was the moment I learned that as creators we must must must accept our lucky accidents. That we must be open to creative gifts that we haven’t planned. It elevated the thing I was trying to tell in a way I didn’t know I absolutely needed.
But I also wonder if that kind of clear and poetic and beautiful water is the same water of Kellebrew’s play. The kind of water in these pictures does indeed seem somewhat cruel but it is also achingly lovely. It, like a Baudelaire poem, is an image whose savagery is blunted by its beauty. And so perhaps to give us that poetic water is an easy out, a way to shield us from the real horror of such an experience. The other thing that I felt so intensely in this work is the suspense of waiting. Early on in the play, the semi-omniscient Kenny reveals that today is the day that he and Neil will die. In another space, this could be maudlin or silly, but here it truly sets the tone of anticipation. Of the sense that one’s outcome is determined and all that is left now that the wheels are in motion is to wait and wait and wait. So I wonder if the staging, like the play, doesn’t also require us to wait for that water, to want to feel its beauty at the same time we fear its power and perhaps, as Essie is released near the end, to use that loveliness when we need it most: in the midst of our most difficult moments, when we need to create poetry out of the depths of our despair.
And I think that’s about it for this one. Week three soon to come!
And if you want a little bit more info about the playwright you can get her bio from her company CTown here: http://www.collaborationtown.org/whos-who.html