Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Play a Day: The Guilt Mongers or Los Traficantes de Culpa (for those not willing to submit to the Anglicization of our people)

J. Julian Christopher
For Wednesday I read The Guilt Mongers or Los Traficantes de Culpa (for those not willing to submit to the Anglicization of our people) by J. Julian Christopher, and available at New Play Exchange.

This is one of my favorite play titles ever. Because every classic play should have this title. Death of a Salesman could have been called The Guilt Mongers. Hamlet could have been called The Guilt Mongers. Or Oedipus the King.

Those are great plays. So is The Guilt Mongers.

A deathbed family drama, people who choose to spend as little time in each other's presence as possible are pulled together for the final moments of the head of the family; she who is mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, wife, all. No one is terribly glad to see each other.

"You are on some self-loathing shit," comments a nurse, which could be said about almost any one of them. They bounce off each other like satellites, their pain is played in the open, bitterness graced with tremendous humor, with that love and need for acceptance and forgiveness that rides just beneath the surface, even in the most congenial of families (like mine, I guess.)

The release that comes when the moment has passed, it can't be called happiness, and even relief doesn't sound right. But it is a familiar feeling and through his words and characters Christopher communicates this moment of exhalation with rightness and compassion.

Technology can be a beautiful thing. As I was reaching the conclusion, a character plays music on their phone, and without really thinking about it I found the piece on YouTube and started to play that music.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Play a Day: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (BONUS)

Cleveland Play House
This week, in addition to reading a lot of plays, I am seeing a lot of plays. Tonight I took my daughter to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Cleveland Play House.

The 2002 film Spellbound (no association) is a documentary about the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Featured are the personal stories of the participants, who you might imagine from their achievement were not typical young people. In addition to having above-average intelligence and mental acuity, several are first- or second-generation immigrants. It is a very moving film, and was even nominated for an Academy-Award.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee premiered in 2005, following a trend started by Urinetown for Broadway producers to take risks on "quirky" material that used to get no further than Off-Broadway, like Avenue Q and Spamalot.

When I first heard about the concept, developed so soon after the aforementioned film, I was concerned. Spellbound is a celebration of difference, surely a musical comedy would be about mocking difference. And I'm not entirely wrong. Ha ha, one of these spelling bee participants has two daddies! One is an entirely unselfconscious, home-schooled savant! One is (really?) an over-achieving Asian-American!

Last year we took the kids to the all-girls school, where the wife is an English teacher, for their production. I was delighted by the performances, enjoyed the songs, and generally brought around to the musical. This musical, too, is a celebration of difference. I think. Only it has jokes.

(Right: Pre-show fun in the lobby. She got “comedy.” I got “cymotrichous.”)

The production at Cleveland Play House features a diverse company, and this plays to the show's current strength and popularity, in high schools (where "Chip's Lament" is often performed with lyrics altered without permission,) amateur and professional houses. It's a modern musical which reflects contemporary Middle-American society. Yes, it pokes fun. But it does not judge. And ultimately it's an empowering story about kids deciding how they are going to fit in the world.

Cleveland Play House presents "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in the Allen Theatre through May 6, 2018.

Play a Day: Neighborhood Watch

Rehana Lew Mirza
For Tuesday I read Neighborhood Watch by Rehana Lew Mirza, and available at New Play Exchange.

The other day, the news went around that the Parkland shooter wants to donate his $800,000 inheritance to the survivors.

And I thought, huh. A white trust fund baby murdered seventeen people, and he was taken into custody alive. That would never have happened to a person of color.

Mirza's play is hilarious, she is an extremely talented writer who has tremendous skill with knowing, witty dialogue. The piece plays like a sit-com, featuring a put-upon young woman who has a walking Dad Joke for a father and a hapless, conspiracy nut for a neighbor. But when a Muslim moves in next door, look out -- hilarity ensues!

Until it doesn't. When a gun is introduced in the second act, I was praying that, contrary to theatrical convention, it would not go off. But that's not to world we currently live in, and just hoping for a happy ending will never bridge this divide.

This is what makes Mirza's work meaningful and relevant, highlighting daily microaggressions and compassionate lip-service with humor, and also exposing underlying fear and mistrust with cunning and clarity. She makes us uncomfortable and complicit, and it's brilliant.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Play a Day: Making Some Noise

Claudia Haas
For Monday I read Making Some Noise by Claudia Haas, and available at New Play Exchange.

My wife happened to have a late-afternoon therapy appointment schedule on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Suddenly remembering the date, she called to see if the office was open, and it was. She asked if it were appropriate to keep the appointment, and her therapist said something about it never being more appropriate. I was invited to join them.

Her therapist told us on that day that trauma can reintroduce trauma. That great, communal tragedy can tear open the horror of personal, intimate tragedy. We had lost our first child in March, and now this. We were told it was okay, that it was normal if we associated the two. It was a most horrible year, except for everything that was wonderful about it.

Wonderful because of us, because of what we did to survive, because of the openness of our grieving, because we had each other and our love grew stronger. The loss of a child can tear a family apart, or it can bring them closer together. Each year on his birthday we celebrate. Our children are in on it. It means a day off from school, a visit to the zoo, a special dinner. Time together as family.

But that other thing, 9/11. Our personal association with a global tragedy. Too massive to properly comprehend. There was a period, maybe ten years ago, when I became just a little obsessed with the events of that day. I read books, watched movies. I don't know what I was searching for. I think I decided there was no greater meaning or significance. Just memory. Recovering memory.

Haas has created a trio of sisters whose mother perished in one of the towers. They were teens or pre-teens on that day, and have since created a ritual of remembrance and grief. Each copes with the trauma of their mother's death in different ways, fetishization, obsession, denial. but as adult women come together to remember. The question on the table is how long must we grieve? And even now, what is appropriate?

Spending time with these women, even as they wrestled with the point of their annual, self-made holiday, I was happy for them because whatever their disagreements might be, this day brought them together under one roof. To make some noise. Eoui, eoui, eoui!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Play a Day: Through Andrew's Eyes

Oscar Cabrera
For Sunday I read Through Andrew's Eyes by Oscar Cabrera, and available at New Play Exchange.

We were told that the death of a child can pull a family together or they can tear a family apart. I have found this to be true, but I do not imagine it is limited to any specific tragedy or crisis. The same can be said of the debilitating injury of a loved one, or as is the subject of Cabrera's play, the set of crises and constant concern and care evident when a member of your family is on the autistic spectrum.

The point is, nothing is the same. Nothing is normal. No one is spared change. A mother's pleasant dream is not just one in which her son is what we might call "normal" but that she is. That her life is again "normal."

Cabrera creates a family in a sympathetic hierarchy -- the younger sister, straining to be responsible, the older brother, who desperately wishes to abdicate his responsibility, the careworn mother, who has no choice but to be overbearing and firm -- all in the service of Andrew. We see him as he sees himself in the form of Person, who finds his other self as unknowable as those others around him.

Powerfully symbolic with graceful monologues on the indelible yet inconstant effects of memory, this is an affecting work on the enduring strength of familial commitment and love.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Play a Day: The Volunteer

Cassandra Rose
Fourteen days, fourteen plays! We are almost halfway through the month, and I feel we have barely gotten started. My list of recommendations is so long, many thanks to those who have made suggestions. I may even get to all of them, if not in April, then soon.

For Saturday I read The Volunteer by Cassandra Rose, and available at New Play Exchange.

Children, gather round, and let me tell you about that far-off and mythical land, about the leader with the famous face.

Stories about the Cold War have become the stuff of myth, fantasy, and popular culture. Stranger Things, The Shape of Water, The Americans. My childhood as a quaint, charming period onto which we may ask ourselves unpleasant but merely theoretical questions about the world today.

Nine days ago I quoted the President, who said in regards to Syria, "I want to get out." Last night he ordered airstrikes on that country. Admittedly, they were intended to be feign strength and power while at the same time not offend his handlers in Russia. Still, people were killed. We won't know who they are, their lives, their names.

The Volunteer begins as a "thought experiment" inspired by an op-ed piece which posed a simple question; what if the President had to murder someone with their bare hands in order to retrieve codes to launch a nuclear strike? Playwright Rose has a knack for witty dialogue, but she also knows how to make a strong, convincing argument. At first presentational and satiric, the narrative deftly morphs into an affecting drama with real-world parallels and consequences, at once mythic and intimate. I love plays like this.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Play a Day: Calling Puerto Rico

Juan Ramirez, Jr.
For Friday I read Calling Puerto Rico by Juan Ramirez, Jr., and available at New Play Exchange.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico. Six months after, more than 100,000 people remain without power.

Remember when an enormous natural disaster struck the United States and the American President did absolutely nothing? Lobbed paper towels? You would think that would be a national outrage. And yet, here we are. Talking about porn stars.

The fact that the name Donald J. Trump, or any reference to him or his position, never comes up with Ramirez's play shows remarkable restraint and focus. Because it's not about that guy.

One of the best ways, sometimes to only way, to comprehend an epic tragedy is to concentrate on one compelling, intimate story. Joel is a ham radio operator in the Bronx, his grandfather in Puerto Rico. Their relationship is strained (neither will step foot out of their home) but Joel's relationship with everyone is strained, the only person with whom he can speak easily is a woman who sails two hundred miles over his head every ninety minutes, in the International Space Station.

Ramirez elegantly paints a picture of isolation and despair, with pathos and humor, never forgetting that there are always those around us, some we cannot see and pretend not to see, who want to help us when we are in need.

You can send assistance today through the Hispanic Federation and UNIDOS, a disaster relief and recovery program to support Puerto Rico.