Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Seagull (2001)

Natalie Portman & Philip Seymour Hoffman
(The Public Theatre)
August, 2001. We were in New York City. My wife’s play Angst:84, following a rousing premiere at Dobama’s Night Kitchen, was being presented at the fifth annual New York International Fringe Festival.

Angst:84 is a satirical adaptation of Orwell’s classic 1984, reimagined to take place in an oppressive suburban high school in the actual year 1984. Requiring a company of fourteen, most of the cast were actual teenagers, or in their early 20s. A skeleton crew of techies (myself included, running sound) brought the entire team to around twenty.

Remounting and presenting the show (which included a bank of actual lockers, schlepped all the way from Ohio) was a labor-intensive event. Just raising funds before we left and rehearsing the show in the Dobama space took up a great deal of time during the summer, which was a welcome distraction for my wife and I, who were only just beginning to recover from losing our first child that March.

Once the production was under way in the Present Company space on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side (since demolished, now high-end apartments) we had time to unwind, and roam the city. I passed on an invitation to see the Twin Towers, a decision I have come to regret.

The "Angst:84" company in front of the Present Company.
Some hit TKTS for Broadway shows. I saw sixteen different fringe performances, sometimes entirely on my own. My wife and I wanted to try and get seats for The Seagull, produced by the Public Theatre in Central Park. We had exactly and only two days, back-to-back in which we had no performances, and we would need them in order to see this show.

Normally, as we had that June when we had seen Billy Crudup and Joe Morton in Measure for Measure at the Delacorte, you might need to show up before breakfast to wait in line for the free tickets they handed out around lunch.

But the line for The Seagull started the afternoon before, as soon as that day’s tickets were gone. Because every single artist in the production was a headliner. It didn’t just star Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, though that would have been enough. It was directed by Mike Nichols, working with a new translation by Tom Stoppard, and also featured Christopher Walken, John Goodman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden, Stephen Spinella, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin. This was to be a legendary production. And the tickets were free.

Reading in line.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin. Philip Seymour Hoffman was Konstantin.

The wife and I put out the call that we intended to wait in line, all night, for these tickets. We thought perhaps a few would join us, but seriously, that might sound a little ominous, spending the night in Central Park. Or possibly tedious. But these were teenagers, young adults. The entire company showed up, around 4 PM on a Wednesday, to wait for tickets to see a show on Thursday night.

There were already about a hundred people in line at 4 PM. We’d brought blankets, pillows, folding chairs, and picnic dinners. There were more than twenty of us, as several had New York area friends join in.

Central Park after dark.
We took turns, sitting and wandering the park. Sun began to set as that evening’s performance began. A group of us walked by Belvedere Castle and the lower reservoir which provides the backdrop for the performance, behind the stage for the Delacorte, and watched the performance from there. We walked the Ramble, and visited Strawberry Fields after dusk.

We exited the park, picked up a small bag of groceries, and reentered the park around West 81st Street. The play had ended, crowds were streaming out. As we approached the theater, a gaunt, six-foot man with a beard, sixtyish, wearing a tight black T-shirt and jeans strode past us with great purpose (and a briefcase.) Just as he passed, I realized it was Christopher Walken.

In the gutter on CPW.
It was a perfect summer evening. In the past they used to hand out the tickets a couple hours before curtain, instead of at noon, and in 1990 some of us waited to see Denzel Washington in Richard III. It was a hot day, bright with sun, but between five and eight the clouds rolled in and the show was rained out. This night was balmy and warm -- it was a hot fringe festival that year -- cooling off only slightly as the sun went down.

Once upon a time, waiting in line all night would have been uneventful. But Rudy Giuliani was mayor, and park hours were strictly enforced. We knew this going in, but weren’t sure exactly how that would work. As we understood it, the entire line would be made to relocate to Central Park West for the hours of 1 AM to 6 AM, when the park was closed to the public.

For better or for worse, there was a team of line enforcers, NYC theater patrons who were particularly enthusiastic about catching and shaming line-jumpers. A few hours before midnight, they went down the line creating a list of everyone on line. They were fierce, announcing that though they had no association with the park, the theater or the city, once the line returned to the park they would use this list to check for line-jumpers.

This also happened.
Whatever. Sure enough at 1 AM the NYPD politely (yes) told the line we had to leave the park. We did our best to maintain our relative place in line, those of us who had actually fallen asleep groggily staggering out to the cobblestones of CPW. I actually did try to fall asleep there, for a few moments, lying on the sidewalk, around West 82nd Street, the streetlights creating something like sun. But mostly we sat up and talked and played card games. Some even played guitar.

Settling back into the park after dawn, the line patrol came through with their list. There were a few altercations but nothing serious, not where we were sitting. The wait from then until noon may have been the most tedious, excitable teenagers (and me) finally succumbing to exhaustion and getting a few winks in, beneath the trees. There were also bagels. We finally got our tickets and went our separate ways for the afternoon, many of us to get some real sleep.

What can I say about the performance? There are indelible moments, pictures in my mind which I will never forget. There was a second or two, deep into the first act … Kevin Kline (as the famous author Trigorin) had been on stage for perhaps twenty minutes, and I was momentarily, mentally pulled out of the performance, thinking how I had seen this man in numerous movies, but that I had never before seen him exist in real space and time, not without close-ups or edits. He was just there.

Breakfast en plein air.
That moment Trigorin (Kline) and the actress Arkadina (Meryl Streep) share a passionate kiss on the floor, which he deftly breaks, fluidly rolling over, pulling a notebook and pencil from his vest to make a note. The then-twenty year-old Natalie Portman as the aspiring actress Nina, upon securing a promise from the famous, older writer, executing a neat, bubbly pirouette, like a bird-hop, unable to contain her excitement. Meryl Streep did a cartwheel.

And Hoffman as Konstantin, a man doomed as a writer and a lover, who in this production controversially shot himself on-stage (rather than, as indicated by the Chekhov’s stage directions, off) facing upstage, toward the reservoir, seated in a high-backed chair, the stain bleeding through during the play’s final moments.

That ending, so startling and disorienting, it was hard to believe the play was over. The applause was grand but strange.

Playwright in sunglasses (center).
And so, our adventure concluded, we exited the house. Some wanted to try and catch some stars -- the very location of the theater makes it impossible for actors to jump in a car and speed away, like Walken the night before, they had to leave on foot. Or, in the case of Marcia Gay Harden, wearing a bicycle helmet. She was very generous with her time, talking to several admirers. My wife and I held back from our crowd; I try to leave people I don’t actually know alone unless I really have something I want to ask or tell them.

A small number of us were decided where we would go next, to decompress, hopefully with dessert. John Goodman (who is, in fact, very large) walked past, and one of our team, Brian (he said I can tell this story) was overcome with excitement and took off down the path to have words with the famous actor.

We watched from a distance as our colleague said a few enthusiastic words to Goodman. Goodman gave our friend a strange smirk before turning away abruptly and walking into the dark. Brian returned, shaking his head. “That was weird,” our friend said. “I told him how great the show was and he just kind of blew me off.”

Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline
(The Public Theatre)
Oh, well, we said. Actors. Half a dozen or so of us decided to head a few blocks west to Cafe Lalo. I hadn’t been there in over five years, I had fond memories of hanging out there for hours, writing, while my wife (we had only just started dating in the mid-90s) worked her shift at Shakespeare & Co. Two sites for two Meg Ryan movies. Weird.

Anyway, pastry and coffee and conversation when all of a sudden Brian, he who accosted John Goodman, shook his head, dazed and gasped, “Oh, my GOD!

“I said to John Goodman, ‘I just saw the show -- tell Kevin Kline he was amazing!’”

"Angst:84" by Toni K. Thayer is available from Heartland Plays, Inc.

"The Seagull" a new film adaptation starring Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan, directed by Michael Mayer, with a screenplay by Stephen Karam, opens June 15, 2018.

Many thanks to Heather Stout Nebeker for the Central Park photos!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (rehearsal)

Cressida & Troilus
(Hannah Woodside & Brinden Harvey)
Tonight we ran through the first seven scenes of the play. There are eighteen scenes in this production, but even that’s arbitrary, the final four scenes all run into each other, battle scenes, scenes of chaos and death.

These first seven scenes constitute the first half, setting up the conflict which will end tragically in the second. I’d call it a farce, except for all of the sorrow, unhappiness and death. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, however, which is front-ended with dancing and fighting, followed by two hours of self-pitying wailing, this show holds the best violence for the second half, and at the end, and there’s dance all over the place. There will also be singing.

So, to the point. Here we are, a month from opening, and we have roughly staged the first half! I hope to have the entire thing blocked by Memorial Day.

I love this process, and we have a great team. It’s challenging to co-parent and direct in the evening, that’s really why I don’t do it that often. It is the end of the school year, which means concert and other special, end-of-year events. On those evenings, Cat and Leilani choreograph dance, or Kelly and Josh the fighting.

Troilus & Cressida takes place during the Trojan War. Through necessity and for creative reasons, this adaptation will be contemporary, or nearly so. Dressing everyone in armor, providing all swords, staging grand, one-on-one battle scenes. These things are prohibitive.

Also, we have an opportunity, devising a ninety-minute abridgment of what could easily be a four-hour play, to draw focus to the universal realities of conflict and war, to literally display how yesterday is not that different from today.

Meeting with our costume designer Jenniver, we have selected a palate of uniform and other pieces which reflect the American conflicts of the past decade. Just tonight I met with Lisa, our sound designer, to discuss brief sound and music possibilities, also culled from the early 2000s (see: Spotify playlist, right.)

As I had described earlier, much of the mythology has been stripped from the next. We are focusing on the men and women who are caught up in the fight, and how decisions made affect the lives and relationships of those people.

That also makes for some pacing issues; eliminated scenes make for certain characters exiting then entering again, almost immediately. This was apparently in editing the script, last night I got to see this in action. Or inaction. We’ll fix it.

We have a month!

Join us for PLAY ON! a benefit for the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival in the Speakeasy at Bier Markt in Ohio City, May 20, 2018.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Family Theater Day (2018)

Lula Del Ray
Yesterday, Google celebrated the work of Georges Méliès with a 360° video, highlighting examples of his films. The craftsmanship that went into those movies is absolutely remarkable. Today’s video animations (like the aforementioned “Google Doodle”) stand atop the shoulders of those giants who relied upon wood and nails and paper and glue, and most important of all -- light.

This weekend at Playhouse Square they are presenting Family Theater Day (formerly the International Children’s Theatre Festival) where Cleveland audiences will have the opportunity to see some amazing professional productions intended for all-ages by companies from around the world.

Lula Del Ray, presented by Manual Cinema (Chicago, IL) is a phenomenal accomplishment, an exquisite animated picture postcard, rich in nostalgia and longing and executed with precision and wonder. I sat with an audience of children from schools across the region at the Connor Palace, and after a few moments of requisite shushing, they sat in absolute silence, enrapt not only by the story but the artistry which was present to the eye.

Using three old school overhead projectors, countless transparencies, a guitar and string trio plus one computer keyboard player, and a couple actors, the company told an a largely wordless saga, projected as shadows onto a large screen.

A teenager, stuck in the desert where he mother manages a satellite array, yearns to visit the big city to see the country duo, The Baden Brothers. Their haunting rendition of the traditional ballad, Lord, Blow The Moon Out, as performed live by these musicians, would have made my teenage heart long to be a part of something bigger.

The Secret Life of Suitcases
The other day I also had the chance to see The Secret Life of Suitcases, created by Ailie Cohen and Lewis Heatherington (Scotland) which is staged like an elaborate gift box or pop-up book; a fairly mundane and muted exterior opens and expands to reveal color and adventure and joy.

Larry is serious about his work and never joins the rest of the office for lunch, until a flying suitcase shows him how much more is out in the world to experience. A duo of puppeteers carry Larry through several journeys utilizing forced perspective, unusual voices, and plentiful droll charm.

The first time I was made aware of this annual event was five years ago, when I was at the very beginning of my enterprise in the writing and creation of plays for child audiences. I am constantly amazed and delighted by the effort and craft companies from all over put into developing stylish and moving productions like these, and they have inspired me in my work.

Bring the family downtown tomorrow, several of the events are ticketed and while others are free. But you don’t even need to bring a child to be captivated by these productions.

Family Theater Day in Playhouse Square is Saturday, May 5, 2018.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Famous History of Troilus and Cressida

Diomedes & Cressida (Troilus at left, seething)
Every three years, by accident is not design. I am contracted by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival to direct one of the Bard’s lesser-performed works. Six years ago that was Henry VIII. In 2015, Timon of Athens. This summer, we will present Troilus and Cressida.

It’s fun. “Oh,” the people say, “I’ve never seen that one!” That’s right. No one has. I mean, they have, there are those that have, but most have not.

We learned of a couple who saw a Shakespeare play on their honeymoon and have made it their mission to see a production of every one of his (to date) thirty-eight acknowledged plays. Three years ago, they traveled from Cincinnati to see my Timon. It was number thirty-four on their list!

The advantage of staging the pieces few know is that I can do whatever I want with them. People would howl if you left “To be or not to be” out of your production of Hamlet. No one would notice if I left out “What is aught, but as ‘tis valued?” though that is a good line, one of the major themes, and I feel not bad at all giving it to a different character to speak.

Troilus and Cressida is lesser tale of the Trojan War, named for the fiery, brief love affair between one of the sons of Priam (Troilus) and the daughter (Cressida) of a Trojan priest and traitor. When, on the urging of the traitor for his daughter to join him on the side of Greece, an exchange is arranged for her and a Trojan prisoner.

The text suggests that Cressida easily takes up with one of the Grecian soldiers, though you could easily imagine she is actually trying to align herself to one who would protect her in a perilous situation. Regardless, Troilus spies their exchanges and assumes the worst.

There are those who believe this play answers the question, “Did Shakespeare believe that Romeo and Juliet would have had a long, faithful life together, had they lived?” That answer is no.

However, that is not all Troilus and Cressida, the play, is about. It’s about all kinds of things, with a mythological weight thanks to a staff of characters including Agamemnon, King of Greeks, Helen, she whose face launched a thousand ships, Cassandra, the clairvoyant and unheeded, Nestor, the ancient and verbose, Priam, king of Troy, and Andromache, his queen.

I have cut all of these characters from this production.

Rather, we will focus in large part on Troilus and Cressida themselves, who are not actually the primary focus of the full-length text, as well as the character of Achilles. War has bogged down. As Ulysses observes, this is due less to the Trojans strength, and more to the laziness, apathy and indulgence of the Greeks, as best reflected in the person of Achilles, who refuses to fight and spends hours in his tent with his lover, Patroclus.

Our production will reflect a modern superpower, one also accused of apathy and indulgence.

Rehearsals begin this weekend, the company largely composed of actors I have never worked with before, or even met before auditions. I am very excited to get started.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Play a Day: Fairfield

Eric Coble
For Monday I read Fairfield by Eric Coble, and available at New Play Exchange.

Two months reading a new play every day, and this is the first time I have presented the work of Eric Coble which is odd because we are friends. I am friends with playwright Eric Coble. Everyone hear that? Me and Eric Coble. Yes.

We met in college, I was completing my fifth year as an undergrad and he began his MFA in Acting at Ohio University so though I think of him as older we are the same age. He stopped acting in 1996, I was the marketing director at Dobama Theatre when he walked on stage for the very last time in Eric Overmyer's Mi Vida Loca. Coble is an excellent actor and I am sorry no one else has the opportunity to see that.

Because he was committed to becoming a playwright! And he has been most prolific and most successful. I had the great good fortune to perform in The Velocity of Autumn opposite Cleveland legend Dorothy Silver at Beck Center in Lakewood, before it moved to the Arena Stage and then Broadway, a production for which Estelle Parson was nominated for a Tony.

The Velocity of Autumn
(Beck Center, 2012)
I am dropping all the names today.

For ten years Eric and I have been colleagues in the Playwrights' Unit at the Cleveland Play House, where I have been blessed to receive Eric's guidance, advice and good humor as I have made my own journey as a professional writer.

I have also had the fortune to experience several of his works in progress, including Fairfield, as well as seeing the CPH premiere production in 2015. In the spirit of #NewDayNewPlay, however, I did re-read it before writing my recommendation!

Fairfield takes place in an inner-ring suburb somewhere in the United States. Except the only city like this one in the United States in Cleveland Heights, a magical fantasyland where an almost equal number of white people and black people (and a not insignificant number of Jewish people) live side-by-side and get into heated arguments about race and racism and yet never actually set fire to anything and we don't leave because we love it here. Except for all the racism.

(Cleveland Play House, 2015)
Eric was a member of our school board when he wrote this play (we both live in Cleveland Heights, the city of great writers) and after the table read I asked if he wasn't concerned about how it might be received. He just gave that carefree smile of his and told me he wasn't running for reelection, anyway.

Coble has an incomparable way of taking difficult contemporary issues to outrageously hilarious extremes, and Fairfield is a classic example of this. He explodes modern conversations about race, while still presenting engaging and (with one obvious exception) sympathetic, well-meaning, occasionally delusional characters who truly want to do the right thing, even if they only help make everything spin more wildly out of control.

As one of the parents whose children attend Fairfield might say, Eric Coble knows how to "use his words."

This month I have been heartened to read thirty great works by thirty tremendous playwrights. So many of them were recommended to me by other playwrights, dedicated individuals who proudly promote each other's work.

I am taking a short break from writing, however, as I concentrate on an outdoor, summer production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Perhaps I will see you there!

Eric Coble is currently developing his new play, "The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus" at the New Visions/New Voices Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Play a Day: Big Nose

Stacy Osei-Kuffour
For Sunday I read Big Nose by Stacy Osei-Kuffour, and available at New Play Exchange.

An immigrant, a woman who has come from away, from Africa, she will not leave her NYC apartment until she has had the operation to reduce the size of her ever-growing nose.

This script is close to the heart, but the playwright also has such skill with awkward conversations, misunderstandings and malaprops, physical timing and magical absurdity that reading it I kept bursting out laughing. It is hilarious, and also poignant and sweet.

They used to say that in America you could be anything you want, but what do you want do be? Our ideas of beauty and sex are so troubled and messed up, we spend time and money harming ourselves to please others instead of accepting who we truly are.

Tomorrow is the last day of April, and the final day of #NewDayNewPlay. I think I already know what I am reading. It's been an incredible month.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Play a Day: The Oba Asks for a Mountain (BONUS)

Photo: Steve Wagner
Saturday night we had a special family outing; my mom and my brother joined us for The Oba Asks for a Mountain, produced by Talespinner Children's Theatre (TCT).

Written by Gail Nyoka, and directed by my colleague Chennelle Bryant-Harris, Oba is a Nigerian folk tale about an overbearing king, and the subjects who outwit him through teamwork and friendship. It's a charming story which sends a great message of resistance with grace, joy and kindness.

If you've never been to see a show at TCT you really should, and this is an excellent example of one, with plenty of gentle call-and-response, beautiful costumes, and equal parts story, dance, physical humor and song. The set design is always gorgeous, especially the set painting.

Clocking in a little over forty minutes, I think I still hold the record for shortest TCT mainstage production with Adventures In Slumberland.

The Talespinner Children's Theatre production of "The Oba Asks For a Mountain" at Reinberger Auditorium closes tomorrow, Sunday, April 29, 2018.

Play a Day: Living Creatures

Ashley Rose Wellman
For Saturday I read Living Creatures by Ashley Rose Wellman, and available at New Play Exchange.

Having a relationship means risking part of yourself. Having a child means risking all of yourself.

My daughter has a severe peanut allergy. She is smart and diligent, she's fifteen and can care for herself. Always very careful about checking packaging, she doesn't fool around with that. She won't eat any baked good if she doesn't know where it came from.

And yet, things happen.

When my son was less than one year old her had a fall and fractured his skull. I was on watch. It required surgery. He's fine. Scar on the back of his head, when his hair is long you can't even see it.

It didn't have to happen that way. It could have been worse. A fraction of an inch. It could have been debilitating. It could have been fatal.

And before that, we were expecting a baby. Just the two of us, our first child, and he died before he was born. Like that. Things happen.

Having a child means that every day, every moment, is an opportunity to die. The fact that it becomes less fraught as they grow doesn't mean the terror goes away. You just get used to it. It's right there to destroy you if something goes wrong.

Wellman has composed a chilling fable about the helplessness of parenthood. Part ghost story, part aching lament, she taps into the primal fear of child loss, creating a contemporary mythology, not to explain the afterlife, but rather what happens to the living when someone they have put their heart into is gone.

The anxiety, the misery, the bargaining, and the utter impossibility of acceptance, of "closure." We want to believe that one day everything will be okay, that everything will go back to the way it was. But the only way through is forward.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Play a Day: Barceló On The Rocks

Marco Antonio Rodriguez
For Friday I read Barceló On the Rocks by Marco Antonio Rodriguez, a playwright whose work is available at New Play Exchange.
That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder!
- HAM V.i
The first murder, and in Hamlet's case the recent murder of his father by his uncle. The story of the human race is one of continual and constant betrayal, between family members, friends, and lovers.

The baggage that we carry as Americans, the collective weight of cultures without number, many who flee across the border to escape persecution, but end up bringing their oppression with them.

Rodriguez's tale is a memory play of the Dominican Republic, centering on one man who has betrayed as much as he has been betrayed. Caught between nations, abandoning his home and not yet embracing America, he burdens his sons with his shame, disappointment, and sadness.

His script is rich and layered, a tension of regret and fear from the old country haunting the otherwise everyday setting of an apartment in Washington Heights. The final moments, of honesty, confession and acceptance, are a welcome release and promise hope for the future.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Play a Day: Provenance

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder
For Thursday I read Provenance by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, and available at New Play Exchange.

Earlier this year I attended an audition and the performer chose as her contemporary piece a monologue I hadn't heard before. When I asked about it, she said it was from The Bone Orchard by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. She'd found it at New Play Exchange. I will read that someday, today I read this instead.
prov·e·nance (ˈprävənəns) n.
the place of origin or earliest known history of something.
"an orange rug of Iranian provenance"
synonyms: origin, source, place of origin; More
- the beginning of something's existence; something's origin.
"they try to understand the whole universe, its provenance and fate" - a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.
"the manuscript has a distinguished provenance"
It is also the name of the restaurant in the Cleveland Museum of Art. My wife and I love to dine in museums. We also love books, though it would be difficult for me to suggest I love books more than she. She has worked in several bookstores, in New York and Cleveland. I visited her in early 1995 when she was working for Shakespeare & Company, the one on West 81st Street, now demolished.

During her shift I sat in Cafe Lalo and wrote my first full-length play, The Vampyres.

She often laments never having become a librarian. But she is an English teacher at an all-girls school, and while that's not the same thing it feels to me like a related thing. Because though there remains great gender disparity in who gets published, the care and maintenance of books, like the care and maintenance of most things, falls to women.

The best bookstores in Cleveland, Appletree, Loganberry, and Mac's Backs, are all owned and operated by women.

Books are bizarre artifacts; finite, as memory goes, but expansive. Pages have writing on both sides, and collapse into a neat package that can hold thousands of words or stories. Paper is impermanent, easily damaged by water or heat. Even so, some last thousands of years. I have books from my childhood, from my parents' childhood. This CD of priceless personal photographs I burned ten years ago is already damaged and worthless.

Wilder's play is not entirely about books, though that is its entry point. Two women with cross-purposes meet in a library, and the reluctant search for a rare book is on. Her crackling dialogue is positively Beckettian, expressing frustration and futility with knowing wit and absurdity. It is a magical tale about the things we keep, the tasks left undone, and the fear of making connection with those best-suited to take the journey with us.

This month I have taken the opportunity to read so many outstanding plays, so many stories, from such a diverse selection of talented and enchanting writers. In Provenance, one of Wilder's character observes that, "stories are meant to be shared." Isn't it so?

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Play a Day: The Fear Out There

Dr. Jodi Van Der Horn-Gibson
For Wednesday I read The Fear Out There by Jodi Van Der Horn-Gibson, and available at New Play Exchange.

Our month of #NewDayNewPlay is almost through! After today, I have only five more plays to read before the end of April. However, the first day of May also marks the beginning of the International Children's Theatre Festival, which has been rebranded as Family Theater Day at Playhouse Square.

During the week leading up the Family Theater Day (Saturday, May 5) there will be matinees for school groups, and often I have the opportunity to see some of those.

The first year I experienced the festival came at just the perfect time, as I was only just beginning my work writing plays for children. I saw several plays from around the globe and had my eyes opened to just how expansive and the palette of shows for young people could be.

Van Der Horn-Gibson's play put me in mind of those works, as the playwright delves into complicated issues which trouble children and which they may not entirely understand, issues of bullying, illness and the death of a parent.

Two children from a blended family, almost ten years difference in age, come into emotional conflict as their needs are at odds with each other. At the same time, each are coping with the unspoken fears that come with being left on their own due to a family crisis, and the fear that dwells beneath the surface. Children do not understand what is and what is not their fault, or under their own control.

Van Der Horn-Gibson tells this story, however, with playfulness, with color and humor, seeing the world through six year-old Jodi's eyes as she explores her backyard with a troupe of unique and diverse imaginary animal friends.

The best children's plays are those which are smart and open-hearted, appealing to an audience of all ages, and this is one of those.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Play a Day: The Return of the Shrew

John Poole
For Tuesday I read The Return of the Shrew by John Poole, and available at New Play Exchange.

In honor of Shakespeare's birthday, this sequel to his The Taming of the Shrew! And don't tell me yesterday was the anniversary of the Bard's birth, they just like to say that because he was christened on April 26, and he died fifty-four years later on April 23, which lends a nice symmetry but isn't a thing that ever actually happens, dying on your birthday (unless you're Cassius, yes, okay) but it could have been yesterday, it could be tomorrow, let's just say it's today.

So! In honor of Shakespeare's birthday, this sequel to his The Taming of the Shrew!

Wait, first, I want to remind everyone I wrote a one-hour prequel to Much Ado About Nothing which is currently available at YouthPLAYS, Double Heart (The Courtship of Beatrice and Benedick), which Time Out New York said has, "beautiful turns of language and a touch of weirdness." A perfect one-hour play for your university, high school, or community theater.

However, though Much Ado is largely prose and Double Heart entirely in verse, Taming of the Shrew is largely verse and Return of the Shrew is largely prose! It is not matter because Poole manages to be faithful to the original and explode its conventions at the same time, and this is welcome news to anyone who finds the original a little hard to take.

Poole has crafted a light and frisky vaudeville, exploring the unseen aftereffects of Katherina's notorious closing speech Utilizing slapstick, groan-worthy puns and absurdly authentic plot devices, he conveys a much more realistic and satisfying approach to love and relationships than is found in Shakespeare's original. A swift and silly sequel -- Huzzah!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Play a Day: Undead Anonymous

Gina Femia
For Monday I read Undead Anonymous by Gina Femia, and available at New Play Exchange.

I've been reading a lot of folk tales from Morocco. Like tales from everywhere, when you read several you begin to pick up themes, storylines and characters which are repeated and reflected across the earth. We're all human, and we tell a lot of the same stories.

However, there are also the regional differences, many of which are the result of religion or landscape. The Moroccan tales have a lot of holes, holes in the earth. People are punished by being thrown down deep holes.

Also, there are the ghouls. We have an idea of what that means in the West, though perhaps not a clear idea because (unless you're from Cleveland) no one really knows what a ghoul is because we've never had a series of books, films or programs about ghouls. So we do not know the rules for ghouls.

My play On the Dark Side of Twilight is all about the rules, the rules for vampires which have evolved over the course of the past two hundred years. The rules are literal; can't walk by day, must drink blood, they sparkle (wait, what?) They are also metaphoric, the vampire symbolizing the fears we have; fear of immigrants, fear of sexuality, fear of addiction.

Femia's play is very funny, and a tremendous performance challenge; a monodrama through which one actor performs all of those attending a support group for "the undead." Through their monologues, memoirs and confessions, they share their fears, disappointments and anger at having been separated from humanity. These lost and lonely people (for monsters are people, too) eloquently describe their situation with wit and passion, each a unique example for the denial and acceptance of illness, addiction, difference in its many forms.

We all strive for acceptance, from each other and from ourselves, and some come by best through solidarity. Undead Anonymous is a lovely elegy of hope.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Play a Day: Inappropriate Relationship

Marcy Lovitch
For Sunday I read Inappropriate Relationship by Marcy Lovitch, and available at New Play Exchange.

The Police single "Don't Stand So Close To Me" was released in 1980. At the time it was a bit risqué, an affair between a teacher and a student. It's not graphic, it's suggestive, much like the novel that gets pretensionally named-checked by Sting ... a former high school teacher.

The scene of the crime is a car. So it is in Lovitch's play, a teenage girl waiting outside the school in the cold after dark, and "his car is warm and dry."

Interesting, the rule at the high school in question is that a teacher cannot give a student a ride without express permission from the parent. We work with students, and our code of conduct expressly forbids providing transportation for any student under any circumstance. There are also all of the new regulations involving social media. The best policy is just "no." No friending, no following, no contact outside the classroom under any circumstance.

The high school in Inappropriate Relationship, Seaview High continues to struggle with these rules, certainly the teachers are. There's an old saw, that even an animal doesn't shit where it eats. The men who teach at Seaview need to learn a thing or two about gossip in the break room (and believe me, I have heard these conversations) but they are not alone, it seems every character from the administration on down has an opportunity to make a bad situation worse. The playwright has created a gripping test-case in how not to handle an allegation.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Play a Day: My Uncle Javy

Carlos E. Rojas
Twenty-one plays in twenty-one days!

For Saturday I read My Uncle Javy by Carlos E. Rojas, and available at New Play Exchange.

"Do you think it's possible for people to change, if they want to?" asks a thirteen year-old girl in this play. She regrets saying it, in that self-conscious way people do when they suddenly think what they've said sounds "stupid," because the answer should be obvious.

You want to change? Change! But it's not that simple.

Rojas has composed a troubling family drama about the cycle of quiet abuse that happens when we abandon our dreams and reach for what is closest to us, and create a shameful, furtive reality.

I remember, just before we split, my ex-wife proposed running off the New Orleans for New Year's Eve. It seemed preposterous, we hadn't been civil for weeks, I was deep into a new relationship, but she made a suggestion so grand, I'm sure it was meant to be exciting, wild, liberating. But it also seemed silly, and pointless.

There are lines you cross and you can never go back. Sometimes that is good. In the case of the title character of this play it is not, and it nearly destroys the life of a teenage girl. The playwright creates a absorbing, uncomfortable scenario, posing difficult questions. In the end those who transgress are not punished, but we are left with the hope that Rosie, the girl, will be able to control her own destiny when everyone responsible for her has failed.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Play a Day: Much Ado About Nothing (BONUS)

Lara Mielcarek (right) and company (2016)
Photo: Fresh Water Cleveland
Last year my colleague Chennelle and I had the unique opportunity to witness a production of Macbeth staged in the Northeast Reintegration Center (NERC), produced by the Artists' Rehabilitation Coalition (ARC), and directed by Lara Mielcarek.

More recently, Lara directed performances of my play The Way I Danced With You at Blank Canvas Theatre. She did such incredible work on my script, we've been running into each other giving each other sad face, it was such a brief process but such a beautiful experience.

Tonight Chennelle and I experienced a staged reading of Much Ado About Nothing at the NERC. This is Lara's third event with ARC, a company she founded in 2016 when the performed a stripped down King Lear. This is their first time working with a comedy.

We were treated to a brisk cutting, a forty-minute abridgment read by six inmates, Lara and two of her associates. They stood at music stands with a variety of costume pieces to suggest change in character. It was very funny, it's always so exciting to see folks who never thought of themselves as actors stepping out of their comfort zones, to risk looking foolish in the service of a good story.

Some actually are actors, or should I say they could be. The women playing Beatrice and Benedick were particularly strong with great comic timing. We'd seen "Benedick" last year in Macbeth, she's been in all three performances, and I would be glad to see her pursue theater out here. The strength to stand before your peers and strangers and speak challenging dialogue with confidence is always inspiring.

After there were doughnuts and had a few moments to chat. It's a beautiful program and we were grateful for the invite.

Play a Day: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Stuart Hoffman
For Friday I read Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Stuart Hoffman, and available at New Play Exchange.

I've been working really hard to get more Cleveland playwrights onto NPX, welcome to the crew, Stu! (No one calls him Stu.)

We grew up loving movies. It was a movie household. The folks would take us to see "foreign" films at art houses and on college campuses. My brother wrote reviews for the high school paper, we watched Siskel & Ebert when they were still on PBS. If you couldn't play Movie-Star-Movie, we couldn't be friends.

I thought I knew a thing or two before I took a summer course in film criticism at college. Jesus, what I didn't know. We saw not only La Strada (1954) and Seventh Seal (1957), but also Milos Forman's first English language film, Taking Off (1971) and the completely bizarre pseudosex-documentary WR: Mysteries of the Organism (also 1971). What did that lone horse wandering down the street mean? WHAT DID THE HORSE MEAN?

Thanks to cable, I watched movies all the time when I was a teenager. I saw Lolita (1962) when I was twelve, which is a complicated thing to say. My education in the Vietnam War began with Apocalypse Now (1979). And I believe Scavenger Hunt (also 1979) is a misunderstood comic masterpiece.

My ex-wife hated black and white movies. So, there you are.

Hoffman's script is sweetly smart romantic comedy (should I say "rom-com"?) pitting a slasher movie fan and host of a radio talk show against a film studies professor. It deals with what movies mean to people, and why some folks obsess about discussing and debating them. They discuss symbolism and sentiment, and how we talk about movies to share secret knowledge and express secret feelings.

It's really fun, with two complex and interesting leads, a play which deceptively explores and explodes storytelling tropes with wit and wisdom.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Play a Day: How To Be a Respectable Junkie (BONUS)

How To Be a Respectable Junkie
(Dobama Theatre)
Last summer, local playwright Greg Vovos made a national splash when the New York Times wrote a piece on how the theater community in Ohio was reflecting the opioid crisis on stage. His new play, How To Be a Respectable Junkie premiered at Dobama Theatre last June, receiving The Plain Dealer called it, "raw, eloquent and moving."

A monodrama performed by Chris Bohan, a professor at CWRU and an old friend, Vovos based the piece on interviews with a man struggling with heroin addiction. "Before you solve a problem," Vovos told the Times, "you have to wrap your mind around it."

Tonight my wife and I caught the show at a one night only performance at the Parma-Snow Branch of the Cuyahoga Public Library. They have a four hundred seat auditorium and they filled the place. It is clear there is great interest in the subject, and in this performance.

One of my mentors said theater is a shallow education in everything. The "undergrad" show my fourth year was Lanford Wilson's Balm In Gilead. As part of our preparation we visited a halfway house and I was made aware of the use and effects of heroin.

The character I was playing was Dopey, who is addicted to heroin. If you are unfamiliar with Balm In Gilead, it's not easy to read. It takes place in and around a twenty-four hour diner around the year 1960. All the conversations overlap so you have to pay attention to exactly who is speaking to whom and what is happening.

Balm In Gilead
(Ohio University)
Dopey enters from outside and sits at the counter. He orders a coffee. The server says he's just going to fall asleep and Dopey is mildly belligerent. He doesn't say another thing for four pages, then suddenly he has "awakened" and announces he has to get outside. He is asked to pay for his coffee but departs with urgency.

Two pages later, he delivers a two-page monologue.

The details are not in the stage directions or anywhere else in the script. But what I had learned about heroin filled in the details. He'd shot up outside before entering the scene. In an effort to stay awake, he'd ordered coffee, and promptly fell asleep. Waking up, he needed to vomit. After that, he would feel more or less normal for a while, until the urge to take more of the drug. Trust the playwright.

Solo performances can be a tricky thing, I speak from experience. You are alone on stage, so who are you speaking to? And why? The audience? Yourself? Vovos has the character of Brian creating an improvised "how to" video and this suits the material very well, providing context and structure. It is memoir, lecture, and dramatic interpretation of the living nightmare that is addiction. The lies, the crimes, the pain. There's a lot going on here in 80 minutes.

Bohan is an ideal partner in this work, a guy I know to have boundless compassion who is also a brilliant performer, intelligent and with impeccable comic timing. It's an outstanding performance, at once urgent and laid back. It's also an important education tool.

And they're taking it on tour! For better or for worse, I can't imagine there is a better time in history for a piece like this, check it out if you can.

Join the "How To Be a Respectable Junkie" Facebook page for information on future performances.

Play a Day: The Space Between Her Legs

Tiffany Antone
For Thursday I read The Space Between Her Legs by Tiffany Antone, and available at New Play Exchange.

If there is one thing we have been missing in Cleveland, it's unabashed and outrageous corporeal humor theater. We're all too precious and philosophical here. We'll talk about sex, sure. But if sex is being had, if parts are being shown, then it has to be serious. Or violent. Sad, really.

Even Guerrilla Theater, even we, were too self-righteous when it came to what constituted appropriately rude humor. The entire company almost came to blows over a sketch called "Raw Ass," which was just a friendly tutorial on how to deal with a chafing anus.

"I think I saw space inside a pothead's vagina." That is a quote, and it is also the premise of Antone's hilarious new script. A woman discovers she has a wormhole to another dimension which has been transporting anything that has been put into or near it into outer space, including entire men.

To state this is a metaphor for women's power and the extent to which men with go to control that power is almost entirely beside the point, because this play is outrageous and hysterical, with the best worst date monologue I have ever read (ladies, here's your next audition piece.) Antone has a knack for hip, intelligent dialogue and a brilliant sense of timing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Play a Day: The Humans (BONUS)

Tonight the entire family took our seats at the Connor Palace to watch Stephen Karam's Pulitzer and Tony award winning play, The Humans.

For those visitors to this blog who are not from Cleveland, Playhouse Square is the largest performing arts center outside of New York City. Really, it's big and it's beautiful. The KeyBank Broadway Series has the largest subscriber base in the nation.

For years I was not a subscriber to the series, because I'm not a huge fan of musicals. Usually there are a half dozen musicals and one straight play. Last year, for example, that was the Broadway tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

When it was announced that Hamilton was coming to Cleveland in 2018, like a lot of people I got my subscription the year before, so that when the 2017-18 season rolled around, I could easily renew and have decent seats for the big show.  In early 2016, it was far cheaper to get an entire season subscription than to travel to NYC just to see that one show ... and I have kids and they want to see that one show.

It also meant we have had the chance to see a lot of Broadway shows I probably would not have seen yet, including Fun Home, Something Rotten, Waitress, and the aforementioned Curious Dog.

It also means we have spent half a dozen evenings throughout the year stressfully trying to manage after school activities, wolfing dinner and squeezing into our seats by 7:30 PM. An evening at theater should be pleasurable, but not necessarily in the middle of the week.

Anyway, I've taken to creating box lunches for the twenty-minute car ride downtown. It's like taking the kids to the amusement park.

It is very odd to sit so high up in the balcony to watch a play. Today you also have to wonder, out of two thousand people in one vast space, who will leave their phone on. Who will cough. Who will just plain chat? These things happen. Put enough humans into a large enough space absolutely anything can happen.

We were all on our best behavior, everyone was there to see an honest-to-God play. And I knew virtually nothing about this show. I did not even know the father would be played by Richard Thomas, so that was a bonus. Or that the mother would be performed Pamela Reed, who I remember so vividly from The Right Stuff. I love The Right Stuff.

There is a fear which lurks beneath the surface. It is white fear. The fear of regression. The lack of advancement. A young woman is having Thanksgiving at her new, first floor apartment on the Lower East Side. It is expansive for a Manhattan apartment, but to her parents it is a step back. Their ancestors left this place to make a better life elsewhere. The grandmother in attendance, who suffers from Alzheimer's, is a symbol this regression.

Loss of employment, not being able to find employment, chronic health problems, bad decisions which lead to loss of status. These fears, simmering below the surface. These are the fears and doubts of white people. I'm not being flip, or dismissive, I am white.  I know these fears.

They are going to lose the lake house. Oh dear. Not the same weight as being arrested for waiting while black. And though the daughter feels like a complete failure in her chosen profession, at least her boyfriend is a trust fund baby. But will he commit?

It is a deftly crafted script, tight, humorous and compelling. A revelation in the final beat, before the blackout (which had my twelve year old leaning into me in apprehension like he hasn't in a very long time) had me wanting to watch the entire play again, from the beginning.

It's those moments, when you learn something you didn't know, which retcons your understanding of your partner, of your life up until that point. Nothing makes sense, until suddenly it does. It can be horrifying, but there is relief in finally understanding.

"The Humans" by Stephen Karam continues at Playhouse Square through April 29, 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.