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.

Fairfield
(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."

#NewDayNewPlay
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!

#CPHPutnam
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.

#NewDayNewPlay
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.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Play a Day: Rubbish

Christopher Fok
For Thursday I read Rubbish by Christopher Fok, and available at New Play Exchange.

On a personal note, I'm going a little mad. There are so many stories! So many characters! I did not have this reaction to reading a play a day last April. But I am also now listening to Clare Danes reading The Handmaid's Tale in the car, reading the aural history of Angels In America before I go to sleep, and holding auditions and meeting many new people for an outdoor production of Troilus and Cressida I am directing.

So many stories. So many people. So many characters.

Fok tells a magical and very real story about trash. There are so many words for trash; rubbish, yes, and garbage, waste, and refuse. This last seems best to communicate the idea of that which is worthless, discarded. It can be a very, something turned away, refused.

The setting is modern Singapore, where a law has been established making the collection of trash for the purpose of sale illegal. The protagonist, an eighty-eight year old woman for whom this law means the end to her livelihood, selling scavenged cans and cardboard. In the end, it is clear that people can be refuse, too.

A surreal story told with humor and heart.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Play a Day: Blowout!

Guadalís Del Carmen
For Wednesday I read Blowout! by Guadalís Del Carmen, and available at New Play Exchange.

To make time each day to read one full length play, I rise before dawn so that I can have the play read and make notes before I am needed to rouse the children, make tea for the wife, and get everyone fed and out the door before rushing to take care of my own business and get to the office.

So, I need to have the play chosen the night before, to save time. This morning I opened the script and discovered it is in Spanish. I know a little Spanish. Un poquito. What to do?

I used Google translate. I hope that was okay. It was either that or not read the script. The translator is not completely efficient, but it would be a mistake to dismiss its effectiveness out of hand. I know enough Spanish to appreciate how many colorful turns of phrase and elegant and humorous metaphors were successfully translated in English for me, and what did not come through with complete clarity were easy enough to make sense of.

What a time we live in. This moment of great transition, with forces struggling desperately and violently to stem the tide of forward progress. And yet, technology is making it possible to reach through barriers of language, and listening to stories you otherwise could not have heard nor understood.

Transition is the subject of Blowout! and the place is a Chicago hair salon, the playfully named "Jair N Maykop." The neighborhood is gentrifying, and businesses like this which have served the newcomer populations of West Town are being squeezed out by higher rent and property taxes, and the trendy tastes of (to take one example) white hipsters with dreadlocks.

Change is coming, as it always will, symbolized in one fashion by the title of the play -- the "blowout," a simple process (as I understand it) of blowing and brushing until the textured hair of a person of color more resembles the straight hair of a European descendant. The eldest of the stylists comments on how everyone wants their hair to look like someone else's. "Lo general nadie está feliz como es," she says. No one is happy with the way things are.

But I was delighted with this script, which features a variety of charming women characters, great humor, interesting and welcome monologues, and hope for the future.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Play a Day: The Big Fuckin' Giant

Rachel Bykowski
For Tuesday I read The Big Fuckin' Giant by Rachel Bykowski, and available at New Play Exchange.

Last year I happened to be at my alma mater for that year's new plays festival, and had the opportunity to see a workshop production of a play I had read the week before at NPX -- This Is How You Got Me Naked by Catherine Weingarten.

That was one play presented that weekend. Another was The Big Fuckin' Giant. I regret not having seen that as well, and intensely physical piece, which you can read on the page but it must be something to see.

The subject, on the face of it, is wrestling. My son began wrestling a few years ago, when he was in fifth grade. Attending matches, I began to understand and respect what is unfortunately regarded, in the professional world, as a circus. As a joke.

The simplicity of the sport. Two people could, with no equipment, play this sport. A non-violent, non-impact sport in which you grapple and manipulate your opponent until you have dominated them, put them into a position in which they cannot move. Pinned them. No sticks, no balls, no padding, The human body is the only necessary equipment, to subdue your opponent.

This is also exactly the worst way to think about interpersonal relationships. When you enter into a mindset in which every relationship is about dominance, your kinship with men, and with women, then unhealthy things can happen.

Bykowski has created a trio of men who are each sympathetic in their own way, and in turn each of their weaknesses are exposed by the others. Women are absent, though a couple are defined for us by these men, as types -- an African-American who is fetishized and feared, the aloof, white cuckolder -- and these collegiate athletes channel their aggression and worse, practice their dominance on the women they cannot understand with or on a blow-up doll named Judy.

It is an aggressively physical script, sweat leaps off the page, and one in which weakness is made apparent, targeted and taken advantage of. It is also a painfully eloquent parable for our time, or for all times.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Play a Day: Goat Song

Charlotte Rahn-Lee
For Monday I read Goat Song by Charlotte Rahn-Lee, and available at New Play Exchange.

Witnessing theater is unique in that artists create a unique place and a unique time in real time and space. You can create brief scenes that emulate the kind of time collapse that is familiar in film, but you can also let time play out the way it does in real life, leaving the audience to choose what to focus their eye or even ear upon.

In this way, theater is greater at transporting you to somewhere new and different than film is. Because you are there, breathing the same air as the characters whose story you are experiencing.

Goat Song takes us to the Galapagos, and the subject, on the face of it, is the eradication of an invasive species. This is based in reality, I'd heard about the goats of Galapagos on the program Radiolab.

Settlers/explorers/human invaders first brought these goats to the island as a source of food, and now they threaten to upset the balance of an ecosystem which also happens to be the history home of the theory of evolution.

One character asks, "Why is everyone obsessed with maintaining the status quo on an island that is famous for change?"

On one of Darwin's islands (which does not, of course, belong to Darwin) Rahn-Lee creates her own Petri dish of characters to stir up a fascinating philosophical debate on who lives and who dies, who gets to stay and who is forced to leave, and who has the right to decide.

"Are we going to draw a line in the sand and say, there -- if you arrive before this date you're allowed to stay ... but if you arrive after this date you're invasive."

It is a cunning metaphor for today's immigration debate with a chilling conclusion.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Play a Day: The Witches' Tower

James Bartelle
For Sunday I read The Witches' Tower by James Bartelle, and available at New Play Exchange.

The past several year, the family has stopped into Salem, Massachusetts on our way up the coast the Maine. Our friend Kim lives there, and though we have often stopped by for a couple hours, last year we stayed for a couple days and had the opportunity to take out time to explore the city.

While there are a great many beautiful and interest things to take in and enjoy about Salem, the real fun is with the witches. Arthur Miller's The Crucible brought the Salem Witch Panic of 1692 to vibrant life, and arguably shaped the discussion we continue to have about those events and that time.

He was comparing that witch hunt to the "Red Manic" panic of his time. However, his analogy can suffer when you point out the simple fact, as he did in an article in The Guardian in the year 2000, that "there were communists and there never were witches." He goes on to argue, however, that his point was not the existence of a perceived threat but what the actual threat was, what was "the content of their menace?"

New Orleans playwright James Bartelle spins an original, compact and compelling tale of persecuted witches in a classic, lyric style. We are left to imagine whether the accused are truly servants of a malevolent power, or if their only crime is that of being women, punished for actions inherent in the human condition, actions for which no man in their time, or ours, would receive comparable treatment.

To have lost a mother in the course of childbirth? Would a male doctor be imprisoned for this? To have had an extramarital relationship? You could be President of the United States.

Bartelle has a way with repetition which is poetic, the condemned women's ruminations either actual spells, or an expression of madness imposed through institutionalized oppression. A powerful period piece reflecting our modern moment.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Play a Day: Fuck Cancer

Tanuja Devi Jagernauth
Seven days, seven plays!

For Saturday I read Fuck Cancer by Tanuja Devi Jagernauth, and available at New Play Exchange.

It has not even been eleven months since my father-in-law was diagnosed. We got the call in late May, he was gone in mid-December. The intervening time felt like forever, and it was no time at all.

There were discussions of treatment, but by the time his cancer was discovered, it was too late. As I am reminded from Jagernauth's play, we treated the person, not the cancer.

Much cancer treatment, in the West and elsewhere, are merely treatment. The palliate. To soothe. To provide energy, and strength, and hope. Because cancer will win.

Jagernauth’s play, however, is not so much about the patient, but the provider, whose struggles are a reminder that you cannot take care of the patient if you do not take care of yourself.

In 2017, our own personal cancer year, I was a provider for a provider; my wife who spent so much time out of town, looking after her father while I held down the fort at home. I see it. I get it.

#NewDayNewPlay
The playwright has created a dreamlike, grounded, and heartbreaking piece about the helplessness we feel in the face of the most insidious and prevalent of maladies. "There are as many forms of cancer as there are people," her mentor says. And as many beautiful, powerful stories out there, like this one.

And now a word on stage directions. My colleague Sarah Morton wrote a play about Berthe Morisot, Eight Impressions of a Lunatic, which begins with a scene without dialogue in which the young painter is reading. I don't have the text in front of me, but there is stage direction to the effect of "she pours blue light out of her shoe."

I always loved that, and it was an important lesson in playwriting. The writer writes. Leave it to the design team to interpret and make it happen. There is a lot of water in Fuck Cancer, coming in from everywhere. On stage water can be a crisis, or it can be the stuff of magic. The writer wrote it, let the director figure it out.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Play a Day: Falstaff Riseth

Rachael Carnes
For Friday I read Falstaff Riseth, by Rachael Carnes, and available at New Play Exchange.

My daughter a high school freshman, is currently in rehearsal for a performance of Michael Frayn's backstage farce, Noises Off. It opens next weekend, I am anticipating a good time, though I am understandably anxious to witness my first-living-born child in her first full-length play, one of great physical mayhem, English wit, and above all ...

Uh, timing.

Carnes's tale is one of epic absurdity, a relentless and raucous send-up of Elizabethan and high school drama, and above all a tribute to the thankless theater parent, without whom the show would not go on (but don't tell the senior lead that.)

The pop culture references come at you fast and furious, hip-deep with turns of phrase both classic and current, as a troupe of teens unintentionally strive to produce several productions at once. It's smart, silly, and even subversive, as the playwright has created a Shakespearean showcase where the Bard himself is entirely absent and someone else has written his plays.

Hmn. Perhaps I might recommend another work which poses the Authorship Question, The Great Globe Itself ..?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Play a Day: People of the Book

Yussef El Guindi
For Thursday I read People of the Book, by Yussef El Guindi, and available at New Play Exchange.

"Can we all agree going into this war made us less safe?"

That is a question one of the characters ask in this People of the Book, and though you may assume they are referring to the Iraq War of 2003, they could easily be referring to the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

Following the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the power-imbalance led to leaders like Saddam Hussein to press their advantage in a way which would have been more difficult in previous years.

President George H.W. Bush pressed his advantage as well. The West had not seen a wide-scale war in some time. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was tailor-made for international outrage and for one shining moment, the United States was able to convince most of the world to join in or at the very least stay out of the way.

The war lasted thirty-three days, or has never ended, depending on how you look at it.

Taken literally, El Guindi's play is about deception, professional and personal jealousy, and the effect of American wars in the Middle East. It's a great read, with playful and cutting dialogue, and it is also a metaphor for how American has played itself, chaining our fate to the region. Each of the four central characters reflect a different point of view, about art and writing, about the war and its worth, and what responsibility the United States has yet to take for its actions.

Yesterday the President announced his plans regarding the conflict in Syria. "I want to get out," said President Trump. That's what he said. "I want to get out."

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Play a Day: I Go Somewhere Else

Inda Craig-Galván
For Wednesday I read I Go Somewhere Else, by Inda Craig-Galván, and available at New Play Exchange.

As a man in a play once said, "This play is memory." This play includes several nods and allusions to past classic plays and movies about American families and their intimate intricacies, like tiny knots that must be unpicked to be understood. These references serve to place this unique, specific tale in its rightful place as part of that larger tapestry.

I Go Somewhere Else is told from the point of one women at three stages of her life, yearning to understand her mother, for it is she, the mother, who is truly at the center of this tale. Reda, the mother, is possessive, abusive, and controlling of her daughter (first Lanny, then Langree and finally Tabitha.)

On one day, the younger self asks -- though there is an implicit request or plea involved -- "Aren't we supposed to love everybody? No matter what they've done to hurt us in the past?" For when someone we love hurts us, we assume it is something we have done to deserve it, even a blameless child thinks this.

The playwright creates a mother who is at turns proud and irrational and mean-spirited and sad, yet deftly lays out the story of Reda's life and relationships which leaves it squarely at our feet to understand her and to forgive her, as we strive to understand and forgive our own mothers. The way we hope our children may one day understand and forgive us.