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Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: Preliminary Confessions #3: Continued | The Nether

Posted in Theater Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2017 by gregnett
masks

Comedy. Drama.

Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer
PRELIMINARY CONFESSION #3: Continued…

As someone who came from a family of mostly low-income, blue-collar (and “no-collar”) workers, started out in Music (guitar and piano) in grade school, detoured into Art (cartooning) and organized Sports (Basketball, Football, Baseball, Volleyball, Soccer) with flights of fancy into Interior Design and Graphic Design during middle school and junior high, then back into Music (songwriting) after my short-lived attempt at going to college, and finally into Film (producer/writer-director; more so screenwriting) at the start of adulthood—not only did my “career” choices steadily creep away from what mommy dearest had envisioned for her baby boy, but I too was left with a bit of a moral dilemma: does my current (and now mainstay) passion—writing; whatever the medium—make any significant contribution to the world in this day and age, or any of my past “creative” endeavors I left behind? This quandary has been the pebble underneath my heel for quite some time, and as recently as this past fall when I made the decision to go forward with this (slightly tongue-in-cheek) confessional, combining bits of my life with unscientific observations of modern day society as a way to discuss the medium of Theatre (stage plays), I had to sit in deep thought for a half day or so and reflect on why was I even bothering to write any of this—anything at all—down in the first place… Cleansing my brain of all the toxic negativity American culture is currently steeped in as well as my own self-doubting and self-deprecating ways, I regained the confidence needed to see this endeavor to the end. I’m never one to re-invent the wheel, and I’m sure, dear reader, that you may have heard many of these reasons before, but here are a few reasons on why the Theatre should matter. To you, dear reader, I would like to point out a few of the positives:

(1) The Cost. Both tangible and intangible. First-world problems about sums it up—if I were looking for the proper expression. While over a $7-dollar slice of cherry pie at a “roadside” diner, I expressed one of my many observations (grievances) about contemporary life in good ol’ Oosa (U.S.A.) to a group of my closest of friends: which is that “diner prices”, “fast-casual prices”, and “restaurant prices” are all now within $4- to $5-dollars of one another; the idea of a “cheap meal” is a thing of the past. The mere fact of eating out is expensive, certainly a lot more than enjoying meals at home. I also find that the costs for Entertainment are just as relative… Music festival tickets, professional sports tickets, Vacations (air travel plus room & board), movie tickets, comedy shows, nightclub venues (definitely for men) are within $15- to $20-dollars of one another, more in fact for the popular draws (MSG shows, Lakers tickets, Coachella, Broadway musicals, Travel to a locale during a special event, say Mardi Gras) — so there’s definitely enough griping to go around when it comes to spending what’s in your wallet. Those of us here in the “First World” with mad time to fill should definitely reconsider our stance on not attending the Theatre. If anything, most playhouses are slashing ticket prices—or giving them away for free—just to get people’s asses in those tiny chairs. Do you think Coachella or the Staples Center where the L.A. Clippers and L.A. Lakers play would ever consider doing that? As far as the intangible: much of the other areas of Entertainment have been extremely corporatized which, in essence, is predicated on maximizing profits whereas the Theatre (sans Broadway; though the medium too would like a larger bottom line) — bad material and all — seems to be more about how we (Society) are driving the culture. And you can’t put a price on that!

(2) A great if not better option to go on a Date. An excellent venue for Social-gathering. Another man is less likely to test your manhood — meaning you won’t have to “defend her honor” — while one a date at a theater versus the food court at the mall or right outside the men’s bathroom at a sports arena. (What is it with American men wanting to get into fist-fights outside the one room in a public facility that’s there so humans can relieve themselves?) I’ve hit on this before but the air in the theater is quite pretentious and in that setting, it’s rare that tempers flare—just think of the cost incurred to get into the building. No one’s trying to get kicked out! Theater patrons go out of their way not to speak or make eye contact in general, so there’s never any worry about a scuffle happening. Hopefully, the date is to see a comedy (or a musical) which allows for lots of playful hitting, knee-grabbing, and eye contact which is crucial early on in any courtship. (You can thank me later.) As far as it being an excellent choice for social gatherings, well consider the alternative: digital screens. Earlier Millennials and prior generations know what I’m talking about; face-to-face interaction is something we still pine for. It’s my own personal theory for why so many of us feel so aimless walking around nowadays—that and the economy. Hell, if the date is going well you might be so inclined as to talk to the other couples seated around you—between acts or coming back from intermission, of course. Who knows, that same conversation could potentially lead to some networking. With the average age of the theater-goer currently sitting at 54, the Baby Boomer you’re trading barbs with just might put you in the run-in for his/her position when they retire or bring you aboard so as to groom you along seeing as one so cultured as you is at the theater on a Saturday night… Sure beats firing off résumés online, or figuring out if you possess any of the skills for the “jobs” listed on Craig’s List.

Well, dear reader, that will have to suffice for now. I would like to turn our attention to August’s stage play, The Nether.

virt_world2

They’re out there…

Title: The Nether (2013)
Playwright: Jennifer Haley
Time Period: Postmodernism (Transrealism)
Plot: A young detective investigates the inventor of an online virtual realm where morally questionable acts involving young children are being carried out behind the anonymity of “Shades” — human avatars that could potentially be real and what, if any, ethical ramifications this may have regarding the real world.
Dope Line(s):

[Scene 5]

MORRIS
It’s more than that, Mr. Doyle. It’s sound, smell, touch. The Hideaway is the most advanced realm there is when it comes to the art of sensation.

[Scene 13]

IRIS
People come to things on their own time. We offer a place where you may dismantle everything the world has told you about right and wrong and discover pure relationship.

[Scene14]

DOYLE
It draws people who are—broken—I know that, but—I don’t judge them—they are part of us, too—they are part of the world—God does not judge them—why should we?

virt_world1

Ones & Zeroes

The Eagle has landed! I’ve been back home for a little more than a month now and both my body and sleeping pattern have adjusted back to west coast time. It’s the bank account that’s jet-lagged. But no worries, the system wasn’t built for folks like moi to keep it all. So spend it all I shall, whenever it does touch my hands… For those of you who have been with me, you might get the sense that I’m in good spirits—well, I am! One needs to be whenever one is blind-sided by life, in many more ways than one as of late. (Some things are just too personal for me to say here.) So who cares if this month’s play trivializes pedophilia, or has no clue on how real criminal investigations are run, or is ignorant as to how mental illnesses work; in real life, I’m being cleaned out by my own government for a fraud I didn’t commit with the paperwork to prove it, and my country’s president(?) is instigating World War III, at home and abroad. To hell with morals, screw decency. Pour big globs of debauchery and bad behavior all over the mob; just see if we push back—we won’t! We’re plebs for a reason! I’m a hundred percent sure now there’ll be a purge soon.

The Nether received rave reviews—spoiler alert!: this gets only a “meh” from me. And it pains me so to say that because this playwright is my contemporary—or would be if I could ever get over the hump and make an impact on Pop Culture—and a fellow Angeleno by way of San Antonio, Texas. Troubled waters lie ahead… I know readership is low for this blog, but I also know that Millennials and Gen-Xers love to “Google” themselves (sounds dirty, doesn’t it?) — so only time will tell how playwright Jennifer Haley will receive me… But for those #TINWIPA faithful—oh, how little of you there are—you know exactly where Big G (to those special two in Las Vegas, Cousin G) draws the line when it comes to taste and decency, so I must remain firm… I believe it was Roger Waters of Pink Floyd who said it best: “Leave them kids alone”. And with a few days (weeks?) left before the official start to the new school year here in the States, I wanted to see what the kids were doing. And by kids, I mean the playwrights currently making names for themselves in the Theatre world. Overall this series is geared towards old stage plays but I wanted to reserve at least one slot for a modern stage play, and The Nether has the proud honor of being on my inaugural list.

dollhouse2

Small on scale, big on dreams…

I couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or so pages in when I had to read the word “molestation” having had the notion be implied to me in a number of ways in earlier scenes… The majority of them featuring the play’s protagonist Detective Morris—a woman!—who works ‘em hard and fast; a sort of tough, no-nonsense and perhaps overworked public defender in an unknown city, world, and time. We are far out into the future and the Internet/internet we affectionately slave all of our time away on is now like those old Nokias of my high school days—gone! A major upgrade has been made to the web and it even has a new name, “Nether” — thus the riddle of the play’s title is solved. Yes, the world many of us fear where humans can no longer tell what is real and what is fake is alive and kickin’, and if weren’t for what this play was trying to peddle, I would have had no problem in finding this sort of world-building inventive. But, ideally, we get to see none of this brave new world only glimpses rather, because much of this play’s narrative involves overtly-dramatic interrogation scenes—the stockiest I’ve seen this side of a film festival circuit. (Interrogation scenes are common with new filmmakers looking to make their first short film. Just about any space can be turned into an interrogation room and then all you need is a few props and two committed actors to sell the drama.) And like so many before in this series, the story unfolds bit by bit, the heaviest of all the exposition being front-loaded so as to lace the back end with lots of navel-gazing and soap-boxing. However, Haley has decided to break her story line in two (which isn’t a bad idea in itself): one part is in the “present” featuring the interrogation room drama, the other in the “past” taking us inside the Nether—but still in rooms and the occasional foyer. And back and forth we go, watching as the two converge… And it’s the story that takes place in the Nether region (pun intended; forgive me) that makes me pause for concern.

jennhal1

Jennifer Haley

Side note: Early on in my mind before I keyed in on what type of story this was going to be, I envisioned this play as a feature film, a fast-paced thriller where we cut back and forth between the different interrogation scenes all of which would be even more intense and amplified, and the majority of the “action” would take place in the Nether, requiring Det. Morris to jump back and forth between the virtual world and the real world while in pursuit of the truth/bad guy. Either world, Det. Morris would be running down some corridor, or turning over her shoulder and seeing ones and zeroes in everything around her, and always having a feeling that the world—either one—is on the verge of collapsing in on itself as she races towards some stock, arbitrary countdown to save a little girl from a pedophile which she would do—heroically, of course. And, as always, just in the nick of time. But then, the little girl would be lost to the Nether world forever, perhaps never being real at all, which would add some emotional weight to the story because the audience would’ve grown attached to her by then. And as the little girl turns to pixels, she would give Det. Morris a code that would show her the location of the server or the bad guy—or both. Det. Morris then would haul ass there, talk it out with the bad guy for a bit, then waste him… Again, this was all in my mind, and I was only about thirty or so pages in—and even then, I was giving this play too much credit.

Instead, as written, much of the suspense is telegraphed in advance; so people like me are far out in front of where Haley is trying to go with her story. Now I’m a fan of disjointed timelines, but it really serves no purpose here other than to drag out the story. And when stories start to drag that’s when I start to ask questions, especially when they take place in the future and technology (as well as surveillance) should be better than what’s currently on the market. I start to ponder questions like: Why doesn’t law enforcement have its own team of white hats to aid Det. Morris in finding out who the inventor is and tracking down his location? Why can’t the government just shut down the Nether (internet) seeing as there are “kids” involved and platforms allowing pedophiles to congregate could potentially become a societal issue which in the world of this play it clearly is? Egypt’s government did it (in 2011) and the U.S. has the Patriot Act (which if the President wanted to he/she could technically shutdown the Net) so some future politician/bureaucrat must surely have access to the Nether (internet) kill switch, right? Does Det. Morris have a superior officer, and if she does, why isn’t she or he monitoring her behavior? For that matter, shouldn’t Det. Morris have a partner to at least try to ensure that she doesn’t cross the line, and if she does decide to, at least there’s someone present in her life with a firm moral compass for the case she’s been tasked with trying to solve to perhaps prevent her from doing so? Why does Doyle’s lawyer—if he even has one—allow his client to keep being brought back in for interrogation? Hell, why is Doyle’s lawyer not present, considering what’s at stake (pedophilia charges)? Did Doyle even contact his lawyer before deciding to speak to and cooperate with law enforcement? Nothing was in writing, so what if Det. Morris reneges on her side of the deal? … I can go on and on and on. (No wonder Americans have no idea about how the Law works. Just look at the material they have available to them.)

inter_room2

The room.

I guess one would find all of this cringe-worthy and unsettling (and possibly riveting) to see this acted out on stage: where and older man gets fresh with a little girl. Me, I would’ve walked out. Forgive me, I picked this at random from a best-of list and assumed it was going to be about dreams… Anyhoo, Det. Morris is knee-deep in a gentleman’s ass by the name of Doyle. He has been spending time in a realm known as “The Hideaway.” This realm exists in the Nether and was created by Papa, the kind of evil guy who believes he’s smarter than everyone in the room. She’s in his ass also, though spoiler: he goes by a different name, Sims. Both of these men suffer from mental illness but that never gets discussed nor does their sexuality really, considering it ranges from homosexuality to pedophilia. Papa (Sims) has created “shades”, avatars that allow users in the real world to be on his platform anonymously—and they nor he can be traced for some reason. The eerie thing is that some users take the form of little girls who then “play” in a little girl’s bedroom with another user who is usually an adult male or a male creature of some kind, and when the men have had enough “playing”, their next task is to bludgeon the girl (it’s always a girl, am I right?) to death with an ax. (Depraved, sadistic, nihilistic material; I can’t believe I read this.) There’s also a “crossing over” option available to users which means that they may possibly stay there in the Nether forever but it isn’t fully explained and dealing with all that was going on, I just had to let it go.

bloodyaxe1

Sadistic weapon of choice

Now I’ll say this much: Haley nails the sci-fi elements, though a lot what she offers up sinks under all of the navel-gazing from some her characters (Papa/Sims). One little girl, Iris, is Det. Morris’s way into finding out who the inventor is and the scenes involving Iris are some of the most inventive, and by inventive I mean disturbing… And that’s pretty much crux of this story: a man has created a “cyberplace” for other perverts and degenerates to get their rocks off online and he’s been brought in for questioning, and while in questioning he defends his right along with other pedophiles/pervs to be exactly who they are… Gross!

inter_room1

Talk!!!

I guess that’s the thing with modern stage plays. The ever present “shock value” that turns a lot of people away—myself included—from the Theatre. Someone is always vomiting on themselves or someone else, or getting completely naked (always a busty white woman) for no effin’ reason, or getting mutilated, or coming up with the most heinous act imaginable just to see if they can make an audience cringe then crafting a “story” around it afterwards, not even bothering to see if the “story” itself is concrete. Then me, poor me, I come along and ask a few questions, wondering why something is, and I’m told to “Relax… It’s just art, bro!” Okay…

There’s no sense in asking whether this play holds up or not; it was only written four years ago. Rightfully so, the play does deal with a relevant topic: online virtual portals where things like child pornography can potentially be traded and discussed. (Yikes! Yuck!) From the looks of it, this play has opened all sorts of doors for Haley, and I tip my hat to her: congrats! But having read The Nether, I’m left scarred so there’s no way in the world I can see what else she has going on… Well boy and girls and aliens, I see you next month with a classic work from one of the founding fathers of the LGBT theater movement.

 

 

stage-chair

‘Til September…

 

 

Rating: 2.5/5

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Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: Preliminary Confessions #2 | Equus

Posted in Theater Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2017 by gregnett
masks

Comedy. Tragedy.

Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer
PRELIMINARY CONFESSION #2

I do not often weep: for not only do my thoughts on matters pertaining to American culture (art) daily, hell hourly, sink to depths “too deep for tears” — but also, I believe that all minds which have contemplated such matters as intensely as I have done, must, for their own protection from utter despondency, hold some undying belief that the overall future and well-being of American culture (art) will one day be free of suffering. On these accounts, I am weary at this phase in life: and, as I have said, I do not often weep… Yet here I am, in my feelings once again, though this time much more even-keeled and moderate: and often, when I wander at this time around Hollywood, past the eateries, theaters (Pantages, Palladium) and tourist traps shops that line Hollywood Blvd. or along the much quieter Theater Row (Santa Monica Blvd.; same flair), each district lit up by bright, attention-grabbing signs, and hear the lively conversations of those I stroll by or see huddled together on the sidewalks outside of the theaters which years ago sated me, I shed a single, metaphorical “tear” and smile to myself over the other-worldliness of the scenery which so abruptly and so unsympathetically has separated me from being one with American culture (art) at the moment. How it happened, the reader should already know from my previous “incident”; however, there is still more remaining to this introductory narration…

Not long after the period of the last “incident” I recorded, I had the unfortunate opportunity of meeting a gentleman who might possibly be the worst instructor teaching at the community college level—at any grade level—and barring the fourth grade, having to sit through his “lectures” was the most excruciating time I’ve ever spent in a classroom. Several members of the faculty sang his praises and in their eyes, he could do no wrong. One would’ve expected rose petals to be flung at his feet every time he walked the halls from the way he was lauded by his peers. One female faculty member in particular left me mouth open and speechless over her adoration for him. The man had thrown a hex on her long before I arrived on campus—so there was absolutely nothing I could say to her to prove to her otherwise that this man was, excuse my French: le piece of fecal matter. On our walk to the Business Department office to make print-outs for our midterms was when I decided to voice my opinion. I had had enough—and something had to give goddammit! I respectfully told her that she shouldn’t be so quick to fall for every kind, old, black man that knows how to stack his words. I said that the black men of his generation had perfected the gift of gab and that it was like honey to the ears of the white men of his era who would much rather see black men holding out tin cups and sitting in the gutter talking to themselves in a drunken stupor or swaying back and forth in a warm summer breeze dangling from the end of a noose than upright and thriving. I also said that these same black men had used the power of spoken word for the majority of their lives and purely for selfish reasons like avoiding hardship, or getting out of a jam, or stuffing their bellies, or fleecing their own brethren. And then I said that some of these same black men had even managed to convince small, unsuspecting colleges/institutions that they were smarter than the senior classes exiting Princeton; case in point, the entire Business Department of L— College, for some reason, thinks that they struck oil when they decided to employ an elderly black man who is still working well into his eighth decade of existence, a black man who’s yet to teach his current students anything relevant to the course he had been selected to instruct—I said all of this, or something to that effect. I ended by mentioning to her that if he were so damn “smart” then why hadn’t he retired yet? I mean, David Rockefeller recently topped out at 101 but his work had real (dire) influence. He was rigging the stock market; he was re-engineering human beings; he was whispering to women that they should put down the frying pan and instead pick up the keyboard—all of this allegedly, of course. (I don’t want to get whacked!) But what was this friggin’ guy doing? Don’t flatter me by saying “Teaching us.” Seriously, a man that “smart”, I said to her, is willingly choosing to work until he’s dead…? Having said my fill and her with no response, we finished out the errand in silence.

It was only out of a matter of convenience that I had remained tight-lipped to begin with. During this period in life I was pretty much nostrils out all the time, always on the lookout for a shortcut—and I had found one with him. It was grating, but a shortcut nonetheless. I mean, he just sat in front of us and talked for two and a half hours—or however long—twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) about Venus knows what; all of it improvised and not at all relevant to what was described in his course syllabus. (Those poor trees.) The class was supposed to be about Economics. Le Douche would also like to get my heart rate up by saying that he was going to teach us how to read stocks but, you know, that would drastically cut into his monologue, so… Anyhoo, my classmates and I—on the strength of this guy’s insufferable yakking—eventually bonded together. As the semester went on, during each “lecture” we would all turn to each other in deep confusion and total disbelief, absolutely mystified by what we were seeing play out right in front of us. It was just like in Fight Club: it was on all of our minds, we just hadn’t given it a name. There wasn’t even a name we could give it—but collectively we were all thinking, “Is he really just gonna sit there and talk the whole time and not teach us?” Dude was mum only for two days: our midterms and our finals… I know, I know. How can he administer a midterm and a final exam when all he did was talk ambiguously about “stuff” and never got around to teaching us anything? Well, I’m still trying to figure that one out too myself, to be honest—and how he calculated my final grade in the class: a B.

I dally with these stories because, to me, the recollection of them is interesting—not to mention the whole marketing angle which I’ve discussed in the past. So, as was the case with Preliminary Confession #1, the reader will have to once again practice patience, for I am in no rush to hasten to a close on what is my second preliminary question. And, like always, I ask that we turn our attention to this month’s stage play, Equus.

white horses running

Power & Grace

 

Title: Equus (1973)
Playwright: Peter Shaffer
Time Period: Early Postmodernism Period
Plot: A dispirited child psychiatrist attempts to treat an emotionally-troubled teenage boy who has committed a horrific act of animal cruelty.
Dope Line(s):

[Act 1.3]

DYSART
What did I expect of him? Very little, I promise you. One more dented little face. One more adolescent freak. The usual unusual. One great thing about being in the adjustment business: you’re never short of customers.

[Act 1.7]

FRANK
Yes, well that’s him. He’s always been a weird lad, I have to be honest. Can you imagine spending your weekends like that—just cleaning out stalls—with all the things that he could have been doing in the way of Further Education?

[Act 1.14]

ALAN
And he said ‘Behold—I give you Equus, my only begotten son!’

toy rocking horse

Hours of fun as a toddler…

Who knew the play involving animal cruelty would be so complex? Quite the shocking turn of events in this here series. I could say the same about my life right now, but that’s another story—and one I don’t want to get into… You know, it’s never a good feeling having to subject yourself to material that you’re strongly against. It rarely turns out positive, and, if anything, the whole experience just leaves you woozy. All the ordeal can ever do really is further cement your beliefs—that’s what pretty much ends up happening… I can be honest: I didn’t give this play much of a leg to stand on. I didn’t know if I would be in a strong enough place mentally to deal with the kind of imagery a story like this one evokes. Personally, I’m of the belief that there’s a special rung (circle?) in Hell reserved solely for those who are unkind to animals. I’m not quite full-on PETA about it—but, for Christ’s sake leave the damn animals alone!

Still, I was curious—and what good would this theater-review series be if it didn’t have a healthy mix of material? Considering my narrative hang-ups, I had to put them to the side for the interim in order to carry out this endeavor. Now that doesn’t mean that my nerves weren’t bad or that my stomach wasn’t in knots over having to read Equus (Latin for horse; Equus ferus caballus is the actual subspecies). Peter Shaffer did bless the world with Amadeus, I figured, so at least I knew that I’d be in the hands of a solid playwright.

And Shaffer did have quite the stunning writing career. Success in London, success in New York, success in Hollywood—the creative-type trifecta! Equus, in its heyday, left audiences speechless. Monumental when you consider it had over 1,000 performances… A little more trivia here: Anthony Hopkins was an original cast member in the New York production (1974). Oh, and the masks worn in The Lion King Musical were inspired by the masks used in Equus. Not bad, not bad… And near the end of Shaffer’s life (He died in 2016.) he gave the rights to Equus to prominent theater producer David Pugh who then went on to cast Daniel Radcliffe in one of the lead roles for the play’s revival (2007). At the time, it was still peak Potter and having Radcliffe in the play—in the buff!—was a no go for Warner Bros.’ execs, so he eventually had to drop out. (No lazy wand jokes here.)

half man half horse

The beast within…

Shaffer received the story by chance during a car ride through the English country side. A friend of his mentioned to him in passing that a teenage boy in the area had done something horrendous to a group of twenty-six horses at a local stable. Losing contact with the friend and not bothering to seek out the actual news story, Shaffer used the sparse details to recreate his own narrative, dropping the number of horses down to six and also exploring the realms of passion, (human/animal) sexuality, religion and sanity rather than the heinous act itself. Further backbone and heft were added through the old world Greek Stage tradition. He incorporated masks, miming, fourth wall-breaking and dance as well as a “faux” Chorus: the actors remain on stage the entire time, watching the story unfold along with the audience but also ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. Again, not bad. Not bad at all… As for the story, well…

equus poster

Chilling. Grisly. Disturbing.

The year is 1973(?) and at curtain we are to envision that we are in the office of Martin Dysart, a middle-age, overworked child psychiatrist at the Rokeby Psychiatric Hospital in South England. (This primarily is the location of the story though, technically, there are others. The stage design is sparse with only a single, main light shining down to the center of it that’s in the shape of a square.) Cigarette lit, he speaks to us (the real audience) and as small group gathered before him about a teenage boy he has been treating for the past month. He pauses mid-monologue, getting ahead of himself, and decides to go back to the very beginning, back to when he first became aware of the boy’s existence… Now this is one of the most highly controversial ways to start off a story—via flashback and with (voice-over) narration… In Hollywood, that is. (Remember, I have a script-reading background.) Flashbacks at the start of a screenplay are a huge red flag. It’s the tell-tale sign of a novice screenwriter. The next sign of a novice screenwriter is the use of voice-over narration—and speaking to the audience (“breaking the fourth wall”) does virtually the same function, when switching from the medium of Film over to Stage. In Film, seeing these two coupled together at the start of a screenplay would make a veteran script-reader cross his or her legs and let out a deep sigh of disgust. I actually started off my first (and only) short film [#shameless plug] in this fashion but will most likely avoid starting off a story this way again—and, of course, the subject matter… (That’s another long story and is strictly personal, and not a shot at anybody else.) Me, myself—I don’t get script-reader’s beef with flashbacks (or flashforwards or dream sequences for that matter) but I can kind of understand their frustration with voice-over narration, kind of… What seems like a simple story device can actually be quite cumbersome to work with once you get going. There are figuratively millions of books out there on how to use voice-over narration “properly” so by all means seek out the one you like. But here’s my take on voice-over narration having read over two-hundred screenplays that use it, hundreds of stage plays that break the fourth wall, and a plethora of novels written in first-person past tense:

(1) If the main character narrates the story, whether starting at the very beginning or at the “perceived beginning” (a flashback to a pivotal incident), we as the audience are robbed of any actual stakes (and possible tension). Basically, the main character survived. So to show us a scene—or several scenes—of near-death moments feels like a “cheat.” (To see a movie/play where the main character dies nowadays would take an act of Congress.)

(2) Who is the main character telling her story to? Because we (the real audience) don’t technically “exist.” Many new (screen-) writers fail to comprehend this notion. And not too many of them are ever that clever enough to make their main character cuckoo (i.e., the main character is talking to herself). And because of their failure to understand this story element, you can often tell that the jokes and dramatic beats were written for us and not the person the main character should be telling her story to, whoever that may be.

(3) Exposition. Basically, your main character will end up saying “stuff” (information that we need to know for story purposes) to people who should already be in the know. For instance, the main character will narrate for a bit then drop out to let a scene play out regularly. And in this scene you will get a line like: “So, am I going to see you tonight for dinner at eight?” Sure, the main character could be just saying this to confirm. But shouldn’t the other character in the scene know this info already and maybe want to discuss something else?

(4) This last one really curls the blood of many script-readers. If you have one character who narrates, who is often the main character of the story then we (the real audience as well as the person[s] being told the story; see #2) can only “see” the story from the main character’s point-of-view. So the moment you switch point-of-views it becomes a “cheat.” Ideally, voice-over narration is a way for the audience (and the person[s] listening to the narrator) to get inside of a (main) character’s head and see life through that character’s eyes—and no one else’s. This element gets botched the most. Midway through a script with voice-over narration, out of nowhere the main character has knowledge of things she couldn’t have known because she was either never there or hadn’t yet arrived at the location where those specific details would eventually come up. It’s a matter of sequencing. Some writers try to gloss over this by saying that because the main character/narrator is recollecting all that happened, the details of things she couldn’t possibly know of but somehow knows of them much earlier in the narrative are okay to state at an earlier time because she’s merely piecing a story together, albeit unreliably (first person mechanics automatically make this a reality), and she’s going to eventually find out that information anyway and a simple line of dialogue to clear up the matter when she does eventually find out the information in the correct scene is a simple-enough fix. It’s like a reverse lampshade, or something. But in my book, it’s still a “cheat.”

black-horse

The Dark One

Shaffer works all four of these with ease, tripping up a bit on #3—but that’s just me being hella nit-picky. However, the rest of the story hums… And of the five stage plays I’ve reviewed so far, Equus has the most complete story line: you have a world-weary doctor who is over it and doing the cliché one last job. Here it’s up to him to determine the fate of a teen who has done something monstrous to a team of stable horses, and he’s got roughly one month to make his final decision. The teenager in question is seventeen-year-old Alan Strang, who is a bit of a sicko in my opinion. I’m quite disturbed by what he did to those horses. I shiver thinking about how many more Alan Strangs there are out there today hidden in society doing this type of sick, twisted ish behind closed doors and away from cameras…

I would like to take this time to apologize in advance for what is going to be the vagueness of my review. Like Camille (could’ve done a tie-in but opted not to) — I think this is one you should read… But I also must issue a Trigger Warning along with that recommendation. There are two sequences—this being more a performance piece, and the showiest of the plays I’ve discussed—that are definitely worth your while. One is at the “midpoint” and the other is at what I take to be the play’s climax. These sequences make the play what it is and Shaffer’s descriptions in these moments (throughout as well) have sucked all the life force out of me. (I don’t know if I could’ve handled seeing this play acted out IRL.)

hobbyhorse

Giddy up!

Shaffer piles a lot on to his plate here in trying to get to the root of what would make Alan do what he did. I don’t buy any of it, and I don’t feel bad about making that known. The theme here—again, under the umbrellas of passion, sex, religion and sanity—is the seemingly senseless violence of our time. Yeah, I agree but with Alan it comes down to curiosity—that and he could get away with it because the creatures he lashed out on are virtually defenseless.

the_godfather_horse_head

Entertainment? Where’s the heck is PETA?

Having read Equus, I can’t help but look at this play differently now. I’m going to go against the grain here and take a Feminist angle, because I find it warranted this time around. Plot and narrative-mechanics wise, this play is another two-hander (forty-year-old man, seventeen-year-old boy) and the typical back-and-forth/will-they, won’t-they business is all solid. But there are some peculiar—and by peculiar, I mean off-putting—jabs at women kneaded not so subtlety into the dough… Both Dysart and Alan blame women for their sexual inadequacies; Dysart admits to a female colleague—on the job!—that he is impotent; Dysart’s boss (Hesther) allows him to go far beyond the doctor/patient relationship thus making her a pushover; Alan’s dad (Frank) blames his wife (Dora; Alan’s mother) for Alan’s behavior (effeminacy); it’s also suggested—strongly suggested—that a young woman’s (Jill) sexual advances are what may have caused Alan to go postal; Alan, himself, is even antagonistic towards a nurse and strikes his own mother… Look, facts are facts—coded or exposed. And Shaffer, not any of the characters in this here story, may have had some resentment (and possible outright hatred) towards women. Not to speak ill of the dead but it’s worth mentioning that Shaffer was homosexual, so… (That makes two gay writers for those keeping track of diversity.)

Well, it should be obvious that this story holds up… I mean, just look at what we’re doing to Mother Nature. Hell, look at what we’re doing to our own species… Sorry, I can’t be more inventive and extensive. Stories like this make me extremely depressive and question my existence… I get to wondering if our society is even equipped to handle grisly events like the one featured in Equus… This play was written and performed in the 1970’s, and like a cheating voice-over narration, I have working knowledge of the future so I know that we don’t per se… And I guess that’s what makes me so sad. Right now, some nut-job is getting ready to mistreat/torture an animal for no other reason than that he/she can. It’s absolutely infuriating that I or any animal-protecting agency can’t do anything to stop it from happening… It looks like this has shaped up to be another Color Struck moment where fun slips out the back door. *deep sigh* Tough material to trek through this month boys and girls and aliens… But make no mistake, Shaffer’s a genius playwright and the writing in Equus is phenomenal… It’s just the subject matter; I’m not a fan of this kind of stuff (anymore)… I’ll close by saying… Shit, I don’t even know how to close… And here it is National Pet Month and I just had to have this play slotted, oh boy… I’ll see you guys next month with something a little more upbeat… I should be all right by then… Next month’s stage play is from one of my favorite time periods: The Restoration.

stage-chair

‘Til June…

 

 

Rating: 3/5