Archive for Misogyny

Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: Preliminary Confessions #2: Conclusion | The Rover

Posted in Theater Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2017 by gregnett
masks

Comedy. Tragedy.

Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: Preliminary Confessions #2: …Conclusion

Let me pause for a moment once again to stop my reader from drawing any erroneous conclusions about me; because I have spoken to acquaintances of mine and I have even sifted through my own thoughts quite extensively on the matter, and it must not be supposed that I am one who puts himself above others or has any enmity towards those in positions of rank nor do I take pride in taking shots at any of our institutions. But the Great Architect as my witness: something is going on out here that don’t feel right. On most days, I’m left speechless and mystified by what I see. How is it that we are unable to recognize that aspects of our everyday life are on the decline? I attest—almost on a daily basis—that I am one of the People, the only child of a single mother who did her best to see that her baby boy got off to a good start in this mad, mad world; a kind, humble black man of decent descent who tries like hell to not make harsh judgments about others; a man who loathes being the center of attention, a station that most of my fellow Muricans would find favorable because there’s less of a spotlight on my moral and intellectual qualities.

Re-comforted by this assessment, which doesn’t make me equal to or superior than the best, but places me far above the worst in our society (culture), I return now to the anecdote of my former Economics teacher, last touched upon a month ago, in order to bring it to a swift close. And the only thing left to say really is that I felt cheated; I didn’t get what I had paid for. (Well, technically, I didn’t pay any of the classes I had that semester. I fell on hard times and never actually got around to taking care of that nasty bit of business. And it isn’t something that I worry about either. That outstanding debt won’t go to collections. This I know because right now Uncle Sam has me faced against the wall with a gun pressed in the small of my back and is going through my pockets for other monies I apparently still “owe” him. But that’s beside the point and is another matter entirely. Still, I can’t help but say: Fuck you, FEMA! FUCK You!)

Our culture is crumbling transitioning. Everything feels cheap now. Flashing lights and crisp pixels, to me, just don’t cut it. The off-the-chart decibels and immersive gadgetry are committing a theft of the human soul to the highest order. There are those out there who can connect the dots better than I can so go to them for the numbers. Alls I got is the eye test and what I can feel—and it ain’t pretty. My brief stint with community college exposed all of this—or opened the gate, I should say. I merely wandered in and had a look around. What was visible was how poor the quality has become with a lot of our standing institutions, our entertainment—plastic and unsubstantial (and dubiously encapsulating) yet offered up in a way to seem cutting-edge and the first of many fun! and exciting! interactive experiences to come. Now this doesn’t mean that the Theater is something that should be held in high regard, because it too has had its share of problems when it was Big Man on campus. It’s just me stating that it is now a relic, that it is of a bygone era, a niche experience for those with a middle-class income—and perhaps one we should fight a little harder for, though that’s high unlikely seeing as we just recently let the Circus go the way of the dinosaur. In the eyes of the masses, the Stage is viewed as something that’s still hobbling about like an old, tick-ridden Bassett Hound suffering with heart disease. We all know she’s seen her better days, poor thing. We just affectionately sneak her doggie-Furosemide into a cube of Kraft-brand cheddar, drop the “treat” into her bowl then lovingly pat her atop the head… Just let her die her own slow, miserable death on her terms; the pill is merely to ease the pain. To date, I’ve gone to the library and picked up a copy of every stage play in this series without any hassle and don’t expect that ever to change. Stage plays (and books too for that matter) sit on the shelf by the boatload. (Don’t even get me started on reading.) Only one (In the Summer House) had a check-out slip in it (dated March 2009); and only two had notes scribbled in the margins (Rome and Juliet, The Rover). And with that, I conclude my second preliminary confession. As is the fashion, I ask that we turn our attention to June’s stage play, The Rover.

 

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Lute got ’em dancin’!

 

Title: The Rover, or The Banish’d Cavaliers (1677)
Playwright: Aphra Behn
Time Period: The Restoration
Plot: Three upper-class Neapolitan women disguise themselves as gypsies for the pre-Lenten carnival in Naples in order to pursue men. Their endeavor puts them in the direct path of a group of capricious cavaliers who are on exile from England.
Dope Line(s):

[Act 2, Sc. 2, Ln. 85-89]

ANGELLICA 
How dare you take this liberty? Withdraw.
—Pray tell me, sir, are not you guilty of the same mercenary crime?
When a lady is proposed to you for a wife, you never ask
how fair, discreet, or virtuous she is, but what’s her fortune — which if
but small, you cry, “She will not do my business” and basely leave
her though, she languish for you — say, is not this as poor?

[Act 4, Sc. 2, Ln. 174-180]

WILLMORE
A virtuous mistress! Death, what a thing though hast found out for
me. Why, what the devil should I do with a virtuous woman? A
sort of ill-natured creatures, that take a pride to torment a lover.
Virtue is but an infirmity in woman, a disease that renders even
the handsome ungrateful; whilst the ill-favoured, for want of so-
licitations and address, only fancy themselves so. I have lain with
a woman of quality, who has all the while been railing at whores.

[Act 5, Sc. 1, Ln. 229-233]

 ANGELLICA
So will the devil! Tell me,
How many poor believing fools thou hast undone?
How many hearts thou hast betrayed to ruin?
Yet these are little mischiefs to the ills
Thou’st taught mine to commit: thou’st taught it love.

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Bad Boys of the 1600’s

I’ve been cooped up in my place for the past three weeks in deep, deep thought about a number of things transpiring in my life at the moment. And like any other person, I break from the weariness and introspection and go heavy on C.L.A.M. (Cinema, Literature, Art, Music). So Lee, Woo, Wright, Miller and Dizzy have been doing an excellent job in keeping my mind occupied—but then came Behn… The older I get, the more I realize that expressing my opinion on works of art—whatever the medium—that have been anointed by the Establishment as to be of a high quality (a masterpiece) but I see merely as tripe automatically places me on a list of people never to invite to a listening session, or to a dinner party, or to any social gathering where pretend smiles are worn and top-shelf alcohol is poured—any shindig where my opinion could potentially influence (upset) those standing around me. I usually tend to play things close to the vest so as not to clue people in on what I read—I have nothing to hide really; I blog under my real name and use the first letter of my first name and my full last name on all of my social media accounts. And I’m sure Uncle Sam and his Alphabet Groups could give two shits about what I read because I’ve skimmed over just about every internal CIA document that’s been made public since the Roosevelt Administration and no G-Men have knocked on my door… yet—but I really do have quite the list of C.L.A.M. Not all of it is 5-star material either. However, it is a respectable list that if prompted I could lay down next to anybody’s and they would unequivocally nod their approval. The only shock, potentially, would be from those who know me IRL and think that I’m naturally a Negative Nancy who doesn’t seem to like much of anything. Again, there are figuratively tons of things I do like. I can easily name drop forty plays I have high praise for that I’ll never make mention of on this blog or anywhere else in public. (As I’ve said in the past, we literature buffs are a weird bunch. My best-of list is for my eyes only.) I must really sound like a broken record month after month. But, no; it isn’t that… It’s the gift and the curse of consuming things at such a high volume. I easily top a 100 books a year (fiction and non-fiction; most of which start at 350 pages) and I pad that stat with a host of online articles, maybe 15 or so magazines (cooking mags as of late), about 5 screenplays, and 20 or so stage plays. And I mirror this effort as far as the rest of the acronym. So what I mean to say is that the more intake you have of something, in this case stage plays, the more your mind starts to categorize them as well as rate them against what you’ve read in the past. And past wise, Restoration comedy had been good to me. Going in, I thought The Rover, or The Banish’d Cavaliers would be more of the same.

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17th Century Jabbawockeez

My main issue with The Rover is that the “story” is needlessly complicated for reasons I’m not particularly sure why. In my notes, I remarked that I’ve spent more time writing down what is happening than I am reading what is happening—which can’t be good, right? Usually after I’ve read a play, I write down my initial reactions to it, research its origin and other relevant facts about it, then take a moment to reflect one last time on how I feel about it. Finally, I make my decision on whether it’s good or bad, on whether it holds up or not—and that’s how the sauce is made. Having thought it over, this play is more in the line with Equus in that one would fare better to see it performed. As written it’s a lot to keep up with, and forgive my jargon, The Rover is the most “play-ey” stage play of the ones I’ve gone over in this series. Five looong acts, three interconnecting story lines that involve eighteen characters and at least six or seven more that make their way on stage; sooo many monologues, sooo much verbal sparring (the bulk of which is solid actually) and Holy Mother of Venus the asides (when a character turns to audience or away from another character in the scene to give exposition or state how they feel at that moment) — I lost count of them! It’s all such a grandeur effort for how little the play has to say.

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Aphra Behn, herself

For the uninformed, Restoration comedies rely heavily on sexual innuendos, intrigue (thus the asides) and wit (thus the monologues), and are what would be considered in the Film world of today as “sex comedies.” The protagonist, often a male, is anti-marriage/monogamy, his only interests being a good ol’ NSA-romp and pleasure (food & drink) … So, we can think of Aphra Behn in today’s terms as someone like a Kate Angelo or TV’s Liz Meriwether who now centuries later can write in this style but to either gender as far as a protagonist. Conceivably, Aphra Behn may have paved the way for these women and many others—if my research serves me correctly. A close second to Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim as far as putting pen to paper and achieving acclaim, Aphra Behn—known mostly through her nom de plume Astraea—had a much higher output of works (16) than the male playwrights of her era (Congreve while alive only had 6 of his plays performed). While other (male) playwrights didn’t need to put on plays to make money, Behn had to and because of the difficulties that arose politically she had to quit the stage altogether. Behn then ventured into a form long prose fiction storytelling (Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave; 1688) that we would come to know today as the novel putting her out front of the likes of Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe; 1719), Samuel Richardson (Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded; 1740), and Henry Fielding (An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews; 1741) the headliners of the (epistolary prose fiction) novel. So as referenced earlier, I see why the Literati celebrates her. She definitely put together quite the résumé before passing away just shy of her forty-ninth birthday.

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Stuff that brings nightmares

Instead of being called The Rover, this play should’ve been called “The Courtesan” because that’s who this play is about, not initially perhaps… Behn goes the Tarantino route and cobbles together her story from a multitude of other sources, Thomaso, or The Wanderer (1664) by Thomas Killigrew being at the top of that stack. There are also shades of As You Like It (1599?) by William Shakespeare (women of high and low births, that is, nobles and courtesans being polar opposites) as well as several other plays from the time period about shipmen exiled from their mother countries, and Spanish comedies of time period which were needlessly complicated on purpose and included in them was the stock character of an imprisoned women who is liberated towards the end the play and ultimately decides who her lover/husband will be. Any biographer of Behn will state that she was quite defensive about people’s assertions of her being a plagiarist. I only make it a point because it seems like all others do who have gone digging into her affairs… (For those of you who have been following this series since R&J, all but one stage play revolves around the topic of Sex. Can you guess which one? It’s an eerie correlation that I’ve just now noticed on my second pass through this blog post.)

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More masks…

The Rover connects the lives of a naval captain (Don Belvile) and his cavaliers (Willmore being the standout and who the title of the play is referring to; rover also means wanderer or pirate) who have been exiled from England to Europe (Italy) to the lives of three Italian women, two of whom are sisters (Florinda, the oldest; Hellena, the youngest). This is set against the backdrop of the Italian Carnival circa 1650 (Behn places her story in this calendar year as a sort of political allegory) and the entire city of Naples is in habit (costume) and mask. And how convenient that it is. However much you buy into this notion will determine your suspension of disbelief with the play. A later (third) storyline centers on a courtesan (Angellica Bianca) — and in my humble opinion who this entire play is actually about — who foolishly falls in love with titular Rover (Willmore) and rages at him for not reciprocating. Willmore may or may not have designs on Hellena (a virgin), who’s days away from going into the nunnery for good and is desperately seeking a husband so as to avoid this fate. But it’s primarily through Belvile (an Englishman, who’s waiting for the opportune time to secretly marry Florinda) and the two Dons (Pedro, Florinda and Hellena’s domineering older brother; and Antonio, Pedro’s irascible friend who wants Florinda’s hand in marriage – all Italians) that the play twists and turns thus drawing itself out over five tedious acts.

Uh, that’s the clearest and most concise understanding of what I take to be the plot of this play. The male characters seem to have little or no motivation at all while two female characters have some (Hellena wants to avoid the nunnery; Angellica wants to marry a noble man so she doesn’t have to prostitute herself anymore). From there, every combination possible of Rover (those other than Belvile; Frederick, Blunt, Willmore) is put into a scene or situation with either Angellica, Florinda, or Hellena—even Valeria (the 3rd Italian woman; Florinda and Hellena’s cousin) gets tossed in there at the end good measure. None of the moments come across as funny and I only count one occasion where something profound was stated. When all of this becomes too predictable another courtesan is folded into the mix (Lucetta) possibly making a fourth storyline (?) in the play…

Again, I give you all of that without taking one, single look at SparkNotes or Wikipedia and still I’m beaten psychologically over even having to say that much. There’s barely enough plot to go along with the obscene amount of contrivances that put me on tilt somewhere around the middle of Act Three… Look, I get that they’re in mask and full costume (metaphors abound; I get it) but surely one character should have been able to pick up on another character’s voice and/or mannerisms—and not until the “plot” requires them to do so. The pacing is way off due to music numbers, quick scenes (some a half-page long), and several other tangents. (What was with that Lucetta storyline?) Day, yesterday, morning and night get thrown around so profusely that it’s hard to make out when each scene takes place or how much time has lapsed between Act One and Act Five. I think this story plays out over the course of three, possibly four days and occurs mostly at night (evening). Locations jump back and forth between a crowded street or someone’s chamber (bedroom; as is the case with farce). Again, having to decipher all of this ate away at what I was willing to believe and broke me mentally.

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Cormorant – Mask makers used them as inspiration

Another trigger warning because rape and attempted rape is spoken about throughout this entire play (sex comedy), weird considering a woman wrote this (though under a pen name whom many took to be a man writing anonymously). Here’s a snippet:

[BLUNT: Cruel? ’Sheartlikins*, as a galley slave, or a Spanish whore. Cruel? Yes; I will kiss and beat thee all over, kiss and see the all over; thou shalt lie with me too, not that I care for the enjoyment, but to let thee see I have ta’en deliberated malice to thee, and will be revenged on one whore for the sins of another. I will smile and deceive thee, flatter thee, and beat thee, kiss and swear and lie to thee, embrace thee and rob thee, as she did me; fawn on thee and strip thee stark naked; then hang thee out at my window by the heels, with a paper of scury verses fastened to thy breast, in praise of damnable women – come, come along.]

(*’Sheartlikins = ideally, a swear word like “Damn” or “Jesus Christ!” or “Shit!”)

I’m gonna get out of this one early and say that this play doesn’t hold up. No! (Cell phones would collapse this entire plot.) We’re moving into what is now the West’s 4th wave of Feminism and there’s better material floating around that speaks to the aim of this movement—because that’s kind of what I take away from this play. Behn uses her female characters to convey the hypocrisies between men and women in then English society, especially through Angellica. She gets all the juicy lines, she’s gets to do the majority of the soapboxing; she’s the one left hangin’ when people start pairing off at the end which is why I thought the play should’ve been named after her profession. As for the libertine lifestyle versus the traditional (marriage/monogamy) lifestyle; well, all one has to do is glance at the current marriage rates in this country and see who’s winning that battle… But make no mistake, Behn is dope but if you go through life never having read The Rover you wouldn’t be missing out on anything. It’s a bummer, because I thought this was gonna be a good one. Oh, well… Next month is my birthday month boys and girls and aliens! I’ll be in New York City for the first time ever! And next month’s stage play deals with something that’s become important to me again: Family.

 

stage-chair

‘Til July…

 

Rating: 2.5/5

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

MOVIE REVIEW: The Keeping Room; or Civil War Panic Room

Posted in Movie Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2015 by gregnett

Perhaps the idea for The Keeping Room came after screenwriter Julia Hart (making her feature film debut here) went on a B movie, woman-in-peril, slasher film bender. Perhaps there was something about the exploitative material of the 70’s and 80’s that needed more exploiting and a re-imagining. And I guess the backdrop of the Civil War was as good as any—perhaps?

He's right behind you! Turn around!

He’s right behind you! Turn around!

After seeing the trailer I was all prepared to wax poetic about how if this movie were about three white men defending their turf while two armies of mostly white men bludgeoned one another over American turf at large, it would’ve been recognized as the start of Good Movie Season and Tom Hardy or someone of his caliber would’ve been mentioned as an Oscar hopeful, and this film would’ve easily played in 2,000 theaters having wiggled its way out of an R rating. But perhaps Hollywood did us a favor on this one…

White clothes...Metaphor?

White clothes… umm, metaphor?

I’m not sure exactly who to shine the spotlight of blame on. The obvious choice would be the director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown) who has a checkered past when it comes to this kind of dark material; or it could be the other way around maybe seeing as it was Julia Hart wrote this—the monologues, in all of their vagueness, are hers. As of this review, I’m still stumped as to what either of them was trying to tell us with this piece. Regardless, what it all boils down to is cinematic pointlessness—and I’m not even trying to be harsh.

Don’t get me wrong: I love period pieces. I just spent the last 3 years of my life writing one. But I pose the same question(s) to the filmmakers of The Keeping Room, the same any reputable critic would pose, the same I posed to myself when I sat down to write my story, the same any general audience would pose sitting down to watch theirs: What does this all really mean? How does this story tie in to today?

Why

Why “run” when I can “walk”…

As far as the latter, there are flashes: the full liberation of women; women not needing to be defined by a man, they themselves should suffice; the constant sexual intrusion of men; (white) male aggression—if I’m reading the subtext correctly. But on the surface where movies need to make sense and entertain, nothing in this film strikes a chord.

Just so at least someone tells you: a keeping room is an area just off the kitchen of a home. Keeping rooms date back to Colonial times when families would sleep in that area when the rest of the house was cold. Since that area could be heated by the kitchen stove, it often provided the only heated place in the house. A fairly light Google search got me that definition. The title is named dropped twice but never fully explained. The “keeping room” also doesn’t factor much into the plot either.

Ominous, ominous, ominous...

Ominous, ominous, ominous…

The year is 1865 and if you’re an American, for your sake, I hope you know that this was the year the Civil War ended. (Bonus points if you know the day and the month.) Three women—two white sisters and their Negro slave—are living together in very close quarters on what I guess is a farm somewhere in the American south. I’m no historian but knowing what I know about Slavery—not the gray sanitized version being taught in American schools—none of what I saw here made a lick of sense. And yes, most stories are contrived, I get that. But this story is contrived beyond forgiveness. The Keeping Room purports that a Negro slave woman, who the movie places at or around the age of 30, would stick around to help two oblivious, lily-white white women, who fall somewhere between the ages of 17 and 30, who know very little about farm work (especially the younger one), who stupidly go walking into the woods and get bitten—off screen!—by a raccoon and become a non-factor (solely the younger one), who have no white men in their vicinity to protect them, who themselves have yet to pack up and travel north to safety, who most likely have treated their Negro slave woman worse than the animals on their farm, who oddly have mentioned to this same Negro slave woman at some point long before the narrative began the whereabouts of extra guns hidden in the house (these guns don’t become a factor until late into the proceedings at which point there is forced exposition on the movie’s part to relay this information to the audience), who ignore danger when it is smack-dab in their face (solely the older one), who lastly, clearly don’t have the muscle mass or sheer will to live they same way their Negro slave woman does and should their Negro slave woman turn the aggressor, it’d be improbable that either of these two white women could defend themselves against her. Taking all of this in I thought to myself, “There is not nearly enough flesh removed from the Negro slave woman’s back to justify this kind of obedience.” Do I have to anecdote about the etymology of the word cracker?

“We all niggers now”, says Augusta (Brit Marling, I Origins) to her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld, Barely Lethal) [She’s like the go to young lady for period pieces, isn’t she?] scolding her for talking down to Mad (Muna Otaru) their female Negro slave. But nothing about what she said was inauthentic. The filmmakers might want to play fast and loose with the time period and its race relations but Louise is absolutely right: why does she have to do field work? Three people don’t need nearly that much food to survive on, especially if all Mad is going to prepare is vegetable soup night after night, and if the men have yet to return home from battle. And why does Augusta need to chop wood for that matter when it clearly looks like and is early spring time? The Civil War ended in the spring of the same year this story takes place. And nights get warmer in the spring. Summer’s approaching, right? I hope the movie isn’t suggesting that she’s getting an early start on the winter which is at best six months away. So again, why is she chopping wood? (Something tells me this story was initially set during the harsh of winter and the production team overlooked this fact figuring no one would notice—that and they couldn’t come up with another scene in which Brit Marling could appear independent in soooo… Well, I noticed not even trying.)

One of my favorite young female actors; this generation's Michelle Rodriguez...

One of my favorite young female actors; this generation’s Michelle Rodriguez…

On the whole, this narrative was concocted in the mind of Hart—a white woman—who keeps Mad broken and docile. Of course if Mad were to slit the sisters’ throats while they were sleeping and then make a run for it there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there? With death so imminent for all the white women cropping up in this film any smart black woman—or any black woman who wants to keep her life—would take her chances out on the road *hint hint* Underground Railroad. Surely Mad’s heard of it; the early 1860’s was its peak time of usage for runaway slaves to Canada. (For one to know just how unruly Africans were, and for that matter, just how twisted and inhumane the white establishment was during Slavery or at anytime prior (or later), it would require personal enrichment beyond American textbooks and mainstream entertainment, I guess.) Later we learn via monologue—a breath of fresh air for these types of movies because speechifying is usually reserved for white principal actors—that Mad is deeply in love with Bill (Nicholas Pinnock, Monster: Dark Continent), a Negro slave man also residing on the sisters’ farm (and the movies way too contrived reason for why Mad is still on the premises possibly), who upon his arrival home is shot in the back while in an Union officer’s uniform. Elsewhere in the movie the other non-principal black characters also die—stylistically—and for no apparent reason: their skulls are burst open before slowly dropping dead, set ablaze while atop run away horse carriages and like Bill cowardly shot in the back while defenseless. Is this another metaphor for something? Is there some deeper meaning in how they die? As for the white characters, well, they die heroically of course, drinking family recipe moonshine and monologuing. But you knew that already…

And it’s because of these and many other gratuitous nihilistic deaths (of mostly white women) that I bring up slasher films. Only in those movies do killers (usually white men as is the case here) silently stalk their prey (young scantily dressed white women) through dark hallways and poorly-lit corridors, only in those movies is exposition doled out through a feeding tube or is just dismissed altogether, only in those movies are main characters silent when they should be yammering. In real life, Bill’s untimely demise could’ve been prevented just by simply saying, “Bill. Thank God you’re home!” out loud. I should be concussed at this point for the amount times I slapped my forehead at this movie’s silliness. I really felt like I was watching a slasher. Even the guy behind me kept huffing his breath and sucking his teeth. (It’s nice when it isn’t just me.)

You could try running...

You could try running…

The film also opens with a framing story that tells us that white men are who we thought they were: belligerent, rapist, sadistic, repugnant scum. And what do white men do to bring on so many bad adjectives, well, the aforementioned and then some. Look, I’m not here to pile up on white men. The movie does that all on its own. But what a movie like this does do is highlight a few cinematic privileges that the Movie Money People of Hollywood would never bestow upon a person of color. The closest filmmakers of color have ever gotten to romanticizing cinematic retribution for Slavery was Django Unchained and even that movie was written and directed by a white male who some think has an honorary hood pass. And that’s life in Hollywood boys & girls…

As for the rest of The Keeping Room, it’s par for the course. We get an obligatory scene of a black slave being called a nigger, a scene where the sisters do their hair and makeup (really tie their dresses) together and talk about “stuff” which is suppose to signify unity or family or something, copious amounts of extreme close-ups of nature, and scene after scene after scene of the two white female leads staring off into the distance feeling exiled, sensing fear, ignoring fear until eventually fear shows up on their front doorstep. Groundbreaking, amirite? A hair slightly above film school all of it—and it even has an obnoxious screechy violin score to boot. As for the dialogue, when characters do speak, it’s of the tin can variety. Which brings me to another thing: I will never understand for the life of me why in the 21st century, with all of the script gurus and screenwriting books, with all of the overpriced film schools populating the country, and with all of the screenwriting best-of lists (the script for this film was on one) and film-centered websites—I will never understand why screenwriters withhold key exposition from the audience, or their characters. I just won’t. Why can’t Augusta and Mad call out to one another so that way Augusta doesn’t have to turn blindly around a corner and shoot an innocent defenseless person in the back? Or make an attempt to call out at least? Why can’t the town hooker say to Augusta that if you continue to hang around town Sam Worthington is going to violently rape you and your sister and possibly your Negro slave? Why! Give me a reason, please do. The entire audience knows Sam Worthington is scum. The framing story explicitly implies it and the rest of the movie hits you over the head with it: white men are sadists and not to be trusted. So who are the filmmakers trying to keep in suspense? Fuck show, don’t tell…TELL! So that way you can find a more satisfying way to achieve actual tension and give us the audience the necessary info we need to buy into your story. Gawd!

Psycho-killer...

Psycho-killer…

I’d go further and discuss this film from a feminist standpoint but what for. It’s all so damn fatalistic. And there’s not much else to it. When people do and act in stupid, senseless ways this film is what you get—a shamble of a production that tries hard to be the third act of Home Alone and the second act of Panic Room but achieves neither. In the end this’ll most likely wind up on Netflix under “Strong Female Lead” which for me is a bit of a head-scratcher. Because after all of the bloodshed, and all of the carnage, and all of the supposed female empowerment, the closing image this movie throws up on screen is three women dressed up like men walking off into the sunset.

The Keeping Room – 1 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama
Starring: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Amy Nuttall, Ned Dennehy
Director: Daniel Barber
Producer(s): David McFadzean, Dete Meserve, Jordan Horowitz, Judd Payne, Patrick Newall
Screenwriter: Julia Hart
Released: 09/25/2015; Runtime (in minutes): 95; MPAA Rating: R