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Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: The Cocktail Party

Posted in Theater Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by gregnett
masks

Comedy. Drama.

Title: The Cocktail Party (1949)
Playwright: T.S. Eliot
Time Period: Modernism
Plot: Several West End Londoners gather in the Chamberlaynes’ drawing-room following a cocktail party. Left to serve their guests alone, Edward Chamberlayne meets a mysterious stranger who offers his assistance in helping save their troubled marriage.
Dope Line(s):

[Act 1, Sc. 1, Ln. 333-335]

UNIDENTIFIED GUEST
It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.
Resign yourself to be the fool you are.
That’s the best advice
I can give you.

[Act 1, Sc. 3, Ln. 88-89]

EDWARD
Oh, my God, what shall we talk about?
We can’t sit here in silence.

[Act 1, Sc. 3, Ln. 322-325]

LAVINIA
Everything I tried only made matters worse,
And the moment you were offered something that you wanted
You wanted something else. I shall treat you very differently
In
[the] future.

london-night-1950

London (West End), 1950s

It is soooo refreshing to (finally) read a good story. I can’t even remember the last time I felt this giddy upon finishing a book. (Good stories do that to me; how ‘bout you?) I guess this here blog series is gonna be alright after all… And I’m thankful for that! Last month’s stage play put me in a really dark place. (Bad stories do that to me; how ‘bout you?) Talking became a chore. My jeans didn’t feel as crisp. I started back eating bread. Everything was not awesome. Life!—How fast things snowball… But like his Duderino’s ethos as to the way Life is: “Strikes and gutters.” Yes, why, yes indeed! Life is, at any given moment, as simple as that­—that of a forward roll of a thirteen-pound bowling ball down a waxed, wooden lane. Not necessarily a strike but the aim is to hit something as opposed to nothing at all. So, here I am; confidence renewed, faith restored, out of the gutter and lined up for a spare!—and all the more thankful to finally have some good chi flowing through me. This series’ll be done in no time!

st_anthony_of_padua

St. Anthony of Padua

It being close to the Holiday Season (November, Thanksgiving; December, Christmas [and Kwanzaa]), I wanted to do a side-by-side to cap things off. By that I mean, I wanted to review two stage plays: one of them an original, and the other an adaptation. Bad form on me though; I wrote last month that I’d be going Greek (I later edited this portion.) but in truth I had the “adapted” material slotted for November. It’s no surprise now but The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot is somewhat of a loose adaption of Alcestis by Euripides (Feel free to jump ahead if you like.) — and as “Thank you!” to You this Holiday Season, I decided to let you in on what some of my favorite stage plays are. Playwrights actually. I absolutely love T.S. Eliot! I would guess that most of you are familiar with him through his poetry; this one in particular: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). Old Possum’s would later be used as the source material for the long-running Broadway musical Cats (1981). I’m familiar with Eliot through a number of his essays and Murder in the Cathedral (1939), an earlier stage play of his which sits high on my list of all-time favorites. (Yes, it’s that good!) As mentioned way back in March and echoed again in June, I’m rather hush-hush about the material I read (for the most part). But ‘tis the season and offering up one of my personal favs might give you a better understanding of the kind of material I’m always on the lookout for…

TS Eliot

T.S. Eliot, himself

Well, what’s unique about Cocktail is how stripped-down the material is but at the same time how crammed it is with clever (and perhaps indulgent) homages to timeless works. Eliot borrows liberally from the Holy Bible, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Prometheus Unbound, The Waste Land (his own), Murder in the Cathedral (his own), Sweeney Agonistes (his own), The Family Reunion (his own), East Coker (his own), The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (his own), Descent into Hell (his buddy’s), The Extasie, A Woman Killed with Kindness, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Divine Comedy (Paradiso in particular), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis], Fathers and Sons, Res Publica [The Republic], Piers Plowman, Carmina Gadelica; also some wise sayings from Socrates and Buddha, and a few plot mechanics from William Congreve and the Comedy of Manners—and, of course, the above mentioned Alcestis which I’ll discuss more in-depth next month. (Eliot basically did the Tarantino before Tarantino did the Tarantino.)

1950s_solitaire

Some say Patience, I say Solitaire

All this mic-checking of other people’s material caused a lot of ire among Eliot’s literary peers (and a few of his friends) in the play’s heyday. (I seriously doubt the plebs read any of the works mentioned above; I’m aware of about seven of them, and much of what I’ve listed have insanely high page counts.) And that was pretty much the only significant scratch against The Cocktail Party—that Eliot filched “sourced” so much of his dialogue from other people’s work that the play’s credibility was somewhat strained. Oh, and the characters—whose origins are rooted in farce; as Eliot was also wanting to satirize the first-world problems of London’s West End circa 1950—start off in something grounded in reality (and at times witty) only to become grand sermonizers and soap-boxers as the play moves forward, especially in the middle of Act Two. (As a lover of monologues, I was in hog heaven. The fact that they were heavy with Christian undertones and philosophical headiness didn’t all that much bother me.) Interestingly enough, Eliot later defended himself against the “sourcing” claim, stating that he merely did this to keep theater critics from picking up the scent of the play’s main source of inspiration, which again, is Alcestis. Should you read The Cocktail Party, that’s your call me to make. Me, myself—I have about a thousand other questions…

gin_tonic1

Gin + Tonic + Lime = Yes!

The play begins at the tail end of a cocktail party at the flat (home) of Edward & Lavinia Chamberlayne. Edward has been left stranded with several guest—and none of these stragglers have even thought of starting for the door. So the gin continues to flow, the hors d’oeuvres continue to be passed, and Edward’s patience continues to be tried—so much so that he fibs a bit on the whereabouts of his wife Lavinia who’s missing in action. (She’s away in the country tending to a fake sick aunt.) Just shy of newlyweds, their five-year marriage is already on the rocks; though this information is unknown to us early on. It takes minimal effort on an Uninvited Guest’s part to extract this bit of information from Edward a few moments later when they’re alone. Funny thing though: the Uninvited Guest’s nosiness is subtler than that of Julia’s, the Chamberlaynes’ spinster friend and renowned West End socialite who’s still lingering around. (She questions people whenever she damn well pleases.) Hell, Julia has no understanding of the word rude and neither does Alexander, another West Ender high up in the upper crust of London society. He too has yet to start home. It’s as if these three are all on the same team or something… Unable to cancel the party, poor Edward had to handle this small group—and others maybe—all on his own. They party finally over, Edward later finds himself in his drawing-room, defeated and dispirited, talking to a complete a stranger about his marital woes. Later in that same drawing-room, Edward’s young friend Peter—an aspiring script-writer!—tells Edward his problems which are also of the love variety. Young Peter made the timeless mistake of putting himself in the friend zone thinking that that move would put him on the quickest route to a woman’s under garments. Too bad the man Peter’s laying this heavy burden down upon has already been “down that road.” But at least Edward’s being a good sport about it and hearing Peter out. Better to let the young buck down easy and keep the fisticuffs to a minimum—because you never know how young guys are going to react especially when they think that they’re “In love.” Oh, and that young woman would be Celia, who vanished with everyone else earlier. And like most side-chicks, Celia’s aching to be the star of the show. But “cosmically” there might be some thwarting of her master plan.

1950's_hors_doeuvres

More chips! More dip!

“The same thing but new” is an axiom sang out across the creative spectrum. It would be too easy for one to just roll their eyes at infidelity. I too have seen my fair share of it, but it’s the introspection that Eliot gives to both Celia and Edward that makes this play something worthwhile. (I mean, every time these two meet it’s fireworks.) I didn’t throw the book, but boy was I close—again! The play keeps the locations to a minimum (the Chamberlayne’s flat and a Consulting Room) and the storyline is fairly simple: a troubled married couple’s interactions with their acquaintances over the course of two years or so roughly, some of whom may or may not have god-like qualities about them; one in particular (the Uninvited Guest) agreeing to reunite said wife (Lavinia) and husband (Edward) — free of charge it seems. (Man, we’ll just have to wait until next month so that I can touch more on this.) However, The Cocktail Party does commit one major #TINWIPA no-no and that is having an awkward time jump in the narrative (two years!). Again, easily dismissed when the characters and the story are both complex.

gin_tonic3

Gin me!

Truth be told, old-ass Julia got underneath my skin—a lizzot! She pops up everywhere, prying for the sake of prying. This lady has got to be the noisiest character I’ve ever encountered in a story. But she did grow on me after a while as did Lavinia who definitely knows how to deflate a man’s ego… which makes for a great segue.

Like Camille, the “plot” of the story comes into place by the end of the first act. And much of what the characters say (and not do) after that point is where the story (tension) lies… To go into detail would ruin a lot of it for you (Act III is dope!); and you’ve seen a love triangle before. But what made me sit up in my seat was Eliot’s treatment of Edward. Edward is not the prototypical man of his Age (1950s), and him questioning his place in the universe and wanting to escape a loveless marriage would’ve have been quite striking to theater-goers. (Of course, men and women separated but not in great volume like today.) Men of Edward’s era rarely if ever thought of themselves as individuals (not publicly at least) and happily signed up for whatever society was dishing out. If it was go to work: men marched right into the factories; go to war: then hand me my damn rifle!; get married and start a family: on it!

chirstmas beetle

Metaphor, or Insult… Hm?

But watching Edward come into his own (self-actualization) made me painfully aware of something the men of my Age (A.D. 2017; some late Gen-Xers and many Millennials) have embraced fully for one; it’s also a luxury we don’t necessarily take for granted, but we really don’t have a clue on hard it must’ve been for men in Edward’s day to say fugg it! and go for self and self only. If Edward were living today he’d definitely be MGTOW. I would have liken him to having the same epiphany that Kevin Spacey (Oy, vey Kevin Spacey *deep sigh*) had early on as Lester Burnham in the movie American Beauty. (Films like The Matrix, Everything Must Go, Office Space, and Fight Club also come to mind.) Here’s a quick back and forth between Edward and the side-chick:

[CELIA: I don’t think I care for advice from you, Edward:
You are not entitled to take any interest
Now, in my future. I only hope you’re competent
To manage your own. But if you are not in love
And never have been in love with Lavinia,
What is it that you want?*]

(* = I provided the underline.)

Me answering for Edward: To have a little harem of maybe four or five hot twenty-five-year-olds on the side. Less responsibility, a less stressful job, and only to live off of what I absolutely need. A minimal existence. Also, a respectable gun and/or book collection, and perhaps a few other manly hobbies like billiards, cigars, or wild game hunting. A solid workout routine. Oh, and a better nest egg, and less friends, and less interaction with “dumb” people. And less you (Celia) unless you want in to my harem…

Sorry, I get carried away sometimes. Much of the above was me being cynical. But, no, Edward’s actual response is this:

[EDWARD: I am not sure.
The one thing of which I am relatively certain,
Is that only since this morning
I have met myself as a middle-aged man
Beginning to know what it is to feel old.]

Celia, in the middle of all this, belittles Edward by calling him a beetle. And with that yet another women stuffs a man back into the role of provider.

tray_glasses

A toast… To???

I’ll lay off the gender ish for now and close by saying that this play is very much relevant in today’s world—albeit slightly. Also, Eliot was doing the whole Art-Imitating-Life shtick here. IRL, Eliot’s wife died and during their whole time together he had been hella close to a young lady who thought that dude would remarry her when wifey was no longer in the picture. Well, she guessed wrong. So, it appears the Mr. Eliot went his own way. Interesting… But the fact remains that many (men) are waking up to the peculiarities of the institution of Marriage—especially now that the State and the Courts have gotten way too involved. And most have sought out to better understand their personal relationship with the Universe, spiritually, religiously, astrally (it’s a word now), and secularly (and this is a word now too). Of course, there are major (societal) ramifications to all of this, but my generation can’t help but question all of these things; we’ll deal with the cause & effect later. Strict marriage and even stricter religion don’t have the quite hold they once did—but they’re still lingering. Yet something tells me that neither of these will be the norm from now on… All righty, boys and girls and aliens. I’m looking down the barrel of three intense workout days to make room for the turkey and pumpkin pie I plan on engorging myself on. Next month we wrap this series up and we’ll talk 2018 in 2018. Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

stage-chair

‘Til December…

 

Rating: 4/5

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Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: Preliminary Confessions #3: Conclusion | The Scarlet Princess of Edo

Posted in Theater Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2017 by gregnett
masks

Comedy. Drama.

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

Presently, I am still here in L—, and again, I am sitting at my desk (in my own place now!) in K— by mid-afternoon sunshine; and oftentimes when I am burdened by anxieties that demand all of my attention, I turn towards the nearest window and find some earthly matter to focus my attention on; and remembering that I am sitting alone in this new location, and Theatre that mistress to which my heart turned away from so many years ago, I think that, though blinded to what she actually does nowadays, and as scattered as my thoughts are of her as of late, the promptings of my heart may yet bleed one more drop of her positives. I say again to you, dear reader, as I look towards the window, sitting here relaxed and in a good and gracious nature; consider the following:

 (4) To keep with tradition. If we—us adults, that is—should stop going to the theater, then there’s a strong possibility our kids won’t go at all. It would be a sad, sad day in the world if I should have to look at the Stage from behind a rope at a museum and some elderly woman working part-time through her retirement is explaining to me and my kids that going to the theater is what people used to do for “live entertainment.”

And with that, these preliminary confessions are past; I ask that you turn your attention to October’s stage play, The Scarlet Princess of Edo.

 

RyoanJi-Kane

It tolls for me…

 

Title: Sakura Hime Azuma Bunshō [The Scarlet Princess of Edo] (1817)
Playwright: Tsuruya Namboku IV (also: Sakurada Jisuke II, and Tsuuchi Genshichi)
Time Period: Tokugawa (Edo) Period
Plot: During the Kamakura shogunate period of Japan, concern for rightful succession to Shogun arises when the Yoshida clan’s sacred scroll goes missing. Amidst the clan’s search for the scroll, their young princess’ transgressions are discovered and she is immediately banished from the royal palace and forced into a life of hardship.
Dope Line (s):

[Act 1]

GUNSUKE
A flowering cherry should not end in a pit. Think, my Lady, of the House of Yoshida.

[Act 2]

SAKURA
What happened afterward was that gradually; with each day and night that passed, there increasingly; welled within me tender and loving memories. How can I ever forget the spring of last year; the cold of February lingering in the air; when by my nighttime pillow, creeping stealthily; appeared a burglar’s dark form dimly before me; black hood covering his head, his face in darkness. Before I knew it, frightened, my trembling hand seized. . .

[Act 2]

SEIGEN        
In truth, the image of the moon shining pure and eternal over the boundless ocean of enlightenment is destroyed by wind-driven waves of the Five Corruptions and Six Desires. I am accused of wetting my sleeves with the dew of lust. Though unjustly charged, I do not think of myself now but only my temple’s welfare. Serve it well.

 

shamisen

Smooth, soft sounds from the shamisen

 

I have here in front of me nine pages of notes… cobbled together after reading a stage play that went well over the century mark (134 PAGES!). Also on these notes are the “loose strands” of a needlessly complicated story that when analyzed basically boils down to a bunch of old people getting bent out of shape that a young (sixteen-year-old) hussy porked a thug (lesser samurai); that an elderly priest can’t control his lust for a twelve-year-old boy; that that same priest dies, turns into a ghost and then proceeds to terrorize the hussy from beyond the grave; and a clan’s sacred scroll… The Scarlet Princess of Edo was supposed to be a “masterpiece.” Well, that’s what I was led to believe… And Scarlet Princess might just very well be—but not by my standards.

 

Buddhist_Incense_case

Smell the boredom…

 

It’s hard to convince others of your storytelling expertise especially when you’ve had nothing published/produced and then laid before the general public. I can talk here ad nauseam about forward momentum, plot (literary) devices, stock characters, characterization, proper exposition, taste/subtlety, story length (page count), etc. — but here I am without any sort of following or even a sparse Wikipedia page to show for myself—while Tsuruya Namboku IV has one.

 

Tsuruya Nanboku IV

Playwright, Tsuruya Namboku IV

 

Little is known about Namboku IV… But in looking up what little facts there are on him, I found out that his name was given to him after marrying Tsuruya Namboku III’s sister (Oyoshi). He didn’t garner success until almost was almost fifty years old (46) and is better known for his ghost stories, one in particular: Tōkaidō yotsuya kaidan (trans. Ghost Stories at Yotsuya). Namboku IV wrote with dark intent and is originator of the “raw” domestic play (kizewamono) about criminals and society’s outcasts—which is painfully apparent in Scarlet Princess. Two versions of this play survive to this day, one is seven acts and the other is nine—and I guess there’s no big secret about the one I read. Kabuki theatre has a particular setup: a prologue followed by five acts; but Namboku IV and his contemporaries played with this structure and added a ton of dance numbers and “posing.”

 

Buddhist_prayer_beads

Pray to Buddha

 

And there’s some fun to be had there if you were to see this play acted out… However, kabuki plays took place during the day, and Scarlet Princess is/was considered to be an “all-day” play. (I want so hard to work a pun in here but I won’t.) Scarlet depicts a Japan in which the sociopolitical order is crumbling, and you can really sense the overall material loss and decay as well as the spiritual disorder of things. Just about every character—and there are about sixty of them—drops the line, “Namu Amida Butsu” (trans. “to think of Buddha”) to keep things right above and below, so to speak.

 

A white chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum – symbol of loyalty and devoted love

 

The story, in the most concise way possible, intertwines the storylines of the three Yoshida clan’s royal siblings: Umewaka, mentioned in name only, but there’s strong emphasis that his death was of grave importance; Prince Matsuwaka, who does most of the fleeing and running around along with his disgraced father Shichiro in search of the Yoshida clan’s missing Miyakodori scroll; and Princess Sakura, the titular character, who—Spoiler Alert!—is re-gifted a scarlet kimono by the husband (Zangetsu) of her former head maid (Nagaura) after wandering around for quite some time (The story plays fast-and-loose with the time frame) in a tattered pink kimono. This same scarlet kimono is the kimono for which she has garnered the nickname the “Cherry Blossom Princess” from among the commoners.

 

cherry_blossoms

Wouldn’t be Japan without Cherry Blossoms

 

What makes the stage play so damn long are all of its subplots, the main one being about Reverend Seigen who begins the play via the prologue. He wants to jump off a cliff because has the hots for a twelve-year-old boy—and there’s no need for me to go in on how I feel about pedophilia… Anyhoo, he conveniently shows up SEVENTEEN YEARS LATER! to be the dude who’s supposed to marry Princess Sakura to some thuggish samurai(?) named Akugoro. (We know he’s bad because he’s wearing the black kimono.) Well, you guessed it, she’s ain’t a virgin no mo’, and there’s this missing scroll business; so now the Yoshida’s are on the scramble.

Other subplots involve people paid to either find someone, watch someone, dancing, and some weird ghost angle which was quite graphic—and they all just broke me mentally… I would’ve never guessed that there would be a story worse than In the Summer House but boy did I find it in this one.

 

black kimono

Beware the black kimono!

 

All of the men in this story are repulsive and gross. They just seem to get irate and vindictive because of what the women do. Everything borders on objectification and sexual assault, and left me feeling quite disturbed—especially now with what’s going on in Hollyweird.

 

Princess Sakura - Scarlet Princess

Drawing of “The Scarlet Princess”

 

This play doesn’t hold up by a long-shot… There’s not much here I can add to it, and sadly I have to do something I don’t think I’ve ever done before which is give a really really low grade to a stage play. It is what it is… Next month should be more of an upswing. I’ll be going back to the early 20th century in November. Happy Halloween boys and girls and aliens.

 

 

stage-chair

‘Til November…

 

Rating: 0.5/5

Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: Preliminary Confessions #3: Continued | The Life of Lady Godiva

Posted in Theater Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2017 by gregnett
masks

Comedy. Drama.

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

So then, Theatre, the oft-neglected redheaded stepchild, you who are treated only slightly better than a destitute orphan, and cries out the most for attention of all society’s institutions, at length I’ve been away from you: the time was come at last that I should no more sit in anguish in your tiny, wretched seats; no more vague monologues, and wondering afterwards what the hell the “playwright” was trying to get across, etc. Too many have doubtless since then followed in my footsteps. However, with whatever alleviation the years have provided us, it seems we are still bound together by a subtle link derived from a common root. I, therefore, who mentioned just a month earlier, as it were, in the writings of this confessional, expressed that I would be highlighting a few of your positives rather than continuing to harp on all of your negatives.

And so, dear reader, another positive for you to consider:

(3) The “live”, actual performance. (And its variations.) It’s been said in so many ways, but here’s mine: “There’s just something cathartic and spiritually uplifting about group laughter. When an entire room of people—who are more or less strangers to one another—watching a performance get the joke, it does something to you deep down in your core.” Look, I get it. I understand completely. It’s hard getting up off the couch for just about anything these days—even the remote! But an evening at the theater is the chance to partake in an experience that can’t ever be duplicated. Literally each performance is different! You can’t help but fall prey to the spectacle when you consider that. Just imagine the sacrifice and collective group commitment it takes to put a play on—and then having to do it all over again just a few short hours later, or the very next day. It’s for that reason alone that I can’t all the way buy into the notion that “Theatre is dead.” No, sir; it is very much in the moment—one that can’t ever be recreated.

I now pass to what is this month’s main subject. And forgive me, dear reader, for such an abrupt shift which you should already be accustomed to by now in this blog series. Again, I ask that you turn your attention to September’s stage play, The Life of Lady Godiva.

 

1024px-Lady_Godiva_(John_Collier,_c._1897)

A portrait of Lady Godiva by John Collier

 

Title: The Life of Lady Godiva (1966)
Playwright: Ronald Tavel
Time Period: Late Modernism (Theatre of the Ridiculous)
Plot: A bawdy retelling of the heroic tale of Lady Godiva, an 11th century noblewoman whose famous naked horseback ride through the streets of Coventry saved the town’s residents from having to pay the oppressive taxes levied on them.

Dope Line (s):

GODIVA
With some things, the sooner they’re over, the better.

SUPERVIVA
Pity we have to resort to these deceptions. Still, at any rate, it’s a good thing hooers can’t think and don’t have feelings.

GODIVA
Skip the religious bit: —I had this convent pegged for what it is from the start.

 

medieval_romp

Even back then…

 

We need to talk. Or, rather, I have a confession to make… Whoa, a confession within a confession. That’s like, sixteen confessions… (A lame Deadpool reference; I know, I know.) No, seriously; in all honesty, I made a boo-boo. For the few of you who read this blog, you’ll see that the timing of this blog post is off by one week. I’m not all that bummed out about it; well, at first, I was—but then I realized that I was late with the first one… And rather than rushing to the press, I decided to just drop the review a week later (today!) and live with the outcome. My tardiness with this month’s blog post came up out of the fact that I got too comfortable and lost track of time. To explain: It’s been ages since I read Equus and Camille, both of which were damn good—and Romeo and Juliet (also good) aside, I’ve struggled to get through the other plays I’ve chosen to read for this series. And putting them down then going back to them didn’t help me any. So, after The Nether I decided to switch up how I do things, and consolidated the bulk of my reading and research down to a few days. And this time around I knocked out the reading in two days (over the course of back to back evenings) and then spent the following weekend digging up facts. Admittedly, it gave me lots of free time to work on other things and even jot down a substantial amount of notes. And I guess that’s partly why I was so bummed out at first about missing my (self-imposed) deadline. The Theatre of the Ridiculous—which The Life of Lady Godiva is a part of—is all but forgotten in this day and age, and it was interesting to see how big of an influence it had on other artistic mediums. For instance, glitter—which many of the TOTR’s productions used in excess—was later appropriated by the likes of Glam rock.

 

glitter 2

All that glitters…

 

And with all of the richness, style, and complexity this Theatre movement (and play) has packed into it, I didn’t take advantage of the extra time I had nor did I compile my notes for this review in any sort of serviceable fashion… There’s just too many layers to peel back on this Theatre movement to lay it down here and have it be suffice. Plus, I have other logs over the fire as far as upcoming ventures, ventures that have more of a chance at generating revenue for me—so you know how that ish goes. This could very well be lazy on my part, but I would like to throw a few recommendations on Theatre of the Ridiculous your way; that is, if you find this subject matter fascinating:

Ronald Tavel: His Life & Works [web address]

Eight Plays from Off-Off Broadway [book]

The New Underground Theatre [book]

Return to the Caffe Cino [book]

The Off, Off Broadway Book: The Plays, People, Theatre [book]

Off-Off-Broadway [wiki page]

Theatre of the Ridiculous [wiki page]

NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project [web address]

Theatre of the Ridiculous [book]

Warhol Screen Test #2 [video segment]

Warhol Screen Test #2 [video segment]

Flaming Creatures (1963), dir. Jack Smith [feature film]

 

flaming-creatures_movie-poster

Flaming Creatures movie poster

 

And this is only skimming the surface… Man, there’s so many things to consider, so much I wanted to tell you, because The Life of Lady Godiva; well, there’s not much to speak of… At best, it’s an amalgamation of things ranging from medieval fairy tales & legends, old black & white Hollywood films to Shakespearean witticism, (60’s) pop culture, Wildean plot scenarios, pomp (camp) and sexual debauchery (cross-dressing, homosexuality, bestiality, BDSM). (Throughout TOTR’s canon, you just come across re-imaginations and re-workings [see, it isn’t just Hollywood] of historical narratives and fictional works, or of the time [1960’s] murder investigations that went unsolved, adding transvestites, sex-crazed women, animals, and sex toys where needed.) Godiva cycles through Art Nouveau, Elizabethan era décor, British Edwardian era aesthetics (Gibson Girl look), Brooklyn kitsch circa early 20th century, and even peddles out a few Hispanic (Dominican) stereotypes. The music is just as anachronistic, going from Liszt to The Rockettes.

 

two_by_travel

TOTR Promo

 

Now I want to be fair to this stage play (and the TOTR movement as a whole), but then there’s my own subjectivity to consider. It goes without saying, but the script is the “bones” and the play itself is the “flesh.” But the “bones” here are quite brittle. It’s the head-scratcher of all head-scratchers that I’ve faced thus far in this blog series. The playwrights, directors, and performers involved in this movement went out of their way to be messy and scatter-brained on purpose. And it shows! On top of that: this could very well be the most self-aware movement of all time. Any number of the plays, Godiva included, could give The Rover and the rest of The Restoration a run for its money on who can dole out the most asides during a scene.

 

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Ronald Tavel

 

Which brings me to Ronald Tavel himself; an integral part, perhaps the key component in the TOTR’s holy trinity, the other two being John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam. No longer with us, Tavel has the proud distinction of being the only person to ever write with Andy Warhol. He and Warhol parted ways over, what else, creative differences (re: not being given his due credit), and if my notes serve me correctly, The Life of Lady Godiva is one of the first plays Tavel worked on after his separation with Warhol. (He had produced several plays prior to his time working with Warhol.) Tavel’s familiar bag of tricks (anachronistic use of language, sexual wordplay evoking homosexual imagery, repeated lines [dope writing!], Shakespeare references, pop songs, ad slogans) are all on display in Godiva, a re-imagining of the legend of Lady Godiva of Coventry, only this time around with—trigger warning!—rape and an attack on religion folded into the mix. (Why do so many creative types take potshots at Christianity?)

 

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Classic Gibson look

 

Tavel keeps the story of the original legend mostly intact, having his characters talk it up for a bit until it’s time for Godiva to take her famous naked horseback ride through the streets of Coventry. However, included in Tavel’s version is a horse/buggy (Don’t ask!) that’s well-endowed, a transvestite nun, a bizarre dream sequence, and a Vegas-style chorus line at the play’s climax (?). It all sounds so fascinating presenting it this way, but the amount of asides and cracks at witticism (mostly of the sexual variety) make the play fall in on itself.

 

Leather_BDSM_outfit

Who are you wearing?

 

Coventry Convent is the locale of this play and a head nun who goes by the name of Mother Superviva (transvestite; man in drag) is in charge of all the madness. The story progresses when Godiva—that’s Lady Godiva—pulls up outside the convent along with her man servant Peeping Tom (yes, that Peeping Tom; originally played by Charles Ludlam) after their horse/buggy (Don’t ask!) breaks down just shy of the convent door. We learn that Leoffric, the lord of Coventry—who we will see later in the play donning full S&M garb—is stifling the townsfolk with a burdensome tax debt and Mother Superviva has asked Godiva to save them. (There’s some business about Godiva wanting to become a nun but that bit of info is tossed to the side and forgotten.) Leoffric shows up not long after Mother Superviva has spoken to Godiva about the town’s situation, and Godiva quickly confronts Leoffric on this matter. Leoffric agrees to remit the tax but only if Godiva rides through the town at high noon ass-naked—because that’s what the history books and God have destined for her to do.

 

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Cross-dress much??

 

And that’s what’s so peculiar about the Theatre of the Ridiculous: Tavel and his ilk are okay with this level of self-awareness and senseless plot structure… The play hums one moment and then is choppy the next—on purpose!—so it doesn’t boggle the brain the way a play like In the Summer House would, but, then again, it does. And, in a weird sort of way, it’s kind of clever… The passing of time until Lady Godiva’s ride is handled with divertissements (diversions in the form of short dances) in which characters call attention to themselves and the progress (evaluation) of the production itself, and a dream sequence that takes place in Godiva’s mind, which, upon waking from, Godiva is violently raped. The rape is then quickly pushed aside to make way for a big, Vegas-style dance number ending with Godiva reviving herself somehow! and finally riding off on her horse/buggy (Don’t ask!) through Coventry, ass-naked! Again, to talk about the strangeness of this play, the actual ending, or conclusion, is given away long before the play’s final curtain which is kind of clever and funny.

 

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More Lady G

 

Does this play hold up? God, no! But there’s definitely some fun to be had in reading this, and there’s definitely something thought-provoking about the play’s underlying message.  As is the case with the majority of works that bitch-slap Religion, Godiva is no different in pushing for the acceptance of all forms of sex/sexualities (and genders?), and figures Religion to be the bulwark holding back the siege… I think it’s fair to say that’s been achieved, sort of? I mean, religion has just kind of stepped aside on this issue, right? Seriously, I don’t know; I’m asking… The back fourth of this play lets escape a line to the effect that, “Someday Porn will be accepted but nudity will never be understood.” Which is hella deep when you think about it, especially as it pertains to the female form. It’s crazy to think that Tavel knew back then (1966) what is essentially a reality now. Hell, the word porn is used nowadays to describe photos of food and climate disasters; yet we go ape-shit when we see a woman walking around without a bra on. Men rarely if ever show their junk in movies, but women going “topless” is somehow bold, or provocative, or taboo, or blasphemous—all at the same damn time. And possibly a necessary career move to get to the “next level.” But boobs on film never really cause outrage nor do dildos or blow-up dongs. But just let a young woman start breastfeeding her infant child in a restaurant, the looks she gets… Man, we humans are a terrible lot; so much of what we do doesn’t make sense… Sex in America will never be handled properly… So good on Tavel for being quite the soothsayer.

As for me, boys and girls and aliens, I see feudal Japan in my near, near future. That’s because here at #TINWIPA, we believe in Diversity™ and we haven’t ventured east yet. So next month’s stage play will be a hidden gem from one of the legendary masters of Kabuki Theater.

 

 

stage-chair

‘Til October…

 

 

Rating: 3/5

Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: Preliminary Confessions #3 | Dame Lorraine

Posted in Theater Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by gregnett
masks

Comedy. Drama.

All this talk of myself, and my railing at society but what of Theater? For that I have reserved my concluding words: it’s actually much worse than I thought—though I’ve already expressed that sentiment. But, to this hour, I don’t think my dear reader has ever heard me make mention of Theater’s finer qualities—with any extended detail, that is. And you will, though not now, as I would like for us to quickly turn our attention to July’s stage play, Dame Lorraine.

 

d1

Dame No. 1

 

Title: Dame Lorraine (1979)
Playwright: Steve Carter
Time Period: Postmodernism
Plot: An African immigrant family, mired by past transgressions, gather in the Harlem apartment of their physically disabled patriarch for the return of a family member recently set free from prison in hopes of finding closure with what got him incarcerated more than two decades ago.
Dope Line(s):

[Act 1]

ANGELA
I shouldn’t have come. Why did I come here?

[Act 1]

DORCAS
I never thought to see you in this house again. I ain’t want to see you here … but I too glad you come. You have to understand … we had to stay here and my place was with him. I just a woman. You have to understand. I was doing what I thought best.

[Act 3]

PICTON
I sorry I do this thing to you. I sorry I plant all them bad flowers in you. I ain’t never want to see you cry. I beg you forgiveness. Before God, I beg you forgiveness.

 

har1

Harlem 1970s

 

Coming to you live from New York, from inside an undisclosed location in Brooklyn. But this here story takes place in Harlem circa 1979. No, seriously. I’m in NYC for this one. #TINWIPA goes on the road from time to time… I’m out here on the east coast celebrating my B-Day; this little thing I do where I pick a different city to toast to my getting old. I’m torn between Madrid or Tokyo for next summer and it just might come down to an old fashioned coin toss. But enough of that, I wanna talk Dame Lorraine, part three of Steve Carters’ Caribbean Trilogy (Eden, 1975; Mountain Dew, 1977), all of which could fall anywhere along the timeline of the twenty-six plays Carter’s alleged to have written. (This pompous S.O.B. claims to have some of his plays “hidden” in a trunk somewhere.)

Fair warning: this is the Kill Bill edition boys and girls and aliens, and I’m going to swing the Hanzō around mightily for this one. With that bit of business out of the way, I have just one question: Are black content creators being held at gunpoint and forced to produce material that showcases the most horrific and disturbing images (and sounds) of the Black experience in America, or are they doing this of their own free will? But then to ask that question is to immediately ask another: What is it about Black (and Brown and Asian) suffering that (white) audiences find so enamoring? These two questions always jump to the front part of my mind whenever I encounter material like this. To me, both of them are rooted in the question: Who is this film/play/book/song/installation for?

 

d2

Dame No. 2

 

In today’s world Carter clearly wouldn’t be in touch with his audience; as is the case with whites who lord over the images and representations of people of color. Film and Literature—Theater too it seems—constantly get it wrong whereas Music, Fashion (model representations aside) and Sports hit the nail on the head every damn time. When black youth is the face of sports culture (Lonzo Ball, Dak Prescott) and the backbeat to corporate commercials (Lil’ Yachty, Kendrick Lamar) and the pulse of online buzz (Black Twitter, Beyonce’s Beyhive), I start to wonder what’s taking the others so long to join in on the fun… Black people, I can surely attest, are done with the suffering narrative; they go the other way every time. People like Misty Copeland and Kevin Hart have broken new ground, and so have the Migos and Future and that last dude that was President of this country, yet the biggest movie “made” for black people (and for whites to feel guilty about) this calendar year is Detroit? Yes, the ’67 Detroit riot is an important moment in (Black) American History and long overdue perhaps, but you guessed it: more Black suffering. What about the current cultural zeitgeist known as Turn Up culture? Will it ever see its day on the big screen, or on the best sellers list, or on stage (Hamilton doesn’t count). I feel like I already know the answer so why bother…

 

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More Harlem 1970s

 

For someone like Steve Carter, I get the feeling that he thought very highly of himself while in his prime. I mean, to be a part of the Negro Ensemble Company he would’ve had to… Still, I’m not ready to put him or his contemporaries—and mine also—on the same level as sadists, but I can’t seem to grasp why their need to go overboard in their indulgences of black suffering. In Carter’s case, an African family is trying to weave back the family fabric torn apart twenty-seven years ago when the oldest of eight sons initiates a gang rape scenario on his young sister only to be caught in the act by his father who he then beats within inches of his life thus making it hard for the man and his wife to survive in Harlem, New York which at the play’s point in history (1979) was figuratively falling to pieces. And rather than having them move on, Carter puts them all back under one roof where they await the brother’s return as if he were the Prodigal Son.

 

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The Harlem Globetrotters

 

Like The Rover, the plot points don’t easily connect and that’s marred even further by syntax—but that’s the gist of what happened for the family involved in this story to be where they are at the start of the play. We enter the home of Picton Moulineaux through the eyes of his daughter Angela Moulineaux (who as raped as a pre-teen) and her bi-racial boyfriend Salvatore “Sal” Buongusto (half black, half Italian; bigotry abound because of this). Rightfully so, she wants nothing to do with this place but since her father is on his deathbed and the coincidental release of her oldest brother King Moulineaux from prison, Sal has put it to her that she should work some things out with her family as it will help things in the intimacy department between them. (Picton named all of his sons with titles traditional of the French royal court like Prince, or Earl, or Marquis). Things happen glacially, and the back and forth took some figuring out… Again, this is that irksome thing I hate about writers who have no actual story and are merely holding things off for shock value: they have characters withhold key information until the very last minute possible or avoid answering direct questions and just monologue instead; it was In The Summer House all over again. However much a mess this play is though there was an opportunity for me (and now you) to learn what a Dame Lorraine is, so there’s that. And seeing as I’ve spoiled the bulk of the play, you can read for yourself how Picton goes into great detail for what he calls a Dame Lorraine which aids in giving the play its title. I would like to talk about the actual Dame Lorraine character that still exists today…

 

apollo

Old school Harlem

 

The Caribbean’s rendition of the cakewalk as discussed in Color Struck, is the simplest way of putting it. Mockery of the ruling French elite that became a thing of its own and can still be seen today in Caribbean carnival culture, hence all the photos of portly black women. More than one character exist and the photos throughout are of the modernized version of Madam Gwo Tete. When returning to the barracks (slave quarters) the slaves would emulate what they had seen while servicing French high society’s elaborate parties and coronations, exaggerating different portions of their bodies, however, for comedic effect. For Madam Gwo Tete it was humongous breasts then later an even bigger ass, the ass originally belonging to Madam Gwo Bunda. So, should you read Dame Lorraine, you’ll have a better understanding of what Picton means when he talks about seeing a performance and his mumbling off of various words attached to the word “Madame.” Lastly, all of the Dame Lorraine characters don masks so as not to make out the “respectable citizen” behaving so lewdly behind underneath the costume.

 

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Dame No. 3

 

I didn’t necessarily have high hopes for this play though I did hope that it would be decent. It being my B-Day month I wanted to select something from a black playwright and about an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: Family. There’s not much to glean from here other than the fact that I would never do any of the heinous acts committed in this story to my own blood… I’ve always enjoyed the dynamic of families coming together for an event, light or tragic, in one location and maybe not this story but something much milder will always be relevant, especially if it charts the fragmentation of daily family life and the overall looseness of what constitutes a family in the 21st century. Stories like that never get old whereas Dame Lorraine, I couldn’t be happier if it’s never mentioned past this point. Well, that’ll have to suffice. I’m in New York City for the first time ever! and there’s an entire city filled with tall skyscrapers and moving about are 8 million people with 8 million stories—and I need to go finish seeing what that’s about! I’d love to tell you what’s up for next month but my laptop is Los Angeles but I’m sure it’ll be better than this play. Happy Birthday, me! Thank you, New York!

 

 

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‘Til August…

 

 

Rating: 1.5/5

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