Riding The Bull

August Schulenburg's Riding The Bull is a deeply filthy play.

(Mark gets his thesaurus, blows off the dust.)

It's a completely obscene, indecent, dirty, smutty, rude, improper, coarse, bawdy, vulgar, lewd, raw, off-color, ribald, risqué, explicit, blue play.

Oh ... and it's utterly sacrilegious, blasphemous, profane, and heretical, as well.

I think that about covers it.

It's also one of the most sublime works I've read about the religious experience and "Coming to God". It certainly makes for a tricky balance: the audience that can tolerate this raunchy story of a rodeo clown and his overweight paramour is likely resistant to the message, and the audience that would appreciate a sincere story about the redemptive power of belief would surely never make it past the first description of .... well, they wouldn't make it very far. They wouldn't make it past the opening monologue, in fact. It's sure a marketing challenge, but that's exactly what makes it a play worth doing. It's too rare that I'm surprised, and too rare that we don't preach to the choir.

The characters perform a crossing action, as GL's faith is corrupted and killed while Lyza moves in counterpoint from apostate to seeker. She eventually arrives at a pure and true faith far past GL's starting point of spiritual struggle. It's a completely surprising read: I thought I knew we were safely in the land of mocking and then tipping sacred cows, then the play turned underneath me. It's all so honest and heartfelt: all of it. From the filth to the faith, Schulenburg inhabits each moment fully and lets the characters and action speak for themselves.

For all my wonder at the content, it's pretty flawed as a play. There's a tremendous amount of narration, as we get great huge of action that exist only in direct address monologue. There's a great story there, but too much of it gets told, not shown. Riding the Bull may be a great story that never quite translates into a theater piece.

(On a personal note, I still get a thrill when I open up a published script, and see someone I know, or worked with. Rod Gnapp and I worked together when the world was young, and it made me smile to see he was the original GL in the workshop at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. (Of course, it makes me smile more when it's my name. Like this and this. (Self-pimping mode off now ....)))

Next Week: Shining City by Conor McPherson

The Plays Of March

This may be the last "theme month" for awhile, as I've accumulated a stack of stuff I simply want to get to without corralling them into a group. (By the by ... if anyone has suggestions for how to "read" a musical, I'd love to hear 'em. Read the book, then listen to the soundtrack as I get to each song? I might like to do a month of musicals somewhere along the line here.)

But I could not let March go by without wallowing in Irish playwrights. I spent a semester at Columbia College with the wonderful Cecilie O'Reilly focusing exclusively on acting in Irish plays, and have never lost the excitement for that distinctive Irish voice that she taught her students. As usual, there's some new, some old, some famous, some obscure: and one's not even Irish.

"Irish Eyes". Sláinte!

March 2: Shining City by Conor McPherson
March 9: Dead City by Sheila Callaghan
March 16: Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
March 23: The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh
March 30: Women in Arms by Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy

The Invention Of Love

I am a fake, a fraud, a philistine.

Am I really this stupid? A swine before pearls?

I don't want to read extended monologues on Latin and Greek translation. I am sick to death of Oxford and Cambridge and English Public School ... hell, I'm sick of the English upper class of the 19th century in general. Why won't these people shut up, or at least say something real. I can't penetrate this world.

That's what I thought struggling through the first act of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. Stoppard has a reputation for writing plays of ideas that leave the average audience behind. It's one of the few criticisms that has stuck to one of our acknowledged Greatest Living Playwrights. I've never agreed: to me his plays have always been brilliantly crafted works that use those twenty dollar words to get an basic human truths. Reading this play, I suddenly felt like I understood what people were complaining about.

It may be simply that I feel more at home with the math and science that mark Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the underappreciated Hapgood. I'm familiar enough with the ideas there that I can quickly see through them to the themes underneath. But here I'm in a land of poetry and classicists and the Aesthetic movement, swimming in deep pools of Latin and Greek grammar.

Maybe it just doesn't read well. I can sense the subtext underneath, and the second act brings it to the fore in some achingly beautiful passages that strip away the rococo ornamentation of the first ... but I just can't grapple with it. I imagine a well-researched cast that understood the detail in those dense speeches would bring some life and beauty to the text, but I simply can't spend the time researching every reference. It's a truly alien world.

Next Week: Riding The Bull by August Schulenburg


After three straight weeks where playwrights went out of their way to put performance qualities of dialect and emphasis and emotion into the text, the late Harold Pinter's Betrayal is a splash of cold water to the face. It's so spare, so cold, so blank on the page. There is dialog, there is the barest of essential stage actions, and there is the Pinter Pause ... and that's it.

I've acted in Pinter, and directed Pinter. My faulty memory aside, I'm told by my better half that I've even seen this very play at The National on our honeymoon. But I've never felt comfortable with Pinter, always found it difficult to read. I tend to read them in monotone, with very subdued emotion. It's all tension and menace and edge. His looming presence intimidates, as if any inflection other than po-faced seriousness will destroy the delicate equilibrium like playing Beethoven with a kazoo. There is nothing to indicate emotion in the text, no "(with anger)" or "(they laugh)" .... and it seems terribly gauche to add it in.

But then I get to scene four of Betrayal, and the extended discussion of whether boy or girl babies cry more. There's no indication of style or tone, but it's utterly absurd to take this as anything other than two old friends playing and riffing and joking ... isn't it? Surely this scene has life and laughs layered on top of the tension ... right? But there is that temptation to subdue the impulse, and not get in the way of Pinter. I wonder how many productions play that scene as "absurd" or are afraid to treat it with anything other than precision and reverence. In fact, that's the key. If you can layer unscripted emotion and life on top of that scene, why not do it in all the rest? Why not have fun with Pinter, and not let the received wisdom about his style get in the way of doing the job of acting?

When thinking about those famous, calculated pauses in Pinter it seems that he doesn't quite trust his actors. But the blankness of his scripts point another way: that he scores the important beats in his work, but ultimately trusts his actors completely. I need to read Pinter differently.

Love Song

Do this play.

Maybe it's just the joy of discovery, but this was the most delightful read I've had so far. I don't know who John Kolvenbach is and have never heard of the show. I simply stumbled across it at the Dramatists Play Service website trying to fill this theme month. It's certainly not a Great Play, and I doubt there's $7500 coming Kolvenbach's way (although it did get nominated for the Olivier Award). But is it a Very Good Play, free of the weight of pretension and full of life and energy.

It's an exciting read, in large part because of how Kolvenbach writes the dialog. I will endeavor to save a thousand words by using this picture:

Bracketed words, italicized words, capitalized words, italicized capitalized words ... and that's not even capturing any of the footnotes scattered throughout the text that give a little more color to the line. It's all a bit much at first, and I initially felt like it might be too restricting to the actors. But it eventually fades away, and becomes like a musical score: Once I learned how to read the notation, I could hear the electric crackle of the speech, feel its pace and vibrancy, see the briskness of the movement. It's a fascinating attempt to communicate the play Kolvenbach obviously saw in his head.

As you might expect from the title, Love Song is about love, as a lonely maladjust finally finds someone to be with. It's a very simple play, and I probably shouldn't have been caught off guard by the simple twist. But it's not overly concerned with plot: it's about character and emotion and delicious, delicious language.

Do this play.

(In fact, if anyone from SLAC is reading this: really do this play. At least read it. It's very castable with local actors, the play is in keeping with your style, and Keven Myhre would brilliantly solve a pretty bloody tricky set design.)

Next Week: Betrayal by Harold Pinter