Women In Arms

"So," says my lovely wife, "what's on the schedule for this week?"

"Disappointment," sez I.

So I hold in my hand what appeares to be a fascinating anthology: Seen and Heard: Six New Plays by Irish Women. I still expect that it's 5/6ths fascinating, but 1/6th of it is Women In Arms, by Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy. If I said "a physical piece of storytelling theater, reminiscent of Mary Zimmerman's Lookingglass work, dealing with the powerful women in The Ulster Cycle" ... I expect you're getting a picture and it's a picture of something that can't afford mediocrity. It will either be electric, or a crushing bore dragged down by the weight of its own pretension. And while there's a chance the original production was the former, the script is most certainly the latter.

It's just all so terribly earnest, so terribly "a celebration of". A celebration of Ireland, a celebration of myth, a celebration of theater, a celebration of women womyn. And I instinctively react poorly to anything that's "a celebration of" because it's telling instead of showing. I don't get to experience these stories and decide their importance, because Burke-Kennedy is too busy telling me how I should react. While these are interesting stories of titanic mythical women, but it's hard to penetrate the feeling of precious "celebration" enough to actually celebrate them.

Structurally, there's a decent attempt here at a style of storytelling theater, but the focus is off. There are too many times that slip into character-driven dialogue, then hop back into choral narrative just as the going gets good.

Before I call it a post, if you know an actor who can pull off the following stage direction, please give me their contact info:
Nessa begins to wonder if she is a Pig-keeper.
And I'll stop now, before trying to puzzle out the stage direction that requires the cast to assemble in the form of Picasso's Guernica, because that makes so much ....

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

I've read Martin McDonagh before, but nothing prepared me for the unmitigated excess of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I had heard it was a violent, dark comedy ... but this was on a level I hadn't expected, not least of which because it feels almost completely unstageable. I don't know how a writer who keeps a pen in both the worlds of stage and film decides which idea finds a home in which medium, but I can't escape the feeling that the bloody ultraviolence here might've been more at home on film. But perhaps it's the very staginess of it all - the way it will almost have to be cartoony in the theater - that is the point. Realistic violence might turn this into Hostel-meets-Scream, but the perspective of the stage keeps it from bogging down in blood and keeps the focus on character.

Of course it's very easy to compare the play to Grand Guignol (need any more examples ... like 300 of them?). But that's more indicative of the cache of throwing around French terms to show how educated you are. The Lieutenant Of Inishmore is straight-up Jacobean Revenge Tragedy, only slightly exaggerated for effect. It's a literal revenge tragedy, even if the party being avenged is distinctly feline in shape. And just as the Jacobeans were satirizing current politics, this bloody farce is making a point about the cycles of violence that have defined so much of Irish life for centuries. It's pure reductio ad absurdum as the bloody murders of The Troubles get enacted in a living room, over the body of a dead cat. It's a brilliant ride, exploiting the thrills that Jacobean playwrights like Ford and Webster understood completely, while still making a completely contemporary point about the escalating nature of violence itself.

The Plays For April

Theme? A theme? How about "Mark has a lot of plays he needs to be reading for various reasons, so he's going to read some of them here. Because in aiming at 52 plays this year, he did not actually mean to read 85 plays. Because he sometimes likes to read things that are not plays, and hasn't been able to do much of that so far this year." ... or call it "Spring Cleaning".

Don't bother trying to find a connection between them, other than they are one-acts and they are for a project I'm working on.

April 6: Exception and the Rule by Bertolt Brecht

April 13: Stage Directions by Israel Horowitz

April 20: The Actor’s Nightmare by Christopher Durang

April 27: Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Dancing At Lughnasa

"Laughing wild amidst severest woe" is, of course, from a different play entirely. And we often don't think of Beckett as a distinctly Irish playwright, somehow placing his nationality squarely in Absurdistan or something (where he lives next to Ionesco, I suppose).

But that simple quote says as much about Irish theatre as any, and it finds a full expression in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. It's one of my favorite plays, and one I've read often. And every time I read it, I'm always carried away by the richly bittersweet emotion that runs through the script. The joyful dance of the sisters is always undercut by the tragedies of their past and their future.

But it's not a puerile pessimism, a negation of life's temporary joys by its eventual tragedies. The fact that death and sadness haunt these sisters never diminishes their laughter: it enriches it. Lughnasa's memory play keeps both future and past in view, brilliantly balancing the two. And that's why it hits me so strongly each time, that constant tension between the fullness of emotion on both ends of the spectrum.

Why should "Somebody Do This Play"? Well, I'm speaking specifically to the local area here on this one, as I know it's not exactly an under-produced play. But in a local talent pool brimming with talented women, there's no excuse to be constantly doing plays that have seven men and two women while leaving aside a wonderful ensemble piece that showcases this talent pool's strength.


It's been a heck of a week - closing, getting the keys and moving in really eats up seven days of playreading. But this one should be easy. Heck, I could write this in three words:


To those that know her, this comes as no surprise, I am sure. But what specifically was she right about this week?

Sheila is one of the most gifted American playwrights alive-- no lie.

Loosely inspired by Jame Joyce's Ulysses, Sheila Callaghan's Dead City is a powerhouse play, bursting with energy and ideas and character and fun. It might just be the Patti Smith references talking, but there's more than a bit of Sam Shepard in Sheila Callaghan. It's hard to recognize now, but there was a time when Shepard was rock 'n' roll theater: cutting edge and young and deeply in tune with the musical scene. Callaghan feels the same - it's a breath of fresh air in the stale theater, the kind of play Vampire Weekend might write, the kind of theater TV On The Radio could create.

I'm going to go ahead and slap the "Somebody Do This Play" tag on Dead City, knowing full well that some of the stage directions will crush any mortal theater:

(GABRIEL approaches SAMANTHA, still sleeping. Hey lays each one of his arms tenderly on her head, her shoulders, her breasts, her face, her womb, her thighs.)

"But then, blue wildflowers sprout from his head."

(Blue wildflowers begin sprouting from GABRIEL's head. He panics.)

But it's a gender-swapped, time-shifted, location-changed Ulysses that features great women's roles and a wonderful ensemble experience in a script that effortlessly flows from social satire to dreamscape ... you're going to let a few blue wildflowers get in your way?

Shining City

In starting off a month focused on Ireland ... this play is surprisinly un-Irish, lacking a distinctly Irish tone and setting. We could easily be in New York, San Francisco, or Toronto ... and that's certainly part of the point Conor McPherson's making in Shining City: as Ireland joins the European Union and skyscrapers spring up throughout Dublin, Ireland isn't so Irish anymore. Ian's left the priesthood and John's left his home, and neither are doing well in their new status quo.

It's a topsy-turvy play in many ways, and each scene forced me to re-evaluate what this play actually was:

  • Scene 1: Psychotherapist (Ian) and patient (John). Scene is driven driven by the patient, who appears to be the protagonist.
  • Scene 2: Ian and his estranged girlfriend/baby mama. So it's Ian's story. Or it's both?
  • Scene 3: Ian and John in session, again. John monologues for about 20 minutes with only the barest of prompts from Ian. The possibility of dual protagonists seems to fall away, and it's John's play again.
  • Scene 4: Ian and a male prostitute. So what happened to John's story?
  • Scene 5: Ian and John again, but we're left at the close of the play focusing on Ian.

It's not so much a case of dual protagonists, but dueling protagonists ... as in banjos. They are exchanging leads and arcs and revelations, but not at the same time. Ian's development all takes place when John's offstage, and John develops through the true "talking cure" and all Ian really does is listen. The play is soaked in theme, and this duet between the lead characters allows them to reflect on each other. Both these men are ultimately haunted and damned by their desire for what's just out of reach, an illusion of a better life.

There's some wonderful naturalistic dialogue here, and some great meat for two actors to chew on ... but it never adds up conceptually. Although I feel an overwhelming sense of theme hanging over the prosaic action, I can't articulate anything beyond wispy strands. There's a shock ending that seem like it should point clearly to the central concept, but doesn't point very clearly. I wonder if we're all meant to nod our head and say "ahhhhh" the the obvious deep themes that we assume everyone else in the room obviously gets. McPherson has an incredible ear, and I'd like to read some other work that might feature more of his clear observations of modern Ireland without the overwhelming weight of pretension this play carries around.