The Brothers Size

I'm not sure what to say about The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney, because I am left with the overwhelming feeling that it is maddeningly incomplete. And being the second part of a larger trilogy, I suppose that's no surprise. Since that trilogy won't see print the the U.S. until later this year, I feel I should hold off any final judgment until I can get a sense of the piece in context.

McCraney's language is certainly powerful, and his controversial reworking of the Yoruba myth-cycle gives the play a compelling feel of the epic as it tells a surface story that is very naturalistic. But this wonderful poem on brotherhood ends on a suspended chord, never resolving into a true conclusion any more than Bill Bixby walking with his duffel slung on his back ever ended The Incredible Hulk.

Still, a writer to keep an eye on and a play cycle I'd like it read in it's entirety later this year.

June Plays

Like many New Year's resolutions, it's tough to sustain through the dog days here when the beginning is far behind and the end is not in sight. The halfway point should be next month, and then it gets easier with each passing week. Frankly, the reading is never an issue ... I could read a few plays a week, I think. It's finding time to write and write honestly about them that is proving difficult. Even months in, I am still trying to find a voice for this project and it's not coming easily. I can only point to one or two posts here that I am proud of, and that's not a great batting average ...

I enjoyed last month's party so much, I see no reason to end it early. So the party continues into the early days of summer with another collection of plays that have no theme beyond "I want to read them".

June 1: Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg
... and speaking of batting averages, here's a play that's intrigued me for a while. As a sports fan and theater lover, I am always interested in plays that try to blend the two.

June 8: A Lie of the Mind by Sam Shepard
Just to see if Hillman is right.

June 15: Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl
The Grand Theatre here in Salt Lake has announced this as part of their next season. It's ambitious programming for them, and I'm very excited.

June 22: We Happy Few by Imogen Stubbs
Too few roles for women around here, and that's where the talent lies. So a play about a seven-woman theater troupe touring England during World War II caught my eye.

June 29: The Piano Lesson by August Wilson
It is shameful I have never read August Wilson. Shameful. In fact, it's one of the reasons I started this project: my realization that I just completely skipped a modern master.

The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot

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.

I posted these words a few months ago about Riding The Bull, but they apply almost equally as well to The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Is there some sort of SoHo Great Awakening going on that no one told me about? In a mixture of comedy and beauty and hip-hop and history, this play tells the story of a trial for Judas' soul. The video above may give you some taste of the style of the piece, but it's the content that blew me away.

Just because I don't accept the divinity of Jesus, doesn't mean I don't find it a fascinating and powerful story. The Passion shouldn't be restricted to faith any more than King Lear should be restricted to British people.It's one of the truly great stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And central in that story is the problem of Judas Iscariot, the problem of his betrayal and his damnation. I chew on it endlessly, like a dog with a theological bone. Why is Judas damned for all time? Why would "it had been good for that man if he had not been born"? Isn't he just playing his part in the original Passion Play? How else was it supposed to go down?

I don't want to spoil the ending, because for me it was a complete surprise. But there is a climactic, wonderful scene that does answer those questions in a theologically sound way. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, describes his experiences working with the original production as a "theological adviser" in A Jesuit Off-Broadway, and it's something I have at the top of my reading list. When I was a young man thinking seriously about joining Father Martin's order, I wonder how this play and it's view of Hell might have changed my life ...

When I say Somebody Do This Play, I am fully aware that "somebody" probably can't be a company in Salt Lake. Not only is an 11-actor show that requires an urban, multicultural cast a tall order, but trying to walk that fine religious line is more difficult here than many other places. A point of view that lies between "Conservative Faith" and "Religion Is A Fraud" is a bloody small market here in the Beehive State.

The Changeling

As much as I have enjoyed Jacobean playwrights, it's still hard to read anything from this period without reflexively overlaying Shakespeare, without continually comparing phrasing and content. I find myself always surprised that it isn't Shakespeare, that his individual authorial voice does not completely define a generation.

And what a generation it was. For my money, this is without doubt the high-water mark of the theatre. It's a time when live theater met linguistic explosion, where high art met true popular culture, where the theatre was a breathing, vital part of the collective experience. Modern comparisons can be so glib, but Elizabethan and particularly Jacobean theater was the HBO or FX of the day, producing content that electrified as much as Big Love or Breaking Bad or The Sopranos does today. And it did it in the same way: mixing intelligent insight with crowd-pleasing sex and violence.

It's hard not to instinctively think of Richard and Iago when reading DeFlores, to not see a young Lady Macbeth in Beatrice. But The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley (etext here) is a different beast than Shakespeare. It's much more frank, for a start. There's a bed-switch here, a la Measure For Measure, but crueler and discussed in very plain terms. This is not a play safe for outdoor festivals and their tourist base. The other comparison, of course, is the verse ... which simply is a halting beast compared to Shakespeare. Perhaps it's familiarity, but it's Shakespeare and Marlowe that read easily for me and as much as I enjoy other Jacobeans, I admit their verse doesn't hit the ark of beautiful simplicity quite as often. And, of course, there's the violence that's the hallmark of the period. Shakespeare only really approached it in Titus Andronicus, but even that pales to some of what the Jacobeans inflict on their characters and audience.

I was actually somewhat disappointed as I raced to the climax of The Changeling. As the dominoes were put in place and the tension was slowly racheted up, I was expecting a true explosion of blood and chaos. This Grand Guignol fireworks is what Jacobean theater does best, so this quiet offstage climax is completely unsettling ... like a summer blockbuster where nothing explodes. It's very intentional: this tragedy is quiet, dark, and mean. This is not operatic, but petty and ugly.

The scenes between DeFlores and Beatrice are stunning in their focus and power, and deserving of attention. It's often hard to find good verse work for classes that lies outside the well-trod 37-or-so, but there's a treasure trove of scene and monologue work here ... especially for women. There's no reason that a "Shakespeare" monologue or scene needs to be from Shakespeare, and this is a really good play I need to keep in mind in the future.

Three Days Of Rain

With every post, I like to have an image. Just over there to the left. It's a nice layout for a blog post, I find. A book cover is always easy enough or at times I'll use a poster image, but I do sometimes try to find a production photograph. I specifically did some googling for the original production of Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1997, as I'm completely enthralled by the idea of John Slattery and Bradley Whitford sharing a stage before they were stars. But try to google this play, and you will see this its curious fate: Star Vehicle. It's all about Julia Roberts' Broadway debut, or James McAvoy's triumphant return to the London stage.

Why? Why would this seemingly dense play about architecture and genius and the weight of family history become fodder for film stars showing off their stage chops?

It actually makes a lot of sense it McAvoy's case, as the central role of Walker/Ned is a powerhouse that contains a lot of theatrical pyrotechnics. From madly expressive chaos to stuttering repression, it's a showcase piece for the actor that can pull it off. Roberts' decision to work on the project is more confusing, as her role doesn't contain near the splash ... but perhaps that's the point. Trading on her likability, Three Days of Rain would make an excellent way for her to establish her stage bona fides in a piece laden with the trappings of intelligentsia ... but without actually having to shoulder too much weight.

... And the play is funny. Actual, honest-to-god, laugh-out-loud funny. In a tradition spaning from Wilde to Coward to Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon, Greenberg is writing smart, witty people who say smart, witty things, and it really works. What could easily become a maudlin work crackles with snap and fun and joy in the playing, and that was completely surprising to me. I imagine it plays like a house on fire, and I'm looking forward to seeing it in August.