The Piano Lesson

"August Wilson has established himself as the richest theatrical voice to emerge in the U.S. since Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller." - Time

How am I supposed to cut through that? Yes, it's a massive oversight that I haven't read August Wilson before this, but how am I supposed to read The Piano Lessonwith any kind of fresh eye with that kind of paean on the front page? I suppose I should be in paroxysms of theatrical ecstasy, but if I'm being honest a comparison to Miller and Williams is a comparison to two utterly overrated writers ... but I'm working on the assumption that Time was not trying to call Wilson overrated.

I probably should have figured out my reaction before I sat down to write this, shouldn't I? I view it a lot like I do Miller, actually: well observed poetic naturalism where the craft is obvious, but leaves me cold. I completely understand why Wilson would be hailed for this play: There's powerful images and metaphors, and a solidly-constructed story that provides good stakes for the actors.

But in the end - like so much of Miller and Williams - I look at it and say "Well, it's a brilliant example of what it is ... I just don't personally react to what it is."

We Happy Few

And I was so looking forward to reading We Happy Few by Imogen Stubbs. It's such a lovely idea: inspired by the Osiris Players, it tells the story of a troupe of women touring the English countryside during World War II to bring theater to those on the homefront. The play I imagined it to be was brilliant and soaring, full of history and theater and great women's roles: Dancing at Lughnasa meets "let's get a barn and put on a show".

It is not the play I imagined it to be.

It's unfortunately trite and predictable and mawkish, will all the hallmarks of it's provenance: an acclaimed actress finds an inspiring bit of history, and decides that she'll write it herself. The sheltered rich RADA grad and the tomboy greasemonkey fall in love, the bitter mother reveals her wounded heart, the mother who could not accept her son's interracial marriage has her heart changed by tragedy, and the troupe's tough-as-nails leader reveals the real reason she is doing it all ...

In war we're all too horribly aware of the bad stuff ... and that is why we women can make a difference - if only in our little way - because when we connect with our great writers and our audience and with each other ... that collective imagination ... why, then we're promoting the good stuff. All that's required from us - is that we reawaken people's faith in humanity.

And it's all terribly overwritten. Jerry Rapier of Plan-B talks about "spoken subtext" and this is a prime example. A couple of examples:

Am I as heartless as you say? Am I capable of loving anyone? I loved my mother ... I loved her ... infinitely ... and when she died ... I couldn't bear it and ... and I think I panicked and all the love ... flew away ... like a bird had flown out of my heart

I'll always treasure the We Happy Few that was in my head. Pity this wasn't it.

July Plays

It's the Fourth of July, and I try to take a break each year from barbecues and baseball for history. It started when I lived in Pennsylvania: history is so palpable there that I wanted to engage with it. Independence Hall of the Fourth is a truly inspiring thing, ragardless of your political affiliation.

So: "Born On The Fourth Of July".

July 6: The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Unless I am counting wrong, this celebrates the midpoint of the journey: twenty-six down, twenty-six to go. So we'll celebrate with witch hunts and paranoia. I know it's a hoary old High School chestnut .... so's Our Town. "Hoary Old High School Chestnuts" are getting a second look from me.

July 13: Civil Sex by Brian Freeman

About activist Bayard Rustin. I first heard about the script while working with San Francisco's Thick Description, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned up in an anthology I had purchased for a completely different reason.

July 20: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner
July 27: Angels in America: Perestroika by Tony Kushner

It's been a long time since I read these, and its growing status as one of the masterworks of the 20th century makes me want to read and re-evaluate. (Is it cheating to call this two weeks worth of plays? I think not.(And I need to establish precedent for The Coast Of Utopia.))

(July's gonna be the real test, as I'm kinda busy. Please pre-excuse any lateness.)


Of course, you can't read plays in a vacuum, can you? That's what I thought I've been doing for the past 23 weeks: Considering plays in some sort of absolutist and detached way.

What complete bullshit.

This thought o' the week is brought to you by my magnificent wife, who mentioned that she read Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice last year before The Grand Theatre announced it as part of their season. She pointed out that her experience was completely different than mine, because my immediate reaction was about that theater trying to produce that script in that space with those resources: Who are they going to cast? Who's directing it? How is their audience base going to react?

Neither way of reading a play is better than the other, I suppose. One of the great experiences when reading a play is imagining it as a play. Part of the magic of theater is that it's never an intellectual exercise, bound only by imagination. Theater must always take place somewhere very specific and literal, performed by individual actors, for a unique audience. Having worked there earlier this year, I can't help but read each stage direction and try to set it on that beautiful proscenium.

It's more of a daring choice for The Grand Theatre than I originally thought, and I really hope it pays off for them. Underneath it's modernity, there is a poetic core that their audience can respond to. Theirs is generally an older audience, and it's themes of death and memory and fathers and daughters should make for some powerful and direct theater.

A Lie Of The Mind

I don't actually know if Hillman was right on this one, as she has been before. It certainly is a very good play, among his best. My dismissal of it as a "minor work" was completely off-base. I think the thing that makes A Lie of the Mind special is that it may be the best melding of The Two Shepards.

On the one hand is The Angry Young Shepard: his early, experimental work that plays with the nature of language and reality. That Sam Shepard is a Lobster Man rock 'n' roll savior, with words and images spilling out all over the stage. Then there's the other Shepard, the True Man Of The West who cultivated the Hollywood persona of a melancholy John Wayne and whose plays celebrate the death of the cowboy and the frontier. It's in A Lie Of The Mind that there two strains in his work and life come together most completely. His constant theme of lives lived on the edge mixes with the death of language and the mythology of the open spaces, and the result is an epic play that seems like Fool For Love's grown-up brother.

It's also a wonderfully sprawling, messy epic of American Families and American Love. It's also a bit of a shaggy dog story, especially in the latter half of the play at the pieces have been set in place and the ensemble starts to really come to life. The scene study opportunities here are incredible, dripping with language and emotion.

In other news, I'm so achingly glad the New York Times agrees it's a great thing to read a play.

Take Me Out

I participated in a staged reading event this past week, and one of the questions that came up in the discussion was the use of language to reveal character. So it's entirely possible it's just plastered to the front of my cerebellum as I think about Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg. But I don't think so: I think precise language that carefully defines character is the shining feature of this play.

The most shocking thing about the writing here is the crafting of the central figure of Darren Lemming, star center fielder for a very thinly veiled Yankees team ... who also publicly comes out of the closet. (I had to double check: this play predates A-Rod joining the Yankees by a couple of years.)

As I read it, I kept thinking what a carefully defined role this is, and how difficult it'd be to cast. Beyond the specific physical attributes, the language describes a character is floats in a zone between many extremes: his language is a mixture of grace and slang, intelligence and jock-speak, hubris and self-questioning. It's a tough mix, and a type we haven't seen on stage. Just because he is gay and has some ability with language doesn't mean he isn't also a professional athlete, with all that often entails. That grey zone is much of what the play's about, and it's all there in the language, as he never settles into any defined role: instead he breaks them.

And then there's the language of those beautiful showpiece arias that won Denis O'Hare his Tony. I'm not the biggest baseball fan in the world, and I tend to reject cloying paeans of the George Will/Bob Costas variety. But these are simply stunning speeches that speak to the power and beauty of sport.