August Plays

This will be another hodgepodge month of plays. Some I need to read for various reasons, some I want to read for various reasons. While I recover from Macbeth, I will be preparing for new projects including directing possibilities, teaching opportunities, and chances to learn. So, it's catchup month if you will, as we head into Autumn.

So while the month is August, the plays are not.

This is a selection of scripts that is Not Really So August After All.

August 3: An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

August 10: The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane

August 17: Boston Marriage by David Mamet

August 24: Three Tall Women by Edward Albee

August 31: Our Town by Thornton Wilder

Angels In America: Perestroika

I'm trying to wrap my head around the titanic achievement of Angels in Americaby Tony Kushner. It's so epic, so titanic, so huge ... yet also such a microcosm. Unlike so many epic plays dealing with tectonic shifts in politics, Kushner never, never loses focus on the personal and the simple. From tangled relationships to a hearing in heaven between the divine forces that rule the continents, he keeps his balance always. It's daring to write a ply like this: there's no hiding behind "realism", nor can is simply be excused by "fantasy" ... it is unabashedly unique and personal. It is imaginative boldness, and nothing but.

What's all the more amazing to me is his practical boldness. Kushner was writing for the Eureka Theater, not exactly a place brimming with funds and resources, certainly not the resources he ended up with when these plays became Broadway Blockbusters. It's too tempting in this age of endlessly workshopped plays to write for the economics: empty stages with few scenic demands (unlike, say, crashing ceilings and glowing alephs), small casts with minimal requirements. Though his notes indicate a simple bare set ... this is a "bare" far removed from the "two chairs and a special" mentality that so often underlies the econimics of contemporary play development. Kushner here wrote what he wanted to, and let his collaborators figure out how to make it all happen onstage.

Even as a period piece, it is a gorgeous work that reminds me that American theater does not need to be constrained by the kitchen sink.

Angels In America: Millenium Approaches

I'm going to save any grand analysis until next week, when I complete the pair of plays. (Though I wouldn't be breath-holding if I were you.)

When I first encountered Angels In America, it was a contemporary play ... now, it's become a period piece. I suppose it always was, in it's looking back at the still-fresh Regan years. Still, when a surrealistic bit of stage business is when a character "has a computer terminal in his briefcase" I can't help but smile.

Though it's become dated in some ways, particularly in it's Millennial expectation. But Roy Cohn's monologue about how he's not a homosexual because he has power or Martin Heller's on the future of the Regan Revolution simply gain more power with time.

Civil Sex

I don't have an awful lot to say about Civil Sex by Brian Freeman, though I found it a fascinating read: It's an excellent piece of docu-theater, using one life to examine a history and culture in depth.

I don't have much to say because I'm full of questions about the script, questions I don't think I could answer without seeing a production or staging one:

  1. Why is Bayard Rustin himself such an enigma throughout much of the play, only to emerge forcefully near the end?
  2. For that matter, is Rustin an enigma? While he doesn't have dialogue, does the staging and his music-playing make him a central figure throughout?
  3. How does a storytelling theater style, with a handful of actors playing countless roles affect the specifics of the play? So much of the story is about race and gender and age, do those issues get blurred or heightened?
  4. The script does not lay out which actors play which roles. I know some do, so does this simply offer more freedom to the production team or does it make it too vague?

The Crucible

By my reckoning this the halfway point. With Arthur Miller's The Cruciblewe're entering the backstretch and heading for the finish line. It's probably a good time for a big of reflection, but I'm a bit busy at the moment. If I can read two more that good in the second half, I'll be a happy man.

The Crucible is really a tale of two acts: the third and the fourth. Sure there are two others, but lets' call them what they are: setup and nothing but. Miller's just getting his pieces in place for the showpiece moments to come. (Though I must mention those gorgeous essays that fill the first act. They sweep me away with their power, and it seems a waste to leave them unspoken. Are they available in all editions of the play? Have they ever been staged? As I read them, I was imagining a stripped-down version with a Miller-esque narrator. )

There is such delicious tension in that third act, such a blurring of lines. Though we come into that courtroom antechamber knowing who is on the right side and who is on the wrong, Miller starts flirting with true suspense and shades of gray. There are moments where I don't know what Danforth is going to do, and moments where I think this play may be finally taking the witch hunters seriously and crediting them with intelligence and honor. It's in this act that I see people fighting to protect their community with a pure purpose, but disagreeing on the means to do so. It's this kind of balanced view that makes for compelling political theater, as opposed to didactic choir-preaching. To set up straw men and dismiss our ideological opponents as hollow idiots is a disservice to all involved, and sells short the struggles in the situation. The witch hunters are on the wrong side of history, but that does not mean they were evil or stupid: they were simply wrong. We intellectual progressive lefties are sometimes wrong, too ... but it doesn't mean we were stupid and venal. And it's in the delicious theatricality of the girls' hysteria that Miller starts to ask: what if they were right? For just a moment, we could launch into another play.

But then there's that unfortunate fourth act, isn't there? After all the complexity, we hit the brakes and make a u-turn to head back to the safe morality play where we feel most comfortable. We need to re-establish our progressive bonafides, and clearly state what side we're on. Miller coldly accomplishes this by ignoring character and carefully moving his chess pieces into place. How many actors and directors have struggled to find the reason Proctor suddenly embraces confession? It must be a crushing assignment, because he's only confessing so that Miller can set up the the setpiece where he rips up that confession in a heroic moment of defiance: Proctor can't rip up the confession until he signs it. So sign it he must, and we must want this alien character get manipulated into place. Miller the activist has wrenched control back from Miller the dramatist, and the play suffers for it.