MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Theater of Dichotomies

Very glad I decided to catch The Happiest Song Plays Last before the run ended — thank you, Theatre22, for staging this.

I sadly missed the company’s production of Water by the Spoonful a few years ago and have never been able to catch the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning Quiara Alegría Hudes in New York. But now I get what the fuss is about.

The Happiest Song Plays Last is a beautifully constructed play, with rich, in-depth characterizations that the Theatre22 cast dug into and projected compassionately. Quiara Alegría Hudes’s dialogue cuts to the bone. It emanates a kind of honesty I found genuinely moving and dramatically effective.

She also carries off an intriguing structural challenge in this final play of her Elliot trilogy (named for the young Puerto Rican soldier Elliot Ruiz, who comes from North Philadelphia and serves in Iraq — a protagonist inspired by the playwright’s real-life cousin).

Cinematic in scope but resolutely avoiding the formulaic clichés of commercial film and theater, Happiest Song unfolds in two very different, very distant worlds. One is in the Middle East, on a film set, with veteran Ruiz now playing the lead role in an indie docudrama about the Iraq War.

It’s being filmed in Jordan, and during off hours, Elliot develops intense connections both to his co-star, Shar, an Arab-American actress, and Ali, an exiled Iraqi hired as a consultant-gofer for the film. The Egyptian chapter of the Arab Spring starts to play out at the same time, which they learn about via the media.

The other world is the North Philly neighborhood where Elliot grew up with his cousin Yaz, cared for an adoptive mother who has since died. Yaz has decided to take her place, moving into her home to continue her activist and care-taking work supporting this impoverished community. She develops an unexpected attachment to neighbor Agustín, an older, married man passionate about his music.

Hudes cleverly splices these distinct settings, revealing the weight of guilt on Elliot — scarred by his experiences in Iraq — and also on Yaz as she confronts the pressure of living up to her saintly model. World crisis and local community protests intersect in Hudes’ warm, humane web to form this compelling story.

“Being an artist is about honoring the dichotomies that are always around us,” says Hudes. “We’re alive, and we’re going to die — that’s the basic one — but every little dichotomy that reveals itself to me is a treasure for writing and for life. You always need a yin and yang… As an artist, that daring to go beyond, that taking the next step beyond the moment you’re in is the thrill of the chase and the love of the craft.”

Filed under: playwrights

Harold Pinter on Samuel Beckett

Filed under: Harold Pinter, playwrights, theater

Brian Friel RIP

Filed under: playwrights

The Place That Is Not the Place: An Evening with Richard Maxwell


He’s been the darling of the experimental theater scene in New York for well over a decade. Last year he received the Spalding Gray Award, which honors genuinely maverick work in the theater. This weekend Seattleites have a chance to experience the latest commission by playwright and director Richard Maxwell and his New York City Players ensemble.

It’s a piece called The Evening and is being presented by On the Boards — part of the consortium that conferred the Award — following its world premiere as part of the Walker Art Center’s Out There arts festival last month in Minneapolis.

Although Maxwell has been engaged by On the Boards before (Drummer Wanted 12 years ago, back when Lane Czaplinski took over as artistic director), last night’s Seattle premiere was my first encounter with his work.
And it’s a signature of Maxwell’s theater that it sends you out into the night with the feeling that you’ve just recalled an interesting dream and now have the work of trying to figure out why it interested you and whether it’s meant to “tell” you something — or just happens to be an arresting collage of images that won’t stop flickering in your mind.

The Evening involves a cast of three characters interacting in a depressing dive bar. Beatrice (Cammisa Buerhaus) tends bar and manages the sexual advances of the hedonist Cosmo (Jim Fletcher) as well as the petulant neediness of her sorta ex-boyfriend Asi (Brian Mendes), a washed-up fighter managed by Cosmo.

Framing this “slice of life” core of The Evening is a monologue delivered by Buerhaus: she reads from a diary documentation of a (Beatrice’s?) father’s dying days, a text replete with high-flown poetic cadence and rhetoric. Then comes the pseudo-“naturalist” dialogue of the bar sequence, followed by another poetic flight — this time rendered visually, after the bar stage set has been pointedly struck and deconstructed by stage hands. The Beatrice character cocoons herself in snow-expedition wear and disappears into the now heavily fogged upstage region, where we imagine isolated wintry mountains.

During the bar sequence we learn that bartender Beatrice (who also works as a stripper) yearns to get away from it all and head to Istanbul. Testosterone-addled Asi has just won a fight but knows he is unhappy, and he can’t seem to win Beatrice back, but he doesn’t want her to go. Track suit-clad, cheesy gold chain-adorned Cosmo confines his interest in life to drinking, getting high, insulting Asi, and making the moves on Beatrice.

The characters voice a Three Sisters-ish longing to go “there,” to escape. But Cosmo at least seems content with the bar — the drab-minimalist brown wall set and slightly menacing lights are Sascha van Riel’s design — and even finds it a kind of paradise. Cosmo’s also the one who first notices the live music (written by Maxwell) that becomes part of the action when a trio of musicians walk in and start that evening’s gig. He tries to incorporate the music into his exchanges with Asi and Beatrice.

Is this coda meant to be a vision of the adventure Beatrice pursues after bringing the situation at the bar to a violent denouement? Was it her father who died, as recounted in the “prologue,” thus lending a layer of motivation to her need to snap out of the hopeless humdrum patterns we see in the more Edward Hopper-esque scenes?

Ah, there’s the rub: Maxwell’s dramaturgy is neo-Brechtian in that it de-familiarizes the familiar by highlighting its theatricality. The whole business of “motivation” becomes suspect, just as the seemingly “real-life” setting deliberately draws attention to the artifice of its naturalism. The actors deliver lines that can make sense from moment to moment but that add up to a maze of non-sequiturs and repeated patterns. And Maxwell plays with the compositional cliché of the triangle, with the archetypes that get triggered from seeing the clues he gives us to each character.

The apparently “realistic” throughline in The Evening, which we’re so conditioned by TV and mainstream film to expect, to be served, is a decoy. (There’s even a TV set hoisted above the bar showing a sports channel as part of the set, but it acquires a Big Brotherish aura as the play continues.)

We become frustrated by the lack of all the rest following suit (understandable motivation, easy-to-read cause and effect etc.) — which is exactly what Maxwell seems to be aiming for. It reminds me of the effect of hyper-realist paintings: beneath the shimmering, “life-like” detail, a kind of uncanny valley opens up where we find ourselves in a twilight zone. The zone of evening.

So The Evening exaggerates realism to undermine it. And even the framing parts seem to be “placeholders” for the deeper aspects of an evening in the theater: these are the “visionary” parts that are meant to endow the proceedings with meaning, the “take-away” that tells us our time was well spent.

Yet in just 60 minutes — the duration of The Evening — the theatrical trickster Maxwell lays out a crossword puzzle of clues, teases, resemblances, and images that isn’t meant to be solved. What’s also striking is the pivotal role of audience response. Last night a fair group of spectators seemed bent on “figuring it out” by chuckling and guffawing as if Maxwell were merely endeavoring parody of theatrical clichés — turning the experience at times into a kind of meta-sitcom.

I found that adversely affected the haunting strangeness of The Evening — an attempt to re-familiarize what’s happening onstage. Sure, Cosmo might be a sloppy, self-satisfied creep — or, rather, Fletcher plays Cosmo playing that archetype — but Maxwell constructs a context for these characters that speed-bumps our knee-jerk tendency to read them as we would read a group of people when, say, we stroll into a bar for the evening. It’s the empty spaces that are left to resonate — and, as Beatrice/Buerhaus remarks in the opening section, meditating on the father’s death, “they say that atoms are made of 99.9% empty space.”

If you go: Richard Maxwell’s The Evening plays at On the Boards through this weekend, 100 West Roy Street. After the Friday performance there will be a post-show discussion with Richard Maxwell and Todd London; following Sat’s performance the musicians will continue with post-show music. Tickets here.

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: On the Boards, playwrights, review, theater

A Crazy Night from Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams in 1953;  photo by Walter Albertin

Tennessee Williams in 1953; photo by Walter Albertin

This is exciting: the discovery of an early short story by Tennessee Williams that is being published for the first time in the spring issue of The Strand Magazine.

“Crazy Night” is the story’s title. Apparently it dates from the 1930s and recounts an undergraduate romance between the narrator, a young freshman in love with a senior named Anna Jean. According to the AP report, which quotes Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli:

“Crazy Night” is set on an unnamed campus in the early ’30s, after the stock market crash of October 1929 and before the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, when “students graduating or flunking out of college had practically every reason for getting drunk and little or nothing that was fit to drink.” The title refers to a ritual at the end of spring term during which students are expected to binge on alcohol and sex, a bacchanal “feverishly gay” on the surface but “really the saddest night of the year.”

“There is a theme of disappointment, the old ‘mendacity theme’ from ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'” Gulli says. “He could show how beneath the cloak of respectability his characters had horrible insecurities and dark secrets. Williams was a master of showing the desperation and need humans have for companionship and was equally skilled at showing how relationships go sour and lead to cynicism.”

Tennessee Williams, who holds a special place in my personal pantheon of revered authors, wrote short stories throughout his life. “It has been suggested that many of the stories are simply preliminary sketches for the plays,” writes his friend Gore Vidal in his introduction to the marvelous volume of Collected Stories published by New Directions in 1985. “The truth is more complicated,” Vidal observes:

In the beginning, there would be, let us say, a sexual desire for someone. Consummated or not, the desire (“Something that is made to occupy a larger space than that which is afforded by the individual being”) would produce reveries. In turn, the reveries would be written down as a story. But should the desire still remain unfulfilled, he would make a play of the story and then — and this is why he was so compulsive a working playwright — he would have the play produced so that he could, like God, rearrange his original experience into something that was no longer God’s and unpossessable but his… “For love I make characters in plays,” he wrote; and did.

Filed under: literature, playwrights

What a Story: Enda Walsh’s Walworth Farce

NCT's "The Walworth Farce"; photo by Chris Bennion

NCT’s The Walworth Farce; photo by Chris Bennion

For its fall production, Seattle’s enterprising New Century Theatre has chosen Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. Here’s my review for Crosscut:

Talk about a repetition compulsion: For the first half of The Walworth Farce, New Century Theatre’s latest adventure, a father and his two grown sons run through the lines of the play they reenact day after day – an absurd, antic ritual involving a mock procession with a cardboard coffin, constant prop swaps, dizzying identity changes and a hidden “fortune” of shredded Monopoly money.

In the confines of their squalid South London council flat, Dinny (Peter Crook) is the paterfamilias and dictatorial writer-director of the script he and his sons Sean (New Century Theatre artistic director Darragh Kennan) and Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor) perform day after day. Dinny keeps his boys’ eyes on the prize, egging them on to compete for a chalice-like trophy that will go to that day’s “best actor.” But snafus inevitably occur, and the ritual has to be reorganized.

Dinny’s play is the thing that’s supposed to keep them all safe. It recounts the story, fable repeated until it’s taken as fact, of how this insular family unit was forced to abandon their idyllic home back in Cork. We also learn how Mother was killed in a bizarre accident involving a dead horse. They’ve been living as exiles ever since, surrounded by “savage” Londoners and holed up on the top floor of a grimy, stairless high-rise.
“What are we without our stories?” wonders Dinny by way of justifying the outrageous fiction he’s used to paint over what actually happened – and the real world kept at bay by a half-dozen deadbolts on the flat’s front door.

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Filed under: playwrights, review, theater

Alan Ayckbourn in Seattle with Sugar Daddies


My recent interview with Alan Ayckbourn for is up. Here’s a fuller version with some extra material that got cut in editing:

Since 1976, ACT Theatre has produced ten plays by Alan Ayckbourn – and that’s just a fraction of the 74-year-old English playwright’s catalogue. But this fall’s production of Sugar Daddies (2003) brings Seattle not only the honor of a North American premiere, but the presence of Sir Alan himself in his West Coast debut as a director. (He was knighted in 1997.)

Like most of his work, “Sugar Daddies” premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (on the coast in North Yorkshire). Ayckbourn has maintained close ties there since early in his career, writing for its theatre-in-the-round configuration – a staging style he prefers. He stepped down as artistic director at the end of 2008 but lately appears to be busier than ever at the SJT with his projects as visiting director.

Ayckbourn’s breakthrough hit came with the London production in 1967 with Relatively Speaking, a fresh, hilariously constructed twist on the well-worn gag of lovers caught in a web of mistaken identity. (“The critics were shocked to see French windows instead of the kitchen sink – it seemed slightly reactionary,” he jokes.) Here already was the characteristic Ayckbournian touch, with its preoccupation with role playing and marital discontent. Some claim him to be one of “the world’s most-performed living playwrights,” though Ayckbourn’s own website points out “there is actually no plausible way to prove this statement.”

But what sets him apart is that his undeniably widespread – and sustained – popularity goes hand in hand with his untiring experimentation with theatricality and stagecraft.

And while he is usually thought of first and foremost as a comic master, Ayckbourn’s plays have become significantly more complex over time. Sugar Daddies in particular mingles satire and clever dialogue, taking a dark slant on a youth and beauty meets age and power scenario.

Emily Chisholm; photo by Nate Watters

Emily Chisholm; photo by Nate Watters

Set in the contemporary London flat shared by half-sisters Sasha and Chloé, the play explores how they are affected when the younger, naïve Sasha is befriended by the elderly Val (old enough to be her grandfather). His extravagant gifts and nights out to the opera distract her from asking too much about Val’s sinister background – even when she’s warned by Ashley, their one-eyed neighbor and a former cop whose own past connection to Val is veiled in mystery. Ayckbourn’s absurd yet meticulously crafted symmetries resemble a cautionary retooling of Cinderella, where sudden shifts in fortune prove too good to be true.

I met up with Sir Alan during a break from rehearsal to talk about Sugar Daddies, his remarkable career and the future of theatre.

TM: How were you persuaded to come to Seattle – and what made you choose Sugar Daddies in particular to show audiences here the director side of your career?

AA: It has been brewing for some years. When [ACT artistic director] Kurt Beattie came over to visit me in England, he slid me a schematic of the Allen Theatre, which is not so far removed from our own theatre in the round in Scarborough. [The 404-seat Stephen Joseph Theatre.]

The ethos [of ACT] is very close to it. Both are interested in new writing, but are also very egalitarian – not like the old style, where the stage management were below stairs, the actors upstairs. And much more friendly. I’ve gotten asked dozens of times in England, “Why are you going to Seattle?” And I said, “Because they asked me!”

I chose “Sugar Daddies” as a play that hasn’t been done here and that I would like to revisit. From my knowledge of working in the States, it’s the sort of play American actors could embrace. Some of my plays are so English you’d spend most of the rehearsal period explaining the class system. We are doing [Sugar Daddies] as set in England, but nonetheless it’s fairly universal in its concerns.

TM: It’s probably a bit of a surprise to many who love your plays that you actually spend much more of your time on directing than writing. Yet somehow you’ve managed to remain a wildly popular and prolific writer (77 full-length plays and counting).

AA: I’ve had three careers in theatre: I started as an actor and then took, as I call it, the “poison chalice” of directing. Once you feel you’re in control as a director, it’s harder to go back to acting. The directing career developed quite independently from my writing career at first. Then the two almost inevitably merged, but quite later on.

The rehearsal room can be quite a hostile place … if the actors suspect you don’t know what you’re doing. It takes quite a lot of experience before you can confidently handle a whole room of actors – particularly because they are often rather eccentric and extraordinary individuals. I do spend more time in the rehearsal room than at my computer these days.

Over the last few years I’ve tended to direct a minimum of two plays a year, one of which is always a revival from my back catalogue. And I’ll use the revival as a pro forma for the new play. Last year I did a revival of Absurd Person Singular, and on the back of that I wrote a new six-handed play, Surprises [both plays call for 3 men and 3 women].

TM: In a sense, Sugar Daddies is about the art of theatre itself, the way we’re constantly playing roles, whether we are aware or want to or not.

AA: I was fascinated at the way we pretend, we select. It’s best summed up by when you’re very young and you meet a girl and the inevitable moment comes when you want to take her back to meet the parents. And then you’re thinking, “How am I going to look against the backdrop of my parents, who still look at me as 8 years old?” And she’s thinking the same thing: “My whole illusion of myself is going to be shattered.”

People like Sasha respond to other people she senses have an expectation of her. She in turn has an image of old people as being friendly. “Uncle” Val is trying to put a very dark past behind him, and Sasha presents him with an edited version of herself. It’s not a deliberately deceitful thing – though I think, in Uncle Val’s case, it may be. For most of us, it’s a presentation of ourselves, which we sense the other is expecting.

For example: as a director, actors don’t want to meet you socially if you’re rolling drunk. Not that they actually think you are infallible, but they like to assume a state of infallibility. If you go out of your way to encourage that, with a confident manner, it helps.

TM: So no drunk Tweeting once rehearsals have started! But what you describe sounds almost like the same dynamic you show Sasha experiencing. She’s looking for some kind of approval and validation from her Sugar Daddy Val.

AA: It touches on the old Faust legend of selling your soul to the devil. A lot of the play is set up so you’re asking, is she going to go down the path of eternal damnation with Uncle Val or is she going to find a way out? Fortunately, there is a turning point and a momentary glimpse of the monster. It’s not that Sasha doesn’t know about that [part of him], but she chooses not to know about it. The pleas of ignorance – we do a lot of that; it’s a considerable human characteristic.

TM: One recurring idea in critiques of Sugar Daddies is the issue of the play’s tonality. Critics have seemed confused by its mixture and want to have it both ways: a dark, confectionless, yet somehow entertaining play. For the ACT production, you’ve even decided to rewrite the final scene between Sasha and her half-sister Chloé.

AA: Rereading the play, I thought Sasha goes through this experience pretty well unscathed. She escapes with just a singe. I wanted those last few moments to show that there’s part of Uncle Val that’s been left with her. If you’ve supped with the devil, you’ve probably burnt your tongue.

John Patrick Lowrie as ex-cop Ashley; photo by LaRae Lobdell

John Patrick Lowrie as ex-cop Ashley; photo by LaRae Lobdell

Val is probably the most evil character I’ve written. For some reason all my evil characters seem to begin with V: Uncle Val, Vic [Man of the Moment], Vince [Way Upstream]. It’s a strange little motif. The man playing it in Scarborough said, “This must be the most evil man I’ve ever played.” He comes from that old-style East End gangster mode; he’s a capo, a don.

There is a sense that Sasha is refreshingly clear-eyed at the beginning, the “country mouse” who has come into the city, while Chloé is an exaggerated “town mouse” — probably one of those people in the media who are always competing furiously. But she has a sort of mistrust of human nature by the end – something you see in children growing up. Sasha’s not quite the girl she was at the beginning; there is a sort of ruthlessness about her.

TM: Among other modern playwrights, who would you single out as the great “bards” who will last?

AA: I’m a great admirer of David Hare and Alan Bennett. One of the writers that had the most profound effect on me, when I was directing other people’s plays, was Arthur Miller. The great thing about being a writer directing other people’s work is that as a director, you’re more or less compelled to take the play apart in order to put it together again with the actors. You see the mainspring here, the cogs there. Miller was a terrific craftsman and had a brain on him the size of Britain.

I was very lucky I grew up at the crossroads for English drama. So I absorbed a lot of the old-fashioned, well-made plays, and then came [John] Osborne and [Harold] Pinter, who was an enormous influence of me. I even acted in an early production of The Birthday Party, which he directed. He was an extraordinarily unique voice. So I’m influenced by the Chekhovs through to the Pinters really. I was blessed with a double upbringing.

TM: You’ve remained remarkably loyal to theatre as an art form, while so many of your colleagues – not to mention younger writers – have gone over to the commercial payoff of TV, Cable, film. What does the future of theatre look like to you?

AA: There’s a bright curve of new dramatists coming up in England. I do think, because of the non-encouragement of new writers, there’s a danger in our theatres now of [these writers] not addressing the challenges of theatre, but of trying to adapt television and film ideas. I used to sit at my desk and read 3 or 4 plays a week. My heart used to sink if there was a play with 26 scenes: Where’s the conciseness of theatre?

And there is a veering towards monologue, which is quite popular now — not just as a dictate of economics, but a preference of dramatists. When I was teaching, I used to try to point out all the colors of the theatre palette. My mentor Stephen Joseph told me, “Yeah, break the rules, but first of all you’ve got to know what they are!” So he sat me down and made me write a well-made play. At least I’d been through the process, and I’ve been breaking the rules ever since.

Filed under: playwrights, theater

Harold Pinter’s Music


From the Paris Review archives, a fascinating interview with playwright Harold Pinter by Larry Bensky conducted in October 1966. “Good writing excites me, and makes life worth living,” says Pinter about his rapport with fellow writers. And he responds to a question about the influence of music on his writing:

I don’t know how music can influence writing; but it has been very important for me, both jazz and classical music. I feel a sense of music continually in writing, which is a different matter from having been influenced by it. Boulez and Webern are now composers I listen to a great deal.

Filed under: playwrights, theater

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