seattle theatre

Kittens in a Cage – I Can’t Quit You

Photo: Ian Johnston; Francesca Mondelli in Annex Theater’s “Kittens In A Cage”

Published at TheSunbreak.com August 14, 2012.

Okay. I shouldn’t like Kittens in a Cage at Annex Theatre (through August 25th; tickets). I really shouldn’t. It’s a riff on lezploitation and reminded me of a really bad ’70s softcore porn about lesbians in prison that someone (who was totally not me) might have watched on Skinemax when they were fifteen. But I can’t help it. I love Kittens in a Cage.

Yes, it’s campy. There’s not a message, or a greater purpose. There’s a one-armed matron who has all the vigor (and lines) from a B-movie villain. There’s no redemption and the most traumatizing thing that happens actually doesn’t matter because this is a land without lasting consequences for our leading ladies.

But it has a ukelele! A pretty lady sings with a southern twang (I’m from Tennessee so this made my stomach backflip)! And gorgeous women kissing one another and having feelings! And I learned so many new ways to refer to my genitalia (most of them were fish related, but still they were clever)! And it’s the first show I’ve seen in a long time that has an all-female cast with a female playwright (ladies writing about lady-loving–unheard of)!

Under impeccable direction by Bret Fetzer, Kittens in a Cage by Kelleen Conway Blanchard is a joyous bad-girl romp through a lesbian-loving field of daisies where bitches get shanked in the shower. So, the plot–and there is one–focuses on Junie (played by the dark-haired vixen Francesca Mondelli), who was unfortunately backstabbed by her friends after innocently shooting a bankteller in the neck. It could happen to anyone.

Junie’s no-good friends sold her out and she’s sent off to a woman’s correctional facility run by the one-armed matron (Lisa Viertel) and the rough around the edges prison guard, Nancy (Katie Driscoll). Viertel and Driscoll play beautifully off each other with clear affection and unrequited love though they both despise the uncleanliness of homosexuality. (Their exchanges reminded me wonderfully of Captain Monica Stark and Cookie in Psycho Beach Party.)

Junie then becomes the object of affection as the “new fish” (sorry, brief pause while I chuckle) in a pool of despicable inmates who are all several steps away from the line of sanity. Quickly, Junie falls for her cellmate, Vickie (played by the omg-I-want-to-cuddle-with-you Laurel Ryan) which don’t sit right with the other fishes, specifically the big kahuna, Jeanine.

Jeanine (Tracy Leigh), played with an accent that sounded unbelievably like AppleJack from MLP: Friendship is Magic, lusts after the seemingly simple Junie and has some of the best references to vaginas and cunnilingus I have ever heard. Jeanine’s over-the-top “I’m gonna get you” panache is paired with the subtle and remarkable Erin Pike who plays the silent Barbara, incarcerated for eating a girl scout troupe.

But of course, not all can be happy in a lesbian prison. Sigh. No. You can’t just have hot people in skimpy outfits, lusting after one another. We can’t just live in that world…of imprisonment. Oh no. Dark and nefarious things are happening. Our resident crazy (played by the seamlessly shifting Erin Stewart) comes to deliver the harrowing news in true “I took a few too many blue pills,” fashion: The matron likes to “fix” the inmates with science! Cue the sound of things buzzing and a green light cue.

Speaking of lighting and sound, we have the talents of Tess Malone and Kyle Thompson, respectively. Malone’s lights get creepy at all the good parts. And Thompson’s SCIENCE! noises seemed to be taken direct from Bride of Frankenstein (in a good way). Not to mention the songs which I absolutely wanted more of, written by a very talented man named Rick Miller.

At this point I’d normally advocate for some deeper meaning. Something that would elevate this play to the next level, make it more than just a lesbian comedy with a lot of cleavage. But, I can’t do it. In its B-movie, lezsploitation simplicity, Kittens in a Cage  resonates. It’s not the same crap (see: wedding/dinner party gone awry). It’s mocking exploitation as opposed to actively exploiting (seriously, I stopped looking at cleavage when Junie started singing). And hey, it’s actually funny in a clever way.

Especially in a season of Annex’s that has been unbelievably male (I’m looking at you, Lewis and Clark), Kittens overflows with female talent with the additional bonus of incredible singing, acting, grisly biting of license plates, and a truly funny script. Kittens in a Cage may not be a change-your-life night of theatre, but it’s certainly a welcome relief to the heat. Especially in a time when women are still having the “Women: Do they have a sense of humor?” debate, I’ll take Kittens in a Cage over A. R. Gurney any day.

Blood/Sailing is a Wonderfully Terrifying Experiment

Friday was a depressing news day. With the Colorado shooting and Rolling Stones article confirming that we are indeed doomed, the otherwise sunny day felt dark. With the certain knowledge that the end is nigh, and feeling altogether gloomy, I was strangely happy at the prospect of a dark piece of theatre. (Why see entertainment when you can wallow?) It was in this frame of mind that I attended Blood/Sailing by Blood Ensemble at boom! Theatre (through July 28; tickets).

Darkness is not something that theatre, and Seattle theatre in particular, does often without elements of humor to distract from material deemed “unapproachable,” or downlifting (if you will). Its description as a metal show meets experimental theatre with nary a sentence given to narrative aroused misgivings in me.

I don’t qualify for the cool sticker (they give stickers for coolness, right?) when it comes to music. I’m not sure I can name five metal bands. I can’t tell you I like metal music, or even outline the distinguishing characteristics of the genre. But experimental theatre. Oh yes. Give it to me any time.

Arriving at 7:15 for the 8 o’clock show, I was able to watch the cast congregate and finish their makeup outside the cramped theatre. Watching them apply ample amounts of dirt, sunken eyes, top hats, eye patches, and brown robes, I thought, “This is going to be good.” I wasn’t disappointed.

The narrative, and there is one, is a folklore/fairytale/legend of the group’s own devising. Centering on a volcano and an evil-doer, Mr. Clementine (played by a dastardly Jordan Melin), The Innocents are set to work in a factory of sorts building something more than likely nefarious in nature, but we never see what. The Innocents are presided over by a henchmen (the absolute goddess Gabrielle Schutz) who controls and punishes them as needed (yes, kind of hot).

Under the direction of Dayo Anderson (full disclosure, I know her) Blood/Sailing builds a story around small moments which creates a wonderfully terrifying, and surprisingly subtle production. The music, written and performed by the band Smooth Sailing (who provided the inspiration for the piece) sets the perfect mood for the eerie anticipation and terror of the unknown. (And apparently, I love metal. Well, I love them. Who knew?)

Blood/Sailing relies entirely on movement to the tell its story. (There’s no way the band could keep playing if they had to lower the volume so you could hear dialogue.) And while this method could spell disaster for a novice company, Blood Ensemble excelled at propelling the story through these compelling and sometimes creepy movements. Part-theatre, part-dance, part-metal show, Blood/Sailing blends these elements together seamlessly.

Particular moment of note is a long, sweet touch from ankle to knee executed by The Boy (Ricky Coates) on his love interest The Girl (Megan Jackson). Wonderful too, the overlooked, but clearly lovelorn Samantha Cooper as an Innocent who longs for The Boy and ribbon he gives The Girl.

Blood Ensemble also manages to pull off a chase scene on the side of a volcano (it gave me chills), and a literal cliffhanging moment where two persons battle to reclaim their purchase.

If movement is where Blood Ensemble excels, then they fail when they don’t trust their skills as movement artists. Throughout the play they use projections, silent-movie-style, to provide narrative and dialogue. Sadder still, is the cast miming the projected words.

When someone moved in such a simple way, indicating love, or lost life I didn’t need the projection telling me what was being said, nor did I need to be told who was evil in the play, or when we’d come out of a dream sequence. The other elements were strong enough to convey this information. The choice felt self-conscious in an otherwise fearless piece.

Thankfully, the projections are few and far between and mostly disappear by the second act. And the projections don’t change the artistry involved in what Blood Ensemble has created.

The end is questionable in the way you don’t want theatre to spell out exactly what it means. The ending forces you to figure out what you want light and dark to mean. From the literal to the utter metaphoric, I debated all options in my head and with my companion, and decided I’m happy I don’t have a definite answer.

Regardless of your feelings toward metal or experimental theatre, there’s a lot to enjoy about Blood/Sailing including an incredibly talented ensemble (the list being too long to name in entirety) who all have their own small arcs and redefine naivety. Melin’s Clementine is the quintessential evil machination with some of the most terrifying movements in the piece. And Schutz’s henchman is at once frightening and captivating.

The play succeeds at turning horror into good storytelling, a feat unto itself. More than that, it elevates the genre to be more than cheap gimmick and gore.

Go for the darkness. Stay for poignant metal story.

Brief response to shows seen in January

Because I was busy with rehearsals for Apocalypse Soon and then distracted by near-death thanks to a Seattle snowstorm,  I was not able to see much theatre in January. I missed out on Coriolanus which I really wanted to see, as well as several others. Here are very short responses to the things I attended.

14/48 at ACT Theatre, written and directed by very talented people in the Seattle community

I was lucky enough to attend three of the four performances of 14/48. 14/48 is always… interesting. The emcee usually makes a joke about how these are all actually just dress rehearsals, and there’s a lot of truth in that. There are generally about three plays of the run you could see being developed more fully into complete productions, but sometimes, more often than I’d like, 14/48 devolves into the easiest sex jokes imaginable. That does not mean that the experience itself isn’t amazing, or that the work is lesser, just that I wish when exhaustion hits the playwright more ideas would come to mind than drawn out sex metaphors. In addition, the male dominated nature of it continues to confound. On one weekend they apparently had mostly female actors and only one (maybe two?) female playwrights. For a cast that is mostly female, it was astounding how many male-centric themes there were. But I remain hopeful about what 14/48 means for the nature of Seattle theatre focusing on new works and trying different things. We learn, after all, from our failures more than our successes. Not to say 14/48 was a failure; it wasn’t. Just that I look forward to the artists they pick becoming more diverse in experiences and voices. 14/48 is something never to be missed and happens twice a year for a total of 8 unique performances and 56 new plays each year. That number alone is incredible.

Macha Monkey‘s Thebes performed at Theatre Off Jackson

This new play written by Kristina Sutherland and directed by Alexis Holzer was absolutely fantastic. Depicting the story of a female soldier returning home to Thebes, IL where her mother is in the midst of a campaign for mayor. The play deals with the collapse and rebuild of a family. I’ll admit that sister dramas, in particular, are a soft-spot for me, but with the use of a chorus and some really intense flashbacks (that could also be hallucinations?), Thebes became a lot more than a simple family drama. More than that, Thebes never took the easy road, opting instead to tread new ground rather than rehash stories that have already been told. And, it did all that with humor as well as drama and featured a mostly female cast. That does not happen often enough. Though it was not a perfect show, (I think the last fight between the women still needs some work so everyone doesn’t just speak their peace down the line) Thebes did everything that I ask theatre to do: it didn’t reflect my life back at me, it refracted into something new.

Construction Zone‘s inaugural production at ACT Theatre of American Wee-Pie by Lisa Dillman

I couldn’t be happier that ACT Theatre is starting this project. Construction Zone aims to work with established playwrights on developing new work and opens the discussion up to Seattle audiences. I’m in dramaturg heaven. American Wee-Pie put a different spin on the economic crisis and search for self by adding a lot of comedy and cupcakes. What’s not to love? What was fantastic about Construction Zone is that similarly to New Century’s Pipeline, the performance ends with a discussion about the work in progress. They were luckily able to bring the playwright to the event and are still looking for more funding so they can always fly the playwright in. So, if you like new work and happen to have an extra $5, send it their way.

February’s list is forthcoming!

New projects and announcements

Apocalypse Soon was a huge success at Ghost Light Theatricals Battle of the Bards. My cast killed it, as they were destined to do. And even though we didn’t win Battle of the Bards, all three shows broke $1500 in donations which is something that has not happened in Battle of Bards history. Here is the final score for those who who are desperate to know how the whole thing turned out. The winning show, Paper Bullets, is going to be an awesome experience written by the very talented John E. Allis who currently writes for The Seattle Star and blogged for the last 14/48. You can look forward to seeing Paper Bullets next season at Ghost Light Theatricals!

Done with one show and on to the next. I’m pleased to announce a new project. I will be directing at Stone Soup Theatre’s Double XX Festival a short piece written by Deborah Yarchun called Streakers.

As of right now the show is slated to perform on the second weekend of the festival, April 26th – 29th. Streakers blends ritual, sex, and humor centering around the death of a pet. General auditions for all Double XX Fest pieces are coming up on the 18th and 19th of February if you know someone who would be interested in participating in any of the fantastic shows directed by Seattle women.

My playwrighting class is coming to close which means there will be a showcase of student work. As of right now, the date is set for Friday, February 24th at ACT Theatre. The showcase will feature ten minute selections from all the students in class. This class has been absolutely extraordinary, and I would encourage any writer in the Seattle area to take it. For the showcase, I’m preparing a scene from a new work, tentatively titled, Slip. Here’s a short excerpt:

ALANA
That’s just it. It’s like I remember something. Like that word on the tip of your tongue. When my mom said his name

MEL
What was it?

ALANA
Sorry

MEL
His name?

ALANA
Hal.

MEL
Hal?

ALANA
Hal.

“Little bunny foo-foo” plays on out-of-key piano. It’s out of joint.  An EASTER BUNNY comes across stage hiding eggs. ALANA can hear the music and sees the BUNNY. 

MEL
We could try to find a picture. See if it will jog your memory. If it means something to you. I want to help.

ALANA
No. I’d rather just

MEL
You okay?

ALANA
Huh?

MEL
What’s the matter?

ALANA
Did you see

MEL
I’ll make you tea.

EASTER BUNNY satisfied with the placement of eggs, exits. Music stops. Light shift.
Slip.
ALANA’s childhood house. She is sixteen and drunk.

ALANA
Tea?

MOM
You’ve been drinking tea?

ALANA
Mom?

From the stage directions: “A slip is a shift in time, not a flashback. It is as if ALANA is falling through memories but is still also active in the scene happening in real time. Sometimes, these moments take a minute of adjustment for her, and sometimes they are immediately understood as current reality.” I’m quite excited about this play and curious to see how it develops.

I have not forsaken the writing of responses to shows, but I’ve been going to so many, I have had barely enough time to sleep between my full-time job, seeing shows, rehearsals, reading, and writing plays. Excuses, perhaps, but I may write a brief rundown of all the shows I’ve seen this year, which I think is already in the double-digits.

And finally, I may have a dramaturg gig lined up for the foreseeable months. More on that to come after the workshop readings of the play in question.

It is an exciting time for theatre in Seattle, especially with the announcement that Intiman Theatre will be returning this summer for a short festival of works. As someone who used to work at Intiman, I could not be happier about this announcement and am particularly excited to see the roster of artists involved. It should be an amazing year for Seattle Theatre.

Auditions announced for Apocalypse Soon.

Auditions for a 20 minute play Apocalypse Soon.

Casting for 3 F, 3 M and 3 non-gender specific characters.

Date and Time of Auditions: Dec. 5th and 6th after 6pm.

Email sayhello@courtneymeaker.com to schedule an audition slot.

About the play:
Apocalypse Soon. Religious figures throughout a variety of texts and oral traditions come together for a three day reunion to plan the apocalypse and decide who’s saved. Surfacing issues like hope, salvation, choice, whiskey, and acoustic music the characters try to resolve their angst before destroying the world.

This is for Battle of the Bards which is Ghost Light Theatrical’s annual fundraiser. There will be two other plays performing as well. Audience members vote with money for the play they would like to see a full production of in Ghost Light’s next season.

Would like a variety of ethnicity’s including (but not limited to) African American, Pacific Islander, Asian, Arab, and Indian.

Ages open.

Cast includes:
Lucifer – M. skeezy, yet charming man
Eve – F. academic activist
Mother – F. warrior turned battle medic
Pele – F. volcano goddess
Anansi – non-specific. CEO Anansi, Inc. Children’s books publisher
Buddha – non-specific. meditative monk turned camp counselor
Orpheus – M. grunge northwest guitarist
The Serpent – non-specific. bartender
Jesus – M. AA sponsor

Audition will consist of cold readings
1 – 2 short monologues and
1 – 2 short scenes (depending on how many people are available at the time you attend)

Headshot/resume not required but if you have them, bring them. If you don’t have a headshot, I may take a blurry picture of you with my phone. I apologize in advance.

Specifics:
Actors need to be able to commit to 20 hours of rehearsals, plus two hours of tech, one dress rehearsal, and two performances.

Tech in the evening on Jan 24th and Jan 25th. Dress on the 26th. Final performance on the 27th and 28th.

Rehearsals will be scheduled between Jan 5th to Jan 23rd (but, only 20 hours). Rehearsals will be held some time after 6pm M – Th with possible afternoon rehearsal on a Saturday or Sunday depending on schedules.

This is an ensemble piece so actors with minimal conflicts preferred. However, I’m willing to work around schedules where possible.

Compensation: This project is a part of Ghost Light’s Battle of the Bards fundraiser so it is volunteer. The process will be fun and collaborative. Free food and drinks will also be provided at the two performances. Repeat: Free food AND drinks.

To schedule a slot email me: sayhello@courtneymeaker.com. If you can’t make it on these dates email me with times you are available and I will make time to see you. If you would like to read the play beforehand, I can send you a copy.

Seattle Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Midsummer Night’s Dream
Author: Shakespeare
Date Attended: 5th November 2011
Venue: Seattle Shakespeare Company performed at Intiman
Director: Sheila Daniels

What elements need to work to convey the story effectively? 

  • Puck needs to lead you on your journey into the forest
  • Magic and transformation skillfully portrayed
  • Hermia and Lysander as your lovable rock
  • A strong Helena so that you love more than pity her
  • Ridiculous and delusional rude mechanicals

How did the production’s interpretation serve the story?

Let’s start with the lovers.

Sheila Daniels’ production took a brave step in choosing to cast Lysander as a woman, making Hermia’s father forbidding them to marry more relevant than just dislike of a nerdy kid in comparison to the buff Demetrius. This choice was incredibly compelling throughout, if only they hadn’t changed the name from Lysander to Lysandra. The scansion didn’t pan well for me, but that was literally my only complaint about the choice. In every scene the relationship was well-developed and engaging.

This is the first time I’ve seen the play live since I was in high school and as such there were many things that I had completely forgotten from childhood that never bothered me. However, now my post-liberal arts education makes me cringe at Helena’s comparison of herself to a spaniel. However, Helena was sad, funny and hopelessly in love with a moron. I still felt the urge to shake her at the spaniel moment, but my heart felt more for her than I ever thought possible. I still wanted her to get over Demetrius, but her characterization of Helena was so compelling and served the story well that I’m 100% satisfied that Demetrius gets whammied into loving her.

This is the only time I’ve read or seen Hippolyta and Theseus as real characters. Their development with Hippolyta as a warrior and not necessarily completely won over by Theseus yet, served to make them more than mere accessories who can’t wait to get married. Hippolyta was given agency and I was captivated by their relationship.

Now to the fairies.

This production chose to give the fairies a primal, animalistic, tribal quality replete with hissing and furs. The downside of the choice, was in some ways it robbed the magic of the fairy land. The hissing was actually what alienated me most. I want the fairies to draw me into their world. I want Puck to guide me on a journey, but the choice to hiss and snarl into the audience looked as if the fairies were trying to scare us for some reason and gave what transpired more of a malicious nature as opposed to a playful accident. Mostly, because of cuts or the behaviors of the fairies, I didn’t identify with Puck and was left with a disjointed feeling. This isn’t to say that my fairies have to be glittery and plucky, but a little more humanity and playfulness as opposed to creepy would have served the play better.

The rude mechanicals delivered wonderfully. Bottom was pompous and loveable and their patchwork attire sold the haphazard nature of their band.

Why this play now?

It’s difficult to say why this play is important. Essentially, I feel like it’s summed up in Puck’s line “What fools these mortals be,” but only when it serves as a comparison to the fairies who are equally foolish. To oversimplify Midsummer is just a love story with fairy interference. As such, the play is done largely for entertainment rather than to serve a larger aesthetic or global purpose. The Lysander choice and the Hippolyta and Theseus relationship is what made the production feel vital, or at least contemporary. Though the choices they made tried to elevate the play higher than a simple romcom it still begs the question why we as an audience continue to attend the play. My answer is that the belief in magic and love are vital to existence even if the concepts are a tad hokey. We continue to attend to behold transformation and hope for a magical land to transport us.

Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind
Author: Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Date attended: 22 September 2011
Venue: Strawberry Theatre Workshop presented at Erickson Theatre

Director: Greg Carter

I grew up in Franklin, TN, a small town that has since largely expanded thanks to suburban sprawl. I remember driving down I-65 south and passing endless fields as a child. Now going south from Nashville there’s strip mall after mega mall, after mega church, after mega mall, after strip mall all the way to exit 65 to my old home on the outskirts of rural neighborhoods. I lived three hours away from Dayton, the location of the original Scopes Monkey Trial.

My father was a damn fine litigation lawyer for several years, which means getting into a debate with him was encouraged, but tough. By the time I began high school, my father had graduated from an MDiv program and started preaching for the United Methodist Church. His first church was actually a cluster of four churches in the heart of rural Tennessee where the average age of the congregation was 65 and the sum of the congregation couldn’t have been more than 80.

My father (and mother) raised me to question everything. My father taught me about sun spots for a science project in elementary school using the telescope he built himself. My mother helped me grow crystals in discarded coke bottles. My father read a Wrinkle in Time and The Giver to me and pushed science fiction greats onto my shelf. Our house was filled with books by Carl Sagan, Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Frank Hubert and many religious texts alongside analytical companions to religion.

But we lived in Franklin, TN and I was enrolled in public schools in a county predominantly conservative Christian, which means I had to fight for the right not to be a conservative Christian. So, when they assigned Inherit the Wind in my freshman English class and asked who wanted to be counsel for the defense in our mock Scopes Trial, my hand was the first one up. My father gave me a copy of Darrow’s biography and I presented a case built solidly on fact, pointing out that religious texts generally cannot be seen as fact because in each translation something is lost. To say that I demolished the prosecution is an understatement. However, my victory was not seen that way by the others in my class.

A year after we studied the Scopes Trial, my Biology teacher taught evolution for a ten minute lesson with a very long preface and a permission slip for those parents wishing their children to be excused from even hearing it. He emphasized evolution as a theory and never discussed it again.

In short, it’s with a lot of baggage that I came to see Inherit the Wind.

Why this play now?

This question is what spawned the rather long introduction and all I have come to is: I don’t know. For me, I have a history with the play; I have a history with the culture that created it. However, I also question whether it’s a lasting piece of theatre based on aesthetic changes that have happened over the past fifty years. I hate it when plays introduce a character for two seconds and then s/he’s never heard from again. I hate scenes that do not directly relate to the plot or further the story, or tell you anything interesting about the characters. So, there are many scenes throughout the play that I consider to be a waste of space, not for lack of acting talent, but because they are simply unnecessary. I also tend to dislike plays that risk demonizing a certain group without showing humanity. Lawrence and Lee had an agenda (which was actually tied more to McCarthyism than evolution) and though Strawshop presented fleshed out developed characters, Lawrence and Lee didn’t.

The evolution vs. creationism debate is relevant in the south where the battle still rages on, but generally in the pacific northwest, it doesn’t seem to be an issue. Many laughs during the show by the Seattle audience seemed to be more out of mocking the South, than actually understanding these people and how threatened they feel when they perceive an attack on their faith or children.

In an attempt to make the play more vital, Strawshop chose an African-American actor to play Drummond and (thankfully) a much smaller cast with gender-blind casting for the judge. While these changes gave the play more urgency, it also felt a little forced. The play is about challenging people to question what they know to be true for the purposes of educating them. In that the company used the casting choices to their advantage, however, because Lawrence and Lee never anticipated this interpretation when they wrote the play in the fifties, the play has a difficult time addressing issues of race and gender. Strawshop did a great job of picking those moments out where they could use the text to speak to these issues, but because they were barely touched upon in the text, these choices felt flat. It was therefore easier for me to focus on the quipping of the Mencken character, who had the best lines by far, or the philosophy of Drummond which is incredibly captivating.

Perhaps the question is one of vitality as opposed to relevance, meaning the show is still relevant but perhaps not vital. It’s a debate that still needs to be discussed, but really goes nowhere in the South and is greeted by a resounding “duh” in the Pacific Northwest.

Collektor’s Lie of the Mind at ACT Theatre

Lie of the Mind
Author: Sam Shepard
Date Attended: 9 September 2011
Venue: Collektor presented at ACT Theatre
Directed by Rob West

Why this play now?

Sam Shepard’s work focuses on the breakdown, or re-definition of the American family. His work reminds me of a Douglas Coupland novel called All Families are Psychotic. His families are violent, darkly funny, generally horrible, at times sweet, and all too real. He’s a strange playwright to say you enjoy, but I enjoy him. His work speaks about masculinity in a very compelling way without explicitly being about masculinity. And even though his men generally dominate the story, his women are always intense and far from one-dimensional.

Lie of the Mind revolves around two families dealing with the abuse of a woman and her abuser. The two families imprison the abuser and abused for their own protection and to heal. Beth, has suffered brain damage and her brother is trying to take care of her with some, but not entirely helpful, assistance from their mother and father. Jake’s mother keeps him in his childhood room while his mind tries to sort out killing Beth. In the beginning, Jake believes Beth is dead, and Beth tries to get back to Jake. By the end, Beth believes Jake is dead, and Jake tries to get back to Beth.

The set is constructed in such a way that the two families are each using one-half of the stage and there are occasional moments where it’s as if they can see one another through time and space. I can’t remember if the stage directions specify having them on two separate sides of the stage, and while that worked for me, I was tempted to see it staged in the same space, though you would likely lose some of that poignance of seeing each other through walls, across states.

Beth speaks in a broken childlike simplicity that borders on poetry. The building of the relationship between Beth and everyone else on stage, even the ones that don’t directly interact with her, creates a heartbreaking and far from fulfilling story, which is another thing I love about Shepard. You do not leave his shows with warm fuzzies. The evil do not necessarily get a comeuppance, and even don’t seem evil by the end, though you still might want them murdered. Shepard doesn’t give you what you want. He gives you what would happen with a sort of magical realism sensibility without ever completely broaching magical realism. In short, he makes a compelling and all too necessary piece of the theatre.

Quote from the play featured on the program:

There’s this thing in my head. This thing that the next moment – the moment right after this one will – blow up. Explode with a voice.

What’s happening in the work thematically?

  • The failure of memory
  • Examining the meaning of “dead to me”
  • Shifting definitions of love
  • Dependency
  • Family imprisonment and the imprisonment of the mind

And so much more.

What moments encapsulate the story?

  • Beth calling for her Mom from the hospital room
  • The last moment, folding the flag and the lines (paraphrased) “It’s funny the things that come back to you.”
  • Beth sorting out love in front of her family and Frankie
  • The relationship scene between Jake and Sally trying to remember the promise they’ve made
  • Frankie trying to get Beth to put her shirt back on
  • Mike helping Beth to walk in the hospital by having her stand on his feet
  • Mike’s frustration and realization that his family has already forgotten what Jake did to Beth, or that they’ve simply moved on from it

Pretty much every scene with Beth was heartbreaking and imparted some greater meaning to the piece.

Were there moments of disunity, or areas where the story-telling deviated from the apparent desired direction? (apparent in this case meaning the direction as it appeared to this member of the audience)

I wasn’t a fan of the choice to go to blackout at the act breaks and bring the lights back up as the actors are still going offstage. It made me try to impart some greater wisdom to the choice, and all I could come up with was a Brechtian vibe, but I don’t think it fits. The first time it happened, I thought it was an accident and the second time it happened, I kept trying to put a reason to it instead of focusing on the act that just ended. Because the scene changes were done in character, I couldn’t parse out why they would go off-stage as actors in full light. Perhaps they couldn’t see well enough to get off stage, but they always entered in the dark. However, if this is the only real moment of disunity, that’s awesome.

In terms of the play itself, Shepard had a third act issue. The third act is monologue heavy. Shepard in general, is a monologue heavy playwright and all of them are well-written. However in the third act, everyone has a monologue and that lessened some of the revelation that the third act provides. I’m torn, because I really enjoyed them all, but I do feel that they lost something in being one right after the other. Meg’s monologue to her husband about women and men was one of my favorites. Although, I wanted her to drop Baylor’s socks on the floor and out of his reach, instead of dropping them on his lap.

I’m still trying to figure out how Shepard wrote a play, the main premise of which is domestic violence, and yet, a play which never seemed to address domestic violence. The end is setup so Beth has the opportunity to confront her abuser, and yet, she doesn’t see him. Jake is dead to her. It’s like he’s not there. Mike is the only one who seeks revenge about the beating and recognizes how awful it was, however I couldn’t decide if his anger was out of protectiveness of his sister or something personal within him. In other words, Mike’s vengeance seemed not to be about Beth and what she was going through, but about how Mike felt abused by the situation. I like that I don’t have an answer to it, and that several days later I’m still trying to figure out what the ending meant, and how it made me feel.

Why is Pygmalion still produced?

This weekend I saw Pygmalion staged for the first time. Raising the question why we should produce this play does not mean the production I saw lacked in acting, directing, dramaturgical research, or design skill – these elements were cohesive and I’m not a critic. Raising the question doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go see the show, come up with your own opinion, and support local theatre – you should. I raise the question due to utter confusion regarding why this play should still be produced, and if you have an answer (any answer, for or against) I would welcome the discussion.

I vaguely remember seeing My Fair Lady at some point in my childhood – the movie, not staged – and I read Pygmalion in high school, but I couldn’t remember a lot of specifics. I blame Shaw for the terrible teen romantic comedies that perpetuate the idea that there’s something wrong with a woman being herself, comfortable in a situation that others deem lesser. Further, the idea that a man could simply remake a woman into whatever (as opposed to whomever) he wants, thereby making her more attractive, and that this “makeover” is actually rescuing her from herself is beyond insulting; it’s damaging. However, I couldn’t remember the specifics of the original play, so I set all of that aside to give Shaw the benefit of the doubt. And then I saw this note in the program from the director:

…it is my passion and belief in the universal story of empowerment that draws me to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

This raised my hope that maybe what I remembered from the Audrey Hepburn movie, and my disgust towards She’s All That could be blamed on horrible interpreters and misogynistic producers rather than Shaw, who was a member of the Fabian movement which according to the dramaturg’s note

…supported such wild-eyed ideas as a minimum wage, public schools, and giving women the vote.

Pygmalion is thought of as an empowerment play because Eliza leaves Higgins at the end. The problem with this moment alone categorizing the piece as empowerment is that Henry Higgins insults and humiliates Eliza throughout, treating her as if she’s stupid or doesn’t exist. He justifies these actions by saying he treats everyone this way, so he’s an equal opportunity asshole.

Before her big moment, she “stands up to him” by threatening to work for someone else who teaches phonetics. After she threatens to work for another man, Higgins tries to take credit for this transformation, too. This suggests his treatment of her had intended to make her stronger all along. (Classic abusive response scenario, “See, I hit you to make you strong; look what I did for you.”) Higgins takes credit for her standing up to him completely disempowering her “victory”. In fact, now that she’s proven herself equal to him they can live together happily. Isn’t that wonderful? This is even more insulting because she has already proven that she’s smarter than him by learning phonetics better than he teaches, and picking up the piano in absolutely no time. So the real reason he sees her as an equal is because she’s being combative.

But she does leave. In point of fact, as she’s leaving never to see Higgins again he gives her a laundry list of errands to run and things to buy for him. She quickly tells him where these things are and how to obtain them, and then she says (paraphrasing), “I really don’t know what you’ll do without me.” After she leaves, Higgins’ mother says she’ll get the things he needs, and he says, (again paraphrasing) “Not to worry; Eliza will get them.” These last lines could simply highlight Higgins’ obliviousness and utter delusion that she’s coming back, but because Shaw wrote the ending (the original ending, that is) to be completely ambiguous, it’s difficult to say for sure that she doesn’t return. We have Shaw’s word that she’s not coming back. He actually had to write a more specific ending and epilogue to make this absolutely clear after the first production staged her returning to ask about his glove size and ham. But if there’s one thing I learned as a creative writing major it’s that you can’t write a twist out of left-field with no foreshadowing and have it blindly accepted; endings have to be earned.

When you build a strong case for a horrible, train-wreck of an attraction between two people, how do you expect the audience to believe she’s actually going to walk away when all precedent shows that she’s learned how to wince and take it? I don’t doubt that Shaw wants Eliza to leave. I also don’t doubt that Shaw’s playing on audience expectation of a love story only to subvert it with the way it should happen, but the text simply doesn’t support this ending.

In contrast, A Doll’s House builds the entire time on Nora’s idea of Torvald as a good and gallant man who would sacrifice for her as she has for him, but he proves false in these regards and upon realizing he’s a self-serving ass, she leaves. Additionally, though Torvald isn’t exactly likable, he isn’t hate-able until his blow up at Nora.

Eliza takes abuse throughout the play and in some ways is still grinning and bearing it at the end because she allows Higgins to take credit for all she has become even though her transformation is actually because she’s highly intelligent. Higgins gets the last word. He has been a monster to watch (which I’m well aware is the point) but because I see Eliza retrieving the ring he gave her, treating it as precious, hear her bring up marriage a few moments before she leaves, and hear her say where all his things are; I don’t believe she’s gone for good.

When it comes down to it: Nora leaves and I’m satisfied and happy she’s come to her senses; when Eliza leaves, I believe she’s coming back and I’m pissed. I don’t want her to come back. I know she’s not supposed to come back, but all moments prior suggest she will.

And if she doesn’t go back to Higgins, what are her options? She can go home with her (now rich) father who tried to sell her to Higgins at the beginning of the play, marry a man (probably Freddy) which Eliza has already equated with prostitution, or work for another male phonetics professor who we know nothing about. All of her options involve serving another man in some form or another. Though if she works for the phonetics professor we hope that she’ll at least be treated like a person, and that she would be on her own. But still none of the options are ideal.

So, why do we continue to produce this play? In addition to the issues above it’s also overwritten; practically every scene goes on far too long simply repeating the same sentiments. It’s also filled with philosophical rantings about the state of the poor that is sometimes humorous, but often repeats itself to the point of boring. And the only characters Shaw cared about developing were Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza so the other characters are one-dimensional.

I’m leaning towards Pygmalion adds nothing revelatory to the conversation of female empowerment (especially when Ibsen, quite frankly, did it more successfully) to the point that the writing argues against it, even if that wasn’t intended by the author. As such, I don’t know why it’s produced. I intend to see it the next time it’s performed in Seattle to see if I’m missing something. I would like to be proven wrong.

New Amerikan’s Riding the Bull

Riding the Bull
Author: August Schulenburg
Date attended: 12 August 2011
Venue: Stone Soup Theatre, Upstage Venue (New Amerikan Theatre Company)
Director: Richard Buckley
I have not read the play

Why this play now?

The story goes that a skinny, male rodeo clown falls for an overweight, female rancher in a town called Godsburg (no, really). The rodeo clown, GL, is devoutly religious and abhors the overweight Lyza for her excess personage as well as her chronic disrespect of his religious sensibilities (literal and figurative). Over the course of the play we see the roles reverse entirely. Lyza becomes humble and pious, while GL backslides into damnation by desiring of earthly things (money, sex, cars, etc. – the American way). Though the plot is essentially a role reversal about how money and power corrupt pure souls (and could force others onto a path of righteousness), there was something interesting in the method of storytelling. (The full summary can be found here.)

They performed in the small blackbox space of Stone Soup Upstage, not to be confused with their larger Downstage space. There couldn’t have been more than 35 chairs set up for audience around the tiny playing space. The dialogue teeters between crass and poignant in highly believable, entertaining, and sometimes thought-provoking ways. The story also raised several questions, and answered few which is a quality I like, and feel lacking, in many stories and plays.

What’s happening in the work thematically?

  • Excess in every meaning of the word
  • Corruptibility of humanity through money, power, and sex
  • “Get what you deserve”/deus ex machina to smite the wicked and uphold the righteous (as seen through the bull acting out as the hand of God and through the Lazarus cow)
  • Definition of love
  • What does it mean to destroy a person
  • Testing faith

What moments encapsulate the story?

The play is working with some very weighty issues, and even though it was occasionally over the top, there were several moments that stuck out to me.

  • GL’s realization that he could “buy a person”
  • Lyza admitting the first time that she watched GL as he clowned in the ring
  • Elvis, enacted by Lyza, saying he was going to stay
  • Lyza’s description of the bull tearing apart the rancher who killed her mother
  • GL’s repetition that he couldn’t sleep because his mother was singing
  • Jesus is made of plastic, not marble

Were there moments of disunity, or areas in which the story-telling deviated from the apparent desired direction? (apparent in this case meaning the direction as it appeared to this member of the audience)

On the whole, I enjoyed the balance between crass and poignant, however, there were moments where the words didn’t so much balance as topple over. The big example being one of the final moments in which GL describes having sex with Lyza one more time as she’s dying (or maybe already dead, but still warm) having just been bloodied up by a bull. Of course, this fit with the rest of the play perfectly, but after a very long description of the battle of bull, and the sad goodbye between the two of them, this just seemed excessive (Re above: the play is about excess).

However, I must say that the play was surprisingly unified and was well served by the incredibly intimate setting.