Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Play's the Thing

Been taking a nice long siesta from blogging to enjoy the holiday season. I used some of that time to take advantage of Chicago's phenomenal theater scene.

I saw an excellent production of Noel Coward's This Happy Breed (TimeLine Theatre Company), so moving. I've never seen or read anything by Coward before, and someone told me this play is atypical of his work. World Book says his "witty romantic comedies" like Blithe Spirit are typical. This Happy Breed, by contrast, is a two-generation family drama set between the world wars. Though light and often very funny, it is also sweet and touching in its treatment of an ordinary family during times of war and strife (including labor unrest). On the one hand, it seems to come close to endorsing a message of conformity and class mobility, but ultimately I think that reading would be unfairly ideological. One should probably argue that the rebellious daughter, Queenie, is punished more for her self-hating snobbery than for ambition. At any rate, the characters are gorgeously well-rounded, and the play seems inspirational in its view of "ordinary" people taking the problems of the 20th Century in stride. Simply as a family drama, the story is thoroughly gripping. Even more than usual, TimeLine's production was excellent, especially its actors.

Meanwhile, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, About Face Theatre and Tectonic Theater Project got together to produce Tennessee Williams' One Arm, and the results are nowhere near as good, and I put the blame squarely on Williams. Of course, the story is based on an unproduced screenplay Williams wrote (re-written from a much earlier short story), so director Moises Kaufman should get some of the blame for choosing to produce it. Steppenwolf synopsizes thusly: "Ollie, a military boxer whose limb is lost in a car accident, turns to a life of hustling in Williams's revealing and personal tale that was never allowed to be produced in his lifetime." The draw for me was simple: Tennessee Williams uncensored. A big problem for me is that the story is still hopelessly pre-Stonewall in its conception. The hero is not gay, just gay-for pay, and Williams' hero-worship of him is distastefully old-fashioned. Mildly interesting as a footnote to his career, but far from relevant today. Kaufman emphasizes Williams' thematic interest in the idea that we are all disfigured, we're all wounded psychically. It's well-worked territory now, which certainly isn't Williams' fault, but the main problem with Ollie's story is that he is completely irrational. If we're all wounded, then what makes his wound such a special burden that we could sympathize with his act of murder? His lack of discipline is simply distatesful, and the play's failure to explore his psyche more deeply keeps it from achieving a morally complete vision. There are some interesting ideas, especially in the second act when issues of the death penalty and the justice system come into it; and, after a few inert scenes involving johns and porn-producers, there's a moment that's at least erotically interesting (if not erotic) that takes place with a young preacher. Despite the big disappointment of the script, the production was crisp and excellent, with good acting: Reynaldo Rosales in the lead was excellent, with the exception of an accent problem. I also thought Shané Williams was outstanding in her brief scenes.

A much better story of gay interest was "Arrangement for Two Violas," from Voices and Visions Theatre Company. The script tells the story of a love affair between two Wisconsin doctors in the 1930s, and though it certainly didn't always feel historically accurate, I didn't care in the least because the story was so good. I'm fascinated by the way women write gay male romances, and this one completely feels like a gay male love story written by someone who is not a gay man. I have no idea what Susan Lieberman's relationship is to gay men in general, but I got the impression that she was approaching these characters as human beings, and that's really what mattered to me. She also succeeded in one tactic that countless scripts (film/theater) by gay men fail to do: she concentrates on the differences between the two main characters, which is a basic ingredient for good romantic stories. You'd be surprised how many people put way too much emphasis on the same in same-sex relationship. Take any two people in love, and it's their differences that creates the tension that makes their relationship interesting. Though both of these characters are gay doctors who enjoy playing viola, they are as different as night and day: one ambitious, overreaching, experienced and worldly, the other an accepting peacemaker who enjoys his small-town ties too much to eject them for anonymous city life. You could easily read their relationship as a commentary on the plight of gay rights in America today (more than in the 1930s), addressing such topics as how fast to proceed, how much to demand and the fundamental question of what place gays can have in this particular society. Lieberman finds some wonderful meaning in the "two violas" metaphor, which I won't spoil here, and though this young script needs some polishing (a couple euphemistic references to "carrots" have got to go), it's already one of the better gay stories I've seen on stage or screen. John Sanders just captured my heart as the character Peter (an easier character to love than Henry, played by Stephen Rader). I shook hands with him briefly after the show and it was difficult to have to watch his mask come off, because I think I'd developed a bit of a crush on his character.

Then last night I saw one of the best plays I've ever been lucky enough to see: Arcadia by Tom Stoppard at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. A big fan of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern since I read it in high school (I even liked the movie), I thought I'd give this play a try, especially given the strong reviews. I'm happy to say Arcadia is dizzyingly witty, broadly intellectual and deeply felt in terms of character (something critics say his earlier plays often lacked). It's always refreshing to encounter a storyteller who assumes you have a brain and an education, but this play is particularly rewarding. It employs comedy, drama, and mystery to keep you riveted, entertained and moved; and it refers to history, physics, literature and botany to keep your mind stimulated. The scenes work beautifully when there are several people and gorgeously when there are only two. Its debates are so interesting you almost wish you could join in, and it has some one-line rs that Shakespeare or, more aptly, Shaw would like envy. I can't shake the play out of my head--I look forward to buying a copy of the script and re-reading it.



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