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In the Garden

June 29th, 2008 No comments

I have been trying to figure out just what the point of this play is, really. I mean, one of the strong points or over-arching facets, I’m sure, is something that I, too, have been thinking about for some time: namely, how much of the crap we put up with during our daily lives do we really need? That is, the cell phones, the wireless phones, the laptops, internet connections, dvrs, dish tv, gps devices, home design, redesign, clothing, furnishing, and so-on—and all the pressure that comes with this ‘stuff’ (to quote Carlin, God rest his soul). Always there is the incessant pressure to communicate, to be available, and to be “on” 24×7. It is as if we live lives with no downtime, ever.

One of the main points of In the Garden is that Gabe (Tony Thai) lives in the park (a garden, of sorts, for the city). Of course, here it is reduced to a refuge for the homeless (possibly insane), for sexual trysts, etc. It is a place that people visit, briefly (jog through), but not for any real measure of time. Gabe is the only one who lives in the park (in this play) and the only one committed to experiencing life as lived in the park: some of his better lines involve his observations of the changing light, the clouds and sky, the different pace at which life moves in the “outdoors.” One of my favorite lines has Gabe saying that the Gods were invented at twilight—and through my own personal experience I could see very clearly how—more accurately, perhaps—feel very certainly how. It is at twilight, with the thinning of light, the sun sinking behind trees and casting shadows, sunlight filtering and slicing through the jagged puzzle pieces of leaf, the temperamental transition of energy from that of the active day to that of the hunkering night—that delicate time when a tenuous balance is formed for a moment of eternity; it is at this moment that I can see the Gods walking across the meadow at the edge of the forest; or appearing by a stream in the wood. And perhaps, more broadly, the question of what have we lost that now we spend so little time just out on the land, experiencing the weather and the passage of time—not in cycles of a processor, but in the movement of sunlight and shadow? It is the quiet time that allows us to be in touch with our soul: the element of us all that is most sound and sturdy. And this point, too, Norman Allen makes in one of his more dystopian moments: that we are on the cusp of lives lived as machines (automatons), not as human beings.

Other clues to the meaning of this play involve the obvious parallels with the title and the strong Biblical and Christian themes that run through In the Garden: 1) Eden 2) Gethsemane. The mythic parallels between the two Gardens are strong, of course, and here my reading and understanding of Joseph Campbell comes happily into play: Eden gave us the two trees which actually are one tree: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life; Gethsemane gave us the new Tree of Life—the Cross, on which Christ was Crucified (hanged and thus was the fruit of tree). The Garden of Eden is a place of unity, a place where the pairs of opposites are joined, and thus is likely also the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from whence the knowledge of opposites comes. The mythic significance of this is well known, too, and its representation is everywhere and varied. This is why at the liminal spaces of temples one usually sees a pair of monsters or creatures (guardian figures): one with mouth closed and one with mouth open: representing desire and fear. Those who know fear and desire will not be able to fully enter the temple (unity) as they cannot see beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world is filled. This is why the Buddha’s temptations were of fear, desire (lust), and dharma—or social duty—thou shalt be this and do this… Where Christ’s temptations were food (physical hunger, desire), power (social hunger, duty), and fear (of death, cast yourself down). According to Campbell it is not coincidence that Christ experienced three temptations and had twelve apostles and that the Buddha experienced three temptations and had twelve followers either—Campbell also remarks that you can see the similarity in the personalities of all the apostles. The significance also is that the Buddha lived 500 years before Christ and raises questions about where Christ went for those 30+ years that are absent from this story. But I digress. The point here is that the Garden (Eden) as a symbol shows the hope of eternity (eternal life and a place in unity with the world) and the place of loss (where knowledge of the world is gained); and we see these represented in Allen’s piece. The Garden (Gethsemane) represents a moment of eternity (calm away from the world) and a place of betrayal (loss of that moment).

The sexual escapades with all of the characters, excepting Lizzie (Laurel Brooke Johnson, who, as Tony Brown points out, serves as a sort of Mary Magdalene figure–the irony being that she is chaste in this rendition), represent a sort of odd Garden of Eden for the other characters: John (Vince DePaul), a Philosophy Professor; John’s wife Muriel (Lucy Bredeson-Smith), head of a fashion magazine; and Lizzie’s fiancé, Walter (Arthur Grothe), a narcissistic businessman. For Lizzie and Gabe, the park is likely the Eden of the piece. It is ironic, however, that in this carnal Eden for three of the characters, Gabe entices them to reveal their most raw spiritual moments. In this way, Gabe serves as a sort of touch stone for them—drawing them out of their personas (or put on selves) and back to their souls (or true selves).

As one might expect, with the Biblical overtones and references to Christ, a crucifixion has to come. This aspect of Allen’s piece is difficult for me for several reasons. The first is, from a writer’s perspective, I feel that Allen must have felt forced to put this in. Force is a word I choose carefully because I felt the whole lead up to the end of this play was precisely that: forced. I felt that too much consciousness went into its design and calculation. The reason I feel this is based on my own experience: my own piece, coming up at the end of the season, also contains crucifixion as a metaphor; which brings me to the second difficulty. In my piece, the crucifixion came out unconsciously in the writing and I didn’t even realize it. Unfortunately, later I did realize it. When I did, I tried to use it and force that fate on everyone. It was Clyde, con-con’s artistic director, who pointed out to me that this was predictable and a let-down. I knew this to some extent, having discussed just this issue in the work shopping of the piece in Geither’s MFA class. Though I digress, this problem is still one that troubles me greatly—what the unconscious writes, the conscious will tamper with (edit). So, back to the second point, I realized that the writing had been unconsciously done and was in many respects dreamlike. If there’s anything the conscious mind can’t stand, it’s something that doesn’t make sense—and thus this part of my mind tried to “arrange” the writing so that is was sensible and lovely. The effect was disastrous. For Allen’s work, I don’t know that I would say disastrous, but the crucifixion certainly was expected and was a bit disappointing. As well, as soon as I saw it, I began immediately rummaging through the whole length of the play attempting to find all the other parallels with Christ’s story. An even worse consequence, perhaps, is that I have come to imagine In the Garden as a sort of re-write or re-visioning of this event. As a writer, I wonder more seriously if Allen didn’t get into the middle of this play—letting it go it’s merry way with Gabe and all the bed-fellows—and then wonder one terrible night just what in the hell he was into, and then, just as I mentioned above, force it a direction that seemed palatable and conclusive. The temptation to do this is great and, as I see now, more writers than me have to deal with the challenge it represents.

Ultimately, as many other reviewers have pointed out, the play is often confusing. There is too much philosophy and talkiness pummeling the audience and at times it was ridiculous to think of people having the conversations that these people were having. And in this case, it becomes more seam-splitting for Allen’s piece that the one character is a philosophy professor, which then justifies (or attempts to justify) the elevated level of conversation. That is, this character was created precisely so these conversations could take place: it is less organic. Another difficulty was that sometimes it was difficult to understand what Thai was saying, which muddled the meaning and slowed and strained the pace of the dialog. I think this play is good, but in my heart I feel that it is not finished. If this were my play, I would feel that very strongly—that something else needed for clarification or definition or that something needs examined more closely. Maybe it is because I, in some ways, feel that about my play that goes up in November—maybe I am projecting. I’ll have to get a copy of Allen’s play and read it to be sure. In the end, though, all five actors were strong and convincing. I give special kudos to Lucy Bredeson-Smith, who looked stunning throughout; and to Grothe who created a believable and smarmy Walter and who, with unbelievable grace, stopped the cap of a window blind cord from tapping incessantly against the wall (where the central air was pushing it). Complements also go to the set design, especially the multi-colored floor, which was very pleasing to look upon. I wish I would have seen this play earlier (the run is over), as I would like to see it at least one more time.


February 24th, 2008 1 comment

I sat down next to Barbara Becker when all of us (Raymond, playwrights, actors, and directors) were meeting to discuss how Little Box would work. She was kind enough to move her papers and let me sit. I was struck by her genuine nature, she is a lovely person. She is also an attractive person who is quite fit. I was therefore surprised, after the Little Box meeting, to see her stand up and limp around: well, not just limp, it is a serious impediment. This brings us to her play.

As described by Becker herself in the Little Box description:

Ictus is a journey through a foreign country and through the world of catastrophic illness. An athletic, healthy, thirty-five year old woman experiences a severe stroke or brain attack while traveling through Italy on vacation. In seconds her life is derailed. Unable to speak or swallow and paralyzed she must find a way to put her life back together as she struggles through rehabilitation of her paralyzed body. The brain is the center of the self. How do you put your life back together if everything that makes you you is damaged or out of commission?

Ictus is derived from the Latin, icere “to strike with a weapon” and one can almost hear a warrior boasting, “I brought him down with one fell stroke…” such is what happened to Becker, as she ably demonstrates in her work.

The stroke happened while she was in Italy, far from any hospital. One of the daunting statements, and I hope I’m getting it right, is that a portion of your brain the size of a pea dies every 5 minutes that the brain is denied blood and oxygen. It was 5 hours before she got to a hospital that could treat her. As she notes in her play, “that’s a lot of peas.”

Thematically, the trip to Italy works very much in Becker’s favor, as does her constant use of Italian throughout. The trip to Italy and our trip through her stroke work off each other to show the foreign character of the experience: you are not in world that you know anymore; the things you took for granted are no longer things that you may assume, everything is foreign now.

Ictus stars Laurel Brooke Johnson who’s seen some movie and tv work. She does a fantastic job demonstrating the physical difficulties faced by Becker: walking, speaking, struggling to stand, etc. And does a compelling job demonstrating the anguish and frustration that surely must have dominated, and still must dominate, Becker’s daily life. Johnson also has a blog.

Structurally, the play presents a linear timeline of events that take up at least a year, from the trip’s promising start in Italy to her return home from the Cleveland Clinic. It is framed by a timeless space in which Johnson (Becker) examines five or six pairs of shoes set on chairs about the stage. These shoes are from her own life and represent events and stages of her life: running shoes she wore in marathons, dress shoes for various occasions, etc., all the phases of her past life: her once normal life. The final frame sees her in the same place: shoes all around, but this time a new pair have been added: the right shoe larger than the left (presumably for a brace). One thing I found neat was the physiological, if you will, examination of the shoes—the wear patterns—how these changed. It was done at both the beginning of the play and at the end. What was most striking was the final analysis where the pinky toe area of the right shoe is examined: it shows wear—where dragging it across a floor has caused excessive damage.

I am reminded here of my one time next door neighbor as a boy: Mike Stout. Mike had been impacted by polio as a boy and one of his legs (and subsequently his foot) was smaller than the other. He too had to purchase shoes of the same style but in different sizes for each foot. I always wondered at this. Wondered at how one would go about purchasing shoes in this way: did he have a special shoe store that he went to? Or did he have to explain at every store why he wanted to break apart a perfectly good pair? Or did he have to buy two pairs, knowing he would never use two of the shoes?

I think the framing device works to great effect. I think the linear portion works fine, too, but at times it is a bit of a strain—as the audience member is going through highly narrated events in a point-by-point way. There is great potential for dead time here and, in fact, there are points that the piece drags—either the rhythm/pacing needs to be examined or something needs shortened. However, these faults are ably compensated in theatrical ways: for instance, a projector and screen is used as a visual aid to many segments that have the effect of adding energy to the piece. For instance, right after the stroke Becker is forced to write everything (as she cannot speak) and the projector shows, in tremulous scrawl, the words she puts on the pad of paper. There are other comic points, too: when they are testing her ability to recognize objects and emotions and she is asked “is this man happy or sad” and the projected picture is an absurd fellow with a smile that seems as much gas as genuine emotion. There are other elements of staging that add energy to the presentation as well.

Overall, I like this piece and I think Becker deserves a lot of credit for putting up what is extremely personal and her equally personal ruminations on the event. Her examination is insightful and elements are cautionary: value what you have. This is made more poignant, I think, by the fact that she is so young and this happened; yet the reality is that many of us will face something similar in our own lives—as aging and the decline of the body is a fact each of us faces.

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