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March 16th, 2012 No comments

Will Eno's Middletown at Dobama

Went and saw Middletown by Will Eno last night at Dobama. It was a strange show. First, given the nature of the play (life in a small town) and Second, the varied cast of characters and events (being somewhat eccentric, etc), and Finally, the epic sweep of the thematic content (life, death, love, the universe, our place in it, etc.) there are obvious parallels to Our Town by Thorton Wilder.

The play is engaging, for the most part, and the first act is filled with a strangeness that is difficult to describe: things, events, characters, and ideas (statements) are juxtaposed with other things, events, characters, and ideas and the clashing of the two creates a dissonance that is abrupt and sometimes very comic. The statements from characters and language used is equally abrupt and strange and it is clear that Eno is playing as much with words and how they mean and just the raw sounds of words, as he’s playing with big ideas. If you, dear reader, are like me, occasionally you’ll say a word and the word will sound so strange in your ears that you’ll repeat it again and again until the word itself loses meaning and just becomes this guttural sound that is disconnected entirely from anything. Some of this is at play in Middletown. This notion of the strangeness of words and their association with concrete things in the world is one of the arguments, often, for learning to speak a second language or even a third, because learning another language is learning to see the world in a different way, for instance, the Spanish language associates all nouns with gender. So the moon is “la luna” a female object. The sun “el sol” is a male object. And virtually everything has this gendered nature. This causes one, I think, to experience the world differently. For an example of the dissonance and clashing I mentioned above, early in the play, I’ll go with the librarian example (having been one myself and being always interested in the stereotypes of the profession), one of the “main characters” Mary (Carly Germany) goes into the library to request a library card. This request is met positively by the Librarian (Laura Starnik) who says, “Good for you dear. A lot of people figure, ‘Why bother? I’m just going to die, anyway.’”

What makes for strangeness and good fun does not, however, make for good “deep” connections with characters. This sort of strangeness and light-hearted non-committal to characters in any meaningful way results in a very surfacy attachment and interest in them, and, as with may Eno plays, there is a tendency to just sit and think and try and keep up with his use of language and the strangeness of his ideas. I saw Thom Pain at Dobama several years back, and it was the same thing. Except there you have an exceptionally intimate encounter with one man who is baring his soul, or trying anyway, and periodically covering it over with neurotic defense mechanisms to keep you away from his soul. It is a passive agressive experience of the highest order and equally fascinating to listen to and contemplate as fast as you can. What works well in Thom Pain, though, does not work as well in Middletown. With Middletown there genuinely feels, at times, as if there is an earnestness to the attempt to reveal something beautiful and terrible and deeply real about the human condition, and I would say that on a few occasions this succeeds. But for the most part it does not, simply because there is so much of the Thom Pain cynicism and comic clashing happening. There are moving moments with the Police Officer (Jason Markouc) and the Mechanic (Fabio Polanco) when they reveal their inner demons and troubles to the Librarian–who has known them since they were little boys (again, small town angle); but most of it gets lost amidst the easy laughs and verbal gymnastics that are Eno’s trademark. Like his play Tragedy: a tragedy, there is something smug about the sorrow, something removed and distant–sort of a “I know you’ll think this is moving, but I don’t, in fact, I’m more entertained by your thinking this is moving than in really moving you.” It’s like psychologist sitting behind a one-way mirror to observe the suffering and distress of another person, but not really empathizing with it or feeling it himself–perhaps even joking about it.

I do like Eno’s work as he is truly a remarkable thinker and his use of language is stunning; and Middletown is no exception. There were points in the play where I felt that longing and epic reach of Our Town–that sense of individual isolation, even in the midst of others–that makes Our Town so powerful. But, as Mike Geither and Chris Johnston noted, whom I went out with after the show, there is a deep earnest sincerity in Wilder and a genuine love of people and their weaknesses that comes through in Our Town that does not come through in Middletown. The only question is, what is Eno’s intent? Maybe he doesn’t want you to connect at all. Maybe he wants the audience, which the play engages frequently, to be removed–a la Brecht–to not identify with or emotionally connect with the characters. The only question that remains then, is “to what end”? Eno could be saying something about the disconnected nature of our modern society, compared with Wilder’s society. Given his outstanding thrashing and skewering of the local news media in Tragedy: a tragedy, that just might be the case.

The set for this play at Dobama was fantastic, so hats off to Laura Carlson. And the cast was fantastic for this production as well, including Robert Hawkes, Tom Woodward, Emily Demko, Mark Mayo (who was performing after surgery, no less), Maryann Elder and my former MNO classmate, Dianne Boduszek.

The Alice Seed

October 29th, 2009 No comments

I really enjoy this play by Mike Sepesy, as well as the follow-up: The Douglas Tree.  There were things I liked about the production and things that I did not.  Mostly the things I didn’t like revolved around the sneaking suspicion that Mike wasn’t given the resources that his play deserved.  I don’t want to be an ass and make obnoxious suppositions, but I’ll say that I’ve seen two season-level productions at CPT by local playwrights: The Alice Seed and The Stars Fell All Night, (and some others that weren’t billed this way) and I don’t think either was served very well by the production it received.  The directors were either found or acquired last minute, the sets were questionable, and the productions seemed rushed, the choices made were wrong, etc.  I’ve seen other productions at CPT that were of good quality: Boom, Fefu and Her Friends, Our Town, etc, so why, I wonder, not the local playwrights? (Excepting the caveat of Cut to Pieces, which was very well done.)  It may be that the plays may be viewed as extensions of the process by which they come up: little box, big box, production–and resources are allocated lightly in the first two.  If that is the case, then the evolution of resources needs tweaked.  Otherwise, I may have to speculate on some other cause…

Grieving parents struggle in Sepesys The Alice Seed

Grieving parents struggle in Sepesy's The Alice Seed

I saw a reading of Mike’s play at the Cleveland Play House in 2007. That was an interesting process, as they actually used music stands.  This was thankfully not the way that Clyde approached my reading in Little Box; but even with this restricted process Mike’s writing came through.  It came through strongly again in the production I saw.

The Alice Seed is a play about grief.  The play is draining.  It is well-written and hard to watch.  As a playwright who has written texts that involve draining themes and intense interactions between characters, there are things I might tweak in this play, as the confrontations between husband and wife can become circular and border on tiresome–they weren’t, but there were moments when I began to think, “okay, we’ve been through this…”  And I was afraid it might go into tiresome; but Mike is a good writer and his sense of that is acute. As well, life is like that, and this story is a tough one.

This play is a screenplay–or should be.  I would love it as a movie/film.  There are things that it needs that are difficult on stage–that is, resources need to be allocated.  They were not.  This required an active imagination on the part of the audience.  I think most people were in this space, at least the people I heard from, and this is what theater should be: imaginative. This is not a play that requires a natural/realistic set; but having some pieces set that way would have helped.  The putting green Astroturf was a distraction, and it disturbed the scenes that took place in the house.  I would much rather the set have been a house with a pretense toward the woods, than the reverse that it was.

The one scene that went way over the top for me was the doctor scene.  A doctor comes to the middle of the stage and we seen the dire diagnosis directed toward Alice. She has cancer.  The dramatics that were attached to this announcement were excessive and unnecessary.  The doctor was reduced to an evil machine that kept repeating ‘your daughter has cancer’ with ominous echoes provided by two musicians (chorus?) above.  The starkness and lighting cast the doctor character with a villainy that shifted the focus away from the grief and bordered on editorial.  The theatrics, being way over the top, distracted from the course of the play.  The effect was almost comic.  I understand the emphasis: that this was the moment when things went bad for the family.  But it was played with too heavy a hand.

Other theatrical points were wonderful.  The hands of Alice reaching out of the ground, cast as shadows on the upstage wall were great.  I liked the effect of the trees on the set.  The musicians: shout out to Bobby Williams of con-con fame, where impressive and the sound effects they provided were often very well done.  The one caveat here being the voice of Alice and the really unnecessary “see you soon, mommy” comment.  The first scene with the mother, Dolores (Jackie Cummins), in the woods and the atmosphere and “swamp” sounds, was one of the best for me and still is with me as a strong impression.
Mike draws very strong characters and the best, perhaps, is Paul (Michael Andrews-Hinders) whose fierce moral system and sense of himself is amazing: and the ominous scene between Paul and Dolores in the house, after Judah (Mark Mayo) has run off, is drawn in hard relief and edged with deep threat and menace.  Sepesy hit his target hard here.

Mike’s sense of storytelling is equally compelling.  He knows balance.  He knows how to heighten the tension and release it.  He knows how to bring you down into the emotional trauma, and then return you with light-hearted moments.

In her notes on the play, Alison Garrigan (who directed and is herself a fine actress) comments that there are “conjure-wive” tales from Appalachia that serve as cautionary tales.  This has that element certainly, with Dolores dying in the end over a promise she made to get her dear Alice back.  When I talked with Mike after the show, I asked him if that was in the reading at the Play House: Dolores dying.  He said it was, but that she should be pulled under the ground with Alice at the end (which did not happen as there was no drop floor/trap constructed for the production). I forgot about this ending, and I think, while I understand that it does serve that cautionary purpose, a stronger story has Dolores and Judah going forward together.  I think a more haunting ending is that there is no easy way out and the loss must be endured forever.  As I get older I realize there are some things that happen in life, some damages, that cannot be undone and from which one cannot recover: that people can get broken and not be fixable.  That is deeply sad and deeply frightening.  I know if something happened to either of my children, something deep inside me would break forever; so the grief in The Alice Seed rings true. In terms of a horror story, I think this reality–the living–is the one that is truly awful–that is to say, I wish Dolores wouldn’t die; even though that detracts from the “contractual” supernatural event.

I love seeing Sepesy’s plays: he is funny, draws startling characters (is himself an excellent reader and character voice), and has a profound mythic sense when it comes to theater and a strong sense of theatrics in the theater space.  I hope CPT considers The Douglas Tree and provides the resources to make it a truly fine production–and I look forward to Mike’s new filmic work.

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