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Our Town

June 9th, 2008 No comments

I’ve just finished reading the article in American Theatre this month regarding Thorton Wilder’s) famous play.

The author of the article, Lori Ann Laster, begins the journey in her pre-teens inside her middle school gymnasium, with the broad statement: “Like many Americans…” I guess, I’m not in that group. I don’t know whether to feel gypped or not. I also don’t know why my all-American hometown, which it was—Fredericktown, Ohio—home of the FFA Jacket—failed to deliver on this one. I think I do feel gypped. Regardless, I digress into another small instance of my all-too-familiar penchant for simmering injustice. That is to say, I didn’t see the play in my pre-teens. In fact, I had no encounter with the play at all until 2007 at Cleveland Public Theatre—actually, that isn’t wholly true—my teacher and mentor, Mike Geither, virtually insisted to one class that we watch Spalding Gray in the video version, which I now have (but haven’t watched—maybe I’ll do that tonight)—but that really doesn’t count as that’s only hearing about the play, not experiencing it.

In reviewing my blog, I find that I did no review of that 2007 performance, which really shocks me. The performance was rated the “most lyrical staging” of 2007 by Scene and was, in fact, really stark and terrific for a host of reasons. Chris Seibert played the part of Emily Webb with a deep earnestness that I’ll not soon forget—and which sent me spiraling back to those terrible days of urgent adolescent yearning that were emotionally and, in certain places, physically painful. George Gibbs, played by Len Lieber, did an equally fantastic job in his earnest portrayal.

In reflecting on the piece I’ve had to dig about on he web. I found the one positive review above and then one negative review in the Free Times by James Damico, who must have some personal dislike of Bobgan as his review is so sharply hysterical. There must be some deep impulse to love Thorton Wilder’s) purely and some desire to be touched on his quivering breast by Wilder’s “superior intellect.” I, for one, was able to see beyond such shallowness as the casting and into the emotion of the piece and production; else Damico just likes create a certain high-pitched hysteria, as he clearly likes boasting and ego flashing: demonstrated by his cheap sarcasm obnoxiously brought to the fore by his unnecessary recitation of musical fodder regarding a hypothetical staging by Cleveland Orchestra of Pomp and Circumstance. As well, it’s clear; he couldn’t resist the inappropriateness of stirring in disgusting suggestions of pedophilia. In fact, it’s amazing how much sexual repression I’ve picked up on in so short a review as that by Mr. Damico; perhaps this observation points to the source of the high-pitched hysteria? It’s also nice and lovely to get Mr. Damico’s authentic praxis on how Our Town should be staged, complete with a recitation of pages 24-25 of his Our Town Staging Guide, 2nd Edition, on the “specific gravity” of the Stage Manager: because, God-knows both the “genuine and would-be” theater critic is the true knower of all things playwriting, play-building, and play-producing—(as demonstrated, no doubt, by the number of directing awards on his desk).

I since have found another negative review, though less prurient.

There was much physical movement in the production at CPT that included the use of chairs and ladders and a bare set. The movement of chairs, to my mind, was exceptional in that the movement very nearly effected what I would suggest as “camera angles” on the stage: one moment Emily was at stage right and George was at stage left, a quick few movements and all was reversed. For a “theater in the round” as was sort of instantiated at CPT for this play, I thought the “camera angles” were extraordinary and the movement gave a vitality to the piece. It also, for me, was in keeping with Bobgan and Seibert’s use of stools in their production of Caucasian Chalk Circle for STEP. I later learned, of course, that the starkness of the set, the chairs, and even the ladders were a part of Wilder’s directions. And, of course, learned that this was perhaps the crowning achievement of the piece—or one of them, certainly at the time it was written.

As the American Theatre article discusses, the stage in mid- to late-Thirties was “stuck” in trenchant “realism”—massive sets, the well-made play. As Laster writes:

A bare stage, no props, the use of mime, breaking the fourth wall, dismantling the unities of time and place—these were radically innovative devices that astounded audiences at the time when kitchen-sink realism dominated the serious stage, and boulevard comedies and melodrama proliferated…It was by removing the diversion of realistic clutter and tapping into the imagination of audiences that Wilder strove to make what was on the stage reflect the verities of life: “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in scenery.” 25

The CPT production shocked and stunned me, but more to the point perhaps, I was stunned by Wilder. I am still amazed at the effect of all the component parts put together in three acts led to that transcendence. The New York Times in 1938 wrote, “under the leisurely monotone of the production there is a fragment of immortal truth,” which still came through in 2007, demonstrating the power that Wilder cast up through his piece.

The article in American Theatre goes on to discuss the productions of Our Town at four theatres in the U.S. this year, and some in the past, including the variety of methods being used in the staging to re-create the production for modern audiences—all of which, of course, would be repellant to Mr. Damico, violating pages 1-5 of his Our Town Staging Guide, 2nd Edition, on the “purity of production values” and “reverence for superior intellects.” Of course, the use of bunraku-style puppets at Two River Theater Company would send Damico stark-raving mad and he’d no doubt rush the stage in a frothy-mouthed ecstasy screaming something about the trauma done to the “timeless nature of small-town existence” by the use of puppetry.

Laster ends her discussion of Our Town by drawing our attention to when it was written and what was happening in the world, and notes that a certain resurgence of the piece may be due to a similar impulse in our own time—a yearning for a simpler, more pure time in our American past—that small Grover’s Corners in our idyllic dream of America. Although the great grandson of Wilder is quoted speculating that Our Town is staged every night somewhere in America. How accurate that speculation is difficult to gauge.

An interesting commentary by Mike Harden in the Metro section of the Columbus Dispatch which I saw this weekend while visiting my parents drew another possibility, as one message of Our Town, certainly one drawn from Emily Webb’s visitation of her family after she had shuffled off her mortal coil, is to live life in the present, to not allow pettiness and selfish focus to cause you to overlook the wonderful life you have in front of you right now. A certain, strong, Buddhist metaphysics indeed.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, at least in passing, the similarity between Our Town and Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, both plays that draw as their subject the life of a town and its inhabitants. Perhaps sometime I’ll discuss this one a bit more as Geither turned me on to it and I found Thomas’ piece equally as compelling as Wilder’s.


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.

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