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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.

Rapacious greed in Urinetown

June 14th, 2011 1 comment

The Register denies that stage direction, as presented to the Copyright Office for registration, is copyrightable subject matter…[the] Register properly refused copyright registration for Mr. Rando’s claim concerning stage direction.

So reads a Department of Justice motion from 2007 regarding the claim by a deranged Broadway director and the Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers (SSDC) that the rather common and unoriginal “choreography and pantomime” contributed to a Urinetown production be protected (and hence paid for) by other companies producing a play he happened to work on.


Whose getting Pissed on?

I suppose I am old enough now that I should not be surprised by the depravity of human beings and their actions, but I am continually amazed, newly, again and again, by the lengths that people will go to satisfy their voracious greed.

The case I’m discussing here is another case mentioned by Ralph Sevush when he spoke at the Dramatist Guild National Conference this past week.  It involves cease and desist letters sent to Akron and Chicago theaters producing Urinetown, asserting that John Rando’s rights were being infringed. To my mind, this case is an example of the most egregious and insidious of the SSDC activities.  In fact, if I were a Choreographer in that particular society I would be protesting the activities of the society for even pursuing cases that attempt to inflate the work of some of these directors to that of choreography.  Especially given the list of “creative” additions that this John Rando attempted to copyright:

  • Using red scarves pulled from the actors’ pockets when they are shot to signify blood

Really?  That’s your copyrightable creative contribution?  Attempting to copyright a stage action that has been done in countless children’s theater productions, such that the number of scarves could stretch from NY to LA?  Hell, I believe that technique was used in the movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead back in 1990.  God knows, of course, how many years, decades, or centuries it has been used prior to that.

  • Using the chorus to march and fight in slow motion for comedic purposes.

??? oh, I get it. ha ha.

  • Having the supporting actors follow the lead actor upstage and downstage as he delivers an inspirational speech;


  • Having a dead character speak when his final words are being communicated by a live character;

Oh, you mean, being theatrical?

  • Using blue fabric stretched across the stage to symbolize a river;

Like that’s never been done.

  • Using a moveable ladder and rowing gestures by actors to indicate characters rowing a boat.


I would heartily laugh at all of this if it weren’t for the presumption that Rando and his group of half-wits have actually attempted to place this crap in the legal domain and inhibit the production of a work elsewhere in the country.  In fact, as the article points out, Carousel Theater in Akron has gone out of business and who know to what extent this toxic power grab by John Rando contributed to their demise.  The needless, rapacious, voracious, and greedy lawsuit is precisely the sort of putrid sludge that is destroying this country.  I’d wrap myself in a flag and stand silently, but Rando would probably sue me for infringing on one of his stage pictures.

Now is the time when I disclaim.  I know directing is a creative activity.  I know it requires men and women with tireless energy, commitment, and the ability to marshal a tempestuous collection of variables and make them all cohere.  Many is the director I have watched marveling at their political ability with regard to handling tense and tricky situations, their command ability in getting all the variables to listen and move and perform as instructed.  Many is the director I have admired for his perseverance and fortitude in doing a scene over and over and over.  I understand that a good director can make a show or break one.  I know many directors and have found each of them to be warm, charitable, generous, funny people. People that I like being around. However, all THIS BEING SAID, directors are paid to get a script off a page.  As Sevush explicitly pointed out in his talk, directors are hired by producers to do a job.  THE STAGING of the play is THEIR JOB.

Directors (in this case) are members of a Society that PAYS them, including BENEFITS.  They are immune to the risk that writers necessarily have to take (if I write a script and no one produces it, I just spent a year or more with no result for my work). For this director to seek some sort of creative attachment to a work above and beyond that for which he has been justly compensated is flat out rapacious, unwarranted, and delusional.  It demonstrates concretely that the Tony Award and Broadway compensation was not enough: Rando needed to take from each and every future production of the show, even though he has contributed to that future production nothing, 0, zilch.  Sure, you say, but people at Carousel Dinner Theater go to Urinetown to see the Broadway show, which is Rando’s staging.  Perhaps. I might say, instead, that people go to Carousel to see Urinetown as it was created by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis–the LEGITIMATE AUTHORS. Rando may have won the Tony, but his interpretation of Urinetown is only possible by his interpretation of what is ALREADY in the SCRIPT.  And any director has the right to re-create that, only limited by his/her ability.

An even more egregious portion of this story is the suggestion that Rando took elements of his production from original director Joseph McDonnell’s New York Fringe production–thus making Rando a hypocrite.  Further, as Sevush points out, the action by the SSDC is so demonstrably selfish on the part of one person (Rando) that it puts other directors in a position where they will have to fight with him regarding the staging of the same play.  Talk about a vision squarely focused on the “me.”

The original copyright application sent in 2006 by Rando’s representatives “were for the sets, lighting, choreography and ‘stage directions’ for Urinetown.”  One must wonder, by this wording, if Rando wasn’t attempting to copyright the already-created stage directions in the script; perhaps even the set descriptions, presuming they’re in the script–which I would assume they would be.  I would also assume, by this application, that Rando was responsible for the scenic design and light design, otherwise he’s stepping on the territory of other creative artists who are associated with theatrical productions.  One must wonder just how much farther along it would have to go before Rando and the SSDC simply asserted that the whole of Urinetown was infact their creation and idea from start to finish!

Thank God, per the opening, the Copyright Office and the Department of Justice stepped in to say, firmly, that stage directions are not copyrightable.

Stage directions ARE NOT copyrightable.

Let’s all say that a few hundred times together.

Unfortunately, the suits in Akron and Chicago were settled.  That is, they didn’t go to court where a judgment could be reached to become firm precedent. Sevush posits and then answers the terribly depressing question: “Why were they settled?”

Sevush: “As anyone who has ever been involved in a law suit knows, litigants with deep pockets can prolong a court case, whether their position has merit or not.  And they can almost always force a litigant without deep pockets to settle a case which has become, quite simply, too expensive to pursue.”

So everyone send a happy thank you letter to John Rando and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers for their embarrassingly unabashed attempt to steal creative content that is not their own, hamstring productions of other people’s work, and for holding up (like highway robbers) productions to which they lay envious claim.

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