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Snake Oil

September 25th, 2015 No comments

Snake Oil

Snake Oil by Arwen Mitchell

Hop Fro is a delicious beer. Very delicious. A quick, seasonal from Fat Heads brewery; and a damn fine brewery it is. It makes delicious sandwiches. And delicious beer. And you know what else is delicious? Snake Oil at Ohio City Theatre Project. Very delicious. I think if you re-read this and think in your mind of Will Ferrell acting the part of George W, it works. It’s in the cadence.

Snake Oil is awesome. It was good fun. Mostly clean fun. Okay, not really. Arwen Mitchell’s piece is a Brechtian delight: overthetop costuming, outrageous plot, songs, placards, audience intimidation, with archetypal characters dashing about. And Sade Wolfkitten (Yay!!) of convergence fame stroking the accordion: adding the ooompah to the frivolity. The play has the subdued spirit of Wizbang in it’s vaudevillian shorts, but the plot is as risqué as any ca. 2015 bit of reality tv naughtiness. All of which is captivatingly captured by Kilbride (Amy Schwabauer), who dances and strides around the countryside (Canopy Collective) with a pair of torpedoes blazing across her bow. Apologies for slipping into pirate speak, of a sort. Schwabauer is a fiery streak of silk energy in a Moulin Rouge dress: kicking, dancing, and fighting her way across the landscape. Stuart Hoffman steals the show, seriously, in a bit of acting that absolutely should not be missed. Hoffman shows a strong mastery of facial expression, farcical energy, and crash characterization that carries some sections of the production. His devilish character (Dryeth) is the trickster at the crossroads and Hoffman wears all the masks. The devil has put his finger on poor Delacourt (Kyle Adam) who is only trying to sell his elixir of life, with the help of his sweet Kilbride. I’ve not seen Adam in anything before, but I see he’s in something coming up at Dobama. He does a great job of selling the huxter shtick: the song, the cadence, the energy, and the spontaneous oratory. He does a good drunk as well… in the play. I’ve no knowledge of how good a drunk he is (or isn’t!) elsewhere.

I’ll not give away the plot except to say that Kilbride and Delacourt claim themselves to be from Nice, France—which they pronounce like Midwesterners discussing the decision to bring Old Aunt Edna some flowers up in Eastern Star nursing facility earlier today. The emissaries from Nice are glad to meet their host country folk in a town they call “Best.” They sell their elixir, which turns out to be a liquid that induces somnolence in the “Johns” that Kilbride has made arrangements with. Once out, Kilbride robs the men blind inside their own houses, or offices, or whatever. A brilliant bit of New World grifting. In steps the menacing yet, strangely, happy-go-lucky journalist, Dryeth, who squeezes a story from our daring duo. Dryeth promises a sale, but instead delivers destruction, splitsville. A tale as old as the Moses testament and dangerous as God’s wrath. Angels and Insects, baby.

Sarah Greywitt directs and does excellent work using the space and no doubt the design aspects. She explains at the outset where the stage is (dashed lines of red tape in a discrete rectangle to the ‘front’ of the house). But she continues that the space will be broken. The actors will be out of the lines and about. She invites us, as audience, to move around too. Change perspective. (But don’t interfere with the actors.) The life of the wandering Snake Oil salesman is invoked, the set is excellent with highlights that create an impression, a reference to the whole. Greywitt keeps the play rolling and balances the energy of the actors and the energy of the script.

I’m not telling how the story ends. But see it. Experience it. Have fun. Laugh, cry, rejoice. Saw Peter Roth there, and his lovely wife Olivia. A wonderful eve of thee in cle. Buy some cool shit from Canopy Collective, too.

Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber

November 24th, 2008 No comments

Well, it’s been a long road for me and this play. It started as an exercise in Mike Geither’s English 612 class sometime in February or March of 2007. The exercise, toward the bottom of this entry:, led to Timothy and Spooky running around a campfire.

As nearly as I can remember the play started off like a normal one for me. Two characters in a rather bland exchange:

Timothy: Hey, Spooky, whachya up to?

Spooky: I don’t like being called ‘Spooky,’ thank you so goddam very much, I thank you.

Timothy: Okay, then Spooky, what is your name?

Spooky: I won’t tell you my name. A name’s power, there’s power in names; power in names over the named thing there is power. That I won’t give you.

Timothy: Spooky, how can I talk to you if I don’t know what to call you by?

Spooky: (Standing quickly and moving toward Timothy. Speaks in a loud voice and stands menacingly close) Ahhh, why doan you fuck off!

It had two male characters interacting and one was violent and domineering and the other somewhat passive and timid. At this point, the play could have gone the same route as an earlier play I wrote, Only Sing for Me. In fact, I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on this comparison and the two are eerily similar, one is simply less imaginative and has less of my “true” voice in it. Although it nearly went the same route as the earlier piece, one exchange popped out that changed things:

Timothy: (Shrinking visibly and stuttering) I…I…m sorry Spp… I’m sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to…

Spooky: (Just stands and breathes heavily into Timothy’s face.)

Timothy: (Raises his right hand and taps it on his chest) My, but you have got my heart racing. Simply racing. (He backs up a step and then turns, slowly, and begins circling Spooky) Simply a’goin’ pitter patter, my heart. (In the mock voice of Scarlet O’Hara or Blanche DuBois) Why, whatever is a girl to do with such a… brute as you?

That strategic choice by Timothy to switch to an openly effeminate persona, coupled with the sly strategy of a comedic mockery that challenges the openly violent hostility of the other fundamentally changed how the two would interact. This exchange was followed rapidly by the next exchange:

Spooky: (Sits on the ground again and crosses his legs; he draws idly with his index finger.)

Timothy: (In his normal voice) You know, I don’t often come to the woods anymore. Not like I used to. Not like I used to with Uncle Philly and Brother Gene and Sister Mary May and John the Butcher and Kim the Karate man from down the block. Not like that anymore. I used to come. With them. Used to come out here all the time and lay on my back in the clearing over there and gaze up at the night sky. Orion and Cassiopeia and the Pleiades and Sirius and Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and the Milky Way which was always my favorite way and the vast distance of the immensity that was the greatness that pressed down on my tiny chest and encompassed me fuller than any womb I was ever completely in but not completed in. I used to gaze at that.

This effusion by Timothy is remarkable, for me, in that the character of Timothy now has openly been freed up to allow his innermost thoughts to pour out, uninhibited. It is quite really that by allowing my character (myself) to put on an effeminate voice I freed myself (Timothy) to let an imaginative world pour forth. This is quite naturally followed later by this, not too much later:

Spooky: (Turning) Are you gonna get smart? (Stands) Are ya? (Walks menacingly toward Timothy) Are you gonna get smart. Are ya? Are you gonna get smart, now? (Smacking Timothy on the head) Where’s your dress? Where’s your dress, Timothy? Where is it? (Smacks Timothy on the head) Put it on. Put the dress on. (He turns and stomps back to the backpack and starts rummaging.)

And then…

Timothy steps out of the tent in a pink dress and a blonde wig with braids. He has red lipstick all over his mouth.

So, the course of the play had been set in motion.

Originally, the Ranger was in on it. Later he became a foil against which the other two acted. This is very in keeping with Only Sing for Me, but I do have to speculate what the play would have been like had I kept the Ranger as a part of the other two’s activities.

For the most part the play developed in a natural course flowing out of me quite easily. Toward the end, though, the magic fizzled and my conscious mind started getting in the way. I’ve written about this on several occasions, but my entry on Wallace Shawn certainly foregrounds the problem:

The unconscious mind is the realm of dreams. It is mythological and powerful, spontaneous and frightening. The conscious mind is dull and predictable. Beware you let your conscious mind write (or edit your unconscious material). Of course, you have to do this (allow it) so, as Shawn points out, this is where a talented writer shows up (the ability to edit). I have yet to fully acquire this talent. I read Christine Howey’s review of my play and admired her eye, as she directly caught the problem of my play of which I was acutely aware.

In revising the play, which I had named A Howl in the Woods, I comment elsewhere about the change in name which I admit is much more interesting than my original. The original name, however, reflects the direction I went with the play: there is something in the unconscious tangle that transforms the main character—empowers him to slough off his mutable identity and become the self-defined person he was meant to be.

There was a fundamental failure on my part to instantiate this vision for this play and that left it open to many interpretations. And truth be told, the direction that it went was too much a conscious decision and left it open to the failures I mention above. I think very much that Clyde revived the comedic heart of the play as it was originated—the playful spontaneity that made it special—and helped it to come to something worthwhile. I know that I am fortunate to have him as the director.

Ultimately, there were mistakes made in the writing of this play and I have learned valuable lessons from them—so, I will go on to new mistakes. Hopefully my plays will get better as I move forward, too—the mistakes less obvious and bumbling. In reflection, I had opportunities; including the aftermath of the staged reading at CPT.

Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber is going well and has been very well received (see Tony Brown’s review). I admit that I’m somewhat surprised, but I guess that is because I know its warts and focus on what could have been rather than what is, making it difficult to see that there is good in it yet. Certainly, I have no regrets about placing the play in the hands of convergence-continuum. I cannot say enough about all who have given so much of their time to it: Clyde Simon, Lucy Bredeson-Smith (tireless and omnipotent wielder of the immortal stage manager lash), Geoffrey Hoffman (whose talent as an actor and director shows in his acute perception of and critical inquiry about the flaws in this play), Tom Kondilas, Tyson Rand, Mark K (who should have two more arms to manage the musical gymnastics he accomplishes for this performance), Megan DePetro as the Butterfly Queen, and Sarah Kunchik as Helga. Then there is Terrii Zernechel who put in long evenings working on lights and lighting effects, Tom Kondilas (again) who stop-motioned the video and brought the shadows to life, and Sade Wolfkitten who is always present to make the sound go off without a hitch.

I am grateful to convergence for making this play a success; to Mike Geither for his guidance, and for the input of the 612 class who helped shape it. The play has yet to reach its final resting place, perhaps, as it has been entered in the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival (ACTF) and will be reviewed by a judge from Wooster very soon. Some recommendation will be made at that point.

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