Go See Mr. Burns at Chicago’s Theater Wit

So much has happened to so many over the past two years that it seems insensitive, even to myself and my family, to complain that the pandemic has robbed us of live theater. On a trip to Chicago this week, I saw my first play, from the front row of a small and well-kept theater, in two years. Theater Wit’s production of Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play by Anne Ashburn accomplished more good from me than I’d had any right to expect of any show I might have seen under these circumstances. It’s not fair, of course, but that first show back not only has to compensate for the productions I missed (Assassins at Classic Stage Company chief among them) but the shows I don’t even know I didn’t get to see because they were never produced.

Theater Wit’s production, directed by the company’s artistic director Jeremy Wechsler and featuring a score by Michael Friedman, captures all the darkly comic and poignant moments of Washburn’s script. It revisits and perhaps reimagines, a Theater Wit production from five years prior, though the story may be more topic now than when the show was first staged in New York.

We’re some time in a not distant future, after some chair reaction disaster has deprived the United States, and likely the world, of electricity. People pack together in small communities to survive. Most post-apocalypse stories would concentrate on the aspects of survival – how do people share and gather resources and how do they protect themselves become the central questions of the story? Largely, the theme that emerges (whether the cause of disaster is pandemic, zombies or asteroids) is that the real threat to survival is human nature – (i.e. “we are the walking dead…”). This story is different.

Washburn is interested less in how people find food and shelter than in how they reconstruct the human need for entertainment, news, and storytelling. Soon after the disaster we meet a core group of survivors who gather around a fire to tell old stories, the way we imagine early humans did when hunter/gatherer societies emerged. While those humans told stories about the environment around them, these humans also go towards what they know – they recount the television shows that have been denied them, specifically The Simpsons.

Mr. Burns takes us through three evolutions of a telling of the same story – a Simpson’s episode called Cape Feare that parodies Martin Scorcese’s 1991 Cape Fear remake. It starts with a retelling around a fire. It becomes, seven years later, a key part of the repertory of a touring theatre troupe and then becomes a fully formed musical production that’s as far from its source material as Shakespeare is from the old European tales of King Lear’s tragedy.

An 8-person ensemble cast here plays multiple roles over time and helps the audience through a story that spans nearly a century. Subtle acting all around brings humanity to something that could play as pastiche by less skilled practitioners.

The show is a triumph for Theater Wit and live performance generally. I watched it alongside an enthusiastic audience, and we gave the troupe a well-earned standing ovation. See it if you can.

The Afterword to Fahrenheit 451

In a few pages at the end of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury gives us an eloquent defense of freedom of speech as he recounts the ridiculous editing of short fiction for consumption by students in the middle 20th century. These pages should be required reading now, as Bradbury reminds us that not only governments can censor thought and art and that all censorship is dangerous and deplorable.

“There is more than one way to burn a book,” he writes. “And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” This should resonate with anybody paying attention today as misguided activists demand that Netflix remove The Closer from its streaming line-up because they find Dave Chappelle’s jokes offensive. The badly reasoned USA Today op-ed I linked even quotes academics in opposition to Chappelle, which is ironicury because the first victims of the government’s war on books in Fahrenheit are scholars of literature, history and philosophy.

Says Bradbury: “Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist/Zionist/Seventh Day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.”

Bradbury is as annoyed at the petty censors from society as he is the professionals who kowtow to such audiences, citing market forces as reason enough to blandify art and culture to suit the under-developed tastes of amateur critics.

These few pages, clearly stated and a strong rebuke to the forces of order and obedience now at work in our homogenizing culture, are refreshing and vital.

Albee, Guare and the Novel on Stage

It was a treat to notice that the movie version of Six Degrees of Separation showed up on HBO Max this month. A faithful adaptation of the Lincoln Center production of John Guare’s play, the film has stuck with me over the years and it was exciting to see it anew. The virtuouso performances still thrill and the dialogue remains unrivaled for its cleverness, rhythm and subtext. The film is a reminder of what movies could be doing for us in 2021 and what a mistake it was for audiences to have allowed Hollywood to abandon the character-driven, indie aesthetics of the 80s and 90s. Or, maybe the problem is that we’ve ceded film to Hollywood when what we need are the more traditionally grounded “New York” stories, from Breakfast at Tiffanys’ to Mean Streets.

After I watched Six Degrees (twice) I read the script for the stage play and was struck by how little Guare changed adapting it to film. In the play, originally staged in a 3 quarter thrust, Flan and Ouisa, the couple at the center of the action, break the fourth wall to narrate directly to the audience, as if engaging them in cocktail party conversation. A theme of the play is how we so easily reduce life-altering events to fodder for idle conversation. In the movie, they set up each recount to have an audience (at a wedding, at a charity dinner) rather than have our protagonists talk to the camera. However they are presented, the words in the screenplay almost perfectly match the words in the stage script.

What sets Six Degrees apart is the layering of meaning in each line. The audience almost doesn’t realize that they’re watching the dissolution of a marriage as the story plays out because the director and writer respect them enough not to spoon feed everything. In this, Six Degrees is novelistic in its story telling.

Reading Six Degrees sent me to other scripts in my collection, including some shorter works by Guare and then, finally, back to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It has also been a long time since I’d cracked open those words and maybe it’s all the talk of Catcher in the Rye in Six Degrees, but reading Virginia Woolf was very much like reading a short novel. The dialogue is fast-paced, hilarious, layered and detailed. The stage directions are artful. With different formatting, I think you could offer up Albee’s play, word for word, as a novel and it would not only pass, but stand up as a solid work of dialogue-driven prose fiction.

It even has its own “Catcher in the Rye” moment when the history professor George, left alone for a few moments during a drunken night of “Hump the Hostess” and “Get the Guests” with a younger biology professor and his wife, sits down to read a book and recites: “And the west, encumbered by crippling alliances, and burdened with a morality too rigid to accomodate itself to the swing of events, must…eventually…fall.” I wondered if Albee had made this up or was quoting some real book about foreign policy from the late 1960s. If it were real, I might even want to read that book, as a glimpse into the thinking of the time. That is an amazing accomplishment — Albee set me off on an intellectual path separate from his domestic tragicomedy. It seems Albee had invented this sentiment, another layer of reality that adds depth to the entire story.

I’m no declinist about the state of the arts. I know there’s a lot of great writing out there right now, in film, theatre and prose. But, we’re no longer seeing work like Guare or Albee get consistent, mass attention and financial support. The culture is poorer for it. We need and deserve more.

Truman Capote

Diana Trilling’s account of her and Lionel’s train encounter with Truman Capote is such a strange little document, care of Alexander Chee.

The repetition of the phrase “little creature” to describe Capote is so off-putting. It would somehow be acceptable once but twice it becomes dismissive and condescending. Of course, this also documents the secrecy and fear around discussion of topics like homosexuality in America at the time, even among cosmopolitan people in literary circles.

It’s an eye-opening and depressing little document.

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