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.

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.

The Uses and Abuses of Shakespeare in the Park

I experienced some shrill reading this morning when I encountered Daniel Larkin’s attack on the Public Theatre’s free Central Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Our critic is not only annoyed that William Shakespeare’s farce isn’t the Bard’s most consequential work, he’s mad that the Public is carrying on Joseph Papp’s tradition of producing free Shakespeare in the summers at all. Writes Larkin:

“When Joseph Papp began staging Shakespeare in New York City parks in 1954, the city was 90% white, according to the official estimate. In a city that is now less than 50% white, it is no longer democratic, ethical, or representative to predominantly produce the work of a dead British man in this publicly owned outdoor theatre. How might this stage in Central Park — which purportedly belongs to everyone — more equally and authentically honor the heritage and culture of all its citizens.”

It’s stunning language. It’s no longer ethical to put on free Shakespeare in New York City? “It’s time to meet Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, Joceyln Bioh, and other BIPOC playwrights,’ writes Larkin, as if Shakespeare is somehow crowding out the recently deceased Shange or as if summer crowds would gather for a light-hearted outdoor production of A Raisin in the Sun. Jocelyn Bioh, meanwhile, adapted Shakespeare’s script, to praise from The New York Times. I’m sure Bioh appreciated the opportunity and the artistry of the work, even if Larkin wishes better for her.

I’ve been reading through older scripts lately, because some surprises can be found and it’s amazing what you miss, even if you study theater. I’d only read Ibsen’s more realistic plays, for example, so I had no idea that Peer Gynt is a romp through northern European mythology, full or surrealism and surprises. Though I did wonder about the point of reading such a play in 2021 as I’m unlikely to see it produced or even to run into others who have read it or would show an interest.

Larkin wants to move some of these older writers out of the way, to make room for new voices. But there are always new things to explore even in history’s most celebrated plays and novels. People are best served by producing what inspires them.

I’m sure Larkin means well and we’re certainly beyond the point of hurting Shakespeare’s feelings. But not all traditions have to be swept away and the Public offers a diverse array of programming year round, both on its main stages, in Joe’s Pub and through its outdoor and travelling troupes.

The Public, and the public it serves, do not need Larkin’s advice.

Random Thoughts About Hamlet

I’m reading Twentieth Century Interpretations Of Hamlet: A Collection Of Critical Essays edited by national treasure, David Bevington, who died in 2019. It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about Hamlet and I studied it most closely in high school. My teachers liked to assign it to college bound seniors since Hamlet is a scholar who we meet at a pivotal moment in his life and graduation from high school is often equated with a time when we young people are first asked to make consequential decisions about what we are going to do next.

But, these essays remind me of some things that are easy to forget about Hamlet. Chiefly, he is not some Elizabethan version of Holden Caulfield. He is 30 years old. This is young for a prince, who might envision himself ruling over Denmark for decades starting in his 40s or 50s, ending an aged leader like Lear. But, he was no child. He was a sophisticated, highly eduated adult.

Another misconception I took from my high school years is that Hamlet is a man whose actions are throttled by thought and that this is a story about the dangers of too much philosophy and not enough action. But this is also not quite true. Hamlet is a remarkable swordsman and he is a killer, when pushed. He does not sit trembling in the face of action.

Along those lines, I think that when many of us first read or see Hamlet we have the story ruined for us. We’re told that while Hamlet is away at college his uncle Caludius murders his father the king and then assumes the throne of Denmark and takes Hamlet’s mother Gertrude as his bride. While it’s far too late to complain about Hamlet spoilers, knowing in advance that Claudius is guilty of everything he’s accused of by the ghost of Hamlet’s father can’t help but color how we take in the story and what we think about Hamlet’s character.

It’s easy to forget that from Hamlet’s point of view, Claudius isn’t a known criminal. Hamlet doesn’t know if the ghost is really his father and doesn’t know if he’s dealing with a just request from heaven or some malevolent spirit out to ruin him. Were Hamlet to simply take the ghost at his word and lop Claudius’ head off, we’d have to view him as rash and violent at the very least.

Hamlet, tarred by so many for his inaction, takes an active role in proving Claudius’ guilt, as best he can. There’s the mousetrap play, his own feigned madness and his inteorrogations of his betrothed Ophelia, her father Polonius, her brother Laertes and his own mother. He actively pursues evidence and certainty.

I also wonder if he doesn’t drive himself a little mad. Faking insanity is the best way to lose one’s mind. After all, you are what you think.

A Look Back at Franzen v. Oprah

Emily Gould had a depressing but fascinating piece about the state of fiction and novelists today. It’s realistic, it’s absurd and it’s bad for the culture. I think she and I agree there;s a lot of great stuff being written these days that is not finding an audience and that a broken industry is not able to provide livelihoods for writers, especially as the side gigs in journalism and academia have come under such pressure.

It’s frightening to think, but hard to escape feeling like society has finally looked back at long-form narrative storytellers on both stage and plays and said, “We don’t really care.” I should add “the screen” to that, as well, as art house theatres continue to disappear and we increasingly choose to stream our corporate-approved entertainment at home.

Stll, people who like to read (thank you, women!) really like to read. So everybody has a chance in what Gould describes as a high stakes casino game. You can probably still hit it big with the right art film, too. Not so sure about a non-musical stage play, partricularly if it isn’t based on a previously successful property.

One issue Gould mentioned was the Oprah book clubn controversey:

“Most people who care think that Franzen refused to appear on Oprah to promote The Corrections, but what actually happened was worse. The novel was anointed a book club pick (an honor that, when the show was on network television, could conservatively increase book sales by a factor of 10), and preparatory B-roll was shot in Franzen’s hometown of St. Louis. Then, in a preceding Fresh Air interview, he said, “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say, ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking.” Oprah’s response: “Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. No one has ever been told to fuck off and die more politely.”

Truly, Franzen did exhibit snobbery regarding Oprah and he lacked appreciation for women readers of fiction at a time where they would carry the entire industry for decades. But, I worked in a chain bookstore during the Oprah years and he’s not wrong about how that label used to grab customers. Men flocked to the towers of John Grisham and Tom Clancy books we were required to erect and place at the front of the store. Men and women both flocked to the Steven King and Dean Koontz book temples that we built. Only women went to the Oprah Book Club display.

The author and book I most remember from those years was “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb. Lamb’s been a working writer and teacher since 1981 but owes his widespread notoriety to that first Oprah pick. But he hasn’t had a career like Franzen’s, has he? It seems that Franzen’s old kerfuffle with Oprah has aged badly from the perspective of social criticism but that his desire to set his work apart from the Lambs of the world was the right one, if judged by his subsequent successes.

Pinter at the Movies

Great piece on LitHub about the creativity and genre-changing innovations that Harold Pinter brought to his film adaptations of classic novels, including The French Lieutenant’s Woman. We could really have more and better theatre in the United States if we also had a public television system well-funded enough to bring the talents of our best playwrights to screen like Britain did with the BBC during Pinter’s formative years.

This piece also makes me think of David Mamet, who adapted some of his own plays to film and did so in a style that preserved the theatricality. Oleanna is particularly well done in that regard.

I’d love to see more stage to screen out there.

Trump Continues to Be Pa Ubu

Everything about Donald Trump reminds me of the Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry. Now, he’s telling supporters he expects to be re-installed as President, via coup, this summer. It’s a very Ubu move. Of course, it’s a grift, to keep the money flowing in from his more extreme supports who are willing to overlook everything that would have to go right for a coup of any type to succeed in the United States. These things would include:

Military support: From leadership on down, the military, currently led by Joe Biden appointees, would have to hand over control to Trump.

Intelligence community support: The president can’t run anything without the intelligence community sharing information or not actively undermining the administration.

Local support: How many governors would defy federal authority if an unelected president declared themselves to be in power?

Economic support: Face it, the economy would collapse. Who would buy Treasury bonds in the face of a successful coup?

President Ubu!

I could go on and on but I’ve gone too far. Like Pa Ubu, Trump has no intention of ever following through on this scheme. It’s just a transfer of wealth from his dumbest supporters to his family.

Reading Update, March 1

It’s hard to populate this site because I want it to include observations about what I’m reading and seeing. Both take time and with reading I somtimes get into something but then put it away and circle back later. It’s all very whim-driven.

My shelf right now is:

A reread of Slaughterhouse Five, a story I last visitied by reading a theatrical adapation created by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I’ll have a lot to say about it when I’m finished. It’s aged remarkably well.

I’ve also unearthed a compendium called “Masters of Modern Drama,” put together by RandomHouse in 1962. I plan to work my way through each script, though it’s an odd compendium, certainly not as inclusive as you’d get in a book like this today.

The novel that next seems to be calling from my shelf is Ling Ma’s Severance, and also the latest from George Saunders. The book that I don’t own that’s calling to me is that new biography of Tom Stoppard.

The nonfiction book I’d like most to write about is Millennium by Jacques Attali. It was published in the early 1990s but very accurately predicted the thirty years that followed.

I’m working on a new novel. It’s called Unique, New York.

Women at War

Global citizen, actor, writer and spoken word artist Lanna Joffrey first encountered Valiant Women in War and Exile by Sally Hayton-Keeva in the 1990s. The book has stuck with her ever since as she’s developed it into an ensemble play for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the New York International Fringe Festival, among other venues. Joffrey’s script was recently published by NoPassport Press and I was glad to have read it over the weekend. It’s a stunner.

Reminiscences of war, whether by men or women, can easily become victim narratives (and in many cases, they should be). But these are tales of warriors, witting and unwitting from throughout the 20th century. Because the official combat armies of the time have been largely male, “War speaks in a male voice to all of us,” as Joffrey quotes Keeva in the early pages. But war is a human cruelty and we risk misunderstanding it by ignoring the perspectives of women or by relegating their voices to those of observers of war rather than as participants, perpetrators, rebels and activists. These characters have impressive and infectious agency that pull the reader through these vivid and compelling stories.

NoPassport Press

Through the show we meet survivors of Turkey’s genocide against Armenia experience how the lack of consequences for it led to Nazi Germany. We meet Catholic and Protestant women furing Ireland’s “troubles,” as well as interned Japanese Americans, surivivors of Hiroshima, a flight attendant who brought U.S. soldiers to Viet Nam and a Moscow woman who became a sniper to avenge herself against the Nazis.

I’m mixing up the chronology, but that’s sort of the point — these voices from a century of war remind us of the sheer senselessness of it all. We’re pscyhologically compelled to divide wars into good and bad, just or unjust, but the experience of taking all of this history in together washes away all rationalizations. It’s not just that war is cruel (we know that) or that the innocent suffer greatly (we know that too) but that people are forever changed by these experiences and we’ve found no way to offer them any remediation other than to listen.

The script moves at a rapid pace. Based on real interviews conducted by Hayton-Keeva and expertly dramatized by Joffrey, Valiant reminds me a bit of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf because the effect of the work is built on a chorus of strong voices.

R.U.R. at 100

You don’t likely encounter Czech writer Karel Čapek‘s Rossum’s Universal Robots while studying theatre as an undergraduate. It’s a bit idea driven for programs that rightly stress character work for directors, actors and writers. I’m sure there are myriad exceptions out there, but the script doesn’t show up in the survey anthologies of drama that I’ve lugged around since the 1990s. It’s just not canon.

Most people I’ve met who know this play found R.U.R. as I did — through science fiction’s accounting of the concept of the robot in fiction. Though the concept of a soulless tool in human form dates at least to Greek mythology and to Aristotle, and though som credit L. Frank Baum’s heartless Tin Man as the first robot in modern fiction (The Wizard of Oz, 1900), Čapek is credited with first use of the term “robot” in his corporate tale of a company that manufactures lifelike humanoid servants who inevitably rise up to polish off humanity and to rule the world (but only for a tragically short spell as they wipe out the secret of their own creation along with their creators).

Modernist fun!

This is the archetypal robot tale — through science of magic, people devise a way to effortlessly and ethically shift the burdens of work and suffering to a capable but inanimate worker class, but those workers inevitably realize their sorry lot, rise up and deliver comeuppance. The real story here is, of course, not so much how humanity would treat robots but how poorly we treat each other in the hierarchies of our economies. Forget about the robots we’ll exploit in the future — you’ve already forgotten to think about who made your sweater, for what pay, under what conditions. As Ursula LeGuin characterized modern, developed economy living, every comfort rests on the suffering of an unseen, unheard and unmentioned child. We tolerate it through willful ignorance. Where did the sweater come from? A cardboard box with an Amazon smile, of course.

In the lore of science fiction, the next major evolution of the fictive robot came from Isaac Asimov who sought to cut himself off from the typical “robot revolution” narrative by inventing and applying his “Three Laws of Robotics.” These are the rules that govern all tools, he argued. Robots may not harm humans or allow them to be harmed, robots must follow all human instructions and robots must not harm each other or themselves. Where those rules contradict, they are ordered. Not harming humans takes first priority, then obedience, then their own safety. A robot will save you from a burning building even if another human tells them not to and even if that robot will be destroyed in the adventure.

Our friend Čapek invented the word “robot” and Asimov invented the word “robotics.” It’s amazing to me that two concepts so ingrained in modern life emerged starkly modernist European theatre and the pulp magazines of science fiction’s golden age.

Technologists have largely taken Asimov seriously, though arms manufacturers around the world have been and are developing robotic killing machines that flout the first law. Still, as Asimov intended, our automated factories are not designed to rise up and kill us because they’re tired of manufacturing Teslas.

What’s changed is that the concepts of automation and even bots has moved well beyond the physical. If the old nightmare was a robot we’d built to serve us running amock, the new one are unseen algorithms, directing our thoughts and appetites without us knowing (perhaps even directing you to read this, though it’s unlikely, as I’m not paying anybody for the privilege — a whole other matter!)

The promise of ther robot is embedded in industrialization — greater efficiencies will spare people from the drudgery of work. In RUR the result of this is that the robots take on all tasks from farming to manufcaturing, driving down the costs of everything to the point where people don’t need to work to survive. Rather than create a Utopia of plenty, Čapek imagines that people would stop breeding and become infertile.

The flipside is that we’d cease our pointless and physical toils and could all devote ourselves to higher, more thoughtful endevours — philosophy, science and the arts. Would we, though? Or would we binge on relaxing entertainments?

All of these other pursuits are also work, though they are rewarded unevenly by the economy. The rapid development of artificial intelligence (in all of its forms) and the mass collection and analysis of unfathomable data, allows us to also outsource the work of human perfection, from policy to poetry.

The robots of older fictions kicked us out of the factories and then the world. Perhaps this new breed will start by throwing us out of the schools and libraries.

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