by David Dower
Regular readers of this blog (hi, Mom...) know that part of my role as the Associate Artistic Director of Arena Stage is scouting-- regular bursts of travel around the country to catch up on significant new works of American theater. I feel privileged to be able to get this view of the nation's theater community. I especially look forward to the days of the Mead Center, when you'll be able to get closer to this experience yourself, without ever leaving the city. We're working on a number of different strategies for bringing you the broad canvas of American work in the new digs, but for the next little while I'll try to stay current on these road trip reports.
June has started with a bang! Literally.
I started last week in Los Angeles. I was there to see the last performance of Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at Center Theater Group's Kirk Douglas Theater. Tiger was one of the two selections for the Outstanding New American Play from the NEA NPDP (a program we chronicle extensively here). The production was directed by Moises Kaufman (33 Variations, Laramie Project) and was startlingly beautiful for a play about the darkness in-- and damage to-- the spirit in a time/place of war. The onstage gunshots and the explosive interplay of disturbing images and ideas kept jolting me out of my seat. From the looks of the packed house full of LA somebodies, this play is going to have a longer life in the region. The play also sends up a bright flare to the field: Mr. Joseph has some things to say and we will be hearing much, much more from him. You'll have a chance to catch up with this play yourself when Arena presents the culminating festival of the first round of NPDP projects at the Mead Center, if we don't see a full production in this area first, that is.
By Thursday I was in Minneapolis, at the Guthrie Theater, watching Tony Kushner's latest work in its world premiere. Kushner is famous for his long plays, long processes, long monologues and brawling with big issues-- and this play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, has all the earmarks of another major work from the author of Angels in America and Caroline or Change. There's been a lot in the theater press about the author's late request of the national press not to review this premiere, as he's still very much at work on it. And it's evident that he's still wrestling with the size of his ideas here. But reviews or no reviews, this play is going to have a significant life in the American theater. Again, Kushner's on the money in terms of the cultural moment. This time the housing market meltdown, and its collateral damage, is woven into a story with overtones of Death of a Salesman and undertones of Eugene O'Neill. The production is directed by Michael Greif, who was here to stage Next to Normal for us earlier this season. Kathleen Chalfant, who played Agnes for us in A Delicate Balance is part of an ensemble of Kushner All Stars (Stephen Spinella and Linda Emond have extensive experience with his work as well). The whole thing feels so confidently produced that it's surprising, given the late start the playwright got on it and the expansive ideas in the piece. Though currently long and ungainly, the play is studded with hyper-smart, passionate characters who juggle big important themes in accessible, compelling, and entertaining ways. Keep your ears open for the next stop in this play's journey.
Saturday was a triple header at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. I drove up with Arena's Artistic Director Molly Smith to catch the three plays in Tarell McCraney's "Brother/Sister Plays" trilogy. (That link is so good, I've linked it twice.) It was a dense and fully satisfying day. The trilogy follows the interconnected stories of the residents of an unnamed housing project in the South, and borrows loosely and liberally from the Yoruban storytelling traditions. The language is a fresh mix of poetry and ghetto grit, the scale both mythic and tiny, and the style is highly theatrical- bare stage, characters speaking their stage directions, and bursts of movement and song that erupt inside the narrative flow. It's a pleasure to spend the day with this sort of excess. The afternoon started with The Brothers Size, which Washington audiences got a chance to see in production at Studio Theater. Robert O'Hara's simple, confident direction and the pitch-perfect performances meant the day got off to a great start. This is the more tightly focused of the three. Three actors, one storyline, two locations. An unforgettable line: as the broken hearted older brother sets his younger brother free to 'see the world' he instructs him to "go. find yourself. and when you do, ask him if he remembers me."
The second play, which was linked to the first by a fifteen minute intermission, was the other Outstanding New American Play selection of the NPDP. Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet takes place in the next generation, with Marcus being the son of one of the characters from the first play. Here we see a much broader swath of the community in which these plays are set. And now we start to see the cruelties and hardened souls that afflict the residents and grind on the youngsters at the core of this play. It's messier and willful in its hyperactivity. A generation of A.D.D. on Redbull. And O'Hara's staging takes on the feel of a comic book or graphic novel-- brighter colors, sharper outlines and pushed physicality, more avatars than characters. It looks and feels like the Wii version of the story.
A talkback followed. Let me just say, Tarell McCraney is, at 28, a master at handling this sort of exchange. I'm sorry that he's had to develop these particular skills so fully at this age, but it's a hazard of being a playwright in this era of "audience engagement" that playwrights are frequently subjected to the most unpleasant and unproductive exchanges with audiences who feel entitled to tell them what they can and can't say and what they should and shouldn't write. Unfortunately the whole discussion was filmed for the documentary being made about the NPDP and so it's preserved for posterity. I'm reminded of the playwright who told me in an interview once "I'm from the South. Where I come from 'talking back' is considered rude. I don't know why I should have to sit through it every time a theater wants to do my play." This was rude in the extreme, imho.
For the record, I was there with several other playwrights, including Lydia Diamond who's Stick Fly we're producing in Restaged Part 2, and they found the exchanges energizing in their negativity, where I just found them infuriating. So, maybe it's just me.
After a really good Indian meal at Masala Grill, we headed back to the theater for In the Red Brown Water, which was the first of the plays Tarell saw produced and which is set in the generation before Brothers Size. So we were seeing the brothers and Marcus' father as the young guns of the community here. Again epic in scope and sprawling in focus (more like Marcus than Brothers) and once more happy to interrupt itself with songs and parties, the play feels younger than the others in terms of being the master of its own voice. Director Tina Landau emphasizes the Story Theater style of the piece with her direction, which also takes the style back a couple generations. Characters are out in the audience, there's a dance theater aesthetic to moments of it, and the costumes become more stylized than real clothes.
I love the diversity of these plays, and to see them all in one week was a wonderful orgy of excess for a theater junkie like me. Rajiv's writing about huge ideas in the context of the Middle East in this time of war. Characters are both alive and dead, human and animal, noble and evil. Tony's writing about the Brooklyn of Willy Loman in the context of today-- here the people are all flesh and blood, hyper articulate and overly educated, and the relationships are based in that bedrock of American theater: the white Ellis Island immigrant left-of-center family. Tarell's characters, language, and storytelling style are coming, instead, from Africa by way of the urban South.
Some day you'll come hang out at the Mead Center and take this same sort of three-play tour of the American theater. And when you do, come find me in the lobby and tell me what you think.