more thoughts on Six Degrees

One of the reasons Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation may be relevant today is the way in which these well-heeled liberal types assuage their guilt by being entranced by and supporting Paul, who pretends to be Sidney Poitier’s son but who describes a kind of globe-trotting upbringing (Rome, Paris, Swiss boarding schools) that they themselves desire. “Oh good,” they say to themselves, “this black kid can have all these things, so we really have come a long way.” One can see nods towards support for Obama from the same sector — he’s the black man they can relate to. It’s a resonance without substance, though. I doubt one could make the case theatrically that Obama is con man like Paul, despite what the fringes of the right would say.

Or maybe this is an opportunity for those absent conservatives to make an appearance.

Six Degrees of Separation at the Old Globe

I saw Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare at the Old Globe theater in Balboa Park. I think it’s a testament to the death of the playwright that his name does not appear on the cover of the program. The play centers around a small group (mainly one couple) of wealthy Manhattan liberal elites, all of whose kids go to Harvard or Dartmouth (or MIT, as it turns out). It is based on a true incident in which a young man “who said he was a Harvard student and the son of the actor Sidney Poitier gained entrance to their homes, dined with them, borrowed money…” The Globe’s production is good, although the pacing is ponderous at times (in a way that caters to the white elite who are probably their subscriber base). The main bones I have to pick are with the script itself.

The fundamental problem with the play itself is how it (fails to) deal with race (adequately). The character of Paul, the con man who dupes all of these self-indulgent celebrity-obsessed rich white people, remains inscrutable because Guare cannot truly fathom why he did what he did beyond Ouisa’s claim that he “wanted to be us.” The play works admirably as a skewering of liberal sentiments, from the doctor’s about face (“matinee-idol” to “crack-addict”) to Ouisa’s white guilt hand-wringing over Paul’s end. However, by making Paul’s motives unknowable to the other characters, he remains unknowable to us. Paul’s blackness is a foil against which the others play (and wreck themselves), but Guare cannot land a truly damning hit because he never makes Paul a real person. Thus the play’s message becomes a genteel “look how ridiculously puffed up these people are” as opposed to a pointed “white liberals harbor a kind of internalized racism that trivializes black people.”

The interview with the director reveals an additional source of the “dodging-the-question” aesthetic that permeated this production:

JACK: Are Ouisa and Flan the heirs of radical chic? Do you think if Paul were white — would they have fallen so hard?
TRIP: That’s a great question. I think if he were white and the son of Robert Redford, you know what I mean? I think that part of what it is — is the attraction of fame an notoriety and all that kind of stuff. Paul is such an interesting character because I think he’s someone who desperately wants everyone to love him but also is incapable…

In some cases, to “humanize” in the theater is to “avoid unpleasant truths.” And now, 20 years later, we’re still running away from them.

conservative viewpoints in theater

The NY Times has an article about the puzzling lack of conservative playwrights. The lack of “fair and balanced” political perspectives in regional theaters and festivals is pretty clear, but the fact that interviewees couldn’t think of any contemporary conservative playwrights is a bit odd. I would argue that Neil LaBute is a little right of center — he addresses cultural politics and doesn’t construct paeans to Iraq war, though. I am thinking particularly of The Shape of Things.

I think a far bigger factor is the kind of resurgence and celebration of anti-intellectual and anti-“elitist” sentiment in the broader conservative movement. Going to see a play is definitely elitist, and the kind of Bill Buckley conservatives who would write theater are a bit rarer in the younger generation of playwrights. I’m surprised that some libertarian or objectivist playwright hasn’t popped up, but after reading Ayn Rand’s attempts at theater, it is tempting to think that the ideology doesn’t make for riveting drama.

Argonautika

I saw Argonautika with Alex on Thursday at the Berkeley Rep. It was quite the visual treat, but I expect no less from Mary Zimmerman. Alex, being Greek, was confused by the Latinization of some of the names (he thinks Pollux should have been Polydefkis or something), and upon further reflection it seemed the naming was inconsistent — Aphrodite, not Venus, but then Hercules, not Herakles. I’m sure others reading this had a similar reaction (Darcy, I’m looking at you).

In the end, however, I was a little unsatisfied by the play — perhaps because the tale is so familiar the tension went out of the storytelling. However, the strength of the play is in how Zimmerman tells the story and brings out parts of the story that resonate with contemporary society. The first act’s main event was Hylas’ death at the spring and Hercules’ madness at losing his lover. Zimmerman makes explicit their relationship and how Hercules really needs Hylas. One of the more powerful moments is Heracles breaking down and crying, holding the pitcher Hylas had before his death, and Hera’s gleeful reaction.

Another thing that Zimmerman did bring out was the way in which Medea’s betrayal of her family is coerced (by the gods and then by Jason, who knowingly takes advantage of her). She is a teenager, and her desire for Jason is like that of a high school crush or obsession. Jason, who is not left off the hook in modern stagings of Euripides’s play, is depicted in Argonautika as a bit more human than his demigod crew. After Eros shoots Medea with his arrow, she appears on stage pierced by it, her white dress becoming more and more blood-soaked in each scene. Her passion is a disease which slowly overwhelms her. This arresting visual image was almost enough to carry the whole play, but it didn’t show up until the second act.

One thing I thought about the next day was how Medea’s impulsive behavior at the beginning of this story and her killing of her own children at the end of the story could be used together as a commentary on our times — in Euripides the Greeks might argue that Jason is the tragic hero and Medea is merely the agent of his undoing, but since contemporary performance puts the focus back on her, we can also ask to what degree society (and by extension the gods) are implicated in her actions? There’s another play lurking in there, somewhere…

Man of the Heart at UC Irvine

I’ll be doing the lights for this production at UC Irvine next week:

The International Center for Writing and Translation

presents as part of

Global Conversations : a Festival of Marginalized Languages

Man of the Heart

on the life & times of Lalon Phokir

Written/Performed by Sudipto Chatterjee
Directed by Suman Mukherjee

Friday, October 26, 2007
7:00 PM

Little Theater Auditorium, UC Irvine
Humanities Hall 161
Building #601 on the map

Directions to UCI and Campus map

SF Fringe : The Sewers

On Tuesday R and I saw The Sewers, a production from the New York theater company Banana Bag and Bodice. The play was part of the SF Fringe Festival, and is running through this weekend. I really enjoyed this play — the visual elements, disjointed narrative, and intense performances were exactly the kind of theater I’ve been itching to see:

This show is a conjuring act; an entire, albeit, tiny village by the name of The Sewers mysteriously appears one night in the theatre. All the children are dead. An acid plant in a barn. A triangular shaped love tryst. This show is a tour de force by manipulation.

If you are a fan of Richard Foreman, you will like it for sure, I think — it was done at the Ontological Theater in NY. The best thing about it is that it affects you in a way that is hard to articulate, and the process of trying to express to yourself what you think about it is fodder for hours of thought. Go see it!

my trip to jolly olde England

I spent part of the week before last in Cambridge, UK, which is a very different town than Cambridge, Mass., although it has some of the same problems with (for lack of a better term) local deformation effects in the street mappings. Another point of similarity is the density of bookstores, although I have to say that I prefer the ones here a bit, because some of them specialize. I was particularly tempted by a music store which had Eisler’s score to Mahagony and some nice Purcell collections and…

But I digress. Some unfortunate things I missed — punting on the Cam, any and all May Balls or Garden Parties (although if they think I’d shell out 500 quid to go to some poncy event at a college in which some of the boys have the gall to show up in a black suit with a bow tie rather than a proper tuxedo they’d have another thing coming), and a day trip to Oxford that had to be cancelled at the last minute (sorry, Jeff!).

I did manage to meet up with my ex wife for a pint and a somewhat languid production of Alan Ayckbourne’s Bedroom Farce, which was spot-on in some moments (with some pretty effective physical comedy) and churned in place for others (long pauses for laughs that did not come). I should read the play to see how much Ayckbourne writes in himself and how much he leaves to the director. Some of the characters are quite brilliant. Perhaps it’s because I now know some married people that I can see the types a bit better — the last time I saw a play of his was in high school I think. In particular, Trevor is a real piece of work. “I’m a destroyer,” he says, trying to puzzle out why his relationships go sour.

I’ve been staying here with my friend Tony, who I hung out with last year in Seattle before ISIT 2006. Perhaps next year he will be close to Toronto for ISIT 2008, but I somewhat doubt it. We get to have fun arguments about Bayesian statistics and other light topics. On Friday we managed to make it into London, where we got 5-quid tickets to see The Merchant of Venice. It was a period production, and I think part of the appeal of going to the Globe is to get a historicized experience of “what it was like back then.” The ushers are pretty ridiculous — there was plenty of room to sit in the “groundlings area” but they would not let you sit down at all. Because if was trying to be more “authentic,” the production did little to tone down the Jew-hating in the script or contextualize Shylock’s position, which I found quite problematic. The audience brings its own cultural context to a production, and to present a play as a cultural artifact outside of its original cultural context is misleading, I think. The audience should be alienated from its own cultural Gestalt in order to get a critical perspective on a “historical performance.” But maybe that’s just me blathering on a bit.

After the play we went to the Tate Modern (just next door!) and saw the Global Cities exhibition, which was pretty awesome. They took a number of major global cities and compared them, asking tough questions about whether better urban planning can really solve our problems. We also got to see an exhibit on Surrealism and its influence, which was pretty cool. I saw a few minimalist pieces that I remembered from the exhibit at the MOCA in LA. We didn’t pay to see the Heitor Oiticica exhibit, but they had a few of his other pieces outside (perhaps to entice you to pay?) which I thought were pretty cool in the “uses motors and so on in a fun way.”

All ln all I enjoyed my time in England, even if they don’t know what to do with vegetables and a “salad” to them is “grated carrots, sauteed mushrooms, two slices of tomato, and pickled cabbage.” Perhaps the next time I come back I’ll see more of London, but Scotland also seems quite appealing…

Blood Wedding

(by Federico Garcia Lorca, directed by Evren Odcikin, at Shotgun) Blood Wedding is one of those plays I always meant to read but never did, so I was glad of the opportunity to see it staged at Shotgun. The aesthetic of this production was flamenco, and scenes were started with a stomp of the foot, chairs were slammed on the ground, and the actors tried to conjure up a feeling of duende to heighten the tension of the piece. Unfortunately, it only worked half the time, and I felt that the first act, whose dialogue is less lyrical, was a little overdone. Actually, the first act reminded me of Charles Mee in a strange way — the lines were broken down and the interactions intense and choreographed — distilled, if you like. Lorca’s poetry came out more strongly in the second act, where I thought the evocation of a haunted and surreal nightscape struck the right balance. As usual, Shotgun’s stuff is worth seeing, and the play continues through this weekend. I’m glad I got a chance to see it, and maybe now I’ll go read Bernarda Alba or something.

Blue Door

(by Tanya Barfield, directed by Delroy Lindo, at The Berkeley Rep). The Berkeley Rep’s latest play investigates the notion of African-American identity and history through one night of memories in the life of Lewis, an African-American professor of the philosophy of mathematics. His white wife has just divorced him and his father has died the year before, and he is sort of falling apart. Lewis’s meditation is interrupted by his ancestors, from Simon, the slave who became free, through his own father, and has to come to grips with his own family’s history and how his own struggle to be an academic success has been shaped by his own upbringing.

This is a play worth seeing, and is definitely not the bildungsroman that Passing Strange was. The writing is at times too obvious, and the billing as a “play with music” feels inaccurate compared to other “plays with music” that I have seen. Lewis’s research is on questions of causality and how time is represented mathematically, which may or may not be something that real math philosophers deal with, and is of course a convenient metaphor on which to bounce the story of the play. What really shines out are the performances, which salvaged any unevenness in the writing for me. David Fonteno and Teagle F. Bougere are simply electric together.