Monday, September 20, 2010

Pinter Fortnightly.

In an interview from 1964*, Louis Malle spoke about being a part of the French New Wave, saying that "The good fortune that the directors of the new wave had is this: they made their first films the way others write their first novels, injecting into it the sincerity and emotional power of youth...the problem is to create the second or third films, and then a body of work." Malle himself did create a beautiful body of work, shifting and evolving from film to film, some of the later ones building on an idea first touched on in an earlier work.

The idea of developing a body of work after an explosive starting point of the first work has stayed with me since I first watched this interview, and echoes in my mind with each Harold Pinter reading I attend. This is what I am most grateful to Frank Corrado and the Central Heating Lab at ACT Theatre for providing: the opportunity to see a body of work unfold before me, making connections in my mind even as I enjoy them as individual plays.

First we see John Aylward and R. Hamilton Wright in The Dumbwaiter, which is alternately hilarious and menacing as two assassins await their assignment in a basement room. It owes much to Waiting for Godot, and Laurel and Hardy, the comedic pull between two men, and in this case the chemistry between Aylward and Wright, conveyed by a mere sideways glance or fierce glare. Unlike the Pinter plays that twist and invert our sense of time, it moves in a logical progression: prologue, dialogue, anticipation, suspense, climax, ending. Wright loses his shit, as he always does (I can't put it any other way, and nobody does it better). It is a little like The Room, Pinter's first play, with the same shifting sense of laughter and fear.

The second play is actually a radio play from the early 1980's, Family Voices, and while equally hilarious, it is actually more emotionally devastating, when you consider that it was written at the end of a personally turbulent time in Pinter's life; he had divorced his first wife, who was falling apart (not long afterward, she died of alcoholism), and married his second wife. In the process he became estranged from his only child, a son, which was echoed in Moonlight, a decade later. A mother, a father, and a son read their letters to each other aloud. But are the letters real or imaginary? It is funny, as only Pinter can be funny, but beneath the humor is a bleak expanse of emptiness, of distance, the kind of distance that you only see between a parent and child, and it is heartbreaking.

I thought again, looking at the faces of these actors I have loved and admired for nearly twenty years, R. Hamilton Wright and John Aylward and Clayton Corzatte and, of course, Frank Corrado, how lucky Seattle is to have this kind of theater community. How lucky I was to grow up with it. How glad I am that it is still going. A new generation of actors is continuously emerging, but the previous one more than matches them, their polished experience standing ground against this new wave. This year I chose to support two theaters: ACT, with a monthly membership that allows me to watch pretty much everything, and Strawberry Workshop, whose next works I look forward to even before the lights fall at the end of the play. I hope to do more, in the future.

*This interview with Louis Malle is included on the Criterion Collection edition of Les Amants.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Strawberry Workshop. Breaking the Code.

I always walk into the Strawberry Workshop theater knowing that my heart is about to be broken. The plays I have seen so far are full of unbearable things, either brutal acts we humans inflict on each other, or choices we have to make. (The exception is Gutenberg! The Musical during which I laughed so hard tears poured down my face and snot ran from my nose as though from a faucet). I look at my program, recognize the actors, feel a thrill at the thought of seeing them again. When the stage lights illuminate their faces I see the ghosts of previous characters, for a moment, and then the present story takes over and the memories fade away.

Breaking the Code is about the mathematician Alan Turing, whose efforts in code-breaking during World War II helped defend Great Britain from the German forces. He was rewarded with an OBE for his wartime work. Then he was charged with homosexuality, illegal at the time, in the early 1950's, and treated with female hormones to reduce his sex drive as part of his parole. A few years later, he committed suicide. That someone could be treated as a criminal for his sexuality only sixty years ago is mind-boggling. Heart-breaking. That many preferred to live a lie is equally so. And sixty years on, the world is only a little better. Matthew Shepard died twelve years ago next month. He would have been 34 years old this December.

The play shifts back and forth in time, between schoolboy days and wartime interludes and the events leading up to and after his arrest for "gross indecency." I still don't understand how something you do in the privacy of your own home, not even out on the front lawn in view of the neighbors, can be considered "gross indecency." I probably never will. The law itself is grossly indecent, because it presumes that a higher authority - the law - can pass judgment on the most intimate of acts that should remain unwitnessed by others. If Turing had remained silent, if he had not called the police about an unimportant burglary that took place because his lover had told an untrustworthy acquaintance his address, then perhaps his life would have continued on with his research, with his computers, with his mathematical theorems.

But he didn't keep silent, any more than he could marry a woman and pretend not to be a homosexual. He makes the ultimately devastating choice to not ignore the petty thefts of a few pairs of shoes and trousers. It would be tantamount to paying blackmail, he tells the inspector, who is forced to turn him in. Why can't you just let it go, he cries. The inspector gives him a long look, which I can see clearly from the second row. There is something like pity in that look. The inspector cannot turn away, and let him go, any more than Turing could remain silent, and live a lie.

The set is a spare black space, with a carpet incised with a diagram of the Golden Mean, motherboards dangling from the ceiling, a nod to the early computers that Turing developed. Between scenes the actors carried furniture in and out to delineate different times and places. You are so close you can see the actors' faces clearly, watch the play of emotions across their faces. Inspiration. Love. Guilt. Heartbreak. Anger. Shame. It is not an ensemble piece, for the whole of the story rests on Alan Turing (and the actor who plays him, Bradford Farwell), but the emotional weight of the story comes from his interactions with the people in his life - his boyhood love, his mother, his superior at Bletchley Park, a co-worker who loved him and whom he might have married, his lovers, the inspector who eventually arrests him.

The heartbreak comes from watching the intellectual brilliance of a man become eclipsed by his inability to control his emotions. Inability is the wrong word. It is more like a defiance, arrogance. His world is centered around himself, his work, his desires. He cannot be bothered to lie to save anyone's feelings, nor, in the end, to save himself.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Let me tell you a story about love. a wedding.

B. and A. got married on Vashon Island last weekend. When I say "got married" I mean they stood up in front of a crowd of family and friends and spoke vows that were written from the heart and exchanged rings that had been tied around the necks of their two dogs. B. fed A. a piece of chocolate on a wooden spoon, and A. poured B. a sip of her favorite wine, traditions whose origins I forget. In the fine Jewish fashion, they threw a glass on the ground and stomped it to smithereens. That their marriage is not recognized by the state of Washington or indeed forty-four other states in the United States of America is deeply and profoundly unfair. What difference does it make if it is two women or two men instead of a man and a woman, promising each other their enduring love?

I have been to many weddings in my life, especially in recent years as friends and colleagues and the children of my parents' friends are getting married, in waves, it seems. They are always fun. You get dressed up, and there is cake. There are speeches, some awkward, some funny. Often there is dancing. Sometimes there is more tequila than you have drunk in your entire life up to that point (or so it seems), but that is another story. This was something special. Everyone who was there - most of the guests in 1920's garb, the theme of the wedding, and lots of women, including the brides, were in beaded flapper dresses - was there out of love. Not out of obligation. Only love. Only because they wanted to be there, to see two beautiful, loving women pledge to a life together.

It was a beautiful day, a beautiful wedding, perhaps the most beautiful one I've ever attended. There were wildflowers in vintage tins and a vast buffet of potluck offerings. The glamorous guests floated around a meadow fringed with blackberry brambles and Madrona trees, like glittering butterflies. There were women dressed as flappers and women dressed as men and men dressed as gangsters, and Amelia Earhart. I felt lucky to be a part of it, lucky to be with my friends, lucky that they have come into my life and become a part of it, over the past year. What a thrilling, wonderful year it's been.