Saturday, November 27, 2010

Theater notes. Albee.

I'd seen Three Tall Women before, at Intiman, fifteen years ago. The same year as Pinter's Betrayal, in fact. I was fifteen. What did I know about being 26, or 52, or 91? Of falling in love, being married, coping with an unfaithful husband and a son I couldn't understand? Of growing old and dying? Nothing. And now I'm 30 years old, past 26, only a little closer to all of these things. I heard Seattle Repertory Theatre was performing Three Tall Women. I saw the women would be played by Megan Cole, Suzanne Bouchard, and Alexandra Tavares, all of whom I am familiar with, especially Suzanne Bouchard, whom I have loved for nearly twenty years. I had to be there.

It is everything I remember - much of the dialogue has stayed with me for fifteen years, which is a testament to Albee's brilliant writing - and yet more. More gentleness, more anger, more humor. This theatre is smaller, more intimate; sitting in the fourth row I can see the actors' faces clearly. I know them so well, Megan Cole after her recent part in one of the Pinter Fortnightly readings, Madagascar. Suzanne Bouchard, from dozens of performances in the 18 years I have been experiencing theater in Seattle, Alexandra Tavares from several plays over the past four years. I know their voices, the way they hold their heads up high, the way they move across a stage. This is what keeps me coming back, again and again, beyond the playwrights and their works. The actors are a part of what I love most about theater, the familiar faces shifting and changing from character to character.

In one of the first plays I remember seeing at ACT in 1992, Suzanne Bouchard exploded onstage in The Revenger's Comedies, as the unstable, seductive Karen Knightly. She continued to slink through a variety of femme fatale roles (often leaving a befuddled and slightly terrified R. Hamilton Wright in her wake), but now, more than ever, she is at the top of her game. There is tenderness, and a quietly intense fury, seen in the Pinter readings and performances last year and earlier this year, and as 'B' in Three Tall Women. The mark of a great artist is when they never stop evolving, never stop surprising you. We have a lot of these artists here in Seattle. We are lucky to have them.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The radio play. Emanuel.

I heard The Vanishing, a radio play by Oliver Emanuel, on BBC Radio 4 a few weeks ago, and found it hauntingly beautiful and absolutely terrifying. A man, (played by the velvet-voiced Samuel West), searches frantically to find out what happened to his former girlfriend, who disappeared from a petrol station while they were on holiday, eight years before. Now I finally understand: what makes the radio play so much more suspenseful than any other medium is that it takes place entirely inside your head. On stage, on film, or on television, you depend on visual cues, facial expressions, occurrences happening stage left or in the background; they tell you more than what even the characters might know. The radio play is different: you only know what you are told, and you can't see what is coming. A bit like reading a novel, where you can only see the page you are on.

The Vanishing is adapted from a Dutch novel published in 1984 (there have been two films, one a disastrous American movie with a trumped-up happy ending). This version doesn't end happily. The next morning I woke up in the dark (the main character gets buried alive) and freaked out until I realized I was still wearing my sleep mask. But it left me eager to hear more from this young playwright, and a few more weeks went by before another radio play came along on Radio 4's Afternoon Play program.

Everything is still available for listening, at least for another two days. Commissioned by the BBC / Children In Need, the play comes from the time Emanuel spent as a writer-in-residence at Running: Other Choices (ROC), which provides a refuge and other support services to children under 16, in Glasgow. As a desperately wanted only child I have felt loved by my parents my entire life. Even in the darkest of times - and we have all have those moments of doubt and despair - I have always known this. It made it especially heart-wrenching to listen to this story of a girl who has run away from home, away from a stepmother who didn't want her and a father who didn't give a damn, and no one else to turn to. Sam, the counselor at the youth refuge, struggles with maintaining a connection with this girl, who at first responds only with growls and silence.

With every progress made, the fragile peace is quickly shattered, over the course of seven days, the maximum amount of time a child can seek refuge at the center. The girl is too wary, too hurt, too certain that any trust she places will be broken. She is not wanted, anywhere. "What will happen to your child if you die?" she asks Sam's wife, who is pregnant with their first child. Beth has no answer, only a kind of faith in the unknown and the hope that the unthinkable will never happen. "What do I have to live for," the girl later asks Sam. "Why shouldn't I kill myself?" Questions no 14-year-old should ever ask. "What do you want, then?" he asks her in return. "Everything."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Blood & guts. McDonagh.

Saturday afternoon I headed down to ACT Theatre to catch one of the last showings of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I'd been putting it off, unnerved by the violence. The words "black comedy" have always made me a little nervous. There's nothing funny about blood. Or is there? At what point does violence become comedy? When does Macbeth become Fargo? I thought about Kurosawa's Yojimbo, where a swashbuckling Toshiro Mifune makes treachery and torture somehow entertaining.

The play is straightforward, one single act - a murdered cat - setting off a chain of events that leaves blood splashed all over from one end of the set to the other. Just as you think it is ending, the story takes another, even more violent turn, bodies piling up onstage. The actors take their bows at the end, sweating and grimy and mostly crimson. I close my eyes and wince with each pop of the gun. There are a lot. I also closed my eyes during the scene where the psychotic Padraig is torturing a hapless drug-dealer hanging from the ceiling, having already sliced off a couple of toenails and threatening to take off a nipple while he's at it.

In Inishmore, the violence is played for laughs, each gunshot a wink at the audience. The dripping, spurting blood is almost like something out of a Coen Brothers film, or even Monty Python. The brutality is exaggerated. And the comedy masks a deeper truth - it is a commentary on how people will fight for causes that they don't even begin to understand, and how violence spirals very quickly out of control, begetting more violence, death upon death, until almost no one is left standing.

What anchors the story is the deep attachment that Padraig has for his cat, Wee Thomas, the only friend he has in the world. The only thing that means anything to him, more than torturing drug dealers, more than blowing up chip shops. Even the most murderous of men, with no humanity or sympathy for any other person in the world, not even their own father, can love their cat.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reading. Glück.

You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.

A friend posted a fragment of this poem by Louise Glück last week. I keep coming back to it again and again. It has been a sad autumn. A family friend died after an eighteen-month struggle with cancer. Another has relapsed after being treated last year for lung cancer. One friend has just been diagnosed with a rare and severe blood disorder; her youngest child has been living with leukemia since last winter. Another friend emailed to say that her father's lymphoma has returned. I came of age with AIDS awareness, in the 1990's, but cancer is the dark shadow that has touched everyone I know. No one I love has been spared.

A wind has come and gone, taking apart the mind;
it has left in its wake a strange lucidity.

You would think that cancer would have been conquered by the beginning of this century, the way tuberculosis had been the century before, as Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor. Not so. AIDS came closer to a cure, or rather a kind of temporary sanctuary, with expensive drugs that delayed disease progression and managed symptoms. Which for now is as good as it gets. That is not enough for us, for those friends and family who are now only memories I hold close to me. Their shades walk through my dreams and disappear when I wake.

How privileged you are, to be passionately
clinging to what you love;
the forfeit of hope has not destroyed you.

Cancer entered my life for the first time with the death of my grandmother in the late 80's. I did not know her well. Family stories tell me that she was not easy to know, but I regret that I do not remember her. Then, when I was in high school, my father returned from a meeting in Washington, D.C., having gone to the hospital with pains and discovered, via x-rays, that there was a mass in his chest. Further tests revealed a tumor, so rare that one of the pathologists who diagnosed him still remembers the case, fourteen years later. He had lost one brother to a heart attack and was watching the other fight the liver cancer which would kill him seven or eight years later. Lately I have been returning in my mind to that year. Last Friday was the fourteenth anniversary of my father's surgery.

This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.
Surely it is a privilege to approach the end
still believing in something.

I came to poetry late. I was 25. I have told this story too many times; surely I do not need to say again that I was going blindly into the dark and Bukowski pulled me back from it the way a fireman pulls a child from a burning building. Now I understand what poetry is for, to find in someone else's words a kind of map of my own innermost emotions, dark fears and sweet elations, to lay them bare before my eyes. Now I see in Glück's words that weight of despair, and yet the will to keep going, as I have seen in those who clawed their way back towards another Spring against the bleakest of odds.

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

Louise Glück, October. Averno. 2006.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Reading: Pinter/Fraser.

I remember seeing Betrayal at Intiman Theatre when I was fifteen. Fifteen is young, young enough to think that love and sex is for young people. Young enough to not want to examine the lives of middle-aged people falling in love, or in lust, despite husbands and wives and children. They were parents, and parents didn't have s-e-x or go away for holidays in Venice. Still, it was painfully funny and sharply written, an intricate puzzle about three friends and their shared histories and betrayals, unwinding backwards in time. It has stayed with me for all the years since.

Much later, I learned more about Harold Pinter, that he was married to the writer/historian Lady Antonia Fraser, that their relationship had begun while each was married to someone else. They made headlines in the gossip papers, despite being middle-aged writers rather than hot young actors or pop stars (although Antonia was and is gorgeously, glamorously blonde). Time softens harsh facts, as tabloid news becomes a part of history. Respectability grows over scandal like ivy creeping across the rawness of newly laid brick. Meanwhile, the Pinter Fortnightly readings at ACT Theatre opened the vast expanse of Harold Pinter's oeuvre before me, and even now I am impatient for more.

A memoir of their life together was recently published by Lady Antonia Fraser. The title, Must You Go?, refers to a question asked by Harold Pinter the first night they were introduced at a party; she was leaving, and he didn't want her to go. That is the beginning of their story, the beginning of a relationship which ended their respective marriages and ultimately lasted for more than three decades, until Pinter died in 2008, on Christmas Eve. She weaves together journal entries and memories and poems written by Pinter, tracing their lives together from that first "must you go?" to his last breaths.

Through it all - between the agonized wondering about whether they were ever really going to be together - are bits and pieces referencing the plays Pinter wrote as the years went by, with insights that throw into sharp relief his political beliefs that drove much of his work throughout the 1980's and 1990's. Fraser's journals and comments illuminate some of the plays I've seen in the past year - Ashes to Ashes, A Kind of Alaska, The Hothouse, fleshing out a background that was merely glimpsed before. It shifts my understanding of Pinter ever-so-slightly to a firmer ground, and at the same time it confirms what I've felt all along - his words are really all you need to know him.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Weekend thoughts.

I went down to Marigold & Mint this morning to buy vegetables. I was early and the woman who works there was still setting up for the day, so I prowled around, looking at the spools of pretty ribbons and letterpress cards and sweet-smelling soaps. There were vintage gardening books and handmade ceramics and old glass bottles, and I thought again of the lovely writer Elspeth Thompson, who I wrote about last spring, just after her death. I had discovered her after she left a comment on Justine Picardie's blog. Drawn to Elspeth's warmth, I loved her writing, her photographs of the home she was restoring and of that glorious Sussex coast just beyond her garden. She had an insouciant, elegant beauty that recalled the slender grace of her beloved lurcher dogs. And then she was gone.

Bits and pieces of the story trickled along in the following months. The sadness now is understanding that someone so stunningly gifted lived in pain, with demons no one else could see. At least no one who knew her only through her words and photographs, what she showed to the rest of the world. Her husband, months later, spoke of a crushing insecurity beneath the soft polish. However beautiful and talented Elspeth was, she didn't see it. A black depression descended, one that antidepressants ultimately worsened, leaving her sleepless and raw. Then, one day, she slipped heavy stones into her pockets and walked into the lake near her home. The cold waters closed over her head, the way night throws a black curtain across the last glow of sunset. I wonder if she thought of Virginia Woolf, who did the same thing 69 years before, almost to the day. Elspeth left behind letters for her family and friends, her husband, her young daughter. She left behind questions that will forever remain unanswered. Why. How could anyone have stopped her, lifted that weight of despair, quieted her fears.

I bought two roses this morning, one pink, one red. In Russian class we were taught that flowers in even numbers are for the dead, and odd numbers for the living, and since I am not dead yet I put one in the living room and one on the table next to my bed. I thought of the flowers that Elspeth scattered around her home, how she loved white flowers, how I'll plant paperwhite bulbs this winter, the way she did. I thought of this little poem, by Georgia O'Keefe, which she posted on her blog:

"Still, in a way
nobody sees a flower
it is so small
and to see takes time
like to have a friend
takes time."

I'll make the time.