Thursday, May 26, 2011

theater notes. mike daisey. (x2).

Last Friday I went to see Mike Daisey at the Seattle Rep for the second time in a week, after Wednesday's How Theater Failed America. I'd heard about The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs back when he was workshopping it at the Rep, maybe last year, and couldn't contain my excitement when I saw it in the line-up for this season. It had been a theater-packed month - Pinter Fortnightly at ACT, All I Ever Wanted at Theatre Puget Sound, O Lovely Glowworm by New Century Theater Company (at the Erickson Theatre), This and How Theater Failed America at Seattle Rep. I was exhausted; my mind was going in circles at a hundred miles per hour. But I had to see this.

I remember Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years, the monologue about his years at Amazon at the end of the millennium. I was in my early 20's when he performed it at Intiman Theatre, some eight years ago. I went with my father, and laughed hysterically but as silently as possible (otherwise it would have been awkward). Later in the car, my dad asked what I'd thought. "I loved it," I said. "I don't think your mother would have enjoyed it," he said. She wouldn't have - it was laced with obscenities and cheap laughs, as subtle as the dynamite used to implode the Kingdome (which Amazon executives watched from their offices, high up on Beacon Hill, a recurring theme in this work). The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a little different, although it is still brutally and unsubtly funny. It is a love story, the way How Theater Failed America is a love story.

This time I met up with my friend H. at the Rep. H. is an Apple fanboy. He and his wife have iPhones and MacBook Pros and iPads and no doubt a couple of iPods. He apologized for being so casually dressed but then this wasn't the usual theatre audience. It was packed with other Apple fanboys and computer geeks, all khakis and jeans and an ocean of fleece. I had not realized until that night that Mike Daisey himself is a computer geek, but we learned he is the kind of guy who takes apart his MacBook and cleans all the components and puts them back together. This is how he relaxes after a show. His family had one of the early Macintosh computers (a gift from a wealthy grandparent) and he'd stay up late into the night writing code (or whatever it is geeks did on computers back in the 80's. I got lost at this point in the narrative. I imagined it as something like the movie War Games).

Mike Daisey is a big guy, sitting like a bullfrog at a desk squarely in the middle of the stage. What I already know from experience is that he has an expressive face and graceful hands that flutter and swoop like birds to emphasize various points in his story. There is a stack of notes written on yellow-lined paper, and a glass of water. His voice fills the room. Daisey tells us about the early years of Macintosh computers, the evolution of Apple, and the megalomaniacal genius of Steve Jobs. His voice changes, though, when he dips into the reality of what it takes to produce a shiny new iPhone. As he sneaks his way into the Shenzhen factories that build Apple products the realization dawns that actual human beings are piecing these things together, bit by bit, by hand, moving in an assembly line as though they were machines and not people. They work for a pittance and live in cramped dorms and have no healthcare or union organization, the last of which is illegal. This is not news, though. This is what China is like. It could be any electronics-production factory, making products for any international brand.

It is not really so much The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, after all. It is the agony and the ecstasy of Mike Daisey, balancing a thirty-year love affair with Apple computers against the blood, as he puts it, of the Chinese people which he imagines welling up from the keyboard of a MacBook Pro. Against the tyranny of a company who says "here is this beautiful shiny new thing that you must have" with one hand and gives you a swift "FUCK YOU!" with the other. He gets this basic human emotion we all feel: our reckless need for things we know, deep down, that we don't actually need.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wednesday poem. W. S. Merwin.

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

'For the Anniversary of My Death.'
W.S. Merwin.

Ever since I learned that a friend I loved would be going into the darkness and not coming back, this poem has been running through my mind. I didn't know when the darkness would come, only that it was waiting for her. She died a month ago today.

Monday, May 23, 2011

for whit.

(draft 1).

I fell asleep dreaming of spring
and lilacs stolen from gardens
and the memory of their fragrance
and time slips backwards
to a faraway summer
in St. Petersburg,
that city of palaces strung along
necklaces of boulevards,
floating at the edge of the sea
so far north the horizon seems to stop, there;
you have come to the end of the world.
Old women in their kerchiefs
sold bunches of lilacs
and lilies-of-the-valley
outside metro stations,
their scent trailing
down the escalators,
like Persephone descending
to the underworld.
Or rather, the reverse:
the sweet fragrance leading you upwards
from the subterranean palaces of the metro
like Persephone returning back to spring and earth.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

theatre notes. mike daisey.

Intiman Theatre closed its doors for the rest of this year's season just after the first play ended its run. The staff were laid off and the actors who were either contracted or had hoped to perform this year were left without roles to fill. I felt guilty for not having supported them lately. I had not been pleased by the casting of actors from New York in some of their productions. Seattle is full of great actors who would have made fine Othellos and Desdemonas, and I really didn't give a shit that some "well-known New York actress" (as described by the woman who called to convince me to subscribe for that season) was coming to perform the one-woman play The Year of Magical Thinking. While I loved other recent performances, I did not like another play that was so new that it seemed unfinished. It was so much a work-in-progress that a character who was mentioned in the review and in the program did not actually appear onstage. I lost faith, and there were other theaters eager to fill the void.

Then I heard Mike Daisey was going to give a benefit performance of his monologue How Theater Failed America at the Seattle Rep. Proceeds would go to Artist Trust, which would administer grants to artists who had not received any kind of severance from the closure of Intiman. There would be a round-table discussion afterwards, with various theater actors, directors, administrators, and writers. I walked in not knowing what to expect. The theater was packed. I spotted Jerry Manning, the artistic director at Seattle Rep, and Michael Patten, most recently seen in O Lovely Glowworm. There were people of all ages, but mostly young, which is encouraging. And then Mike Daisey took the stage.

He was funny, as I expected. I laughed until I was wiping tears away. And then I cried, because it was heartbreaking to confront the reality that it is impossible to make theater and make money at the same time. You have to do it out of love, and that has to be enough. How Theatre Failed America is a story about how Mike Daisey fell in love with theater, and how it saved him when he was overcome with a dark, suicidal depression. At the same time it is a battle cry, or perhaps a wail of despair. "There's never been any money!" he says in the beginning. Not five years ago, not twenty. Theaters come and go all the time. But he is heartbroken, he tells us, that the theater next door (Intiman) is closed. Intiman is where I saw him in his career-making performance of 21 Dog Years, several years ago. This place is important to him. It was ruined, he says, by the Tony award for best regional theater which it was awarded five years ago. He called the award "The One Ring,"* which brought glory and then downfall on those who possessed it.

The round table, later, is angry. There is hope, too, but mostly there is anger. The actors and writers are angry that they can't make a living in the theater. Hans Altwies (who I loved in This last week and who is co-artistic-director of NCTC) tells us, furiously, that he makes a living as a cabinetmaker, and has to make enough so that he can "lose money" by acting. The younger audience is angry because they are not seeing themselves represented onstage. Allison Narver is angry because she is still reeling from the closure of the Empty Space Theater in 2006, a decision made too hastily by its board members after a huge fundraising effort to save it. It's still clearly a raw wound for her, one that may never go away. Later I am too shy to walk up and tell her that Three Tall Women, which she directed at Seattle Rep last fall, was one of the best productions I'd ever seen. I wish I had.

Ultimately, even with all the anger pulsing in the room, we have to remember why we are here: because we love the theater, and as long as we love it, it will go on. It will. It must.

A quote by Tom Stoppard comes to mind: "I shall have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love, love, love, above all. Love as there has never been in a play. Unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture."

*obviously a reference to J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

theatre notes. o lovely glowworm. (coda).

This was the second time I went to see O Lovely Glowworm; I've already written about the first experience.

I generally don't go see a play twice in one run, but I was so enchanted and confused by O Lovely Glowworm that I had to see it a second time. I also have to admit that the theater is four blocks away from my home, which made it an easy decision. This time, on the last night, the theater was completely packed. There were familiar faces in the audience - Hana Lass a few rows behind me, and I thought I saw Suzanne Bouchard farther back. (I clutched my friend J. and hissed "IT'S SUZANNE BOUCHARD! I'VE LOVED HER SINCE I WAS 12!" but fortunately no one else seemed to have noticed).

The late Mark Chamberlin was the one who persuaded the members of New Century Theatre Company to produce this play; it was his love for O Lovely Glowworm that started it all. It is clear that the act of rehearsing and performing, night after night, was a way of grieving for this much-loved lost friend. But the play has to stand on its own, without this hovering spirit, and so it does. At first it is all a little confusing in some places (the first time I saw it, I was still thinking, WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON at the intermission), bogging down in others. But this time the varying story arcs begin to connect more clearly, and the puzzle pieces of the 'scenes of great beauty' start to fit into place.

At the heart of the story is a maggot-ridden stuffed goat lying on a rubbish-heap. To distract himself from the agony of living, he invents these 'scenes of great beauty,' weaving together the lives of a miserable boy convinced that his great invention is just around the corner, two soldiers on the run from the Great War who fall in love with a mermaid, and the goat itself, who is trying to figure out his own identity. Is he a tram-conductor, a racehorse, a unicorn, a dog? As tangled as the stories are they bring us back to some very simple things: the pain of existence which does not stamp out our search for identity and for a purpose in life, the possibility of hope when all seems lost, and most of all, our never-ending longing for love.

What keeps me coming back to plays like O Lovely Glowworm and theater companies like the New Century Theatre Company is the sense that it is a labor of love. That there is a tremendous amount of trust and friendship between the actors, who have all known each other and worked together, in some cases for years. They do play readings on their nights off and gather for drinks after a show. They come to each others performances. Seattle is a theater town. I'm lucky to be here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

certified copy. (movie notes).

*contains spoilers.*

I had heard of the director Abbas Kiarostami, but had never seen his films before. Certified Copy promised Juliette Binoche and the golden sunlit landscape of Tuscany, and since I love both of the above I knew I would see this one.

A man is giving a presentation of his new book. A woman arrives, late, with a preteen son in tow. The son is restless, bored, hungry, that dangerous combination every parent is familiar with, and they leave, after the woman hands a note to the man sitting next to her. Later, the man (the writer) finds her in a shop, and their story begins. They are strangers, or so it seems. They converse in English, with the polite words of people who are getting to know each other, as she drives through the countryside. They walk through the cobbled streets of an old town, look at art, drink coffee. Are they flirting with one another? Perhaps. And then the story takes a turn: they are not strangers at all. They are husband and wife.

Suddenly, the dialogue (now mostly in French) is not that of strangers, but of a couple who has been married for a while - fifteen years - and who are not together most of the time. It's never quite clear why they don't live together - part of their argument touches on an earlier car accident, which happened while she was driving home from one city to another, with their son in the car - but then it's not quite clear if this story is a continuation of the first one, or a new story. It's a little like being in a Calvino novel. I'm reminded of that Kieslowski film, The Double Life of Veronique, which splits into two halves as it traces the lives of the two Veroniques, only here you are even less sure of what's happening before you.

The woman, played by Juliette Binoche, isn't necessarily an admirable character. She is capricious, flirty, coy, then needy and almost desperate. But later there's a scene where she and her husband (played by the opera baritone William Shimell, who by the way is incredibly handsome) are arguing over dinner, and you see in her face this remarkable openness. There is something childlike about the way that Juliette Binoche looks into the camera, which has stayed with her throughout her entire career. Childlike is the wrong word, and so is innocent. Defenseless, perhaps. Yes, that's it - she has a way of putting down all her defenses, even when or especially when asking for something she cannot have. Her husband. His arms around her. Him walking beside her, always.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

handing down the names.*

Wednesday was the memorial for a friend who died last week. It was held at St. Mark's Cathedral, up at the north end of Capitol Hill, a giant barn of an Episcopal church. The sun was out and the cathedral was full of light; the ceilings are high and the walls are set with many-paned windows. Even on a cloudy day it must be a bright space. J. and I sat near the back, and watched as people streamed in through the doors. I wondered what stories people would tell us when they got up to speak. I wondered what her children would say about their mother. I thought about my friends who knew her better than I did, what they would tell their children about this woman who blazed across our lives like a meteor shower, bright and all too brief.

What will my friend's children tell their children about the grandmother they will never know? I think about my father's parents, who died long before I was born. I know so little about them and yet they must have shaped my father somehow, even if his mother had died when he was six years old and his father when he was eighteen. My mother's mother died when I was eight, and I barely knew her. Will I tell my own children about her legendary temper, about the time she supposedly threw a television down a flight of stairs? How many generations pass one story to the next before it fades away and is forgotten? How long does this handing down of the names go on?

I hope we will keep telling our children about our friend, the friend who loved books more than anything except people. Who had no patience for bullshit or paper napkins. Who said that life was short; drink the good wine. I listened to these stories told by her friends and her family and tried to remember every one. I wish every day that I had gotten to know her better, but I will remember that raspy laugh and those fierce hugs for the rest of my life.

Her frequent collaborator W. got up to speak early in the service, and he was funny and irreverent, bringing out a flask which he couldn't open. He was followed by a famous local restaurateur, who got the flask open and took a couple of swigs. But it was the clergywoman leading the service who brought down the house, at the end, when she had W. bring his flask up to the lectern. She calmly drank from it, and we all exploded into cheers. It was that kind of memorial service. It was awesome. I can't think of a better way to celebrate a life.

*"handing down the names" comes from the title of a play by Steven Dietz which I saw at ACT in the mid-90's and which has stayed with me every since. It follows the story of an immigrant family across continents and through generations.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

theatre notes. Pinter Fortnightly.

I may have squealed aloud when I saw Liz McCarthy on the cast list for last night's Pinter Fortnightly reading. Unlike many of the other actors I remember so clearly from the early-to-late-90's, I haven't seen her since my teenage years. She was the young ingenue in those days, not long out of drama school, blonde and fresh-faced. I loved her and missed her and was thrilled to see her again. She's older now, of course, but then so am I. More self-assured, more poised. (Her, not me).

This week's Pinter Fortnightly showcases two short sketches flanking a longer one-act work. They date from Pinter's "political" period, the first sketch ("New World Order") and one-act ("Party Time") from 1991 and the last sketch ("Press Conference") from 2001. A few more pieces of the breadth of this body of work fall into place; immediately apparent, as always, is Pinter's mastery of language. This time there is no tenderness, only words swiftly dealt like cards at a casino table or hurled like ninja throwing stars. Only a fierce awareness of how power can be wielded unjustly and how silence is tantamount to participation in any violation against another human being.

Later, we watch a BBC television interview with Harold Pinter from 2006 or thereabouts. He'd already had a couple of battles with the cancer which would kill him at the end of 2008, but while his throat was a bit scratchy he was wonderfully at the top of his game. "Life is beautiful," he says, "but the world is hell!" In such a way the extraordinary happiness of his personal life - as documented by his wife Antonia Fraser in Must You Go? - is balanced by the frequent bleakness of his plays. It is a sort of inversion of that adage of the clown being the saddest person of all, that this tremendously happy person is the one best suited to throw open the windows onto the darkness of humanity.

In his interview, Pinter struggles with trying to explain what makes something "Pinterian." I can't describe it, either, but there is something about the way that he uses language or the kinds of characters he creates. The way painters can be recognized by their brushstrokes and colors, or the view of a particular bridge. There is a kind of assurance that is clear from almost the beginning, echoing from the earliest plays all the way to the end. This is what marks Pinter as a great playwright, this ability to grow and develop new ideas along changing times and politics and yet retain a singular voice and identity. It's really something. And there's still more yet to be explored.