Tuesday, June 28, 2011

theatre notes. Pinter Fortnightly.

I've been to a lot of these Pinter Fortnightly events, now. There have been one-acts and sketches and radio works and full-length plays, fitting themselves together into a Pinterian universe that can't be described, only experienced. It's shocking how prolific Harold Pinter was, with not a dull work amongst the dozens he created. The necessary ingredient, of course, is the passion and skill of the actors who gather together for these readings. They have an afternoon's rehearsal, that's all. What makes it work, every damn time, is the physical and emotional chemistry and sense of timing of a group of people who know each other, who have worked together, sometimes for decades, even if they've never done Pinter before. There is trust, between the actors and also between them and the audience. We're all excited to be here, and it shows.

Tonight's reading is of The Birthday Party, Pinter's first full-length play. Savaged by the critics upon opening, it was eventually considered a classic. The alternating humor and menace of this work is echoed in the later plays of this era, The Room, for example, and The Dumbwaiter. Apparently Pinter loved Abbott and Costello, and there is a lot of sharply funny verbal comedy. (Perhaps there is physical comedy, too, but that's hard to convey in a reading). The ambiguity and obfuscation of the language remains a hallmark of Pinter's work throughout his career. As so often happens, the play ends with me wondering what the fuck just happened, but I find it thrilling all the same.

Even more thrilling is seeing R. Hamilton Wright, whom I have loved since The Revenger's Comedies in 1992. Frequently seen playing someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown (or actually having one in The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue last month), it is a real charge to see him as one of Pinter's more suavely menacing characters, both in The Birthday Party and also in last year's The Dumbwaiter. Every one of the actors (and Frank Corrado, who directed and gives the stage directions) is familiar to me, Wright most of all. I have seen them in all kinds of plays, over and over, and when I leave the theatre I feel that fierce gladness which never goes away, that gratitude that they love what they do so much that they do this for the fun of it. To learn something. To steep themselves in Pinter's language, for just one afternoon, one night. At first they did this for free, but I think now they get paid a little something.

I'll miss the next two Pinter Fortnightly performances, unfortunately, but I hope to make it to the next round come fall.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

movie notes. the tree of life.

(contains spoilers).

I wasn't sure what to expect from Terrence Malick's latest film, The Tree of Life, but the trailer had been haunting me since I saw it, months ago. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, although generally this is not something that encourages me to see a film. It is even harder to describe the film, now that I've seen it. I don't quite know where to begin. There is that strange, flickering light that wavers onscreen; is it the origin of the universe? I have no idea.

Early in the film, a woman in a house filled with pristine mid-century modern furniture receives a telegram telling her that her son is dead. We watch her husband receive the news at an airfield, barely able to hear above the roar of the planes. We watch her grieve. We flash forward in time again to see another son, now a grown man, still with the weight of his brother's loss upon him. This man, played by Sean Penn, moves silently through his contemporary glass box of a house with its barely furnished rooms, his hair sleep-tousled into a bouffant crest like a startled cockatiel. He seems lost. What is he looking for? We see the earth form itself, waves breaking apart, land rising, dinosaurs in forests and along rivers. Wait. Dinosaurs?

But the heart of the movie, for me, is these three brothers in childhood. The time looks to be the early 1950's. There are two ways through life, says the mother, the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. You feel that the mother has chosen one path, and the father another, and that their boys are forever pulled between the two. There is something menacing in the way the father treats them, and yet there is a kind of deep love there, in the way he looks at his sons, in the way he is forever cupping one hand around the neck of one of the boys, pulling them into an embrace. I keep thinking of a line by Kim Stafford in the prologue of Early Morning, describing a bike ride with his brother before dawn. Their father, the poet William Stafford, puts a hand on each of their shoulders before they set off on their bikes, heading down to the Pacific ocean. How long can you feel a hand, steady on your shoulder, after that hand pulls away?

This heart of the film, the three boys, is what I loved most. Their family is not like my family and my childhood was not that childhood, but there were things I remembered. What it felt like to run through tall grass, flinging myself down into the green coolness and rolling down a gentle slope. Swimming in a river or a lake or an outdoor pool under a hot sun. Being with my two cousins, when I visited them in Taiwan or later, when they came to live with us in Seattle. They were like my brothers, and some nights we would all fall into one bed together, our arms and legs tangling in sleep so that one would wake with someone else's foot in their face. The stinging nostalgia almost made me weep.

Stafford, Kim. Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. Greywolf Press, 2002. p. ix.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

draft 3.

(for whit).

I dreamed of spring
and lilacs stolen from gardens
as the memory of their fragrance
slips me back in time
to that faraway summer
in St. Petersburg,
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 kerchiefs
sold bunches of lilacs
and lilies-of-the-valley
outside metro stations,
their scent trailing
down the escalators
into the subterranean palaces of the metro
guiding you back up to sunlight
like Persephone returning
to spring and earth.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

theatre notes. brownie points.

Have you ever had a fight with someone so big that it changes everything? The kind of fight where you say things you can't take back, the kind of fight that smashes the tenderness of years to bits, and you can't even understand how it began? Something very small just keeps building up to a moment, where every little resentment you've just shoved down deep rises up and boils over. You can feel that instant, just as you hear those angry, hurtful words leaving your mouth: it's like stepping over the edge of a cliff, and you don't know where that free fall is going to take you. You can see the words hit the other person, pow pow pow, and just as clearly they can see it in your eyes, that dawning awareness that shifts into horror as you realize: you can't erase the memory of what you've just said.

A. and I were at the Taproot Theatre last night to see Brownie Points, a modern play about what happens when five mothers are trapped together on a camping trip. This is based on a true story, about an incident at an Atlanta private school where the two African-American mothers in a group were assigned kitchen duty for a class camping trip. A big fight broke out; friendships were lost. The camping trip never happened, but the playwright, who had a child at that school and knew all the mothers involved, wondered, what if the camping trip had happened? What if they were all trapped out there and had to talk things out, had to work through the minefields of hurts?

It's a funny play. The language is clear and sharp and authentic. But it is heartbreaking, too, because it underscores an uncomfortable truth: we are not ready as a society to face the ghosts of our own past. It isn't only about race and prejudice, though. The other threads twisted through the central theme are those of motherhood and identity, for being a working mother, for being a stay-at-home mother, the guilts and doubts that weigh on us for the choices we make. And that shattering reminder, that we have all had that moment of giving into some deep-buried anger we didn't even know existed, and let loose words that can never be unsaid, never be forgotten. What matters most is the lessons we take away from these moments.

Brownie Points runs through June 18th at the Taproot Theatre.