Sunday, November 13, 2011

theatre notes. Pinter Fortnightly.

I've seen about sixteen or seventeen plays and sketches by Harold Pinter, now. Two of them I've seen twice - Betrayal (in 1995 and then last month) and Moonlight (in 2009 and then a few weeks ago), and I feel that I could see any of the plays again, each time discovering more. There are recurring motifs, clear from the beginning of Pinter's body of work - a distinct rhythm, a way of repeating words, the use of cricket terms I've never understood. Then there are those eloquent "pauses" that have probably driven many a director to madness. Pinter has his own language, a certain cadence, emphasized for me by seeing many of the same actors in the Fortnightly readings.

This reading of No Man's Land is a little different than all the others. It's more of a workshop, in preparation for the Pinter festival next summer. Theatre director Penny Cherns has come from London to put the actors through their paces, and they've had a week ("24 hours," they tell us) to rehearse instead of the usual single afternoon. There's an actual set, sort of. One of the four actors has come in from Denver to join the cast, and it brings a different energy to the stage. The other three are from Seattle, and I'm familiar with all of them, Frank Corrado most of all. As with many of Pinter's plays, No Man's Land starts out conventionally enough, then sharply veers into a game of wits that is more about language and power than it is about any clear plot. It is a tapestry, a crazy-quilt, patching together Noël-Coward-esque barbs and Laurel-and-Hardy verbal jousts with some deviations into Beckett, reflecting Pinter's own earlier plays and crystallizing into the work of someone at the height of his powers.

I was thinking about Betrayal, how it has been referred to as one of Pinter's most "accessible" plays. It's simpler, to be sure, at least on the surface, and though time is shattered and shifted out of sequence, it is one of his rare plays that has a clearly delineated story line. No Man's Land doesn't, even though time progresses in an orderly fashion. I think it was Penny Cherns who tells us in the post-play discussion that Pinter often started with an image, a memory, or a phrase, and wrote the play around it. There isn't so much a story as the emotions that run beneath the words, which stand out like trees emerging from fog. Here, in No Man's Land, there is the writer's fear of growing old, of being alone, of losing one's grip on fading powers (no chance of that with Pinter, who seemed to intensify with age). The struggle between the characters is almost like a raging against the inevitably fading light...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reading. Grossman.

David Grossman is a funny man. It takes me by surprise. (Insert joke about how being Jewish is inherently funny). Perhaps this is because the first words I read from him were about grief, in his PEN/Arthur Miller Freedom To Write speech given in the spring of 2007 and reprinted in the New York Times Magazine. Those words so moved me that they have, in the manner of all writers who I have loved, become a part of me, something I can refer to almost without thinking. Many times a day, as I sit at my writing desk, I touch on sorrow and loss like one touching electricity with bare hands, yet it does not kill me. I do not understand how this miracle has come to pass.* He said this the year after the death of his son, Uri, in the war between Israel and Lebanon, just before he was to have finished his army service. Now he is here in Seattle to talk about the novel he began as his second son was entering the army and finished after Uri's death, To the End of the Land.

In the novel, Ora's son Ofer, who is coming to the end of his army service, decides to return to service along with his fellow soldiers. Aghast, Ora fears Ofer's death in the upcoming battles, and decides that if she is not home to receive news of his death, he cannot die. That if she goes on this journey, 'to the end of the land,' this will keep him safe. She drags with her an old friend, Avram, who came back from his own battles years before, broken and scarred, to join her on this journey. Along the way, she begins telling the story of Ofer's life, as if by describing the details of all his years on earth she can make them real to her. It is impossible not to draw a parallel between this story and David Grossman's own life, impossible to think that by writing about Ofer he thought to keep Uri safe, and when he could not, to at least bring him back to life in words. But none of that is spoken of, now, as though by writing this novel Grossman at last pulled tight a veil over his own personal grief.

I can't help but think of Joan Didion's Blue Nights, although it is a memoir, and To the End of the Land is fiction. But both are about conjuring up a lost child, a grown daughter or son brought back to life through memories as fragile as the seafoam that washes up onto the beach and dries into white lace that can be blown away on the wind. Both are about memory and reality, although Didion's California and New York are a distant planet from Grossman's war-scarred Israel. What they share (leaving aside their sharply critical political writings that have no bearing here) is the grief of losing a child, and that understanding about writing as a way to, if not eradicate grief, then to fix it in some permanent place around which life continues to move. I write, and I feel how the correct and precise use of words acts like a medicine. It purifies the air I breathe...*

Grossman, David. Writing in the Dark. Picador, 2008. p67, p65.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

theatre notes. Double Indemnity.

I went to see Double Indemnity at ACT the other day, with a friend. I'd never seen the film, or read the book, but I knew what to expect: desire, murder, lies, deceit, double-crossing, set to the staccato snick-snick-snick of a cigarette lighter and the click-click-click of stiletto heels. It would take place in Southern California where the sun shines all day but somehow it always seems to be night. The men wear suits and trench coats and the woman always seems to be wearing a peignoir, even if she is wearing a blouse tucked neatly into a skirt. It must be something about the way she moves. We are in Southern California, in Los Angeles. All the noir stories take place in Southern California, it seems, that hotbed of greed and vice. What else could cast such dark, deep shadows as that brilliant, burning California sunlight? Where else would those doomed creatures, scheming women and greedy men, head except for the far west? Hollywood is a town of illusions, and its smoke and mirrors spreads through all that surrounds it...

It's been a good year at ACT. This is the last play of the mainstage season, with only the classic A Christmas Carol left for the upcoming holidays. It's been a year of gorgeous productions, from the time-shifting rooms of Vanities to the grand fin-de-siècle Upstate New York doctor's house of In the Next Room. The set for Double Indemnity is fascinating, a bare stage with sliding walls that form a V, like the prow of a ship, everything a murky, mottled blue-green that could be the unforgiving ocean waters or the polished granite of a bank vault. The walls slide apart to reveal different rooms - a living room, an office, a hospital room. A revolving stage within a revolving stage swivels back and forth, bringing in various people and furnishings, - beds and chairs and chaise lounges, even cars. The play is an extended flashback, the scenes swirling on and off-stage, the way memories form themselves in your mind and then slip away.

It is an intricate puzzle, both the set and the story, with two main actors and a supporting cast of three who fill the rest of the roles, which is how things are so often done these days. Kurt Beattie, who directed Double Indemnity and who also happens to be the Artistic Director of ACT explains during the post-play discussion that this is not solely for financial reasons, but I forget his other points. It's fun for the actors, they tell us, and fun for the audience as well, I think. Fun to see Jessica Martin switch from the frumpy secretary to the coltish stepdaughter, clumping along awkwardly in shoes that seem just a little too big or twirling in champagne-sparkled moonlight. At the talk-back she is both incredibly young and startlingly self-possessed, with a calm stillness that is in complete contrast to the energy she brings to the stage. Of the five actors in the play she is the one I've seen the most often - in Rock 'n' Roll some years ago, and in several Pinter Fortnightlys - and it always makes me happy to see a familiar face in my program. There have been a lot of plays this year, and a lot of familiar faces. I'm looking forward to next season, and more familiar faces.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

reading. Didion.

I read Blue Nights much as I had read The Year of Magical Thinking five years, or was it six years, earlier. Quickly, in one gulp, in one night, racing through the pages as if lingering over them too long would singe my fingers. As I was reading this latest book I remembered sitting cross-legged on the floor at the bottom of the Seattle Public Library auditorium, practically at Joan Didion's feet, as she read aloud and talked about The Year of Magical Thinking, five or six years ago. I can hear her voice, even now, dry and flat like the California desert, like a piercing, dusty wind. I thought about Didion's voice, and the words of her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. He had this to say about their daughter, in the novel that was not really a novel: My only child was adopted and there was no chance that anything produced by my genes could come close to equaling her.* I have occasionally wondered whether my parents ever thought the same about me.

I was born in China in July of 1980 and adopted when I was six months old, perhaps earlier. (I am a little unclear about all the details, which were imparted to me when I was too young to understand them). Then I was raised by my mother's grandmother (and assorted aunts and cousins) in Shanghai until all the immigration paperwork was completed and I could join my parents in the United States. This took another year or so. The first photographs of us as a family are of my parents holding me in the Forbidden City in Beijing when I am about a year and a half old. They must be about 32 or 33. They look startlingly young and a little bit nervous about what the future holds, but then all early photographs of parents with their children look like that, whether the child is one hour old or eighteen months. They are the only parents I have ever known, and the only ones I can remember, and that is all I have to say about that. I rarely think about those two years between my birth and my second birthday party at Clayton Child Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and I even more rarely talk about them. This is not so much out of shame or a life-long identity crisis, but more of a lack of interest. Or inertia.

Blue Nights is, in a way, harder for me to read than The Year of Magical Thinking. It hit too close to the bone, in some places. I did not know, when I read the first book, that Quintana Roo Dunne had been adopted. I did not know that Joan Didion was 31 the year she was born. So were my parents. My mother, like Didion, is a tiny woman, slender-boned and with a sort of careless yet impeccable style, and my parents worked together for nearly 25 of the 37 years they have been married (although they are scientists and not writers). They had - and still have - a relationship that was impenetrable to me; their marriage felt separate from our family. Perhaps this is how it should be, but as an only child the life is sometimes lonely. I am told by people with siblings that for them, it isn't necessarily different, or even less lonely; this is a reminder that you never really understand something unless you've lived it.

The hardest chapters of Blue Nights, for me, are 22 and 23. I never feared or believed that I would be abandoned by my parents the way my birth parents had abandoned me. I never feared or believed that my birth mother would find me; my adoption had been privately arranged - this was the early 1980's, before overseas adoptions were common - and an ocean and continent separated us. My name had been changed, which I didn't know until a few years ago, when I found the documents; the possibility that I had had another identity had never occurred to me. My birth certificate had been re-issued by the state of Missouri. I was not concerned about biological family histories for health reasons; I had some blithe confidence that medical science would be able to determine such things by the time I was old enough to need it. I had none of Quintana's fears or doubts or questions or dreams about The Broken Man, or if I did I have long forgotten them. They were lost to my childhood along with all the monsters that lurked under the bed. Didion reminds me that maybe, they are still there, waiting for me.

*Dunne, John Gregory. Vegas. Warner Paperback Library, 1975. p15.