Monday, February 16, 2015

Play: Love among the MFAs

Dear Elizabeth, but Sarah Ruhl, Directed by Allison Narver. Seattle Rep through 8 March.

I will get to the play in a moment, but let me whine (and whine way too much) about Seattle traffic. This is the first time I have ever been late for the theater, despite living some 20 miles south of the Seattle Center, where the Rep is based. Yet that particular day, I failed to make it before the door shut. I had to see the first act after the play had begun, in (duh-duh-DUM) late seating.

Here's the story: The Lovely Bride was busy in the city in the morning, practicing for a Tai Chi demo, and I told her I would meet her at the theater and bring the LB's mom up (who, I may have mentioned, is an actress). Given the fact that the LB's mom has just celebrated her 80th birthday, we left early to get there with plenty of time, and made it down off Panther Lake to the major highways by 1 PM for a 2 PM show.

So, 20 miles, an hour to do so, should be OK. What I did not know about was road work in the proverbial Mercer Mess, which is the exit that leads from the highway to the Seattle Center (a couple miles). The first warning was when there was a dead-stop backup a mile from the exit itself, at which point it was too late to change plans. Finally making the exit, one could only see a packed road leading ahead off to the horizon. It was that sort of treacherous mess where the lights turn green but no one moves because there is no place to move. A motor vehicle mosh pit.

I mention to the LB's mom that with a mess this bad, there HAS to be a police officer directed traffic at the other end. And indeed, after taking an alternate route that sent us back into the town, rejoining the backup at the very end, there were not one but THREE police officers directing traffic on Denny and doing their part to contribute to a forty-minute snarl between I-5 and the Space Needle.

We worked though the worst of it with (relative) patience and grace, and I manage to deliver the LB's mom at the theater with five full minutes to spare (huzzah). Then I find out that my usual parking lot, which normally is cheap and pretty darn empty, is today full, including a mobile crane. And that all parking was twenty bucks for some event of which I had no idea. AND the parking spot I eventually found was presided over by a machine that obvious served a very long and very hard life, and was bitter about it and moving with the speed similar to that of the Mercer Mess.

And then in the middle of it all, a Seattle moment. Which I was standing there waiting with several other would-be parons for the parking machine to decide if its electronic life was worth continuing, a Dixieland band came down the street. No, I'm not kidding. Bass drum mounted on the chest, some horns, a trombone, a clarinet or two, and a sousaphone (or maybe a fluegelhorn). They bounced there way down Mercer, hooked a right in front of the theater, and were gone. It was just something I never thought I would see in Seattle, and there it was. And it really took the edge off all the rush.

In any event, while I got the Lovely Bride's Mom to the theater in time, the doors were closed before I got there. I was given (duh-duh-DUM) late seating, which meant that I and a few others who had been caught in the Mess had to wait, hearing the play in low tones but like Tantalus, barred from actually witnessing it. Then we were parked in the balcony boxes for the first act, which in the Leo K theater were actually not that bad, though I lost a chunk of the stage that was stage right/house left. It is not a play that moved around a lot, so that worked out.

And while I cannot blame the theater for the traffic, I will note that there is a concierge function in their promotions, which has in the past reminded us that a play starts an hour early or some big event was happening. This time, not so much. So yeah, an email saying "MY GOD, it will be quicker for you to drive around the Sound and take the ferry in from Bainbridge!" would have been appreciated.

Anyway, what all this means is that I didn't get the opening of the play, and was forced to cross-examine the Lovely Bride at intermission about what I had missed. "I got there by the time he came up to Maine to see her." "OK, so when they were exchanging poems?" "I caught the reference to Celluloid Bird." "No, there was stuff before that." So I don't know how the two main characters met, which I feel is a wee bit of a problem when you want to evaluate their relationship.

More than enough whining. Dear Elizabeth is a presentation of the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop (played by Suzanne Bouchard, and it is nice to actually see actors onstage at the Rep who have been there before), and Robert Lowell (Stephen Barker Turner, his hair in the continual upsweep of a man who often combs it with his hand in moments of frustration). Now, about 85% of the readers here will say WHO?. And that's part of the prob. These two are noted postwar poets, and the story talks about their long distance, mostly platonic relationship between 1947 and 1977.

And in many ways it is like attending someone else's high school reunion. I am not a poet and find poetry one of the harder things to get through - I find myself lulled by cadence and stop I paying attention to the words.. [Important digression however - one poet I particular like is Lester Smith, who has the benefit of being both very good and still alive. Lester's stuff I can read all day, though I would be hard-pressed to categorize him as either "raw" or "cooked" (which is a Lowell quote). But back to the play.] I don't know either of Bishop or Lowell or their work, and instead of the play opening new doors for me I found myself at the wrong booth in the cafe, overhearing things I know about only tangentially at best.

So, Ruhl has compressed the written correspondence into a dialog, filled with starts and stops and parts of life - marriage and lovers and suicides both potential and realized and stays in the mental hospital. And mixed with it are bits they are working on, ranging from getting published to reviewing other works. And as a word-cruncher by trade, the concept of fretting about the perfect choice of a phrase for weeks at a time seems like an alien concept. I fret about the right words,but I live in a world where deadlines loom like ogres with clubs, just waiting to pick off the slow ones.

And through it all, I was stunned by the idea that these folk are poets, yet get to go to Europe and Brazil. How the heck does that work, financially? Checking the wiki (the play gives us little clue) part of it is through teaching and grants, but also Lowell is listed in the wikipedia as being a Boston Brahmin (which means money in the family) while Bishop is mentioned as having an inheritance. Still, their presence in the greater world seems to not matter as they fight with their own creations, which in turn are mentioned only in passing.

That may be the biggest problem with this play - I'm not sure if it about the authors' work or their struggle or just a very polite relationship. It shows an affection between the two but doesn't really engage. Passions reserved for the work, which, like polite children, remain offstage. The closest thing to a conflict is case where Lowell converts his second wife's correspondence into a series of poems, which Bishop finds scandalous, which is very meta since Ruhl is turning THEIR correspondence into a play.

The actors are just fine, but the play itself is pretty flaccid, neither raw nor fully cooked. I cross-examined the Lovely B and the LB's Mom for further enlightenment, in case there was a central thesis put forth early on that I missed, but no, there was no early statement apparently that bound it all together. It was what it was, and getting there on time was no rescue.

Would I recommend it? Let me damn it by saying that if you like this sort of stuff (as in "the lives of post-war poets"), then you will like the play. After three strong courses of LBJ and August Wilson, anything would be a let-down, but this one made me wonder where that Dixieland band was heading.

More later.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Play: August Wilson's Ghost Story

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, Directed by Timothy Bond, Seattle Rep through 8 Feb.

I never expected a ghost story from August Wilson. His body of work deals with the African American experience, in particular the effects of the Great Migration up from the South into northern industrial cities, in particular Pittsburgh. Yet here we have what is on one side a conflict between the rural past and urban future, and on the other a story of vengeful ghosts and protective spirits.

The play is set in 1936 Pittsburgh, in the home of Doaker Charles (Derrick Lee Weeden), a railroad cook who lives there with his niece Berniece (Erika LaVonn) and her daughter Maretha (Shiann Welch). Among the belongings is the piano in question, a venerable upright carved with the family's history as slaves in the south.

Setting the play in motion is Berniece's brother Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and his buddy Lymon (Yaegel T. Welch) , who arrive with a truck full of watermelons of questionable provenance and news that the owner of the land their family worked (and the descendant of the family that had owned their family in slavery) had died, fallen/pushed/disposed of in a well, and the land was up for sale. Boy Willie figures that with his current savings, the profits off the watermelons, and selling the family piano, he can afford to buy the land for himself.

Berniece will not hear of selling the piano, and that sets the plot in the motion. LaVonn's Berniece is the centerpoint of the play, resisting arguments from all sides as to why she should sell the piano. Boy Willie wants the money for the land. Berniece's suitor Avery (Ken Robinson) thinks that it would help her move on from the death of her husband. Doaker claims neutrality, but sees the parallel between Bernice's husband's death and the death of her father, Doaker's brother, and the effect it left on both women. Berniece remains resolute, through for the wrong reasons, and the depth of the character is brought out by LaVonn.

But Boy Willie was not the only thing that came up from the south. The vengeful spirit of the dead man apparently as followed as well, demanding its own compensation. So while the heart of the play is the contesting of a family relic and with it the family's heritage, the resolution comes from the ever-ratcheting haunting of the house by the descendant of the family's owners.

To be honest, the supernatural is a hard sell on the stage, where the immediacy of the audience creates a danger that it can go into farce. What grounds this particular haunting is the people and their stories. Everyone has their tales in the group, and August Wilson creates a lyrical patter for everyone, in particular Boy Willie, such that you feel after a while that the only thing that keeps him aloft if the stories he tells about himself. There is a long stretch in the final act which is effective monologue as Williams drives everyone else to silence with his nonstop chatter. And indeed, this long running of the mouth provides the perfect setup for a comeuppance at the hands of the ghost.

There is also an undercurrent of violence within August Wilson's works, and guns appear from the outset and haunt the stage with their own presence as well, as the words and tales may go too far and spill out in bloodshed. Blood is rubbing into the finish of the piano itself, with the blood of slavery that it depicts.

So the lesson of The Piano Lesson refers to both the story of the family on the piano, the story about the piano (a variant of the parable of the talents from Matthew) and a lesson of the power of the spirits of the past. I have often dinged the Rep for the shortness of their modern plays, but the past three have been three-hour powerhouses, and exercise the full potential of the stage.

More later,