Having recently had the opportunity to visit New York City for the first time and spend a week there seeing ten shows, on- and off-Broadway both, I was struck not just by the quality of New York theater, but the breadth of experimentation. Coming as I do from Ashland, Oregon, whose Shakespeare Festival has a loyal crowd to please, it was refreshing to see theaters which had the opportunity to really confront the audience. That’s not to say that OSF does not produce challenge and experimental material, but I think most Shakespeare companies are bound by a certain extent to the material. Case in point, The Public Theatre’s fascinating rendition of Measure for Measure, which handled the long periods of exposition at the play’s beginning not by cutting the scenes, but by fast-forwarding them: the experimental company behind it has an opportunity OSF does not in terms of the way it pokes self-aware fun at the text itself by projecting it on the wall behind the players and scrolling it along with their monologues. I suspect, also, that OSF would have a challenge selling the near-pariodic representation of the abrupt ending which renders Measure a so-called “problem play”. Although Ashland’s adaptation of Measure for Measure from this past season, titled Off the Rails, was a very sincere and moving rendition of the story, there was also something to be said for this strange and speedy version of the story which, cut down as it was to under two hours, was a really liberating demonstration of the limits of a Shakespeare text.
I did not really appreciate theater before I moved to Ashland and began seeing the plays, and I did not really appreciate the potential of playwrighting until I started writing them this past March. Since then I’ve written four and will be working on a few more this week while The Lightning Stenography Device is with the typesetter in preparation for its publication, but I’ve read and seen upwards of a hundred plays in the past two years and am always upping my reading volume in the genre. What interests me in the genre is the ambiguity available in so many plays, whether it be in a character’s race or gender (the first Horatio I ever saw was a black woman, OSF’s wonderful Christiana Clark, who really knocked it out of the park in last year’s doom metal Hamlet). The potentials afforded by cross-gendered casting is intriguing to me in that modern America has a really rather strict social contract about gender, and treating a person like their gender; and yet, on the stage, a woman walks out as a man and we all agree that, for the next hour and a half, we will pretend that she is a man. What is it which prevents us from behaving that way, and feeling that flexibility of gender, when we are out on the street? (Although I admit it is true, many patrons complain about cross-gendered casting—they would have been very uncomfortable seeing Shakespeare and Grecian plays preformed with their original casts, I suspect.)
The alchemical and hermetic notion of every human being possessing the substance of both male and female genders is clearer nowhere than it is on the stage, and it is interesting that of the ten plays I saw, two dealt with gender—one, passively, as a result of its casting choices; the other, actively, as a lynchpin of its plot. Those plays are A Clockwork Orange and M. Butterfly.
A Clockwork Orange, adapted for the stage by its author, Anthony Burgess, suffers as a text. Having purchased a copy a day or so before the show I was surprised to find after the performance that the ending, which I thought went on rather long, actually went on rather longer in the text itself. Burgess, compelled by a writer’s inherent need to be understood, responded to Kubrick’s movie and America’s removal of the novel’s final chapter by, essentially, increasing the length of that final chapter in the play. In it, Alex directly addresses the audience and explains on no uncertain terms what Burgess’s original point was: not that Alex was inherently evil, but that he was young. While I can understand Anthony’s need to get his point across, he might have found another, less sensitive way. Not only that, but then you get to the weird stage direction after Alex’s address where a man bearded “like Stanley Kubrick” comes on-stage playing “Singin’ in the Rain” on his trumpet and is, in response, thrown off the stage. Nobody does passive aggression quite like writers, I’ll tell you that.
The production, however, was stunning, and cut down quite an admirable bit upon the less necessary portions of its source material. From the word “go” and its cold open, Alex and the Droogs are at their most confrontational. The opening scenes really thrust their audience members into the ultraviolence, and not just that, but they make you really uncomfortable about it. There’s a lot of eye contact being made with audience members while women are being molested and raped with glass bottles and Alex’s hand—and it doesn’t help that all the women are played by men, which somehow only serves to make the whole thing more uncomfortable.
In fact, I should say the casting is the most successful and interesting thing about the show. Although normally cross-gendered casting is to me a non-issue, because the actor is just a carrier for the play, the strange, passive vibe of bisexuality elicited by this run of A Clockwork Orange is interesting and effective. Yet, any such phenomenon is in the heads of the individual audience members, for the players are still playing women, and playing them exceedingly well: though one would think a twenty-something man acting like an old lady might come off as pariodic, not once was I drawn from the play. Indeed, it rather elicited some very interesting points, mostly about the nondiscriminatory nature of evil and violence. Rape is not about sex or gender, but about power; and in removing gender as a phenomenon within the cast, that much is made all the clearer. The mind’s struggle to define actions in categories (man/woman, for instance) dissolves in the face of the violence.
Let me also add that Alex was great, and the star of the show for a reason. One feels—or, at least, I felt—a great deal of repugnance, followed then by a great deal of empathy and shame, and it is all in large part thanks to his performance. But it was hard to see a show without experiencing at least one great performance, and of all the great shows witnessed, M. Butterfly must surely be at the top. The questions on the pointlessness of gender raised by the casting of A Clockwork Orange are elevated to the primary concern of the show.
Having been familiar with Cronenberg’s film adaptation of M. Butterfly, I was excited for the show, but just blown away but the execution. After seeing the second preview I was flabbergasted, not just at the visual representation of what director Julie Taymor described as the ‘Chinese puzzle box’ of the plot. Mostly, I was flabbergasted at what they were able to get away with. The acting was audacious and heart-rending.
I’ve seen a lot of new plays in the past couple of years, and read a lot, too. The Ashland New Plays Festival just wrapped up, and recently I’ve discovered the New Plays Exchange website, which is an interesting concept and definitely a good way to read new scripts and get a better sense of the landscape of publishing. M. Butterfly originally premiered in 1988 but the script for this new production has yet to be published, and so between that and the fact that playwright David Henry Hwang is alive and working, it is safe to call the script, if not the show, a modern classic.
From the Jungian alchemy standpoint, the show opens with our wretched protagonist (played, in a brilliant reversal from his generally confident and virile archetype, by Clive Owen) in the hermetic vessel of his prison cell, and so the players of his true-life story amount, also, to facets of his inner consciousness. There are immediate themes of darkness and light, and the concepts of masculinity and sexuality are immediately brought to question, to be confronted again and again throughout the story as, slowly, Rene Gallimard’s consciousness reaches a tragic and powerful moment of recognition. Male and female become completely transposed, perfectly combined, in an alchemical albedo whose beautiful ending is psychologically and socially important.
It is one thing to read a piece of theater, but another entirely to experience it. The spectacle and pathos of watching M. Butterfly—with its beautiful incorporation of Chinese and Western opera, its use of ballet and the confrontational experience and tragically rejected heiros gamos of the ending—is one I would recommend to everyone, anyone, planning to visit New York anytime soon. That said, I will still be eager to snatch up a copy of the new script, and will be checking every few months until I see it’s come out.
Speaking of books coming out, The Lightning Stenography Device is coming out on March 19th, 2018. If you’re in the Northern California or Southern Oregon region this October, I will be doing a public cover reveal and a reading from the novel on October 28th, 2017; there will also be a pre-reader lottery with five copies available. There will also be a couple of copies of Delilah, My Woman still available, though a new edition is going to be released (along with the long-awaited soft cover) so there are only a few signed copies left (though they will always be available, no problem, on Amazon, just unsigned). Be sure to get them! Click here for details on the reading or just show up at the Ashland Literary Arts Festival at SOU’s Hannon Library on October 28th between 2:00 and 2:45. There, I’ll be reading in the 1st Humanitarians alcove. If you’re too far away, be sure to check back here on October 29th to see the cover.
Thank you as always for reading. It’s been a long time since the last blog post (and this one, sad to say, has considerably less philosophical meat than I am used to including), but rest assured that is because I have been hard at work on a new series of books. The first drafts of books one and two are complete, and book three is on the schedule as my December project, with November being spent mostly in the publication of The Lightning Stenography Device and the finishing of several new plays. That’s a long way of saying, I’m sorry for neglecting my once-consistent essay schedule, good readers, but it’s all for a good cause. Check out the Books page soon for a synopsis of the series in progress, and be sure to return to us on October 29th! Follow the blog for consistent updates about The Lightning Stenography Device, and mark your calendars, because it’ll be March 19th before you know it. Certainly before I do.