Showing posts with label plays. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plays. Show all posts

16 September 2019

The Play's the Thing


by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, I saw an audition call for a production of a play I performed in years ago, a mystery called Wait Until Dark. It's a rarity, a good mystery play that began as a play instead of being adapted from either a book or a film. There are several good mysteries on film, but most of them began as films or novels. My wife Barbara, who still acts in five or six plays a year and impersonates an 1890s British maid at the Mark Twain House, and I spent the rest of the evening trying to think of other good mystery plays that aren't adaptations.

It's a short list, and I don't like several of them for crochety reasons of my own. Obviously, many of Shakespeare's plays involve crime or mysteries: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Caesar. I won't include them. Aeschylus gave us The Oresteia 2500 years ago, only a few years before Sophocles graced us with Oedipus The King, maybe the earliest detective story. I won't include those, either.

All those plays involve stage conventions we now consider "unrealistic" or "old-fashioned." The mystery form has conventions itself, and some of them are artificial, too. Red herrings, delaying a discovery, the impossible crime, and multiple suspects are pretty much standard procedure. Maybe that's why a script that leans heavily on staginess is effective for many of the plays I include below.

Investigating a mystery often involves moving from place to place, so a challenge in a mystery play is limiting scene/set changes that slow down the action. There are two ways to do this, one a staple of Shakespeare and the Greeks. That's the lack of a stage set at all. The audience has to imagine a different place for the action, often given the cue through dialogue ("What woods are these?"). The other is to construct a play that happens in one location. That's tough.

Barb and I have been involved in productions of most of these plays, which colors my judgment.

Book of Days by Lanford Wilson. Wilson passed away in 2011 after producing a body of work that equals Miller or Williams. He wrote roles for William Hurt, Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Judd Hirsch, among others. I directed this play about ten years ago, and Barb acted in it. In fact, I lost an actor less than a week before opening and had to step into his role myself. 


 If Raymond Chandler had written Our Town, the result might have been Book of Days. On a bare stage, 12 characters interact with each other and the audience to discuss how Walt, one of the small town's leading citizens, dies in a freak hunting accident. Apparently, a tree fell on him during a tornado and his shotgun went off. But there are inconsistencies, and by the play's end, the audience understands who killed Walt, how and why it was done, and that the killer will get away with it.
Book of Days, my wife at lower right, me 4th from right
The play uses a bare stage but has over 90 scenes in 17 locations. We used light changes and a few basic props to keep the story going, just like the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Agnes of God by John Pielmeier uses the same black box strategy and for the same reasons. The artificiality is effective because we don't KNOW exactly what happened even though we understand the broad outlines. On a set consisting of two chairs and a standing ashtray, a female psychiatrist tells of being called in to evaluate the competence of a young nun. Agnes is accused of killing a newborn baby she claims she bore after an immaculate conception. If she is ruled rational, she faces a trial for murder. Otherwise, she will go to an insane asylum. The only other character is the Mother Superior who accuses the psychiatrist of bias against the Catholic Church. Barbara was learning the lines for Agnes as we went on our honeymoon.

I've seen two other productions, and all three had problems. It's hard to strike a balance between the characters and the story, but some scenes--a hypnotized Agnes reliving the agony of giving birth, for example--will keep you awake at night. She's clearly crazy, but does that automatically mean she's lying?

The less said about the film starring Jane Fonda, the better. Why anyone thought that stripping the play of its theatricality and trying to present literal reality on film is a bigger mystery than the play itself.

Equus by Peter Schaeffer also uses several locations with only the barest of furniture, and for the same reasons. Schaeffer passed away in 2016 at age 90 after writing many other acclaimed works, including Amadeus, which is also sort of a mystery.

The play gives us another psychiatrist treating a young patient, this time a teen-aged boy accused of blinding several horses in the stable where he worked. My wife played the boy's mother and a mutual friend played the psychiatrist (Shrinks are big in mystery drama: at least one of the plays I left off this list also has one). Actors wearing elaborate wire-frame heads play the horses. The nightmare moment of the play comes on a completely dark stage when all the horses' eyes light up, little red pilot lights across the back of the stage...and advance to surround the boy. Unlike Agnes, this play answers all our questions. Lucky us.
Equus cast & crew. Horse's head at bottom

Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott appeared on Broadway in 1966, and Lee Remick earned a Tony nomination as the blind woman who knows killers will break into her apartment that night. She smashes all the light bulbs in the apartment so she can fight them on equal terms. Robert Duvall played the ringleader in that production, and I wish I had seen the moment when he shows Susie the one light she forgot to smash: the bulb in the refrigerator (In theater parlance, we refer to this as the "Oh &$%# Moment").

The film version, a year or two later, drags badly. It allows us to see outside, too, which removes the claustrophobic feel of being trapped in the apartment. Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston are excellent as the bad guys, but Audrey Hepburn's weepy and whiny blind girl is annoying. She's all wrong for the role. I played the Crenna role years ago, and now Jeffrey Hatcher has reworked the play and set it in the 1940s. The play has to be done in an older time period because a photographic dark room is vital, but I don't understand why someone felt it needed to be rewritten.

Death Trap by Ira Levin. Levin, who wrote many other works, including the novel that became the film Rosemary's Baby, saw this 1978 drama become the longest-running comedy-drama on Broadway. It was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play. Another very stagy work, it involves two playwrights, a newcomer and a seasoned pro, who work together on a project that won't make it to the stage. The play-within-a-play structure works, and the script abounds with dark humor and theater in-jokes, including using a crossbow as a weapon. Done well, it's wonderful. Don badly, it's...well, deadly. I saw a local production with the same friend who played the psychiatrist in Equus as one lead and a former student as the other. The excellent film starred Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon. Hard to go wrong there.

That's it. If the plays don't work, the fault, dear Brutus is not in our star actors, but in ourselves.


27 September 2012

Notes from the Penitentiary – September 2012


by Eve Fisher

Yes, I'm back from the ever-friendly South Dakota State Penitentiary, after another three day Alternatives to Violence (AVP) Workshop.  This one was training facilitators, i.e., turning outsiders (like myself) and insiders (yes, inmates) into trainers of other outsiders and inmates in the principles of AVP.

As always, exhausting, worthwhile, rewarding, interesting.

Also as always, the food is a criminal offense in and of itself.  Up here in South Dakota, they've outsourced all meals to CBM Managed Services.  Now CBM's website is a masterpiece of literary succulence - "High quality food service programs through utilizing fresh, high-quality foods, tested recipes, planned production standards, preparation practices and comprehensive employee training programs" - but in actuality it looks like dog food.  No fruit, fresh or cooked.  Industrial canned vegetables, one scoop per meal (maybe).  (This tray is semi-accurate; take out the red stuff, put in a slab of bread, double up on the brown stuff and take out the beans.)  But hey, it's cheap, and that's what counts. All I can say is that I wouldn't feed it to a dog.  And yes, I have first-hand experience, because we go in at 7 in the morning and get out at 6 at night, and we're not allowed to go out for meals or breaks.  So we share in the dining experience - twice a day - with the prisoners.

Speaking of food, sort of, Ramen noodles- i.e., "soups" - are still standard currency.  The workshop role play that got the biggest applause was one about an inmate who owed five soups to a storer inmate and couldn't/wouldn't (difference never was determined...) pay.  After considerable talk and a bit of shoving, the local lifer told them all the shut the f*** up.  Eventually he paid up the five soups for the owing inmate, which meant that now that inmate owed the lifer - not necessarily a good thing.  Everyone agreed the inmate needed to pay his debts, and learn who to owe and who not to owe.  I asked the actor (still in character) if he was going to pay the lifer, and he said "maybe," which got a lot of muttered comments from the audience about how he was going to get punked if he didn't.  (Getting punked ranges from getting beat up to rape.)  I agree - he needs to pay his debts.

I am always in admiration of the awesome ingenuity of prisoners and their families.  One of the ways to smuggle things into the pen is to have a friend of relative shoot stuffed dead animals over the wall into the yard with a potato gun.  (Proof that reality is stranger than fiction, because I'd never have thought of doing that.  And I don't know anybody on God's sweet green earth that I would do that for...)  Anyway, they stuff the animals with tobacco, cell phones, or drugs, which is why prisoners on the yard are always keeping an eye out for dead squirrels, birds, etc.  So are guards.  I gather it is often a sprint to see which gets there first.

We have workshops in October and November, and we already know they're going to be a bit hairy, and might even get cancelled by the authorities...  There's going to be at least one execution in October or November - Eric Roberts and Rodney Berget, both lifers, killed prison guard Ron Johnson in an escape attempt.  Both have been sentenced to death, and both have either rejected appeals or the appeals have been denied.  (Rodney Berget is continuing a family tradition, in that his brother, Roger, was executed in Oklahoma in 2000.)  Anyway, executions disturb the prisoners (there's a surprise), and the staff (who are worried about the prisoners and how they'll react), and the administration (who double down on security, thus upsetting the prisoners even more).  So the workshops will probably be more emotional and more strained than usual. Will keep you posted.

Meantime, stay out of trouble, and go enjoy a really good meal. I did.

28 May 2012

A Lesson in Digression


By Fran Rizer


Recent events in my personal life have led to many kindnesses from relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.  Thinking about this made me consider kindness in literature.  As some of you know, great lines I find in reading tend to earn permanent homes in my digressive mind.

"Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind."  What a great line after an older woman restores a young  man's sense of masculinity by bedding down that virgin.  The closing line's been with me since I first read the play Tea and Sympathy while in seventh grade though not as assigned reading. 

On the left is Deborah Kerr as Laura Reynolds (the older woman) and John Kerr as seventeen-year-old Tom Robinson Lee in the movie produced by Vincente Minnelli in 1956, an adaptation of the 1953 stage play by Robert Anderson.

The plot of Tea and Sympathy created an uproar in the uptight fifties since it dealt not only with an older woman seducing a teenager but included accusations of homosexuality.

During eighth grade, I discovered I could go into school, store my books in my locker, go out the back door, and catch the city bus to the Five Points Theater where they showed old movies of many of the plays I'd read and loved. I caught the city bus back to the school right before dismissal. I spent most of my high school time downtown watching movies at least two days a week.  I was only caught once.  When the principal pulled my records and saw I was a straight A student, he patted me on the hand and said, "Now, Francie, don't do that again." (Kinda like cases when the jury says "guilty," but a judge gives a ridiculously light sentence because it's the first time the defendant's been in trouble.)

Vivien Leigh as Blanche when the man who'd
fallen in love with her reacts to learning that
she's a woman with a past.
I read plays by Eugene O'Neil. Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and others, (I confess I thought The Iceman Cometh was going to be off-color.) I still enjoy reading plays, but I was (and remain) especially fond of Tennessee Williams's work, and  my favorite Williams play was A Streetcar Named Desire. The movie had been out several years before I first saw it at the Five Points. 

This one included rape and everyone's refusal to believe Blanche's accusations though they accepted the rumor that dismissal from her teaching position was because of sexual misconduct with a student. Blanche's last line, when the authorities come to take her to a mental institution because she "hallucinated" that her sister's husband raped her is,  "Whoever you are, I've always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Personally, I don't depend on the kindness of strangers, but I do appreciate them.

Are you, like me, wondering where I'm headed?  After all, most SS posts have something to do with mysteries or writing.  I seem to be digressing all over the place.

I began this blog thinking of kindness and could be headed toward something I learned long ago:
When it doesn't hurt anyone, sometimes it's better to be kind than right.

Both of the movies I mentioned dealt with older women seducing teenaged students--Laura, the coach's wife in Tea and Sympathy and Blanche who'd lost her teaching job for that offense before the action begins in A Streetcar Named Desire. Heaven knows we can't turn on the news these days without hearing about something similar, but as a retired teacher, this violation of professionalism and, in my opinion, decency, leads me to *&^*(*&^%$$# words, so I'm not going there.

I told you about skipping school and the principal's reaction.  Perhaps I was headed toward telling you my parents' reaction, which wasn't at all like the school's.

My mind is digressive. I've already warned you.  Having a digressive mind means that thoughts jump from one subject to another, frequently straying from the main subject.  In the extreme, it's not easy to even identify the main subject.
    


What were we talking about?  Reading plays.   How is that related to mystery or writing? Live drama and movies are entertaining, but reading plays is more beneficial to prose writers.  The structure of most plays is acts divided into scenes. Though the structure is there in performances, it's more obvious when a reader is looking at a print form.   Having trouble with plot sequence and pacing?  Think of your story as a three-act play.  It has a beginning, middle, and ending.  Scenes are the smaller parts of each act.  Thinking in those terms also helps in chapter division in longer works unless you're James Patterson.  I like his short, short chapters, an easy task because it's just making each scene a chapter. My last manuscript to my agent was "Pattersonesque."  It's only been a few days, and I'm eager to see his response. 

Now, what else did I want to write?  Danged if I know, so I'll just say

Until we meet again, take care of . . . YOU!