March 30, 2011

Staging Poetry: Adaptation, Persona, Innocence, Experience

Caffeine Theatre's mission is "to mine the poetic tradition to explore social questions." Our current rotating repertory consists of two plays that approach contemporary poetry in different ways. Caridad Svich has written a poetic play that draws on a long history of poetry, using Euripides and William Blake as source material. Cornelius Eady's play began as a book of poetry; he adapted his own poems for the stage in collaboration with director Diane Paulus.

D'wayne Taylor (Mr. Zero) and Samantha Gleisten (Susan Smith); Photo by Jason Beck

Brutal Imagination is a script adapted from Cornelius Eady's poem cycle of the same title. In the published volume, the speaker of the poems is Mr. Zero, the imaginary black man blamed by Susan Smith for the disappearance of her children. In the play, Mr. Zero recites several of the poems as monologues ("How I Got Born"; "The Unsigned Confession of Mr. Zero"), and takes on the personae of several stereotypical black caricatures ("Uncle Tom in Heaven"; "Aunt Jemima's Do-Rag"; "Buckwheat's Lament"). The book of poems includes some contextual information: a brief note about the 1989 case of Charles Stuart, who also blamed a black man for his own crime, prefaces the poem "Charles Stuart in the Hospital." This kind of context is expanded in the play, as news reports come through on the radio or are recited by Susan; Susan and Mr. Zero recount witness testimony; and Mr. Zero confronts Susan with documentary evidence that suggests the motive for her crime.

Susan's voice also joins Mr. Zero's in several of the poems as they dance a dangerous tango together (figuratively and literally, at one point in our production). Perhaps the most interesting mingling of these two voices is the juxtaposition of the poems "What Is Known About the Abductor" and "What Isn't Known About the Abductor." Susan recites lines from "What Is Known," addressing them directly to Mr. Zero. Mr. Zero counters with shorter lines from "What Isn't Known." The combination of these two poems underscores that most of "What Is Known About the Abductor" is negative information, a list of things "the Abductor" has NOT done. "What Is Known" and "What Is Not Known" are, in effect, the same category. Though their physical tango ends, Susan and Mr. Zero remain linked together as they undergo a polygraph test, until finally Susan confesses and Mr. Zero is pried away from her.

Sean Thomas (Nurse) and Ian Daniel McLaren (Second Son) in rehearsal; photo by Dan Smith

In addition to its fascinating relationship to Euripides' Medea, Wreckage incorporates two poems by William Blake. Nurse quotes Blake's poetry when he meets each of the two sons in the play. The poem "Infant Joy" gives a name to Second Son:

"I have no name;

I am but two days old."

What shall I call thee?

"I happy am,

Joy is my name."

Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!

Sweet joy, but two days old.

Sweet joy I call thee...

"Infant Joy" is from Songs of Innocence. It has a corresponding poem in Songs of Experience: "Infant Sorrow." In some ways, "Infant Sorrow" is quite relevant to First Son's journey of striving and struggling with a Mother figure and a Father figure. "Bound and weary I thought best/ To sulk upon my mother's breast." Woman accuses First Son of "sulking" and "brooding," much like "Infant Sorrow" in Blake's poem.

When Nurse encounters First Son near the end of the play, he begins to recite "Little Boy Found," another poem from Songs of Innocence:

The little boy lost in the lonely fen,

Led by the wandering light,

Began to cry,

but God, ever nigh,

Appeared like his father, in white.

He kissed the child,

and by the hand led,

And to his mother brought,

Who in sorrow pale,

through the lonely dale,

Her little boy weeping sought.

Nurse's recitation is interrupted by First Son after the second line of this poem. Perhaps this interruption precludes a happy reunion with the mother; or perhaps the mother figure seeking her boy with tears in her eyes is a more threatening presence. Songs of Innocence also includes "The Little Boy Lost," a poem about a boy seeking his father. But there is another poem, "A Little Boy Lost" from Songs of Experience that seems more germane to Second Son's situation. "A Little Boy Lost" begins: "'Nought loves another as itself, / Nor venerates another so.." This opening mirrors Second Son's reflections on love when he first meets Nurse. ("I know true love doesn't exist.") As the poem continues, the boy is handled roughly by a priest for daring to question authority. This "little boy lost" is ultimately bound in chains and burned on an altar as his parents look on, powerless. Second Son's final monologue, in which he claims an identity as a sacrificial body, links him to Blake's "Little Boy Lost" from Songs of Experience. Indeed, the journey from Innocence to Experience is addressed in the closing scene of the play. First Son says to Second Son, "You're older," but Second Son insists that they are the same. Nonetheless, Second Son goes on to speak a poetic parable about murderous animals that might serve as a rewriting of scripture.

These are only some of the poetic engagements of Brutal Imagination and Wreckage, two rich texts that offer fascinating interplay with questions of adaptation and appropriation.

March 17, 2011

Design for a Rotating Repertory: Creating Aesthetic Connections

Wreckage: Photo by Joanie Schultz

Brutal Imagination: Photo by Jason Beck

There are several thematic connections between the two plays in our rotating repertory; the design team has also developed a number of aesthetic connections. Subtly leading these aesthetic connections are the projection design and the sound design. Projection and video designer Rasean Davonte Johnson ties the plays together by having each begin with a title and author slide. While Wreckage includes live-feed video and Brutal Imagination contains more pre-recorded video, Johnson uses projections of images throughout both plays to create textures on the set. Images of waves and sunsets evoke the darkly beautiful world of Wreckage. Brutal Imagination includes projections of a police composite sketch to illustrate Mr. Zero’s birth and of gauzy red fabric for the tango danced by Susan and Mr. Zero. Sound designer Thomas Dixon employs sounds of waves, radio static and voice-over in both plays. Much of Brutal Imagination takes place in a remembered Union, South Carolina, whereas Wreckage is geographically indeterminate. But the otherworldly quality of both plays is augmented by the sound design: these two dream worlds share a radio station.

One major challenge of doing two productions in rotating repertory is creating a scenic design that is flexible enough to accommodate both shows while allowing each show to have some specificity. Ideally this would avoid an onerous changeover for our stage management team. (This is a lesson we learned during The Changeling and Tallgrass Gothic; getting rid of all the hay in Tallgrass to have a hay-free set for Changeling proved a Sisyphean task. So when sand entered the discussion for these current scenic designs, we knew it needed to be in both shows or neither.) Stephen Carmody’s set design includes a guardrail, a sandpile, a wooden fence, a curved wooden structure reminiscent of a broken-down rollercoaster, and the corrugated metal reverse side of a billboard (which serves as the main surface for projections). The set dressing for Brutal Imagination turns the guardrail area into a roadside shrine for Susan Smith’s children and uses strategically placed blocks and seating to suggest a car and a police interrogation room. Wreckage adds a claw-foot bathtub, an ornate door frame, and a chandelier to suggest the elegant lifestyle of the destructive central couple. A video camera and a movable window enhance the theme of voyeurism.

Casey Diers’s lighting design primarily evokes mood and locations. A harsh, sharply focused light snaps on to create an interrogation room for Susan Smith and the Sheriff; Woman opens a door, casting warm light onto First Son’s sleeping body. Alarie Hammock’s costumes make intricate use of accessories, from Aunt Jemima’s ‘Do-Rag to First Son’s fur stole, underscoring the questions about race and gender raised by these playwrights. The use of eyeglasses leads to an intriguing connection between the female characters in both plays. When Samantha Gleisten is speaking as Susan Smith, she wears a pair of glasses evocative of those worn by Smith at her trial and in other news photos. As Woman, Dana Black wears dark glasses at the beginning and end of Wreckage. Susan’s and Woman’s glasses present two very different versions of femininity, separated by a wide gulf of social class.

Through many hours of thoughtful discussion (and even more hours of technical rehearsals), our design team explored each of these plays individually and considered the resonances of the two pieces together. As you observe the visual and aural cues they have created, we hope you will think about how design enhances the theatrical experience of storytelling.

March 8, 2011

Wreckage and Medea, or Caridad Svich and Euripides

In a recent article for Theatre Journal, Caridad Svich explains that she was in graduate school before she came across the work of experimental women playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornes, Adele Edling Schank, and Gertrude Stein. She writes, “In these dramatists’ works, there was theatrical ‘misbehavior’ of all kinds, including an unusual attention to poetic language, the examination of women’s roles in the public and domestic sphere, and a formal fearlessness I had not quite encountered before, except perhaps in the radical plays of Euripides!” Svich has referred to Wreckage as her “distaff Medea.” Her admiration for Euripides is evident in some of her other works, notably Iphigenia crash lands falls on the neon shell that was once her heart (a rave fable), currently running at the Greenhouse in a Halcyon Theatre production. Svich’s admiration for Euripides also provides a useful frame for understanding Wreckage as an adaptation of Medea. In Wreckage, we can hear Euripides as a distant, haunting memory.

The characters in Wreckage are marked by Medea. In some ways, Wreckage is a play about adolescent boys discovering their sexuality: two boys wake up after they have been killed and take different paths. One pursues an older woman and becomes a pawn in her sexual gamesmanship with her husband. The other meets an older queer character and embarks on a career as a sex worker. But these boys have memories of Euripides’ text, and so we can also read them as Medea’s children. The children in Euripides’ Medea are hapless victims who do everything their mother tells them to do. They do not speak until the very end of the play, when they are inside the house and Medea is preparing to kill them. There is no evidence that they attempt to escape. In Wreckage, Svich gives First Son and Second Son some opportunities to make choices, but their deaths remain seemingly inevitable. And yet, as the cycle begins again at the end of the play, Second Son makes a new effort to control the boys’ destiny, informed by what he has learned from Nurse and figured out on his own. His refusal to “swim in the dark ocean full of tears” represents a break with the past, a denial of history’s dominion over the future.

Svich employs specific lines from Euripides, but changes the context. For her characters, it seems as though Medea is a distant memory, an ancient source text that has palpable, yet inexplicable effects on their lives (or afterlives). In the opening scene, First Son notes that Second Son is “beauteous,” which leads him to recall a line from one of Medea’s final speeches before killing her children: “Beauteous babe, you have a city where far from me and my sad lot you will live.” In the context of Euripides, this line is ironic. On the one hand the city could mean Corinth, where Medea’s children are welcome to live, though she herself has been ordered to go into exile. On the other hand, Medea knows that she is about to kill her children, and the city may refer to the underworld, where they will live without her because she will still be in the world of the living.

First Son goes on to misquote a line from the same speech: “Behold my lover’s laughing eyes.” In Euripides, Medea says “Behold my children’s laughing eyes.” This conflation of child and lover is crucial to the sexual ambiguities of Wreckage. It is not completely possible to know all the filial relationships between the characters. They are named Woman, Husband, First Son, and Second Son. Woman brings First Son into her household, but it is not clear whether First and Second Son are her biological children or whether she constructs a sexualized Mother-Son relationship with First Son. She may murder Second Son because he has taken on the role of Husband’s mistress. The challenging nature of intersubjectivity in this play is reflected in Svich’s appropriation of Euripides’ text.

Woman’s appearance in the play introduces a different connection to Medea. Reading this character as Medea lends a sense of irony to several of her lines. She tells First Son, “You’re nothing without me.” If she is Medea and he is her child, this is true because he would exist only to help tell her story. She also says “I might do something awful,” which is humorous in a way that is reminiscent of Jocasta in Cocteau’s Infernal Machine saying “This scarf will be the death of me.” Woman speaks two additional lines from Medea in her first scene with First Son. When he says “You’re wrong about me,” she replies, “I wish I were. Damned child, son of a doomed mother.” The second sentence of her reply quotes lines 113-114 of Medea (line references are to the Loeb Classical Library edition, edited and translated by David Kovacs). Medea’s speech continues: “may you perish with your father and the whole house collapse in ruin.” The second specific line Woman cites is from near the end of Euripides’ play: “These brief days we forget, and only after do we lament” (l. 1248), a line spoken by Medea.

The character of Nurse takes on aspects of Nurse, Tutor, and Chorus from Euripides’ play. “I’m no one in this world. I keep low, safe,” he says. This speech echoes the philosophy of humility espoused by Medea’s Nurse in Euripides. In his opening and closing monologues, Nurse functions as a Greek Chorus, commenting on what he has witnessed and drawing conclusions about the significance of these events.

While the conflict between Jason and Medea undergirds the action in Euripides’ play, the conflict between Woman and Husband in Wreckage is quite different. What they have in common is a focus on words and games. “Woo him with my words,” says Husband, as he observes Woman’s interaction with First Son. Later, Husband asks, “What game is this?” Euripides’ Jason accuses Medea of starting a “contest of words” (l. 546).

In Euripides (ll. 1025ff), Medea laments the fact that she will not be able to see her sons grow up to get married, and specifically mentions the ritual bath that would take place before the wedding. Later in the same speech, Medea addresses her children as follows: “Truly, many were the hopes that I, poor fool, once had in you, that you would tend me in my old age, and when I died, dress me for burial with your own hands.” The ritual bath haunts Wreckage, as Woman bathes First Son after he comes home with her. First Son later appropriates Medea’s words in his anger at Woman: “Idle hope you should have that I will ever nurse / you in your old age and deck your corpse with loving hands.”

After she kills First Son and Second Son, Woman quotes snippets of speeches by the Chorus in Medea:

“Of one alone, one woman alone
Sent mad by heaven.
O women’s love,
So full of trouble,”
They will say.

As intriguing and complex as Svich’s textual borrowings are, her truly original engagement with Euripides comes through her characters’ riffs on aspects of Medea. Medea’s last tender act before sending the children into the house to await their death is to kiss their hands. As she kisses the boys’ hands, she speaks of their tender skin, their sweet touch, their fragrant breath. While the words “tender,” “sweet,” and “fragrant” recur throughout Wreckage, the image of a woman kissing the boys’ hands has the most power for First Son and Second Son. Second Son’s memory of a woman kissing his hands and the boys’ discussion of the merits of this kind of kiss in the opening scene give way to fear and distrust on First Son’s part when Woman kisses his hands.

Wreckage is emphatically not Medea, but this play does have strong connections to Euripides’ tragedy. To borrow an image from the play, Svich’s process of adaptation is akin to the way a conch shell distills the sound of the ocean. Listening to a conch shell—saved as a souvenir of a trip to the beach—evokes the sound of wind and waves, and memories of time spent in sand and sun. Euripides’ words and ideas resound through Wreckage, but distantly, allowing us to remember a Medea of long ago and far away while we live resolutely in the present.