Sunday, October 14, 2007

Every Play a Little Death

(reflection on THE YELLOW BOAT by David Saar, and a radio documentary about a production of HAMLET, Act Five, at a penitentiary in Missouri, re-aired on THIS AMERICAN LIFE tonight.)

A cast rehearses for weeks to make an imaginary world come to life for an audience, and then it's over. Video captures the lines and motions and lighting, but never the tension between audience and actors as both sustain this game of pretending that what we see is real. It's a feat of endurance on both sides of the proscenium. Then it's over. In this way, every play is a rehearsal for death.

This was certainly the case when I saw THE YELLOW BOAT directed by my colleague Katie Arjona (nee Watts) at the Walker School this past weekend. We know at the outset that the boy will die. How can we possibly sit through the process of falling in love with the child and watching him die?

The playwright David Saar visited our school and told my class that he wrote this play about his son -- a hemophiliac who contracted AIDs in the mid-1980s from a transfusion -- to be a celebration of a boy's life, not merely a tear-jerker about a boy's death. To this end, the boy appears as a vivacious spirit who speaks to us as he observes his own growth from conception through early childhood before he drops in on his "parents" and grows to the age of seven. This prepares us to accept the boy's continuing to speak to us following the eventual death of his body.

Young actor Steven Touchton was endearing and energetic as the free-spirited son Benjamin, and equally convincing when the boy withdraws in anger and despair, hooked up to machines in the hospital. Abbey Warren as the nurse "Joy" seemed wise and wholly focused on "finding what's well" in "Benjamin." Audrey Worley and Ian Adams portrayed the parents, whose hesitation was heartbreaking when the boy asks them, "Will I die? Will it hurt?" The chorus portrays children in Benjamin's class, and doctors at the hospital, and parents leery of their children being friends to a boy with AIDs. Actors Evan McLean, Ryan Price, Alisha Woodall, and Michelle DeLong shifted from role to role instantly and believably, each with his or her own character. Evan had the special role of "Eddy," the boy's best friend who, in a hospital visit, confesses, "I've never known anyone who was going to --" (and doesn't say "die").

For me, it conjured images of the hospital rooms in the cancer ward of the University Hospital in Jackson, MS, where I watched another vivacious boy named Chris Allenburger grow through a year's fight with leukemia, only to surrender in the end. Anyone in the audience who had felt a loss was touched by this play. It wasn't wallowing in a death, but rehearsing to live and love up to the last moment, as "Benjamin" does.

Tonight, listening again to the second re-broadcast of a documentary about a penitentiary's production of HAMLET, act five, I was again moved to tears when the 44 year old inmate who plays "Ghost" explains that, from the first time he read the ghost's lines, he was hearing the voice of his victim, a man he killed twelve years before. Giving that man his voice was part of this inmate's penance, we feel. We hear Shakespeare's lines performed by men who have been killers, who have seen victims die -- and Shakespeare's words seem far from poetic in the sense of decorous and rarefied. It all seems direct and close to the bone. When that performance was over, the cast had ten minutes to tear down the set and be strip-searched to go back to their cells -- all that imaginary life that came to full bloom in their final performance for dignitaries and reporters, ended. This program, produced by THIS AMERICAN LIFE on PBS is an inspiration on several levels, regarding the power of theatre to draw men out of themselves, and the power of Shakespeare's invention, and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, even among killers.

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