Saturday, March 10, 2012

"How Did you Get to be Here?": Merrily We Roll Along

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park cast of MERRILY / photo Sandy Underwood
Never having heard any of Stephen Sondheim's score for MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, and knowing little about the story, my friend Suzanne confirmed my judgement that this production, directed by John Doyle, hits home.  Suzanne grew tearful talking about the experience this morning.  The lyrics accurately spoke what she has thought as she has rolled along her own way in life, also wondering, "How did I get to be here?" 

She went on to cite "Not a Day Goes By," and how it turns from a rapturous song of youthful love and hope, to a statement of bitter regret; yet very little changes in the song itself.  It's an image of the way relationships really do alter over time without losing their original shape.

Both of us were strongly affected by a simple gesture in the final anthem "Our Time," when central character Franklin Shepherd laid his hands on the shoulders of the young man billed in the program as "Franklin Jr."   This college-age man, in a Juilliard tee shirt, started the show poring over a score from the archives of sheet music that comprise the set (reams of manuscript paper the backdrop; boxes and stacks of manuscript paper the furniture).   From the first chords that the middle-aged Franklin Shepherd plays at the piano, he seems to direct the entire show at the younger man -- trying to justify himself to the younger man.  Other members of the cast, seeing the young man, ask him "How did you get to be here?"  Suzanne was confused, but I was no more certain of who exactly "Franklin Jr." was:  Franklin at a younger age?   Franklin's son?  At times, he was clearly portraying the son at age 3 or 6 or 10.  He could be Franklin's grown and estranged son trying to understand his father.  

Suzanne and I decided that a definitive answer isn't necessary.   What matters is that gesture, hands on the shoulders, a sign of investiture and benediction.  By that time, the middle-aged Franklin has worked backwards through some bitter memories to memories of youthful struggles and hopes with friends Mary and Charley.  This "Franklin Jr." has been witness, often anguished and accusing.  At the end of the show, the "beginning" of its characters' friendship on a rooftop in 1957, he also seems to have come out onto the roof to see Sputnik -- not the Russians' triumph alone, but for all of us, they say -- and Franklin Sr. lays those hands on him.

In John Doyle's production, there's no doubt.  We're to leave the theatre energized to go forward ready to get started:  "There's so much stuff to sing."

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Poet Todd Boss's Pitch: Family's Value

(Reflections on PITCH by Todd Boss, Norton Co., 2012.)

A piano pitches out of the bed of the family truck when the father misjudges a turn on an icy road.  For poet Todd Boss, the anecdote crystallizes some truths about his own parents, beginning with "the broken cords, the empty bed".   He examines its facets in four poems under the cute title "Overture on an Overturned Piano," and he plays musical puns throughout.  These glints of wordplay are incidental pleasures in Boss's work, burnishing his reflections on family in poems about his father, his own children, and even beloved dogs.

For one poem in the suite, "Fine," (another musical pun), Boss begins, "I wonder what it was like to have to call his dad on the phone the morning after and answer the question: So, piano make it home all right?"  The humiliation of his father is a trope throughout the collection.  Behind many of Boss's poems is the story of a family moved to a farm that fails.  "Your Dad Never Did, in the End," is one such poem.  "The God of our Farm Had Blades," describes the rust-encrusted windmill overlooking the fields.  Another poem, "Broke," accumulates dozens of connotations of that word, a crushing summation of the family's experience.  

Yet, in "Apple Slices," the poem that introduced Todd Boss to public radio listeners world wide when he read it to the gourmet host of The Splendid Table, he tells us that he has "never labored harder, nor eaten better" than a time when he and his dad took a break from farm work.  "And Then One Day in a Department Store" seems, even from its title, to be an afterthought about the father in a later section of the book, a bit of Muzak recalling the classical piano pieces "your father used to fumble over all those years before," and "you'll feel what he felt -- or feel again that familiar longing to learn...." 

There's an undercurrent of self-dissatisfaction, mirroring the father's.   Boss's persona is a mere "paper-pusher," and "a pitch-man for the rich man."  Boss writes about a family reunion of three generations in a ghost town of "Luckenbach," (pun on "lookin' back"?), admitting 

Only recently have I begun
to let my small-town
farm roots show.
                             I've been a fool.
In a pair of poems "Amidwives," Boss finds sardonic fun in the fraught relationship among mother, wife, and the man they have in common.

But it's mostly delight that shows in Boss's work.   In a favorite poem of mine, "This Morning in a Morning Voice," which I called a "secular psalm" in a comment on its appearance in Poetry years ago, Boss lies in bed marveling while his son sings a kindergarten ditty on his way to the bathroom.   Other poems are playfully erotic ("Feast," "My Love for You Is So Embarrasingly"), and many are those "secular psalms" I described that pay such close attention to the wonders of creation that they come close to expressing gratitude to a creator.  He comes close to saying just that in "The World Is in Pencil," speculating that sketching the world "had to be a labor of love." 

A couple of poems stand out for what they say about specific occasions.  One tells of sitting through "A Stock Homily" for Aunt Emily, which, in its "anonymity" feels "like sin / to those / whose pages / her life was / written in."  Been there; felt that.     Another poem "My Dog Has No Nose" finds rueful fun in an incident when a dog offers up an unwelcome gift.

I've blogged about Todd Boss's first collection Yellowrocket.  Before that, he showed up in two articles that I wrote about "secular psalms."  Here are the links:

Monday, March 05, 2012

Church and Theatre: Laughing Matters?

When I mentioned to my 7th grade writing workshop that I've been at work on a comedy - murder - mystery - dinner - theatre piece for my home church, some were aghast.  A play, in a church?  About  murder?  And it's a comedy?
rehearses the "interrogation scene."

I understand their reaction.  When I was an acting student who viewed the world through fundamentalist lenses, my conscience used to bother me, because plays seemed always to be about misbehavior and unhappiness.  Then I discovered Flannery O'Connor's observation that "Christian novels" about good people doing good things depict a world of false innocence.  "That strongly suggests its opposite," she drily added.  O'Connor and others asserted that any art that shows the world as it truly is will also show God.  

Years later, I heard confirmation of this view from an unlikely source.  I attended a dinner party where my mentor Frank Boggs interviewed an actor / director from London who runs an evangelical retreat for actors there.  This evangelical actor surprised his Christian audience by saying that his favorite play was WAITING FOR GODOT.  Yes, its creator Samuel Beckett was a confirmed atheist, but his humanity, humor, and despair take us to the heart of the world as we experience it, as do Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms.

Still, to make light of murder at a church for a fund-raiser also raises eyebrows and questions for people who don't know what acting entails. 

To them, I say two things.

First:  Not only is play-acting a legitimate activity for church members, it is essential activity for church members.  

In an article at Belief Net,  "Acting is a Form of Prayer,"  actor Liam Neeson explains how the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola prefigure by centuries Stanislavski's "method" that all trained actors know today.   Jesuits are enjoined to "study scripture by taking the part of a character in a Bible story, such as a shepherd in the stable and Bethlem, and employing all the senses to imaginatively enter into the scene."

To my own middle school drama students, I add that we actors practice radical empathy, working from externals (spoken words, actions, stances, costume) to comprehend the spirits of characters.    

So, when a group of novice (and nervous!) actors first met with me at the church to begin the process of creating our play, I began with Neeson's observations about acting. 

Creating characters led us to another theological lesson:  Artistic creation is a form of discovery.  Failing to appreciate this point, some believers scoff at the arts as mere entertainment or, worse, as inflated lies.   But the same point was made just yesterday by a physicist on Krista Tippett's radio program "On Being."  This scientist lives by Einstein's saying, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."  After years of puzzlement, the physicist realized that imagination is our route to new knowledge.

So our little group experienced creation in a way that non-artists don't "get":  The Creator may begin with a notion of an endpoint, but the characters and events can go off in unintended directions.   Nonetheless, when our creation hits a wall, we can redeem it. 

That happened at a meeting in my living room a few weeks ago when the actors and I got tangled in our own plotlines.   It began to look as if there was no "who" in our "whodunnit."  Then one of our actors, Laura, pointed out a simple connection that we'd all missed, and we had found the truth, built into our work as if it had been planned!

Now, to address that other issue, making light of murder, I cite C. S. Lewis's brief discussion of dirty jokes.  The fun in them isn't in the subject matter, but in the incongruous images they conjure for us.  Like a joke, the murder - mystery - dinner comedy is a form that generates delight from the ingenious and incongruous mixing and matching of familiar tropes -- jealousy, venality, cupidity, and fatality.  There's also the simple pleasure of seeing grown - ups behaving like cartoon versions of ourselves.

So, here's to DESPERATE CHURCH LADIES.  The script is in the hands of the director and the actors who created from scratch the characters that they will portray.   I'm eager to see this creation living and breathing, April 20 and 21.