16 October 2012

Pumpkin Grower II: The Reviews

Oh, and then the reviews.

First, I have to say that the local papers and theatre writers were wonderful in providing inches and inches of space to promote Ghostbird Theatre Company and its premiere of my play.  The articles rightly focused on Brittney Brady and her vision.  Chris Silk and Charles Runnells also gave serious attention to the performance itself in their reviews, which were mixed.  I think both wanted to like the play, especially with something that was conceptual, a little edgy as far as Fort Myers is concerned (although we're talking about aesthetics a good 50 years old), but both had difficulties with the seeming lack of narrative, leaving the play abstract, or muddy, or not making "a lick of sense."  In brief, the shortcoming to the play was in the writing.  Fair enough. 

I really don't have anything to say about their assessments.  No, wait, I do have something to say. 

The narrative of the play essentially paralleled that in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and I intentionally wanted to be true to the slightness of narrative in Ovid's own account (which one of the reviewers doesn't quite get right--I think his use of Wikipedia is showing).  My problem with narrative, especially as it's been trapped in realistic drama, is the very thing that these reviewers clearly value.  One of the reviewers condescended to enlighten me that even a performance artist who dresses in a rabbit suit and speaks Swahili knows that he must provide some kind of a narrative entryway for his audience, to let the audience know exactly what is at stake.  I get the point.  But obviously, this was a play with a different kind of aim.  There's a significant difference between this kind of caricature of performance art and conceptual art, something that aims to weave the familiar with the destabilizing.  I note that both reviewers seem frustrated in divining some kind of symbolism from the play--there's very little of it, actually, very little.  No wonder it seemed "abstract" (when in fact, there was no abstraction at all).

The problem is that the script in conceptual work (and this one had some very clear, conventional, realistic scenes--both of which Brittney and I would cut in a reworking of the play) should serve no more than what the music, or the lighting, or the set design should supply.   The language in the play is mostly poetic and not metaphoric (this is what neither reviewer seemed to consider), and not everything is meant to be transparent, swallowable, familiar.  But that doesn't mean the work is pointless or indecipherable, but something ineffable, contingent, incomplete.  Rather than story, we wanted ritual.  Rather than story, we wanted movement.  Rather than story, we wanted soundscape and shadow.  Both reviewers were complimentary of the visuals (and I'm glad Charles especially noted Phil Heubeck's aural contributions), but they both wanted to saddle the script with the task of making the meaning clear.

So, the play is really only about a sister falling in love with her brother, who's wife has just left him.  She writes of her passion in a letter.  He rejects her.  She wanders off, guilt-stricken, grief-stricken.  Some nymphs try, haplessly, to comfort her.  She turns into a fountain.  That's all that happens.  What does it mean?  Ovid never says.  It's just a sad, sad, sad, beautiful song, and that's what we were after.

Of course, what's odd is that in the script, there are those awful moments of extended exposition (by the way, I sent both reviewers the script before the play premiered).  Here's what the character Byblis says in the play, after she learns of Caunus leaving, and you don't have to know anything about Ovid to understand what is going on:

My eyes are wide open. I knew what I was doing. I
know the laws, the rules, the customs. What law didn’t
I violate in wanting to sleep with my brother?

Euphemisms, Byb! You wanted to fuck your brother!

Okay, fuck and sleep with him. The whole soul and sex
thing. I know you get that part of the equation as
much as I do. And yes, I know how screwed up it is,
but it doesn’t change anything for me.

And you ruined him.

I know.

That’s what so messed about this.

I’m aware of that, too. He’s left. He’s back with
Jen. They’ll probably have a baby this time next year.
He’s abandoning his lousy job. He’s lost a
sister. He’s alone. That’s what so messed up about

You didn’t have to act.

You’re right.

You didn’t have to put it down in writing.


You could have stayed here. Flirted with him to your
heart’s desire. Held him, kissed him, comforted him,
grown old with him. Just like you have been doing, had
been doing, your whole life. You could have been what
you are, the good, loving sister.

Precisely so. Impossibly so.

I think this passage lays out exactly what had been at stake for the characters--hello?  My own sense of it is what I sometimes deal with students who may be reading Dean Young's poetry, who miss the absolute hilarity and its caustic bite because Young evidently doesn't know how to develop a rational argument, build an intelligible framework, and so it must be nonsense.  Ah, but dear student, there's no better nonsense than this, and what's inside, well, there's more than a little point to it.

I don't mean to say that I don't think my script didn't fail.  And the play failed--as they inevitably do-- in ways far harsher, more harrowing than what any reviewer will express.  But that's for another posting.

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