Saturday, February 05, 2011

 


Mercedes Ruehl & Bess Rous

By coincidence, I happened to be in Princeton on the day Milton Babbitt died in his adopted home town there, not to hear music but see theater, The How and the Why, at the McCarter Theater. The play stars Oscar, Tony & Obie winner Mercedes Ruehl & Bess Rous, a younger actress with a variety of TV credits (Mad Men, Law & Order), but a longer, earlier career as a competitive ice dancer. Directed by Emily Mann, the play was written by Sarah Treem, a writer and producer of one of my favorite television series, In Treatment.

Two-person plays are interesting in that they offer us drama pretty much stripped to its most elemental, contesting voices in an author’s head dropped onto those narrativizing contexts we call characters. The great trick is of course to make the characters seem real, plausible to an audience. That’s a much tougher trick than it seems – even a half-hour TV sitcom like Big Bang Theory offers its viewers five regular characters to bounce off one another for 22 minutes. An hour-long show like NCIS gives us an ensemble of eight, spending as much as half of its 45 minutes wading through the back stories and interactions of the group so that you don’t have to spend too terribly long on any one figure. Around these core groups there are almost always additional recurring characters, seeding their imagined worlds with even more points of complexity, often just for the sake of complexity. On Big Bang Theory, one of the scientists lives with his mother, never seen but often heard – she has all the maternal instincts of Mickey Rourke.

What makes In Treatment, an adaptation of the successful Israeli series BeTipul, so interesting is that the therapeutic setting is a perfect social context for precisely this mode of stripped-down drama. As somebody who has been in therapy, off & on, for a quarter of a century, the makers of In Treatment get it right. The series proceeds with several concurrent story lines per season (five for the first two, four for the third), most with solo patients – there was a couple the first season, a divorcing family the second – with the last reserved for the therapist’s own session with his therapist / supervisor. So you have, over the course of a cycle, as many players involved as does Big Bang Theory, but the dramatic setting is (save for the group sessions) almost always one-to-one. Even here you can feel the twitchiness of the producers, as if this were too bare, too stark for them to hold still for. The therapist, Peter Weston, has a family, gets a divorce, moves to Brooklyn, has a session with one client (a ten-year-old boy) in a playground, gets sued, meets his lawyer at her office (only to discover that she’s an old client), etc. But the best sessions, the best episodes, always, have been the one-on-ones. Mia Wasikowska, before she was Alice-in-Wonderland, before she was Jane Eyre, showed that she could handle the unrelenting focus of going up against Gabriel Byrne and hold her own. Alison Pill is another actress whose work on that series stands out, even more than her portrayal of Anne Kronenberg in Milk.

In The How and the Why, Treem takes this same stripped-down format & it gives it a completely different context, a university not unlike Princeton, and a confrontation between a senior faculty member, evolutionary biologist Zelda Kahn, and Columbia grad student Rachel Hardeman, in town to meet this eminence whose work she is challenging in her own research. There are two acts, one in Kahn’s office on campus prior to a major conference, the second at a student bar a couple of weeks later after Hardeman has suffered a couple of devastating losses. The repartee between the two scientists, much of it centered around the scientific issues posed by menstruation and menopause, is fast-paced, smart & often just plain theoretical. If you like smart in your theater, this play is a total pleasure. That it’s willing to give us that with only women on stage, and a decidedly femme focus to the theoretical issues, is of course the play’s social twist. At one level the narrative’s thrust is that we know the how of menstruation & menopause – and the evolutionary embarrassing scientific question of why do women live beyond their childbearing years – but what is up for grabs is the why of it. A quick peek at Wikipedia entry for the grandmother hypothesis demonstrates that it is every bit as controversial (and derided) as the characters complain in the play.

But really what makes this play work is that both actresses are completely up for playing brilliant characters onstage. That isn’t as easy as it might look, as innumerable performances on screen over the years have shown – Cher as a lawyer, or the nonsense of Numb3rs, Robert Downey, Jr. & Jude Law as Holmes & Watson, Harrison Ford as an archaeologist, Nicholas Cage in anything beyond Raising Arizona or Leaving Los Vegas. Even when the actor or actress is smart – Cher would be a good example (her performances in Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean & Silkwood show her at her best as one of the finer actresses of the past half century) – playing somebody with a specialist’s depth of knowledge, and a specialist’s passion is not easy.

The first time I ever paid attention to Mercedes Ruehl was in the promotional run-up to The Fisher King in 1991, for which she won an Oscar. What attracted her to the role, she said in an interview at the time, was not director Terry Gilliam or the chance to work with Robin Williams, but her love for that section of The Waste Land. That any actor even recognized that allusion was what struck me then. This was not one of those narcissistic airheads that European directors used to deride as “cows,” useful only for distributing around a landscape.

Ruehl shows it here too. She has the more difficult of the two roles, in that she has to play off the white-hot anger & resentment that radiates off Bess Rous’ Hardeman. She manages the much wider register of emotions all with ease, and it’s a generous performance. She and Rous make the theoretical discussion come across as though discussing theory were as natural as the weather.

The How and The Why has gotten a number of good reviews, but I’ve been more intrigued at some of the more mixed or negative ones, not all of which have been written by men. The two complaints that turn up is that some of the coincidences in the narrative seem “fairly contrived,” which is one of those totally bogus complaints in a world in which, say, Shakespeare existed. The other is that Rous’ character comes across as too angry.

As somebody whose relationship to my father is not dissimilar to the one Rous' character has with her birth mother, I totally buy Rous’ attitude. I think my younger brother, whose situation even more closely fits the parallel, would be an even closer match. Anything less from Rous would have rung huge alarms of theatrical disbelief from me. Rous is, in fact, the reason to come see this play. Some of that may be Ruehl’s conscious generosity at work, but Rous here is a revelation. I don’t know how she managed to be doing something different for 15 years as an ice dancer, because she’s tremendous on stage.

What I pick up on from these more hesitant reviews – you can find them online easily enough, but I’m not going to add to their links here – is not just a discomfort with women talking theory, tho it is that, at one level, pure and simple. The other is that both characters here are people we would think of as high maintenance, prickly personalities, difficult women. It is really rare to see such people portrayed in theater at all, except as comedy. The How and the Why takes them completely seriously and expects you to do likewise. Why the hell not?

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Friday, February 04, 2011

 

Édouard Glissant

1928 2011

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

 

Dave Morice
publishes a 10,000 page poem!

How to bind
a ten thousand page book
(with slide show)

Poetry City Marathon
read it here
(Please note the two alternate chapters 73
not that I could find Door Number One –
& don’t miss the translation of Dante into haiku)

That’s one big book!

Peter Schjeldahl on
Painters & Poets

Talking with Tom Raworth

Close reading aloud:
Susan Schultz’ Dementia Blog
with Leonard Schwartz, Michelle Taransky,
Jamie-Lee Josselyn & Al Filreis

Code of Best Practices
in Fair Use
for Poetry

Peripheral Writing
edited by Tan Lin
in the new issue of EAOGH

Vanessa Place on
Caroline Bergvall’s
Meddle English

3 poems by
Kim Gek Lin Short

6 questions with Amy King

Talking with Joel Chace

Chace’s Periods, 16-21

Ursula K LeGuin on Roberto Bolaño

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s detached sentences

The poetry & prose of
Deborah Digges

Michael Palmer on Robert Duncan

Stephen Kessler’s obit
for F.A. Nettelbeck

The Nettelbeck archives

bring light towards you
poems from survivors of the Holocaust
with Philip Davenport & Lois Blackburn

Charles Bernstein on
Reznikoff’s voices

Yehoshua November’s
God’s Optimism

A reading to celebrate Israel

Language shapes thought

Rhetoric!

Joseph Massey’s “The Process”

Satu Kaikkonen: 7 visual poems

Kajal Ahmad’s “Pregnancy
(a translation podcast via iTunes)

Prince of Poets
competitor causes stir

Robert Pinsky on
poets under pressure

Somali poet goes into hiding

Gwen Ifill
on poetry in Haiti

Anna Yablonksaya
died in the Moscow airport bombing

Read more »

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

 

Milton Babbitt
Portrait of a Serial Composer
by Robert Hilferty & Laura Karpman

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

 

February 1 in Philadelphia (at noon)
Charles Alexander

February 1 in NYC
Launch event for Peripheral Writing: Eoagh 6
with
Alejandro Crawford, Ana Božičević, Andrew Levy,
Amy Wright, Bruce Andrews, Chris Alexander,
Diana Kingsley, E. Shaskan Bumas, Filip Marinovich,
Jeremy Sigler, Jesse Seldess, Jonathan Skinner,
Josef Kaplan, Kristen Gallagher, Marc Nasdor,
Michael Scharf, Paolo Javier, Rebecca Mertz,
Tan Lin, Traver Pam Dick & Vincent Katz

February 1 in NYC
Michael Leong & Phil Metres

February 1 in Philadelphia (6 PM)
Nathaniel Mackey

February 1 in Berkeley
Michael McClure

February 1 in NYC
Ange Mlinko & Dan Chiasson

February 1 @ Villanova
Monique Truong

February 1 in Chicago
Eden Robins, Julie Rosenthal, Jerry Schwartz,
Karen Skalitzky & Brooke Wonders

February 2 in Berkeley
Kevin Killian & Lonely Christopher

February 2 in NYC
Thomas Devaney & Dara Wier

February 2 in Davis
Chana Bloch

February 2 – 5 in Washington, DC
AWP
& also
Things to do Offsite

February 2 in Washington DC
Cave Canem Offsite at AWP
with
E.J. Antonio, Reginald Dwayne Betts,
Remica Bingham-Risher, Derrick Brown, Erica Doyle,
Jonterri Gadson, Yalonda JD Green, Rachel Eliza Griffiths,
Niki Herd, Randall Horton, Linda Susan Jackson,
Marcus Jackson, Brandon Johnson, Bettina Judd,
Rickey Laurentiis, Robin Lewis, January Gill O'Neil,
Iain Pollock, Nicole Sealey & Wendy S. Walters.

February 2 in Ellensburg, WA
Tod Marshall

February 2 – 8 in Elyria, OH
Snoetry II:
world’s longest poetry reading ever

February 3 in Berkeley
Camille T. Dungy

February 3 in Philadelphia
Cecilia Vicuña

February 3 in DC
Rae Armantrout, Anselm Berrigan, Timothy Donnelly,
Robert Fernandez, Cathy Park Hong, Ish Klein,
K. Silem Mohammad, Chris Nealon, Mel Nichols,
Ed Roberson, Elizabeth Willis, Matthew Zapruder,
Rod Smith,
more.

February 3 & 4 in Chicago
Rob Halpern

February 4 in DC
A Walking Poem Against Censorship

February 4 in Brooklyn
Debrah Morkun, Erica Kaufman, Jamie Townsend, & Matt Walker

February 4 in NYC
Sandra Alcosser, Joseph Bruchac, Alison Hawthorne Deming,
Mark Doty & Pattiann Rogers

February 4 in DC
Charles Alexander, Lee Ann Brown, Laura Moriarty,
Mark McMorris, Elizabeth Robinson, Jane Sprague,
Sasha Steensen, Cole Swensen & Rosmarie Waldrop

February 4 in Brooklyn
Debrah Morkum

February 5 in DC
2 AM reading at the Washington Monument

with
Mark Baumer, Karen Lepri, Amish Trivedi,
Mary Wilson, Dongqiao Li, Andrew Bourne,
Darren Angle, Aaron Kovalchik, Rachel Cole,
Ottessa Moshfegh, Nalini Abhiraman, Micaela Morrissette,
Robert Snyderman, Christopher Sweeney, Victoria Le,
Sarah Schwartz, David Emanuel, Sarah Tourjee,
Susannah Pabot, Ian Hatcher, Helia Rabie,
Angela Ferraiolo, & more

February 5 in DC
The Song Cave reading, with
Macgregor Card, Jared Stanley, Amaranth Borsuk,
Andy Fitch, Amanda Nadelberg, Jane Gregory
& Rod Smith

February 5 in DC
Marie Buck, Leslie Bumstead, Brandon Downing,
Buck Downs, Cathy Eisenhower, K. Lorraine Graham,
Dan Gutstein, Lacey Hunter, Ish Klein,
Doug Lang, Emily Liebowitz, K. Silem Mohammad,
Chris Nealon, Mel Nichols, Tom Orange,
Adam Roberts, Rod Smith, Sandra Simonds,
Gary Sullivan, Anna Vitale, & Ryan Walker

February 5 in DC
U of Tulsa offsite
with
Rae Armantrout, Mark McMorris, Tom Orange,
Cheryl Pallant, Grant Jenkins, Sloan Davis,
Claudia Nogueira, Melody Charles, Magnus Magnus

Read more »

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Monday, January 31, 2011

 

Milton Babbitt

1916
–– 2011

Read more »

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

 


click on the picture to start

Johanna Drucker
at the School of Visual Arts
(thanks to PennSound)

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