Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Sister in This House by Wendy Kesselman

Okay. This one was surprisingly disturbing. And let's talk about why. On the surface (and honestly, for the majority of the play), it seems like a harmless, almost dry dramatic text about two sisters who work as maids in the same house and about the mother and daughter they work for. Most of the conversations revolve around new hats and embroidery and polishing silverware. The only moments of discord are oddly highlighted (mostly silent) exchanges, looks, etc. between women. It is not until the near end of the play that we realize that the two sisters are lovers. Yeah. I'm still trying to find the foreshadowing for that little turn of events. Did not see it coming. In the end, they are discovered by the mother and daughter who they proceed to violently murder (including ripping out the mother's eyes). The younger sister is sentenced to years of hard labor and the older sister is hung by the neck until dead. Again, I say it. Yeah. To make matters creepier, this play is based on a real murder trial of two maids. Some compelling (if watery) monologues but overall, not a play that left me with a real impression of anything except sorrow, loss, and pain.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Full-Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti


"What's the worst thing you can call a woman? Don't hold back, now. You're probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank. Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I've even heard the term 'mangina.' Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult."

-Jessica Valenti, Full-Frontal Feminism, Chapter 1

Valenti's purpose in writing this text was to expose young women to what they weren't being told about feminism. She wrote to debunk the major myths and arguments against feminism. She wrote to encourage the younger generations to speak up about social injustices.

It is too common to dismiss the feminist movement as a dated experience or a man-hating festival or anything else that makes it easy to ignore. The problem comes when a book like Full-Frontal Feminism challenges the myths and lays out some of the bare-bones facts. I'm not saying the book isn't without its problems but the overall message is a good one.

I would boil it down like this: Feminism is women AND men who care about the rights of women. Feminism recognizes the unspoken, silent oppression of women (and others) and chooses to expose it. Feminism recognizes that half the battle is the information women DON'T receive.

It is not always a protest or a crowd or a televised event. Feminism can be small, too. It may be as simple as reminding yourself that wearing make-up is fun but it's only a social construct that tells you make-up is what makes you beautiful. It could be helping another woman get the real facts about the wage gap or their rights to birth control. It could be volunteering at a rape crisis center or a women's shelter. It might be passing a book on to a friend. Like any movement, it is most earth-shattering when occurring person to person.

It is not an anti-man movement. It is an anti-phallic-centric movement. We're not talking about women being better than men. We're talking about women's stories and strengths and needs being as valid as men's.

Valenti also addresses the pressure put on men to be "men." And not some grandiose, ultimate standard of masculinity. No, we're talking about a cultural standard. "Men drink beer. Men watch sports. Men don't get tied down by one 'chick.'" If those arbitrary statements (which I have heard spouted in pop culture) define manhood, my father is out.

The fact is, if we allow culture to define femininity or masculinity, we come up short. We're left with sound bytes and commercials that say real women have shiny hair (that just comes like that) and shaved legs (to feel like your inner "goddess") and tanned skin (but no skin cancer) and lengthening mascara (for an all-natural look) and size 2 bodies (because they eat a certain brand of yogurt and go to meetings and pop a pill and, oh, hell, just starve yourselves!).

Most of our lives, we are told, as women, that the choices we make will determine whether boys will like us. And so much of it is wrapped up in consumerism. And I don't mean to oversimplify here or say that all the people in our lives believe this. But think about it. Buy this product and you'll look like those girls who are getting checked out by those guys. You need to be thinner (but natural), sexier (but not a whore - I'm talking to YOU, Cosmo Magazine!), more successful (but not more successful than him - he'll get a complex), and be a mother/career woman/athlete/cheerleader/chef/maid/etc.

And believe me, this is not a "men's fault" issue. It's not. This is about what we allow our daughters to grow up thinking. EVERYTHING in a little girl's life is geared towards this. It starts with the baby doll and the Barbie (and I don't care how far she's come, Barbie is still a platinum blond with unnaturally large breasts and a foot arch that only suits her to high heels and everything she wears, rides, or lives in still comes in hot pink). Little girls are being taught a few things very, very early: 1) If you don't have the latest diapers, clothes, accessories for your dolls, you're not like the happy little girl in the picture (and if you think I'm exaggerating, watch a kid's channel for an hour or two), 2) The major means of fulfillment is through motherhood (and I am NOT saying there is ANYTHING wrong with being a mother). But what happens to little girls who grow up and don't get married? Or who are physically incapable of bearing children? Or who simply don't want to be mothers? What kind of message does this send? If our fulfillment comes in getting a man and having babies, then what happens to these little girls? Are they simply less fulfilled?

Valenti argues that even though we glorify motherhood and shame women who make a different choice, our society makes it very difficult on mothers. Australia and the U.S. are the only two industrialized nations who do not have mandatory paid maternity leave. In addition, there is no nationally funded childcare. The estimated cost of childcare for a low-income family is 37% of monthly income. Women who breastfeed in public are often humiliated or forced to leave. So not only do we expect women to become mothers but we expect them to do it in the privacy of their homes.

There is also much discussion in the book about what Valenti calls, "the rape culture." This is an attitude engendered in both men and women through pop culture, porn, and mainstream society that basically assigns women as "there" for men. This is why things like sexual harassment and date rape continue to occur at an alarming rate. We're not just talking about forced sexual assault, although that is a real and terrible part of this. We're talking about a culture that says that if a guy buys a girl a drink, he has a claim on her time. A culture that says groping a girl without her permission is okay because she's drunk and having fun. A culture that says that when a girl says 'no,' she means 'yes' because that's what happens in pornography all the time (Speaking of which, a lot of this attitude comes from the virgin/whore issue which basically says that women shouldn't have sexual desire, stemming a hundred years back to when women were not expected to enjoy sex, merely endure it at their husband's pleasure. So she says 'no' meaning 'yes' because she's being coy and modest. Gross.) This "rape culture" means that defense lawyers can call up a woman's past in court and say that because she isn't a virgin or because she partied a lot or she was wearing a skirt, she must have been asking for it. No joke. Not trying to be sarcastic here. It's the ugly truth.

Valenti sums up one of the biggest problems with these attitudes. We make women's safety women's responsibility. Let me list off five ways we do that.

1) Many abstinence-only sex ed curriculum actually states things like, "If you don't aim to please, don't aim to tease" and "Teenage boys who try to say no will have a hard time if a girl is dressed provocatively. Girls aren't as interested in sex so it's up to them to keep it from going farther." Basically, the way you dress will indicate to a man what you will and won't do sexually. By the way, this whole dress issue isn't even about being revealing. Valenti cites a rape trial in Italy that was dismissed because a woman was wearing jeans and she couldn't have been raped because the attacker couldn't have gotten the jeans off by himself. Yeah. Okay. So it's her fault. Ladies, if you're going to get raped, make sure you wear a skirt so people will believe you!

2) Things like self-defense classes, rape whistles, and pepper spray. Walking quickly through dark parking lots and dead-bolting your door. Don't misunderstand. These are very helpful, and unfortunately, necessary tools women can employ. But again, women's safety becomes women's responsibility. Not men's.

3) The whole concept of teasing - this can include: going on a date and letting him pay, kissing him, and even being alone with him. A woman (or man) has every right to say 'no' at any time. This whole "past the point of no return" stuff is completely and utterly stupid.

4) A sexual history. The morality of this issue is for a different blog but the fact is, no woman deserves to be raped. I don't care if she's had one partner or fifty. And the validity of her accusation does not disappear with every consensual sexual encounter. Screw that. Valenti makes a statement to this effect: "I don't care if you're a drunk, naked, passed-out prostitute. No one deserves to be raped." You'd think this wouldn't even be an issue but it is. I personally know several women who have received this qualification: "Well, she said it was rape but, I mean, how many people has she slept with?"

5) "If she didn't fight back or scream, it wasn't sexual assault." This is a big lie. In traumatic situations, the human body reacts in the way it believes will most likely promote survival. If your body has been conditioned to accept trauma by not responding, "freezing," or keeping quiet, it does not mean that you were a willing participant. If you said you didn't want to, if you said no, if you said you weren't interested in sex, etc., you were assaulted. In self-defense classes, they tell you that if you didn't fight back or you "allowed" it to happen, you may have done the right thing. Predators and attackers are unpredictable. If you survived, you did the right thing. And again, this one is especially disturbing because once again, the responsibility is put on a woman's shoulders. This isn't just true of women, though. Men, women, and children who are victimized are often afraid that they "wanted it" somehow because they didn't (or were unable) to fight back. This is NOT TRUE.

This blog could go on for a very long time. The truth is, faults aside, this book deeply touched me and made me feel very passionate about some of the injustices allowed to happen daily. I encourage men and women to read it. Take it for what it is - one person's point of view. But try and open your heart to the possibility that maybe all is not well in the world for women or men. The revolution starts in the palm of your hand, not in the streets or in the Senate.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

As Bees In Honey Drown

Douglas Carter Beane wrote a play. Apparently, it was a critical success. Frankly, I just don't see it. I felt myself predicting the end halfway through. There were some funny monologues, some cute interchanges. But it was so..."theatrey." So that's not a word.

Maybe I'm sheltered but I have a really hard time imagining that someone like Alexa Vere de Vere exists. And, of course, I understand that's the point of the play. Characters are drawn to Alexa because she seems to be from another reality, a more glamorous time for artists and thinkers and, well, humans. One character even goes so far as to say that people believe her lies because they want them to be true. I feel like there are some deep-ish moments that linger with you. "As bees in honey drown" is a particularly lasting line.

Bu she is just too over-the-top for me. The tragedy is that this all borders on the comedic. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, this is a satire. Sure, ok. But can it satirize itself? It goes too far into the world of frothy dialogue and New York socialites and fur coats and "daaaaaaaahling" for me to feel any kind of real pain for Evan or Alexa in their individual downfalls. The glibness robs it of any true kind of dramatic power.

The play centers around the concept of identity. "No one wonderful is born that way," Alexa says. Evan (whose real name is not Evan) is an up and coming writer who is shepherded into a world of money, society, and fast circles by the faux legend, Alexa Vere de Vere, who in the style of all great socialites throws money and clothes around, name drops like acid, and laughs ever so gaily at the little intricacies of life (isn't it grand? isn't it divine?). But the first act curtain drops leaving us with the not-at-all-surprising knowledge that Alexa is not Alexa (gasp) but some little nobody who made up a fake and much cooler persona which she uses to rip "almost famous" people off. The second act is Evan's journey to discover the "real" Alexa. In the end (spoiler alert), Evan, with the help of all the other people Alexa has ruined, sets her up for humiliation. But she beats him to the punch and shows up at his apartment, offering him a job working for her as an assistant con-man. Evan says 'no,' Alexa screams something about him needing her, and he goes on to write a novel about her called, (who would have thought) As Bees In Honey Drown. Alexa is enraged. The...end? It falls flat, frankly.

I am not unstirred by the questioning of young people searching for their self-worth and purpose, blahblahblah. It's the utter cliche of this particular story. Alexa is not just unbelievable because she's so fabulous but because I just can't picture her in modern day New York City or LA or anywhere else. This one lacks credibility for me.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Betrayal by Harold Pinter

A short two acts full of the requisite Pinter pauses, banal dialogue, and 1970's chic. The characters are inherently British and somehow, their affair seems distinctly British. The basic plot is as follows: Jerry has an affair with his best friend Robert's wife, Emma for seven years. In my mind, the most interesting feature of the play is its story structure which begins at the end and goes backwards. Pinter is almost overly specific regarding time and location. I wonder how this is interpreted/communicated in production. Though mostly realistic in styling, Pinter borders on absurdity with exchanges like the following:

Jerry: Is he the one who's always been here or is it his son?
Robert: You mean has his son always been here?
Jerry: No, is he his son? I mean, is he the son of the one who's always been here?
Robert: No, he's his father.
Jerry: Ah. Is he?

Overall, an easy read, not necessarily a standout in dramatic literature but one can see why Pinter is iconic. Certainly, the exchanges of dialogue are interesting exercises in subtext, which Pinter seems to feed on.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Could not put this one down. Written by Ed Graczyk, this is a great piece of nostalgia with enough dramatic irony to be a decent script. An almost completely female-driven plot which is pretty significant in the world of dramatic literature. The plot device that employs the use of James Dean is evidence enough that myth is the most powerful way to the human heart. The story jumps back and forth between 1975 and 1955 and revolves around a James Dean fan club that became obsessed with the pop culture icon. With plenty of historical references and exquisite details, this one is worth the read. The film stars Kathy Bates and Cher (which might be enough to make me watch it)...

Favorite quote: "More than love? There's nothin' more than's the end...No, Sissy, you're wrong. There's something beyond the end."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rehearsal for the Revolution

In his text, Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal demands that we "tear down the wall between audience and actor." A sophisticated argument, Boal details the history of oppression that underlies Aristotelian dramatic structure, from the formal beginnings of theatre in Greece to the present day.

Some of the central ideas:
  • Theatre began as an entity for the people, all amassed together to chant, etc. in dithyrambic odes. When Thespis stepped out of the chorus, he aristocratized the institution of theatre by separating himself from the people.
  • The tragic hero is a manipulation of the spectator. He represents nobility and higher social status. Through the elements of Aristotelian tragedy including hamartia (the one flaw that leads both to the tragic hero's prosperity and sudden downfall), anagnorisis (the recognition of this flaw), and the audience's experience of catharsis, the spectator is subversively forced into empathy with the hero, who oppresses them.
  • Boal argues that theatre for the people must involve the people. It must be a democratic process by which all members of the audience help to determine the outcome.
  • Catharsis must be eliminated as it purges us of the "impure." This purging keeps us from acting on the emotion we feel within the story.
  • Theatre must not be the revolution itself, but the rehearsal for it. An audience who experiences revolutionary triumph during the performance will also experience catharsis, preventing them from revolting in reality.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Towards a Poor Theatre

Jerzy Grotowski, arguably one of the most innovative theatre directors of the 20th century, here attempts to summarize his methodology, both in evolution and in practice. Grotowski, heavily influenced by the work of Antonin Artaud and Berthold Brecht, was obsessed with uncovering the true nature of humanity through intense discipline and unique physical exercise (Exercise plastique) throughout the rehearsal process. He believed strongly in myth and ritual being used as the sources for productions. A set was never used twice. Grotowski experimented heavily with radical blocking that placed actors behind, between and almost underneath spectators. He expected a rigorous and almost monastic life-style from his company of actors. They were to focus on ridding themselves of external concerns and pride, never to strive for glory or personal recognition but always to act as "medium" to the audience, allowing them to experience deep human truth through the actor, as if staring through a window.

I find the theories and practices of Grotowski interesting. For example, his explanation of an actor's relationship to his own body (the "conversation" between the hand touching the leg, etc.) and also the notes on vocal resonance (speaking through certain parts of the body, in order to fill yourself with sound).

It is, however, difficult to apply Grotowski's methods after a mere reading of his text. This would be like trying to apply Meisner's repetition work after reading an essay on it. I have a hard time grasping Grotowski's metholody completely since the work has lost something in its translation from Polish to English. I feel this kind of work must be observed first hand.

Grotowski's work seems to me a good jumping off place for work in movement. However, I don't believe he is an "end all to end all" in terms of acting technique, just as Stanislavsky, Meisner, Adler, etc., etc., etc. cannot be said to be. He is a tool in an actor's belt, one way of achieving emotional honesty on the stage.

New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

So I read this one shortly after Twilight and even though it's been a few months, I felt it warranted a review. Now having completed Meyer's whole series, I can even more appreciate this book. However, it is the "Empire Strikes Back" book, if you will, the middle child. It's the most depressing of the four, mostly because, Edward is missing for the majority of the novel. Sure, his absence creates extensive growth in Bella and allows her time to befriend Jacob Black. But Bella's depression does grow tiresome and leaves one wondering, was she ever happy before Edward Cullen? All in all, great addition to the series. This one has some of the most action-packed sequences, especially in the last third of the book.

Friday, November 7, 2008

An Athlete of the Heart

In his 1938 text Le Theatre et son Double, Antonin Artaud writes, "In this theatre all creation comes from the stage, finds its expression and its origins alike in a secret psychic impulse which is Speech before words." The Theatre and Its Double is a work that combines letters, manifestos, and essays that detail Artaud's thoughts on the nature and purpose of theatre.

He compares the essential or living theatre to a plague that sweeps through, burning, stripping away the deadness. Artaud believes that theatre must cleanse or purge the audience of that which is unneccessary to get to the ultimate, cosmic truth.

Artaud spends a great deal of the book comparing Occidental and Oriental theatre. He uses many examples from the Balinese theatre to explain what he sees as key differences. Western theatre: tied up in the text, focused on the psychological, striving for realism, purely verbal, and using conflicts that relate only to what can be spoken or verbally expressed. Eastern theatre: uses gestures and spiritual "signs" to communicate every state of being, the voice's connection to the body, the way that sound and movement create meaning together, and a sense of "heightened" realism.

There is a demand for throwing out the "elite" of theatre. "No more masterpieces," he says. We must have works that are relevant to our contemporary audience. If the audience does not understand or appreciate the work it sees, it is the theatre's fault, Artaud argues. We have put art on a pedestal. We have distanced the audience from it.

This concept of distance troubled Artaud. He called for something new, something he named, "The Theatre of Cruelty." He believed that the theatre must overrun, overwhelm, and shock its audience into feeling. He spoke of reverberrations (something not unlike Luis Valdez' use of the word "vibrations"). While Brecht tries to achieve recognition of truth in his spectator through the Verfremdungseffekt (or alienation effect), Artaud strives to accomplish the same goal in the opposite way, by surrounding the audience, overwhelming it with sharp sounds, lights, costumes, etc.

The use of myth by Artaud is especially interesting as it would go on to influence theatre practioners like Jerzy Grotowski. Artaud believed that that which is human in all of us can only be truly reached through the use of the myth (myth being something ingrained in all humans, a story that has become part of tradition). This kind of story strikes a subconscious chord in which we understand a fundamental, deeper truth.

Favorite quote: "The actor is an athlete of the heart."

One of the major problems with Artaud is that he left no practical way to accomplish his mandates. While many scholars, writers, and directors agree with his assessment of the need for this kind of new theatre, it seems impossible to apply his theories without bastardizing them somehow. We do not know what Artaud meant by everything he said. We can only speculate and interpret.

The other issue I have encountered in examing this text is simply: Who determines this deeper truth the spectator supposedly will connect with when experiencing the "Theatre of Cruelty?" Does the director enter a project with a truth to communicate or does Artaud expect some deeper cosmic meaning to occur to each individual audience member as he or she feels it?

Overall, I feel that the sentiments of Artaud are note-worthy and can perhaps be applied, IF there is a goal. For instance, if I overwhelm an audience with heavy drumbeats or piercing screams in order to cause them to feel something specific so that their attention is drawn to something very particular, I feel that this is worthwhile. But the fear I have in applying Artaud is that taken out of context, screams, flashing lights, and strange noises only confuse.

The theatre must be a place of light, not darkness and confusion. If using these techniques brings about enlightenment, then they can be said to be worthwhile exercises.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Do I Dazzle You?" - Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Compelling enough that I read 400 pages in a night. A tad adolescent, maybe a little angsty, but thrilling and wonderful all the same. Some brilliant descriptive passages, an interesting take on the mythos of vampires, and some interesting character developments.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Beloved (Part 1)

Working my way through Toni Morrison's Beloved right now. I am most struck by the many layers of imagery. For instance, Morrison described the "cherry tree" in Sethe's back. Is this merely a description of the scars from her whip lashing? Are there literally pieces of wood stuck in her back? And what else does this tree represent? As of now, it seems to carry all of her pain, and yet be a sign of hope peering through the despair. I am so caught by this idea. The arrival of Beloved herself is another point of interest to me. I hope I will not be proven wrong but I get this sense that Beloved is some sort of reincarnation of the dead baby girl. I feel that while she seems to exist without purpose within the world of the story, her appearance and continuous presence in 124 is significant and full of meaning. We'll see.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"That killed me."

"What really knocks me out is a book, when you're all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."

Ditto, Holden. Ditto. I have not been so sad to say goodbye to a book in a very long time. I felt so worried and afraid for Caulfield and so enamored with his little sister and her selflessness. Salinger nailed it on the head. I realized in the end that Holden wasn't merely self-absorbed, but hopelessly idealistic and noble. He had this idea of a perfect world of decency and human kindness, without hypocrisy (phonies), without demoralization. He is disenchanted, disillusioned with a culture fixated on the immediate, on the shallow, on the surface.

Also, have not read a book silently that made me laugh out loud quite so hard, possibly ever. Example: "Sensitive. That killed me. That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a toilet seat."

The book is interesting, as well, since it only details Holden's life as it occurs in the span of 72 hours or less, although it narrates much of his past in between. Salinger seems to make a concerted effort to put you in the sleepless state that Holden is in, so that you may, at last, understand his fury...and his disappointment.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What kind of punctuation mark am I?

You Are a Colon

You are very orderly and fact driven.

You aren't concerned much with theories or dreams... only what's true or untrue.

You are brilliant and incredibly learned. Anything you know is well researched.

You like to make lists and sort through things step by step. You aren't subject to whim or emotions.

Your friends see you as a constant source of knowledge and advice.

(But they are a little sick of you being right all of the time!)

You excel in: Leadership positions

You get along best with: The Semi-Colon

"All her kings in the back row..." - Catcher in the Rye - Impressions I

So now that I am four chapters in, I have decided to post some thoughts. I distinctly think 3 things:

1) Holden Caulfield is a spoiled prep-school richie who complains about everything.

2) I don't want to like Holden Caulfield.

3) I like Holden Caulfield.

In addition, the language thus far is dated, but perhaps, this adds to the charm of Salinger's writing. The swearing seems awfully unneccessary but I understand its place in this book. I am still asking myself why Holden continues to keep my attention. I will admit that, in spite of his obvious flaws, he makes some very valid observations about human nature, about why we really do what we do. Indeed, Salinger seems to have a finger on the humanity button.
Favorite quote so far: "I used to play checkers with her all the time...She wouldn't move any of her kings. What she'd do, when she'd get a king, she wouldn't move it. She'd just leave it in the back row. She'd get them all lined up in the back row. Then she'd never use them. She just liked the way they looked when they were all in the back row...Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row."