Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Claire's Book Club: The Inciting Incident

I have the same bad habit most book (and theatre) lovers have: I buy more plays than I can actually read. They teeter dangerously on my nightstand and crowd my shelves like rush hour MUNI commuters. Orphaned about my apartment, these scripts stare longingly at me as I ignore them in favor of lesser entertainments. Yet I still thrill at the hunt every time I enter a new or used bookstore. I make a beeline for the drama section and comb the shelves looking for the next play that will inspire or corrupt, enlighten or injure, entertain or enrage. But after a recent trip to the Friends of the Library Book Sale (where I bought literally pounds of new plays), I have decided that enough is enough. I must read what I own.

Why not write about it as I go? Readers, here's the mission: I intend to work my way through the pile of plays on my nightstand (and shelves, and coffee table) to relieve my buyer's guilt and, perhaps, inspire a little critical discussion along the way. Twice a month, I will write reviews of the plays I have read, as a way of keeping myself accountable and exposing you the reader to writers new and old.

The Reading List:
The Shipment by Young Jean Lee, TCG
The Revenger's Tragedy credited to Cyril Tourneur (or Thomas Middleton, depending on what day of the week it is), edited by Lawrence J. Ross, University of Nebraska Press

The Shipment by Young Jean Lee, TCG

"Ever hear the one about the white theater critic and the black identity-politics play by the Korean-American writer?"
- David Cote, writing in the New York Times about The Shipment in 2009.

This play requires five actors. Four male, one female. All African American. The costuming and props are specific and integral to the script. The set for the first half of the show doesn't have to be much more then acting blocks, but the second half requires realism. I would not recommend this play for actors looking for monologues or scene work for classes and auditions unless guided by a coach or teacher. This play is not for the faint of heart--it pushes buttons and experiments with structure and narrative.

The Shipment is the first play by Young Jean Lee I have had the privilege to read. I knew I was going to love it before I even cracked the binding. I fell in love with Lee at first New York Times online review sight. I love a creator with mendacity/audacity/tenacity...and the talent and wisdom to back it up.

The play is really a treatise on the depiction of race in the entertainment industry (and specifically in live theatre). Using clichés and caricatures as her broad strokes, Lee builds her story so the audience is unsure of who the joke is on until the last line. The Shipment contains one of the most powerful endings I've ever read. I can't get it out of my head. The play is often funny, but each punch line is really a set up for the conclusion.

The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur (or Thomas Middleton or someone else...)

Fourteen or more speaking parts. Numerous nobles and judges and rabble. Only three women's roles. There's plenty of opportunity for double casting, but I wouldn't recommend changing the genders of the characters unless there is a specific concept in mind. This is an English language Jacobean tragedy, and can be performed with a unit set and basic props and costuming. Weapons will be needed as the last scene is an utter and all-consuming bloodbath. Good monologues for men, and some really great scenes for two or three actors. The question is: Is it a tragedy, dark with gruesome horrors...or is it a dark comedy, gruesome for its satirical treatment of horror?

Gratiana: No, he was too wise to trust me with his thoughts.
Vindince: I'faith then, father, thou wast wise indeed;
"Wives are but made to go to bed and to feed."

Women suffer page after page of this sort of treatment. When a woman isn't being raped, she’s seducing or killing or worse…whining. There are only whores and virgins in the world of this play, except all the virgins are raped and turned into whores. When a rapist is brought before a judge he says of his crimes: "My fault being sport; let me but die in jest." What a guy.

So, this play was not funny "ha ha." But, the more I read, the more absurd the treatment of women became and I began to wonder at it's purpose. Tourneur seems to be about pushing buttons, not unlike Young Jean Lee. The scenarios are so ridiculous, the plots so confusing, the twists so twisty that I couldn't help but find in these pages true flashes of satiric subversion and a devilish eyebrow cocked toward a bloody patriarchy.

A closing tip for voracious readers:

My favorite place to hunt for new plays is a university book store. If you've ever wanted to break into the reading lists of the best theatre minds in the country, run to the universities where they teach and stand in the bookstore line. San Francisco State University is an excellent resource for new plays. Yes, I order plays from Samuel French, TCG and Amazon, but for those days when I just want to browse and don’t want to be once again disappointed by a Borders or some other big chain, the SFSU Bookstore is a great place to go.

So…what are you reading?

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