Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tony Kushner, part 2

Saturday night I went to see the collection of short plays by Tony Kushner, Tiny Kushner, as the last selection of our yearlong subscription to the Dowling Theater at the Guthrie, the black box theater. The whole season has showcased virtuoso acting performances. Tony Kushner was sure to challenge the actors and the audience, and I was interested to see what "ideas" would be played out on the stage. Because everyone keeps talking about Kushner as so intellectual and thought-provoking. But the ideas in Caroline, or Change, were not that clear to me-- not as clear, certainly, as the emotional landscapes. And although I find Angels in America spectacular and compelling, I'm not sure exactly what it's trying to tell me about Mormons, Americans, homosexuality or Roy Cohn. The plays I'd seen so far were a swirl of psychology, politics, sexual identity and postmodern approaches to theater. There are ideas there, I know. But I couldn't really distill any of them for you.

Driving in, I heard an interview of Kushner, a rebroadcast from earlier this week, with the local MPR personality Kerri Miller. Here's a link to the entire interview, which does seem to get more fully into his work. The excerpt on Saturday was not very helpful for me as I tried to think about his ideas and world view. At one point, when Miller followed up on a question about his self-doubt, he said, "This feels like therapy," sort of as an aside. Then he answered the question, listing all the things that make him feel disappointed in himself. I believe it started with, "When I'm not as good as Shakespeare," or something like that. The interview did do more to probe Tony Kushner's psychological makeup than his process and ideas, which was too bad. It was interesting, however, to hear that he thinks Caroline, or Change is his best work, and just how autobiographical it's setting and situation is.

Of the short plays, two were amazing. Two others did this thing he does, setting up dialogues between dead people, that the actors raised above the material-- the concepts were not that interesting to me. The first, Flip Flop Fly!, was a dialogue between the recently dead Queen of Albania and a 1920s beauty queen from St. Louis. The other one I thought was weak, Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise, also between dead people, was a therapy session between Richard Milhaus Nixon's therapist (in "paradise") and this therapist's therapist. It was a psychoanalysis of Richard Nixon-- but with the sense that it is important to get to the bottom of that psyche because perhaps Nixon could have somehow been directed otherwise (and Hitler could have been directed otherwise?) if he'd gotten, well, good therapy. A third play also involved therapy, but was part of an "assignment" to write plays based on Shakespearean sonnets, and felt like a verbal/analytical exercise in the nature of homosexual love. It was good and enjoyable and made great use of the sonnet's theme.

One of the amazing plays is the last one, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, in which Laura Bush addresses (imaginary) dead Iraqi children on chairs at the front of the stage. The actress, Katie Eifrig, who also played the Queen of Albania, did a Laura Bush that was spot on. Mrs. Bush tells the children about the story of The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov in preparation to reading to them from the book. She also considers their plight, as an angel tells her how they died. She tries blaming their deaths on Saddam Hussein, but the angel holds her somewhat accountable. And because it is Laura Bush and not her husband or Dick Cheney (about whom she makes nice, light jokes we liberal audience members can laugh along with), she is us. She is feeling the weight of the death of children, and so are we, the audience members, because there is a truth about her and a genuineness that is Kushner's real triumph here, as well as the actress's. So it is that we, Americans, who might like to blame our former leaders, have to realize we are tied up in this too. I don't understand Dostoevsky any better than I did before the play, or know quite what use Kushner's putting this tale to, though that might not be Kushner's fault but my own. There is, however, no denying the emotional and moral weight of the scene he presents us with on the stage.

The best of the five plays is East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: A little teleplay in tiny monologues. This is Kushner pushing the boundaries of the genre again, because the script is for a teleplay, with that kind of "shot" direction (interior/exterior, etc) and character description. But it's a one-man show, with actor Jim Lichtscheidl taking on 22 of characters of all ethnicities, ages and both genders. First he reads the character description and sets the scene, then inhabits the characters in a very brief monologue. The play is based on the true story from the early '90s of how hundreds of New York City workers-- most of them cops in housing projects, transportation, the prisons and throughout the system-- adopted a scheme to stop paying taxes, following the advice of a man named Leonard with a white supremacist organization in Indiana. A single prisoner at Rikers Island connected them to the white supremacist, with the help of a housing authority cop's daughter who is able to use the Internet.

The story, it becomes clear, is about the joint disaffection of these city workers of various ethnicity, who don't feel they owe taxes to a government of a country they don't feel fully part of. At one point a "scary black girl" gives a speech in class about the Social Contract, the balance between liberty and protection by the government, and that does bring all this together. What about the common good? How is it they feel they are part of a soulless system, rather than servants of the common good? They are the government, but stop paying taxes, claiming to be non-resident non-alien aliens, a category it is pointed out to them eventually does not exist. It is also a good commentary on how we got into this mess-- the devolution of values, personal responsibility and common sense that led to the economic meltdown.

My first thought was that I wished it was a teleplay. What was gained by having this actor do so much work, and me do so much work to follow it? But as he brought together the Sikh, the Italian-American, the Puerto Rican student, the middle-aged black clerk, the prison guard, and all the rest-- and did it with great subtlety and attention to detail, without caricature, it made great sense to me. It had great power. These people are connected, should be united in a web of mutuality. They are me/us/America. But they don't feel that way-- or their unity is based on disenfranchisement at some large, moral level. It was definitely food for thought.

In all, the plays were a good mix. They were engaging and beautifully written, as well as superbly acted. I laughed out loud and also felt very sad. I felt what Kushner so often provokes, amazement. And I'm looking forward to seeing the third play in the series later this month.

Link to review of Caroline, or Change on this blog.

Hey, this is my 100th entry. Thank you to everyone who has been reading, only an entry or two or all of them! I try to blog twice a week and to blog something worth reading. So far, it's been going pretty well! If you feel like giving ME a review, feel free to comment!

No comments: