Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Missed it by . . . THAT much

The bad news is: I didn't get it.

The good news is: I was a finalist for this year's National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center for my play Beautiful Day.

Which you can read at the NPC 2013 Finalists Page here.  

Or, if you want a hard copy, get back to me offline and I'll send you one.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

William Shakespeare, 1964-2016

“If Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing television.”

You hear this sentence a lot when people speculate about the Bard (and speculation is, alas, what passes for autobiography when it comes to the author of the First Folio).  The premise behind this statement is twofold.  The first is that, in our modern media-driven culture, live theatre is pretty much dead as a livelihood, never mind as a creative pursuit, and not even a consideration for someone of Shakespeare’s talents.  The second is that those talents would be best suited for television, because you can indeed make a living doing it, and because there’s that repertory feel to a lot of comedy and drama shows that translates back to what we like to think of as the repertory camaraderie of the Chamberlain’s Men. 

That first premise is the perfect definition of Sad But True.  For better or worse (oh who am I kidding—it’s definitely for worse) these days theatre is a niche entertainment that has become, for writers, actors and directors, a stepping stone to TV and the movies.  But what about Shakespeare?

Let’s say our boy Will was born in 1964 instead of 1564, in Stratford, Connecticut.  He would have graduated high school in 1981, and almost certainly thought about going to college.  Now here’s where it gets tricky.  If we’re translating what we do know of Shakespeare’s life in contemporary terms, then we have reached a crossroad.  The Elizabethan Shakespeare was a father when he was 18; would the modern Shakespeare have married some girl from Fairfield because he got her pregnant in 1982?  It might have been what a normal kid in 1582 would have had to do, but given that normal kids in 1982 knew a thing or two about contraceptives, there’s a better than even chance that Will and Anne would have had a great little fling and gone their separate ways, which means Will would have gone to college, majored in English with a minor in the classics—and then what?  Probably gone to New York with his classmates and his connections and made a creative life for himself.  With no family to support, he could have become a starving writer, or even gotten a day job and started writing in his free time.  But writing what?  Poetry?  (Almost certainly.)  Poetic plays or plays with heightened language?  Maybe.  Maybe he’s the next David Mamet, or the American Stoppard.  Next stop: HBO, right? And The Plantagenets, Season Four.  Which makes my head hurt.

But let’s say those contraceptives didn’t do their job.  Let’s say Anne did get pregnant, and Will married her.  If he did, he probably wouldn’t have gone to college (or finished it, if he had just become a freshman) and would have had to get a survival job just to support his growing family (let’s give them the twins as well).  Let‘s say he runs off to New York the way Elizabethan Will ran off to London.  In the mid-1980’s, what would a clever wordsmith with no connections and no college end up doing?  Off-Off Broadway?  One man shows?  Maybe, but Shakespeare was not the lead actor of the Chamberlain’s Men, just a member of it.  If anybody was the driving force, it was Richard Burbage.  So who would have been modern Shakespeare’s Burbage?  Who, with no nobility to suck up to, would have been his Southampton?  And was it really possible for a kid from Stratford Connecticut to suddenly become well-known in his field by 1992?  Just asking the question makes my head hurt even more.

Becuse it’s this way.  If you want to think of Shakespeare in modern terms, then you either have to force the square peg of his Elizabethan history into the round hole of the modern 80’s and 90’s, or you do the reverse, and try to retro-fit the man with the age. Either way, getting the writer into a group of people for whom he can write means trying to think of a modern version of the Chamberlain’s Men, and that’s where the analogy breaks down.  That's where you try to think of who Shakespeare was without a company of fellow-actors around him. And if you conclude that this company atmosphere is necessary for his success as a writer, and it’s TV-related, then the only avenue that immediately comes to mind is Saturday Night Live.  Which means Will would be a writer/performer who would use the TV gig as a springboard for movies rather than television, and movie comedies more than anything else.   And now my head is splitting.

So yes: it is indeed possible to manhandle our country mouse wordsmith into the rarified world of screenplay rewrites, pitch meetings, and writers’ rooms.  What is not possible is to imagine what he would be writing, because all the plays the Elizabethan Shakespeare wrote would be impossible to get greenlit.  Tragedies?  Forget it.  History plays?  I guffaw in your specific direction.  King Lear, or anything approaching King Lear?  Never.  Unless it was something like Dallas or Dynasty.  But to even think of equating Dallas or Dynasty with King Lear says all you need to know about how low Shakespeare would have to fall in order to be explained away by the words “Shakespeare would be writing for television.”

Which is why, to my mind, the only correct response to that remark is to say “Yes—and he wouldn’t be Shakespeare.”

This post is part of today's Happy Birthday Shakespeare Project.  Click on the link and keep the celebration going.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Love does not stop because the loved one dies

Love does not stop because the loved one dies.
   It drowns in grief, and suffers a sea change
Until it sees with more than mortal eyes
   And blossoms into something rich and strange
That plucks the ripest fruits of memory
   And polishes them up until they gleam
And aches for something that can never be
   And makes from emptiness a tempting dream
Just like first love does when the heart is young—
   With yearning and despair—each nerve ignited
With love that bleeds like honey on the tongue—
   Never returned, and yet not unrequited:
A dead seed planted in Life’s darkest hour
That will past death forever bloom and flower.

Copyright 2013 Matthew J Wells

Thursday, April 18, 2013

10 plays in 6 days

4/7 - Spring Fling: The Morning After

A mixed bag of six one-acts, alternating neatly between skits and actual plays or attempts at plays, starting with the weakest of the bunch, a Little Mermaid wedding-night sketch called Beyond The Sea by Joe Tracz, which felt like an after-midnight Saturday Night Live sketch without the talented guest stars.  Very light fare, and not very well-acted.  But if the producers wanted to set the audience up for a sucker punch, it was perfect, because the next piece was Mud Hole by Hilary Bettis. “She’s really fucked up,” said my friend Ann when it was over.  “Yeah, isn’t it great?” I replied.  It starts out at an episode of Young Amish In Love before doing a hit-and-run on everything you’re expecting, and it’s a textbook example of how to do a short one-act right—with the entrance of each new character, the play shifts gears and opens up into something different and, ultimately, darker.  Watching it was like being embraced by Cinderella, and when I tilted my head up for love’s true kiss, I got so professionally mugged that my bruises looked like birthmarks.

Hello Ms. by Heidi Schreck felt like a collection of scenes from an unfinished full-length play, or a proposal for a full-length play, which was not as clever as it thought it was, and whose only structure was chronological.  But this play is probably why the evening got a New York Times review, because one of the actors in it was Annie Baker (aka this month’s Nicky Silver), playing Gloria Steinem.  She certainly looked the part, and played it with a sense of entitlement which, on the part of the actress, felt more like a character revelation than a character choice.  I just wish the thing had a beginning, middle and end, instead of a lot of middle.  Possible approach: the final words of the play are “We sold out,” referring to the first edition of Ms Magazine.  Me, I would have played on those words throughout the entire piece and made it the unifying theme: selling out.  But then I always think in puns.

Coach Darling by Krista Knight was cleverly staged, well-acted and smartly written, except for one thing.  I might have missed it, but I didn’t hear the title character’s last name mentioned aloud once during the play, so the “Oh yeah!” moment at the end was not as strong as it could have been.  And yeah, if I had turned on a flashlight and read the title of the play about halfway through, then my laugh would have been a lot bigger when the coach name-checks his kids as “Wendy, Michael and John.”  Like I say, I could have missed it, or it didn’t register because I was paying more attention to Amanda Sayle’s detective than I was to anything else.  But if it wasn’t spoken, it should have been, and at least three times. (Rules of Threes: mention it three times and people remember it.)

The last two pieces, if I had been scheduling the show, would have been reversed.  Thanks For The Bowl With The Soup In It, Helen! by Nick Jones would have been the perfect closer: an upbeat, funny, sharply-observed monologue on The Roommate From Hell with a great performance by Allyson Morgan.  Instead, the final piece was Us: A MEMORY by Janine Nabors, a dark little time-trip through the good and bad of a couple’s life together which was a deliberately sobering downer.  Me, I would have ended on the upper.

4/9: Happy Birthday by Anita Loos

When I saw that Hanna Cheek was in this, I figured, even if it was bad, I would have a great time watching her trying to make it good.  Plus, y’know, Karen Ziemba.  Not knowing anything about the play, I figured she was the lead.  Having seen the play, I can say with confidence that (a) she would have played the lead 20 years ago and (b) I still think she’s in her 30’s.  But then I think the same way about myself, which is why I need all day Saturday now to recuperate from my Friday nights. 

The play is a clever riff on the old saw that wine reveals the soul as a mirror reveals the person.  Helen Hayes did it originally, and it won her a Tony.  Katharine Hepburn was interested in filming it, but you can see why it didn’t get made: there’s no judgment about the evils of drinking here, and nobody walks onstage equal-timing alcohol with sobriety.  It’s set in a bar; everybody drinks.   And the only spectre is the guy who gets so smashed he becomes violent.  Which is again, thematic.  It’s actually a delightful eveling, brightly played and smartly directed as both an ensemble piece and a star turn for the lead part, played with determined glee by Mary Bacon.  But as fun as it was to watch her, I couldn’t help wishing it was 20 years ago and Karen Ziemba was doing it.  Or next year and Hanna Cheek was.  

 4/11: Julius Caesar, Royal Shapespeare, BAM.

This is miles away from the stolid sausagefest that is your typical Julius Caesar—continents away, in fact.  Set in modern Africa, with a killer set and an opening ten-minute crowd scene that establishes the energetic and almost celebratory atmosphere that’s maintained throughout the entire evening, this is by far the most emotionally riveting production of the play that I’ve ever seen.  Everybody’s on edge.  The only way Paterson Joseph’s Brutus could be described as stoic is if, in this version, the word “stoic” means “a man who doesn’t spit when he yells.”  And maybe because of this naked openness, the Rome of this production is filled with nothing but manipulators.  Nobody’s honorable—not Brutus, who’s like a glad-handing quarterback trying to buck up his front line every time one of his passes falls short—not Ray Fearon’s Mark Anthony, who will promise anybody anything to get what he wants—and certainly not Cyril Nri’s Cassius, who gets publicly dissed by Caesar and is a live wire of frustrated action.  Another virtue of this production is that it really makes you feel for Cassius, who’s not as popular as Brutus, and whose advice (which Brutus never takes) is never wrong.  To continue the football image, Cassius is the sideline coach who keeps sending in plays, and Brutus is the quarterback who keeps calling audibles. 

I had only one irksome moment, at the end.  When everybody’s carrying AK-47’s, it seems more than a little incongruous to ask someone to hold a machete while you run on it.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just put a gun to your head and pull the trigger?  Unless of course you’re out of bullets.  Which could have been easily indicated, but it never was.  (Consider this a play call from the booth for future modern dress productions of JC.)

4/12: The Big Knife, by Clifford Odets

The curtain rose and just the setting and the placement of the actors made me lean over to my friend Jessica and whisper: “Oh—right!  This is that Jack Palance  movie!”  Which is how I know The Big Knife, notable for being Rod Steiger’s first movie as well as one of the few films where Palance plays the lead.  (Opposite Ida Lupino, no less.  And directed by Robert Aldrich.  So Fifties you could die, right?)

The theme is one that was probably devastating in 1949 and looks old hat now: see how Hollywood makes your dreams come false.  It gets a little heavy-handed at the end (but then the big challenge with Odets is fitting the square peg of his Obvious into the round hole of our Naturalism), and although there are some fine moments, this production is not really satisfying except as a really solid example of how raising your voice does not actually raise the stakes.  And the stakes are always high in an Odets play.  Plus he writes dialogue like it’s sweaty poetry.  There’s something vulnerable under the slangish patter; those verbal tics are armor against despair and failure. Treating his words naturalistically is like deliberately walking away from the only door that leads you into his characters, and makes you look like you’re in a different play.  Bobby Cannavale and Marin Ireland are in that different play.  As opposed to Reg Rogers as Smiley, who is neck-deep in an Odets play—he has it down.  So does Chip Zein as Nat Danziger.

Cannavale, alas, does not—there’s a lot of fuming, but very little struggle, in his performance.  He sprawls like a ragdoll on a low chair or stands dead center with his hands in his pockets—which, for a man who is supposedly haunted by the past, desperate for the future, and fighting for his life, is the textbook definition of “uncercutting.” Marin Ireland snaps into focus now and then, but most of the time she’s an uncertain bystander.  Rachel Brosnahan has a self-aware sharpness that’s totally undercut by a Betty Boop voice that I just started to understand five lines before her scene ended.  And on a scale of 1 to 10, Richard Kind comes in at 10 and stays there, which is a fine piece of work until he needs to up the ante and you don’t care a bit because 12 is just 10 with feedback.

Ultimately there’s enough good in this to make it difficult to say where the dissatisfaction lies—is the play at fault or is it the production?  I’d go with the production, and Doug Hughes’ direction, if only because the lasting image I have of the evening is Bobby Cannavale standing there like a lounge lizard waiting for his next dance partner, instead of pacing like a prisoner in a cell of his own making.  Watching him made me think of Jack Palance in the movie (which is bad, I know).  And once I started thinking about the movie, I began to imagine what that would have been like with, say, Paul Newman in the lead.  Which is much worse.  But it helped pass the time till the next scene with Smiley Coy, and I was brought back to what was actually happening onstage.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


After the rush comes the exhale, and the same
Old air in the next breath.

After the hug comes the release, with all
Its yearning for connection.

I stand there and wait to be stared at and
The world walks by unnoticing --

Wait for the sky to open and a Light
To shine down on me while a Voice declares

But all I hear is the echo of yesterday’s praise
And people talking about everybody else but me
And a voice inside me that says “Maybe next time.
So get to work.”

(from Write Lonesome)

Copyright 2013, Matthew J Wells