Thursday, March 31, 2016

King And Country: Richard II, or, How To Set The Tone

If you want it, here it is--come and get it.

Plays are verbal music, with the added bonus (or burden) of silence as a note all its own. Most plays begin by setting the tone for what will follow. But when a play begins with a speech from the one guy who is always the wrong note in the chorus, unless you know what everyone else is supposed to be singing, the wrongness of this guy isn’t clear from the start—because you hear it first, you judge everything that you hear, from then on, as either off-key or harmony, and only after a while does the realization creep up on you that the note you started with, the one you took as your starting point the way an orchestra takes concert pitch from the first violin, is wrong—all wrong.  

That’s the challenge of doing Dickie Double. Richard has the first lines in the play. So if you don’t set the tone—if you don’t let the audience know where Richard stands in relation to the rest of the play’s world—then they will spend the first half hour of the play getting their footing, instead of being grounded immediately. If watching a play is like climbing a set of stairs, where you always know where you stand and always trust where you’re going, then the opening of Richard II is like standing on a warped bottom step, subconsciously shifting your balance so that it feels level, and then, as you climb, being forced to adjust your balance until you realize that it’s not the staircase that’s out of whack, but just that first step. It’s incredibly disorienting. (It’s also a great example of how, when a writer cuts to the chase because he trusts that a contemporary audience knows what’s going on without being told, it works brilliantly. But only for that audience. Modern playwrights who lean on 21st Century topical references, take note.)  

This production solves that problem brilliantly.  The audience walks in on a set that shows a casket lying in the middle of an empty church. With the house lights only dimming to half, an old woman enters. In a gallery above, three sopranos begin to sing Latin funeral songs. The old woman drapes herself over the casket, and for the next six minutes, that’s all you get: the casket, the mourner, and the music. At the end of which, after other mourners (mostly male) have drifted in and offered silent support, David Tennant’s Richard bounces onstage, and speaks the first lines of the play. And the audience immediately— thanks to the jarring effect of having this bubble of silence and mourning pricked and needled by Richard’s flighty now-now-now’s—immediately knows that this guy is a total jerk, an opinion which is confirmed by the embarrassed way his Queen and her attendants hang back from him, like they’re saying “We don’t really know this fool, honest.”  

And we’re off and running with the best production of Dickie Double that I have ever seen. That opening colors everything so well that, when John of Gaunt dies, and Richard sails on and snaps up his lands and estates, it offends our decency, because we’ve seen what decency is. Director Gregory Doran does everything so right that he even gets away with dressing up Tennant to look like he’s Christ: long hair, bare feet, floor-length white one-piece robe. In the first half it’s affectation; in the second half it’s a one-to-one correspondence, with Richard’s farewell scene with his Queen played like a brief interruption on the way to Golgotha, and his reveal in prison complete with chains that pull his arms akimbo like he’s being crucified. 

There’s a lot of playfulness with the crown (a motif that will be repeated during the next three plays); there’s a briskness to the staging and the acting that totally trusts the audience as it reassures them; and there’s a lot of nice touches with Aumerle, who has in this version an arc which is not in the original—and a shared-kiss love relationship with Richard. The only real flaw in this precious ointment is Jane Lapotaire, who plays the Duchess of Gloucester, the old woman who opens the play draped over that casket. She has a great many lines during that opening scene, all of which are distinctly audible to the first two rows of the audience and reach the ears of the rest of us with all the clarity of a speakerphone conversation three blocks away. Even the oldsters with their assistive listening devices hear nothing louder than a distant mutter, and boy are they pissed. 

As for Tennant, his Richard is brilliant: he’s flighty, mercurial, self-obsessed, and annoying in the first half; and without changing a single one of his mannerisms or line deliveries, he is serious, focused, objective, and charming in the second half. The same qualities which make him the kind of king who needs replacing make him a great ex-king (which, given the religious angle in which this is presented, is like saying that sometimes it’s the worst priest who makes the best martyr). Richard goes from being vain and disgraceful to being the voice of decency, which is the hallmark of this script. Without changing anything in his main character, Shakespeare makes you see him one way when he’s in power and a completely different way when he isn’t. That’s genius, and this production rises to it.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Venice Beach Sonnets

The man with no beard –
on a different coast-
inventing one self.
                -- DSK prompt 3/13/16 


The man with no beard on a different coast
   Looks different and looks differently at life.
His future pregnant and his past a ghost,
   He strolls the beach like a content ex-wife.
He feels divorced from everything but all
   The possibilities that he holds dear—
The hazards that he coddles—till they stall
   From much too little faith and too much fear.
At the best, we are all what we don’t do—
   Defined not by our riches, but our debt—
With all our mysteries, both fake and true,
   Solved by the uncommitted we regret.
      Regret which, like a snug beard, must be shorn
      For the true face it safeguards to be born.

He wonders if he has to visualize
   The face he wants and wants the world to see,
Or if it’s something he can improvise
   If he relaxes and says “Let it be?”
Sometimes the way to guide is to let go;
   But that part in him which adores control
Hears Life say “Yes!” and can’t stop whining “No!”
   Till insolent defiance fills his soul.
To him, saying no means he’s independent,
   And doesn’t have to be part of the mess
Of affirmation, or a co-defendant
   Who’s prosecuted for the crime of Yes—
      And, while he takes a bow for being clever,
      Commits the greater crime of saying “Never.”

The lack of beard sets free the face, just like
   Facing what’s feared sets free the slave of habit,
Who loves his chains too much to ever strike
   Them from the ankles of his inner rabbit.
Freedom and change terrify to the bone
  When Life’s not where you go but where you stay,
For all free souls start out scared of their own
   Shadow—and all the chained ones end that way—
Made timid by the certainty of doom
   And alternately paralyzed and frantic—
Forgetting that the darkest shadows loom
   From something small that’s lit to look gigantic
      Enough to make the strong feel impotent—
      And can’t be threatening without consent.

The man with no beard thinks: “I have the power,
   And yet I hand it to what makes me weak.
When faced with opportunity, I cower;
   When graced with well-deserved success, I freak.
And when I talk about myself, the voice
   I use is one that says I’m satisfied
With sitting this one out—I have no choice—
   My past defeats make me disqualified.”
He ponders this, and realizes that
   Life is a game that’s played in counter-moves;
And when someone retreats or just stands pat,
   Nothing important changes or improves.
      When sitting on your hands becomes the law,
      The best that you can hope for is a draw.

It’s what you put your hand to that defines
   The game you play, and how much of your heart’s
In it that shows which way your soul inclines
   And how far it will lean when your turn starts.
The man without a beard looks at his hands.
   They’ve touched more pens than people now for years.
So prompt to answer to his mind’s demands;
   So slow to reach beyond his heart’s frontiers.
What he puts them to is so safe for him
   And second-hand, he always feels like he’s
Not living Life but just Life’s synonym,
   And not doing to do—doing to please
      Everyone but himself, so he can feel
      Valued, appreciated, loved—and real.
That’s how he’s wired now—to cannibalize
   The endless negativity that feeds
His fears, and channel it so it supplies
   All the positive energy he needs.
The wiring started when he was a kid.
   Now it’s a giant knot of patches where
One bad connection can short out the grid
   And all the oldest cables need repair.
It’s such a tangled mess of ancient junk
   But he’s grown used to how it never fails
To make fuel from his nasty inner gunk
   And turn his biggest anchors into sails.
      He’s really quite proud of it, in a way—
      It’s made him into who he is today.

But what about tomorrow?—which is just
   A single step away. What step gets taken?
Most of the time we just stand still and trust
   That while we sleep, our dreams will all awaken—
That they’ll bring us to life, instead of us
   Laboring to give birth to them, and guiding
Them as they grow from something dubious
   To something that’s substantial and abiding.
So what does one make love to, to bring dreams
   To life, except the passion of today,
And hope it lasts until that love redeems
   Itself in what regret cannot betray:
      A life built not on maybe or somehow,
      But whens that are all one step from a now.

The man without a beard pictures the host
   Of women that his heart leans to, and each
One of them glides before him like a ghost,
   Into his arms and always out of reach,
Because not one of them is flesh and blood.
   They’re all ideas and visions, based on who
He thinks they are, or wants from them—no mud
   Beneath their feet; just clouds and sky deep-blue.
He wishes he loved someone who was real,
   And knows it’s him—not them—who is at fault.
Loving ghosts means he can pretend to feel
   And then perform a mental somersault
      To feel rejected by the ghostly pack
      And blame them all for not loving him back. 

“Something else to untangle,” he says to
   Himself as he walks barefoot on the beach,
Shoes in his hands, past a young woman who
   Lies naked on her stomach, like a peach
With tan lines. Juicy. Ripe. But still just fruit.
   The skin is pleasing and the flesh is sweet,
But he’s in search of something more than cute
   That would make him feel more than incomplete.
Not something perfect—life will always flaw it—
   Or something that keeps trying to resist him.
But would he even know it if he saw it
   And would he even feel it if it kissed him?
      No. For he knows that he’s built up a wall
      Between him and all feelings large and small.

And like all walls, what it protects becomes
  Too weak to ever meet the world head-on.
Security safeguards, but also numbs
   Till what was once outgoing is withdrawn.
That wall means safety; but what safety means
   Is what’s kept in as well as what’s kept out—
And then infecting what it quarantines
   With laziness, timidity and doubt.
The man without a beard knows this too well.
   His life is all retreats and few advances
And in the end he has to fight like hell
   To get his heart to take the smallest chances.
      It’s like a blessing born from a great sin:
      You have to break out to let love break in. 

The man without a beard would hide his light
   Behind a bushel like he hid his face
Behind white hair. And whether it was fright
   Or modesty, it put him in his place.
It kept him free of any obligations.
   It lost him the attention that a star gets.
It made him low, just like his expectations,
   And small—for tiny things make harder targets.
Which got him just where he wanted to be:
   Nowhere—which is the safest spot on earth.
The only place where you’re completely free
   To gloat over your total lack of worth.
      Nowhere: that soothing shelter that can hide you
      All while it daily lives and grows inside you.

Somewhere there is a risk that feels like home;
   Somewhere the courage in his heart to dare it—
A garden unprotected by a dome
   With someone grounded who will thirst to share it.
Next to that, his life now is bare and dry—
   A place not to reside, but travel through,
Where questions all get echoes in reply
   And every answer is a Waterloo.
Is that defeatism or recognition
   That truth is like a battle always lost?
What if he simply gives himself permission
   To heaven reap, and to hell with the cost?
      What can stop him from where he wants to go
      Except the voice inside him that says “No?”

He never says no to the troublesome
   And faithfully avoids the status quo.
So what does he say yes to? Which is from
   A play he wrote more than ten years ago.
Besides his writing (which is his best armor),
   What fills his plate with what he needs to live—
Handing his heart to some elusive charmer?
   Telling himself it’s cool to always give
And never get? Why do those questions make
   Him feel as if he’s emptier than space—
Like all his wagers have nothing at stake
   And his whole world is one big hiding place?
      Because, he thinks, behinds those questions lies
      A face he’s always trying to disguise.

The face the world sees is our public best:
   We wear it like a tyrant wears a crown.
And underneath its smile are all the rest:
   Face after face—faces, all the way down.
Which one is real and which one is a fake?
   They all are. And they’re fashioned to protect
One tender face which rarely comes awake
   Where we’ve invested all our self-respect.
The man with no beard on a different coast
   Looks different, and looks differently at life.
That hidden face now haunts him like a ghost;
   And though it may end up like an ex-wife,
      He’ll hunt it down, do what he can to free it,
      Then put his hand to what it sees, and be it.

Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Jack's Daughter

                     for Steph Paynes

The hole he left behind is ten times greater
   Than what it looked like while he was still here.
It was a burrow then; now it’s a crater
   That’s deep enough to make hope disappear—
But never deep enough to dim the light
   That shined from his face when he saw, in you,
The spirit, the devotion, and the fight
   That he inked on your soul like a tattoo.
Sorrow, like love, is ours to give, not keep;
   And death not how we leave, but leave our mark.
The mark he left is why that hole’s so deep.
   The light he shed is why the hole’s so dark—
      Light that will never fail to warm and guide you
      Just like he’ll always be right there beside you.


Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells


Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Small Print On The Warranty

We think of our bodies as everything
   But what they are—a car we can’t trade in
When engine croaks that used to hum and sing
   And chassis buckles like it’s made of tin.
It’s a machine we use to get around,
   And it runs down because that’s what cars do.
You can replace a part that isn’t sound,
   But when the old transmission’s shot, you’re through.
That failure is built in, from the beginning;
   It’s part of each success we come across.
The point is to appreciate the winning
   While trusting that the finish line is loss.
      Our bodies break down. Why complain? It’s fate.
      We’re all born with an expiration date.


Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

This morning's post-well-THAT-was-a-fabulous-reading sonnet


There’s nothing like the drop after the high.
   The peak I stood on last night is now sand.
My feet sink into it up to the thigh
   And then I’m swimming in the Rio Grande
Of Time, that rolls me from Mount Yesterday
   Into Tomorrow, leaving not a sliver
To stand on—for the stage of last night’s play
   Is always washed away by morning’s river.
And even when I don’t feel like I’m moving
   And take a stand somewhere, or hold my ground,
It turns out that the point I’m really proving
   Is where I’ve been must yield to where I’m bound.
      I cling for life to yesterday. It shatters.
      The past is drowned. Only the current matters. 

Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells