27 August 2014

26 August 2014

We Are Seven: Pleiades at the Phoenix Theatre


photograph of a detail of the Pleiades poster, which was designed by Emily C. Martin

Last Saturday I was at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco to see Pleiades, an impressive new play by Marissa Skudlarek, directed by Katja Rivera. It is described on the playbill as "a world-premiere play about seven sisters in 1971, facing the feminist future," which pretty much sums it up. I’ll tell you right now: go see this play if you can (scroll down to the end for information on remaining performance dates and tickets).

As the title indicates, Greek mythology underpins the story: our protagonists are seven sisters, mirroring the seven daughters of (according to most versions of their story) Atlas and a sea nymph. They range in age from early teens to mid-20s, and dwell by the sea, in their summer house in the Hamptons. They are celebrating the Fourth of July – Independence Day. There's also their visiting cousin Diane, who, like Diana/Artemis the virgin huntress, is associated with the moon, and is strongly independent to the point of ferocity; one of her stories mirrors the myth of Diana and Acteon, and she too, like the goddess, has a twin brother who is a golden boy and a healer. This Apollo figure does not appear in the play, but there is one man on the scene, their slightly older neighbor and family friend, Bruce, who is romantically involved with more than one of the sisters. The plot, which I will avoid describing in detail (though certain key events will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with Greek mythology, particularly the behavior of Zeus), takes off from there.

It's slightly comic that the lustful male here is named Bruce, since in the 1970s that was a stereotypically "gay" name, but I'm guessing it was chosen because it rhymes with Zeus. Like that god, Bruce is associated with the sky (he was a bomber pilot in Vietnam, and his long-term goal is to be an astronaut and walk on the moon – in which regard see the reference above to women's association with the moon), and also like that god, he is powerful and often heedless in his pursuit of what he desires. There are other mythological allusions in the dialogue and situations, as well as references to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, reminding you that these girls, so sophisticated in many ways, are also, in the way of people their age, younger than they think they are. These things add resonance to the play, a significance beyond its mostly realistic surface, though you don't need to catch all of them to understand or appreciate what's going on.

In addition to playing off mythology, Skudlarek is doing some other difficult things in this play, and she does them with remarkable assurance, considering that this is, I believe, her first full-length play. She evokes a time period that’s far enough in the past so that it needs to be consciously evoked, yet recent enough so that many audience members can check her version against their memories; she has characters discuss and argue about social issues while sounding like actual people and not members of a debate club; she writes about feminism without reducing either the women or the men to caricatures; and she handles a large cast adroitly.

The time is evoked partly through costumes and props (the record of Judy Collins singing Both Sides Now, which skips since it’s been played so often; the dog-eared copy of The Bell Jar; the girls lying out in the sun to get tans, without a thought of sun screen; the girls ironing their hair to achieve those long, flat, parted-in-the-middle Ali McGraw-type tresses) and partly through language: for example, kinky as an adjective describing sex – that usage was so common in the 1970s and now you never hear it; pigs (spoken by the militant Diane) as a term for police; and, of course, male chauvinist pig – that was huge in the 1970s and then completely disappeared, to such an extent that it’s a verbal madeleine for me – I hear it and I can practically see the shag carpeting and the harvest gold/avocado green appliances. (When the term was used out of the blue in Einstein on the Beach I almost fell out of my chair, I was so pulled into a past time and place.) I kept waiting for “fem-libber” and “bra-burner” too, but to her credit the playwright handles these things with a light touch – there’s nothing campy in the presentation of what was in many ways a stylistically (and deliberately so) outré decade; these are the things we take for granted as part of our daily life, until, though we barely notice their disappearance, they’re gone, and when we remember them, we realize that our past, our youth (such as it was), is gone as well.

The feminism of the 1970s is also skillfully evoked, not just in its rhetoric (male chauvinist pigs!) but in particular issues and behaviors, both pro and con: the consciousness-raising sessions (there is a gathering early on which Diane and some of the older sisters refer to as a “consciousness-raising session” and some of the younger ones refer to as a “tea party,” and they’re both correct); there’s the smirky accusations that feminists "need love" or might even be lesbians, which calls out the “What? No! of course not!” reactions even from the liberal in those very early days of the gay liberation movement; there's the way the menstrual cycle, newly exalted by women like Diane as part of women's mystical connection with the universe, also underlies many anti-feminist views (women were often described with code words such as moody, undependableirrational, physically weak); there are the enraged slogans (“Men are pigs!”) alongside naïve rhetoric about bringing “women’s values” to the public sphere (a view directly contradicted by another major strand of 1970s feminism, the one that held that women were equal to men, which turns out to mean just as likely to be stupid and greedy, uncaring and incompetent, a view that sadly seems borne out by reality). Feminism in the 1970s is obviously a vast and complicated topic, and Skudlarek has astutely focused on how it overlapped with – was fed by and fought with – the "sexual revolution" of the late 1960s, as well as other reform and social justice causes, such as the anti-war movement, and on how, again, it was fed by and fought with these young women’s lives of bourgeois privilege, and their consciousness of their privileges, and the blurry and sometimes coincidental boundaries between social conformity and their true desires.

This may make the play sound grim and preachy, but it’s not: this is summer at a lovely beach house, and some lines are funny enough to make you laugh out loud, and the talk about feminist issues arises naturally from the thoughts, moods, and experiences of the young women, woven in with lovelorn gossip, family jokes and other secret things (some very serious, some less so), and talk about parties, fashion, and popular movies like Love Story. One of the reasons I usually dislike “issue plays” is that the dialogue tends to sound like position papers, and you can feel the playwright behind the scenes carefully making sure that all standard viewpoints are represented while also making it clear that certain views are to be considered the correct ones. Something I really valued about this play is that you never get that feeling; the characters express opinions (sometimes profound, sometimes fatuous), and their opinions clearly come from who they are and what they've experienced as individuals.

They will contradict themselves, as real people do, without making us feel that the play’s argument or the speaker’s personality is flawed: Diane, who insists early on that “Men are pigs and the police are pigs too,” will later, when the action takes a somber turn, urge one of the sisters to call the police, and this isn't an exposure of weakness in her or in what she’s been saying; it’s an illuminating example of the difference between what we think we believe and what we assume and rely on – perhaps what we really believe – when we need to take action, and it’s also to some extent an expression of some of her class-based assumptions about how she and the sisters will ultimately be treated. In short, the characters and their stories drive the discussion, not the other way around. I've sat through enough plays where the opposite was the case to appreciate the achievement here.

One thing that helps with that achievement is the multiplicity of voices – there’s at least one, and usually several, responses to any particular statement or action. I’m fine with solo shows, or two-handers, or classics boiled down to only three actors, but I can’t help but be aware that the driving force behind such shows is often economics rather than aesthetics, and even if, like the boy who reads the newspaper out loud in Our Mutual Friend, “he do the police in different voices,” many contemporary plays still feel underpopulated to me. It’s a relief to see a large cast, who are actual distinct individuals and not just funny accents out of one mouth. Even before it’s made clear in the dialogue, I could tell which of the seven sisters were older, middle, and younger – this is the kind of thing I don’t usually discuss here, but I’m one of six children, and I really loved the family dynamics in this play.

I frequently had to smile in recognition at the shifting alliances, the occasional spitefulness and the underlying solidarity, the authoritative, sometimes condescending tone of the older siblings, the silliness and then the wisdom of the younger ones (I did feel that perhaps the very youngest sister was made, once too often, to have insight beyond her years), and the turbulence of the middle child, not quite mature enough to be accepted by the older sisters, and too mature to be grouped with the younger. I loved that while the younger sisters are going on about Ali McGraw, the middle sister had kind of a Liza Minnelli thing going on. She’s the one who’s reading Plath and mourning the death of Jim Morrison. And Bruce, too, is allowed his voice; he could so easily have been a caricature, this lone man among the women, this alpha male scoffing at feminism among the newly enlightened feminists, this tennis-playing sun-kissed son of the Hamptons, but you feel his strength, his privilege, his rage, his fears – you understand who he is.

At the end of the Greek myth, the Pleiades are transformed into stars; I won’t give away the ending, but there is a transformation here, too, a more earthly one, which means complicated and ambiguous and perhaps unsatisfying to some: a complex resolution which, however mixed in its long-term effects, and though some of the sisters disagree with it, and though the audience may also debate it afterwards, allows the sisters to move forward (away from Bruce, and by implication away from his friends, their parents), and towards independence (as noted, the action takes place over Independence Day).

The ensemble is strong across the board: Erika Bakse as Diane, Paul Rodrigues as Bruce, and the seven sisters: Monica Ammerman as Teresa, Kailah Cayou as Meredith, Miranda Hanrahan as Kelly, Annabelle King as Alison, Susannah Lee as Moira, Emily Ludlow as Sarah, and Amy Nowak as Elaine.

The Phoenix Theatre is located on the sixth floor at 414 Mason Street (at Geary), about half a block up from the Geary and Curran Theaters in San Francisco, so it's very easy to get to via public transportation (if you take BART, it's the Powell stop, then walk up Powell or Mason to Geary). The remaining performances are Thursday - Saturday, 28 - 30 August, at 8:00. Again, if you can make one of those performances, I strongly recommend going. For tickets, and further information on the cast and the play, visit the production's website here.

Haiku 2014/238

on this city block
oceanic effusions
from sea-gulls squawking

25 August 2014

Haiku 2014/237

these books contain worlds
the world also contains worlds
Time is singular

Poem of the Week 2014/35

To the Poppy

While summer roses all their glory yield
     To crown the votary of love and joy,
     Misfortune's victim hails, with many a sigh,
     Thee, scarlet Poppy of the pathless field,
Gaudy, yet wild and lone; no leaf to shield
     Thy flaccid vest, that, as the gale blows high,
     Flaps, and alternate folds around thy head. –
     So stands in the long grass a love-crazed maid,
Smiling aghast; while stream to every wind
     Her garish ribbons, smeared with dust and rain;
     But brain-sick visions cheat her tortured mind,
And bring false peace. Thus, lulling grief and pain,
     Kind dreams oblivious from thy juice proceed,
     Thou flimsy, showy, melancholy weed.

Anna Seward

Our first association with the red poppy, particularly in this centennial year of the war's beginning, is likely to be World War I and Flanders Field. But there is an earlier association with the poppy: narcotic forgetfulness. Think of Iago gloating, once he has poisoned Othello's mind against Desdemona, "Not poppy nor mandragora / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, / Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep / Which thou owedst yesterday" (Othello, Act 3, scene iii, ll 27 - 30; "owedst" in the last line means "owned"). And a few decades after Seward wrote this poem, Keats, in his Ode to Autumn, could describe the personified season seated "on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep, / Drowsed with the fume of poppies." The symbolism of the drowsy druggy poppy, though augmented by its new associations with the dead of World War I, continue into our own time: remember the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz which knocks out the human and animal travelers to the Emerald City.

Seward begins not with the poppy of the title but with a contrasting flower, the summer rose. Summer here is the height of flowering season, but even these beautiful flowers yield their glories to "crown the votary of love and joy" – in other words, to garland the heads of lawful young lovers (presumably, in the context of the rest of the poem, young women). I am getting "lawful" from the word votary, which descends from the Latin word for vow, and which means not only one who is devoted or dedicated to something or someone, but which carries religious overtones: one, such as a monk or nun, bound by solemn religious vows. The rose-crowned young women, happily loving and joyfully loved, are clearly headed for the altar. So in her first two lines Seward sets up an ideal state of young love (roses and legitimacy!), which will serve as a foil for the rest of the poem.

She switches to her real subject with the third line: "Misfortune's victim hails, with many a sigh" (note that in the first two lines, it is the roses themselves which yield their glory; Misfortune's victim, by contrast, is the abandoned one calling out to the poppy). Given the opening lines, "Misfortune's victim" can only be a woman not just unhappy but, obviously, unfortunate in love: seduced and deserted, most likely. The implied smiles of the opening lines give way to sighs as this woman seeks the poppy in "pathless fields" (the lack of an existing, orderly path is a clear indication that she has wandered where she should not). The poppy, with another implicit reference to prostitution and other wayward sexual conduct, is scarlet and gaudy, yet also wild and lone, and without the shield even of a bare leaf (with the implication that the unlucky woman lacks support from family, friends, or village).

It's sometimes tempting for us to mock this sort of warning about sexual irregularity in women, or to see it as mostly a fear of women's sexuality, but in the context of 1799, when the poem was written, this is prudent advice: economic opportunities for women, outside of marriage to a decent man, were of course extremely limited, and could be limited even more by your social class, and contraception (outside of traditional and not always effective advice from a certain type of marginally respectable old woman) was not readily available. Morality is rooted in biology, and the feelings of shame around extra-marital sex and illegitimate children ultimately derive from harsh economic realities. We warn teenage girls today that getting pregnant is likely to derail their lives, and that was even truer two centuries ago.

Seward continues with her description of the poppy: it is showy and unprotected, so that its "flaccid vest" is left exposed to the winds. Its vest would be its petals; Seward deliberately blurs the distinction between flower and human. And the vest is flaccid: never a pleasant word. For us, words like flaccid and erect generally carry some kind of phallic charge; I would be extremely cautious about carrying this connotation over to a society that used less overtly sexualized language than we do – as a professor of mine once pointed out about Tristram Shandy, if you think something in it is a sexual pun, you're most likely right, and the same is true of, say, Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists, but I'd tread with caution elsewhere – nonetheless, it is hard (perhaps it would be better if I said difficult) to avoid a sense of the phallic here, with the flaps (circumcision was not usual in eighteenth-century England, I believe) folding around the head as the lusty gale blows high.

Seward then turns this phallic poppy into an image of the unhappy woman (perhaps the androgynous metamorphosis here is another suggestion of sexual irregularity): she, the "love-crazed maid," is also isolated, standing in the long grass (again, the long grass implies an irregular field, and not a well-maintained park). She is smiling, but aghast – aghast means frightened or horrified, so her smiling suggests a disjunction between what she feels and how she can express it – perhaps love-crazed in the previous line means quite literally mentally unstable because of love. The poppy is gaudy, and her ribbons are garish. They are also "smeared with dust and rain" and "stream to every wind" – if the "gale blowing high" in an earlier line is seen as a symbol of lust, then here is another suggestion that prostitution – dirty, unsuited for decent society, available to any passing element – is in her tragic future.

The suggestions of mental instability caused by emotional pain continue: "brain-sick visions cheat her tortured mind." It's a harrowing and emphatic portrait of delusion: her brain is sick, she sees delusive visions rather than reality, these visions cheat her, her mind is tortured. As the poem closes, woman and poppy turn from images of each other into deluded patient and deceptive doctor: she would not be the first to find ultimately destructive relief in the products of the poppy (and again, though opium and tincture of laudanum sound rather romantic to us, these were drugs that laid waste to lives, just as crack and heroin do today). With the adjectives of the final line, which Seward emphasizes with italics, she sums up and warns against the poppy: it is flimsy, showy, and melancholy – not a flower, but a weed.

Yet I have to say – this may be my whorish late-twentieth / early twenty-first century taste speaking – despite the sincerity and wisdom of her caution, Seward seems to throw a certain amount of déclassé glamour on the poppy and the fallen woman. There are only two lines, at the very beginning, praising orderly love, and they are quite conventional in nature: the women are not characterized except as votaries of generic love and joy, and the roses seem sort of standard (I'm reminded of Gertrude Stein saying that roses in English-language poetry were dead until she brought them back to life with her famous line "a rose is a rose is a rose"). The poppy, and the unfortunate woman, though, are carefully and elaborately characterized, in a dramatic way that appeals to the senses. You get the feeling that Seward doesn't really blame this woman, or hold her responsible: she is "Misfortune's victim" rather than the victim of her own foolish choices. And her situation really may not be her fault at all; she wouldn't be the only woman, in eighteenth-century England or other times and places, to believe a man when she shouldn't have. I think we come away feeling that the poppy may have a rough life, but at least it's vivid and dramatic, while the roses are pretty but maybe a bit boring. There is a school of thought that the real hero of Paradise Lost is Satan, and though I firmly disagree with that school, I can't help feeling that something similar is actually going on here.

I took this from A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic-Era Revival, edited by Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson.

24 August 2014

23 August 2014

Haiku 2014/235

above the street lights
random clusters of faint stars
traffic lights twinkle

21 August 2014

Haiku 2014/233

where the water splashed
a green spot amid pale grass
new growth on old ground