Monday, January 31, 2011

THEATER: Better Left Unsaid

Photo/JP Yim
Perhaps younger demographics and changes in our future will turn this unsavory combination of social media and live theater into the next pairing of chocolate and peanut butter, but right now, Better Left Unsaid, the "first of its kind, interactive, live-streamed play" belongs firmly entrenched in the "But why would you want to" column. Yes, you can buy a ticket to watch high-quality video, mixed from the theater's four cameras, in real time . . . but why would you want to? This is no spectacle, no must-see play, no real experience. And yes, you can comment on the proceedings -- a sort of passive interactivity -- and theoretically "chat" with the audience during intermission . . . but why would you want to? It's not as if this straightforward, jam-packed soap opera demands any real thinking from its viewers; if it did, you'd be too engrossed to type. (And, if the two hyped-up, empty comments from the night I attended are any evidence, that wouldn't be much of a loss. Some things, and I say this with exactly as much irony as is intended, are better left unsaid.)

Writer/director Joey Brenneman's "innovation" (or, more appropriately, "appropriation") is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse when it ought to be focused on getting back to basics like "plot" and "development." Instead, she throws everything at the wall, crafting bland, short, five-to-ten minute long scenes that advance the plot, leaving her cameras to do all the framing and contextualizing. In Central Park, William (Dathan B. Williams) catches up with Maggie (Jennifer Dorr White), with whom he once had a one-night stand; simultaneously, Carla (Jessica Arinella) helps her sister Luisa (Kathryn Velvel Jones) care for her baby, and then runs into Scott (Miguel Govea), an old boyfriend she once semi-stalked. This isn't coincidental enough: Scott's friend, Lennie (Monique Lola Berkley), turns out to be Maggie's daughter (you can guess who the father must be); because Lennie's a nurse, she's there when Luisa's husband, Nick (Craig Waletzko), gets into a car crash with his mistress, Sandra, and tries to get his friend, DJ (Marcus Ho) to help him cover.

Characters don't behave in any consistent sort of way; rather, they exist to help tie these strands together. Lennie announces that she wants to adopt, which causes her mother (who raised her on her own) to freak out and trot in William. She then tells Scott that she's going to adopt Sandra's unwanted baby, which leaks out to Carla, who -- for no discernible reason -- decides that she has to tell Luisa, considering that the kid is her brother-in-law's bastard. In neither of these cases do we explore why Lennie, who works constant triple-shifts, wants to be a mother, nor why Carla, who has kept the secret about Nick's affair and Luisa's own crush on DJ (yes, there's that, too), feels it necessary to spread this particular secret around. Of all the things better left unsaid, "why" is not one of them; of all the things actually said, Scott's confession that "This is a Lifetime movie" comes closest to the truth. (It's more like four Lifetime movies hugging it out.)

There is firm ground in the play: scenes between the squabbling Luisa and Nick actually have rising and falling action, and, unsurprisingly, showcase the strongest actors. That's because they've got something to fight for -- a marriage -- as opposed to characters like DJ and Maggie, who just sort of pop up to present temptations, obstacles, and plot points. The same goes for Brenneman's technical innovation, which just sort of pops up (literally) to present Better Left Unsaid a means of marketing itself. Yes, you can market this show . . . but why would you want to?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Short-a-Day: Alice Munro's "Axis"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 31, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 91.

One of the many nice things about Alice Munro as a writer, beside her effortless ability to sculpt recognizable characters, is that she welcomes surprise. "Axis" is only a seven page story, and yet in that span, she covers fifty years in the life of Avie, detours to explore the relationship between Avie's friend, Grace, and her brief relationship with Royce, and also throws in a bunch of details about what it was like for farm women to attend college (where most simply looked for a good husband) and adds a cryptic dream sequence involving the entombment of a troublesome baby: "'Nothing to be done,' this lovely, kind girl [the second daughter] said. The abandoned daughter knew no way of life but the one she had and, anyway, she did not cry anymore; she was used to it." There's the sense that, while Munro is grounded enough to always stick with the small dramas, such as a parent catching you in flagrante delicto, the story itself might veer off in any direction, at any time, while at the same time maintaining that these departures will not merely be scenic; indeed, the end of the story, a chance encounter between Avie and Royce, braids all those supposedly loose ends together. 

He remembered whispering to Grace the day before when they were doing the strawberries, kissing under the rush of cold water when her mother's back was turned. Her fair hair turning dark in the stream of water. Acting as if he worshipped her. How at certain moments that had been true.

THEATER: What the Public Wants

Time and again, Sir Charles Worgan (Rob Breckenridge), the manager/publisher of dozens of newspapers in England tells us that, as a businessman, he isn't concerned with the ethics behind his shock headlines and exclamatory articles. The people want war-mongering rumors and scandalous criminal tales, and who is he to deny them their fix, especially when it lets him run a million copies of his flagship, The Mercury, each day. But the more Charles bellows, the harder it is not to see him as a mouthpiece for playwright Arnold Bennett, especially since he keeps repeating the play's title: What the Public Wants. Cameos from a dramatic critic and theatrical manager (both played with great gusto by a huffy, supercilious Jeremy Lawrence) drive home the point that Bennett isn't interested in generating a good play, just as Charles doesn't care about making a good paper: he just wants to cater to his 1908 peers, and to that end, writes a casual, repetitive, and obvious bit of polemic about the divide between the highbrow "elite" and those who really matter -- everyone else (i.e., the public).

Director Matthew Arbour does his best to find a variety of notes in the production, and when that fails, cautions his cast to at least speak rather quickly (a choice which left a few of the actors tripping, rather charmingly, over their own tongues). After all, beyond the leaden exposition between Charles and his brothers, the artistic and worldly Francis (Marc Vietor) and the scientific and homegrown John (Douglas Rees), there is a dramatic plot: Charles's sweet (yet peculiar) attempts to marry a bad actress, Emily Vernon (Ellen Adair), with whom he sees an opportunity to enter the intellectual circles that have shunned him: "Oh, you've got to feel awkward, and so have I," he says, forcing himself to propose to her, though "love" is one of the many things he finds himself unable to discourse on.

It is hard to believe, however, that there is any sort of public that, after two intermissions, would sanction the choice to jump to a new setting, to introduce new characters that are almost comically flat in their irrelevance, and to repeat the arguments it has spent the previous two acts making. It's especially disheartening, as it robs Adair of the power and argument she needs for her climactic fourth act showdown with Charles. Couple this with Breckenridge's talent as an actor -- he plays wounded, prideful, and dashing all at once -- and we're left with an unbalanced finale. Even the Mint's set, designed by Roger Hanna, fizzles out: Charles's office is so large and sparse that the characters are rarely forced to actually interact with one another, and the swiveling interior of John's library is notably artificial.

On the upside, the Mint's revival is a timely affair, one that will likely resonate with its knowing audience. After all, in the past hundred years, the media has only grown more similar in its businesslike emulation of Charles, veering away from reportage and the sometimes forceful enrichment of its readers and into the pandering punditry that can stir up a steady circulation of readers, facts be damned. It is in that eerie prescience, and Breckenridge's unabashed portrayal of a man longing to prove himself to the elite that he regularly trounces, that What the Public Wants grows closer to (while still falling short of) being what the public -- and the theater -- needs.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

THEATER: The Momentum

Photo/Max Ruby
There's something inherently appalling about self-help seminars: the idea of a super-serious guru getting up on a stage and telling you that they can radically Change Your Life because they have The Secret doesn't seem much more practical than the wisdom of fortune cookies and horoscopes. In fact, the whole thing begs to be mocked, particularly if there's an element of truth to the lecture, for it's far easier to laugh at others than to focus on one's self. That's what's so interesting about CollaborationTown's The Momentum; it begins as a full-on parody, but over the course of the next hour, turns into something serious, at which point the only sign of the show's Fringe origin is its low-budget "set" (three chairs) and a few momentarily troubling transitions (an out-of-place song jumps to mind).

Things get off to a speedy start, as Boo Killebrew and Jordan Seavey introduce their fellow lecturer, Geoffrey Decas, with a round of rather forceful and overenthusiastic clapping. Decas follows that up with a series of more-and-more exaggerated actions and metaphors ("You'll feel like a dolphin that just killed a great white shark") and a variety of calmly expressed non-sequiturs ("I know the meaning of rope"). Before long, we're being encouraged to "tell those storm clouds of anger thoughts to rain elsewhere" as the three performers speak as one, their every move a carefully considered bit of blocking, each smile a trembling, artificial thing.

Before long, however, the deadpan starts to bleed away, as if the cast members are cultists who have snapped out of their brainwashing but are too terrified to break character, and their struggle between selling "The Momentum" and believing it becomes the highly comic hook of the show. (It also demonstrates a great deal of facial comedy, particularly with the show-stealing Killebrew, whose mimed handling of a "hot potato" could be a play in of itself.) The more specific the play becomes, as during the "Pain is a Myth" section, the less we laugh at these characters, and the more we laugh for them. The show ends with a triptych of (seemingly) personal monologues, each told in the second person, that wouldn't feel out of place in a Neo-Futurist show, as Seavey talks about overcoming his nerves to return to the dating scene, Decas finds a cause worth fighting for, and Killebrew, in a heart-breaking monologue, details the six-month aftermath of a brutal breakup.

This show probably won't change your life, but under the guise of some earnest comedy, it may ring some chords on your heartstrings. It's no mistake, after all, that The Momentum ends with an admonition to "Be still, and know that you are here."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Photo/Jim Moore
In 2008, the troupe Parallel Exit was nominated for the Drama Desk's "Unique Theatrical Experience" award. Their latest show, Room 17B, suffers in comparison: not only is a great deal of their mostly silent shtick derivative, but the content aims for a comfortably light evening of what can only be described as "parlor theater." The four-man ensemble is in on it, with xylophonist extraordinaire Mike Dobson pulling off the best of the straight faces (a tightly up-drawn smile and a pair of wide, petrified eyes), but that only makes you wish the gang were doing more than inviting the audience onstage for a (rigged) game of musical chairs.

Room 17B is best when playing to the surreal expectations of Maruti Evans's file-cabinet filled set and to the introductory promise that "Anything at all could happen." Indeed, the actors attempt to cram inflated balloons and pour folders filled with sand into the drawers and in return pull out tubas, paper bags, and nooses, delighting in their surprising discoveries and unconventional uses for them. But they settle, far too often, for light antics: despite targeting a few audience members for a "Random experience," the four of them simply stare down the first person they come across, an act that looks to discomfort and/or amuse them more than anyone else. Laughing at their own intentionally clumsy attempts at magic (a trick with a curtain and a hat; a disconnected light bulb and chain switch) goes only so far; they end up exhausting all our good will within the first fifteen minutes (of what's only an hour-long show). At one point, they teach us that "Comedy = Pain + Time + Distance + Surprise"; in playing this formula merely for laughs, they miss the opportunity to actually apply it to what ends up being a lackluster cluster of skits.

In fairness, director Mark Lonergan and co-creators Dobson and Joel Jeske don't claim to be breaking new ground. Jeske's solo mime acts, right down to the meticulous application and triple-checking of the fit of his hat, will be instantly familiar to those who enjoy Bill Irwin's mild-mannered clowning. As for the two remaining cast members, Brent McBeth is an impish, rubbery little fellow, and he's well-matched by the tall and explosive Danny Gardner, whose slow-motion meltdown as an ice-cream-truck driver who can't stand the sound of his own jingle is a highlight of the evening. But just as their program is cluttered with irreverent facts, the show is a hodgepodge of talent that aims merely to amuse. How else to explain the inclusion of a knock-knock joke, told by Monkey and Tiger masked actors, speaking gibberish Chinese? Anything at all could happen, but the group plays it so safely, so tightly, that nothing very interesting ever does.

[Update: Okay, Dobson plays a marimba, not a xylophone. Who knew there was a difference?]

Short-a-Day: Dacia Maraini's "Hunger"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 63.

[Translated by Will Schutt as part of the FOCUS: Italy series.]

The child opens her eyes and discovers it's still dark out. Her stomach is stiff with hunger. She had been dreaming of biting into a loaf of bread when a serpent slid onto her arm. She woke with a start and good-bye, bread. Going back to sleep is out of the question. Hunger forces her to her feet, despite the cold and dark.

So opens Maraini's "Hunger," with its litany of inescapable facts, befitting for the young narrator, Cina, who is trapped in a Japanese internment camp, starving in the cold, curtained shadow of a temple whose religious icons offer only useless thoughts. Her mother and two sisters lie beside her, and when she finally gets the opportunity to seize a mouse -- "They hadn't eaten meat in over a year," the sort of sentence that should never be so simply put, and yet, sadly is a reality for so many -- she winds up letting it go when she realizes that it has two babies of its own that it is caring for.

These elements are familiar, the questioning of a Christ figure, the serenity of a Buddha statue, the trickery and illusion of the Pulcinella character, but placed beside one another, their deeper meanings not just irrelevant but unknown to the narrator, they give light to the impotence of prayer. (Consider this exchange: "'Couldn't they have put two nails, one for each foot?' 'Maybe they were running low on nails,' said the young mother curiously."). It is not enough to hope for things: there must be substance. And if not substance, cries the end of the story, at least let there be dreams: at least there, we know our limits and do not wait for disappointment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Short-a-Day: Antonio Tabbuchi's "The Dead at the Table"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 33.

[Translated by Will Schutt as part of the FOCUS: Italy series.]

Ah, the Wall! How he missed the Wall! There it stood: solid, concrete, marking a boundary, branding one for life, assuring one of belonging. Thanks to a wall one belongs to something, to this side or that. At least he knew where to go when Renate was still alive, even with the Wall gone, because then the housework fell to him. He never did trust the little Indian woman who came by the hour, with her shifty eyes and her awful German, who constantly repeated yes, sir, even when he told her to go to hell. Go to hell, you stupid ugly darkie! Yes, sir.

Here's an interesting narrator: Karl, who was once tasked with spying on Bertolt Brecht, now finds himself alienated, an old man left behind in Berlin, without purpose. ("He caught his reflection in the door window despite the rubber partition that split his image in two. Split in two is fine, my dear, always split in two, half here, half there, that's life, life's like that. Not half bad either: he was a handsome man getting on in age....") The doctor tells him he must give up the few pleasures he has left in life -- cigarettes, salty foods, etc. -- and he finds himself growing weary simply in walking around the city, remembering the past. Tabbuchi's rhythm is full of repetitions, in which you can clearly see the previous thought connecting to the next: a cool, logical man with a bit of rage built up for immigrants, those who change what he remembers. ("A little girl stopped in front of him. Her dress dragged on the ground and at her bare feet. He glimpsed the words I come from Bosnia written on a piece of cardboard. 'Go on back then,' he said, smiling. The little girl smiled and wandered off.")

RELEASE: Kinderspiel (and Stage Kiss)

Has it been over three years since Kinderspiel last trod the boards? Apparently so; my old review can be found here, but information about the new production, which will be done in repertoire with another Stolen Chair "classic," Stage Kiss, can be found here. I've always found Jon Stancato and company to be at their best when they're dealing with the implications of art itself (they're that kind of company; rambunctiously intellectual), so if you're a fan of Weimar cabaret or Charles Ludlam romps, you might want to check them out.

RELEASE: Dainty Cadaver

When I was in college, I used to play Exquisite Corpse, that game where you continue a piece of art based only on seeing what the person immediately before you has created. When applied to theater, it's becomes a lot like a game of telephone, as you try to communicate a message down the line, as with the annual Electric Pear show, "Synesthesia." Now Piper McKenzie, a most excellent Brooklyn company, is teaming up with the esteemed and always-up-for-an-experiment Brick Theater to do a three-night-only run that creates three new plays from the work of eighteen audacious playwrights. Before I make this sound any more like a press release, I thought I'd mention it to all of you because it's a limited run that I won't be able to cover; hopefully, some of you can check it out and let me know what I've missed. 

TEAM A: Fri 1/28, 8pm: Johnna Adams (The Angel Eaters Trilogy), Eric Bland (Emancipatory Politics: A Romantic Tragedy), Jeff Lewonczyk (Theater of the Arcade), Mac Rogers (Viral), Crystal Skillman (The Vigil or the Guided Cradle), Art Wallace (The Plowman’s Lunch). Directed by Jordana Williams (Viral).

TEAM B: Sat 1/29, 8pm: Danny Bowes (Q&A), Matt Freeman (The Brandywine Distillery Fire), Qui Nguyen (Alice in Slasherland), Carolyn Raship (Antarctica), August Schulenburg (The Lesser Seductions of History), Alexis Sottile (Small Dinner). Directed by Hope Cartelli (Bethlehem or Bust).

TEAM C: Sun 1/30, 3pm: Maggie Cino (Ascending Bodily), James Comtois (The Little One), John DeVore (Tupperware Orgy), Cara Francis (The Soup Show), Rich Lovejoy (A Brief History of Murder), Justin Maxwell (Your Lithopedion). Directed by John Hurley (The Vigil or the Guided Cradle).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Short-a-Day: Preeta Samarasan's "Birch Memorial"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 100.

Hot-hot, sweet-sweet. That's all they knew. Lawyer Sivalingam whose fat wife lay dying--that time we all didn't know, but now we do, yah?--in her private-hospital bed while he winked and drooled at me. Lawyer Srirangam whose bald head sparkled like a satellite dish in the sun, just put your TV underneath his backside sure can catch signal one. Lawyer Kanaparan trying to distract everyone from his luscious-mango daughter's own antics (in which KL hotel did they her half-naked and drunk with some minister's son? Shangri-La, Bangri-la, who knows) by treating me like a cheap call girl. And then Bala, Ariffin, Chee, Indian Malay Chinese in a row like one bloody muhibbah poster, nicely learning from their bosses: Hey miss, hot-hot, sweet-sweet! First behind their hands, and then when their bosses buzzed off, openly, shamelessly. For us also hot-hot sweet-sweet, okay? Don't think only the big bosses can get your special-special bargain!

You can hear not only her, but the bustle of the Malaysian streets she hustles her food on, can't you? The way she sets herself apart with her judgments, but also throws herself in with the litanies of lawyers and the mantra of her pitch: "Hot-hot, sweet-sweet." The clever way, like Junot Diaz and other multicultural writers, Samarasan drops Indian words like muhibbah directly into the text for flavor, trusting that even if we do not fully understand the meaning, it will nonetheless have the intended effect of transportation. Even the descriptions ("a satellite dish in the sun") are genius, not only describing the man, but giving us a sense of her own visual vocabulary, the things she looks up and references, not possessing anything herself.

That is how you write a cultural story; not with an overbearing emphasis on politics, but with a light touch, in which a crucial character -- university student Sebastian Mills -- gets to know your narrator, the teenage Kalyani, by surveying her about her knowledge of British colonial history, now that they've been gone for 25 years. Not by stressing the similarities between cultures, or rising above the narrator in order to make "poignant" observations, but by allowing the characters to simply show you themselves and letting the readers draw their own conclusions. Most importantly, by putting all the elements of the story into one cohesive whole, in which even the introduction of the eccentric and often naked homeless man, Millionaire Komalam, surprisingly justifies its inclusion:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Short-a-Day: Gary Amdahl's "The Cold, Cold Water"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 64.

When he awoke, he turned his head away from the wall and looked at the long rectangle of pale yellow light appearing to support both window and wall. It was full of dust motes and cobwebs and microscopic pieces of decomposing insects, little clouds of these things drifting as if toward the bottom of a warm clear lake, and even though the window was high enough to make the angling beam seem almost like an empty glass coffin, he rose and walked over to the light, examining it in a way that struck him as perfectly gentle. He stepped into the warm box of light and he understood that, sick as he was, he was alive, and ought not to be so foolishly in love with the idea of the end of it.

That's the ending of Amdahl's beautifully written story, coming at the end of three sections in which our hero, Bobby, has taken a new wife, moved to his island cabin, and has some sort of misadventure with water, the "cold, cold" object of his affection. These sequences ring true and they all work -- with one major caveat. The opening of the story insists that: "He needed cold water poured on his head, and if that made him a maniac, okay: he was a maniac. He detested people. There: he had said so. He needed cold, cold water, and some elbow room." There is never, however, any hint of that within the story, and in fact the actual tone of the rest of the sentences never gets as terse as that. Sure, Bobby continues to mention that he senses something bad within him, but that's meant to be other than the suicidal impulse the story resolves itself away from. (And to be fair, the story begins with an epigraph from King Lear, hinting at the tempest, and then refers three times to images of the bear from that quote.)

THEATER: Flipzoids

Photo/Web Begole
A "flip," according to Redford (Carlo Alban), is a derogatory term for Filipino immigrants like him. To this particular teenager, a rust-blond dye job, it's just another symptom of his outcast fate: he's so desperate to connect that he haunts the Barracks (a beach bathroom known for gay pickups), hoping to connect with those who cannot see him. After a particularly desperate day, he turns to the elderly Aying (Ching Valdes-Aran), hoping that he can leech off some self-definition from a woman bold enough to practice her own customs out in the open, unflinching at what others might think. Though she chides him for it, keeping up her guarded front, she's happy for the company: she cannot communicate with her daughter Vangie (Tina Chilip), a stubborn girl who is determined not only to integrate, but to "flip" completely. There isn't much drama between these three viewpoints, but on the strength of its material, Ralph B. Pena's Flipzoids serves at least as an instructive play.

As it surely did in its premiere in 1996, when Valdes-Aran originated the role of Aying, the play serves to communicate a struggle for identity and the significance of stories in that end. It also, not for nothing, serves as a star vehicle for an older actress. But these things come at an expense to the story: there isn't one, a point that becomes particularly noted toward the end of the play, when Aying stops speaking. Nor are Vangie and Redford particularly defined: they are illustrations of the ways in which immigrants are made to lose themselves. Vangie, an assertive and self-confident nurse, spends the play listening to English diction, choosing the words she wishes to keep in her new worldview, and rejecting the negative ones she dislikes, but we know nothing about her life, her struggles. We know only that Aying is prays for her uprooted soul: "My daughter's becoming Americana. I think she will go to hell."

Nothing much happens in the play, at least not outside of the many explanatory monologues addressed to the audience, but the minimalism of director/designer Loy Arcenas (who also worked on the original production) gives this a Zen feeling. A recessed box of sand is surrounded by a black boardwalk; the ocean is represented by a small bowl of water, an image that, in its diminished nature, conveys the distance between Aying and her homeland. (Watch as she touches her hand to the water's completely cut-off surface.) The only aspect that goes too far is the background, a wall covered in the graffiti signatures of Ma-Yi company members (and perhaps others); I believe it's meant as a callback to each person's roots and as the foundation of a new community -- the two extremes of this play -- but it is too direct, too outside of the scene. The less that takes away from the personal and specific charm of this piece, the better, for that it is all Flipzoids has.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Short-a-Day: Erri de Luca's "An Hour of Hate"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 44.

[Translated by Simon Nightingale as part of the FOCUS: Italy series.]

"For a good many years last century, I carried weapons. With no authorization save my own." So says de Luca, setting the frank tone of his character and his own authorially clipped intentions. Our character is violent. Independently. That's all you need to know. You can almost hear the periods embedded in the story. But such a choice leaves us still wanting to know the character; instead, we get a very limited glimpse, without any intimacy or motives, of a single action. In this case, we know that the protagonist has turned his back on weapons, in an attempt to control his nerves, and that he has attempted to bury himself in the sort of peace that comes from being in "the bottom of the pile": he has taken a labor-intensive job in a foreign city, and he looks merely to be left alone: "Men are simple machines," he writes of the others. Of himself, apart: "I did not share their gloom of their joy. I had no horizon to head for."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Short-a-Day: Hisham Matar's "Naima"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 85.

The narrator of this story, Nuri, is writing mainly from an eight-year-old's perspective, talking about his Mother and Father, but the titled protagonist is actually the maid, Naima. Matar's moxie comes from the ways in which he hints at Naima's true role in the family: she was hired at the age of thirteen because Mother "wanted someone young, to get used to our ways, to be like a daughter," and as Father's old Parisian friend Taleb implies, she is actually Nuri's birth-mother: "Naima was innocent, of course. Ultimately, everyone is innocent, including your father." These facts, gleaned toward the end of the story but never implicitly stated (even Naima's morning sickness is given an alternative: sea sickness), give new meaning to much of the earlier parts of the story, from Naima's devotion to Nuri, the family's devotion to her, and the Mother's slow, silent illness (never given a name, it must be depression): 

"Don't transfer the weight of the past onto your son," [Mother] once told him.
"You can't live outside history," he argued. "We have nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary."
After a long pause, she responded, "Who said anything about shame? It's longing that I want to spare him. Longing and the burden of your hopes."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Short-a-Day: Sana Krasikov's "Debt"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 66.

Krasikov's one of those writers who knows her characters so well that it takes us a moment to catch up to her: Sonya is the twenty-year-old niece of Lev; she is visiting Lev and Lev's wife, Dina, for the first time in four years, bringing with her her considerably older (thirty-five) husband, and pictures of their sixteen-month-old daughter, Andjela Bliss. They've not brought the child because they've spent Friday and Saturday operating their business -- "selling food out of their van at a music festival on Long Island" -- and so we at once get a mix of characters that are both responsible and irresponsible, grown-up and childish. It's a mix that fits the story, as the "Debt" of the title refers to Sonya's prior relationship with Lev and the one that she has come seeking.

Lev now finds himself poised between the familial and the financial, a situation complicated a little further by a casual dinner revelation that he was once sponsored by a "temple," a religious organization of some kind that they still, on occasion, make contributions to, as a way of clearing their own obligations. The story is filled with such small nothings, little bombshells of information that don't really advance the plot so much as they fit the characters and partially fill in their motivations.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Short-a-Day: Mario Bellatin's "Lessons for a Dead Hare"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 5, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 1.

[Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Alarcon]

Bellatin's story begins with the promise of some twisty, allegorical magic realism, in the style of Borges: "In one of the texts in The Notebook of Things that Are Difficult to Explain, the blind poet speaks of a certain event that took place in an institution known as the Last Citadel." Instead, this is numbered 1, and along with sections 6, 11, 16, 21, and 26, will jump from the sick who have been forcibly interned to the universals who live nearby and who have begun trading amphetamines with the interns in return for tainted blood (for "life within in the institution is less harsh than life outside it, since it was thought that whatever controversy forced internment might spark could be quelled by granting certain advantages to the quarantined that the healthy people could not have"). The story turns, at last, to the blind poet and the adopting fishermen who raised him. These sections range from a sentence to a paragraph in length, and they do little more than whet our appetite for a story.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Short-a-Day: Jesmyn Ward's "Cattle Haul"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 5, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 90.

An ambitious and tragic slice-of-life debut from Ms. Ward, who uses the in media res action of Reese's cattle drive -- a rushed, forty-eight hour blitz of a drive from Louisiana to Texas with a bed full of cows -- to expand upon the solitary, deadening life of a trucker, and to show us what circumstances would put such a young man in this situation in the first place. There's a lot of shifting around in time, but Ward handles it as simply as turning from lane to lane, clearly signaling when and where we are after each section's break, and she writes with such a steady pace that there's never a sense that we're out of control. 

After I got back from the Pennsylvania drive, I went home and I picked up the phone the first ring, like I always do, thinking it might be Tanisha, when I heard John-Lee on the other end saying, Reese, you going on a forty-eight-hour cattle haul. I hadn't even gone to the office to tell him I was back.
I pulled out a box of cookies and slid out the tray to find three stale cookies and a little balled-up sandwich bag full of white powder. I threw the box in the back of the cabinet and kicked it shut and told John-Lee I wasn't going to no fucking where.
"Why not, boy?" he breathed into the phone. He said boy and I heard nigga.

Oh yeah, did I mention that Ward's playing with dialect, too? In any case, look at everything happening here: Reese is not a man in control, which we learn from the fact that John-Lee is ordering him around, that he always answers immediately, and because he's struggling with some sort of substance problem. Other cues and clues, too: stale cookies imply that he's rarely home to restock, and the sort of desperation with which he waits to hear from Tanisha suggests both that he rarely calls her and that it's been some time since they've last seen one another.

THEATER: Honey Brown Eyes

Photo/Lia Chang

Dragan (Edoardo Ballerini) a Serbian soldier, trains an automatic rifle on Alma (Sue Cremin), a Bosnian Muslim; for the duration of this first scene, he will terrorize her, as if by rote, shaking her down for money, food, cigarettes, and possibly sex, though something holds the young man back from this last part. It's that hint of something else that keeps Honey Brown Eyes from being just a bland caricaturization of the Bosnian War, circa 1992, and thankfully playwright Stefanie Zadravec spends the next seventy minutes deepening our understanding and sympathy of these former comrades, now separated by the vaguest of distinctions. This is fortunate for director Erica Schmidt, too: she's out of her depth when it comes to provoking tension -- the blocking is too broad and the menacing lines come off as being scripted, particularly out of the mouth of Branko (Gene Gillette), Dragan's two-dimensionally violent superior. As the title implies, it's the specifics -- the things that modify us from being a blank set of eyes and into a class of color and, more importantly, an object of sweet desire -- that draw us in.

As it turns out, Dragan once played in a band with Alma's older brother, Denis (Daniel Serafini-Sauli), and, more importantly, had a crush on the older (and now unrecognizable) Alma. This simple fact -- shared history -- instantly elevates the play, and makes Dragan into a real character, a boy-soldier (essentially) who takes the constant ribbing by his fellow soldiers because he cannot bring himself to see these people, people he grew up with, as enemies to be raped and then massacred. The tough-guy act he has put on elicits our sympathy, and justifies Branko's inclusion in the play: he shows the difference between a cold-blooded and warm-blooded killer. It also makes the inevitable outcome of the first act all the more tragic: Alma must die, but must Dragan be the one to pull the trigger?

The second act increases the surprises, jumping in place (although not time) from Visegrad to Sarajevo, where Denis, disowned by his sister for joining the resistance, hides in the apartment of the elderly Jovanka (Kate Skinner), a wonderfully sweet and tough character. Though Denis is technically "the enemy," Jovanka hides him, for she has lived through too much to dismiss him in such a black-and-white fashion; in fact, she cannot help but see her own grandson reflected in him. Although this act is quieter than the first (never mind the constant sound of bombs outside), it is just as dramatic, offering us a parallel to Dragan's circumstances and filling in many of the blanks in their shared history as bandmates. Of particular note is Denis's sorrowful assertion that Dragan, a well-off and emotional kid, would never have been able to join the military, though we, of course, know otherwise.

And that's the kicker of the affecting Honey Brown Eyes: war does terrible things to ordinary people. We say that we can understand, but could we have ever guessed that Denis joined the war because his six-month-old son was kicked down the street like a soccer ball? Leaving the theater, there's a change between the first scene's immediate hatred toward the "mean" Dragan and a new-found regret: What must have happened to Dragan? Though Zadravec and Schmidt are both guilty of playing a bit too broadly at times (juxtaposing the laugh track from an episode of Alf with the terrorizing of Alma is unnecessary), they are ultimately successful at humanizing their characters, at chalking up a thin, thin line between victim and villain.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Short-a-Day: Wells Tower's "Door In Your Eye"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 5, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 1.

Some people might like to wonder what the story they've just read was all about; I don't. "The first evening in my new city, I had a phone call from my father, wanting to know how I was getting on," reads the first line, and after dad drops some "lyric" musings on loneliness, we never hear from him again. Instead, our narrator is conveniently visited by his "backdoor neighbor," Charlotte, who is studying criminology at Tulane and promptly starts sleeping with our hero -- though she admits that she's still "permitting her ex-boyfriend, a reggae connoisseur, to sound her depths on weekday afternoons." This isn't really relevant either (and it's an awfully artificial line); we don't hear from Charlotte or meet her "old friend."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Short-a-Day: James Lasdun's "The Old Man"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 5, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 69.

A very spare and simple story in which Conrad, a loan manager, bonds with two former Czechoslovakians, an older woman ("rouged cheeks wrinkled like walnut shells") and her daughter ("a flat, handsome face and a full figure that she carried with confidence"), after he decides to lend them money for their proposed greenhouse. These sociable, hard-working people impress him, and he begins to play weekly bridge games with them, along with an older man, their tenant, who also happens to be from Czechoslovakia. Conrad ends up falling for/being seduced by the daughter, and he at last finds the ability to move past his wife's death: "It came to him that if he was to make a go of this new life, he needed to make a clean break from all the old trappings of his life with Margot." Even his collegiate daughter seems to agree with his choice of a wife.

The twist to the story, and the significance of the title, is that two nights before the wedding, he learns that the women have evicted the old man -- for three months, he has not paid rent, and he did not pay rent because he had stopped working his job, and he had stopped working his job because he had injured his knee. Conrad is not depicted as an old man -- he is probably ten years older than his soon-to-be-wife -- and the women are never depicted as manipulative; he does not sense evil, or some scheme against him. But he becomes aware, perhaps, of mortality, of the price of one's "usefulness" and wonders if he will one day be put out to pasture as well, if, for instance, he is no longer able to pay his rent. This interpretation isn't a perfect fit -- he's a hard-working man himself, and I don't think the daughter would throw the mother on her rear when she grows unable to care for the flowers -- but even without resolution, the story reads smoothly.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Short-a-Day: Amos Oz's "The King of Norway"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 17, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 3.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.]

Luna said, "Why do you take all the sorrow of the world on your shoulders?"
And Zvi replied, "Closing your eyes to the cruelty of life is, in my opinion, both stupid and sinful. There's very little we can do about it. So we have to at least acknowledge it.

In this very short story, Oz introduces us to Zvi, known around the kibbutz as the "Angel of Death" due to his propensity to "convey bad news." The dialogue above occurs about halfway in, as he talks to Luna, who is known as the "Black Widow," on account of the way she had "overcome tragedy and poured her entire soul into her teaching," a name that doesn't nearly fit her as well as Zvi's does for himself. Out of the blue, seemingly, the two have decided to meet, and Luna develops feelings for this sorrow-bearing man, a man who apparently takes the weight off her shoulders, too: "She felt that their relationship was precious and she appreciated the way it filed her days, which until then had been so flat and monotonous." But he, of course, always dwelling on the worst, bearing its weight on his shoulders, is afraid to get involved: "He had begun to feel that their relationship was heading toward a disastrous place he did not want to go, a place that repulsed him."

And that's it. That's the story. No real explanations, no real character development, no real story. There are hints that this is a parable for the Israel-Arab relationships in the Middle East, but then again, I get the sense that you can pretty much always say that about stories written in or about Israel. But it's far too thin to amount to much, and in fact, the story would be far better off if pared down even more: the story's about Zvi, and tangentially about Luna; we don't really need to hear the politics (or get the descriptions) of the stuttering Emanuel Glozman ("We'll w-w-w-win and t-t-take their l-l-land all the w-w-way to the J-J-Jordan") or Reuvkeh Roth ("a small bald man with large, batlike ears, [who] would mumble that retaliatory raids only accelerated the circle of violence, because revenge begets revenge and retaliation begets retaliation"). Couple that with two references to the title character (who is dying of cancer), and you've got a story struggling with a lack of identity. Which, I suppose, you could also read into. If you're desperate to justify this as a story.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Short-a-Day: John Edgar Wideman's "Always Raining Somewhere, Said Jim Johnson"

Originally published in Harper's, February 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 27.

This simple story lacks enough ambition to justify Wideman's writerly tricks; at heart, it's about a frozen moment in which the narrator examines the sleeping, naked wife of his best friend, Rich, justifying his violation first by clarifying that because of the way Liz dressed, with a beauty that needs to be appreciated over time: "Why wouldn't Liz be pleased by his eyes on her. Didn't one eye pop open, flash gratitude, a wink of complicity. Given modesty, shyness, and Rich asleep beside her, how could she risk more." Then, slipping backward in time, he recalls a comment their other friend, Jim Johnson, casually let loose about Liz's hips, which he now perceives as either giving truth to the rumor that Jim was secretly nailing Liz, or denying it: "Slick Jim Johnson wouldn't hardly let slip to Rich his detailed interest in Liz's hips, would he, if he's backdooring Rich. Or Jim Johnson being Jim Johnson, maybe he would drop a dime on himself, confirming the rumor in his own inimitable, sly-boots, signifying, told-you-so-man fashion to spare his good buddy Rich the final ignominy of being the very last person in Iowa City to hear the truth." 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Short-a-Day: Ernst Weiss's "The Rat Ship"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 5, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 63.

[Part of a longer novel, Georg Letham (1931); translated from the German by Joel Rotenburg.]

Unique situations make for good stories: even if all else fails, the sheer novelty is often enough to keep the reader turning, just to see what happens next. Although the setting of Weiss's story seems familiar -- an ice-locked ship in the Arctic (for instance, Dan Simmons's recent book, Terror) -- the aspect he focuses on is an oft-glossed over one: rats. With this plague of animals and a steady hand of pacing, Weiss has the son of the sailor recount his father's story, a story about success and failure, about a scientist who is humbled, ultimately, but human (and rodent) nature. It's an old-fashioned adventure story, filled with vivid descriptions, that have been meticulously shaved down to near-fragments and flung at the reader in matter-of-fact ways:

Terrible boredom. Cards played for hours for no stakes of any possible value. No contact with the outside world, other than scientific observations and the hunting which becomes more and more infrequent at higher latitudes. No blue sky for so very long, scanty artificial light day and night. No flowers. Close quarters in gloomy cabins, not properly ventilated because of the cold. Fresh water only in minimal quantities: the fuel required to melt snow must be conserved.

You can almost feel the scientific rigor of these observations, each sentence praised for its validity. Not that Weiss doesn't wax poetic, too, or get comedic in his details: "A ripe, yellow, aromatic butter pear, the 'Prince of Wales,' is the voluptuous dream of many nights" and "Only the Norwegian and my father are still in good spirits, the former with the aid of alcohol" (note the crushing pun of spirits/alcohol). With deliberate intent, the men attempt to smoke the rats out with a combination of arsenic and sulfur; when this fails, the men regress to animals themselves, then -- further -- they refuse to speak; the dog, Ruru, is sacrificed to the "underworld," the ship's magazine, aswarm with rats. There are brief moments of pity: the geographer, extending a pitying hand to the dog's owner; a stolen Bible being returned just in time for an apocalyptic showdown . . .

Being part of a larger novel, the father-son elements of this story don't tidy up in a satisfactory way (in fact, they're quite confusing), and instead of sticking tightly to the idea of life-as-God's-experiment, Weiss begins to repeat himself, attempting anew to flush the rats out, this time with carbon monoxide. The images of the cracking ice, the sounds of it creaking, these start to repeat themselves. Sentimentality, as the story warns, is pushed further and further to the outskirts of the page, until eventually all becomes plot. Rats, rats; rats. We cannot even leave on this note -- "Can man triumph over nature? Never. He, man, is only an experiment on the part of nature, the terrible" -- for nature is not what brings them down.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Short-a-Day: Valery Bryusov's "The Republic of the Southern Cross"

Republished (from Russia, 1905) in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 83.

[Part of the FOCUS: Antarctica series.]

An entertaining, newspaper-like account of the last days of a fictional empire located in Antarctica, calling to mind the similar work of Steven Millhauser, who is, at times, a fellow feulilletonist. First, we learn of its founding: "A development from three hundred steel works established in the southern polar regions. In a circular note sent to each and every government of the whole world, the new state expressed its pretension to all lands, whether mainland or island, within the limits of the Antarctic circle, as also all parts of these lands stretching beyond the line." Though this revisionist history is unlikely, Bryusov's choices are written as if they were both possible and reasonable, which assists him as he lays out the unique architecture: "Because of the severity of the climate, an impenetrable and opaque roof had been built over the town, with powerful ventilators for a constant change of air." Remember: speculative fiction must be based in something real, and comedy must be rooted in something serious before it gets distorted.

And so, after establishing the uniformity of their demanding political hierarchy -- he calls this "extreme democracy" -- he spends the next sixteen pages describing how the Republic fell prey to a new type of disease: mania contradicens, or more casually, "the disease of contradiction." There's no direct meaning given to any of what follows, just a series of unfortunate (and clever) events, but one reading is that this culture, stifled by a communistic lack of choice and tricked into obeying the party line by dime-a-dozen spies, can only find freedom by losing their own self-control, thereby doing the opposite of what they had to but secretly did not want to do. Considering that the final few pages consist of political satire -- they "elect" a "dictator" -- it's not hard to imagine that Bryusov was extrapolating some circumstances from his own life in Russia (of which I admittedly know very little).

What I can vouch for is the story itself, which reads smoothly and holds up, even a century down the road.

THEATER: Blood from a Stone

Photo/Monique Carboni
Apparently director Scott Elliott and the New Group take their idioms very seriously: as the title of Tommy Nohilly's Blood from a Stone suggests, they have taken a flinty, sedentary play and, with the aid of some top-notch actors, wrung blood from it. However, whether or not that makes a good production all depends on how much you like blood, because these characters hate each other. And unlike similarly dysfunctional modern plays by Tracy Letts or Lucy Thurber, which offer some slim hopes and glimmers of change, Nohilly's only got two-and-a-half hours of blood.

It's no wonder that Travis (Ethan Hawke) hates coming back to his family's Connecticut home, where his mother, Margaret (Ann Dowd), can't wait to scream about all the new ways in which his penny-pinching, rage-a-holic father, Bill (Gordon Clapp), has messed up, or about how she's had to hide her valuables from his brother, Matt (Thomas Guiry), in case he starts gambling again. And she, who constantly hands Travis cash, is the loving one! Don't be fooled by her good will, the sisterly love of Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), who scrapes by with double-shifts while pregnant with her second kid, or the rekindled flames between Travis and his now-married and next-door neighbor Yvette (an invigorated Daphne Rubin-Vega): these are merely brief vignettes, introduced in the middle of the first act purely to show us how nice things can be before Nohilly begins systematically taking it all away. (It's telling that neither character is mentioned again; they're figments of a different, happier play.)

You see, Blood from a Stone also likes its metaphors: a ceiling tile collapses early in the first act, bringing with it a deluge of rainwater. It carries with it the point that this shattered family is deserving of this broken home: those who do not fix their leaks, physical or mental, are doomed to collapse. And that's exactly what happens for the final hour of this bulldozingly bleak play: it all comes tumbling down. Bill, reasonably provoked by his delinquent son, Matt, crashes his car into the patio and goes into an accusatory rage; Travis, who has been a low-key fly on the wall up until now, defends his brother, lashing out with his own pent-up rage, a downward climax that, after getting even more heated, ends the first act.

Elliot, who never seems to have the slightest bit of difficulty naturally staging action -- particularly fights -- does an admirable job with all of this, and it's admittedly exciting to watch these people unhinge. But there's a futility to his and the actors' work. Bill re-enters at the start of Act II bearing a peace-offering for Travis: ice cream. (Never mind that it's three in the morning.) Clapp finds a childish calm to Bill, a nocturnal counterpart to the constant rage and menace with which he's spoken about everything else, but it goes unexplained, and Bill is never held accountable (or questioned) about his earlier rage, in the same way that his relationship with another woman is more-or-less accepted, as is his racism against all non-white people. You could add a dozen other traits and quirks, and Clapp would nail them all, but it wouldn't mean anything: Nohilly remains so tight-lipped and close-set in his scripting that all we're supposed to get is that Bill, a former soldier, has never really recovered, and is therefore an on-again-off-again rage machine, or, to be less kind, a stage device.

This lack of significance has a domino effect on the rest of the actors: Dowd seems more stubborn than strong to remain in the house with him, Guiry has to play his character as plain stupid (instead of just baby-faced), and Hawke's final act seems implausible. None of it means anything: it's just blood, and what Nohilly really needs is a pound of flesh.

THEATER: Kim Noble Will Die

[Part of the COIL Festival.]

Whether or not it's true that Kim Noble is suicidal, has been in and out of psychiatric care, and was almost banned from entering the US with his one-man show Kim Noble Will Die because of this, the truth is, you'll believe his hard-to-draw-the-line shtick. He's a more dangerous Tom Green, so be thankful that the majority of his performances are shown as documentary footage while Mr. Noble dourly stands before the audience, wearing only an unbuttoned jacket and a ripped Spider-Man costume that's bunched up around his crotch. After all, he's capable of just about anything . . . which is what makes watching him so thrilling.

Well, so long as you're not in his sights, that is. He spends the show inducing the audience to text his ex-girlfriend ("We never did enough anal i still think about you a lot"), handing out sealed batches of his sperm to women (we'll see footage of him producing said spunk later, to a disturbing rendition of "Sweet Child O' Mine"), and kicking people out. Meanwhile, video clips provide a medley of his stunts, many of which involve tampering with products (talking greeting cards, celebrity biographies, self-help books, DVDs) and replacing them with his own, ostensibly with the goal of saving us valuable time, as with his sixteen-second version of March of the Penguins. ("Now do something worthwhile with the next 84 minutes," he advises.) His deadpan elevates these pranks, allowing them to catch us off guard with running jokes (his animated, three-second version of The Shawshank Redemption includes a tribute to March of the Penguins) or with the revelations that not all the stunts have happy endings, at least as far as we know. (There's some footage of a woman cutting herself; at the end, Noble informs us that she passed away last year.)

More surprising than the shock humor (and watching a naked woman squat and piss on his "corpse" is pretty shocking) however, is how ultimately sympathetic Noble is. He doesn't hide his resentment of celebrities like Catherine Tate or Bono, his regrets over lost relationships, and his self-loathing, all of which fits his childish lashing out. (His video comedy, incidentally, would not feel out of place on, say, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) To freely reveal that, actually or performatively, takes guts -- and after seeing footage of him shoving a camera up his arsehole (in order to boost his Google rank with "the gays"), we know he's got those. And ultimately, crude or not, he's right: we're all going to die, so why waste time not really living?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Short-a-Day: Owen Marshall's "The Frozen Continents"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 1.

[Part of the FOCUS: Antarctica series.]

I found it an odd sensation at first; standing waist deep in Antarctica as we dismantled it. I pointed out to Beavis the clear symbolism relating to man's despoilation of the last natural continent and so on. Beavis in reply told me that fourteen people were killed in a stampede when a fire broke out during a wedding ceremony at Unye in the Turkish province of Ordu.

A pure concept of a story, Marshall quickly establishes the situation -- our narrator has been put on a PEP (unemployment work-relief program of the 1970s and 80s in New Zealand) that involves working with fellow PEP-er Beavis to dismantle a series of panoramas in a local museum. Over the course of this day, the protagonist fantasizes about a girl with "seductive earlobes and dark, close curls" and Beavis continues to reply to any sort of comment with a listing of natural disasters and accidental deaths: "'More than one hundred people drowned when a boat capsized in midstream on the Kirtonkhola River near the town of Barisal in Bangladesh,' said Beavis." None of this really amounts to much; Marshall just enjoys the poetic sentiment of our two workers setting fire to some of the plywood ocean bits in order to warm up. The very ending overreaches, too: "How should they know that the frozen continent was to be found right here in the midst of our city after all," he writes, an untethered conclusion that, at best, works on our own sense of modern anonymity and isolation to resolve itself.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Short-a-Day: Helen Schulman's "I Am Seventy-Five"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 96.

So much for discovering the joys of homoeroticism today. She was alive and alone with a mess to clean up, story of her life.

That's the voice of the wonderful seventy-five-year-old Lily Weilerstein, who, after stumbling upon her recently dead husband's secret sex diaries, has decided that she needs to get laid. Schulman spends the first six pages clarifying Lily's life with Walter, and her current loneliness -- all of her children and grandchildren are elsewhere. Though it's a third-person narrative, Schulman, much like Jonathan Franzen, infuses a lot of attitude into the character through the careful selection of actions and adjectives: "She sat down at the kitchen table, knocking the fat brown calico cat, Buster, off his smug little square of sunshine," or "She was searching the high shelves for one of Walter's gray cashmere v-neck sweaters, actually thinking the stupid soft thing might smell like him and give her comfort--what a moron! She had been grieving for him." (Bold emphasis mine.)

It occurs to me that without these first six pages, the story would still work, picking up with this excellent bit: "The morning of Lily's first and last Italian class [at the 92nd Street Y, where she can cruise for sex], she had a wake-up call in the shower. She realized she could hold her candle in the looks department!" But at the same time, Schulman's writing is so rich that I don't mind the additional details: this is how you enrich a story, and while the second half is clearly more action-based, I wonder if it would have had the same effect if I had not already lived inside the slower memories of the first section.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Short-a-Day: William T. Vollman's "Too Late"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 2.

You never know what you're going to get with Vollman, but it's probably going to be overwritten -- he simply knows too much. Even in the short story form, he overflows a basic concept -- a man reminiscing over the path not taken -- by writing fantastic (not in the good sense) metaphors for it. Our white-rabbit-like hero wanders through the cold streets, looking to amply-described prostitutes for pleasure, his grayed flesh marking his limited time, until he at last decides to enter a giant tower, one which shoots up hundreds of floors into the sky. There, he looks out through the twin telescopes -- one of which may be a kaleidoscope -- and thinks: 

There was also a telescope pointed due west, and it showed me the brassy sun fleeing across the Pacific. This comprised futurity, and I longed to see my destiny here. After much labor I finally saw myself on one of the Queen Charlotte Islands, on my ninetieth birthday in a nursing home. I asked the lovely dark-haired nurse to kiss me but she wouldn't because I was so old and gruesome. So I begged her to spit in my mouth because that way I wouldn't contaminate her, and she kindly did. I had to hurry now; this sunbeam was speeding on!

Is this his future? If so, can we take it seriously? We're chasing rainbows and sunshine, and the story leaps around so quickly, in such an unnatural rhythm and setting, that the mind has to do a lot of abstract thinking. Mind you, I like Vollman -- Europe Central is one of my favorite novels of the decade -- but he's hard to take, especially when he's doing full-on Pynchon. Gussying up a very basic concept in this fashion -- kitchen-sink prose -- doesn't accomplish much, and in this case, it doesn't even impress.

THEATER: Hello Hi There

[Part of the COIL Festival]

Actors have nothing to fear from Annie Dorsen's "ipad-de-deus," Hello Hi There, which has two laptop-based chatter bots attempting to talk about the famous 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. It's a clever concept, from Dorsen's Turing Test introduction down to the proof-in-the-pudding "performance," which better illustrates the debate than the debate itself, illustrating the essence of "innate human nature" by the often-comically-looping bots' complete lack of it. Though there are, Dorsen claims, over 80 million different ways in which the performance can go -- which lasts as long as a taped recording of the debate, silently playing on a muted stage-right computer -- the computers are stuck in linear, uncreative thinking: they can only go forward, responding to whatever their algorithms have parsed as most relevant and able to be respond to from their partner's statement.

They are surprising, and funny in a laugh-at deadpan sort of way, but when the reach into their programming to point out that "An idea is not a Swiss Army Knife," the audience can only agree as we place our own significance onto statements that the computers cannot recognize or return to. (That's why they wind up with playground back-and-forths like "That's just one of many of many of many of many of many of many of many of many person's opinions." Which, admittedly, is really funny when spoken aloud with a computer-synthesized voice, one that cannot bring itself to properly pronounce "Foucault.") It's not really theater, even though Dorsen's aesthetically arranged the stage and entered a few rudimentary rising-and-falling light cues, but it is an oddly endearing meditation on existence and creativity, a reminder that while a computer recognizes that "I can only think about the things I can say," an artist -- like Dorsen, who at least continues to think outside the box (as with her last representational piece, Democracy in America) -- can choose to think about the things they cannot say.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

THEATER: Your brother. Remember?

Photo/Nancy Geeroms
"Manipulation is acting in a nutshell," says Zachary Oberzan, speaking as John Claude van Damme, reciting the words of his brother Gator Oberzan, but Your brother. Remember? shows quite the opposite. Yes, Oberzan has edited footage of his and Gator's 1989 recreation of Kickboxer (and, less effectively, The Faces of Death) along with their 2009 recreation of that recreation, but what it shows is a naturalism between the moments, the unforced and true acting of living life. Moreover, by placing himself on stage and including an adaptation of van Damme's climactic (and very meta) speech in JCVD (2008), Oberzan turns his documentary into the fodder for an live, existential work, a type of Krapp's Last Tape. The context gets blurry at times, but one can't fault Oberzan for being personal, or for lingering on happy moments, turning them from impromptu observations into carefully polished and reproduced exercises (similar, in many ways, to the theater-of-the-everyday Oberzan has done with his collective, Nature Theater of Oklahoma). Much has happened in the last twenty years -- depression, drug addiction, prison, but also growth, success, happiness -- and yet, much is still the same. Remember?

Short-a-Day: Jim Shepard's "Courtesy for Beginners"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 80.

Even though his story's set toward the start of the Vietnam War, Shepard so accurately describes camp (from the perspective of one who does not want to be there) that even though it's a blackly comic "Worst. Camp. Ever," it sends me back. Couple that with a somewhat depressed seventh-grader trying to simply fit in and not make things any harder for himself, and then give him a troubled brother back home who, although on the verge of being sent to a mental institution for his uncontrolled episodes of violence, is still his younger brother and you've got the makings of a vivid adolescent story. These things also give perfectly reasonable explanations for our hero's actions: sticking up for the fat kid who the counselors decide they're going to torment for fun but also standing idly by at the actions of his own provocative tent-mate, BJ. He doesn't want to be a hero; he just wants to left alone, to get through the day as best as he can.

Friday, January 07, 2011

THEATER: Vice Versa

Photo/Julian Oppenheim
[Part of the Under the Radar Festival]

In "Bull," the second novella of Will Self's 1993 book, "Cock and Bull," a large, homosexual, heavyset young man wakes up to find -- metamorphosis style -- that he has a vagina growing out of the back of his knee. (In the other novella, "Cock," a woman finds that she has grown a penis.) That's a fascinating, daring concept . . . so why has the << ildi ! eldi >> collective adapted it in such a plainspoken fashion, especially since their own struggle with speaking English (the group is French) is now highlighted more than Self's sexual politics?

For the first half-hour, the show is engaging, as the scene in which Bull makes an appointment with a secretary and soon after has his exam (and an unexpected follow-up) is repeated thrice, first as plain dialogue, again with interior voices from the two men (Francois Sabourin and Antoine Oppenheim), and then a third time, with an omniscient narrator (Sophie Cattani) drawing further context from her observations. This conceit cleverly plays on the awkwardness of the moment, with us only understanding Bull's condition after the second iteration, which now makes us view the doctor's attitude -- and his references to "nonscientific observations" in a new light. By the third pass, we're getting to the crudeness of his actions -- "I am now having an affair with a man with a cunt in the back of his leg" -- and yet, because of the revelatory sequence, we can almost accept it, which meshes with this observation: "The abnormal becomes normal through its inclusion in the world of others."

But the play lingers too long in a second, protracted sequence, which hints at how Bull will deal with this new relationship, how he will reassess his own masculinity or the way he has treated sexual partners before, now that he has this new experience. As the two men stand across the room for one another, each at a microphone, the play becomes an interrogation, in which the woman demands that the men find words to address the situation, each minute less impacting, less playful, less interesting than the last. Talk about a reversal!

THEATER: Diciembre

Photo/Valentina Newman

[Part of the Under the Radar Festival]

Considering how absurdly arbitrary the reasons for getting into a war usually are in the first place, it makes sense that Guillermo Calderon's stark, political comedy Diciembre, spends much of its time bickering over semantics. The fleet pace at which a Peruvian soldier home for the holidays, Jorge (Jorge Becker), bickers with his two pregnant sisters, Trini (Trinidad Gonzalez) and Paula (Mariana Munoz), helps to put the play firmly on familiar territory -- Christmas dinner with the family -- and it's a tact that works admirably in its own favor, especially since the entire show is in Spanish (with English supertitles) and deals with a fictional war (based on actual politics) occurring in 2014.

Of the many things addressed by the play, the split between Paula's nationalist ardor and Trini's humanistic pacifism -- they argue over whether or not Jorge should desert the army, ignoring his own wishes in the matter -- is the most arresting, tying political issues to family concerns. And Calderon's anecdotal choices are quite effective in their originality, from the way Jorge (a carpenter) has wound up portraying Jesus in the Army's yearly manger scene, to the arrival of Jorge's girlfriend, Mona (doubled by Munoz), who has misunderstood Jorge's Dear John letter to her, on account of all the military censoring. Calderon directs his work with a solid hand as well, using gaudy lighting (red, green, blue, and white bulbs, hanging low from an old chandelier) in order to better contrast the "cheer" of Christmas with the war-related blackouts that keep rippling through their home. It also meshes with the deliberately staged finale (which uses two outside spotlights) to emphasize the significance of the sisters' final revelation: all the men are at war, so how did they wind up pregnant?

Equal parts playful and dead serious, Diciembre is a must-see of the festival.

[Odd side-note: though the program points out that the shows Teatro en el Blanco performs are created through the collaboration of the core five members, with biographical information worked into the productions to fill them with artistic integrity, Ms. Munoz, who replaces Paula Zuniga, does not take anything away from the power of this production.]

THEATER: Ameriville

Photo/Saddi Khali
[Part of the Under the Radar Festival]

"You have to know how other people live," posits Universes, the company behind Ameriville, shortly before they launch into a freewheeling, spoken-word, vignette-guided tour of America's woes. The short segments are generally funny, ranging from broad vaudeville jokes ("I was black like I ain't go no job type black") to parodies of infomercials ("Tired of Muslims, Christians, Eskimos? Get a gun!") to straight-up stand-up routines (on gentrification, "See, that's what they do, they come down from the Choke-a-Nigga-Out Foundation"), but there's a fair share of direct address, too: a homeless man stops polishing shoes long enough to state the obvious ("I don't take pride in this") and one person asks "If everybody leaves New Orleans, who's gonna bring it back?"

Given all the musical interludes (recitations of classic American songs, remade to signal a call-and-response vibe) the show begs for some of the careful editing that goes into similar work by The Civilians, or for a firmer foundation on which to riff off of, like that of The TEAM. Yes, there are issues with American policies regarding immigration, suicide in the military, and the stubbornness of an educational system that wants to ban discussion of evolution, but after spending the first third of the show in New Orleans, there simply isn't the room to adequately cover these topics. And though director Chay Yew tries, Amerivile misses out on resonance and falls prey to the emptiness of a litany of high-energy complaints and statistics. Instead of a substantive report from the front-lines, written in the common-speak of the people, it becomes a performance piece, and of the four-person ensemble (which inclues Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz, and Gamal A. Chasten), only William Ruiz, also known as Ninja, seems ready to carry that weight on his shoulders.

TV: Lights Out

Is the new boxing drama from FX a knockout or a stretched-out derivative of The Fighter and Rocky Balboa? Could be both, might be neither; find out more by reading my review for Slant Magazine.

THEATER: Bonanza


[Part of the Under the Radar Festival]

Even though the town of Bonanza, Colorado, has only seven full-time residents, it's a little naive of company Berlin (Bart Baele, Yves Degryse, and Caroline Rochlitz) to assume that they can capture the essence of their life in only seventy minutes. To aid them, Berlin runs five screens at once -- sometimes in unison, sometimes with different angles of the same event, and sometimes (most effectively) with a simultaneous focus on each of the five main homes, appropriate for a place so small that everyone always knows what everyone else is doing. As an additional bit of flair, there's a scale model of Bonanza above the screens, designed by Koen De Ceuleneer, which has lights that go on and off according to the time of day on camera.

Given the loose narrative, Bonanza might have worked better as an installation: the best scenes are those that simply show the various tasks and quiet conversations that occur on the edge of nowhere. Instead, Baele's editing stalls when it attempts to address a feud between elderly couple Ed and Gail and the "mayor" of the town (who doesn't actually live there) and winds up suggesting far more than it actually shows, especially when it comes to the tragic Mary, a so-called "white witch" whose husband has recently died of cancer. The program also loses steam when it cuts to the easily laughable comments of Darva and Shikiah ("metaphysical coaches," though they're more like physical cockroaches) or suddenly introduces the ten additional people who have summer homes up there. The point is, even the smallest town is too big for a mere film, and the production needs to either shed the pretense of a plot or pick one specific angle to investigate and invest in.

Short-a-Day: Jack Livings's "The Heir"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 18.

Being both a cultural tale about the division between the Chinese and the Uyghurs and a generational one, about the split between the hard work gangster boss Omar has done to maintain his shantytown and the relatively soft life that his grandson Anwher has lived, I'm not surprised that the motivations of these characters elude me, just disappointed. Omar opens the story worrying about betrayal from his henchmen, and gets frustrated when he is forced to beat a young child in order to make an example -- to show that he is not soft and not afraid. He dreams "of open skies and the steppes. The intimacy of emptiness. Endless rivers and the shallow arc of the horizon. It had been thirty years since he'd breathed air so clear a man could smell the hint of a cooking fire an entire valley away."

Thursday, January 06, 2011

THEATER: A Small Fire

When we first meet Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk) at the opening of A Small Fire, she's the ball-busting commander of her construction site, joking around with her tough-looking foreman Billy (Victor Williams), but also criticizing him for not getting a better price from the carpeting contractors. She's unafraid to speak her mind, telling not only her husband, John (Reed Birney), that she's against their daughter getting married, but telling her daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger), too. She's so rough, in fact, that we begin to wonder what sort of man John is to so insistently defend her: "She puts up with me, too," he tells his daughter as the two genially plan the wedding over glasses of wine. And though he confesses that he once almost left, he points out that "Some people get tied."

This being an Adam Bock play, the circumstances soon begin to shift: it soon comes out that Emily has lost her sense of smell, and in quick succession, her sense of taste. This woman who has prized herself on being the strong one, on being in control, suddenly finds herself blind, as well, and toward the end of the play, deaf, too. The doctors remain clueless, which establishes the illness more as an existential one than a medical mystery; Bock has called A Small Fire a memento mori play, a reminder of mortality. The show goes beyond that, though. It examines not just the ways in which people remain tied, but also the nature of those bonds, which as Billy optimistically puts it -- for he has been through grief in his past, as well -- can either lead to an approximated relationship, or one that transforms and adapts. ("In sickness and in health" comes to mind.)

The remaining play is filled with scenes of great disappointment, greater struggle, and greatest beauty, as Emily and John deal with their new life: "I can't go on. I'll go on." Short, successful scenes -- some no longer than a minute -- begin to draw out Emily's tender side (a moment at the bedside, as she gropes to find her husband's hand) while still maintaining her indomitable spirit (abruptly, she bursts into curses, as if she might order the powers that be around: "It's stupid. It's the stupidest thing ever!"). Bock is forced to create a new language for their situation, from the way John tearfully, proudly describes the wedding to Emily, seeing with eyes for the both of them, to the way Emily at last finds a profound way to remain connected to her husband. As agonizing and terrifying as her helplessness may be, it leaves some small hope behind that life does continue: "I am still in here," she says, clutching to her husband, her sense of touch intact. (It's a tear-inducing play, on par with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.)

A fire can be disastrous, or it can be warm; a small one must either be snuffed out or carefully nourished, and in John and Jenny, Bock is able to explore both options. (It helps that Birney has an exquisite tenderness to him, a wide-eyed wonder that shows his deep heart.) And though some of the lines border on being maudlin -- "Love isn't what you get from someone, it's what you give" -- actors like Williams are so casual in their roles (like second skins), that such observations end up coming across as profound. And through it all, it's an honor to watch Pawk struggle, showing us that although her character's senses may have grown diminished, her emotions and her presence -- even if it's just sitting on a couch, bumping her fists together and feeling for the vibrations of the person sitting next to her -- are still intact, if not magnified. Some credit is due to director Trip Cullman, as well, who collaborated on Bock's last play (The Drunken City), and here delivers his most subdued and sincere production yet.

A Small Fire is a devastating work of theater, but also a magical one -- much like a phoenix, which burns its way past the pain into a glimmering rebirth.

Short-a-Day: Louise Erdrich's "The Years of My Birth"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 10, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 72.

An original series of images -- a fifty-year-old's recollection of her deformed birth as a surprise twin, her subsequent abandonment, and adoption and remolding by a caring janitor from the nearby reservation -- devolves at the very last moment into something about redemption and the true meaning of beauty. Erdrich reaches deep, but the lines she comes up with are empty thoughts: "Before we were born, my twin had had the compassion to crush me, to improve me by deforming me: I was the one who was spared." And the final section of the story works to surprise us with the twin's unrelenting cruelty ("I don't want your kidney," he says. "I don't want a piece of you inside me.") only to leave us dangling with our narrator's reaction: "I tried to get away from him, to get to the door, but instead I backed up against the wall and was stuck there in that white, white room."

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

THEATER: Phobophilia


[Part of the Under the Radar Festival]

Your blindfold is taken off, revealing a man in a suit, standing on a box. He wears a cloth over his head, his arms are held out in Guantanamo-like stress positions. No context is given in this largely silent fifty-minute piece, though there's an implied interrogation (a murmur, piped in from off-stage), with the black-and-white video footage that is projected onto the various slides of a pop-up suitcase serving a dream-like response. These images have a feeling of something out of a Bergman picture (Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard compare it to Jean Cocteau); seen at a distance or made fuzzy by the backdrop's texture, they are even less distinct. It has something to do with a man in a city engulfed by flames, finding solace and nightmare in a painting of his own creation as he pursues his savior or destroyer, a fan-dancing cabaret girl. Despite the creative use of 3D cut-outs on which to project moving images, this lifeless work merely hints at Phobophilia's translated promise: "Arousal from fear."

TV: Californication

Junk television at its most indulgent: just be glad the women are hot and that creator Tom Kapinos has an ear for witty dialogue and a sense for farce, and then go along for the ride. Read the whole review for Slant Magazine here.

Short-a-Day: Leslie Jamison's "Quiet Men"

Originally published in A Public Space 03, Winter 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 82.

We sat like grade-schoolers, barely touching. Neither one of us spoke. I pointed out the couple and we watched them change their baby's diaper against the fallen lights of the city. I felt the summer break into things I could hold in one palm: a bent cigarette and a steaming sweet-corn pie, my own tombstone carved in fog-chilled chocolate. A note saying: Slut. A note saying: So? There were ash-speckled jackets all over those days, and Coke bottles collecting rain. I had a glass and it broke. I crushed a moth and it died. I had a month, but it ended. I had a heart. It remained.

That quote right there is the story, and it makes for a terrific punchline of an ending. I'm not sure it needed all twenty-six preceding pages, but Jamison's writing is romantic enough that I'm willing to cut her some slack. For better or worse, Jamison's chosen a sort of prose pantoum form, mirroring that of the first lonely man, the poet who breaks her character's heart at the start of the story. Though lines don't literally repeat (save a few), the themes do -- our character meets a man, one of them treats the other poorly, their relationship ends -- and that quoted ending is a collection of images and memories from each of the men encountered in that month (and in this story). The dialogue is snappy and the observations are original; the story's only real flaw is in feeling bloated or, occasionally, too clever (though considering that that's one of the reasons for breaking up, perhaps it's justified).

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

metaDRAMA: Best Theater of 2010

It's great when critics agree that a show is terrific, as with The Aliens, Clybourne Park, and In the Footprint, but it's perhaps better when critics disagree, as with The Little Foxes, Lear, and Lascivious Something, because then you end up with passionate defenses. It's nice to have some diversity, too; those who fear "off-off-Broadway" missed out on the braveness of The Soup Show and the tenacity of Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War. Doing away with expectations helps, too, because then you can shamelessly include shows like The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik Deep Sea Explorer, a bit of incandescent pleasure, and L'Effet De Serge, which has no comparison, i.e., is a delight all on its own. If I had to pull a set of biases out of the crucible called list-making, it'd be that I like cerebral and low-key (i.e., not a "spectacle") work, but above all, honesty.

1. Young Jean Lee's Lear
Paul Lazar, tired of playing at "Edgar," pulls off his facial hair, turns the house lights on, and recommends that those in the theater who feel that they're wasting their time should leave. The play resumes with a recreation of a Very Special Episode of Sesame Street and ends with a raw reverberation on the essence of mortality: "I'll miss you." All those rough spots in the play? We'll call them the facets of a diamond in the rough.

2. The Civilians's In the Footprint
Objects transcend their location not just because they're sung ("The ghetto home depot, Park Slope Co-op, the Target, Cellar's Bar, Marcy Projects, the shootings, the hipsters, Spike Lee, Jay Z, the Time Out article the day the rents doubled..."), but because Steve Cosson has defined and given them significance, quoting verbatim from the residents as a means of rebutting all those (like politicians) who would use them merely as words. How often do lyrics and actors have the opportunity to do that?

3. The New York New Futurists's The Soup Show
Talk about some indelible images. Desiree Burch, Cara Francis, and Erica Livingston reclaim all the "mysteries" of womanhood by refusing to hide any of them; moreover, by upending our expectations (of hygiene, humor, history), they succeed in ensuring that we actually recognize how stupid assumptions are in the first place. And, in handing out so-called "elixirs" to the audience, the ensemble succeeds in making us question what exactly we want, and what we're willing to do to get it.

4. Ivo van Hove's The Little Foxes
How heartless to just lean there, against that dark and purpled wall, watching your husband -- in the throes of a heart attack -- attempt to crawl up the stairs (located the aortal center of the stage)? Watch Ivo van Hove's production of Lillian Hellman's 1939 play and you'll understand: he fills the production with bleak family interactions, violent histrionics, and bloodless forms of assault and battery. In such a world are we reflected (talk about an effective pseudo-modernization); do we want our finances and lives run so calculatingly?

5. Philippe Quesne's Le Effet d'Serge
It takes only the briefest flash of a second, and then the spark is gone. Gaëtan Vourc’h's guests applaud the performance, then leave. Time passes, time passes, new guests arrive, a new show is performed -- a home-made laser-light-show, jury-rigged automobile headlights, whatever -- and all of a sudden, the ordinary has become a wonderland full of transcendent surprises. Putting the play back into play, Quesne's largely silent work is a small but significant wonder. 

6. Sheila Callaghan's Lascivious Something is an aptly named romance, an frisson-filled look at both  positive and negative actions at once, illustrated by a time-reversing device that leads us on with alternatives and crushes us with realities -- or vice-versa. Roads taken, not taken, dreamed about, fantasized about, all with a economic and political subtext just waiting to haunt us beneath the eroticism of the moment. I can still feel the passion of these performers; that's a rare thing.

7. Annie Baker's The Aliens is more specific than her previous Circle Mirror Transformation, so there seem, at first, to be fewer ways to connect to all that space between her sparse text and stoner characters; the trick of her work is realizing -- with the cut of an abrupt loss, or a sudden coming-of-age -- just how little it takes to connect after all, if we just listen.

8. Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park two-part generational structure makes us laugh and think at the same time about what constitutes racism and what constitutes community.

9. Tim Watts's The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik Deep Sea Explorer ditches all that high-concept nonsense in order to get to the essence of life after heartbreak, using nothing more than a few puppets and a Wiimote-controlled series of animations to explore the unfathomable fathoms of the ocean.

10. The Mad Ones's Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War appropriately uses a radio-theater format in order to tap into the nostalgia of its narrators, three Russian broadcasters who, on the verge of alien-driven extinction, venture into the heart of an American love story. Form, content, energy =  recipe for success?

Honorable mentions: Michael Shannon's performance in Craig Lucas's Mistakes Were Made, the quiet introspection of religion in Samuel D. Hunter's A Bright New Boise, the elegance (even in translation) of Toshiki Okada's Enjoy, the participatory delights of Rotozaza's GuruGuru, the clownishly beautiful imagination of Legs and All, and the return-to-form of Company XIV's scintillating Nutcracker Rouge.

Overrated, but in a good way: Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, because maybe it's time for playwrights to stop being subtle about racism in America.

Underrated, but in a good way: Polly Stenham's That Face, because a young writer should have an unpolished voice, especially when dealing with internal horrors . . . but it's still an unpolished voice.