Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Fiona Shaw in Beckett at the Kennedy Center

I’ve been lucky enough to catch the indomitable Fiona Shaw in most of her recent U.S. touring performances, including her stunning rendition of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in 1996, at what was then the soon-to-be demolished Liberty Theatre on Manhattan’s 42nd St. She delivered the elegiac prose poem from the edge of the stage apron, crossing its width only occasionally to interact with the ghost light that stood stage center. The theatre itself smelled musty and cold, and at least half of its seats were covered in thick, dusty plastic in preparation for its transformation into an anonymous cinema. But Shaw’s virtuosity and charisma emblazoned the space and mesmerized spectators lucky enough to witness the performance. (She certainly has what Joe Roach might call the “It” factor; see his book, It, just released from University of Michigan Press). In 2000, I saw her perform as Medea in a British import production on Broadway (an occasion about which I write in my book Utopia in Performance).

Last week, I made a pilgrimage to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in DC to see Shaw in Beckett’s Happy Days in a production imported from the National Theatre of Great Britain, directed by her long-time collaborator Deborah Warner. In the relatively intimate space of the Terrace Theater, Shaw once again captivated audiences, this time with her terrifically mobile, expressive face and torso, and her inimitable command of Beckett’s language.

In front of the curtain (which in this case is a fire wall that lurches a few inches upwards and then back down every few minutes, as we wait for the “action” to begin), the forestage is strewn with the debris of what looks like an explosion or a demolition, which resonates clearly with the post-WTC attack landscape of lower Manhattan. Twisted steel cables thread through concrete rubble in a terrain parched by unfiltered, ungelled white light aimed from intense canned instruments hanging on the extreme sides of the stage.

As the fire wall slowly rises, it’s clear that the wings of the stage are exposed so that the audience can see all the way to the theatre’s walls. When the “curtain” finally rises, it reveals a layer of opaque white plastic hanging from a horizontal steel pipe, which is reminiscent both of the way builders try to mask construction sites and, more prosaically, of a shower curtain pulled around a bathtub. The picture evokes the edgy mix of public/private scene that makes the play so compelling and devastating.

The whole stage remains open, floating within the frame of the theatre’s walls, rather than confined to the edges of the proscenium and its sides. Behind the mound of littered concrete in which Winnie is planted, immobilized from the waist down, a vaguely realist landscape painting of a muted, gray-blue/white-tan desert-like geography provides the backdrop for her monologue, as if a palpable scenographic reminder of a more natural environment that’s imperceptibly fading even as she speaks.

Dissonant, loud, and unpleasantly grating music plays to usher us with some trepidation into the play’s world. Rumbling, rattling sounds that could be the mechanisms of building or the apparatus of destruction echo through the air. By contrast, when the white plastic curtain lifts to reveal Shaw stuck in the mound, her lilting voice seems musical by comparison, projecting one of the many contradictory impressions that make the production so vivid.

Shaw’s Winnie is startlingly flirtatious, given her immobility and existential isolation; she appears to address the audience directly, since Willie—her mostly unseen interlocutor—resides behind the mound, just out of her direct line of sight. Shaw’s characterization at times verges on desperate, while she also plays at a kind of vaudevillian brightness of affect.

Her ability to engage these apparent contradictions demonstrates Shaw’s command of an amazing range of moods, all of which works to make Winnie a strong, layered, powerful presence onstage, instead of the dithering flibbertigibbet as which she is sometime portrayed. With her arms akimbo, wearing a sleeveless black dress and a set of black chunky beads that rest in the hollow of her throat, her gestures approach the operatic and theatrical, as if Winnie literally performs herself into being.

In this production, Happy Days is as much about the theatre as it is about an impossible philosophical condition. Winnie’s ever-present bag looms beside her on the mound like a bag of props. She draws from it the objects that sustain and engage her, personal artifacts that have long lost an external purpose, like her toothpaste and the toothbrush from which she tries repeatedly to read the meaningless words that situate it as both “genuine” and necessary. The revolver she casually pulls from the bag, without comment, although she kisses it rather intimately, signals foreboding; in a realist play from the modernist canon, a gun presented in the first act would inevitably be fired in the third.

But in Beckett’s absurdist world, the gun remains unfired, a potent symbol nonetheless of Winnie and Willie’s inability to assume agency over their lives or deaths. The second act reveals Winnie now buried to her neck in the rocky rubble and debris that seems to encroach further toward her still-moving mouth even as we watch. The gun sits just to the right of Winnie’s vision, an impossibly remote device of her impossible redemption and release.

But in the first act, Winnie’s bottomless bag seems as mysterious and hopeful as the suitcase Hermione carries through much of the last book of the Harry Potter series—as small as it appears, it contains limitless depths and the capacity to hold a whole trainload of stuff. At one point, she drags a mirror from its bottom, which she then cracks on a rock and tosses behind her. Winnie says smugly that it’ll be back in the bag, unbroken, the next day, sure of how unchanging and quotidian her life remains, even when it appears cataclysmic.

For instance, an unexpected, startling fireball appears out of nowhere in the middle of her diatribe, catching her parasol on fire and injecting the stage with a momentary sense of real and present danger and violence. But once the fire recedes, Winnie claims not to know whether the conflagration even happened; reality, here, is a figment of a rich theatrical imagination and little more.

In fact, in the second act, the formerly burnt parasol rests near the revolver, in sight but out of reach, perfectly intact once again, like a trick prop that’s been reset for the next performance of a play. The props mark the passage of time; Winnie parcels out her attention to them as a way of organizing her experience. What Andrew Sofer, in his book of the same name, calls the “stage life of props” are redolent with their own existential theatrical weight.

The theatrical metaphor is underlined when Winnie reports that a couple passed her and disrupted her routine, the man asking impertinently why Willie couldn’t just dig her out. The man wants to know “what it means,” referring disparagingly to her immobility, her metaphysical intransigence, but Winnie reacts to his perplexity with arch superiority, as though her condition should be self-evident. She denies these trifling intruders the satisfaction of an explanation she clearly finds unnecessary. That it’s the man of the couple who interrogates her allows Winnie to assert her own gendered presence against his; she’s no trifling woman, despite her physical disadvantage.

Winnie enacts Beckett’s disregard for his own detractors. Beckett presents Winnie’s effort to interpret the hieroglyphics on her toothbrush handle as equally as important as understanding the meaning of Winnie’s condition (and the meaning of his play). When she finally discerns the faint letters, her joy in putting the words together far exceeds what they mean. But the pleasure she takes in her effort mirrors the spectators’ own pleasure in engaging the possibilities of the play.

Time looms large in Happy Days. Shaw delivers some of her most poignant line readings around “the old style,” her label for time’s days and nights as they used to be delineated, since in this post-apocalyptic moment, when to sleep and when to get “up” is announced by an imperious bell and nothing more. Time is marked by action more than by meaning; in the first act, Winnie shifts uncomfortably and notes that the earth is getting tighter. Yet she soldiers on, always aware that things could be worse, a prophecy born out in the second act, when only Shaw’s rubber face remains free to express Winnie’s indelible presence.

Shaw’s performance is a physical, vocal, and emotional tour-de-force. She carefully marks every word and gesture and scores each nuanced emotional shift, so that Beckett’s repetitions and reiterations seem like a jazz improvisation with recurring themes always presented in surprising new ways. Shaw knows where she’s going each step of the way; her strength as an actor, and her willingness to be so bold and courageous in her performance choices, ameliorates her powerlessness as a character. She renders Winnie peculiarly hopeful (or is she deluded?), capable of creating her own sense when the world makes none at all.

To the end, Winnie’s memory brings her comfort, as she recalls lines from literature that preserve her, even though they seem only absurd. The old lines, like the “old style,” mean everything and nothing, just like Happy Days.

With existential awe,
The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Performance Contexts: Wendy Wasserstein's Third in Los Angeles

I’ve promised myself not to apologize for those months when I don’t have time to post, but my guilt persists. Suffice it to say that October was filled with preparing for travel to give lectures and trying to get the two classes I’m teaching this semester up to speed. As a result, my theatre, film, and book consumption dropped precipitously, along with the requisite time for writing.

Still (now that I have broken my own promise and apologized), I did see one production during my trip to Los Angeles about which it’s worth sharing my thoughts. I was invited by my friend and colleague Sue-Ellen Case’s Center for Performance Studies at UCLA ( to participate in two public events at the Geffen Playhouse ( around its production of Wendy Wasserstein’s last play, Third. Because the play is about an ostensibly feminist professor and her hostile encounter with a white male student taking her Shakespeare class, the UCLA Center programmed a panel discussion on feminist pedagogy in which I participated with another guest, followed by a talk I delivered solo on Wasserstein’s life and her work, focusing on Third as exemplary.

Although the Center had scrupulously arranged for the Geffen events to appeal to public audiences, the theatre staff neglected to announce the ancillary program to its subscribers. Rather than addressing a mixed audience of academics and community folk, I found myself in a room off the Geffen’s lobby preaching to the converted—a crowd of mostly women faculty and students from UCLA. Nonetheless, as performance artist Holly Hughes once said, the converted need their affirmations, too.

I’ve long proposed that we stage “talk befores” in addition to “talk backs” during the run of our university theatre productions, since I believe that describing the context in which to consider a play might enhance spectators’ reception experiences. Whether or not you’ve read the play you’re about to see, and whether or not it’s a premiere or canonical, I find it helpful to discuss in advance the issues raised, the potential production choices and acting decisions available to be made, and ideas to watch for as the play unfolds before us in time and space.

Some artists insist that such pre-show discussions “cheat” spectators of a tabula rasa encounter with a play. Some even dismiss talk backs afterwards, accusing them of fixing interpretation or quarreling with the production, rather than seeing these occasions as a chance to tease out a play’s multiple meanings, to argue over conflicting perspectives, and to address the social affects any production leaves in its wake.

At UT, we’ve attempted to create a discourse community in which to embed production practice in a variety of ways. For several years, the students in our graduate Performance as Public Practice (PPP) program ran “After Words,” a series of talk backs that discussed university theatre productions once or twice each semester. They invited all students and faculty to join the conversation, but at a typical After Words, perhaps 20 people attended, most of them involved in the productions at hand, or other students for whom the plays raised issues or touched nerves.

Recently, to create a discussion context for a production of Maria Irene Fornes’s landmark feminist play Fefu and Her Friends, PPP students Carrie Kaplan and Ray Matthews, who co-dramaturged the production, organized what they called feminist “salons,” afternoon gatherings outside the show’s performance frame to which they invited faculty and others to engage in informal discussions about feminism and performance. I love the idea of salons, because they center attention on a play or production or performance in a social and intellectual context in which it can be examined and more widely and diversely connected.

Given my interest in contextualizing performance, I was pleased to be invited to participate in the pre-show discussion events at the Geffen in LA.

According to American Theatre’s October 2007 season preview feature (available at, in addition to the one I saw at the Geffen, productions of Third are planned at a number of regional theatres around the country. Wasserstein’s death 18 months ago brought attention to Third as the inadvertent finale of her career. In many ways, Third foreshadows Wasserstein’s death from lymphoma at age 55; the play takes an elegiac tone toward not only the feminist movement it critiques (rendering it a companion piece to Wasserstein’s 1989 The Heidi Chronicles), but to the choices all women make to shape and lead their lives.

Wasserstein once said that she distributes her autobiography among the characters in her plays. Her protagonist in Third, Professor Laurie Jameson, has a friend and colleague, Nancy, who suffers from cancer. At the beginning of the play, she’s come out of remission after seven cancer-free years and gone back into chemo, bitter that her reprieve ended so suddenly. Although Nancy’s illness no doubt represents some of the playwright’s preoccupations as she neared her own death, “heroine” Laurie Jameson’s crisis of confidence about feminism indicates another angle on Wasserstein’s final concerns.

Third launches its debate about feminist politics on the campus of an unnamed elite college somewhere in New England, where young white men with numerals after their names could reasonably be expected to come from families of wealth and power. Woodson Bull the Third, in fact, who becomes Laurie Jameson’s antagonist, seems made of such aristocratic stock. He’s a wrestler, an athlete on a campus that denigrates such sport. He’s also rather forward with Laurie, approaching her early in the play with his desire to set up a personal screening of a film version of King Lear she requires for her course. He’s not asking for special favors so much as he’s privileging his wrestling over attending her course screening. He manages to secure a copy of the film to see on his own time, but his ploy makes Laurie immediately suspicious.

Laurie’s instant dislike toward Third, though, seems predicated less on his rather over-earnest and somewhat entitled attitude, and more on “the Third” that ends his name (if not the “Woodson” that begins it, which she immediately and somewhat sexually shortens to “Woody” in their first conversation). When Third (as Woodson prefers to be called) eventually turns in a beautifully written paper with a sophisticated argument about Lear, Laurie jumps to the conclusion that he’s plagiarized his work.

Through the play’s subsidiary characters, Wasserstein indicts Laurie for her assumptions about Third. Her ill friend Nancy sides with the student, even as she runs the faculty investigation into the dispute. Her daughter Zoë aggressively rejects Laurie’s strident politics, and even her senile father dismisses her work as so much talk about nothing. In the process, Wasserstein once again damns U.S. feminism as irrelevant, trapped without resonance in a 20-year-old stasis.

As in The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein structures her perspective through multiple levels, which makes it difficult to disparage the play out of hand. In some ways, she gets feminism “right.” For instance, we find out (although much too late in the play) that Laurie was the first woman to be tenured on this fictional campus, an important part of her back story, since it explains her sensitivity and her tendency toward knee-jerk responses to politics instead of more rational thinking.

Throughout the play, Laurie and Nancy alternate between allying with and distancing themselves from a male colleague they consider a “neo-con pig.” But instead of exploring the emotional baggage that comes from being a pioneer in a conservative institution, Wasserstein uses Laurie’s history to criticize her hidebound perspectives on masculinity and entitlement, men and wealth. The journey toward emotional growth through which she ushers her character proves Third—the ingenuous, intellectually agile innocent—to be the agent of Laurie’s change, implicitly demeaning her in the process.

The Geffen production, directed by Maria Mileaf—who was recently profiled in American Theatre as an important young director—failed to ameliorate the play’s sticky ideological problems. Mileaf’s static direction left the actors physically frozen on the wide, empty set, and often forced them simply to talk to each other without doing anything. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a realist production with so few props, with so little “stuff” onstage to create atmosphere and place and to define characters in action. While this choice might support Wasserstein’s critique of feminism’s “empty” program, good theatre requires a more active, precise, and layered sense of scene, pace, and progression.

The production’s archaic scenic technology also hampered what might have been a more fluid, subtle study. At the end of each of the play’s short scenes, blackouts, filled with peculiar original music that sounded deaf to the play’s tone, covered stagehands moving furniture on and off stage. Christine Lahti, who’s in most of the scenes performing as Laurie Jameson, exited and re-entered each time. Watching her unfortunate comings and goings broke the through-line of the action and forced spectators to keep renewing their focus on and commitment to the character.

Lahti played Laurie with relative ease and warmth, considering that the character could easily come across as an ice queen. Diane Wiest originated the role in its premiere production at Lincoln Center Theatre (directed by Daniel Sullivan). Although painfully thin and probably 10 years too young for the role, Lahti’s congenial, affable presence softened the professor’s harder edges and nearly succeeded in making Laurie Jameson sympathetic.

Ironically, while Wasserstein’s script describes Laurie wearing flowing skirts and dangling earrings, in this production, Laurie dressed in close-fitting, stylish power suits that looked more corporate than old-fashioned feminist. While the sartorial appointments Wasserstein suggests at least mark Laurie within a cultural moment that refused the accessories of capitalism, the costume design embraced for the Geffen production visually positioned Laurie within the codes of “power feminism.” The choice both made her plight more relevant and extended the play’s indictment to contemporary feminists in business, as well as in the academy.

Ultimately, though, the play and the production intended to demonize Laurie, a goal too difficult even for a deft, smart actor like Lahti to overcome. By the play’s end, Lahti—a tall woman who towered over her fellow actors—seemed dwarfed by the other characters’ moralizing denigration of everything in which Laurie believes. If the script weren’t painful enough, watching Lahti apologize to Third in his dorm room as he packed to leave the college coul only make a feminist spectator grit her teeth at Jameson’s good-humored response to her humiliation.

Jayne Brook played Jameson’s friend Nancy, striking an easy rapport between the two women. She maintained enough critical distance on her colleague to let us know that not all women professors abuse their students—only feminist ones like Laurie who continue “holding the torch” instead of facing up to the so-called reality that feminism failed women. Nancy rejects Laurie’s attempts to help her friend through her latest chemo. Instead, Nancy transfers her affections to a Jewish rabbi also battling cancer with whom she argues about Israel and Palestine while they both receive their treatments. Nancy announces she’s taking an extended leave of absence at the play’s end to escape from the confines of the academy with the rabbi at her side.

Even Nancy’s choice to commit to a heterosexual marriage instead of dedicating herself to the academic feminist cause implicitly criticizes Laurie for her own determined beliefs. Laurie’s husband—whom the audience never sees—teaches political science, but their savvy, cynical daughter Zoë accuses Laurie of withholding her love for him because he’s not as successful or ambitious as his wife.

By contrast, Laurie’s Cordelia-like loyalty to her senile, Lear-like father, desperately overplayed in the Geffen production by M. Emmet Walsh, proves poignant and unshakeable, even as he blusters about the set descending into madness. Her father might demean her occupation and her intellect, but Laurie stays by his side, shoring up her patriarch while she otherwise rails against patriarchy. This calculated contradiction adds to the character’s deficits, subtly shifting the audience’s sympathy away from Laurie toward her nemesis.

This brings us to Third, the boy wonder who turns out to be nothing like Laurie expects. Although those numbers burden his genealogy, it turns out his father works as a small-town lawyer. Third attends this fancy school on scholarship, which he supplements by working as a bartender in town. Third’s insights into Lear come from a really good teacher he had in high school, an instructor remarkably pure and erudite, compared to Laurie Jameson’s obviously partial, biased concern with undoing hegemony through her analysis of literature.

Wasserstein endows Third, in fact, with all the graces Laurie lacks. His genuine curiosity about people leads him to take gay and lesbian studies classes along with courses in Shakespeare; he’s read widely in the subaltern literature of the day. He purposefully puts himself in situations that “other” him, and admits that even Laurie’s negative attention and accusations about his scholarship made him more interesting than he’ll ever be to anyone again as a conventional white, middle-class, heterosexual male.

The character provides a cheap foil, and at the Geffen, Matt Czuchry played Third as an immature frat boy with irritating verbal ticks that made his every speech sound like he was announcing a football game. He stood stiffly, posing without conviction, and appeared broad, butch, and boring, hardly an appropriate adversary for someone as strong and smart as Laurie Jameson.

And that, finally, is the play’s most heinous gesture—to reduce a woman of achievement to a petty, pouting lout forced into a skirmish whose outcome even she knows won’t affect society. Laurie demonstrates her political zeal throughout the play by listening incessantly to news reports of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his subsequent dissembling about troop numbers and casualties. But the arena in which she wields her own political power has shrunk to a miniscule mat on which she and the finally insignificant Woodson Bull the Third wrestle with the white male privilege that Wasserstein had the nerve to portray as chimerical.

At the end, Laurie walks the many steps to Third’s dorm room to eat crow. She ruefully admits that she set out to change the world, and all she changed was the English department. She’s left regretting her own ideas, while Third redeems her with his casual forgiveness and suggests that she “stick with the hope” instead of the irony.

What a shame that The Heidi Chronicles’s Heidi Holland had to grow up into Third’s Laurie Jameson without learning anything about real feminism along the way.

Still holding the torch,

The Feminist Spectator