Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New Titles in Feminist Performance

In the category of shameless self-promotion, let me call your attention to two forthcoming titles, one by my partner, Stacy Wolf (or "Feminist Spectator 2") and the other a collection of performances by Peggy Shaw, which I edited for the University of Michigan Press.

Stacy's book, Changed for Good:  A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, can be found on the Oxford University Press web site or on Amazon.

The book is a terrific feminist engagement with musicals from the Golden Age to the present, written for a trade and academic audience in readable prose with keen insights.  Stacy is particularly good on the difference between how a musical's book might position its female characters (that is, in often derogatory ways) and how a female star's power in performance often works against her disempowerment by the text.

A Menopausal Gentleman:  The Performances of Peggy Shaw, for which I was honored to write the introduction and to edit, is available for pre-order on Amazon.  It can also be ordered at the Michigan web site.  The book collects Shaw's You're Just Like Your Father; Menopausal Gentleman; To My Chagrin; and Must:  The Inside Story, on which Peggy collaborated with the UK-based Clod Ensemble.  It also includes interstitial pieces from Peggy's work with Split Britches and her own introduction.

At the ATHE conference at the Palmer House in Chicago this August, Peggy and Lois Weaver will perform their two-hander Lost Lounge and we'll celebrate the publication of Stacy's book and Peggy's collection.

Enjoy both books and join us for the celebration if you're at the conference.

The Feminist Spectator

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Theatre in Ireland: Give Me Your Hand and The Cripple of Inishmaan

I’ve been living and teaching in Galway, Ireland, since the beginning of June, working with my co-teacher Stacy Wolf, 15 Princeton students, and five local students in a Princeton Global Seminar called “Performing Irishness:  Performance and Theater in Modern and Contemporary Ireland.”

Galway is a lovely, small university town on the west coast of the country, boasting a modest city center with twisting medieval-style streets lined with pubs and shops, and buskers with guitar cases or hats in front of them, looking for spare euros.  The docks are crowded with pleasure boats and colorful old wooden fishing vessels, and the row houses that line the harbor are quaint and low.

In Ireland, work that would be considered “mainstream” in the U.S. centers on three central institutional theatres:  The Abbey in Dublin, where we’ll be seeing a production of Brian Friel’s Translations at the beginning of July; to a lesser extent, the Gate, also in Dublin, where we hope to see a production of Friel’s Molly Sweeney; and the artistically adventurous and politically-minded Druid Theatre here in Galway.

Druid’s artistic director Garry Hynes was one of the first women ever to win a Tony Award for Best Director (in 1998, for Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Julie Taymor also won that year for her direction of the musical The Lion King).  Hynes has lead Druid for most of its existence. The company began in 1975, started by Hynes and two other then-university students, and has built a reputation in the last 35+ years as a major incubator for Irish artists.

The company’s home is a former tea warehouse, a structure with stone walls that dates back to the 14th century.  The performance space is a small black box, fronted by a crowded rectangular lobby.  A second floor rehearsal room with a wood floor and a cathedral ceiling has square windows that look out over the narrow alley Druid calls home.

Tim Smith, the company’s British managing director, told us when he met with our class that Druid actually gentrified Galway’s city center when they started the company and took over the warehouse.  The mostly abandoned area has grown into a vibrant tourist magnet with a lively pub culture.  Druid uses Galway’s nearby 400-seat Town Hall, a producing venue with ever-changing fare, for larger productions, since it’s financially more viable than their home base, which seats just over 90.

We were lucky enough to see Give Me Your Hand on June 21st in Druid’s space.  The two-person performance is a lovely evening of reader’s theatre based on Irish poet Paul Durcan’s poems, in which he uses famous paintings in London’s National Gallery as prompts for stories.  The performance’s web site quotes Bryan Robertson’s introduction to Durcan’s collection:  “He glides in and out of the subject or content of each painting that inspires him.  He projects himself into the personages, the situations, treats the paintings like kites in the gusty air of his imagination.”  This succinct description captures the spirit of the performance, too.

The inventive poems are brought to life by the eminent Irish actors Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy, who read them from music stands poised across from one another.  They face the audience underneath pictures of the paintings that the poems they read bring to life.   Projected from a laptop that Crowley controls remotely, the images cross-fade and dissolve after each story, which imagine the relationships the paintings depict in funny, often anachronistic ways.

The poems and the conceit are instantly charming and delightful.  Each painting presents new characters, which Crowley and Molloy imbue with new accents and attitudes without ever moving from behind their stands.  The two consummate actors establish a basic warmth between them and the audience that carries the stories into the short evening.  Each little tale is unique and sweet, sometimes funny, sometimes a bit sad or moving.

The evening is a testament to simple creativity, to the evocative sounds and stories of well-written words, and to the embodiments of actors who can create place and character with simple shifts of tone, voice, and dialect.  The delicious performance toured a few U.S. cities in 2011; the web site provides chunks of the poems as teasers and images of the paintings used as inspiration.

Druid’s production of McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan has just returned home after a six-month tour through the U.S. and Ireland, during which they visited nine American cities.  The Hynes-directed production, performed for hometown audiences at Town Hall on an imaginative set designed by Hyne’s frequent collaborator, Francis O’Connor, received a rapturous response in Galway before the cast and crew headed out to the Aran Islands, on which the play is set, to perform for locals on Inishmaan itself last weekend as the tour’s final flourish.

Although local news coverage suggests the production was well-received (and significant enough that Ireland’s president attended, along with McDonagh and his parents), Cripple doesn’t exactly flatter the Aran Islanders.  Set in 1934, the play slices off a moment in the lives of a colorful collection of odd and salty Irish types, all united by their reactions to “Cripple Billy.”

Billy Claven (Tadhg Murphy) is a young man who was orphaned when his parents drowned under mysterious circumstances and was taken in by spinster sisters Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy), who’ve cared for the unfortunate, physically misshapen but spiritually dreamy boy ever since.

McDonagh propels the plot around the moment when Hollywood filmmakers came to Inishmaan to make Man of Aran, a pseudo-documentary about the locals.  The crudely sexual Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne) and her hapless brother, Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), bribe BabbyBobby (Liam Carney), a local fisherman, to take them to the nearby island of Inishmore to audition for the film.

Hearing their plan, Billy, too, decides to try his luck, concocting a scheme to persuade BabbyBobby to take him along, despite the superstitions against “cripples” on the sea, to meet the Hollywood producers.  Ironically, it’s Billy who’s selected to come to Hollywood to continue his audition, leaving his friends and his aunts behind to grouse about his lack of communication and gratitude.

JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley) is the local town gossip, who eavesdrops at doorways and around corners to collect people’s personal news, which he trades with neighbors for canned goods or other comestibles.  JohnnyPateen lives with his ancient, alcoholic mother, Mammy O’Dougal (Nancy E. Carroll), who’s sharp as a whip but immobile except for the arm that lifts her bottle of potcheen, an old-fashioned Irish rot-gut liquor much like moonshine.  The fussy JohnnyPateen expects quite a lot from Kate and Eileen in exchange for his information (which they mostly find useless), but his constant prattling brings a comforting kind of company.

Young Slippy Helen’s job is to deliver eggs, despite her preference for throwing them at people or breaking them over her brother’s head.  She enlivens the local atmosphere with mean accounts of her sexual ministrations for the island’s men (although mostly, she admits, its priests whose private parts she’s seen most of, letting McDonagh draw blood from one of his favorite targets—the Catholic Church).

Cripple is a dark comedy, boasting the biting satire and sometimes cruel humor for which McDonagh is known (and often considered controversial).  Although he was raised and lives in the U.K., his Irish-born parents brought him to summer in Ireland’s Connemara throughout his youth.  Whether or not this gives him leave to boldly (or viciously) parody local mores is an open question.  Cripple achieves its comedy through a rather absurdist use of language and pacing, especially under Hynes’s precise direction and the actors’ well-honed and finely timed delivery.

In Cripple’s opening scene, for instance, Kate and Eileen stand behind the counter of the local store they own, staring into the distance, hands idle, eyes never meeting, repeating one another’s sentences as they wait for Billy to arrive.  The two performers execute the hilarious scene beautifully.  Later, once Billy’s left for America, a similar scene uses the same style to repeat the phrase “not a word” more times than one would ever think possible, with growing levels of intense, comic, resentment for Billy’s disappearance from Kate and Eileen’s lives.

As played by Murphy, Billy is a soulful, sensitive young man, whose physical disabilities prevent him from fully taking part in the life of the town.  His ill-formed arm and his hobbled leg give him a shuffling gait, but his face is much sweeter than his aunts initially suggest, and there’s nothing wrong with his mind or his emotions.  The other characters, McDonagh suggests, need Billy’s difference to secure their own normalcy, even though they, too, are far from typical.

Billy’s struggle for dignity is told through his interactions with the others, for whom his escape to Hollywood proves something of a catalyst.  But we hear no more from him than we do from the others, resisting the impulse to make him anything of a hero.  McDonagh renders Billy’s actions and his future ambiguous, ending the play on a cruel irony.  But he suggests that in many ways, everyone in Inishmaan is crippled—only Billy’s handicap manifests physically.

The Druid production boasts the settled confidence of one that’s toured on and off since 2008.  The acting is sure and easy; you can tell how much fun the actors have together, and how lived-in their characters feel.  In a talk-back after one of the three performances presented at Town Hall this week, managing director Smith facilitated a conversation with Craigie (who played Kate), Dunne (who played Helen), and Carroll (who played Mammy), who described the various reactions to the production in Ireland and in the U.S.

Although they outlined the cross-national differences in response, Smith and the actors declined the production’s status as a national export that “represents” the country abroad.  Smith says that Druid’s mission is to do good work by Irish writers, but aside from that simple criterion, they don’t seem partisan to what “Irishness” might mean.

Aside from a bit of vocabulary, the dialect and syntax of the language, and the Aran Islands setting, the play resonates with a perhaps universally western understanding of life in a small town circa 1930, suffocating to some and comforting to others, where everyone knows one another’s business and the choices to enlarge one’s life are few.  Seeing the play on the islands, however, might bring it new colors and meanings.

In the second act, the villagers watch the film Man of Aran together in a public place, perplexed over what the fuss is about.  The Cripple program relates that the documentary, directed by the American filmmaker Robert Flaherty in 1934, “depicted the supposed ‘daily life’ of characters living on the Aran Islands . . . Many situations were fabricated, such as one in which fishermen are almost lost at sea on a shark hunt.”

Watching the film with ill-concealed apathy, Helen and the others focus comically on whether or not the fishermen have caught a shark (and whether, in fact, sharks swim in Irish waters).  They clearly don’t for a second imagine that the film has anything at all to do with their lives, even though it was meant to faithfully represent their “otherness.”

In McDonagh’s sly account, the film might be a metaphor for his own play.  Seeing that scene on Inishmaan, among islanders who the film and McDonagh’s play purport to be about, was probably deliciously layered and complicated.  (An account of the production on the RTE news features Ireland’s President’s attendance and solicits post-show comments from well-heeled spectators.  It’s not clear whether the more rural residents of Inishmaan were part of the audience.)  Whatever Druid intends about performing Irishness in Ireland and abroad or not, the enactment of identity and the impossibility of fixing a national character should be palpable.

The Feminist Spectator

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Commentaries: Women in Theatre and Film and the Tonys . . .

I recently had the good fortune to have an op-ed piece on the dearth of women playwrights nominated for Tonys this year picked up by the Huffington Post.  (Thanks to all of you who saw the piece and sent me notes.)

Turns out, I'm not the only critic thinking along these lines as the awards are handed out this evening.  Christopher Isherwood posted his own thoughts about the lack of meaty roles for women on Broadway in his ArtsBlog on June 9, 2011.  His thoughts about roles for actresses dovetail nicely with my complaints about the lack of notice for deserving women playwrights.

Isherwood notes that good roles for women are disappearing especially from Broadway musicals.  He also remarks, as I did, that "of the four Tony nominees for best play, only one, David Lindsay-Abaire's 'Good People,' featured a leading female role."  Isherwood says that although this year was particularly dismal for women, it's not anomalous, and goes on to worry that "theater may be heading down an unhappy path pioneered by Hollywood . . . [where] fulfilling leading roles for women have been in eclipse on movie screens for a couple of decades now."  He goes on to say, "Given the evidence of the past couple of seasons, I worry that Broadway has come to share this unspoken bias against the idea of women's stories and defining women's roles as commercially viable."

I'm delighted that Isherwood took time to notice and comment on this turn of events.  At the same time, per my op-ed, I wish that Isherwood and other first-string male critics would take more responsibility for how they tend to write about those "women's stories."  I can think of too many examples of Isherwood's own reviews in which he seemed to condescend to or take less seriously plays by women, compared to how he (and his colleague Ben Brantley) writes about plays by men.   I continue to think that the predominantly male critical discourse in this country has something to do with the very problem Isherwood's ArtsBlog observes.

In the Times film pages, critic Manohla Dargis (the paper's second-string film critic), in an essay called "The Living is Easy; the Women are Missing" (to be published in hard copy June 12, 2011), suggests that only women who write films for themselves and other women will fare well in the glut of summer movies, where big blockbusters invariably star and concern men and boys.  Dargis says, "From now through August, American films will again be almost all male, almost all the time (the decorative gal pal notwithstanding) as this year's boys of summer . . . invade the multiplex, seizing media-entertainment minds and your dollars."

Dargis notes that the women who do appear in bigger summer films, like Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, are framed in sexy clothes and provocative poses.  Dargis suggests that to find substantive stories about women, spectators need to seek out "smaller dramas and romances from studio divisions and independents" in which talented women artists provide themselves or other actresses juicier roles.

Yet Dargis points out that Bridesmaids, the decidedly female-centered Kristin Wiig comedy (blog post on the film coming soon from me), is holding on to fifth position in the box-office sweepstakes, with $100 million of tickets tallied by its third week.  Dargis asks, "Is there a lesson here for those big-studio executives who even now are reading the latest iteration of the three-men-and-a-monkey story (but no women) [Hangover Part II] and believe the current state of American cinema--separate and unequal--will continue to fly?"

How timely that Dargis and Isherwood are using their powerful public forums to call attention to this issue.  But the dearth of good parts for and stories about women in popular culture and theatre isn't at all new.  These two critics sincerely wonder why this is the case, but after nearly 30 years of feminist activism demanding more notice for women in the arts, it seems time to stop simply pointing out the problem.

Critics need to share their burden of the responsibility and make sure that they consistently write about 1) the very issue both Isherwood and Dargis take time to note this week; 2) the continuing problem of how women are represented in film and theatre or, worse yet, remain invisible as significant characters; 3) how the gender inequality of American culture is not just reflected in these art forms, but helps to shape and teach what we know of gender and other aspects of identity.

I'm glad to be the "feminist spectator," but I don't need a monopoly on this perspective.  Would that all first- and second-string critics for major news outlets would consistently think about gender as an important aspect in whose stories get told and how in film, theatre, and the other arts.

The Feminist Spectator