Monday, July 18, 2011

The FS Suggests . . . Sex in Mommyville

Called to my attention by its writer/producer, Anna Fishbeyn, Sex in Mommyville has been transformed from a solo show that opened in 2010 at the Flea Theatre in NYC to a multi-character play that's premiering at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre on July 27, 29, and 31.

The show has also been booked to play at the opening of the Museum of Motherhood, sponsored by Mamapalooza, in September.

MamaBlogger365 discusses her experience of the performance here.

FYI, The Feminist Spectator 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two

I really enjoyed the final installment in the Harry Potter film series.  I read the book when it was first released, and remember feeling very moved by how J.K. Rowling wrapped up her epic saga.  Although the plot details of how Harry and company retrieve the Horcruxes necessary to destroy Voldemort sometimes escaped me—in the film and the book—I enjoyed the mastery of Rowling’s story-telling and the headlong rush of good to triumph over evil.

This final story is very much an action film, especially after the relatively static Part 1, which saw our heroes and heroine mostly killing time in a magical tent, waiting to take their next step.  Part 2 begins with Harry and his friends stealing into Gringotts, the bank in which one of the Horcruxes has been hidden in Bellatrix Lestrange’s (Helena Bonham Carter) vault.

The wonderful scene transforms Hermione into Bellatrix so that she can get into the bank.  She’s accompanied by Harry and Griphook (Warwick Davis)—the Gringotts goblin banker he’s forced to help him—who are hidden under the famed and powerful invisibility cloak so that they can enter the vault.  Filmed from both the disguised Hermoine’s point of view and Harry’s perspective, as he peers about under the cloak, this early scene sets up the suspense and visual verve of the whole film.

(I have to say, though, that my only quarrel with all the Potter films is how they represent the Gringotts bankers.  The bank’s goblins sport large hooked noses and large ears, and look like a Nazi stereotype of Jewish financiers.  I cringed again in Deathly Hallows Part 2 to see all those rows of Jewish-looking characters sitting on high benches doing their sums as Harry and his friends passed nervously below.)

The film proceeds a bit by-the-numbers, since how it ends is never in question.  But director David Yates creates a compelling atmosphere in which Hogwarts has become a gloomy, dismal place, policed by Snape (Alan Rickman), the Dark Arts teacher who’s taken over as Headmaster.  The castle is surrounded by the fearsome, disembodied Death Eaters, who hover in the air waiting to attack.  As Manohla Dargis noted in her excellent Times review, the film’s color scheme is so monochromatic that it almost appears to have been shot in black and white.

Occasional flashes of color highlight a character or a narrative thread.  For instance, the ethereal Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) wears lavender pants and an aqua-print top when she directs Harry to the Ravenclaw ghost who gives him the clue that unlocks the whereabouts of the remaining Horcruxes.  Luna stands out as a visual oddity—which also underlines the strangeness of her character—in a scheme in which the other students’ uniforms seem worn and drained of color and life.

I found the destruction of Hogwarts one of the film’s saddest themes.  The monumental battle between Harry and Voldemort takes place in and around the school’s grounds.  Yates stages their confrontation in a style reminiscent of World War II fighting films.  By the end, the once pristine castle, the site of so much pedagogical potential, looks much like images of Berlin after the war.  Its walls have fallen into rubble, its ornamentation is destroyed, and the vaulted Great Hall in which the students are sorted into their respective houses has devolved into a make-shift hospital ward, replete with the 1940s-era stretchers onto which the dead and wounded are loaded.
In this gruesome, hopeless scene, Harry struggles valiantly to destroy his nemesis.  When it turns out that to do so requires that he destroy a part of himself, he’s forced to confront the piece of Voldemort’s soul that resides within him.  The dual nature of Harry's character has always been a key part of the series, as it allows Rowlings to universalize the boy wizard's story.  After all, don't we all struggle with evil twins or doppelgangers, if not in quite so spectacular a fashion as Harry?  And aren't we all, Rowling suggests, protected from our base natures by those we love?

The Resurrection Stone, which Harry unlocks from the Quidditch snitch near the film’s end, shows him that all those he’s loved and lost remain close to his heart:  his mother, Lily, always inspiring; Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), his friend and mentor; and others of the freedom fighters who’ve died in the battle against the Dark Lord surround him to reassure him that his death will be neither painful nor in vain.

Though his mano a mano battle with Voldemort (an increasingly mortal-looking Ralph Fiennes) appears to kill Harry, it turns out their duel has only destroyed the Horcrux his body harbors.  The ghost of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) appears to tell Harry he can choose to return to life.  Their conversation takes place in a ghostly train station, in a scene drenched in white light.  Although this Heaven Can Wait-style moment is a bit corny, Dumbledore’s blessing sends Harry back to Hogwarts to seal the deal, dispatching with Voldemort and ending as the hero he’s always been destined to be.

And yet there’s no parade for Harry.  He returns to Hogwarts’ fold dirty and disheveled, where Rowling refuses to let him be excessively celebrated or overly adored.  In fact, the Harry Potter series’ cautious and sober vision of the effects of power is hopeful and relevant in an age when politicians seem to want to exercise it only for its own sake.

The fascism of power-lust is very much part of Rowling’s critique.  When Harry has finally dispatched Voldemort, he remains the rightful heir of the elder wand, that supreme symbol of power and might.  As Hermione and Ron watch in disbelief, Harry breaks the wand in two and throws the pieces over the precipice of Hogwarts’ bridge.  He’s seen power misused enough to know that he wants no part of such a weapon.

The good professors at Hogwarts also relish their opportunity to retrieve a moral, ethical world from the Dark Lord and his minions.  Maggie Smith, delectable as Professor Minerva McGonagall, the head of Gryffindor, has a few wonderful scenes once she takes over Hogwarts’ leadership from Snape.  She sends into action all the monumental stone warrior figures that decorate the Hogwarts façade, confessing to Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters) with some glee that she’s always wanted to cast that spell.

Part 2, however, is Harry’s moment.  Daniel Radcliffe boasts a five o’clock shadow on his jaw and abs of steel, which are obvious when he removes his shirt to change into dry clothes (Harry, Ron, and Hermione for some reason get drenched a lot in this installment).  Radcliffe comports himself admirably as Harry grows into his final burst of self-sacrificing heroism.

Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) admit their long-simmering love for one another in a comic moment after they’ve vanquished an enemy.  At the action sequence’s end, they turn to one another impulsively and launch into their first real kiss, after which they laugh with some embarrassment.  Yates lightens the moment by satirizing the film cliché; it’s a cheesy popcorn romance moment that has the grace to acknowledge itself as such.

Harry’s similar romantic exchange with Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), his long-time intended, is also treated lightly.  When the students all think they’re going to die, exchanging a kiss seems the least these teenaged lovers can do.  (Although truth be told, Radcliffe and Wright have less chemistry than Grint and Watson.)  Ginny does little more than worry about Harry as he runs off to his next death-defying adventure.

But their bond seems fated, in part, I’d suggest, so that Ron and Harry can be brothers (even if in-law) forever.  Their marriages ultimately secure their threesome’s bond; it could be a stretch, but I'd propose this is Rowling’s neat twist on the nature of kinship.  Harry Potter doesn't celebrate its couples nearly as much as it honors the deep and lasting relationships among its trio.

After all the sound effects and visual conflagrations, and all the suspense and tension of seeing the plot play itself out, Part 2 does indeed feel cathartic.  Many spectators have attested to how sad they are that this film ends the epic series for good.  More than one of our students has said that it feels like the end of their childhood.

Apparently Rowlings is filling fans’ endless need with a new web site called Pottermore, in which she intends to “give back” to those who’ve been so dedicated to her character and his exploits.  In addition to offering 18,000+ more words about the series’ characters and their backstories, the web site will sell the soon-to-be released Harry Potter e-books directly to fans, insuring that Rowlings’ and her publisher’s fortunes will continue to grow.

But why shouldn’t this woman cash in on Potter mania?  The incredibly imaginative, creative series spun a tale intriguing and suspenseful enough to keep people across generations craving more for nearly 14 years.

Although I never enjoyed the films as much as the books on which they’re based, I was moved by watching The Deathly Hallows Part 2.  The experience let me release Harry, Hermione, and Ron back into that hallowed place in which they’ll rest in my own imagination.

In the meantime, I enjoyed seeing Daniel Radcliffe in the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway last spring, where he adopted the vibrant, hopeful aspect of the striving young businessman, freed from the darkness that his Potter counterpart carried in his heart for so long.  He seems a talented, steady young person, determined to refashion himself as an artist and not just a now-grown boy who once sported a lightning bolt on his forehead.

Emma Watson was impressive from the start as Hermione, the baby-feminist intellectual whose powers of logic and deduction and formidable knowledge saved Harry and Ron’s lives much more than once.  In Part 2, Hermione is somewhat overshadowed by Ron, who suddenly seems to have all the good ideas about getting out of scrapes.  But Hermione’s pride in Ron is somehow touching.

Watson is a subtle actor, who manages to hang onto a certain presence and screen power regardless of how much she’s actually doing in a scene.  She’s also enrolled at Brown—on leave this semester to study at Oxford—and is a self-professed and proud feminist.  I hope she continues to be a role model for girls and young women.

I’ve been delighted to play in the Harry Potter sandbox for these many years.  It’s given me great pleasure, allowed me to engage in fun conversations about the characters’ relationships and their meanings, and fired my imagination about a magical place and time that always seemed as close to our own as platform 9¾ in King's Cross Station.

The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Request Programme at the Galway Arts Festival, Ireland

The Galway Arts Festival opened last Monday, July 11, promising an impressive range of Irish and global theatre and performance opportunities through July 24.  My own consumption of the daily events and productions began with a site-specific production of Franz Xavier Kroetz’s Request Programme.  First produced in Stuttgart in 1973, the play is a silent meditation/lamentation, a slice of life at the end of a day in one ordinary woman’s life.

I saw the play (then called Request Concert) produced in New York in the early 1980s, with a stunning performance by Joan Mackintosh.  That production, however, was played on a proscenium stage, into which the audience peered like voyeurs as this unnamed, unknown woman performed the mundane actions of her typical evening.  She returned from work; settled in; washed her face; cooked her meal; and prepared for bed.

We know nothing about her or her circumstances.  The slow unraveling of her control over her emotions and her final cataclysmic action comes without an explanatory backstory.  The play’s silence—there is no dialogue—keeps the woman’s interior life remote and mysterious.  The intimacy of her quotidian activities makes spectators question what it means to watch the progress of someone else’s life.

In a site-specific production like this one, skillfully mounted by Corcadorca Theatre Company’s founder and artistic director Pat Kiernan in an elegant Galway apartment just off of the central Eyre Square, the audience’s voyeurism is both invited and heightened.  Ushered to the two-bedroom, two-bath residence 15 minutes prior to the performance’s official start time, we were given a sheet of instructions that encouraged us to roam through the apartment and look at things at our leisure.  Nothing was off-limits—we could open drawers, cabinets, the refrigerator, and examine books and personal effects at will.

Watching fellow spectators navigate this invitation indicated how comfortable we all are with interpersonal boundaries.  Some folks the evening I attended opened dresser drawers and closets and sifted through toiletries; others stood in the center of the living room, peering about but forgoing the invitation to touch.  We were told that keeping silent was the one unbreakable rule, and that the actor/character (the superb Eileen Walsh) would not acknowledge our presence.

Request Programme requires diligent investigation and observation to put together the narrative cues that pepper the scene and the woman’s actions.  Who she is, what she cares about, where she’s been, and where’s she’s going is ambiguous.  Looking at her bookcases ahead of time, for instance, I noted a number of contemporary novels written by women and a few “self-help” titles.  On her bedside table lay David Nicholl’s recent novel One Day, with a bookmark half-way through.  Beside it, the most recent Vanity Fair was open to a story called “Betting the Farm,” which addresses property rights in the Hamptons, in the States.

But the article’s title and the subject of Nicholl’s book offer clues, of a sort, to where this woman might be headed.  One Day details the same date over twenty years in the lives of two characters whose relationship is stormy, vexed, passionate, and ultimately, tragically, failed.  And although the woman in Request Programme might have nothing to do with the Hampton’s proper, to “bet the farm” colloquially means to risk everything you have on one thing.  (To “buy the farm,” on the other hand, means to die.)

Whether or not you read these clues (and whether or not they really are clues), closely observing the woman’s behavior hints at her increasing despair and desperation.  When she arrives, her keys engage the lock and we hear her heels clicking into the narrow front hallway.  She’s wearing a white and beige linen suit, and a lanyard around her neck from which a corporate identification tag hangs.  She comes into the living room/kitchen to start her tea boiling, then moves into her bedroom, where most of the audience follows, watching her change into casual linen pants and a pilled grey wool sweater to begin her evening rituals.

The first half of the performance details her close control over her environment.  Before she changes out of her work clothes, she opens the apartment’s windows, pausing for a moment to stare out pensively.  She finds a dead fly on a window sill, and takes a relatively large amount of time to pick up its carcass with a tissue; throw it in the garbage, her nose wrinkled with distaste; and spray the sill with disinfectant, furiously wiping it down after.

This obsessive cleanliness continues throughout her routine.  She washes her dishes three or four times over the course of the performance, then spraying the sink with cleaning solution and rigorously wiping it out.  But each time she does so is a bit different.  By the last time, she’s not quite as precise or careful.

Likewise, when she sets the table for her dinner, she carefully lines up every kitchen implement she’ll need to cut her paté and organize her bottled red peppers, which she arranges on her plate like a still life—garnished with parsley from a pot above her range—that she proceeds to eat methodically, careful not to soil the picture with crumbs.

Later, she pours herself a second cup of tea and eats from a packet of digestive biscuits, flicking them out of the cellophane one at a time, dunking the cookie into her tea, and putting the whole thing hastily in her mouth to avoid getting crumbs on the quilting project she’s chosen for her night’s activity.

Watching the woman’s compulsive behavior gradually and subtly fall apart over the course of the 75 minute performance points to how her evening (and ours) eventually ends.  Her demeanor, too, begins to crack.  Early on, she peers into a mirror in the living room, running a finger over a spot on her face and applying some sort of salve, clearly unhappy and preoccupied with this evidence of imperfection on her person.

When she uses the toilet (in full view of the roaming spectators, twice), she winces.  I happened to notice a box of tablets to treat cystitis in one of her kitchen cabinets on my own rifling through her personal effects before the performance.  This, along with her pain and the glass of diluted cranberry juice she drinks at one point in the performance, indicates an ordinary and annoying urinary tract infection.  But because nothing is told to the spectators, you’re required to assemble the evidence and come to your own conclusions.

Request Programme happens in real time.  She turns on the television after she changes her clothes, and watches a Sky News story about Rupert Murdoch’s media corporation’s phone-hacking scandal in the UK.  Clearly, the television broadcast is “real.”  Later, as she’s sewing a piece onto a quilt she intends to use to cover her coffee table, she listens to the radio, accessed as part of a combo CD/FM player on her bookcase.

The songs that we heard played that night seemed so thematically relevant to her situation—or at least its emotional valence—that the radio broadcast seemed to be a tape collated specifically for the performance.  We heard songs by Van Morrison, Tracy Chapman, and other mournful ballads about love lost play over the air, all of which seem related to this woman’s deep sadness.  But because the whole performance seems to take place in “reality,” the radio program’s status as fact or fiction wasn’t certain.  (In a discussion with director Kiernan two days after the performance I saw, Walsh referred to the radio broadcast as in fact happening in real time.)

[Spoiler alert.]

Kroetz’s play ends with the woman’s suicide, a choice her evening’s activities, in retrospect, seem to lead toward throughout.  We return with her to her bedroom—spectators crowded around the periphery of the small room, no more than two feet or so from Walsh—and watch as she undresses, uses the attached bathroom, climbs into bed, turns out the light (which plunges us all into shared darkness), and then proceeds to sob.  (A number of spectators moved to leave when she turned out the light; they were caught short by her unexpected crying.)

She returns to the kitchen, where she takes out a bottle of what I assumed were prescription sleeping pills.  First she takes one, but as she turns the bottle over in her hands, we see her make another decision.  She pours all the pills out, arranging them in pairs on a clean plate like a final still life, as orderly as ever, even as she moves toward taking her own life, and begins to swallow them down with gulps of water.

Halfway through, she takes a half-bottle of champagne from the refrigerator and pours it into her glass to chase the rest of the pills.  The champagne bubbles over the top of the glass onto the table.  She doesn’t wipe it up.  And as the sleeve of her dressing gown trails into the wine and she doesn’t react to what 30 minutes ago she would have considered a desecration of her methodical rituals, we know she’s done for.

In one final moment, as the plate is cleared of pills, Walsh suddenly looks up from her sorrowful task, and takes a moment to make clear eye contact sequentially with every spectator in the room.  Holding her gaze for that moment is devastating.  What is she asking of us, in this final bit of intersubjectivity?  Is she blaming us for not taking responsibility for stopping her suicide?  Is her surprisingly intense, fiery peering into our eyes meant to accuse us as fellow travelers who didn’t care enough to step in?  Or is she simply acknowledging our presence, after these 75 minutes?  Is this the character, or Walsh, looking at us so urgently?  Was she perhaps just saying goodbye?

I was very moved by this moment, as it highlighted what I’d felt as a connection to Walsh and to my fellow spectators as we made our way through this moment of a life together.  The performance requires a bit of endurance; that is, the apartment gets stuffy and close as we stand, jockeying for position to see Walsh’s actions but also moving out of her way when necessary.

And the intimacy of the evening is unusual; we’re not accustomed to being that close to a performer, or to being able to see one another so clearly as we comprise an audience.  That we can look wherever we wish throughout the performance means that we see one another, as well as Walsh.  As a result, I was aware of how I directed my gaze, and felt clear responsibility for where and when I moved and looked.

Because the woman is anonymous, you’re invited to project yourself into her actions and her final choice.  The heartbreak of Request Programme isn’t necessarily that we mourn this particular woman’s decision to end her life; we don’t know her.  And there's nothing particularly desperate about her circumstances; even her casual clothes are elegant, and her apartment and its fixtures are tastefully high-end.  It's not economic despair that moves her to take her life.   But perhaps we mourn the deadening rituals and routines of our own lives, however comfortable they are or aren't, and consider how easy it would be for us, too, to slip from motivation to despair.

In another artists’ discussion at the festival, playwright Enda Walsh, who worked with Eileen Walsh and Pat Kiernan as part of Corcadorca in the mid-90s, said that his own plays are all about his wonder at how it is that we survive at all, how we move through each day determined to keep living.  Request Programme offers the grim flipside, when that determination ends and someone decides to simply stop.

Witnessing a character make that choice, in a performance in which you make your own choices about where, when, and how to position yourself around her, makes the project of survival poignant indeed.

The Feminist Spectator

Request Programme, by Franz Xaver Kroetz, starring Eileen Walsh, directed by Pat Kiernan, produced by Corcadorca for the Galway Arts Festival, July 11, 2011.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Victor & Gord and 565+ in Ireland

Úna McKevitt conceived and directed the companion pieces Victor & Gord and 565+, which were performed together at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Ireland, last weekend.  Seeing the performances under the auspices of the Synge Summer School in County Wicklow, which is directed by the Irish theatre and performance scholar Patrick Lonergan, the evening raised a host of issues for our students and the other Synge School participants about what makes “theatre.”  Both performances are devised works.  McKevitt openly admits an interest in making theatre from everyday life.  Her method is basically to interview friends and relatives and then ask them to perform their stories.

565+, the evening’s first piece, is a monologue by Marie O’Rourke, McKevitt’s cousin, a middle-aged, ordinary Irish woman with a story to tell.  As the piece opens, Marie sat in the audience, happily ensconced in the front row, where she described why she loves to sit so close when she’s at the theatre.  I was seated beside her that night, having just purposefully moved from the back of the house to the front for similar reasons, so I thoroughly enjoyed Marie’s explanation.  After she confessed her obsessive love for the theatre, she mounted the stage to spin a loosely organized story about her life’s trajectory.

Marie got pregnant when she was rather young, and was surprised to find that her boyfriend, Tom, wanted to marry her.  Although Tom and his family were delighted by their union, Marie’s family never approved.  Marie reconstructs how she walked down the aisle at her wedding, wearing Janus-faced emotions depending on whether she was greeting Tom’s family or her own.  Her family’s reaction proved prophetic.

Marie is never happy in the marriage, but conventional mores that insist women should perform happiness in domestic situations mean that she can’t tell anyone about her misery.  She’s entrapped in a domestic space in which she’s lonely and bored, and she falls into a depression from which she can’t disentangle herself through any typical means.  Although she describes various kinds of therapy—psychological and physical—she ultimately and unexpectedly finds solace at the theatre.

Marie becomes a compulsive theatre-goer, seeing everything she possibly can, because it’s only while hearing other people’s stories and watching other people’s bodies inhabiting them that she can both forget herself and better understand herself.  She becomes something of a local hero—theatres hold the curtain for her if she’s running late, and local police don’t mind if she’s driving a bit above the speed limit to get to a performance on time.  565+ turns out to be the number of performances she’s seen . . . and counting.

Úna McKevitt performed with Marie the night we saw the performance, although it seems sometimes Marie is on stage alone and sometimes with a few more people.  McKevitt sat mostly silent, watching Marie with a wry smile.  The director seemed to efface her own presence for Marie’s, but seemed somehow active and important nonetheless.  Wearing aqua jeans and sneakers, and sporting bright red hair, McKevitt sat on a trunk across from Marie for most of the performance, witnessing her story.  She served as something of an on-stage prompter, marking the story and their place in it; sometimes, she seemed to offer Marie a cue to help her remember her lines, and other times, McKevitt herself seemed to forget the order of things.

At other moments, McKevitt seemed to serve as Marie’s conscience or companion.  In a monologue about loneliness and its abatement, it might have been painful to watch Marie alone on stage.  McKevitt’s presence lent her monologue a warm protection; that is, because the story addressed the vulnerabilities of a middle-aged woman with few options, Úna’s stolid, quiet presence projected the confidence that Marie would finally come out of her crisis into something else, something simply better.

At one point, it was clear Marie and Úna had lost their way through the story.  They had a bit of a comical exchange about where they were, what they’d forgotten, and where they should pick up.  Úna left the trunk on which she’d been sitting stage right, and moved to the worn red chaise on which Marie sits through most of the hour, saying, “I’m going to come over here with you.”  Marie moved to make room for her and continued her story-telling as Úna continued her listening.

I found this simple moment moving and somehow true.  Úna’s was a gesture of intimacy, of wanting to be closer, of lending physical as well as emotional support that seemed impulsive and right, rather than calculated or “representational.”  In fact, in the discussion after both pieces, Úna admitted that she has something of an obsession for reality television shows.  Her interest in how real lives are represented seeps into these two live performance pieces.  Marie relates her story without much regard for chronology or even coherence, although it has the semblance of a beginning, middle, and end.  Slides are projected behind her as if in a photo album, digitized snap-shots of Marie’s personal history:  Marie in her wedding gown beside Tom in his tux; Marie and her children; and the occasional motto or phrase.

As the performance begins, the words “I find pain in the truth and truth in pain” are projected, handwritten in capital letters, as a kind of epigraph.  Marie’s story is indeed painful—she lost a twin sister when they were born; her marriage was loveless; her life was mostly unmoored, solitary, and unpleasant.  But it’s delivered with a light touch, with a sense of irony, and with the comfort of retrospection in which we know, as Marie’s presence on stage testifies, that everything turns out more or less all right.  Marie has found—in a place of dissembling, unreality, and untruth; that is, at the theatre—a way to survive her own life.

Marie O’Rourke is not a professional actor.  Our students were dismayed by the performance’s lack of virtuosity.  They were appalled when Marie and Úna forgot their lines, and by their general lack of actorly command.  That Marie told her story under the auspices of theatre—given the professional venue, the use of lighting instruments, the stage furniture and the theatre programs scattered around Marie’s chaise like props—seemed to heighten their expectations that what they saw would meet their standards for “proper” theatre.  Instead, they were frustrated by what seemed Marie and Úna’s casual disregard for theatre conventions.  And they fretted over their sense of the director and designers’ apathy about whether, for instance, the projections were visible and legible.

But the students’ very disgruntlement seems to me an indication of the performance’s success.  McKevitt admits that hers is an anti-theatre project and that the last thing she aims to create is a well-made play.  In fact, she said in the talk-back that the actors don’t work from written scripts for 565+ or for Victor & Gord.  The performers tell her their stories, and then rehearse them together, but they don’t fix a text.

At the Synge School, Irish theatre scholar Fintan Walsh said in a seminar he lead on queer performance in Ireland that McKevitt’s work should be read within the history of the nation’s theatre as intensely literary, not to mention only white, male, and of course straight.  In this context, McKevitt’s rejection of a fixed text is a resistant choice.  She dissents from a history of Irish theatre that refuses to narrate the likes of her and those whose stories she helps frame.  By rejecting the literary, she asks us to pay attention to stories that historically don’t get written down.  She’s committed to staging stories that haven’t been heard before in the public forum of the stage.

Victor & Gord, like 565+, came from McKevitt’s interest in a relationship she’d never seen detailed on stage before.  Her sister, Áine McKevitt, and her childhood neighbor, Vickey Curtis, have been friends forever, maintaining a diffident, complicated relationship in which they both love and dislike one another in the manner of people who have and will know each other their entire lives.  Áine relates that Úna saw a picture of her and Vickey that inspired her to ask the two to tell stories about their friendship, which in turn became the performance.  Victor and Gord greet the audience:

VICTOR:  Hi, how’s it going?  I’m Victor, born Victoria Elizabeth Margaret Mary Jessica Curtis, and this here is Gord. . . . Gord is short for Gorgeous.  I’ll let yiz make your own minds up about that one, though.  Her real name is Áine McKevitt.

GORD:  The reason we’re here tonight is because my sister, Úna, who christened us the names Victor and Gord, had seen a picture of us in my bedroom in our school uniforms when we’re about sixteen . . . and thought it would be interesting to explore further our friendship, which she describes as frustrated, constipated, and intense.  (266, Queer Notions)

An early version of the play, which included two other performers (Ali and Michael) is now collected in Walsh’s edited book, Queer Notions:  New Plays and Performances from Ireland (Cork University Press, 2010).  But the published script is really just an archival trace, rather than the formal blueprint for subsequent performances.  Úna originally directed the show in 2009 as a devised “durational work in progress” for Project Brand New 3 at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre.  The show then went on to run at the Queer Notions Festival in Dublin and at Dublin’s Fringe Festival.

Like 565+, Victor & Gord is an affecting, happily formless story about three people whose lives usually don’t merit the kind of attention that the theatre provides.  Áine and Vickey grew up as neighbors.  Their comfort with one another is based on proximity rather than desire; that is, they’re related by place rather than by choice, although their long history makes them unable to sever their established bond.  Áine wears a red hoodie that frames her curly blonde hair; Vickey wears a cap, and long shorts, and sneakers, and sports various piercings and buttons that read as “queer.”  She relates stories of changing her name to suit her self-performance, and of lesbian conquests and consorts.

Because for whatever reason, Vickey and Áine have trouble looking one another in the eye, most of the performance is played frontally, with the two women speaking to the audience and only glancing at one another.  But their wry observations and anecdotes about their adjacent lives detail a contiguous intimacy that means regardless of how far apart they stand, their lives are linked in a rhythm of history that extends into the future.

Neither is a professional performer, and like Marie and Úna, they sometimes forget their place in the story or laugh together at a mistake they make in the blocking.  But the two women boast an easy stage charisma that no amount of actor training can provide.  Victor and Gord talk about their lives in off-handed ways without giving one anecdote more power or emphasis than another.  They reminisce about growing up together, sharing details of what they remember from one another’s homes.  They talk about Free Love, when they and their friends “would get together for a night of drinking and snogging; the girls would kiss the girls, the boys would kiss the boys, but not too many boys kissed the boys.”

Gord says, “We actually only did Free Love once but talked about it so much it seemed like we did it every weekend.”  Part of the fun of the performance, in fact, is measuring the relative import of an event against its reality; that is, framed as “theatre,” we expect to imbue everything we hear with a cumulative importance.  Victor & Gord pulls that particular rug from under us.  After the Free Love exchange, Victor admits, “And I actually wasn’t there; I was in Amsterdam making my own kind of Free Love.”  This refusal of narrative power felt rather freeing to me.  Instead of working to put together a coherent narrative arc, I was content to rest in the moment, enjoying each exchange for what it was, as the performers’ affect encouraged me to do, instead of working to write some broader importance into the story.

In this version of the piece, Vickey and Áine are joined by Jason Breen, who replaced Ali and Michael Barron, the sister and brother who appear in the published play.  Jason is a solid, working-class man, who was abused by a hard-drinking father; cared for his mother until she died of cancer; had a younger brother he protected from abuse; and now has a cherished daughter of his own.  Jason is trying not to drink his way into his father’s footsteps.  He shares his stories with the same matter-of-fact bemusement as Victor and Gord, as if wondering who really cares about his experiences.

Jason wears blue jeans and white t-shirt, and delivers most of his lines facing front, rocking on his heels while a small smile plays over his lips.  When he’s not performing, he watches the women and vice versa.  Sometimes, their three stories overlap and they speak lines consecutively, looking out in the audience with patient, expectant, but not particularly urgent expressions.  As non-actors, they focus lightly on the task at hand, and betray none of the vaunted “concentration” for which professionals strive so hard to achieve.  The performers are simply there, with us in the moment of story-telling.  They seem to enjoy one another’s presence and they’re large enough, on stage, to project out into the house in appealing ways.  But they lack conventional actors’ more calculated desire to please, to be seen, or even to be acknowledged as somehow important.

I found this one of the most productively “queer” aspects of the evening.  Only Victor is a lesbian; Áine remarks at one point that people think she’s “gay” because she’s in this performance, but she’s not.  But Victor & Gord refuses to play to the audience or to fulfill our expectations of “good” theatre.  It prevents spectators from easily seeing themselves reflected in the performance; although some of us might identify and empathize in all sorts of ways, that seems not to be McKevitt’s point.  The piece also refuses to make the performance “about” the audience or, in fact, “about,” necessarily, anything at all.

At the same time, despite McKevitt’s rejection of the well-made play tradition, Victor & Gord does perform its connection to Irish theatre conventions.  Although the script might not be written down, it’s been rehearsed and constructed in a way that does make poetry from the three performers’ lives.  The rhythm of the lines; their overlap and repetition; the images they evoke; and even the general shape of the evening all do evoke the canon of Irish drama, even as Victor & Gord productively twists those conventions.  (And as Stacy—FS2—and Fintan Walsh and Patrick Lonergan suggested, Jason Breen serves in this production as rather a Christie McMahon figure, a Playboy of the Western World in his own right, with his appealing swagger and his pub-style relating of the story of triumphing over his own personal demons.)

Still, I found the production's resistance to generic convention an interesting queering of this tradition.  We’re asked, over the course of this innovative performance, to witness, just as Úna does for Marie.  We’re invited to listen to, perhaps to enjoy, and to observe people we might never otherwise look at, if we passed them on the street or in the market.  McKevitt’s achievement with both of these pieces is to pull the ordinary out from the crowd, even if just for a moment, to celebrate the quirkiness and resilience and indeed importance of lives usually lived out of the spotlight.

The Feminist Spectator

Victor & Gord and 565+, conceived and directed by Úna McKevitt, Mermaid Arts Centre, County Wicklow, Bray, Ireland, July 2, 2011.