New Writing in 2018

My attention will soon have to turn to all of the exciting Foundlings publications and other projects popping up and popping off in this first half of 2018. I have had a few small publications of my own worth mentioning, though.

The most noteworthy, and the most fun to write, was an essay on Buffalo’s Silo City and some of the men and women who’ve shaped the place over the years. In “The Next Gyration” I profiled Rick Smith, Swannie Jim, members of ELAB and Torn Space, and Harry R. Wait, the engineer whose slipform technique first allowed the silos to rise. Find it in the latest issue of Traffic East.

Speaking of Torn Space, I got to review that company’s exceptional production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away. Read it in Buffalo Theatre Guide.

On Valentine’s Day, a Twitter-project called The Napkin Letter featured a new poem of mine, “dry january.” (Expect more work in this vein.)



November Shows: Glengarry Glen Ross and The Crucible

Theatre season in Buffalo has been off to a strong start. During Curtain Up week in September I was able to catch two excellent comedies: the charming adaptation Killer Rack at Alleyway and Noel Coward’s coruscant Design For Living at Irish Classical. Drama, however, is the flavor for November. Theatregoers have two fine choices in Glengarry Glen Ross at Road Less Traveled and The Crucible at Kavinoky.

Glengarry Glen Ross

In the age of Zillow, the basics of the play – an all-male real estate office fixated on index-card leads – seem a little dated. But RLTP has proven that the play is timeless – and ferociously relevant right now.

… Like these salesman we are all poor players, we are all walking shadows, strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage; we are full of sound and fury and we aren’t sure if anyone is listening: if there is someone out there, above us or behind the eyes we meet on the subway, at a Chinese restaurant, in the office, in bed, all we care is that they “sign on the line which is dotted.” All we want is to close; but as Glengarry Glen Ross demonstrates so powerfully, there is no final “closure,” and winning the Cadillac El Dorado “signifies nothing”: There is only the next sucker, the next sale, the next word in a neverending monologue. When Levene gloats to Williamson, “A man’s his job and you’re f*cked at yours,” he could, really, be speaking to any of us.

The Crucible

Proctor is talking about the witch trials. Because Arthur Miller is the author, Proctor is also talking about 1950s American anti-communist hysteria, another “crucible” in our history, which would sweep up and imperil Miller and some of his closest friends around the time of the play’s composition (1953). And because we are the audience and our year is 2017, John Proctor is also talking about the American Kangaroo Court culture and its Tweeter in Chief, where to prosecute is to hold power, to accuse is to claim privilege, and there is only safety in the transference of blame.

… Though occasionally slow and imbalanced overall, at its emotional crescendos (which are not, usually, the play’s loudest parts), masterful performances will carry away all the audience’s doubts, quibbles, and objections about this admirable production.

On Shakespeare’s Bigotry: An Open Letter

On Tuesday, 13 June 2017, I opened up the Buffalo News to find a perplexing letter to the editor. Someone named Gerhard Falk was calling for an end to the “literary correctness” that kept Shakespeare on our bookshelves and in our syllabi. Gerhard Falk wanted us to “ignore Shakespeare.”

This was absurd. You cannot, of course, “ignore” a force and a legacy that has shaped our culture, shaped our language, and shaped our understanding of ourselves. On top of that, Falk’s charge was a silly, tired one, something high school English teachers address as a prelude to a discussion of historical context and the importance of an author’s intentions to the value of a work of literature: namely, that Shakespeare is bigoted, and specifically anti-Semitic.

Gerhard Falk, I discovered, is a long-time Buffalo State sociology professor, and a survivor of the Holocaust.  The full text of his letter is below:

Recently I read “Hitler” by Joachim Fest. Evidently Adolf Hitler considered “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare his favorite play because it maligns the Jewish people in the most disgusting manner, thereby undoubtedly contributing to the mass murder of the European Jews.

The recent bombings in London and several other such atrocities in England and in the United States demonstrate that there is enough hatred in the world so that we need not teach our children by means of Shakespeare’s bigotry that religious hate is legitimate.

After I read “The Merchant of Venice,” I read all of his plays and discovered that his 16th century works are so remote from present day interests that it is unfortunate that “literary correctness” requires us all to pretend that Shakespeare was anything better than an antiquated bore.

There is some great literature in this world that is far more supportive of our democratic values than Shakespeare’s hate-mongering. Surely our English teachers know that and would do all of us a favor if they had the courage to ignore Shakespeare in favor of all the great American literature that our children evidently never see.

Gerhard understands the power of bigotry in a way that I never will. Still, he was wrong about Shakespeare, and wrong about the value of literature generally. I had to turn this letter to the editor into a conversation. I spent a Sunday afternoon drafting the following in longhand, and posted it to Gerhard’s address.

Continue reading

Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire

A Triumph in Calculated Loss

By the time the bold prologue had finished – the story of Blanche DuBois’ marriage, her husband’s suicide, and the gradual death and dissolution of everything associated with Belle Reve, her Laurel, Mississippi estate, something Tennessee Williams fans are usually asked to imagine or guess for themselves – I was straining to hear a human voice.  The most amazing thing about Scottish Ballet’s interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire might be just this: the choice to sacrifice Tennessee Williams’ dialogue, and to tell the story (both more and less “story” than most interpretations take on) with nothing but bodies in motion.

Even audiences just as accustomed to dance as to drama found themselves aching for a human voice through most this production, but this feeling was only a footnote to our encompassing awe at director Nancy Meckler’s and choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s gamble, really a calculated loss, to sacrifice the author’s words to more freely interpret his spirit.  And it is a loss – imagine a soft-shoed Hamlet throwing himself around the stage while we wait for him to voice his question But by leaving our ears to atrophy Meckler and Ochoa demand our eyes’ complete dedication, and when they’ve released us from our straining after just over two hours rapt on the expressive control of the Scottish Ballet’s dancers, their calculated loss has paid off.

All photos by Andy Ross; permission to use was neither asked nor granted.

.     .     .

I made my first trip to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, an abrupt glass building erupting out of Nicholson Street’s Victorian stone, a week ago, to see the inimitable Stewart Lee (and inimitability is the salient quality of his highly stylized comedy).  But the last ballet I’d seen must have been an under-18 Nutcracker circa 1999 – so when I bought my ticket to Streetcar I was ready for anything.

Though I was familiar with the play.  I’d last seen a production of Streetcar in 2012, at the The Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle on Buffalo’s East Side.  This was a stunningly intimate performance from Torn Space.  Couched in a house standing alone in one of the more barren blocks of the East Side, the Adam Mickiewicz venue houses a theatre about the size of a large living room; but to get to this one must proceed through a still-domestic feeling front hall, a tight billiard room/library, and a red-lit, all-wood bar, where an old Pole doles out Tyskies and other Euro beers.  The stage that night bore as few props as the director deemed possible, and the whole thing was boxed-in by a spare thin metal frame, enclosing the actors while underscoring the absence of any cushion for them, and also permitting some bold choices: the director used haunting sound loops and close-up shots of raw fetid meat projected behind the action, distracting sometimes, but serving well to reveal – not directly but at an exaggerated, oblique angle – something about Blanche’s internal reality, her mental decomposition.

I expected obvious contrasts between this memory of a Streetcar at once stripped-down and daringly experimental and a big-budget interpretation from the Scottish Ballet.  The biggest challenge as well as the greatest opportunity for interpretive license would lie, even more for the Scottish Ballet as for other groups trying to make Williams’ play “new,” in manifesting Blanche’s mind onstage.

If the Scottish Ballet proved anything this past week, it was that the form lends itself brilliantly to this sort of drama.  Blanche (played by principal dancer Eve Musto) here becomes a multiplicity: she is not one dancer onstage but a whole company – ghosts, half-ghosts, a score of black-dressed dancers with roses for mouths – and we watch as she calls on other bodies, parts of herself, to manifest the internal reality she battles, always under the 28 bare bulbs that hang above the stage.  Increasingly her fantasies mix not only with reality but with one another, her (fond, if delusional) memory of working as a feather-boaed prostitute pouring into a darker memory of her wedding and her husband’s suicide.

One bold choice was inclusion of the “prologue,” though Meckler might not use that term.  This version explains Blanche’s trauma through the death of her husband, who was torn between his wife and a man – something Williams; script reveals, secondhand, much later.  (This presented a minor problem – the dancer could convince us that he loved the man, but not that he loved Blanche, though it was clear that he was meant to.  This left us too consciously suspending our disbelief when he killed himself.)

But the dancer was convincing enough as a ghost: his body, shirt bloodied, appears to blend in with Blanche’s reality as she leaves Belle Reve, progresses through a stint as a prostitute and eventually joins her sister Stella and her new husband Stanley Kowalski in New Orleans’ French Quarter.  Ochoa introduces him in one excellent scene to meld with a burlesque show, just as arranger Peter Salem inflects the bar’s period-jazz with the discordant melody of Blanche’s wedding theme; as her husband appears among the tutued dancers on the bar, a dark ghost-version of Blanche proffers the black tie we earlier saw her put around his neck.

Ochoa put her dancers to work as stage hands, using them at once to menace Blanche or bustle about Stanley and Stella while arranging and breaking versatile sets constructed entirely out of beer crates.

Sometimes watching drama adapted into dance is like watching a couple fight through the window looking into their apartment.  The show is mute, we feel our distance more acutely and inescapably than in traditional drama – but we cannot look away.

Other times – many times, during Streetcar – the choreography is so natural, so expressive hate and frailty and wild unstill spectrums of sexuality that we think it must have been improvised, the dancers possessed in some enthusiasmos and ecstasis, channeling the old gods’ emotions which human feeling is based upon.

After one intense hour, the curtain goes down on Stella and Stanley, she nursing her husband’s head against her chest – while shattered Blanche sits, looking nowhere, unlit, atop a Brechtian tower of beer crates.

.     .     .

(If Prosecco was the rule before the doors opened, £3 cups of Mackie’s ice cream are the treat of choice during intermission.  But even these delicious flavors – Honeycomb, Chocolate Mint, Chocolate, Strawberry – offer no real emotional break.  Ahead of me in row D a uni-aged girl reads aloud from a melodramatic Tumblr page.  Beside me, one middle-aged woman reads to another, also from her smartphone, an article entitled “My boyfriend killed himself because…”  The lights dim.  More than anything, we are relieved.)

.     .     .

Tama Barry as Stanley Kowalski, shouting his most famous (and in this production, only) line.

Act One ends with the production’s only line of dialogue.  You can guess it; during the duration of the first act’s silence, I kept wondering, Will he say it?  How can he not say it?

But when it comes – when Tama Barry’s Stanley breaks briefly through the ballet’s nonverbal aesthetic – the result is underwhelming.  Thrice he gives his cri de coeur, and each time we think, Maybe he’s building.  Maybe the next one will be the “Stella.”

Perhaps this was a fluke of Saturday’s matinee performance, but I took it as emblematic of the production’s one salient flaw.  The Meckler-Ochoa rewrite irons out the nuances in Stanley, making him into the animal brute that, in other productions – that in Williams’ script – Blanche only imagines him to be.  There’s also a trade-off in developing Blanche’s character: Meckler and Ochoa give her backstory, showing us how she falls into the condition in which she appears on her sister’s doorstep, but they erase or play down her elaborate airs, deemphasizing her delusions of a ladylike history and persona and making her insistence on being treated as a Southern Belle into something coming – certainly not the demanding persistent madness that, in other productions, drives Stanley into his cruelty, into a madness his own.

This all might come as a twin casualty with the sacrifice of the dialogue; but at any rate, it is a loss.  The brute Stanley and the battered Blanche shed the layers of complexity that made Tennessee Williams’ one of the twentieth century’s greatest playwrights – though having done so, I suppose, they danced more freely, emoted more purely and therefore on a grander scale.

Mitch, having learned from Stanley of Blanche’s tarnished history, symbolically attempts to rend her from her protective delusions.

As with every calculated loss the Scottish Ballet took, however, there were triumphs in this revision, this ironing-out.  Meckler and Ochoa turned away from the nuance of naturalist theatre and reached instead for the power of archetypal feeling, operatic emotion.  And they succeeded.  This was never more evident than in the ballet’s climax, which took the implied rape in Williams’ script and made it brilliantly, brutally explicit, in choreography that left eyelids inoperable and mouths agape.  (“Nothing like a little bit of rape on a Saturday afternoon,” the Scottish woman beside me said to her friend after the final curtain had fallen.  It was a comment still half-nervous, possible only after the calming interlude of clapping.  We were all still in awe.)  Peter Salem’s score was so powerful here that it seemed to become a physical part of the set, with a sound like pulsing pain or a beating cut vein amplified in the cavern of the head.

Yes, the final scene – in which Blanche is led away by a doctor, to be institutionalized, delusional to the point of total disassociation – without her heartbreaking line: “whoever you are, I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”  But we all knew it anyway – and with two hours of passionate dance still playing in afterimages behind our eyes, this was more than enough.

[Andy Ross / Scottish Ballet Photo Gallery] [Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire ‘Uncut,’ behind the scenes]