You haven't been reading any new reviews from me in The Mirror because I have not been able to write them. I don't know whether it's been a major Writer's Block or a trivial Nervous Breakdown, and I don't even know if it's over. In the middle of it I managed to write the first half-dozen words of a review, and the phone rang. Twice since I've used that empty "shell" to rush into The Mirror reviews other people have sent me via e-mail, and that unfinished sentence felt each time like a damning reproach. I have seen plays; I have talked with friends old and new; I have carefully stacked the programs for eight different shows next to the mouse-pad that represent the promises that have gone unfulfilled while I sat mindlessly playing endless digital solitaire games, waiting for the shell to break, for the first lead paragraph to translate itself from an ever more frightened mind into reality. And every silent day I have been increasingly aware that I am disappointing my friends.
Now, just before I wrote that paragraph, I called Beverly Creasey because she's quarantined and hasn't been allowed to see a play since the press-night for "Moby Dick"; and after writing it I checked for the morning's e-mail and thought about breakfast (it was about noon). And things come down to time and priority:
The mail includes about nine things that should be transferred into The Mirror (one of them labelled an !!!EMERGENCY!!!), and a request for information I Thought was in my files but wasn't where I looked.
And there really isn't any breakfast; I used up everything that fits that category over the week-end and have to buy more --- or breakfast on spaghetti.
And I should actually get in gear, get dressed and find a drug store to buy a new prescription for a lotion to combat an annoying (and again ugly) rash on my left hand.
If I go buy the medicine and/or the food, the audition calls and special announcements and !!!EMERGENCIES!!! won't get into The Mirror till I get back. If I either go shopping or deal with the e-mail, I won't finish this Cricket's Notebook entry.
What would YOU do at this point?
Okay, it's now 4 o'clock exactly.
I walked to the store and bought the food and finally had breakf... well, brunch. I checked to see if there was newer e-mail (There was!), and put up the !!!EMERGENCY!!!. Before I do anything else, I'll probably answer the letter with that information I did indeed find.
Then I think I'd better do the stuff in the e-mail pipeline, before coming back here to 1)explain myself and 2)try to say SomeThing about those eight shows.
But I do want to say something about That, here:
I don't write reviews by formula. Each show IS unique, and I try to treat them that way. But that does require a little thinking. Any writer will admit that the time spent "Busily NOT-Writing" is probably the most important part of the job. So a bit of mindless digital solitaire or free cell or hearts or minesweeper often lets the mind wait for the words to coalesce. And part of That process is being freed of the calls of friends, the calls for food, the call of conscience about e-mail that isn't being transformed into Theater Mirror entries. So all those pulls on consciousness can, often do interfere with getting Any writing of Any kind started. And, while I'm justifying myself, let's not forget that there just might be a little "real life" standing impatiently in the wings hoping to be attended to ... some day when I'm not too busy.
Okay, back to the grindstone, Nosy old sock.
Film at eleven........
Okay, it's now nearly nine. While transferring those couple of things to The Mirror I nearly dozed into the keypad, and so decided I'd take a nap. It's true that after a long and Very Pleasant party at Geralyn & David's yesterday at which I got to talk at length with two actors, one playwright, a critic or two, some assorted "civilians" and a brace of urchins. and got all of six hours of sleep before starting this. But the drowsiness --- or more properly the tendency to Give In to the drowsiness is why I do not discount the possibility of a mini-breakdown involved here. I don't consider what I do "work" but it does tend to use up time and energy, and Needing Naps is a great way to NOT-Write, isn't it?
And another, which I am going to use right now, is to bung meself back into the e-mail and to transfer everything to its proper spot (Is "everything" plural and "every thing" singular? That's it! Let's play grammar-games and put off writing even Longer!!) before dealing with that stack of unrequited programs...
Okay, it's around midnight. Yes, I dawdled a bit, but all of TODAY's e-mail has been uploaded.
Now I can think about those reviews, can't I?
Well, maybe I should fix up some Supper first --- set some stuff in a marinade, maybe, so that when I'm done here I can reward myself with a quick-broiled mess of pork-stuff over instant-rice and hit the sack before THE CONNECTION begins my day again at 10 a m on the clock-radio.
What I Will Do Is This:
I'm going to pretend that these eight lonely little shows were actually items on some Theater Festival somewhere, and give them short-shrift by mentioning highlights and asides about who I might have talked to that evening. That way I don't have to cover Everything, but I'll have covered them close enough for The Theater Mirror, okay?
But first a little marinade......
Okay, one ayem, and here we go:
"Backstage Confidential" by Marc P. Smith (at the BCA)
Marc is the theatrical workaholic who built the Worcester Foothills Theatre, and these twenty-one quick-sketch sketches are the sort of comedy that any actor can empathize with. My favorite was called "Movement, or How To Destroy An Actor" because as the actor enters his director says "You're not gonna (gigglegiggle) walk THAT Way, are you?" and in the space of a couple minutes the poor guy runs through a dozen different increasingly exaggerated walks down to a goose-step. And four audition-bits ring All the changes on that situation. It was directed by my friend and fellow IRNE Critic David Frieze as a late-night chaser to the Delvena show I saw the very next night, and it "starred" my old friend Tina Gaffney as one of five performers who delighted in quick-changes of character and hilarious "sense-memories" of acting experiences and pitfalls only slightly exaggerated out of real life. I had a ball! (So, I'm sure, did they!)
The Delvena Theatre Company's " 'night, Mother" played in the same Leland Center space at the BCA. Marsha Norman's short, solid, serious play was about an hour and a half of real-time reality, in which Lynne Moulton played a mid-western small-town divorced mother of a juvenile delinquent who rather matter-of-factly decides that rather than see her very lively mother (played by Jennifer Jones of QE2 Players) into eventual senility she will simply use her loving-but-silent (and now dead) father's WW II souvenir pistol to, simply, stop. She has reasons enough, but the biggest one is that she sees no reason to continue and though not Unhappy won't settle for what life has allotted her. Jones and Moulton did a stunning job of refusing to lie to one another, discovering in what might be the first real conversation of their lives what their mismatched memories may have missed. Sean David Bennett as director saw to it that every moment was a matter-of-fact surprise. (And I can see why some audiences needed to stay for "Backstage Confidential" before walking home alone!)
The very next night, scrapping several alternatives I somehow forgot to call about, I begged a comp for The Nora Theatre Company's production of "Crave" --- less a play that a theatrical experience of incredible power. (And this will probably need more than a paragraph!)
As is my wont, I threw away all the press-kit material and experienced this free-form barrage of almost disjointed sentences without dwelling on the author, Sarah Kane's actual suicide. So I was allowed to see this quartet-for-actors as an abstract exercise deliberately refusing to impose any meanings. Of course Director Elaine Vaan Hogue pushed her actors (Anne Gottlieb, Eric Radford Weiss, Steve Barkhimer, Laura Lanfranchi) to explore and discover rhythms and confrontations, musings and arguments that drove the incessant, insistent power of the words and the language and the stage-pictures beyond meaning into pure emotion. It was an obvious work of compelling art, built out of people and sentences. It eliminated all the things theater doesn't Have To Be, and the result was sublime.
John R. Malinowski provided the background-picture --- a blow-up of the hands of God and Adam (almost touching) by Michaelangelo, and a quick-moving light-plot that accompanied the restless actors across the stage. J. Hagenbuckle added a percussive, strident score of punctuating sound/music cues to announce or accompany each shift in mood. The whole was an experience or an event that awakened rather than dictated ideas, offered rather than dictated patterns and meanings while constantly insisting on the integrity of the actors and of theatricality. I think anyone who could remain unimpressed by this must be blind.
NOTE: I've seen Anne Gottlieb in the all-woman "Shrew" and Pilgrim Theatre's "Anam Cara" and now this. I didn't know an Equity actress could be so fearlessly eager to try new things. This production stretched everyone connected with it, including its audiences, and the intensity of everyone's involvement here suggests that, under its surfaces, Boston is learning a whole new theatrical vocabulary. This night was unforgettable.
And then on, the very next night, to The Puddlejump Players' presentation of L. Frank Baum's "The Land of Oz" as written and paraphrased and directed by Sheila Leavitt for a cast of about 67 kids, aged three to sixteen. And, if anything, this performance was equally as unforgettable as the one the previous night!
This kind of show is an exercize in controlled chaos, where the parents, infants, aunts and grandparents in the audience are as much a part of the experience as the on-stage performances. But over and over again I kept mumbling "It doesn't have to be this good!"
I was told Sheila Leavitt spends half each year writing and designing and directing these shows that are not only faithful to the originals, but tossing in little messages about tolerance and honesty along the way. The inventiveness of the costumes and props is matched by the concentration and enthusiasm of the performances, down to the tiny actress who waved her wand and stoutly shouted "Abracadabra! Shoosh-Shoosh-Shoosh!" The Saw-Horse costume that Owen Callen had to wear bent forward from the hip, the stilts that made Caleb Nelson's Jack Pumpkinhead so tall, the merging of makeup with cloth that made Perry Kroll's Scarecrow face, the horde of handpuppet mice, Josh Haselkorn's Tin Woodsman armor, Monty Sherwood's irrepressible Tip, and the tiny replica flying sofa that flapped slowly across the auditorium, half a dozen painted sets stretching across the Tower Auditorium stage, and the entrances and exits of countless choruses scurrying for costume-changes delighted everyone's imagination. A dozen milk-carton helmets, the march of General Jinjur's all-girl army --- incredible!
And the buzz of eager excitement in a "backstage" that spilled into the lobby was delightful. House Manager Maureen Carey told me her daughter Aiden got into theater when a group of home-schoolers started these productions, which will have a tenth anniversary next year. And Sheila Leavitt and her crew of props and costumes creators have accommodated more and more eager urchins every year. The future of theater here in Boston has its seeds sewn by these shows every year. Bravo!
Theater at Old South presented the Shire & Maltby musical "Baby" the next night in an upstairs space in this beautiful Copley Square church. This community church does little advertising, but the company is so enthusiastic they have to do a "two-platoon system" with one cast doing three performances, a whole second cast the other two. And, in a weird sense, this was the grown-up version of the Puddlejump Players. The material was considerably more sophisticated and crafted for a different audience, different performers. Nonetheless, the dedication and concentration and sincerity of the show was, on an adult level, just as much a work of love.
The material, of course, pulled different kinds of performances out of the cast, different responses from the audience. Four couples, each involved in pregnancy (well, one in a false-positive) , dealt in different ways with this new possibility. Whether to marry or not, whether to abort or face life after forty as parents again, the physical contortions needed to deal with "low sperm count" --- and the intrusion of parenthood on marriages are here all set to music, all allowing the mature amateurs to bring their life experiences into play building their characters and performances.
I had been invited by Kimberly Palson, who played the young, independent feminist wary of marriage the birth of whose baby made the climax for the show --- and I spent the act-break talking to her older sister. Kirsten Palson must have enough credits by now to join Equity --- if she wants to --- but finds that so many roles in musicals makes directors think twice before casting her in straight plays. (As though singers didn't have to know how to act!) From our "professional perspective" we could admire the kid sister's big, round voice, the solidity of her character, and the interplay of the cast in a fun, meaty musical I'd never seen before.
Of course, by then (12 May) I had seen eight plays in nine days, and reviewed only two of them --- and the distinct feeling of Blockage had begun to settle around my mind. The difficulty, of course, was the people ---especially friends --- Expected my reviews.
Let me digress a moment. There are people who when introduced, refer to me as "Mr. Stark"; often, these sorts of people will let slip, some time before our brief, halting conversations end, a hint like "When can we expect to see the review?" that nails down the situation: "You're here, For Free, because you review plays, right?" The write-up is what reviewers use to pay for their tickets, and its rude of them to shirk that duty. It's even worse, though, with friends you've told did a fine job, acting or directing, who expect that honest opinion to be shared with the world. They may think, or know, they did well and are relieved to hear a friend from the audience confirm it --- but it would be even more important committed to print for all to see, right? Especially since I don't have much of a reputation for lying, in word or in print. So the difficulty putting pen to paper (or pixels to printout) not only concerns me, it concerns others as well --- some of whom couldn't possibly understand what a Writer's Block means to Me.
I had missed the press opening for "The Curse of The Bambino" by overloading my schedule, then the only open date I had that week was a Tuesday, and The Lyric Stage of Boston doesn't play Tuesdays. I made it though Wednesday the 16th, after they'd already extended.
After the second time I was the odd-man-unwanted when the recess softball teams were chosen, I got the message; later when high-school chums asked at World Series time "Who're you rooting for?" I coldly responded "Navy!" None of the nine-inning trivia ever rubbed off on me, and so my interest here was in how the reading of this show I'd seen a year ago might have improved. In my eye, it was largely in the playing rather than the show. I watched Derek Stearns watch the 1986 Red Sox game and was as engrossed as he was. I was as ready to fall in love with Eileen Nugent as he was, too. The period-piece songs Steve Bergman had devised for the quartet of quick-changing eternal fans, their costumes and stylish movements, the almost Greek chorus concept I enjoyed.
But the plot left me cold because, though I knew nothing of the details (Who the Hell is Bucky Dent???), the pay-off in every case was predictable before I even walked into the theatre. Nonetheless, when the loving father flipped from fondling his infant son to rapt attention to the game on the tube, the cleanness of the gesture knocked me flat.
And in the act break, with opening-night aloofness long gone, I talked at length with Spiro Veloudos about what we love most. Theater si; baseball (to me) no.
But when I got home, all I knew was there was one more program from an UN-reviewed show in the stack.
I admitted top myself, over the phone Thursday, that I couldn't write those reviews. I'd spent the morning in endless solitaire, the too many lead-paragraphs churning around in my mind, close to tears and shuddering with frustration and fear. I treated myself to a walk down Newbury Street, scratching my eyeballs against the paintings, watching the walls, the brickwork and spring green leaves and blossoms grow more and more intense, and ended in that beautiful back-room of Bernie Pucker's fountain-fronted gallery. I don't think he ever knew my name, but we know each other by sight. I told him what I do when feeling frazzled around the edges is walk up Newbury Street, ending up at his place. And the world always looks better when I leave.
I called Jerry Bisantz begging a ride from Riverside to Waltham to see Lida McGirr and Jerry's daughter Kate tear me to shreds with Neil Simon's masterful comic tragedy "The Gingerbread Lady" and on the way there I admitted to Jerry I was blocked. He said he'd gone a year without writing anything, but when the right idea came it wrote itself in ten minutes. Lida and Kate, playing alcoholic divorced mother and aware, self-aware daughter lit up the stage. Lida, Michael Monte and Cynthia Klayman played hysterically witty people trying desperately to ignore the pain filling their hollow insides, with Kate and Airline Inthyrath (in the same class at high school) as daughter and delivery-boy.
I saw the show coming through Boston-tryouts with Maureen Stapleton --- that was before Doc Simon lost his nerve and tacked a tacky happy-ending on his most searingly honest play to date. All I really remember, though is saying to myself then (as now) "These people are So Funny, why are there tears leaking out the bottom of my beard?"
Jerry bought me an Ipswich Ale and drove me all the way back to Roxbury, and we talked about the only reality has any meaning for me: theater.
Then it was Saturday, and I went over to the Cambridge Adult Ed Center to see a staged reading (with piano and scripts-in-hand) of a musical about two rival computer firms called "Tortoise" by Jeff Flaster. David Frieze again the director, Will McMillan and Roberta Gilbert as well as David in the cast.
If as Flaster insisted he'd worked for five years (at an hour a day stolen from his computer job), this seemed to me the proper time for a reading, and for real work to set in, in earnest. The rivalry here between the laid-back Tortoise and the no-nonsense Nanogiant slave-ship has been as solidly drawn as the Hare/Tortoise contest it's based upon. One firm wants to free your free life from work, the other wants to make work your real life every possible moment. No Contest!
As it is, perhaps tightened and honed into a one-act, I can see it as a vest-pocket cult-show, a sort of Kendall Square "Shear Madness"; But, unless seeing this crew wrestle with how to bring it to life created new insights, I don't think the writer/composer/lyricist can make it much better without a collaborator; a totally fresh eye might see more to explore.
And that took me up to Sunday, when I resolved (after an afternoon nap) to write this Crickets' Notebook. Luckily Geralyn Horton called reminding me that the Xmas Party that was called on account of ice & sleet was re-scheduled for ... Yesterday!
So, instead of writing any of it, I got to talk to Robert Bonnato about a graphic Novel he's been working on (and I hope he's sending me xeroxes of some of his pages (as he promised!) and to Rosanna Alfaro about (what else?) writing plays, and to Geralyn and Heleni Thayre about Unitarians and religions and to David Myers and E Grace Noonan about computers, and tea.
And then it was suddenly Monday and......
And that's where you came in, wasn't it? And where I hit the sack and try for a fast four yours of slumber before The Connection starts. And, to date, (exclusive of the pieces of irrelevant SPAM) there isn't an e-mail in the box needing any of my attention!
Film at eleven......