Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sharon Olds and family

I guess for anyone even somewhat familiar with Olds' work, she had a very difficult childhood, which she mined over and over, particularly in her first several collections.  In many ways, given that she does go over the same ground so often, her earlier collections are the freshest.  My personal faves are The Dead and the Living (1983) and The Gold Cell (1987).  I really devoured these when I came across them, almost certainly in my junior/senior year in college (around 1990).  I have to admit, I have not followed her career much past the mid 1990s, but I will try to correct this one of these days. 

The Father is a sustained meditation on the man who sort of dominated & ruined her childhood, but whom she loves in her own way, despite everything.  I have been reading and rereading "The Race" (from The Father) and hope to include it in an anthology of poems about transportation.  While it is somewhat embarrassing to admit, every time I read the poem, I get teary-eyed.  Certainly I think the poem is a strong one (and I love the metaphor of slipping through a closing airplane door like threading the eye of a needle), but there must be more to it than that.  Unquestionably, it must be related to my racing to Detroit when my mother was dying, and some of that unfinished business from roughly 15 years ago. 

As I thought more about it (today in fact) I think what I am actually reacting the most is the somewhat unexpected kindness shown to her by the airline employees when she simply threw herself onto their mercy:

I ran up to a man with a flower on his breast,
I who always go to the end of the line, I said
Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said
Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then

I've generally had pretty good luck with airline employees getting me home even with major weather delays (sometimes going beyond the call of duty), though, as with so many things, things are not as good as they once were. I only just recalled that I couldn't get a reasonable flight from Chicago to Detroit.  I can't even recall if it was just the price, even with a (pre-)bereavement discount, or if I just couldn't make it in time (since they don't bother to schedule red-eyes from Chicago to Detroit).  In the end, Rachel, a co-worker at my summer job at the university, simply loaned me her car and let me drive it across three states.  I'm sure I tried to make it up to her later, but the depth of her kindness in my time of need was really extraordinary.  I've tried to do nice things to people from time to time, but can't think of doing anything quite as extraordinary as that.

After the funeral, when time wasn't of the essence and I had to help clean out her house and deal with the estate (splitting the tasks with my brother), I spent many weekends on the train, shuttling back and forth.  What to this day leaves me a bit chagrined is that I was able to keep up my coursework and doing my TA grading on the train -- and yet I was always too busy to visit while she was still alive.  I shouldn't be too maudlin.  We talked by phone once and sometimes twice a week and had a good relationship, but it just seemed out of the question to drop everything and take the train, when in fact it wouldn't have been much trouble at all.

I'm going to go ahead and include the entire poem at the end of the post.  I think the only discordant note is the 7 minutes she had to catch a shuttle bus, as well as an elevator and an escalator and then still run down a corridor to the gate.  Even in the days prior to 9/11 security, I don't see how this could possibly have taken less than 15 minutes minimum.  It's a tiny quibble, but pedantic quibbles are the lifeblood of the internet after all.  Without further ado:

The Race
Sharon Olds

When I got to the airport I rushed up to the desk,
bought a ticket, ten minutes later
they told me the flight was cancelled, the doctors
had said my father would not live through the night
and the flight was cancelled. A young man
with a dark brown moustache told me
another airline had a nonstop
leaving in seven minutes. See that
elevator over there, well go
down to the first floor, make a right, you'll
see a yellow bus, get off at the
second Pan Am terminal, I
ran, I who have no sense of direction
raced exactly where he'd told me, a fish
slipping upstream deftly against
the flow of the river. I jumped off that bus with those
bags I had thrown everything into
in five minutes, and ran, the bags
wagged me from side to side as if
to prove I was under the claims of the material,
I ran up to a man with a flower on his breast,
I who always go to the end of the line, I said
Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said
Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then
run. I lumbered up the moving stairs,
at the top I saw the corridor,
and then I took a deep breath, I said
goodbye to my body, goodbye to comfort,
I used my legs and heart as if I would
gladly use them up for this,
to touch him again in this life. I ran, and the
bags banged against me, wheeled and coursed
in skewed orbits, I have seen pictures of
women running, their belongings tied
in scarves grasped in their fists, I blessed my
long legs he gave me, my strong
heart I abandoned to its own purpose,
I ran to Gate 17 and they were
just lifting the thick white
lozenge of the door to fit it into
the socket of the plane. Like the one who is not
too rich, I turned sideways and
slipped through the needle's eye, and then
I walked down the aisle toward my father. The jet
was full, and people's hair was shining, they were
smiling, the interior of the plane was filled with a
mist of gold endorphin light,
I wept as people weep when they enter heaven,
in massive relief. We lifted up
gently from one tip of the continent
and did not stop until we set down lightly on the
other edge, I walked into his room
and watched his chest rise slowly
and sink again, all night
I watched him breathe.

from The Father (Knopf, 1992)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

6th Canadian challenge - 9th review

I think this is the first time I have reviewed a graphic novel for any of the challenges.  The Blue Dragon is a graphic novel adaptation of a play by Robert LePage and Marie Michaud.  The illustrations are by Fred Jourdain.  It is published by House of Anansi Press.  I was actually looking to see if the library had LePage's The Far Side of the Moon.  I was fortunate enough to see this play in Vancouver a week ago, with LePage himself doing the acting!  It turns out that they don't have the script,* but apparently a DVD of the filmed play (which I'll try to put on reserve).  The local library did have this graphic novel, however, and it was the English version, not the French version. 

You can see some similarities in The Blue Dragon to The Far Side of the Moon.  A heavy reliance on symbolic images (I can kind of picture how LePage would have all the Chinese writing projected above the actors).  While it isn't a perfect comparison, I was struck by how much LePage's visuals reminded me of Bill Viola's video installations, though Viola isn't trying to carry a whole play on the back of his images.  And this play offers up some meditations on the difficulties of communication across cultural barriers.  I guess in the play, the actors often speak Mandarin to each other and presumably the translation was super-projected above them.  David Henry Hwang's Chinglish did this to good effect recently. While these are interesting elements, they perhaps come at the expense of the plot.  The plot is even thinner in The Blue Dragon than in The Far Side of the Moon. 


A woman comes to China to try to adopt a baby.  She stays with a former lover, who operates an art gallery in Shanghai.  He is particularly worried that he is losing his apartment to redevelopment (a common enough occurrence in China's eastern cities).  He has an on-again/off-again relationship with a young Chinese artist (he met her in Hong Kong when she tattooed the Blue Dragon onto his back).  The French woman returns to Montreal (unsuccessful in her bid to adopt).  A year later she returns.  She finds that the gallery owner has lost his apartment and his gallery, but has started doing his own art again.  He seems fed up with China, but unsure he wants to return to Quebec.  She also then tracks down the younger Chinese artist, who had been pregnant with the man's child -- and kept the child rather than aborting it, which was the "sensible" thing to do in her position.  There are three endings -- and this is set up earlier in the book/play when the artist discusses the legend/ancient practice of unmarried women dropping their babies (basketed) into the Three Gorges River and letting the river decide their fate in one of three ways.  In one ending, the older woman gets the baby and probably her former lover.  In the next, the older woman takes the baby but the younger woman seems to be reconciled with the man.  And in the third, for some reason the man seems to be adopting the baby (this one frankly makes no sense to me).  I suspect this may have worked somewhat better on stage or on film, and not as well in book format.

The artwork is well-done, not terribly flashy.  The male artist certainly reminds me a fair bit of LePage (and quite possibly he did play the part on stage).  There are several full page illustrations (with no text at all) that are heavily influenced by Chinese art and calligraphy.  Nonetheless, it is a fairly restrained, static piece compared to most graphic novels.  The plot, such as it is, doesn't move me at all.  It's an interesting experiment and worth checking out if one is a fan of LePage's work in general, but wasn't a keeper for me.  Definitely glad I could borrow it from the library.

* As far as I can determine, the play is only available in French (La Face cachée de la lune) despite LePage obviously having been involved in the English translation.  That seems a shame, as it really limits its readership.  I am not entirely sure I would get enough from only being able to read it in French.  Some reviewers have even commented that the English subtitles on the DVD are problematic.

The Blue Dragon

Friday, November 23, 2012

W.H. New - Vancouver poet

This will be a bit of an overview post about W.H. New, and I expect to write two separate reviews a bit down the road for two of New's collections.  I realize I am still settling in to Vancouver a bit and learning about the local literary scene, but it took me nearly a year to even hear about W.H. New, who is probably the most prominent, active Vancouver poet. Certainly, the most famous Vancouver poet (in the sense of someone who had their entire career in the lower mainland) is Pat Lowther, and there are several famous poets who lived at least part of the time in Vancouver (Earle Birney and Milton Acorn spring to mind, as well as Margaret Atwood, though she was only here for a year).  There is even John Donlan who lives half the year in Vancouver and works at the Vancouver Public Library (review of his latest collection here).  But I still think New claims the title as the most prominent, active, full-time Vancouver poet.

I found out about him somewhat by chance when I was looking through the paper and saw that his latest collection YVR was nominated for the 2012 City of Vancouver Book Award, and which in fact he went on to win (YVR wins).  I'd like to think I would have come across the book browsing the poetry shelves of the Burnaby Library, but I can't be sure that would have happened.  In any case, I was particularly likely to pick up the book once I had heard of it, as I was deeply immersed in a project that required me to gather poems on the topic of transportation.  As it so happens, the airport itself plays a very minor role in the collection (and I don't believe there is any air travel mentioned or implied), but it is still quite an interesting piece of work.  I will be reviewing it soon.

New has nine other poetry collections out, as well as several children's books and critical essays on Canadian literature.  The poetry collections are Science Lessons (1996), Raucous (1999), Stone | Rain (2001), Riverbook and Ocean (2002), Night Room (2003), Underwood Log (2004), Touching Ecuador (2006), Along a Snake Fence Riding (2007), and The Rope-maker's Tale (2009).  (Thank you, Wikipedia)

My favourites are Stone | Rain and YVR.  I had trouble getting into the longer book-length poems Along a Snake Fence Riding and The Rope-maker's Tale.  They reminded me a lot of Yeats's attempts to fuse poetry and plays, which never worked for me.  To some degree my attention span has shortened, particularly when it comes to poetry, and I no longer like poems that span more than 3 pages tops, although if they are true multi-part poems or a suite of poems forming a longer poem, I can usually bear reading them.  I don't know if this preference (or anti-preference) will shift back.  It seems somewhat unlikely as I no longer have to read any literature if I don't want to.  One of the up-sides of no longer being a student...

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Obsession -- not just a perfume anymore...

Often played for laughs, obsessiveness can be such a devastating thing to try to overcome.  I have to say I am not a big fan of the reality TV shows that thrive on probing people's obsessions/problems (Hoarders and the shows on OCD for example).  I realize a lot of people think "there but for the grace of ..." (and I probably fall into this camp when I happen to catch part of one of these shows), but others really revel in comparing their lives to others who are really troubled. 

Fake Paul is all about obsession with cultural figures that ends in stalking and other kinds of criminal behaviour.  I tried to go through my memory to think if I had ever been obsessed with a band or a movie star or even a particular book/movie.  I think the closest was a local band I followed for a while in Ann Arbor called "The Difference."  I probably saw 6 or 7 of their shows over a 2 year span, and I probably would have gone to a few more, but they often played at bars where I couldn't enter (being 19 at the time).  I started to get to know a few of the female fans who did seem to follow them around.  But I think that is pretty much it, and I certainly wasn't obsessed with the band members themselves -- I just thought they put on a good show I could dance to.  As far as major acts go, I went to 2 or perhaps 3 Grateful Dead shows and really couldn't get into the sideshow carnival scene that followed them around.*  I guess I have seen Camper Van Beethoven 4 times, and was dragged to several Duran Duran shows. I don't believe I have seen any other rock star or group more than twice. I have seen a handful of jazz artists on the order of 4-5 times, but certainly wouldn't consider myself obsessed with any of them.  Jazz acts tour so rarely now that it wouldn't pay to try to be a follower anyway.

I never really could understand people who saw the same movie 20+ times to the point where they had memorized practically all the dialogue.  I think Brazil is the movie I've seen the most, and that is still probably only 6 times total.  For most movies (and TV shows), twice is my working limit, and even then I only would pay to see it in the theatre once (ok, I paid twice to see Tati's Playtime).  I've read a small handful of books twice and think the only book I may have read three times was The Great Gatsby.  I guess I tried to read Dickens' A Christmas Carol to the kids (making a third reading) but they weren't into it at all last year.  I think it is safe to say that isn't how my obsessions lay.  I don't even go to see the same play done by different companies that often, though it isn't a hard and fast rule. (I do wonder if this is because I care about plot more than almost anything else -- and once I know the plot, there isn't much left to hold my interest.  At least different directors and casts do bring out different aspects of a play.  Seeing the same movie over and over seems a bit like being in a time-loop to me.  I suppose I am a bit more susceptible to wearing down musical grooves with repeat listening -- and when I get particularly stressed I do retreat to 80s pop songs...)

The flipside is that I don't go too deep into any particular book or movie, but I do have a problem with breadth, which manifests itself in collecting, perhaps even an obsession to at least have all the great literature and movies and especially music pass through in my hands at least once.  In that respect, joining a jazz on-line bulletin board was probably a bad mistake, as it normalized my collecting habits and I always could find someone who had amassed a larger collection than me.  I am still a member, though a fairly inactive one now.  It probably helps that jazz has largely died, along with the broader music industry, over the past ten years.

I also have an obsession about staying current in the news, particularly statewide or provincial politics that I think will affect my work.  And staying connected via email (at a time when traditional email is itself considered old fashioned).

On some occasions I can reign myself in.  I have purged hundreds of CDs from my collection and dozens of books.  I sometimes am smart enough to stop myself from getting into things that will only feed my obsession, so I have resolutely refused to join Facebook and especially Twitter.  Probably the one area I am most successful at is avoiding getting caught up in following sports or TV shows (and if I had my druthers I would stop cable and would only use the television to watch DVDs).  I would say I really only follow a single show (Futurama) that doesn't even air in Canada!  Of course, other times I do let my obsessions get the better of me, though I have largely stopped the mass consumption that marked my 30s.  I suppose it will always be a bit of a struggle for me, and I just try to harness it and redirect it in relatively harmless ways when I can.

* In thinking about the Grateful Dead, a lot of people pride themselves on very esoteric knowledge -- when was the only time the Dead played this song or that song.  When was Jerry having a good or bad night and so on.  Trading networks sprung up, since the Dead actually encouraged taping of their shows, and at least there is considerable variety in their shows.  I see the same kind of obsessive archiving of Pearl Jam concerts, for example, and I just wonder why, since it doesn't seem like the set lists vary that much.  To be fair, while truly enjoying/understanding the Dead requires a fair bit of insider knowledge, the community was fairly open to those truly interested in learning more (whereas other communities almost pride themselves on being able to shut out newbies and outsiders).  Now that so much of the Dead's legacy is on-line (, I have been downloading a few shows in my own somewhat compulsive way, though after I have collected the 15 or so shows I want, including ones I was at, I will slam the door shut on going back and getting more -- trying to save myself from myself.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

6th Canadian challenge - 8th review

I managed to borrow a copy of Kimmy Beach's Fake Paul.  It is an interesting collection, full of poems about obsession -- and in particular a kind of stalking that is largely a female phenomenon.  The action in many of the poems is so far over the top that I think, even without her recent correspondence and the insights from this excellent interview, I would have said "No way" is the poet writing about things she has actually done.  Which in itself raises interesting questions of how I would have viewed In Cars had I read that immediately after Fake Paul.  I think I would have placed more distance between the poet and the narrator of the poems.  In any case, I would have to say I am relieved that Kimmy is not writing about herself, since the actions of the narrator, while starting out in the normal range, definitely head into deranged territory.

I certainly have my own experiences with obsession but I've never been that obsessed about a particular band/actor/movie/book.  I was going to expound on this a bit, but this review will already be quite long, so I'll hold off until my next post.

The collection opens with the narrator as a child, soon learning about the Beatles and Paul specifically by coming across a copy of Let It Be at her grandmother's house (left behind after a party).

There is then a short interlude where the reader encounters a female fan who apparently hooked up with Paul in Germany before the Beatles became gods.  Just as the Greek myths relate the sad fates of the females that Zeus interfered with, women interacting with modern gods usually came to bad ends as well.

Then the poems pass back to the main narrator, who is apparently in London as a relatively young woman, trying to track down Paul. I guess I should break at this point.


In "#7 Cavendish Avenue," the narrator, with help from her friend Brenda, scales the wall of McCartney's London estate.  She sees a bag of his garbage and considers going through it.  Needless to say, things don't go smoothly for our narrator (though she quite evidently doesn't take this warning seriously enough and returns in the next poem "Would you feel me?").

"the breathless debutantes hang back
whisper behind perfect white hands
virgin voyeurs
they decide not to warn us of
the policeman's arrival
he's not home, luv   the bobby calls up to me
he's in Scotland
you'd like to be arrested at his house
and him not even in it?"

In "Would you feel me?" the narrator distinguishes herself from "those / fucked-up types" though she clearly seems following in the path of girls who "shiver in rain waiting for your / car to leave or arrive."

In the next section, some time has apparently passed and the narrator has returned to the UK and is on a Beatles tour of Liverpool.  Her husband has gamely agreed to come along.  In "Ringo's Room" you do sense a bit of exasperation surfacing, given how the husband cannot compete with rock star gods.  But he gives it his best:
"as he tries to thrust from me the memory
of tiny British postwar beds
sleep with dark-haired boys
dreaming guitars"

I have considerable sympathy for the husband, as my wife has an intense crush on the members of a British New Wave group, hanging out by their hotels back in the day, and still going to their concerts.  Fortunately, she never took it quite as far as the narrator (probably in fact being about as involved/obsessed as the real life Kimmy).

Anyway, the husband simply cannot stack up, and in "Underground" the narrator leaves him a note, saying she is leaving him to try to track down Paul (shades of "She's Leaving Home" perhaps?).  The narrator ends up in a rundown Bed & Breakfast where she will be left alone to pursue her obsessions.

By the end of the book, the narrator has stolen some silverware from Paul McCartney's boyhood home, broken a window to steal one of his old jackets from an exhibit, cut off the head of a wax dummy of Paul, and then apparently sets the whole thing alight and perhaps lays down in the fire (a bit like an Indian widow on a funeral pyre).  Then there is a parallel set of poems (an entire section on "The Fake") where the narrator meets the fake Paul in a Beatles tribute band and first helps him out, then frightens him away to the point where he calls the bouncers to take care of her.

I have to say I do find it a little odd that someone who has gone so far in obsessing over the real Paul would then also be obsessed over "fake Paul."  I could understand the fascination for someone who didn't go to the effort of tracking down traces of the original, but once you have gone over to Liverpool would a pale imitation really be worth the effort?  Especially one reduced to singing "Michelle" to "a frumpy woman with grease / in her hair."  But the narrator finds herself jealous even of the attention fake Paul pays to this apparently disinterested (but oh so loathsome) woman.

Of course, this is all about obsession, and I have to admit I don't really understand obsession over cultural figures.  It tends to be a gendered kind of obsession (women stalking musicians or actors, often with the hope of becoming their girlfriend and/or mother of their child), though certainly there are some men that stalk female celebrities.  Still, men who stalk tend to prefer the power dynamic to run the other way and stalk women they know (& that don't really have the resources to sic the cops or lawyers on them).  Again, gross generalizations.

There are a few other poems in the collection that hint at why so many females do long after and occasionally chase after male artists -- sometimes they do succeed in becoming groupies.  Kimmy imagines a woman who does become Paul's girlfriend, apparently in Germany before their breakthrough, and who then follows the Beatles to the U.S. and dies in a crush of female fans ("Bass Guitar Frenzy").  Indeed, it is truly rare for a musician or actor to not take advantage of all the female attention he received, so it isn't entirely illogical for women to throw themselves at these men.  The crazed narrator links herself into this "tradition" in one of the final poems: "She's Yours Too."  The narrator has apparently convinced herself that she is pregnant from the wax figure, and she is clearly thinking of real Paul, not fake Paul, when she thinks:
"she'll be better off with you anyways
all those horses, dogs, fancy cars
she will grow up in your big house"

This fragile mental state fractures in the next poem "You'll Burn For Me" (next to last in the collection) where the imaginary baby meets the wax father:
"bite off your left ear    suck it into me ...
swallow you   take you inside me
you and our baby both inside me now
your own voice from the television"

(The programme on television may be a repeat of the famous Beatles visit to the Ed Sullivan show.)

Frustration erupts (perhaps as a tiny bit of reality intrudes and the woman realizes the fairly pathetic figure she has become).  In trying to regain the upper hand, the woman brings her universe crashing down around her, setting the wax figure on fire -- and quite possibly the entire bedroom and maybe even the house:
"you'll burn for me
cotton and wax and hair
burn for me, lover"

It is not clear whether she survives, and the next and final poem "Coda" is written from an outside perspective (the old (un)reliable omniscient narrator rather than a personalized narrator).  In "Coda," the Beatles tribute band goes on about their business, clearly unconcerned about the crazy woman whose path briefly crossed theirs.  I'm not sure the poet was explicitly referencing Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" where the plowman keeps on, unaware of Icarus's fall into the sea, but it seems an apt linkage to me.  This Auden poem -- with some analysis -- can be found here.  In the Acknowledgements section, Kimmy reveals that she did in fact know the fake Paul in a Beatles tribute band but clearly kept her admiration within bounds, just as she says in the interview.  This will surely come as a relief to some readers.

Fake Paul is definitely an unsettling collection, and so much of it is so far over the top that I have trouble relating to any of it, but especially the second half -- basically marked by the poem "Underground" -- is where the obsession turns too dark and overwhelming for me to really enjoy reading the rest of the book.  However, people that enjoy watching reality TV shows (and you know who you are) might get a kick out of it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Time slips - in theatre

One of the more unsettling aspects of theatre is when you are watching a play, and it appears to be set in one time period and yet there are references that undermine that setting.  It is one thing if the director intentionally uses costumes and sets from a period that doesn't match the text.  I think this is often a bad idea, but it can work.  It certainly happens a lot in Shakespeare productions.  I suppose it is to illuminate how some kinds of behaviour transcend a particular era.  And with the exception of the history plays, Shakespeare is usually writing plays that are not grounded in any particular era, though certainly some of the action and reactions he puts on stage make more sense in Elizabethan times than our own.

The critic Chris Jones points out that good drama must set up its own internal rules early on and then not violate them.  (He's said this explicitly a few times including the fourth paragraph here, but I can't find one of his more fleshed out versions of this maxim.)  Of course, in a handful of cases, the rules themselves establish an absurd world, but in these plays the stakes tend to be low, even if there is a flurry of action (and even violence) on stage.  I am sure there are some exceptions to this general precept (internal rules being violated but the play still "working"), but in general, I think it is a good rule and one I support.

This is not the same as saying that new information can't be revealed later on, or even that the tone can't shift (O'Neill often shifts tone dramatically in his later works).  Though there are some limits to how much can be revealed very late in the play without at least some foreshadowing.  Still, what Jones is arguing (and I concur) is basically that plays that start out with a realistic frame shouldn't shift into absurdism, or that if the playwright starts out by allowing dramatic monologues, then it can't be found out later that these can be overheard by the other characters.  In such cases, it basically feels like the playwright is tricking and/or misleading the audience, which rarely goes over well.  It is also the case that dream sequences (which honestly should be used very sparingly in my view) are clearly delimited from the rest of the action.

In general, I think it is important that authors not toy with the audience, but above and beyond that, audiences by and large only get one shot at seeing a work (one bite at the apple as it were), so that very subtle messages are nearly always lost -- and late arriving information that totally overturns or undermines the start of the play (a la The Sixth Sense) can't be grasped by most audiences because they don't rewind in real time.  I really don't think many playwrights and directors get this, or they are really resistant to that message and end up aiming at a tiny elite group within the already elite group of play-goers.*  In overhearing the comments of audience members, I find that many of them can't even grasp things that seem quite telegraphed, let alone complicated time shifts or places where the ground rules of the play have indeed shifted.  It probably is hard to find a middle ground between doing truly artistically liberated free-form theatre and doing dumbed-down work, but I would certainly think trying to set up reasonable internal rules and living with them would be a good starting point.

A slightly different but related issue arises if the playwright is setting the play in a specific time period but then gets sloppy.  This can be trickier than one thinks.  Too many contemporary references definitely date a play quite badly, but some plays don't work that well in an undated "present."  A number of plays that are intimately tied with the AIDS crisis (Angels in America and much of Larry Kramer's work) basically only makes sense in context of the late 80s and early 90s.  This is largely true for Rivera's Marisol as well.  I mean one can totally eliminate slang (which dates faster than anything) but it usually creeps in.

Tony Adams (of Halcyon) pointed out to my chagrin that my play Corporate Codes of Conduct seemed to slip around a bit from early to mid 1990s in terms of the web technology that was being discussed (like how widespread Google would have been).  So I have been meaning for almost a year to simply pick a date and fix any evidence that would contradict that year.  I tried to be a bit more careful with my second play (Dharma Donuts), though that play also needs revisions.

This is really an extension of my disappointment in Bogosian's revisions to subUrbia, which really do not fix the play in a specific year but confuse matters considerably from the original version of the play (which I found much more successful and an organic whole).  I guess I've made my point clear by now...

* I consider myself pretty well versed in theatre, but I found one scene in Soul Samurai to make no chronological (or really internal) sense at all, and it really messed with my enjoyment of the overall play. It's just hard to justify, no matter how much fun the scene might have been to play.

Friday, November 2, 2012

subUrbia -- Bogosian

Earlier this year (July I guess), I had the opportunity to watch Eric Bogosian's subUrbia.  Now many, many years ago I had a chance to see it.  Most likely this would have been late 90s in Chicago, and it didn't strike me as all that compelling -- or perhaps it was that the reviews were lukewarm.  Not really sure.  This might have been the Chicago premiere.  I had enjoyed Talk Radio but wasn't a huge, huge fan of Bogosian.

Anyway, with quite a few years under the bridge, I decided this time around I was interested in going.  Probably one factor is the relative paucity of good theatre here in Vancouver, so you tend to take what you can get ...

Entering the theatre, I was struck by how the company was really going all out to capture the mood.  (The company -- Ninja Pirates Theatre -- does not currently have an active or at least open website, but I will try to update that down the road if it changes.)  The set was the outside of a mini mart, like a 7-11 and you could see a bit of the parking lot and the dumpster in the back.  When the light is on, you can see a bit of the inside of the store. There was even a payphone connected to the side of the building.  This took me back immediately.  It's not that I really hung out that much at the 7-11 or even walked over there that much as a teenager, but it felt like the kind of place that I could have hung out at in the 80s.  On a different note, I have occasionally thought about memorializing the 7-11 on Belmont Ave. in Chicago in a piece of fiction, perhaps with aliens landing in the relatively spacious parking lot (pretty rare for that stretch of Belmont).  The kids that hang out there (at least when I had a chance to observe them in the 90s) were a bit older and generally postpunk.  In fact, though they are more 90s characters, they have a lot in common with the losers that are in Bogosian's script (out of high school, maybe a year or two of community college, little ambition, shitty jobs).  Anyway, the payphone was kind of the clincher, since even in the early 90s, payphones were still essential because everyone had beepers and few had cell phones.  I guess the switch among youngsters was late 90s.  I think even the 7-11 on Belmont has finally gotten rid of its outdoor payphone, though it had one for a long, long time after they started disappearing everywhere else.

The music selected was also quite good, though I don't recall many of the actual songs -- some Nine Inch Nails for sure.  It's a little hard to tell from internal evidence just exactly when this is set (and this may be my next blog post), but probably 1989 or 1990.  (The play was actually first produced in 1994.)  Anyway, the main character (Jeff) starts off by coming across as a liberal mouth piece: he sticks up for the Indian store owner as well as tells his gang of friends not to make fun of homosexuals either.  It seems that he is going to be the person that the typical audience member relates to, but Bogosian is a bit trickier than that.  Jeff kind of goes into this existential rant about how fucked up things are, and this resonated deeply with me, since my very dark world view does stem from thinking that Reagan was going to launch missiles at the U.S.S.R. any day.  I truly thought it was likely (and Kalamazoo was exactly halfway between Chicago and Detroit, so it was somewhere in the third tier of targets for Soviet missiles -- on top of everything else taking out Kalamazoo would disrupt the hordes of folks fleeing either city and taking I-94).  As unreasonable as this is to me now, it deeply colored my childhood and my resulting worldview.  While nuclear war is pretty remote now of course, there are plenty of more tangible and realistic problems facing the world now that worry me.  I guess once a Cassandra, always a Cassandra.  Still, it strikes me that the environmental crises are real and the pessimists are going to be right in the end.

About the only think that was missing from his rant was South Africa, which I thought would have ranked a bit higher from someone who was supposed to be sensitive and tuned into world events (unlike his drop-out friends).  Where I am having trouble is that I am looking over the published script, but it was heavily revised and basically reset to the late 90s, so I can't tell what was on stage (where they were using the original script).  It kind of pisses me off actually.  I think it was a terrible idea to reset the script.

Later it becomes clear that Jeff is a small-town guy, lacking in gumption and who tries to derail the dreams of his artist-girlfriend, Sooze (she wants to move to NYC).  And he is revealed to have relatively little spine in other matters.  I found this pretty annoying, to be honest, that Bogosian is really setting up the audience to have to disassociate themselves from this character, when it is pretty clear he is ostensibly set up as the moral compass of the play.  I suppose Bogosian is making a larger point about liberal-leaning people who then don't or can't "walk the walk," but it still annoyed me.  A guy who was a bit of an outcast, but who has made it big as an indie rock star, turns up and turns everyone's lives upside down.  Jeff in particular starts to look smaller and smaller as his jealousy rages out of control.  Basically no one escapes Bogosian's critical attention, though the rock star and Sooze come across as the least hypocritical.

I will give Bogosian some minor credit in that he introduces not just one, but two guns, into the play -- and neither go off (apologies to Chekhov), despite a couple of stand-offs (involving the Indian store owner, his sister and Tim -- a very messed up Army veteran).  I wasn't totally sold on the ending, which was a bit cliched in a different way, but it did avoid the cliche of a shoot-out, which was where the play seemed to be heading.  Interestingly, Bogosian added a few lines for the Indian clerk's sister at the end, and I did like those, but I disliked all the other changes he made, which only muddied the water for me.  The mid 90s (Bush into Clinton years) and even moreso the late 90s just didn't merit the same kind of existential dread as the late 80s, and I think it messes up the effect of Jeff's speeches.  At one point, one of the characters now has a cell phone but other folks still are using the payphone (and there may even be a beeper involved).  And Jeff is now ranting about iPods rather than Walkmen players.  So the time frame slips all over the place.  Everything is just all scrambled now, and it comes across as a really sloppy revision.  And quite unnecessary frankly (aside perhaps for the extra lines for the Indian clerk's sister, which seem to work). 

Obviously, I am glad that Ninja Pirates decided to go with the original script.  They really did throw themselves into the roles and got a lot of the feel right.  I was hit with a huge wave of nostalgia, since I knew kids (that hung out at the back of the classroom) that basically had limited ambitions and didn't seem to make much of themselves after high school.  I was never part of that crowd, but I could see how Bogosian had really captured them, and the era as well (at least in the original version that I watched).  In a lot of ways, I wouldn't want to return to that era (late 80s).  I guess I wouldn't mind returning to 1995, especially if I could be 25 again (probably my personal high water mark).  But I was definitely sucked into the past and thrashed around there for what seemed like a week after subUrbia.  Don't regret going to see the play, however.