Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Hell you say!

Ashland, Oregon
EIGHT OF US STAY in this house for a week, seeing plays. We don’t always see eye to eye, and yesterday was one of those days. We saw two plays: a very new one called Gibraltar in the afternoon, a very old one — well, maybe not all that new — in the evening.

Thing is, many of the objections to the new play could have been lodged against the old one. Narrator kept getting between play and audience. Events seemed contrived. Characters spoke in language not entirely convincing. Playwright seemed concerned with abstractions, not real issues.

And of course it’s not entirely fair to blame Octavio Solis, born in El Paso say forty years ago, for not writing like Christopher Marlowe, born in London say four hundred years earlier. Languages, cultures, milieux, the states of their art — all are immeasurably different. Yet the similarities of their plays invite, nearly demand the comparison.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is of course a cultural icon, precisely because its story centers on a character who stands as a metaphor for a central issue as alive today as it was in the first Elizabeth’s reign — the arrogance of the individual intelligence demanding to pursue knowledge however far it takes him from the ethical, even moral issue of human existence as it grows organically out of its natural context.

The issue is perhaps more meaningful, more dire today than even in Marlowe’s day, when Europe was poised to “discover,” subdue, and exploit a full half of Earth, made available only a lifetime earlier through unimaginable developments in human knowledge and technology.

Marlowe’s genius lay in his lucky opportunity to bring the new flourish of the modern English language — and the metropolitan conventions and resources of London’s theater — to this utterly new situation, at the same time close enough to the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation — and the final flowering of medieval alchemy — to weave elements of those immense issues into his narrative.

Solis’s problem lies in the near-impossibility of bring the very similar ingredients of his own heritage — born in El Paso, witness to the culture clashes of Latino and mainstream white American “values,” not to mention the essential triviality of social-status and -class signifiers — to life in a play contrived, essentially, I think, in order to develop a concept: namely, that a significant evening of theater — one with relevance to similarly big cultural issues in a society undergoing similarly critical change and collisions — can be generated out of an ongoing interaction between playwright and actors, with the facilitation of what is arguably the most important repertory theater company in the country.

WE SAW GIBRALTAR in the small “New Theater,” which seats only a couple of hundred people in a very flexible house set, this time, in a very deep three-sided thrust configuration. The set was striking: a loft apartment in San Francisco, with only a double mattress and a couple of chairs to furnish it; at the back a huge window looking across the dark night San Francisco Bay toward the lights of the East Bay hills. On the floor, curving lines making a grid connecting with the mullions of that huge window, which opened like a garage door from time to time to facilitate the intrusion of the next scene.

For Gibraltar is an episodic play, held together by a framing story for two actors: a Latino man following his runaway bride up the sandy coast from Mexico; a Chicana woman mourns the apparently meaningless suicide of her husband. The central issue is rebellion against these meaningless deaths and departures: what might we have done to prevent them.

The narrative is fleshed out by three skits, I would call them, or one-act narratives, a drama prof might say: an aging sculptor and her handsome model (the son of a man she’d not had nerve to commit to years before); a normal-guy cop and his wife-turned-Lesbian; a wildlife journalist caring for a wife with Alzheimer’s irresistibly tempted by the artist he hires to help her through art therapy.

The result is a disappointment, another exercise in What-If. The play could conceivably be saved, be developed into an integrated, fully achieved study in parallel lives, something like that recent movie/book that brought Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway into early-21st-century American life, for those unable to accept and enjoy it on its own terms.

But it is terminally frustrated by two flaws. First, instead of showing us a theatrical series of events, it continually gives us someone telling us about them, then only apparently grudgingly illustrating the story with two-dimensional characters.

Second, and more fatally perhaps, the language is banal, overblown, and off-kilter. No one talks as anyone would. A friend said the whole thing sounded translated from the Romanian.

Worst of all, another friend said it was a play that hadn’t needed to be written.

BUT THEN, YESTERDAY EVENING, we took our seats in the Elizabethan Theater for The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. I admit that given the heat, the lack of sleep, the quantity of food and drink, I dozed off from time to time in the first act — in spite of the brilliant acting, the costumes, the poetry. In Act II, though, there was little chance for sleep. Try as I might I was distracted by the gathering weight of Marlowe’s theater, of James Edmondson’s directing, of Richard Hay’s scenic design, of Robert Peterson’s lighting, of Marie Chiment’s costumes — most of all, of the amazing power, pace, subtlety, and persuasion of Jonathan Haugen’s acting in the title role.

Some friends complained of repetitiousness. I don’t buy that. Marlowe’s pace is not that of the American 21st century, any more than is Bruckner’s. The nearest contemporary American equivalents I can think of, off the top of my head, to Marlowe’s theatrical genius, are Robert Wilson and, before him, Gertrude Stein. There was a moment toward the end of the play when all Hell was breaking loose on stage — quite literally — and Ray Porter, as Mephistophilis, was sitting motionless downstage right, in profile, the left side of his face picked out by a subtle spotlight. You could see one play beyond him, another epitomized by, centered on, that amazing meaningless fascinating inexpressive face.

All my own ego was drawn out of my body; I was beyond sympathy and terror. Marlowe was simply saying WHAT IT IS. When mankind reaches too far beyond his own position within the natural order of things, when he goes beyond what he knows organically and intuitively as you might say, when he dares to reach for things he can only know through artificial technology and the paranatural knowledge those tools reveal to him, he's in deep trouble. Marlowe wrote this, and the entire Oregon Shakespeare Festival had understood it, and relayed it on to us.

I wouldn’t mind seeing this a second time.

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