Tony Award

Drama Review: Oslo by J. T. Rogers

A social scientist and his diplomat wife decided to change the world. While embarking on the quest to do so, they expanded the boundaries of the word quixotic. After witnessing the fear in eyes of two child soldiers firsthand, Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul chose to seek a lasting peace in the Middle East on their own. Now here’s the really bizarre part: their back-channel efforts led to the Oslo Accords of 1993. J. T. Rogers’ Tony Award Winning play delivered a fictitious take on their efforts.

To borrow an expression from the musical Hamilton , Oslo presented readers with a seat in “the room where it happens.” The playwright allowed his audience to witness for themselves the negotiation process that takes place with international agreements. Mr. Rogers selected a very unconventional back-channel, in the forms of an idealistic couple and some unorthodox diplomats. That made the story much more interesting and engaging.

The author described his work as, “a scrupulously researched, meticulously written fiction.” (Page X) I enjoyed the inclusion of such famous historical figures as Ahmed Qurie (the PLO’s Finance Minister) and Shimon Peres (the Israeli Foreign Minister). Although not actually a character in the play itself, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s presence injected itself into the narrative.

I enjoyed the way the playwright humanized his figures. Simon Peres liked to begin conversations with a story. Ahmed Qurie expressed his love for his daughter. Terje and Mona’s marriage felt the strain of their seemingly naïve quest to end hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

I also liked the witty way the author injected humor into the narrative. He included a few jokes that while referencing other cultures, didn’t come across as offensive or objectionable. That’s quite a delicate balance, but he executed it extraordinarily well.

The play’s major strength also became its biggest weakness. At times I found it difficult to read through 115 pages of diplomatic exchanges. Mr. Rogers varied the pace as well as he could by bringing in new characters to serve as negotiators. Through them, he interjected new sources of conflict into the story. Still, a few hours reading about the intricacies of international diplomacy may not appeal to some booklovers.

J. T. Rogers presented a realistic description of history’s perhaps most unconventional diplomatic undertaking. While the Oslo Accords didn’t achieve an enduring peace in the Middle East, the playwright still found a hopeful lesson from the entire process. Perhaps, someday events will provide the author with a more positive ending for a sequel. After all, no one thought an idealistic Norwegian couple could’ve come this close to ending the conflict less than 25 years ago.

perhaps

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God of Carnage by Yasmin Reza Translated by Christopher Hampton

With God of Carnage, Yasmin Reza put the drama into drama. The playwright utilized the perfect formula to do so. First, she created four quirky characters who didn’t like each other very much. Then she placed them in a confined space. To enhance the set-up she added a story spark that would lead to conflict among them. One enteraining and disconcerting play resulted.

I first have to credit the playwright for the pace. At first God of Carnage began as a civil discussion between two sets of parents. The Novak’s 11 year-old son hit the other family’s child in the mouth with a stick. The latter lost two teeth over the incident. These children’s fathers and mothers opted to have a diplomatic meeting regarding the matter. They began by calmly discussing how best to rectify the situation. As the evening progressed, their personalities became the main obstacles to reaching an understanding.

In the course of evaluating the situation the grown-ups exhibited some issues of their own. Alan, the father of the attacking boy, happened to work as an attorney. Interesting enough, he mentioned having to leave town the next day for the International Criminal Court. He represented the pharmaceutical industry in a different matter. The child’s mother, Annette suffered from a nervous stomach and, dare I write, enjoyed a bit of a nip on occasion.

Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with the immortal line about every unhappy family being unique. That description would well-suit the Novaks. Michael worked an “ordinary job” and harbored dark thoughts regarding family life. Veronica earned a living by “writing” primarily regarding injustice in Africa. A bit of an elitist, she took her children to concerts and introduced them to art. She told her guests, “We’re eccentric enough to believe in the soothing powers of culture!” (Page 14) Ms Reza used the remainder of the play to show that naïve would’ve been a better word than eccentric.

This dialog occurred a little over ten pages into my version of the book. At that point in the reading I knew: the train wreck’s coming; a really, really nasty one.

I found God of Carnage an outstanding theatrical work. I would strongly encourage people to either read it or watch it performed. Because of that I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s enjoyment by giving away spoilers. I would mention how brilliantly the playwright crafted the Alan character. I loved how he became progressively more wedded to his cell phone as the play progressed. In the midst of serious discussions about the children, he repeatedly broke off from the conversation to discuss a business matter with colleagues. The way he dropped the f-bomb in front of everyone during one of the conversations was priceless.

The author showed extraordinary skill at foreshadowing…and displaying hypocrisy. Early in the evening Anette told the Novaks: “We can’t get involved in our children’s quarrels.” (Page 15) Very, very shortly thereafter she changed her view. It turned out the other child verbally offended her son prior to the altercation.

Annette:…(embarrassed pause.) Something occurred to me in the bathroom…

Veronica: Yes?

Annette: Perhaps we skated too hastily over…I mean…What I mean is…

Michael: Say it, Annette, say it.

Annette: An insult is a kind of assault.

Michael: Of course it is.

Veronica: Well, that depends, Michael.

Michael: Yes. It depends.

Annette: Benjamin’s never shown any signs of violence. He wouldn’t have done that without a reason.

Alan: He got called a snitch! (Pages 23 – 24)

At this point the action degenerated into Lord of the Flies with a grown-up cast. While I found the play very amusing, Ms. Reza earned credit for her trenchant depiction of human nature at its worst. During one of his numerous cell phone conversations, Alan told his wife, “Annette, right now I’m risking my most important client so this responsible parent routine…” (Page 20)

Keep in mind all this occurred PRIOR to the couples passing around the bottle of rum. Not the best idea at this point, but, after all, these weren’t the most responsible people. The alcohol really allowed the characters to release their inhibitions.

Michael: What I always say is, marriage: the most terrible ordeal God can inflict on you.

Annette: Great.

Michael: Marriage, and children. (Page 32)

Now, Michael could have stopped there, but no. He decided to elucidate his point even further.

Children consume our lives and then destroy them. Children drag us toward disaster; it’s unavoidable. When you see those laughing couples casting off into the sea of matrimony, you say to yourself, they have no idea, poor things, they just have no idea, they’re happy. No one tells you anything when you start out. I have an old school buddy who’s just about to have a child with his new girlfriend. I said to him, a child, at our age, are you insane? The ten or twelve good years we have left before cancer or a stroke, and you’re going to screw yourself up with some brat? (Page 33)

Not to be outdone, Alan shared his own enlightening view of the human condition with the group.

They’re young, they’re kids. Kids have always given each other a good beating during recess…I believe in the god of carnage. He has ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time. (Page 35)

Many adjectives could describe God of Carnage, entertaining would serve as my first choice. It did have a much more serious side to it. Ms. Reza used a school yard fight as a catalyst for a disturbing journey into the basest aspects of human nature. It’s one of those stories readers can enjoy for the simple reason they can close the book and walk away from the madness. They also don’t need to worry about the Novaks or Raleighs ever watching their kids.

Drama Review – All the Way by Robert Schenkkan

What Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did for film, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way did for the theatre. Both works followed the journeys of American Chief Executives in the quest to pass revolutionary civil rights legislation. Mr. Schenkkan selected a much more controversial public servant for his story. While today Lyndon Baines Johnson takes the majority of blame for escalating the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam Conflict, the playwright chose to focus on the pinnacle of his domestic achievements: the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As the child of a Vietnam Veteran, I grew up exposed to a negative take on America’s 36th President. Robert A. Caro’s four-volume (to date) biography of Johnson introduced me to his myriad complexities as both a politician and a person. I read Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning play All the Way curious to discover his take on the nation’s most significant post-war leader. It didn’t disappoint.

This biographical work explored Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first year as the nation’s chief executive. It encompassed his first moments in the Presidency following the Kennedy assassination through his election to the office in 1964. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill served as the main story line. The play contained myriad conflict. It illustrated Johnson’s superb managing of civil rights leaders, his subordinates and reactionary Southern Democrats to get the proposal enacted into law. This made for a very engaging and tense read.

The playwright clearly performed his research. I found the portrayal of his protagonist accurate. Several times I felt like I was sharing a drink with the former President at the Johnson Ranch. I could envision LBJ saying things such as, “You can tell that Liberal crowd of yours, I’m gonna out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln!” (Location 523) and “’Politics is war by other means.’ Bullshit. Politics is war…You’re not running for office. You’re running for your life. You’re trying to cheat death.” (Location 1729)

The rattlesnake story sounded like vintage Johnson, too.

Knew a good ole boy once, caught a rattlesnake bare-handed on a dare. Stood there with that big ole thing wrapped around his arm, head snapping this way and that, with this stupid look on his face, saying “Wow! It’s a whole lot easier to catch one of these critters than it is to let it go.” (Location 605)

In Caro’s biography he quoted one person as saying, “Some people read books. Johnson read men.” Mr. Schenkkan incorporated this uncanny understanding of human nature in the drama. Here’s the President’s assessment of Senate Minority Leader Republican Everett Dirksen as told to the Floor Manager of the Civil Rights Bill: Senator Hubert Humphrey.

Let me tell you about Senator Everett Dirksen. That man is in love with himself; in love with his voice. Did you know that every day he gargles with warm water and Pond’s beauty cream? I shit you not. Now, a man like that wants one thing—he wants to be a “Great Man.” And you’re gonna give him every opportunity to do just that. Every chance you get, you praise Dirksen, you thank Dirksen. You’re gonna kiss his ass so much, he won’t be able to sit down. He wants the spotlight? Give it to him. Six months from now, all anybody will remember is that the Democratic Party passed a historic civil rights bill. (Location 1324)

The author included several famous figures among the characters; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover among them. I enjoyed the following exchange between him and LBJ. It took place following a male Presidential aide’s arrest for lewd behavior with another man. As the scandal occurred so close to the election, Johnson worried it would impact him at the polls.

LBJ: CLEAN UP YOUR MESS! I worked with that man for twenty-five years. Not a clue. (A threat.) How do you know when somebody’s that way?

J. Edgar Hoover: Well, well, there are certain signs; mannerisms. The way a man dresses or combs his hair. Or walks kind of funny.

LBJ: News to me. I’m not questioning you; I’m sure you’d know—In your line of work, I mean. Take care of this. (Location 2707)           

LBJ noted during the play: “What’s the point of bein’ President if you can’t do what you know is right?” (Location 1414) Later he added, “People think I want great power, but what I want is great solace; a little love. That’s all I want.” (Location 2433) Abraham Lincoln once commented that upon serving in the Presidency he found only “ashes and blood.” After reading All the Way, the same could be said for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Instead of adapting LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan for the play’s title, a version of the Chinese curse “may you get what you wish for” may have been more appropriate.

Drama Review – Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris

Through Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris delved into the deceptively complex nuances that comprise discrimination. To elucidate this uncomfortable theme he divided the play into two acts: the first occurred in late 1959 and the second too place during the modern era. He utilized housing as a framework to explore the topic. A difficult, although enlightening, work resulted.

I found Clybourne Park a very challenging read, and not simply due to the subject matter. The first act was fairly straight-forward in terms of the story and theme. Mr. Norris did add a bit of twist by alluding to the couple’s son’s situation. While this portion of the play came across as rather facile to follow, the playwright introduced a bit of intricacy through the following quote:

Karl: Now, Russ, you know as well as I do that this is a progressive community. (Location 1385)

The second act confused me a bit. I found the theme much more difficult to comprehend. The more I reflected on the narrative I thought that may have been the playwright’s purpose. In the modern era themes of racism and discrimination aren’t as blatant as they were prior to the Civil Rights Movement. While a clever method of approaching the subject, it took me a while to follow the drama’s direction.

I also thought the explanation of the meeting in Act II took place too late in the story. Lindsey commented, “I mean, the demolition was scheduled to start on Monday and unless we get this resolved which I want as much as anyone then what do people expect?” (Location 3871) I interpreted the way the playwright added this passage as ‘info dump.’

I applaud the playwright for addressing such an unpleasant topic. I also respect the clever way he crafted this piece. Mr. Norris instructed that the actors who played the characters in Act I play different characters in Act II. With that noted had I watched the play performed it may have been easier for me to understand all the show’s intricacies.

Clybourne Park contained some well-written passages. I especially enjoyed the following semi-humorous one:

Russ: (continued) –if you do keep going on about those things, Jim, well, I hate to have to put it this way, but what I think I might have to do is…uh, politely ask you to uh, (clears his throat)…well, to go fuck yourself. (Pause.)

Jim: Not sure there’s a polite way to ask that. (Location 828)

The author also included dialog that expounded on the topic’s nuances.

Lena: And some of our concerns have to do with a particular period in history and the things that people experienced here in this community during that period–…

Both good and bad, and on a personal level? I just have a lot of respect for the people who went through those experiences and still managed to carve out a life for themselves and create a community despite a whole lot of obstacles?…

Some of which still exist. That’s just a part of my history and my parents’ history—and honoring the connection to that history—and, no one, myself included, likes having to dictate what you can and can’t do with your own home, but there’s just a lot of pride, and a lot of memories in these houses, and for some of us, that connection still has value, if that makes any sense? (Location 3282)

The Steve character added another memorable comment regarding the subject’s complexities.

Steve: But that’s the thing, right? If you construct some artificial semblance of a community, and then isolate people within that—I mean, what would be the definition of a ghetto, you know? A ghetto is a place, Where—(Location 3463)

I had one major criticism of the play. Both Acts I and II opened with trivial and banal discussions. Characters at the begging of both engaged in trivial discussions regarding various world capitals. I found this palaver boring. It took me out of the story and I started skimming the text. Because of this I may have missed key plot points.

In spite of that one flaw, Mr. Norris performed an exceptional job making the whole story cohesive. I liked the way he concluded it by bringing readers (and audiences) back to the beginning. This showed me the playwright really thought out the story.

Mr. Norris explored an uncomfortable topic in an intellectually engaging way. For his efforts, Clybourne Park received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. While a difficult read both for content and structure, it’s worth the time to explore.

 

Drama Review – The Great White Hope by Harold Sackler

After suffering through the incoherent gibberish that passed for dialog in the Rocky movies, I never would’ve thought boxing as a good subject for drama. The late Howard Sackler proved otherwise. Perhaps, that’s because The Great White Hope isn’t really about boxing. In this masterpiece of the stage the playwright explored one man’s battles against society, racism and fundamentally, himself. A transcendent work resulted.

Based on a true story, the play told the tale of Jack Jefferson, an African-American prizefighter during the early twentieth century. The character flaunted the era’s cultural taboos with abandon. He defeated a white boxer, nicknamed “The White Hope”, for the title. He abandoned his common-law wife. He had a white girlfriend. His unorthodox behavior led authorities to frame him for a dubious crime. Mr. Jefferson’s exploits made for a most engaging read.

I liked the drama’s pace. Most award winning plays focus on the characters’ relationships. The Great White Hope contained much of that, but Mr. Sackler managed to work in a lot of action. Even during a press conference the playwright fit in multiple occurrences. After Mr. Jefferson’s controversial expressions to the media, his estranged wife, Clara, burst in and interrupted. During a party members of the temperance movement interfered. It seemed fitting that all this activity and conflict would appear in a show about boxing.

Mr. Sackler crafted genuine dialog. He did a nice job of adding some sports “trash talk” to the narrative.

Press One: You starting to get jumpy?

Jack: Yeah. I scared Brady gonna change his mind…

Smitty: So you think you can take him, Jack?

Jack: Well, I ain’t sayin’ I can take him straight off—an anyway, dat be kina mean, you know, all them people, big holiday fight—how they gonna feel I send ‘em home early? (Page 21)

Then Jack used a decidedly “modern” insult against his opponent.

Press Two: What about that yellow streak Brady talks about?

Jack: (Turns u. and flips up his robe.) Yeah, you wanna see it? (Page 21)             Jack spoke in a dialect. It corresponded with a man in his profession. It may assist some to read the dialog out loud. Sounding the words will make them more understandable than just reading the text.

A certain racial epithet appeared numerous times in the play. Because of the time period and the characters speaking, it fit the story. I would caution sensitive readers that it may offend them.

While I appreciated the author’s language usage in these cases, I found other places it could’ve improved. Part of the story occurred in Europe. Because of that in several scenes characters spoke in foreign languages. I understood the effect the playwright wanted, but would’ve preferred to follow the conversations instead.

The one aspect I thought Mr. Sackler could’ve improved concerned the fight scenes themselves. In the one at the end of the story, several people looking in from outside narrated the action. To be fair to the writer, it’s difficult to stage a multi-round fight during the course of a show. The method he chose did successfully move the story forward without dragging it.

Mr. Sackler also included some deft symbolism. The main fight occurred on the Fourth of July. While the playwright based the protagonist on the real-life boxer Jack Johnson, Jack Jefferson shared the surname of a beloved Founding Father. These traits showed that the boxing match held much more significance than a normal sporting contest.

I’m glad I went the distance and finished reading this play. After all, it was a knockout with the critics when it first appeared in 1969. It won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its message still hits home today. For that, readers and audiences are the real champions.

Drama Review – Amadeus by Peter Shaffer

The term masterpiece often gets overused into banality in our society. Applying it to Amadeus would be underutilizing it. Fans of great drama and historical fiction can appreciate this offering on multiple levels. It included quirky characters, phenomenal conflict and an unparalleled story line.

Through Amadeus, Mr. Shaffer presented the story of Antonio Salieri: a bitter, selfish narcissist who would defy his God in order to achieve greatness. He manifested this quest through the destruction of an unwitting rival. Initially, this character lived a pious existence devoted to the Lord. I found Mr. Shaffer’s story a bit of a twist on the Faust legend. Instead of selling his soul to the devil, the composer consecrated his life to the Almighty. In return he expected his deity to make him the greatest musician of his day. I found this very interesting coming from a character who acknowledged and indulged in his own gluttony.

This sanctimonious bargain sustained Salieri until a prodigy named Mozart entered the scene. The latter character possessed crass and immature mannerisms; undignified traits for a composer. He also had an unparalleled gift for music. As Salieri himself noted upon listening to his work,

It seemed to me I had heard a voice of God—and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard—and it was the voice of an obscene child! (Page 28)

The Marquis de Sade created a character named Lord Gramwell. This individual sought to violate every social taboo society held. That’s pretty evil. Shaffer’s Salieri gave the ignoble noble a true run for his money. He pursued every conceivable act he could to eliminate his rival. His reason for doing so made him horrifying.

The title made this play an exceptional work of art. Not only did it share Mozart’s middle name it also referenced the traditional meaning of the word. Amadeus translates to “love of God.” Through original writing, the playwright wove this into the story’s main theme.

There are three types of conflict an author may pursue: person against person, person against nature or person against God. Mr. Shaffer chose the latter for this piece. Salieri expressed the following thoughts to conclude Act I.

When I return I’ll tell you about the war I fought with God through his preferred creature—Mozart named Amadeus. In the waging of which, of course, this Creature had to be destroyed. (Page 60)

Nice guy. It’s interesting that on the surface the play seemed to be a semi-autobiographical story about Mozart. Salieri’s conflict with God became the real focus of the drama.

The show’s resolution confused me a bit. In the end, Salieri regretted his eradication of Mozart. In spite of this, he still elevated himself above other people. Earlier in the play he explained the difference between his and his rival’s approaches to music. “We were both ordinary men he and I. Yet he from the ordinary created legends—and I from legends created only the ordinary.” (Page 83) At the end of the play he referred to himself as, “Antonio Salieri: Patron Saint of Mediocrities.” (Page 117) For his last line he commented, “Mediocrities everywhere—now and to come—I absolve you all. Amen!” (Page 118) Even when associating himself with “average” people, the composer needed to feel superior to them. His conferring upon himself the ability to forgive placed himself on the same level as a deity.

Salieri may not have achieved the greatness he craved, but Amadeus did. For Mr. Shaffer’s outstanding work, the play received the Tony Award Winner for Best Play in 1981. I read the playwright’s sixth version of Amadeus. No need for Salieri to absolve him. Even after the show’s very successful initial run the playwright continued revising it. He deserves tremendous credit for his continued commitment to making his work the best it could be. Mr. Shaffer didn’t destroy other plays or playwrights in the process, either.

Drama Review – Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade presented the most original take on the “play-within-a-play” concept that I’ve ever read. The fictitious historical drama described the events leading up to the bloodthirsty firebrand of the French Revolution’s assassination. One of literature’s more infamous writers penned the work. An asylum served as the setting. Should I even continue with this review? I’d be surprised if a number of readers haven’t logged off to find a copy of the book by now.

Mr. Weiss selected a rather verbose title. Most refer to The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by the abbreviated Marat/Sade. While lengthy I give the playwright credit: the drama corresponded with what I expected from the label.

That’s where the ‘easy’ reading ended, however. As someone familiar with both the French Revolution and de Sade’s writing, I anticipated a philosophical take on the historical events surrounding this pivotal event in human history. Once again, the playwright didn’t disappoint. He presented a deep intellectual exploration of conditions during the Revolution in 1793 when the Marat story occurred. He then contrasted them to French life on the fifteenth anniversary of Marat’s murder when de Sade directed the play. Mr. Weiss cleverly inserted his own leftist views into the 1965 text, too. The Herald character noted:

The Revolution came and went

And unrest was replaced by discontent. (Page 26)

Four of the asylum’s patients followed this up with their thoughts.

Patient: We’ve got rights the right to starve

Patient: We’ve got jobs waiting for work

Patient: We’re all brothers lousy and dirty

Patient: We’re all free and equal to die like dogs (Page 26)

While I disagree with Mr. Weiss’ political leanings I respect his excellent use of subtext.

I didn’t read the play in the original German. Geoffrey Skelton’s English translation contained some outstanding usage of language.

I found Marat’s assassin’s–Charlotte Corday’s—view of her target expressed exceptionally well. In the following dialog she alluded to Marat’s medicinal baths where he wrote his invectives calling for more and more violence.

Corday (sleepily and hesitantly): Poor Marat in your bathtub

Your body soaked, saturated with poison

 (waking up)

Poison spurting from your hiding place

Poisoning the people

Arousing them to looting and murder. (Page 30)

I liked the interesting way of describing his venomous words.

Marat described his country’s upheaval in unflattering terms.

We stand here more oppressed than when we began

(Points across the auditorium)

And they think the Revolution’s been won. (Page 56)

Mr. Weiss’ used the character of the Marquis de Sade in amusing ways. Not only did he write and direct the play-within-the-play he also took part in it. Several times he interjected his own views on the subject; in some cases directly speaking to the Marat character. Sade opined the following on the killing of aristocrats.

Look at them Marat

These men who once owned everything

See how they turn their defeat into victory

Now that their pleasures have been taken away

The guillotine saves them from endless boredom

Gaily they offer their heads as if for coronation

Is that not the pinnacle of perversion (Page 41)

I enjoyed the touch of irony with the character’s use of that final word.

De Sade also explained his thoughts on public opinion to his protagonist.

Marat

Today they need you because you are going to suffer for them

They need you and they honor the urn which holds your ashes

Tomorrow they will come back and they will smash that urn

And they will ask

Marat who was Marat (Page 71)

While not expressed in the text, I wonder if those words hurt Marat more than Ms. Corday’s dagger.

I thought the playwright used exposition too liberally in the play. It opened with the asylum’s director (Coulmier) delivering a prologue. The character explained the setting, the date and the set-up as well as other aspects of the Marat/Sade show. Later in the drama, various characters from Marat’s past described various aspects of his personality during his formative years. While already familiar with the story of Marat’s assassination, I would’ve preferred the playwright interspersed these incidents into the narrative itself. A parade of characters coming on stage to talk about the main character stopped the story too abruptly for me.

I’d also encourage readers unfamiliar with Marat to learn about him before reading. Those lacking knowledge about his publication L’Ami du people, his murder by Charlotte Corday and his medicinal baths won’t understand the story. Some background in the Marquis de Sade’s political philosophy and writings would help in that regard, as well. Reading Marat/Sade with this context would give the play more impact as it’s cerebral instead of action driven.

Marat/Sade succeeded on multiple levels. It presented a philosophical take on political and social conditions in Revolutionary France with parallels to the modern era. The playwright framed them through the perceptions of two of history’s most notorious figures. It impressed me that he achieved all this using the play-within-a-play technique. I enjoyed reading and would welcome the opportunity to watch it performed. I won’t do either of those things from a bathtub, though.

Drama Review – Equus by Peter Shaffer

Equus contained the most unusual trifecta in the history of theatre. In this Tony Award winning play, Peter Shaffer combined these disparate themes: the merits of psychiatry, sexual repression and equine deification. This is just the short list of themes the playwright addressed. The drama certainly earned the litany of awards it received for creativity alone.

A real life event inspired the play. A friend of Mr. Schaffer’s related a story of a young man who blinded several horses. Without learning the actual reason for this bizarre crime, the playwright took creative license and delivered his own take using a similar though fictitious incident. Equus resulted.

I found the play very complex and recondite. It’s not a light-hearted yarn about horses, that’s for sure. It’s an exploration of Alan Strang’s mind as discovered through his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart. The doctor attempted to uncover the troubled teen’s motivations for his heinous crime. While doing so, Dysart also ruminated on his own profession’s capability to ‘help’ people by ‘curing’ them. As he observed, “Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.” (Page 109) I told you this play had depth to it.

While I have yet to watch Equus performed on stage, the set-up described by the playwright intrigued me. He wrote:

All the cast of Equus sits on stage the entire evening. They get up to perform their scenes, and return when they are done to their places around the set. They are witnesses, assistants—and especially a Chorus. (Page 3)

I also liked how he directed that actors play the roles of horses. The use of people as opposed to props no doubt enhances the drama. Based on the religious references in the play I suspect he had a symbolic reason for that as well.

As I indicated earlier, Equus would perplex general readers due to its unusual story and theatrical staging. Because of these traits I found the play more symbolic than an actual telling of a story.

The dramatis personae seemed more like symbols than characters. (For more of my thoughts on this technique read my reviews of both the theatrical production and novel version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.) Jill Mason served as the sole believable character in the drama. Mr. Shaffer crafted her as a flirtatious teenaged girl. Both Alan’s father’s hypocrisy and his mother’s religious fanaticism seemed contrived. Although he crafted the latter more measured than the former. I interpreted Alan as primarily source material for Dyson’s monologues. This made it very difficult for me to suspend my disbelief while reading the play.

I really despised the choice to open with the psychiatrist’s soliloquy. This struck me as cliché. I didn’t care for this type of beginning in John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God and I didn’t care for it in this story. (I should note that Equus premiered six years prior to the other show.) To be fair: the playwright presented a much wider take on Dyson’s views regarding Alan’s mental state throughout the drama. Of course, we writers know none of that matters if you lose the audience from the beginning.

I’ve heard of the horse whisperer, but the horse worshipper!? For this reason among others Equus wouldn’t appeal to all audiences. For those interested in an intricate psychological journey, it may be worth the read. All others would be better served cleaning a stable.

Drama Review – The Humans by Stephen Karam

All those dreading Thanksgiving dinner with relatives should be thankful they’re not spending it with the Blake family. Stephen Karam presented readers the opportunity to sit in on this dysfunctional household’s holiday celebration in this 2016 Tony Award winner for best play: The Humans.

Due to the way this family presented themselves, several times I had to refer back to the title to clarify that I was reading about people. The Humans originated from Richard’s recollection of a sci-fi comic book he read as a child. In it the monsters told scary stories to each other. While Earthlings prefer to tell horrific accounts regarding monsters, these creatures frightened each other by telling tales about humans. After reading this play, I wouldn’t be surprised if this abnormal Blake family Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t among them.

The playwright constructed this piece brilliantly. He managed to translate normal patterns of speech and conversation to the page better than any I’d ever read. In the opening notes, Mr. Karam explained that the “/” in the text signified that the character with the next line of dialog began his/her speech at that point. This caused characters to interrupt and speak over one another quite often. With the nature of the conversations this made the discussions very believable.

I always look for non-verbal communication whenever I review a play. I liked how this playwright gave actors plenty of opportunities to exhibit their skills on the stage. Any dialog he bracketed by the symbols “[ ]” meant that the performer would express that line non-verbally. Here an example that would challenge any thespian:

Dierdre: Anything I say makes her [annoyed]… (Page 56)

This one is rather difficult as well.

Brigid: Ahhh….[will we make it through dinner?] Page 63

I’d like the opportunity to watch someone try and animate this line.

Erik: …coupla nights I’ve had this [recurring dream]…there’ll be a woman… Page 74

Mr. Karam also utilized this device to add tension to the narrative. Here are some fantastic examples.

Richard: What?

Erik: …[no, nothing important] Page 41

And

Erik: (Smiling, to Brigid) [Man you’re a piece of work.] Page 55

Here’s an exchange following Deidre’s comment about trying to maintain her diet during the holidays.

Brigid: Especially if you eat a bucket of ranch dip before dinner.

Aimee: [Don’t say stuff like that…] (Page 95)

The animosity expressed between Brigid and Aimee enhanced the subtext. Here’s another superb instance.

Aimee: (to Brigid) [Why are you being such a bitch?] (Page 99)

Towards the end of the play, Erik delivered the line that best summed up the narrative.

Erik: Hey, sorry this was…[a total fucking nightmare]…(Erik goes to embrace Deirdre.) (Page 139)

As one can guess from the examples cited, a lot of hostility flowed beneath the surface at this holiday meal. Mr. Karam’s inclusion of quirky characters struggling with both external and internal conflicts enhanced the stress. In the process of losing her job while failing to cope with her soul mate’s breaking-up with her, Aimee’s ulceritic colitis flared up at dinner. Her sister Brigid recently realized that her life’s sole professional ambition was about to elude her. Their grandmother “Momo” Blake’s progressive dementia rendered her more rambling and incoherent. Their parents, Erik and Deirdre, struggled with some underlying difficulties of their own. Brigid’s boyfriend Richard, twelve years her senior at the age of 38, provided the outsider’s view of this family.

With all this drama within the drama, The Humans would seem like a very difficult work to read. The playwright’s skillful dialog and clever insertions of humor at the right times made it readable. I found the play very interesting, entertaining and difficult to put down. Part of the latter may have been an interest in seeing the magnitude of the impending “train wreck.” To be fair to the author: he penned a very engaging and well-written work for the stage.

Mr. Karam added some excellent lyrical passages to the text. The most memorable included:

Erik: (To Brigid who is still angry with him.) Hey, hey. I don’t want to see you bent outta shape over something you can fix. / The Blakes bounce back, that’s what we do. (Page 110)

I thought it clever how Brigid cut Eric off when he reached the part about the “Blakes bouncing back.”

Richard: I got to reboot my life. It was good…

Erik: I dunno. Doing life twice seems like the only thing worse than doing it once. (Page 113)

While these quotes reflected negativity, the author did include a somewhat positive observation. It’s a line that would apply to anyone in pursuit of a dream. Here’s Erik’s sound advice to Brigid.

Erik: -you’re lucky to have a passion to pursue, if you don’t care about it enough to push through this setback you should quit and do something else… (Page 109)

As Thanksgiving approaches I’m sure some readers are dreading sharing the table with someone (s)he doesn’t like. I’d advise such people to read The Humans beforehand just to understand the situation could be much, much worse. For those interested in exceptional drama, this play is a phenomenal read. Those not anxious about the upcoming holiday may want to wait until after Thanksgiving to peruse it, though. The writing made the play so realistic it could cause sensitive readers to lose their appetites.

Drama Review – The Goat, or Who is Sylvia by Edward Albee

“Something can happen that’s outside the rules, that doesn’t relate to the way The Game is Played.” (Location 1078) That one line serves as a good synopsis of Edward Albee’s Tony Award winning play, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Imagine, if you will, Martin’s wife Stevie discovering that her husband had been unfaithful. While marital infidelity would be an appropriate topic for a tragedy, the playwright opted to take the drama much further. The object of Martin’s affections wasn’t another woman; or even another man, for that matter. Instead, Martin had fallen for…well, let me allow him to describe his feelings.

(Slow; deliberate) “And what I felt was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was so…amazing. There she was.” (Location 1496)

…She was looking at me with those eyes of hers and…I melted, I think. I think that’s what I did: I melted. (Location 1507)

I’d never seen such an expression. It was pure…and trusting and…and innocent; so…so guileless. (Location 1507)

Mr. Albee used this play as a vehicle for exploring social taboos. I only wish he’d chosen a less taboo subject with which to do so. The above lines came from Martin’s confession to Stevie that he’d fallen in love with a (ugh) goat.

In spite of the unorthodox nature of the story, the playwright managed to work in some humor. Here’s another exchange between Martin and Stevie. In this one Martin explained his (ugh) attraction to Sylvia.

Martin: …that she and I were…(Softly; embarrassed) that she and I were going to go to bed together.

Stevie: To stall together! To hay! Not to bed. (Location 1607)

The playwright added another complexion to this situation. He made the couple’s son Billy a homosexual. At one point he told his father:

…you’ve figured out that raising a kid does not include making him into a carbon copy of you, that you’re letting me think you’re putting up with me being gay far better than you probably are. (Location 1879) 

This enhanced the drama in that Martin didn’t feel totally comfortable with his son’s sexuality. This at the same time he pursued a (ugh) physical relationship with a goat.

In the text Martin noted, “So that’s what it comes down to, eh?…what we can get away with?” (Location 2060) Mr. Albee could’ve described the play itself with these words. While a very unorthodox work, even based on what I’d expect from Edward Albee, I enjoyed reading it. As I suspect many readers would, I found the situation bizarre. The playwright still crafted believable dialog. His deft interjections of humor helped make the unsettling topic a little easier to handle. It took a very gifted playwright to accomplish all this.

Obviously, this drama won’t appeal to all readers or theatregoers. I still applaud Mr. Albee for daring audiences to open their minds and to challenge social conventions. That’s what only the very best writers achieve through their work.