For its return to New York, John Cariani’s Almost, Maine is a proven hit
Extreme, near-Arctic cold can be an isolating purgatory–or, if northern Maine native John Cariani is right, it can be a valuable organizer of priorities.
“I don’t think you can survive there very well with a bleak worldview,” says Cariani, an accomplished character actor and playwright whose Almost, Maine is currently in revival at the Gym at Judson in a production from Transport Group. “You have to learn to manage your pain in a place where it’s very difficult to make a living. You make things work. You don’t spend a lot of time complaining about it. There’s a lot of complaining here in New York. I admire the lid that Mainers keep on it: Whenever there’s a problem, you know, the solution is to get to work to solve the problem.”
Indeed, Almost, Maine–an anthology of vignettes about various current, former, and would-be couples on a fateful night in the fictional title town–was itself the solution to a problem.
“When you’re a character actor, you always end up helping the main guy get the girl, or main girl get the guy—you don’t get a whole lot for yourself,” says Cariani, who starred on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof and has reams of acting credits on TV and in regional theatre. “I just found it very interesting that non-hot people don’t get to have love in movies and plays. So I thought it would be fun to write scenes for my friends who are character actors.”
There was another deficit Cariani hoped to redress with his first play: “Most of the work generated in New York is about urban people, in urban settings. I was disappointed there weren’t any great plays about rural people that didn’t make them seem stupid or pathetic, or more awesome than they are.”
New York didn’t seem to appreciate the favor: The initial 2006 run of Almost, Maine at the Daryl Roth Theatre got mostly dismissive reviews and closed after a month of performances, losing its entire $800,000 capitalization.
But a strange thing has happened in the years since: Published by Dramatists Play Service, and included in Smith & Kraus’ “Best Plays” anthology that year, the show has since become one of Dramatists’ most-produced titles, with productions in several languages around the world and hundreds of high school stagings.
Practical as ever, Cariani attributes the play’s popularity in part to “cast size. And there’s a lot of room—a lot of ways to interpret the play.” Indeed, he’s flattered not only by the quantity of productions, but also by their quality: “It’s astonishing what people have done with the play; it’s the highest compliment when people think hard about something you’ve created, to have great minds wrap around something you’ve written.” [Read more →]
February 10, 2014 1 Comment
The careful chaos of the Rude Mechs’ Stop Hitting Yourself
Even if they never talked to us or invited us to strip naked for money, the Rude Mechs could still make a point with their latest show.
Now premiering as part of Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 program, Stop Hitting Yourself wonders if it’s possible to be truly generous in a wealthy society. On the most literal level, it asks this question by following a contest in a queen’s palace. The queen is so wealthy that everything in her ballroom is made of gold and her fountain spews a bubbling stream of queso dip, and by promising to grant the contest winner a request, she dangles the dream of similar luxury. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a nobleman or own a queso fountain of their own?
The status quo is subverted, though, when a “wild man” enters the game, startling everyone with his tangled hair and earnest love for plants. If he wins, he says, he’ll ask the queen to take better care of the world, which seems to create a tidy contrast between the selfish rich and the generous poor.
But the Rude Mechs, a theatre collective from Austin, Texas, are never that simple. They create their shows themselves, which gives them the freedom to detonate our expectations of what a story is supposed to do. In Stop Hitting Yourself, for instance, the tale of the queen’s contest gets interrupted by tap dances and odd little pop songs and explanations from the Wildman about what’s going to happen at the end of the show.
More importantly, the plot gets sidetracked when the performers drop their characters and speak as themselves. Sometimes, they step to the front of the stage and tell personal stories about times they were wasteful. Sometimes, they put audience members through increasingly embarrassing paces to see what they’ll do for money.
These detours are vital to the show. “It’s very important that we have those moments where we break out and are just ourselves, so we can acknowledge that we are in the space with you,” says Lana Lesley, a performer in Stop Hitting Yourself and one of the company’s six co-artistic directors. “As we’re talking about money and wealth and greed and the idea of charity, we can really examine ourselves.” [Read more →]
January 28, 2014 No Comments
Charles Fuller’s One Night confronts sexual assault in our armed forces
Last year, the military prosecuted approximately 300 cases of sexual assault or impropriety, but that’s nothing: Roughly 3,000 cases were reported, and it’s estimated that 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual conduct actually occurred.
“If you don’t know anybody in the military, do you really care about that?” asks playwright Charles Fuller. “We really don’t want to look at the fact that people are being mistreated. Or if we do look, we don’t look long.”
That’s partially why Fuller wrote One Night, which is now at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a co-production with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The play follows an ex-servicewoman named Alicia who’s forced into a seedy motel room after a fire consumes the homeless shelter where she lives with a troubled fellow veteran named Horace. In the midst of her present crisis, she’s also haunted by flashbacks of what happened when she served: After being sexually assaulted by three fellow servicemen, she pressed charges against them, only to have her case mishandled by her commanding officer.
Fuller knows this is not an easy story for an audience to hear, but that’s his point. “The play was written in my heart of hearts because somebody had to say something about this in a way that would make us understand [the problem] easier than we do when it’s simply statistics.”
When Fuller first heard about the mounting nightmare of sexual assault in the military, he was astounded. This was a different army than the one he knew when he served in Korea. “When you serve with somebody, that’s your buddy, that’s your comrade,” he says. “You look to that person to save your life if your life is in jeopardy. How dare you think that you can rape them? How dare you think you can mistreat them in the matter in which these women and men have been mistreated since they’ve been in the military? That’s horrifying. To me that goes against all the values and rules of what soldiering and what being in the military is supposed to be about.” [Read more →]
November 25, 2013 No Comments
Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy finally returns to Broadway
Terence Rattigan spent a decade as one of the most celebrated playwrights of the 20th century, writing hits like Separate Tables, The Deep Blue Sea, and The Browning Version before the 1956 advent of John Osborne and kitchen-sink drama made his well-made plays seem old hat. Despite the odd film or stage production, his work was largely forgotten decades.
Recently, however, he has returned in force, with major revivals in the West End and last year’s critically lauded film adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea bringing him to renewed cultural prominence. The Roundabout has also been part of the mini-movement. They revived Rattigan’s Man and Boy in 2011, and from now until December 1, they’re presenting one of his first major hits, the 1946 drama The Winslow Boy.
On Broadway for the first time since its initial run ended in 1948, The Winslow Boy follows a 14 year-old who is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order in 1917. Convinced his son is innocent, the boy’s father (Roger Rees) takes the matter all the way to the House of Commons, suing the Crown for a fair trial.
All of this could be deadly for American audiences unfamiliar with either the era’s rigid codes of honor or the British judicial system, but Lindsay Posner’s production finds the actors casually tossing off complicated legalese with clarity and precision.
That level of comfort with the material is all the more remarkable given that this is mostly an American cast. They’re the only all-new component of a production that was originally presented at the Old Vic. Even the sets are recreated from that staging, with only a door slightly moved to fit the stage at the American Airlines Theatre. And though Posner had some trepidation about fitting new actors into a previous production, he quickly overcame his concerns.
“I deliberately put the [Old Vic production] out of my mind,” he says. “You have a kind of sense memory when you work on a play, but this was just a normal process. We spent the first days sitting around a table talking about lines of dialogue, and then once everyone stands on their feet, they know they’re working to something.” [Read more →]
October 17, 2013 1 Comment
In RoosevElvis, The TEAM subverts all sorts of American history
Welcome to Borough Play, our exclusive series on theatre in Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond.
Sometimes the unused scraps of one show become the starting point of another. For the award winning, Brooklyn-based ensemble the TEAM, that’s exactly what happened with RoosevElvis, now playing at the Bushwick Starr through Nov. 3. RoosevElvis (pronounced “Rose-of-Elvis”) takes on two titans of American history, Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley, and emerged from the research and rehearsal process for two previous TEAM shows.
When the group was creating Architecting, their 2008 exploration of Gone with the Wind, actress Kristen Sieh became obsessed with Teddy Roosevelt. “Kristen kept trying to make him into a character in that show, so he had been sitting on our shelf for a while,” says TEAM director Rachel Chavkin. Meanwhile, research that went into Mission Drift, an exploration of American capitalism, led Chavkin and TEAM actress Libby King to Big Fat Elvis, an impersonator they encountered during a development period in Las Vegas.
“We started talking separately about doing a Teddy show and an Elvis show, but one evening I was talking with [celebrated performer and playwright] Taylor Mac about these ideas, and he said ‘Sounds great, two women in fat suits.’ Soon after that the two shows became one,” Chavkin recalls. “Roosevelt and Presley are really excellent manifestations of American appetite, both splendid and awful. Elvis was known for eating a pound of bacon a day. Teddy had an appetite for imperialism. He wanted to own and control everything.” Moreover, she adds, Elvis and Roosevelt both shared a strong idea of who they wanted to be in the world and built themselves into that idea.
At the heart of RoosevElvis, however, is Ann (played by King), an extremely shy worker at a meat-processing plant. A romantic weekend turned sour spurs Ann to go on a hallucinatory road trip from the badlands of South Dakota to Graceland, a pilgrimage that the TEAM made while developing the show. “Ann has these kind of alternate, divided personalities of Roosevelt and Presley,” Chavkin says. “They battle over what kind of human citizen Ann should be.”
While making the trek to Graceland, the TEAM enlisted video designer Andrew Schneider to create video for the show as well as a kind of director’s cut of supplementary material. “There are these two waitress characters that Kristen and Libby play. We see them for four lines in the show, but there’s a whole video segment that links up with them.” Chavkin says. “It felt great to create discrete elements that relate to the show as a whole.”
The TEAM is known for devising its shows, and they even contributed a video on devised theatre to TDF’s Theatre Dictionary. “The main way we write is through improvisation,” Chavkin says. “Because of the culture of our rehearsal room, the actors will just start speaking eventually, and our stage manager will transcribe.” At a recent rehearsal, the group agreed that they needed to write the ending of the show the following day. “We’ll each spend an hour writing a version of the end and then talk about what works and what doesn’t,” Chavkin explains.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of RoosevElvis, though, is how it toys with expectations. Roosevelt and Elvis could be the makings of a slapstick-y, anachronistic theatrical romp, but the TEAM takes a slyly studious approach. “When we first started talking about the show, it was a dissection of American masculinity. But by having two females play these male characters, we are blowing open the idea of a gender binary,” Chavkin says. “You need space between the actor and the character. Through that misalignment, you see all these different shades that you’d miss if a man who looked like Teddy Roosevelt played Teddy Roosevelt. I think that’s a huge thing for the TEAM, waking up these inherited American stories.”
Eliza Bent is a writer and performer based in New York City.
Photo by Kevin Hourigan
October 15, 2013 No Comments