Let’s get to it - I don’t really get out much anymore. You see, I have these two lovely little things that keep my wife and I quite busy at home. They are gems that glow in the night - they are little noble ships on a most beautiful and great ocean. I chase them in my little carved out canoe, my paddle held together with duct tape.
When I do go out, I usually go out to get diapers and baby formula and other provisions for the family unit. I mow the lawn sometimes. Sometimes, I venture further beyond the compound, out into the great wild world. And If I’m not careful I can find myself tangled up and caught in the bear trap task of making theater. Once captured, I have no choice but to get my head down and get to work, trying to pry that bastard of a thing open, to free myself, for the end is coming (an audience with it).
Sometimes I’m set free relatively unscathed, with maybe just a little abrasion. But sometimes I have to saw through one of my limbs to release myself, only to leave a gnarled, bloody part of myself behind. Forever. It can hurt. It definitely chafes. Most of the time I’m just happy to get out alive.
Mostly I create new work. These are patched together fragments of interest, desire, and ideas - dug out moments of instinct, day-dreamed images, and glue-based narrative, all tied together with bits and pieces of dialogue like tattered old string. In short, I make plays and help others make plays sometimes. I teach too… theater stuff.
Sometimes I watch the plays that other people have made. I am grateful for that.
I should tell you now, before your role as reader goes any further, that I did not see enough theater this year - that’s MY opinion of the situation at least. I should see more. I will see more. And yes, you’re right, I should have seen your show. Many of you made tremendous work I know. I’ll do better. Always improving. Send more duct tape. Send a new paddle.
Of the handful of plays I participated in as a viewer last year, the two that stand out to me like beacons of beaming theatrical effervescence are:
Milly and Tillie at Open Eye Figure Theater, directed and created by Jason Ballweber, featuring and created by Elise Langer, Liz Schachterle, Stacy Schultz, Laura Abend, Eric VanWyk, Steve Horstmann, Kris Sheppard, Sean Healey and Michael Murnane.
When you enter Open Eye Figure Theater you are instantly enriched. The oxygen is creativity. Something magical exists there. It’s a hands-on feeling full of mystery and delight. Lots of immensely imaginative and innovative work happens in many forms at Open Eye. Lots of work is born there. This is a great thing. Some complex and dark, some simple and refreshing.
An amazing little thing came to life and exists there sometimes: It’s called Milly and Tillie, a show so full of sublime sweetness and the pure joy of play that you want to start all over again - you want to hold the hands of all the friends you’ve ever had, all at once. It’s a show so packed with such fresh and pure invention you suddenly realize that you’re not playing with your kids enough. They know this world perfectly, they live in this world, Milly and Tillie are their best friends and it’s always been that way. Suddenly it all makes sense - what’s important and what’s not.
This sweet little powerhouse of a play is packed full of masterful comic timing, youthful energy and an overflowing resourcefulness. This group has made a gift for you and any little ones you may know. They’ve made a space where wide-eyed smallies can devour rich and raw theater for the first time. And where distracted biggies might discover it all again. And you get free ice cream in the end. These are wonderful artists - I’m looking forward to seeing what they create next. I am grateful for them.
Long Day’s Journey into Night at The Guthrie Theater directed by Joe Dowling, featuring Raye Birk, Helen Carey, John Catron, John Skelley and Laoisa Sexton. With artistic and production support from many more.
I assisted Joe Dowling on Time Stands Still (‘11-‘12 Guthrie season). I can say for a fact that Joe enjoyed working on that piece and with that ensemble immensely and was deeply connected to the work. Connected to the importance of that particular story being told. I remember seeing Joe grit his teeth, clench his fist and dig in - right along with the ensemble, as they went at it, blow for blow - as they recalled the nightmares of war and as they struggled to navigate a complicated love and history, to remain together, and to live. It was good to see that. And I related to it.
At that time I also remember Joe talking passionately about wanting to direct another play: Long Day’s Journey into Night, and the potential of presenting that as part of the ’12-‘13 season. His energy for it was like a hunger. Like someone wanting to do battle with a play. Like he wanted to get in the ring and go 10 rounds with it. Like he needed to and like he had no choice, all at the same time. It seemed that that need was coming from somewhere deep within.
It’s a big play, make no mistake about that. It’s a beast. Plays of this magnitude sit on my shelf and laugh at me as I pass by on the way to make a ham sandwich.
Now I can only imagine what it’s like to start a play of this kind. Reading through as the pages snap back at you like mini-baracudas bent on stealing your silver. Your knuckles bleeding while the heavy pages fold away and all the while wanting to return to their majestic slumber. “Who do you think you are to wake me? I’m a sleeping bear, I will fuck you up!” the pages say.
And so the brawl begins. Six days a week for five weeks, with the great support of many very talented people, artistic and administrative. The result of this work was a piece of theater that shines for me as one of the most powerful and masterful I’ve seen in the Twin Cities since moving here in 2005.
I recall the period perfection of the design; costume, set and props. And the expansive, subtle lighting and sound designs. But what remains for me the power source of this production, its energy base, was the exceptional ensemble of actors. At the play’s start, a window opened for us to witness one evening at the Tyrone family cottage; it seemed that days, months, years had occurred before we arrived. The world was so complete, and we were straight in there, hanging on for the ride, while an immense and building feeling of dread hung in the air.
What came was a bare-knuckle brawl between characters: an unraveling of courtesies and pleasantries. Scabs were picked, wounds were opened and new injuries were brought down upon characters with sledgehammer blows. The heavy old ship bore down against an unstoppable, mounting storm. The characters raged and roared for each other, against each other. Every actor in the ensemble carried this, wrestled with this. Ripped this forth for us. Tore themselves open for us. They met the bear at the cave entrance. Every night. And gave of themselves.
Raye Birk as James Tyrone was a rock and an anchor. Helen Carey as Mary Cavan Tyrone was a drifting, immense sea and its deep shifting currents. John Skelley as Edmund was moonlight and the ship and the high-dimmed starred sky (to quote Eugene O’Neill). John Catron as Jamie was a violet and demented tornado. And all were exceptional.
In a cast of this caliber and a show with such courage on display from every ensemble member it’s nearly impossible to pull one moment forth. But I must draw our focus to something that provoked me to turn to my wife and say, “[not repeatable in this article]”. I will NEVER forget the return of Jamie in the second act, as played by John Catron. His performance was total. Full-range vocal, physical, raging, with an exploding heart. A deep sorrow revealed, a twisted, contorted soul of complications. This was a dance. This was a prize-fighter. This was a drunken sparrow and a tripping butterfly. It is slow motion for me now, burned in to my memory.
I know John personally. We’ve collaborated on many projects in the past and many more in the future I hope. I’ve always believed in his natural skill as an actor and artist, but on this night he revealed something far beyond what I’d ever seen him do. It was riveting and deeply inspiring to see him charge like that.
This production, masterfully directed by Joe Dowling, brought forth for me a world so complete and complex, so fraught and fragmented - A broken dream world, deeply intoxicated, of lost hope and separations, of tragic passing ships and untamable internal sea monsters.
As a director, I hope to wrestle a monster like this one day. And I hope I can pin it down, if just for a moment.
Theater continues to devour me. It traps me and rips my limbs off. I’m baffled and puzzled by it. It kicks my ass nearly every day. It’s a violent love affair and a stolen kiss out the back of an abandoned railway station. It’s an all-out rumble. It’s an ordeal. It’s lint in your pockets and insufficient funds at the cash machine. It’s the wisdom of the masters and lucky breaks. It’s all a game - we’re lucky we get to play it. I am deeply inspired by others and their work. Inspired by my collaborators. Inspired by all that have given blood to this. And inspired by my little noble ships.