Thursday, April 05, 2007

Where have I been?!

Apologies for the hiatus. I haven't posted anything for two months or so. That doesn't mean I haven't been writing--I've been working on the voluminous survey of The Sparrow that is just below this post. However, over the past few months my Ben Franklin gig ended, I transitioned to a new job as an office-monkey, and I've been out of town frequently for grad school interviews and one matzahlicious Jewish holiday.

There are two bits of good news: the first is that the long, agonizing process of writing the Sparrow piece is over: it is a very rich, deep show, and the writing process on it was long and difficult. I know it's long, so I've divided it into two parts. The first part attempts to place the House's work into a contemporary critical context. The second part strives to illustrate how they and their designers are telling stories in this instance.

The second bit of good news is that I've been accepted and will attend a dramaturgy MFA program at Columbia University in New York. So I'll be moving soon. While this means that this particular project will be ending soon, I hope to resurrect it in New York soon under a new domain name. I'll post it here.

I also hope that the type of project I've undertaken here can be continued in the future. I still believe that this type of discussion is necessary, and I believe that there is enough smart theater viewership in Chicago to pull together a staff of writers to do it. If and when I return to Chicago, I'll try to do it myself.

And, come to think of it, I have a third bit of good news: I've been hired to lead an adventure program for groups of kids to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. So following May there will be another long hiatus as I work on my tan, my camping and fishing skills, and my childish over-exuberance. Then, following my move to the Upper West Side, I'll resume posts in some respect.

To everyone who has visited--thanks for reading and supporting the project. It has been the beginning of a real adventure for me, and I hope you can be a part of the next step.

The Sparrow, Part I

In the absence of an "effective general mythology," writes Joseph Campbell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, each person, in his dreams, furnishes himself with a particular language of dreams and images springing forth from deep beneath consciousness that expresses all of the terrors, angst, and exhilaration stemming from confrontations with the movement across the stages of life. Psychoanalysis, for Campbell (what he calls the "modern science of the reading of dreams"), represents an effort to navigate and understand these images so as to successfully bring full mental effort to bear on the quotidian, trivial, and many times (for Campbell) regressive tasks into which we are inextricably woven by virtue of our having been born in the USA in the second half of the 20th century.

Mythology, however, has always been a living metaphor through which such dreams have found meaning. Mythology, in every culture, according to Campbell, guides us, teaches us, and reassures us as we take on new roles in our development. For Campbell, life in the USA has an inherently regressive character. In a more mature society, mythology establishes social conventions through which its inhabitants actually take on new roles both internally and externally. In the USA, psychoanalysis aims to ameliorate internal tensions of development to enable participation in an external fantasy of everlasting youth. Mythology aims to guide the individual internally through such tensions--as well as teach societies of the nature of social roles which we all, simply by virtue of certain constants of the nature of the human the human experience, must confront.

There is a universal form to both creation and hero myths, that, according to Campbell, expresses these tensions across every cultural barrier. It should not surprise us that adolescents facing their own pressing crises of development have relied throughout the 20th century on comic books of all sorts, movie myths (Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, for example), and sports stars and athletics as their guides. We laugh at the archetypal gawky teenage boy in braces, hanging out at the comic book shop. But this aesthetic impulse reflects, specifically, what Campbell is talking about.

One role of storytelling, in this formulation, is the contemporary reinvention of the mythological forms. But something has happened in the 20th century, apart from what Campbell sees as the aforementioned regressive permanence of the American glorification of youth. Artists have grown deeply afraid of myth, in my view. Sarah Kane's work articulates this fear, especially in Red Orchid's current production of Blasted. Blasted is more than an absurd portrayal of violence and war--it is a systematic attack on the idea that we can be safely guided in large-scale questions of war and death by storytelling itself. Storytelling, narrative, and myth all retrospectively make some sense of violence as the result of a meaningful chain of causality. But the experience of violence, especially the violence enacted by the contemporary war-machine, is highly decontextualized. There is no army approaching the countryside in wars with sensible causes. There are bombs that drop randomly from the sky, and soldiers who appear out of nowhere. The traditional forms of storytelling, for Kane, when it comes to violence, are inherently misleading, except from a most facile perspective.

As participants in a western democracy, we vote, from a safe distance, by way of just these very facile, inaccurate narratives of violence, whether they are supplied by the media or the strictly creative artist. We encounter these narratives between Cheerios and the morning paper. We never experience the true, decontextualized nature of violence in war. And thus, Sarah Kane has made works that illustrate this non-narrative, senseless reality.

I have meditated at length on this blog as to The Pillowman and Martin McDonagh's perspective on questions of the balance between suffering as a result of, and truthfulness in, art. My interpretation of the Pillowman holds that Katurian's stories are necessarily meaningful, if flawed, and that his brother's response to those stories is not necessarily one of mechanistic recreation. However, The Pillowman is the perfect vessel for the questions of the contemporary artist's fear of myth, because depending on one's interpretation we see arguments for and against meaning and myth, and arguments that directly press on the nature of readership. Kane, and possibly the director of the Broadway production, might hold that Katurian's stories are infused with narrative meaning, but that readers are too irresponsible in their relationship to story, and will necessarily recreate violence irresponsibly and harmfully. (Actually, Kane might hold that Katurian is deluding himself into believing that narrative can be a vessel for making his experience meaningful, too). Hannah and WB Worthen, in their recent article in Modern Drama, tend toward an interpretation that holds that Katurian's stories are internally devoid of meaning, and therefore become "blank allegories," externally—that is to say: easily subject to a mechanistic recreation.

The ideas woven into Blasted and contained within interpretive discussion of The Pillowman nicely encapsulate the contemporary artistic-intellectual reluctance to embrace myth and meaning as Campbell defines it classically. However, myth has lost none of its currency with audiences either in Hollywood or in publishing--Frank Miller's "300" is the perfect example of this. And the enduring currency of myth may also explain the popularity of Chicago's House Theatre.

The House has succeeded in attracting an impossible demographic (ages 15 to 35) to come out in droves to the Viaduct Theater--which is especially impressive considering The Viaduct's remoteness from CTA lines at Belmont and Western. Commercial and big-time non-profit theater relies on 40+ viewership and that audience’s subscriptions. Any ensemble that can inspire devotion amongst 20-somethings has captured an audience of which every big theater in Chicago is envious, as this is the building block for those theaters' plans for the next generation.

Steppenwolf, I assume for both perfectly altruistic artistic reasons, and to develop a younger audience base, has recently started commissioning many of the younger companies in the city to create work for their Garage space, and occasionally invites current productions to extend their runs in that space too. They have wisely done this with The House's "The Sparrow."

On the Sunday night on which I attended The Sparrow, the devotion amongst 15 to 35 year olds was apparent. Not only was this Sunday evening show sold out (Sunday shows are notoriously tricky for storefronts in Chicago), but also the entire rest of the run was sold out.

I attribute this devotion to a number of factors, aside from general considerations of high-quality work (scores of high-quality productions go perfectly unnoticed): First, a deft guerilla marketing strategy that utilizes the internet and social networks to publicize the House. Then, a reinvention of every detail of the theater-going experience from the moment an audience member enters the space (which also incorporates the marketing strategy)--the net effect of which is that attending a House show is a far less imposing, formal, intimidating cultural experience than attending a show at a more "institutional" theater. Moreover, this reinvention extends to an innovative story-telling technique that utilizes the cinematic and visual possibilities at a theater's disposal in addition to design work that creates events with sound and light in previously unseen and viscerally effective ways. They also creatively use dance and incorporate physical storytelling into their work.

Most importantly, however, in my view, they embrace contemporary reimaginations of the ancient mythological structure in original work. This embrace of myth by The House is tantamount to their endorsement of meaning in storytelling--and their staking out a significant position with respect to the theater's pressing dilemma on some of the questions previously considered here. The success of this focus is tantamount to a ratification of meaning in storytelling by the American theater's most elusive target--20-somethings. They are thirsting for this type of work and the House is providing it.

Other prominent directors, like Mary Zimmerman and JoAnne Akalitis have done and continue to do excellent work in the mythological vein. But The House's work differs in two respects--it almost universally utilizes contemporary scenarios (along the mythological lines) and it lives within its own universe. In Akalitis' work especially, there is an active "standing outside of the text" by the ensemble performing. This amounts to a contemporary running commentary on the ancient texts that she reimagines. This is fine and important work. But there is no "meta-theatricality" in The House's work. While they are happy to break the fourth wall, their work is in earnest, and is contained within an enactment of the world they have imagined, apart from running commentary on that world. This work is clearly in demand.

In part two of this article, I'll try to survey the work being done by the House in The Sparrow. Their work is rich: and a document of this densely packed, technically detailed work is bound to be a bit long. However, I believe that the House will be an important theater in the future of Chicago theater and that we should study their methods in order to understand what audiences are responding to right now.

The Sparrow, Part II

I cannot speak at length to The House's marketing strategy, but I can survey their other methods, as evidenced by this production of The Sparrow, and I'll try to do so here. From the start, the experience of a House show is different--we enter the cavernous warehouse of the Viaduct lobby, which doubles as a bar. Drinks are cheap, and although this was a Sunday, the slightly shabby interior (reminiscent of the Skylark in East Pilsen) puts aside any of the high-art anxiety we might have in attending theater. Company members are almost always present, and there is an open, inquisitive, sweet atmosphere present before we enter the space. Our tickets for the show, in keeping with the creative marketing genius of the company, are baseball cards themed to the show being performed that feature all of the ensemble and designers, with biographies. As the Sparrow is set in a rural midwestern high-school, the cards feature pictures of the ensemble and designers from school portraits.

As we file into our seats, we see cast and crew milling about--the scene is somewhat reminiscent of a moment in the film Rushmore, with characters in bizarre costumes in a high school filing past. There is high-energy music pumping from the sound system--Goody Mob and Christina Aguilera, for example. The stage is a square in a high-ceilinged warehouse. The audience is on three sides of the square, and there is a wall that conceals the dressing areas. Entrances and exits are almost universally unmasked in House shows, even when an entrance is a surprise, plot-wise.

As the music fades, a Master of Ceremonies enters. There is a "pep rally" feel to the atmosphere, as experienced House audience members and current ensemble members from off-stage hoot and holler to welcome the MC. Nominally, he is there to publicize future House shows, and to hawk merchandise. But his real role is to indoctrinate the audience into a different kind of theater going experience, one that condones childish response, one that doesn't seek to intimidate the layperson by placing an implacable pedagogical barrier between the audience and the interpretation and enjoyment of art. The New York Times, in their recent profile of Chicago theater, compared the House's audience experience to that of the groundlings in the time of the Globe. There is an energy, a frankness, and a joy in the atmosphere of a House show, and the curtain speech at the top sets this atmosphere in place. The theater, for the House, should be akin to the experience of a rock show--we should release our inhibitions and respond viscerally and intuitively. We shouldn't have to think about how we should respond, or how we should look to the other audience members and the artists. The audience, at various points in the curtain speech, cheers enthusiastically, encouraged by the ensemble.

The set is a blank stage with a wall behind it, featuring a hanging square to the right side in front of the wall. There are panels behind the audience on either side of the stage. During the introduction, the panels behind the audience were lit sky blue, and the panel behind the stage was a warm orange. We are encouraged to "make some noise" for The Sparrow. The production opens to a community meeting at which Principal Skor, played by by Stephen Taylor, is setting a very civil, restrained tone for a tense discussion. An advanced student wants to study at the high school. She needs to study with the Junior class, but graduate this year. Her grandmother has passed away. She needs to live with someone.

The audience hears these facts, but cannot string them together into any meaningful inference other than the tension underlying the admission of this outsider into the community. The writers are content to tease the audience with limited knowledge of a complex plot--and this is for better and worse. Throughout the first act we find ourselves anxiously trying to piece the story together (and as the play is driven by a rather straightforward plot, this is sensible). But we simply cannot do it comprehensively, and this inability inhibits the drama at certain points. On the other hand, the audience is intrigued by these facts, and does work to piece them together. The writers succeed in inspiring us to work with them to put things together.

One problem for me in this vein was my seating on the night on which I saw the show initially. I was sitting in the stage left section of the bleacher-like seats. Later, seeing the show—in its remount at the Steppenwolf—from a frontal perspective (and with the benefit of a prior viewing) many of the subtler points seemed to be communicated more easily.

However, from the top, the characters are clearly eccentric, bold, and yet communicate a certain pathos in this eccentricity that is touching. Michael E. Smith as Albert McGuckin and Lauren Vitz as Margaret Rosenthal are wonderful this way. As these rather oddball parents speak, holding framed school-age portraits of children, we sense their restraint. This is the atmosphere of the piece in a nutshell, a warm, genial, small-town brightness that is holding something horrible at bay. The community consents to allow the advanced student, and one of the families agrees to take her in. The girl enters, dressed darkly, and holding her own school portrait. To the sounds of original music that is somewhat reminiscent of Badly Drawn Boy (which is being featured prominently in a national ad campaign now) the parents and the girl arrange themselves in a living class portrait. The parents, to the sound of an explosion, turn the picture frames ninety-degrees at a time clockwise, in sync.

In another interesting usage of picture frames, Principal Skor and Margaret Rosenthal stand stage right and take the parents’ portraits (pictures of their children) and exchange them for framed landscape scenes, that the parents, one by one, display, walking behind a girl seated in a chair (simulating a car). Thus, the images, as they are handed off simulate expressionistically, the passing of scenery. This is a highly cinematic effect that does not use moving picture at all.

The images are of small town scenes and rural landscapes, but something in the characters and costuming of the oddball small-town parents in the meeting has tipped us off to the nature of the quirky small town already. Still, the montage is used to good effect here and it is a cinematic story-telling technique that the House uses frequently--occasionally bordering on overindulgence. Still it holds our attention and it connects, emotionally, especially with the original music.

She complains to her driver, a mysterious, bearded fellow named Thomas (about whom we learn very little) that she “can’t do it.” He insists “tell them what you did.” In the “Sparrow” theme, he insists that she, like a bird must be pushed from the nest to learn to fly.

The girl is unsubtly surnamed Emily Book (Carolyn Defrin). As she enters in the next scene, to a strange applause, her unwieldy brown case awkwardly breaks open, and she awkwardly rushes to gather her things. She is greeted by the community at an even, if halting pace that divulges some inner tension. For a moment the crowd’s attentions diffuses, and then clears. A woman openly stares at her. A chandelier lowers from the ceiling, and we find ourselves in the home of the McGuckens, Emily’s new family.

They greet her awkwardly, and they sit for dinner. Emily comments in a robotic tone that they have “nice plates.” The father, Albert (Michael E. Smith), speaks haltingly, at an almost snail’s pace that, again, reveals some raging inner tension. By contrast, his wife, Joyce (Kat McDonnell) speaks with an utterly sincere air–at a high pace that betrays nothing. Their son, Charlie rages, with an energy that reveals the community’s tension, at Emily, and she rushes from the table with her formidable old black case. At this outburst, we hear a sound event composed of what sounds like bass feedback from an amplifier or loose sound cable connection. It is highly jarring. Charlie, in response to Emily’s staying in “Sarah’s room” protests that not even he is allowed in Sarah’s room.

Many of these revelatory details were unclear for me in the first viewing and in the seat I occupied upon that viewing. After seeing the show a second time much of the elegance of the unfolding details made a strong impression on me. I wonder, however, whether Allen, Chris Mathews, and Jake Minton, the creators of the piece, could have done a better job in taking the audience from plot-point to plot-point.

Following Emily’s exit, Joyce reenters, saying “let me get that for you” offering Emily a small doll’s house diorama that is lit warmly from within, one of the most clever, intelligent design devices in the show. The chandelier rises. The music changes to the sounds of synthesizer vibraphone (reminiscent of Mr. Rogers’ xylophones). Joyce sets the doll’s house down and removes a room from it. They face each other, awestruck. Joyce’s pace slackens, and we sense for a moment that the inner tension that the ensemble has so capably been suppressing is also very much alive in Joyce. She comments, among other things, that Emily “has glasses now.” On the second viewing, it became abundantly clear that Joyce was acting as if Sarah had been away for a long time and was suddenly appearing before her in the form of Emily. However this was unclear on my first viewing of the piece. She hands the tiny room to Emily in a touching moment, and then reassumes the light, sincere tone she held previously. As Joyce exits, Emily reminds her that she’s “not Sarah.”

At this line, the music changes, with a shift in light. We see a series of projections on the back wall with violins being plucked and then violin music. They start with constellations, then moving landscapes. We see a bus, and then hear a build in music, and then the inside of the bus and children’s faces. We hear train sounds. Emily approaches the projection with her back to us. The projection and music suddenly stop, and we hear someone say “welcome to school.”

We hear a new music cue start, and we feel the baseline rhythm of the school to be different and higher from that of the home and of the projections that represent Emily’s memories. In the cinematic school montage of moving students and dance routines, Principal Skor dumps coffee on himself in the bustle. Emily, in her conservative dark suit, is, in her movement, a living rhythmic contrast to the colorful, playful costumes and frenetic pace of the hallways of the school. The students, at this pace, fetch lockers and place them at the back of the stage. They then rush from place to place and toss footballs to one another as Emily is spun around. A cheerleading squad takes the stage and performs apart from Emily. We see pink light, and Wilco-esque acoustic percussive sounds. We see yellow light that transitions to organ music. The students set a classroom of desks in place. Emily finds herself alone. The students enter on a school bell.

We see a young teacher, Mr. Christopher, giving a lecture in low light, with a transparency projection on the small rectangle at the back of the stage, of the heart. This youngish teacher is describing the heart as moving “involuntarily.” There is an adolescent, hormonal atmosphere set by the ensemble to begin with, but the young teacher describing the anatomical nature of the heart cleverly establishes a very flirtatious atmosphere. The teacher points to us in the audience and includes us in the atmosphere. He constantly shifts directions in his movement, constantly running himself at a higher pace than his students. The lights go up, the overhead goes out. Emily, again, is clearly out of rhythm in this young, raucous classroom. He asks Jenny, a brightly dressed girl, who, like every girl is class is somewhat ga-ga for him a question which she answers perfectly. In contrast the boys are almost all slacking off in the back of the classroom.

In the closest that the House comes to metatheatricality, Christopher asks a question that is, in his own words “arbitrary and unfair.” The feeling here is that the writers are letting us in on the joke of their obvious device for illustrating Emily’s bookishness (although her dress and her demeanor bespeak this without the additional elaboration). He asks her this exaggeratedly difficult and unfair question, to which she doesn’t bat an eyelash. She answers. He informs the class of the upcoming fetal pig dissection, which everyone celebrates. He pumps his fist enthusiastically. They cheer, and exit.

Emily is slower than the rest to leave (Emily’s rhythmic dissonance is continually used by Allen throughout the first act). Before the class is gone, Mr. Christopher introduces Emily to Jenny McGrath, that blonde who answered his question earlier, a head cheerleader-type, to give her an opportunity to make nice with someone who is obviously amongst the most popular in school. They greet, awkwardly, and Jenny exits.

Until now the play has more or less followed what Campbell would consider to be a standard monomythic form. The creators of the show, in the press pack, credit Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster for inspiration in their creation of the Midwestern “hero-myth” (through Superman). Superman is among countless comic-book heroes who correspond to Campbell’s mythology.

In Emily’s case, the hero is compelled to traverse her communal boundary–interestingly, this breaking of the barrier is presented initially from the perspective of the PTA meeting at which Emily entry into the community is discussed. Also interesting is the fact that, in this interpretation of the monomyth, the hero’s breaking out of the boundaries of her home community represents a homecoming in her return to the high school.

Initially, she refuses to accept her place in the new school–she stands apart. The bearded driver, Thomas, who reasons with her that she must be pushed from the nest may be her initial helper or mentor (another key theme in classic myth is this bearded, Obi-Wan-like helper), however Thomas is never elaborated upon.
She is then incorporated into the belly of a monster–another standard monomythic scenario–in this case the school itself is the whale swallowing up the contemporary Jonah. The ancient structural narrative points–Emily’s refusal of the challenge and the incorporation into the beast are communicated to us physically, in a manner that can only be accomplished in a theater.

Now, the hero faces the helper, who, in this case, is Mr. Christopher. Typically, according to Campbell, this is an older, bearded figure who bestows upon the hero an amulet of some sort that will aid the hero in his or her quest.

He takes an enormous bite of an apple (given to him at the top of the previous scene by Jenny). The apple is lovely here—it is dual symbol of the teacher and temptation. Jenny exits. He lamely jokes, in counterpoint to Emily’s bookish restraint and seriousness. He innocently flirts with Emily, and his frenetic pace is matched by another, awkwardly frenetic pace from Emily. He is pumping himself up, she is restraining something. Both are masking something. She blushes.

He recites to her from Whitman’s Body Electric, which is appropriate on several levels–first, as he is a biology teacher he glories in the wonders of the human body, which the poem celebrates. Second, the poem works as an invitation to physically self-conscious, highly intellectual girl to join the humming physical life of the school–so the implication of her aphysicality coming from the text in the use of this poem is foreshadowed physically throughout the first act prior to the poem’s recitation. In the scene it works as a form of flirtation (which, we might infer, is one of Mr. Christopher’s chief tactics), especially as it is coupled with his munching of the apple.
It is, in Campbellian terms, both a call to adventure and an amulet that will guide her in that adventure. Christopher gives her his wife’s copy of Leaves of Grass (the collection containing the poem), which serves as a physical counterpart to the words of the poem itself. Those words settle the dissonant rhythmic tension present at the top of the scene. In this interaction, the breadth of Emily’s reading is clear: she has read all of Dickens, among others.

To the strains of another musical sound event with accordion, Emily is then confronted en masse by a group. During my first viewing of the piece, the nature of this scene seemed a bit “mashed-up.” However, on my second viewing it was clear that it consisted of parents or other students asking Emily about their brothers and sisters or sons and daughters. Once I had a fuller understanding of the plot (after seeing the show through on the first viewing), this made sense.

We then transition to a scene in which Jenny suggests that Emily has arrived at school at just the right time–homecoming. She encourages Emily to join the cheerleading squad, a big favor considering that she would be bypassing the normal auditions and be placed on the team on Jenny’s authority. Emily refuses, but accepts a job as “towel girl” for the basketball team. Here, as elsewhere and with other characters, Jenny’s fluidity, play and grace are contrasted against Emily’s halting dischord.

Emily then finds herself confronted by Charlie (Sara Hoyer), the son of the couple that has taken her in. He is wearing an American Indian headdress and is fantasy playing. He orders her to halt and she gives him an offering to be allowed to pass. She walks toward the house, and as she does, he fires his slingshot at her. She instantly senses and catches the rock, which magically appears in her hand (the incorporation of live visual magic effects is very compelling aspect of the House’s work). He demands that she not talk about his sister.

I believe this moment of silliness turned to drama, besides another opportunity to highlight Emily’s alienation is a perfectly monomythic moment, in which Emily, the hero, must face and, using her wiles, appease a monster, namely the pesky monster with whom she finds herself living. Tasks like these are common in mythology–and here, the silly moment with Charlie is such a task.

The interaction closes with Charlie imploring Emily not to mention his sister. At the mention of the sister, we see a blue flash and hear a synthetic wind sound effect. Orange light fills the stage. Then we hear a bell and voices saying “happy homecoming.” Principal Skor mentions the hated rivals, the Hornets. We find Emily in PE class, where the coach asks whether Emily has a safety strap for her glasses. When she replies that she doesn’t, he goes off to get her “rec-specs” (Emily’s ostracization through such physical impediments is well-clarified). He leaves the class to play a game of their choice, and they elect to play the perfect game for abuse of the weakest, outcast classmates: dodgeball. We hear the vibraphone sounds and Wilco-esque percussion , and the lights cool. The action ramps up. The game becomes a choreographed movement piece in which, yet again (and at this point, the theme is redundant) Emily’s physical energy is contrasted with that of her classmates. We find ourselves in a montage in orange light followed by darkness. The class gangs up and circles her. Someone yells “get her!” and the students aim all the dodgeballs at her. The coach enters, rebukes the class, and escorts Emily out.
We hear the slow ticking of a clock, which harmonizes with the bomb imagery that we have just taken in. We find ourselves in a classroom, but this time, Emily isn’t the first to arrive, she is the last. Mr. Christopher is presiding. On my first viewing of the piece I did not get that this was detention, although Mr. Christopher’s statement that they all “know why they’re here” and the students dejected body language should have tipped me. Details like these may have been lost due to my perspective from the stage right seats.

As this is detention, and Emily is not being punished, her arrival is a dramatic act of solidarity and forgiveness. In a small way she includes herself. When a boy ridicules her that he hit her in the mouth, Emily retorts: “It must not have been that hard, because I didn’t feel it.” The delicious subtle double-meaning devastates the boy. Mr. Christopher then implores the students to be safe, in that he, and the community surrounding them, is trying to protect them. When a student asks “from what?” we hear the sound of passing trains, and the scene changes to orange light. The students then reenact a catastrophic accident in which they are turned upside down. After a long silence following this instantaneous, unannounced reenactment, Mr. Christopher again argues that the rules are present is there for their protection. Emily agrees, speaking chillingly: “the future has pain in store for all of us,” the implication being that there is no need to look for more pain.

A great deal of cultural comment is encapsulated in this business, and whether it is really necessary in terms of telling the story or not, it does bear discussion. First is the question of the American impulse toward creating a “pure” atmosphere for the upbringing of children, which is an outgrowth of the idea of America as a “city on a hill” in which a community could purify itself. The relationship between such a community and its youth, who push the boundaries of “safety” is artfully explicated here.

There is another interesting cultural spin stemming from this particular interpretation of the monomyth, that is related to this quest for purity (and hence the exclusion of Emily who is impure): Midwestern American hospitality. Emily is an outsider who, as will be made entirely explicit later, was complicit in a terrible accident in the town years ago. She is different, and yet, for all that, there is a veneer of kindness and love worn by nearly every student in the school. This veneer seems absolutely genuine to me–and yet it is a mask. This is an interesting critique of suburban, exurban, and rural values, as it highlights the peculiar contemporary character of the exclusion of outsiders in small-town life. The outsider is shunned, but this is done with a smile that may be sincere. The town is sincerely fighting its own impulse to ostracize Emily, but rather than lessen her pariahdom, this causes the ostracization to take on a more virulent and yet insidious quality. This portrayal is invaluable as a metaphor for how many perfectly polite and reasonable-seeming Americans process their discomfort with any number of types of minorities and outsiders in an age of Political Correctness, in which, in most communities, there is a deep impulse toward purification, yet in which it is impermissible to openly voice biased words.

We hear the sounds of the vibraphone again, and find ourselves in Emily's room. Joyce, it is clear has been asleep in Sarah’s old, and Emily’s current bedroom. Joyce asserts that she knows that Emily is not her daughter, but then reiterates her welcome to her. She mentions that she comes to Sarah’s room when she feels overwhelmed. The lights cool. Again, there is a sincerity to the Joyce’s rhythm here which she loses in an effective unraveling of composure. There is also a pathos illustrated by her sleeping in her late-daughter’s room. She begs to know what happened on “that day.” We hear a train sound. Joyce cannot, she says, remember what her daughter wore. As she exits, Emily replies: “yellow.” She heads downstairs to “make spirit boxes” for the homecoming festivities. Emily agrees to join her, in an unspoken acceptance of her role as surrogate daughter.

There is some elegant conceptually tight storytelling here, and there is also the need for fuller detail. For me, on a second viewing, with a full knowledge of the fact of the story in advance, it was easy to see the clues that the storytellers and designers give us to the accident and Emily’s role in it. We hear a train sound in the distance when it is mentioned. We have seen a catastrophic reenactment of it. But without a knowledge of the facts, and without a full frontal perspective on the action, many of these clues, I fear, are lost. However, the various light shades, the various musical styles that link to scenes and themes, and sound events are elegant and tightly woven together to communicate implications in a very creative way. Balance is the key here, and the House, I feel, is working of the balance between explicit and implicit storytelling techniques.

We hear the sound of an organ playing a school song. Cheerleaders enter in pricelessly tacky brown and red uniforms. The students sing in corny harmony, and the boys enter in basketball uniforms. We hear Wilco-esque drums as the music gets peppier, eventually taking on a dance beat. In the words of South Park: “we’re gonna need a montage.”

One problem in House shows is the disproportionate segmenting of things like this. To illustrate to an audience Emily's status as an outcast or the fervent atmosphere of a school event, can, especially given the energy with which their ensemble works, be accomplished in relatively short time. But oftentimes in The Sparrow, we spend a disproportionate amount of time on certain points in the narrative, and disproportionately little time on other points that might have greater impact.

Following the school song sequence, the music changes, and we hear the voice of a PA announcer. Cleverly, the actors playing for the Sparrows (Emily's new high school team's mascot), simply turn their jerseys inside out to assume the roles of the opposing basketball team. Again, in a very essentially theatrical way, the House makes the elegant equation between the kids on opposing sides of this rivalry (in which the Sparrows have been thoroughly dominated of late). The lights are warm and orange on the pre-game cheer routine.

The lights brighten as we transition to the game. The basketball game is a wonderfully unreal, highly choreographed dance of athletics, again, making use of the House's profound sense of physical expression. It is tempting for them to overuse this tool; in sequences like the basketball game, we find ourselves playing the role of the crowd in the bleachers. It is never explained why homecoming is, at this school, a basketball rather than football event, but as an audience we accept it without question. The game and the culture of the school enfold us naturally and thoroughly.

The cheerleaders perform a routine, and then the aggravated coach in a wonderful plaid jacket barks at Emily, to “get more towels,” as it’s so wet that a player could get hurt and cost the school the game. The possibility that Emily’s actions might lead to a loss clearly motivates her. We then find ourselves in the locker room, where the cheer squad is frantic. The lights cool. The cheerleaders are considering an outrageous, dangerous stunt: to catapult Jenny up to the rafters, have her pull down the opposing team's banner (which hangs there as a token of their recent dominance of the rivalry) and fall into her teammates' arms. When Emily, who has walked in to get the aforementioned towels overhears the plan, she objects. At the threat of her revealing the dangerous plan, the cheerleaders strip her, revealing her conservative underwear, and stuff her into a locker. A thrilling sound even coincides with this violence.

Again, at this point, the audience has experienced certain suggestions of Emily's involvement in a train disaster. But we know nothing of the specific circumstances of that disaster or her subsequent exile from the community. Furthermore, we have seen evidence that she has some strange power, but we don't know what that power is. We need more concrete plot development in this first act, and less indulgence in effective, but overused atmosphere-setting music, montage, and dance sequences.

Why? Because Emily's restraint from fighting back against her attackers is a key event in the piece, as is what follows. Until now, Emily has struggled to conceal superpowers from her community. She does this, I take it, as she fears for her safety—revealing these powers would implicate her (accurately) in the deaths of the rest of her kindergarten class years ago, in a school bus accident. We learn these details in full detail later, but the scene that follows Emily's attack constitutes a major event, because it amounts to her performing a key act in Campbell's understanding of the monomyth: “accepting the call to adventure.” Until now, Emily has denied the call. But forced to choose between unmasking her own powers, (and, she can presume, her culpability in her classmates' deaths) and the death of a classmate in a senseless stunt, Emily bravely accepts the dangers of heroism, calls out from inside her locker into a halftime meeting of the boys basketball team.

Now, this event is highly bracketed by Allen and his design team. And, poetically, Emily's half-nakedness articulates her unmasking. But without more concrete plot development up to this point, the gravity of her acceptance of the call is unclear, and as storytellers, The House lose the opportunity to throw their hero into the sharpest possible relief.

Emily frantically explains the danger and the team rushes to stop it. We transition in focus to the cheer routine in which Jenny is catapulted to the rafters to pull the Hornets’ banner down (the banner is located over the panel on the upstage wall. The music and the stunt turns slow at the climactic point of action. A montage is used effectively, as the slow violin music takes us in transition to the locker room. Emily bursts from the locker and puts on the only thing she can find–a bright white cheerleaders uniform. The lights transition us to the gym, as the same music piece plays. This time, as we find ourselves in the gym, Mr. Christopher is flat on the floor, reaching for Jenny, who is still hanging from the banner. This is another very clever device from Allen and the House. Rather than execute a complex stunt in the Viaduct loft space, they rely on their Cliff Chamberlain’s (Mr. Christopher) physical commitment to communicate the danger, from flat on the floor.

The string music swells. The lights go orange, and same violin musical piece builds as Emily flies. Her flying is implied in the “looking up” of the crowd, and her grace in pulling Jenny from the banner. The crowd circles, and Jenny is passed “down” into the circle. The frantic pace of the danger recedes. As it does, and the crowd realizes what Emily has done, they stare at her. On the basketball game’s “sub” horn, she zips away at a high pace, and her classmates chase her. We then hear the sounds of crickets. Mr. Christopher finds Emily, and, awe-struck exclaims that Emily just “flew.” He’s raving to himself that Emily is a superhero, and he gives her an enthusiastic high-five.

We transition to a plodding song incorporating the vibraphone sounds, transitioning to saxaphone sounds. Emily dances as the tempo increases. She executes a clearly bird-like “sparrow” dance that is very well designed and executed. The rhythm, and the dance, build, and the lights shift to a cool shade. We see a projection of stars projected, and as the music and dance crescendo, the show goes to intermission.

On the return from intermission, we see warm orange light, and Emily in a rather more "chic" black outfit. The lockers are out again, and we hear the voice of Principal Skor, (the high-pitched ringing tone used to bracket events, especially Emily’s magic plays underneat the announcement). We see another music montage in which Emily catches and returns the balls thrown about the hallway. We hear her new nickname "The Sparrow." Emily is in full physical harmony with the pace of the school. Meanwhile, Jenny is “bumped” by a rolling projection cart, underlining her diminished status.

We then find ourselves in Mr. Christopher's biology class. They are dissecting fetal pigs. Again, Mr. Christopher, in his energy, stays ahead of the class to whom he's speaking. In a nice effect, the House uses stuffed pig puppets in this scene. To expose what's hidden is the goal, and elegantly, the subtext of the class, and of the piece is articulated metaphorically through a science class exercise. In the first act, the biology class dwelt on the function of the heart. Now it is focused on the entire system of life beneath the surface–to “make ourselves better.”

The students fight to be Emily’s partner. During the experiment, Mr. Christopher guides Emily’s hand. We see the lights turn orange, and hear the high-pitched event tone. Suddenly the pigs’ hearts starts beating. Christopher, astonished, asks with fear if Emily is “doing this,” to which she replies in an entranced tone “yeah.” When he asks her what else she can do, we hear a big band play.

To the music of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String”, we see a choreographed dance piece with the pigs. Mr. Christpoher sings. The other kids snap along as background dancers. The puppet pigs sing along in the back. Mr. Christopher, as part of this 40s style musical montage then, walks along a line of desks as they are placed in a line before him beneath his feet on a makeshift “bridge.” One of the boys allows a declaration of love for Mr. Christopher to escape. We hear a scream and learn the Jenny made out with a pig. One of the students asks if there is homework, to which Christopher hilariously shouts “GET OUT!”

What follows is an awkward interaction in which Mr. Christopher compliments her “aside from” her “superpowers” and confronts her about what appears to be her acting out on a crush through her powers. He calls her the “cats pajamas,” and acknowledges that he’s worked on this whole “cool teacher” persona. He asks if she’s going to the dance. The talk concludes with a dispirited high-five, and an awkward platonic understanding between them.

We hear the vibraphone sounds that take us home, and we see the inner-lit diorama. Emily's foster father, Albert, interrupts her reading. They have a persistent, matching, suppressed, halting energy in the interaction. He encourages her to attend the homecoming dance, and informs her that Margaret Rosenthal and Joyce want a picture of her with it. He touchingly lays the corsage on the floor. Again, the subtext of the tension is still not specifically clear, and we are in the middle of the second act.

Emily refuses to attend. Why? Is this related to her outsiderness, still? Is it related to her embarrassment at what has just happened in science class? Emily would appear not only to have transformed into an overnight school celebrity, but also to enjoy it. If the subtext of her reluctance is the danger she senses in the exposure of her powers (and thus, potentially her complicity in the decade old tragedy), it is unclear.

After a moment of chilling silence, in which Emily seems to rebuff the quintessential midwestern over-hospitality (betraying something underneath), Albert re-welcomes her. We hear the sound of the train. He encourages her again. Their interaction seems to calm to an intimate comfort and ease. We hear the easy sound of crickets. She takes the corsage from the floor and suddenly embraces him, again in acceptance of her role, fulfilling her foster family’s need for a high school age daughter, at the time when their daughter would have been of high-school age.

We move to the dance, with the mirror ball, and a jazz-sounded montage. We see another choreographed sequence featuring an electric piano and a baritone sax. As Emily enters, she is surrounded by a circle of admirers. She is the hero of the school. She dances with them, again, in harmony with the community.

The music slows, and there is a slow dance. Lauren Vitz is hilarious as Phoebe Marks, who is heart-breakingly rejected after asking for a dance. The dancers dissolve off stage–and Emily last. The scene shifts to Mr. Christopher's biology classroom, where we hear the muffled sounds of dance music. Mr. Christopher is alone with Jenny. He encourages her to return to the dance. She complains of Emily's newfound popularity–insulting her neck, and commenting that the other students want an encore from that days’ performance in class. She also, punctuates a sentence by addressing Christopher as “Dan.” As an audience, we sense a dangerous romantic tension between these two characters from the moment we see them alone. As the scene progresses, Christopher shines a light from the overhead projector on Jenny, complimenting her. They dance to the muffled music, and she kisses him. As she does, Emily enters, saying “ I came...” We see the cue (orange light, ringing, a flash of light, crashing sound) signifying Emily's magic and we hear a crashing sound. Following the magic cue, we see a stain of blood on Jenny’s cheek.

In the ensuing blackout, we see projections of pictures of houses and another confrontation with a group of people en masse, just as in the first act. They are firing questions at her to the sounds of violins being plucked. Just as in the first act, this firing line questioning is followed by Charlie shooting at Emily with his slingshot, outside their home. This time, however, she does not catch the rock, and it hits her in the head. She sobs, and she and Charlie hug. She then senses Mr. Christopher behind her. We hear the sounds of crickets. In the subsequent interaction, he attempts to explain that he hadn't meant for the kiss to happen, that it had been a “one time thing.” Based on Jenny’s use of Christopher’s first name, we are left to wonder. He protests, in Whitman’s language, that “the body is not the soul.” Emily admonishes him on behalf of his wife. We then hear the sounds of trains, our cue to the mystery behind Emily’s exile from the town. Christopher reveals that his wife is dead, and was killed in "the" accident--she was driving "the" bus. He then reveals that he, too, bears a portrait--ie he also grieves.

The use of the portrait to signify a long-held grief is another elegant conceptual touch by the house. They create their own creative language from show to show, and when we see the portrait that Christopher bears, we automatically link him to the other grieving parents, and begin to assemble the details of the plot more clearly. The image of grief links in popular consciousness to 9/11 and crime victims and is very provocative.

In the scene change we hear the ticking of a clock, and see the panels behind the stage on all sides turn orange. Various character from the show appear as music starts again, striking poses–e.g. Charlie with his slingshot, and Albert with a bit of doll’s house furniture. We then a dance sequence featuring the characters moving through space, tearing pages from books in their hands. Mr. Christopher appears, sobbing. The characters toss the pages across the stage, in what I believe is a symbolic representation of the town’s self-imposed ignorance as to the details of the past. Jenny alone, appearing behind them, gathers the pages in her arms and makes a connection, to digital sounds and projected storm images behind. This conceptual point is again, very elegant, but it is rather lost unless we have a somewhat more advanced knowledge of the subtext of the play–a knowledge that is denied to us.

We see, in projection, behind Jenny with her arms full of pages, a series of projections and sounds from the bus. We see a young girl with glasses (clearly Emily). We see her make a fist, and we see rocks floating and train track bolds moving. We see a look of ferocity on Emily’s face. We see and hear a crash, that then fades and changes to a simple sound of moving water.

The film and graphic design work apparent in the projections is sophisticated and stylish, and without a strong background in film, I don't feel capable of placing it in any context. However, it is colorful, crisp, and very stylized.

We hear a bell and the school desks are arranged on stage (this scene was changed slightly in the Steppenwolf remount–I will describe it as it was presented at the Viaduct). We see Jenny in the same spot in which she was left during the previous choreographed montage, her arms full of the pages. A cacophony of students enter the room. Before class starts, Emily says to Jenny that she “won't tell anyone.”

Principal Skor enters and informs the class that Mr. Christopher has resigned. Jenny stands and confronts Emily: "Did you kill the senior class?" Emily runs from the scene, and Jenny sobs. All the students exit with their chairs, in horror. We hear a bell and see a scene and light shift. To the sounds of plucked violins, groups of parents on stage holding framed portraits are whispering to one another. Someone says "call Joyce!" We hear a phone ring off-stage. The scene shifts to the McGucken home, with the house diorama. Sobbing, Joyce and Emily embrace.

In an even, sincere pace, Joyce asks: "did you kill my daughter?" When Emily answers "yes." Joyce slaps her ferociously. Emily, restraining herself, attempts to defend herself. In a shriek that stands out from her composure throughout the piece, Joyce begs for her daughter back, and wants to know, suddenly, in all seriousness and need, if Emily can do that. Joyce then takes the diorama away.

In this scene as in many others, the actors on stage are not encumbered by a physically realistic portrayal of things. Joyce's act of expulsion from the family group isn't a slammed door or a scene that might be seen on "Cops." Rather, it is the simple, elegant appropriation of a diorama that, for the audience, has come to represent, and totally abstractly, home.

In the ensuing darkness, we hear piano music and voices discussing a "special school." We hear Emily protesting that she "doesn't want to go!" When the lights come up, we see Albert, at the front door informing the mob of neighbors that Emily has gone–that the window was open. The lights shift, cold, again, and we see Emily fleeing. This is interesting: the pretext for tehir search for her is, nominally, to save her, as a runaway. In fact she is being chased by an angry mob, and as she lugs her suitcase, she runs into Mr. Christopher, in orange light, that then fades. He offers her his ticket to Chicago--a talisman that will enable the hero to take her power to (in the words of Campbell) "purify" the larger world. In the Steppenwolf remount, this interaction was much angrier than it was in the first production.

The mob finds her, and, grasping the pictures of their children, lunges at her. The orange light and high-pitched magic sound intensify, as Emily “fires” magic at each person reaching for her, knocking them back. With is “firing” we hear a crash and see a flash. The Sheriff pulls a gun on her, and Jenny McGrath enters, seizes the gun, and shoots Mr. Christopher. The bullet pierces the eye of Mr. Christopher’s wife’s portrait, and hits him right in the heart.

There is a moment of silence. We then hear the sound of wind. The lights warm. A crowd with a medical background surrounds Mr. Christopher, and tends to him, with a professional suppressed panic that is compelling. The lights cool, and we hear a music cue swell. The crowd instinctively senses Emily approaching, and makes way for her. In another moment which elegantly incorporates live visual magic, we see her summon her power to pull the bullet from his body. As she does this the orange light intensifies almost unbearably, and we hear the high-pitched magic sound. The lights on the side panels turn orange. A spotlight highlights the body and the floating bullet. The spot fills in with orange, and all the lights on stage return to a normal wash color. We hear the sound of a heartbeat, and he gasps, coughing. Emily holds him. He tries to thank her, and she refuses his thanks. The separate, and we hear violin music.

To that music, Jenny begins building a choreographed "Sparrow" dance with the rest of the ensemble, that mirrors the dance done at the end of the first act. We see the projections of stars, and Emily sitting in a makeshift train car, made up of rows of seats, and we a projected Chicago skyline in movement on the screen behind, a link to her earlier position in the car in the first act. This time, she accepts the call of adventure, and embraces the journey to Chicago.
Emily has learned to use her magic to save a life, and in Campbell this is thought of as the "life-granting boon." A hero wrests or is granted this boon as a result of the struggle with the gods. In localized tales, the hero uses this boon to purify the community. In more general tales, the boon is used to save civilization. In this tale Emily will leave the confines of the town and come to Chicago.

Many 20-somethings living in Chicago left similar small towns (or reminiscent suburbs), and thus, the link between the audience and Emily is profound. And so, while certain narrative points are disproportionately emphasized, and while certain plot devices are rather simple, transparent, and frankly "Buffy-esque" (the scene in Mr. Christopher's class in which Emily answers an absurdly difficult question with ease comes to mind), the fact remains: The House's work resonates importantly with a very important audience. That their current run at the Steppenwolf is sold out is an indication of this.

Their work, technically, is creative and unique. And while the story seems simple at times, in its unique contemporary portrayal of the monsters and tasks of mythology, it is in fact a sophisticated portrait of our times that, should they continue to develop their work even more from a literary standpoint, may outgrow their current popularity and endure for years to come.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Collaboraction's week of Suzan-Lori Parks' 365 Days/365 Plays

"To an absurd mind, reason is useless, and yet there is only reason."
Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

"Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears."
America, the Beautiful

"All of my plays are about love and distance."
Suzan-Lori Parks

Today, February 2, 2007, Barack Obama seems like a man of destiny. Everyone is talking about him, and more importantly, everyone believes that he is going to win and do right. Forget Biden's comparison of his articulateness compared to other African-American presidential candidates. Barack Obama is erudite by the standards of any American politician in the 20th or 21st century, period. By entering the presidential race, he is initiating a serious racial discussion in our country that has not been undertaken on a widespread level since the 1970s.

Now, of course, I live in Chicago, so my sense of this "destiny" is probably a bit overstated. Obama is a Chicago politician, and I went to the University of Chicago, while he and his wife were living and working down there. I met her a few times and she is a really interesting, charming woman. But aside from the pro-Obama-destiny bias stemming from my time in Hyde Park, and aside from the exuberance that Chicagoans feel at a hometown politician entering such a stage, there are other rational reasons to feel skeptical about this sense of destiny. The right-wing has not yet unloaded on him yet--indeed, no one, save for a totally ineffectual Keyes campaign (and a by-the-book Bobby Rush for congress campaign before that, which I also witnessed on the south side). And, of course, he's only been in the Senate for two years. And there are several other facts, that without turning this article into a New Republic submission, could still very seriously hinder his candidacy.

But we feel it, this sense of destiny, and I have come to believe that it is because of, and not in spite of, the very obstacles that we see between Obama and the presidency that we believe in him. Americans love their ideals, and the mood in the country is deeply pessimistic. Barack Obama's candidacy represents the coming-of-age of the ideals of 60s liberalism. This is America, the multi-cultural America, in which anyone, of any background, given a decent opportunity can do anything. This is the America that we learned about in elementary school in the 80s as the inheritance from Martin Luther King's martyrdom.

This sense of idealism in darkness fueled the enthusiasm behind Carter and Reagan, two deeply idealistic candidates entering the stage at profoundly difficult national moments. We need to feel good about America right now, and we need to make that which we believe to be the best and most lovable thing about America come true.

Barack Obama, for many on both the left and right, is an abstraction onto which they can project their fantasies about this American ideal coming true, and the more difficult it appears for Obama, the more they love his candidacy, because it is a miraculous awakening of a wellspring of patriotic feeling. It feels, for those who believe in the ideals to which Obama's candidacy appeals, like a miraculous destiny for a man of his skin color to be president right now. And Obama senses this--his campaign is the definitely shaping the contest to come as one between idealistic optimism that is going somewhere, and pessimistic pragmatism, that has gone nowhere.

Suzan-Lori Parks says that all her plays "are about love and distance." This is certainly true on the domestic level, especially in The America Play. But this love/distance obsession translates most profoundly, in my view, on the political level--in the expression of our political ideals. This is one reason why I believe the the recent 365 Days/365 Plays project in Chicago has been so resonant. Parks feels, in the air, the most recent incarnation of the American ideal shattered, and shows us the responses.

The 365/365 project is the result of a year in which Parks wrote one play a day. Jason Loewith at Next Theatre, whom I met when I was in Hyde Park, when he was casting at Court Theatre, is leading the project to produce this work, week-by-week, in Chicago's theaters. Actually, one wanting to survey the methods of Chicago theater could simply attend each of these performances to get a sense for how each ensemble presents a single playwright's vision.

Parks' vision is of a world in which we are conscious of the futility of action in the service of our ideals. In Chekhov, in Uncle Vanya, the inability to accept this reality amounts to despair for his characters. Parks' characters know that the ideals for which they strive can never be attained, that they enable exploitation and participation in political horrors, and yet, they cannot resist these ideals.

This is the world of Parks' best-known allegory, from both The America Play and TopDog/UnderDog, which both concern a similar principal character, a black man who plays the role of Abraham Lincoln in a carnival attraction in which patrons can act out assassinating him for kicks. In The America Play, we are invited into his nuclear family--which he abandons to go west and make his fortune (ie realize his ideal).

In TopDog/UnderDog, the Black Lincoln character is shown in a different situation--living with his brother, a ne'er do well, ironically named Booth by their father. Lincoln (that is his given name in the play this time) is portrayed as a reformed 3-card-monty shark. He has mastered the magical ideal that has the power to seduce, in spite of its clear fraudulence. His brother is a small-time shoplifter. Booth envies his brothers talent and demands instruction and initiation into the art.

Lincoln is presented to us as a shaman who has traversed the boundaries of his black community, and returned as master of the magic through which the community is ruled. As a card shark, he is a celebrity, a genius, and a hero. But he is not content with this status in the community, as his journey prior to the action of the play has conferred a certain wisdom. Lincoln has exceeded the need for adulation stemming from his mastery of the art. Moreover, he is aware of the dangers of this type of magic--he believes it would get him shot. He refuses to share the wisdom with his brother. He doubts his brother's ability to assimilate that wisdom and he fears for his brother's life should he attain the ability to master the magic without the life-expanding consciousness through which he (Lincoln) has managed to attain desirelessness at the top of the play.

Inscribed in these stories and characters is a radical reading of black and American identity, as well as a living metaphorical depiction of the relationship between Americans and their ideals. Three-card-monty is the metaphor for our impossible, and yet impossibly seductive ideals. We are aware of its fraudulence. But we cannot resist. How do we win our bread, if we are not in the game? By assuming a role and willingly submitting to our own humiliation. In Lincoln's case, he assumes the role of the white foreign patriarch undergoing martyrdom in the service of his ideal. But this is, for Parks, the essence of American life. We assume the role of another's ideal--and then we actively submit to it. But all the while, we are dreaming of mastering the impossible game.

Collaboraction's portion of 365/365 is a depiction of the responses to characters across a broad spectrum of backgrounds to a consciousness of this world. And through a highly audience-interactive style, they depict our own responses to this perverse awareness, too. For the plays produced by Collaboraction in their portion of 365/365 transpire in a world similar to that of Parks' other works.

I was expecting a more or less standard theatrical experience, a seat, a program, house music, and then the show. That is not how it worked. The audience climbed three flights of stairs, at the landings of which we were presented with signs with Parks' quotations--from which the quote at the top was taken. After milling about in the hall, checking in, getting tickets, briefly greeting those we knew, we entered a huge loft space, in which a monolithic DJ stand was built--above which hovered a living space/office from which tech was being run, and in which two giant loosely interlocking platforms ran across the floor. The feel was of an elaborate cocktail party at a club. There were photographic projections of post-industrial and other scenes, and a light show, consisting of light blue and green. There was also a glowing blacklight in the room, reflecting off of large cutouts posted on one of the huge walls of the space.

There was a free bar, and a table at which we could buy Collaboraction stuff. I saw several friends from the show milling about in costume, in character. I saw and chatted with several other friends, and it suddenly occurred to me that this experience of artists meeting and greeting was park of the experience. My isolation, taking notes in the corner, felt foreign. So I mingled.

Thus, the first portion of Collaboraction's presentation gave a representational presentation to the act of socializing. The plays would emerge from the social flux. But we, in our conversations, are shoulder-surfing, checking out to see who's doing what, considering ourselves in the same light. We objectify our peers, measuring ourselves against them in this foreign environment, and we feel ourselves being measured, too.

The stage manager toured the room, quietly giving places calls. The lights calm, and we hear the THX sound-intro. We hear melodramatic strings. The DJ starts talking and rapping over pounding beats. We start moving our bodies, unconsciously to the rhythms. This compounds the club/party atmosphere. Suddenly, we see Sienna Harris running, fast, up the right platform, then ducking and hiding from an imposing bolt of thunder. She is playing a small girl, wearing a depression era girl's dress. She calls out that there's "nothing here." A muscular man, Beethoven Oden, in dreadlocks, enters and tends to her. He is in a child's depression-era garb as well. Interestingly, Margot Bordenton, the director of the piece, chose not to cast actors with skinny, child-like bodies in this piece that features two anachronistically costumed children.

This is a choice. The underlying suggestion, from the top, is that this child's play is an allegorical restatement of the action in adult lives. In silence, watching the two actors, Oden and Harris looking for something, we feel an excruciating tension. From the precipice of the edge of the platform, Harris' character drops a belt and watches it fall. In a moment of physical play that was beautiful, Oden restrains her as she appears to want to jump from the edge of the precipice. As he restrains her, the tension that we felt underlying the action at the top of the scene explodes, as she recounts the horrors of nuclear devastation, and the sense of her own hypothetical and conditional culpability in the the US' dropping of the bomb, had she or other African-Americans been in power at the time.

Oden's character urges the girl to "come inside" with an contrasting, soothing authority and presence. The two characters hear a dog's bark in the distance, and the immediate action of the piece is clear: these two, the boy and girl, have been looking for their dog. We see them share a focus, out toward the dog. They celebrate the dog's return together.

As children, these characters bespeak innocence. But as black children in the garb of the Jim Crow era, they take on a special quality of innocence. This piece suggests an era when blacks in the south lacked virtually any influence on the political process. Harris' character, in this millieu, conjures the images of the bad choices that history leads us to, politically, and the attendant sense of culpability, even amidst the most innocent.

Further, as a mutual friend of Harris' and mine pointed out following the production (a by product of Collaboraction's choice of staging was to encourage this sort of reflection), there is the question of image. The only time the two characters share a point of focus is when the dog is discovered offstage. The larger question of culpability in the horror of Hiroshima is subsumed by the mundane, but shared and simple task of finding the dog, just as the question of the fraudulent appeal of the three-card monty game is subsumed by the everyday tasks of most characters in TopDog. Just as the game is a point of obsession, so is the political world and conditions that underpin the decision to drop the bomb. Just as the game feels inescapably appealing, so one's participation in large political decisions feels inescapable.

This ineluctable reduction of the individual's will to an ideal is then presented from an alternate perspective. We are presented another DJ'ed interlude, in which Anacron Allen refers to Chicago as a "town outside Gary" and plays sax to an infectious beat. The interludes set a baseline rhythm for normalcy for the evening, and the performers either consciously or unconsciously feed off of or play against this rhythm. The cool blue light sets the tone as we enter "The Palace at 4 AM", according to the play's title.

We shift our attention from utterly powerless characters, to the putatively powerful. There is a trill of stately medieval music. We see a woman in royal looking robes (Kay Schmidt), then a man (Len Bajenski), in similar robes, enter, entreating her to "come back to bed" at a similar rhythm to that set by DJ Anacron at the top of the scene. The woman, a mother and a queen, we learn, laments her son's estrangement at a contrastingly slow pace. The son, she says threw his crown in the dirt. We feel her persuade her husband to share the lament. The sun rises, brilliantly. We hear the sound of light string music. They contemplate who will rule. According to the scuttlebutt, it will be the servants. The king vows to protect her at the end.

The theme of a ruling class being supplanted by their servants resonates with the Cherry Orchard, and here, as in the Cherry Orchard, nature's action is a metaphor for the onstage action. The event of the sun's rising adds a nice metaphysical touch. Nature is moving from now to the future, and the social order is changing in just such a way. The mystery by which our community and world is ruled does not, in Parks' world, flow from human beings individually, but something higher, either people collectively or something even more mysterious than that. In Parks' world it is the awareness of one's powerlessness over that mystery that provokes a sense of despair. We are aware of how deeply we are subject to powers greater than our own, and yet we are forced to look for the dog, and we are powerless over our desire to hand the kingdom over to our son. There is this deeply felt distance between us and what we love and want.

Following another interlude from Anacron, we then move back to the other platform, to join a young man (Brad Smith) and woman (Sarah Gitenstein). They climb, with some effort, the platform, suggesting a Sisyphean struggle. The man asks the woman where she's taking him, again at what felt to be the baseline rhythm of the piece, stemming from Anacron's interlude. "Are you taking me to my parents? To the cemetery?", he asks. (I'm paraphrasing here). And at the suggestion of parents, I linked this young man to the preceding piece. The long backpacking trip or encounter with nature feels like a rite of passage, and I inferred from the preceding scene that that's is precisely what the son of the Royal couple was longing for. We have shifted from the cool light of the castle to the warm bucolic tones of nature. The two of them are in crunchy, earthy-looking costumes.

His subsequent question, and her reply are illustrative: "I'm not dead yet!" he asks--and she says "You will be!" The sense here of impending doom transitions from the first scene. The young man is seeking to escape his status as a putative member of the ruling class, and senses his powerlessness to do so. The humor in despair here is glorious: "I can dig the hole!" he replies.

He offers to give her a ride on his back. When he falls, and she grows scared, we sense the underlying fear and despair in the piece, and the pace slackens. After removing his backpack, he re-offers to give her a ride on his back, claiming that he's "still a man." "Sure you are," she replies, as the scene closes.

Following another infectiously scored interlude from Anacron, the same platform is the venue for the following piece, "Space Invaders," a meditation on fundamentalism and nihilistic secularism as a response to Parks' Sisyphean atmosphere of impossibly distant and impossibly seductive ideals. A man pointing "finger guns" with both hands follows sounds of wildlife and shoots. The lights remain in warm tones. Scooter, played by Brad Akin, wearing a mustache and a bathrobe enters, demanding skeptically "What are you doing?!" When Shooter (the other character, played by Max Lesser) responds that he's engaged in target practice, Akin responds, hilariously, in a wonderfully contrary tone and rhythm that he "doesn't see shit." Shooter warns that there are aliens and that Scooter, a non-believer is in danger. Scooter walks off, replying: "I'm gonna watch TV and jerk off." Shooter responds that Scooter can "suit yourself."

Thus Parks links the atmosphere of despair underlying the prior few pieces with the surge in eschatological expectations following from the aftermath of September 11. The fundamentalist response is to focus on the movement of supernatural ideals, and in seeing Shooter preparing for the aliens, we see a represented picture of the war-like mentality of those readers of Revelations who are preparing for the Last Days. We despair of our powerlessness, and we find comfort, on the one hand, from the eschatological expectations and preparations found in fundamentalism.

On the other hand is Scooter, who looks to television and cheap masturbatory titillation as a balm against the atmosphere of despair and insecurity, and as a response to the seeming senselessness of the Shooter. Here, form and content are married: Scooter is radically secular in response to Shooter's radical fundamentalism. But the form, the contrapuntal tone, is the vessel by which we see this response, and the piece succeeds brilliantly because of it.

Then, to complement the rural setting of the previous two pieces, we hear banjo music mixed with hip-hop. Our focus shifts back to the opposite platform. We see rich, green light, and a young man, David Dastmalchian, alone. He is meditating, out loud, on his ability to "barn burn." This is literal. He can "make himself known" by burning his uncle's barn. The title of the piece is "Hamlet/The Hamlet," which is perhaps a suggestion of the melancholy prince in a rural village. That is how the piece is presented by Collaboraction. The young man resents his status as poor, his dead father who is more useful dead than alive, he claims. He begs God for help, and as he does, a woman invites him in to eat. Here is an inversion of the previous form--a young man's torments interrupted by his mother (Gertrude, we presume), where previously in "There's Nothing Here" and "The Palace at 4am," the man consoles and invites inside the tormented woman.

The mother, Morgan McCabe, stands arm in arm with her son, in what we presume is a purposely romantically suggestive pose. She asks if he'll come into eat or simply stare at the barn. She demands at a challenging tone, "They say you're a barn-burner. Are they liars?" He returns inside, and the mother is alone on the porch. "God help us, every one," she prays fervently.

This linkage of the fundamentalist posture with the Hamlet "futility of action" conundrum is key, as they both seem understandable responses to the atmosphere created by the piece. We then hear a mix of 40s music with hip-hop beats, and see a sharply dressed woman strewing the opposite platform with belongings, and Eagan Reich (who recently appeared as Judas Iscariot in Steep's production of the Stephen Adly Guirgis' Last Days of Judas Iscariot) sitting nonchalantly. We see books, shoes and other belongings scatter. The formal action of the scene then starts, and we see the man playing a video game to antiquated "Atari" sounds. The woman is dressing and packing her purse. There is a yellow light on the stage. He loses his game, and at an even tone asks her what she's doing. She replies that that she has a meeting later that day with Brad Pitt (Hence the name of the piece, "Meeting Brad Pitt"). The man is clearly drunk from the bottle of Jim Beam on stage. He tries to make conversation about her life--and is so divorced from her reality that he cannot. The piece closes with his advice to her: "don't pay that guy top dollar!", which had the audience in hysterics.

There is a great link between Hamlet's struggles for meaningful action and Reich's character's prolonged, sodden, adolescence. He and the woman, played by Kristala Pouncy, remain a relationship which, we might infer, has seen her grow into the role of a professional and him remain an adolescent. We might also infer that they have met and fallen in love just as they are. But however we read their relationship, it is clear that Parks is offering us a vision of two sides of a coin in this relationship. His response to the futility of action is to retreat. Hers is to race forward in action. But they are essentially opposites that revolve around the same center. That such a match is absurd and hilarious highlights the absurdity of extremes around which characters in Parks' world settle their lives.

The final response of the evening is suicide, in "Trust Life," which features Merci Oni, doing really stunning work. The scene opens to the cast, in hospital gowns, moving through the space as we hear piano music slow. The lights go out. We see Merci in the center of the space beneath an intense special light. She looks frightened. We hear a clap of thunder. The rest of the hospital people emerge. We hear them whispering something out of sync, indistinguishable at first, that builds to an intense hiss at a high rhythm. "Trust life," they are saying. Merci balances on one foot. We hear another clap of thunder. She gasps. "Trust life," the cast says together. In a beautifully executed move, Merci flips her hand up and pantomimes slitting her throat.

Camus calls suicide the ultimate philosophical question, and as such, it is fitting that Parks' deeply philosophically-themed work ends here. Parks presents us a world in which we rely, rather than on the absurd mind's reason, on ideals to which we are inextricably linked by virtue of the circumstances of our birth. The responses to the impossibility of these ideals compose the theme of much of her work, and a prism through which Collaboraction helps us understand our political and social reality.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

PIllowman Redux

I rewrote the Pillowman entry from last month. This is a little clearer and very slightly more succinct. Enjoy!

Evil, All Grown Up: Adults Choosing Evil in The Steppenwolf's Pillowman

“...answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? [Ivan Karamazov asked his brother.]”

“No, I would not agree,” Alyosha said softly.1

A brilliant young writer witnesses his brother being tortured by their parents. He frees his brother and cares for him. As they live together in the aftermath of the torture, the brilliant young man writes stories that, in various forms, represent the experience. In these representations he makes sense of the experience by attempting to answer certain questions: how could this have have happened? How could their parents have allowed and perpetrated this? Can any good come from this?

This is a simple restatement of the premise of The Pillowman. But it is also a restatement and clear distillation of the premise upon which the Hebrew bible was written and propagated. That premise has anthropological and religious roots in the period following the first Israelite exile in 586 B.C.E.

What had until then amounted to ancient Israel’s national life (anthropological customs, religion, etc.) was thrown into turmoil, following the Persian invasion and the exile of the nobility, as Persia administered government. This trauma caused profound suffering and upheaval for the Israelites who lived through it and its aftermath, in which Persia partially relinquished the conquest (they allowed the return of the nobility and the rebuilding of the temple). The priestly cult which had hitherto controlled religious life was undoubtedly undermined by new religious practices.

It is doubtful that, for the nobility, the experience was traumatic per se (the book of Daniel portrays the nobility—the priests and their families—living as guests amongst the court of the Persian king), but it was not easy, given certain trials and privations, and especially in light of what the nobility saw as their divine mandate. They witnessed Israel misdirected, religiously, from the path of the established religious norms (centering on the temple cult). Following their return, by 445 B.C.E., the Mosaic scripture (the five books of Moses, or Scriptural Torah) was collected and propagated. The priests were witnesses to the suffering of the population of Israel. What, according to Jacob Neusner (as a surveyor of Jewish history), was their response as witnesses? Literature (storytelling).2

According to Neusner, ancient Israelite religious and social life revolved around a few central principles. The priests collected ancient stories and built those stories around a simple narrative form: purity, exile, and redemption. This narrative form underpinned the central principles. The form is repeated throughout the Mosaic scripture, and it is a keen statement of the worldview of its creators, especially with respect to some of the young writer's questions: how could this have happened? How could God have allowed and perpetrated this? Can any good come from this?

They answered: God created a world in which man must be allowed to suffer as a condition of his eventual redemption. This narrative form both bolstered their orthodox view of Israelite life and recentered the Israelite world. While exile was not the personal experience of many Israelites, the Pentateuch's treatment of exile articulated many questions of identity that they faced.

The priests portray variations on their experience as a class in response to the suffering they have witnessed—they are a self-centered class of narrator-witnesses. The theme of a self-centered narrator telling stories to make sense of a relation's suffering recurs directly in The Pillowman. McDonagh casts Katurian in the role of the “self-centered priest-artist-chronicler” and his brother Michal in the role of “suffering everyman.” The Mosaic narrative structure is one of the most dominant in human history, and, like the priests who propagated it and the Israelite populace, it is key to Michal and Katurian, who uses and alters it as commentary on his experience.

Ivan Karamazov, quoted at the top, is similar to the priests and Katurian. He collects and chronicles stories of horrible abuses committed against children. He purposely narrows his theme to children, to heighten the starkness of the injustice. In this preoccupation he shares much with Katurian.

The “poem” (more a short apocryphal biblical story) that results from Ivan's years of preoccupation is The Grand Inquisitor. In it, Ivan undermines the basic Mosaic narrative form. Christ returns to earth in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition to comfort men in suffering (the exile part of the Mosaic narrative) and to aid in their redemption—i.e. to aid them in the process of enacting the narrative. A political leader, the Inquisitor, arrests and executes Christ, deciding for his constituents that the suffering that God allows as a condition of man's redemption is too abject. The Grand Inquisitor aims, as a terrestrial god, to lessen man's suffering, and refuses the redemption part of the narrative on man's behalf.

The Brothers Karamazov, writ large, takes on the related sufferer/witness to suffering theme, through a narrator chronicling a town's suffering over the course of several months in the late 19th century. Its story tends to respond to Ivan's treatment of the Mosaic narrative; it portrays, realistically, the suffering incurred by mankind as the result of spiritual freedom weighed against the basic human need for such a freedom, and its potential to regenerate mankind. Dostoevsky concludes, with a heavy heart, that the potential benefit of a world regenerated by a spiritually free, active love outweighs the manifest, horrible suffering necessarily incurred by mankind through such a freedom. He believes that it is impossible to sociologically reconstitute a world without suffering, and concludes that the struggle between these two extremes, freedom and suffering, is the divinely ordained struggle of creation. But he works within the framework of the Mosaic narrative structure to make this point.

The Brothers Karamazov states question of suffering versus spiritual freedom very politically, and in the post-enlightenment literary world, the political ramifications of this question were paramount. Today, this question takes on different forms, but thanks to the media's power to shape our view of reality, the aesthetic form of the question becomes the powerful political question.

Here's an example of such a question, directly related to a narrative we have just considered, related to the foundation of the State of Israel. It's fairly clear to anyone studying the history of the settlement of the modern State of Israel that the Jewish people largely acted out, politically, the narrative to which they as a people clung for two millenia. Now, did the Jewish people perpetuate the redemption narrative due to the existence of the narrative by itself or due to cultural norms that gave rise to the narrative? Or some mixture of the two?

The question of Israel's history is a pertinent restatement of a contemporary problem: what is the relationship between real world violence and violence in mass media? Do images of violence necessarily cause violence? And if so, what is the appropriate balance between artistic freedom and attendant human suffering?

Katurian, like Ivan, uses and undermines the Mosaic narrative throughout The Pillowman. But The Pillowman, writ large, portrays the distilled circumstances through which we receive basic stories considering theodicy and a balance between artistic freedom and suffering. In this portrayal, McDonagh, in collaboration with Amy Morton (the director of the recent Steppenwolf production), has created a stark, blistering work that, like The Brothers Karamazov, ultimately affirms the hope that mankind can balance artistic freedom (McDonagh’s brand of spiritual freedom in this piece) and its attendant necessary suffering, with a world redeemed from suffering. He shows us how artistic freedom plays out in the world, and he shows us the consequences and possibilities.

McDonagh gives life to the problem in the forms of Katurian K. Katurian (his full legal name; played by Jim True-Frost) his brother, Michal (Michael Shannon), and the detectives who have arrested them, Tupolski (Tracy Letts) and Ariel (Yasen Peyankov). To restate the action of the piece more elaborately: Katurian, an author of obscure short stories, and his brother, Michal, are arrested on suspicion of child murder. Michal confesses to having killed the children at the inspiration of his brother's stories. Katurian, in response, murders his brother in custody. Katurian agrees to confess to the murders of the children (although, in reality, he played no direct part in the murder of the children), as well as his brother and his parents (he did indeed kill his parents years before, in response to their abuse of his brother) as a bargain for the saving of his stories. He is then murdered by the police (the play is set in a fictitious totalitarian state where such police murder is commonplace), but his stories are saved.

The play is set with the stage from an old vaudeville or movie house, painted with gold foil, in the background. In the foreground is a vast police warehouse, with a portrait of the Fearless Leader (a Bashar Assad looking fellow), and flags on the wall. Great steel balconies suggestive of a steel mill run high up. There are old crates, old works of art, law books, and filing cabinets lining the floor, suggestive of the key Apollo and Dionysus dualism at the heart of the production—creativity and order, side by side. The relegation of law books to a warehouse is highly suggestive of our current questions related to rule of law with respect to enemy combatants. There is no house music. A great chandelier, suggestive of the old vaudeville, stares down at the audience from above.

I was a little disappointed that the totalitarian regime was so clearly suggested by the portrait. One nice thing about the Broadway production is how we as an audience were forced to piece together, like detectives, the nature of what we were seeing. The introduction of the totalitarian state and its implications happened at McDonagh's pace—unfolding grimly, yet hilariously. Katurian is obsessed with staying apolitical as a writer, and with a portrait of Assad in the background, we know why. But without it, his protestations of disdain for politics resonate with our understanding of the Hollywood screenwriter or the big city cynic—i.e. archetypes we can readily associate with artists we know or know of.

The play opens to Katurian being led, blindfolded, into a dimly lit room from one direction. Then the detectives exit and reenter through another door, disorienting Katurian. Tupolski “demands” to know who left Katurian's blindfold on (when it was him), introducing him as the “good cop”. The lighting here actually delineated the boundaries of the detectives' office, suggestive of the countless interrogations we've seen in popular culture featuring a lamp shone directly over the suspect's head. Ariel proceeds to pull a lamp directly over Katurian's head here, completing the image, and introducing him as the “bad cop.”

The rhythmic scoring of the action from the police at the top was fantastically aggressive, intimidating, and disorienting. When Tupolski seeks intimacy with Katurian by joking about how he needs information to fill out a form (which he subsequently tears in half) the rhythm slows, and his tool for acquiring intimacy with the suspect is clear. When Ariel loses his temper at being told “he can draw his own conclusions,” the action ramps up to such a frenzy that we can feel Katurian's torture in our bones. We become intimidated and confused as the detectives rattle through details of Katurian's first story (of a little girl who carves little apple soldiers stuffed with razors) and of questions about visits in the “Jew quarter” (even in McDonagh's bizarrely representational alternate universe the Jew is the other and is corralled into a ghetto). As Katurian learns that his brother has been arrested, his panic raises his rhythm from laconic to frenzied.

It would be easy for a production of this play to simply allow the storytelling that takes place to transpire at a haphazard pace. In this production, the pacing is concerted: stories are told at a wonderfully simple yet unsaccharine pace. As a result, the audience has time to make sense of Katurian's allegories. To wit: the little girl with apple soldiers. This story is key to how Katurian, despite his protests, makes sense of storytelling. An abused little girl with a crass, piggish father, carves little apple soldiers, stuffs them with razors, and gives them to her father as a gift, warning him to only admire them and not to eat them. He does eat them, however, and dies, choking on his own blood. Then, as the little girl sleeps, the soldiers invade her dreams and crawl down her throat, killing her. The story is, abstractly, a melding of Katurian and his brother's experiences. But it is clearly written from his point of view: the girl creates something deadly in response to abuse—we can imagine that she knows full well that her crass, gluttonous father will eat the apples. The deadly creation eventually kills her.

Of course, a story of abuse leading to destruction could certainly be Katurian's representation of Michal's experience. And later in the production, we see Michal, as a response to abuse, construct a creative action (acting out Katurian's stories, and this one especially) that will end destructively. Rather, I believe that this story is about creating works that depict violence and knowing that those depictions will result in real world violence. And as such, this story is Katurian's own personal and specific meditation on violence in art. The little girl's response to abuse is the creation of these deadly soldiers—and it eventually destroys both her abuser and herself.

As we hear the story of “Three Gibbet's Crossing”, (a caged man is shot without understanding why) we feel the rhythmic dissonance between Katurian and the detectives ease. They establish a banter. We hear another story, a midrashic interpretation of the Pied Piper story, in which a boy, who accepts his poverty and ostracization, and offers his measly sandwich (his only dinner) to a traveler who passes by. The traveller thanks him by chopping off his toes. It turns out that by crippling the boy, he has saved him from the fate of the other children of Hamlin, who will be led off by the Pied Piper, the traveler, later.

Soon, the air in the room depletes as we hear the sounds of Katurian's brother screaming next door. The rhythm crawls. And then the detectives strike, and the room throbs. There have been two children murdered, and there is a third missing. The two children were murdered in an apparent imitation of Katurian's unpublished stories, pointing the finger at him. The detectives want confessions. In a grim moment that caused the couple beside me to cringe, the detectives confront Tupolski with a box of toes that apparently comes from an imitation of the Pied Piper story. There is a certain staged quality here to Ariel and Tupolski's shtick, that becomes apparent as Tupolski implores Ariel not to feed the toes to Katurian. This is welcome comic relief.
Then, in a chilling moment, scored at a snail's pace, Ariel growls that “to kill a writer”, as they are planning to do, “sends a message. And that message is that YOU CAN'T GO AROUND KILLING LITTLE FUCKING KIDS!”

Katurian responds, with dignity, that he refuses to say another word without seeing his brother. Perhaps the potential for a prisoner's dilemma type of subterfuge has occurred to him. But the even dignity with which True-Frost delivers those lines clearly articulates the love that he has for his brother. He is left alone as Ariel goes to retrieve electrodes.

Here we see the giant vaudeville stage and the fabulous crystal chandelier slide out from the background, to the sound of a foghorn. In a play about art, it is appropriate that this production, a work of theater art, emphasized the theatrical aspect, by making the vaudevillian stage a centerpiece. Katurian addresses us as a spotlight follows him (perhaps echoing the vaudeville theme). And in a very astute choice, we see the story of Katurian and Michal's childhood unfold directly before us, on a stage near to the one on which the preceding action takes place, suggesting, implicitly the equality between the two tales. On Broadway the action of Katurian's past unfolds on a balcony high above the stage, behind a scrim. In this production the story unfolds as near to us as everything that has transpired until now.

We learn the story of a boy writer, Katurian, showered with love and affection by his parents and recognized for his stories. As the boy matures, he begins to hear sounds of torture through the wall (akin to Michal's screams earlier). The screams through the wall are also suggestive of the Republic's allegory of the cave, in which the philosopher's job is seen as discourse on the nature of the shadows of formal reality that compose everyday life. In McDonagh's world, suffering is reality and the writer is the philosopher, whose job is to discourse on the shadows he witnesses thereof. Michal's experience is the direct opposite—he experiences the shadows of a joyous reality through the wall. Were Michal the storyteller, we can imagine that his stories would be inversions of Katurian's. In this world (as imagined by Morton), the sufferer and the witness are inversions of each other. They even (we learn later) look similar.

When the boy enters the room adjacent to his, he finds his parents have played a joke on him, with sounds that mimic suffering. Eventually, Katurian discovers that his brother is indeed being tortured. True-Frost as the nerdy writer is quirky, almost like an eccentric Crispin Glover persona here, in disturbingly describing, at a very even pace, the murder of his own parents, in response to the torture.

Katurian's story is Mosaic in nature; he lives idyllically, then suffers, then repents, then is redeemed. Michal's is directly opposite. He suffers, is saved, lives idyllically, then sins, then suffers.

The stage and chandelier retract, and we find Michal alone on stage. On Broadway, Michal was depicted as Katurian's eternal little brother; fat, childish, plaintive. Here, he is depicted as Katurian's doppelganger, physically. As we see him respond to the sounds of Katurian's torture through the wall, we recognize his responses as rather adult responses. He has stubble. He and his brother have petty squabbles, and just as any two brothers who are contemporaries have resentments, Michal resents Katurian—and we sense it immediately, even in the moment Katurian is thrown on stage. The brothers have a rhythmic rapport, and their interactions feel deeply rooted in their decades-old relationship. The rhythm of their interactions is the baseline for normalcy in the production.

Michal reveals that he told the detectives whatever they wanted to avoid torture. Michal jokes that he might blame the whole thing on Katurian. Michal's banter with here is akin to a petulant adolescent, not to the eight year old characterization presented on Broadway. He's not a savant, and he's not a child. He rather resembles a frat boy with tattered clothes. He begs to hear his brother's short story, The Pillowman, which Katurian tells at an easy pace.

That story is the allegorized rendering of a storyteller whose stories prompt his audience/subject (they are the same character) to self-destruction, and whose sometime failure initiates a story he tells himself, prompting his own self-destruction. The Pillowman's stories are all told to a child living in an idyllic scene in the past (echoing the Mosaic nature of Katurian's sense of personal narrative). The storyteller tells the child of the impending corruption of the future and the futility of living (these are future lonely suicides). The stories prompt the children to destroy themselves as children (and disguise the suicides as accidents) so as to spare themselves from the horror of the corrupted future. To the Pillowman, like Ivan, the suffering (exile) is too abject to expect people to bear. The Pillowman (somewhat like the Inquisitor) aids his wards by helping them to refuse redemption. The Inquisitor knowingly refuses a real redemption, where, for the Pillowman, there is none.

Finally, the Pillowman, by failing to convince a future rape victim to self-destroy as a child (the storytelling by True-Frost builds to a fevered crescendo), becomes despondent, and goes back to his own self as a child, and tells his child self the story of his future lonely suicide, and convinces his child self to immolate himself. As the grown Pillowman disappears, he hears the screams of the people whose childhood self-destruction spares them from a horrific future. We can imagine that he realizes, in horror, the relative selfishness of his suicide before he dies.

Herein is contained Katurian's message to himself as a storyteller: though my stories may incite self-destruction and pain, they are truthful, and in the end, more humane than a life of untrue illusion. The story is Katurian's affirmation of a miserable life as a chronicler of human suffering. It is also a larger affirmation of the ultimate value of the enterprise, so long as his stories (destructive, but true) survive. Humanity may destroy itself as a result of his stories, but Katurian's creative spirit believes that this is the best of all possible outcomes. Is this the underlying message of the play? I do not think so. As we will see, the self-centeredness of Katurian's narratives and the critical disposition of his readers are crucial to the picture outside of the specific short story of The Pillowman.

The story finishes. Michal confesses to having actually killed the boy by cutting off his toes. He did tell the police what they wanted to hear—but he also happened to kill the kids. Michal asserts that he killed because his brother told him to. (At this point several audience members left). Katurian accuses his brother of being a “sadistic asshole.” Michal has convinced himself of an informal critical theory. Art causes violence, and therefore I did violence. Michal has critiqued Katurian's work by killing in response. He points out that as a result of the murders, Katurian will become a famous writer, to which Katurian responds that the most likely outcome will be the destruction of the stories. He tell his brother he would rather be burnt alive, and have Michal burnt alive before having the stories burnt.

Michal is obsessed with his brother's stories—he wants his brother and the stories to be famous. Yet if he is sophisticated enough to act out murder to further that result, he is surely sohpisticated enough to realize that he will destroy his brother. As an adult in this production (and again, not as the Broadway production's child), he makes an adult choice, springing from complex motives. I'm convinced that, in this production, he hates and resents his brother, and at the same time, longs for his brother's success and the success of the stories.

Why? Every story in the play can be recognized as Katurian's meditation on his own suffering as a witness to his brother's pain or Katurian's meditation on his brother's pain itself. The relationship between the chronicler (the artist) and the subject forms the foundation of this Cain and Abel story, because the artist, Katurian, grasps for meaning from the suffering he has witnessed, and his brother makes sense of his own experience via Katurian's stories. As a result of Morton and Shannon's choice to characterize Michal as an adolescent, we see a being whose understanding of the world has taken shape as a teenager.

This makes sense. If Michal is the older brother, and is liberated from his parents' torture at, say, age eleven or twelve, we can safely assume that he is taught or learns to read (he can read) in the subsequent few years. He is socialized during those years and educated otherwise. But most importantly, he can come to hear and comprehend (for Shannon's Michal, as opposed to the Michal on Broadway, can comprehend) fully his brother's representation of the world in story.

There is deep resentment in the relationship. On Broadway, the relationship was portrayed as a George and Lenny relationship. That is to say: Katurian is in no wise Michal's peer. The resentment in the relationship, therefore, is of a child complaining before his God. Katurian, on Broadway, is the settled authority in the relationship, and Michal destroys him unknowingly, as a child might break an antique vase. In Morton's production, the two men contend with each other, as peers, even as Katurian plays God. There is resentment in Michal, but his resentment is proud and spiteful. If Katurian plays the role of Michal's God, then Michal is Katurian's Miltonic Satan, a tragic hero, an angel, who has come to see himself as a God.

This is a remarkable artistic statement from Morton. If Katurian is the artist speaking for God, delivering contemporary revelation through fiction, and Michal is a symbol of mankind, suffering uncomprehendingly, and deriving meaning and direction from story, then the portrayal of Michal becomes the director's meditation on the nature of mankind and his suffering. Forgiving the superficial elitism of McDonagh's casting of mankind as a Faulknerian idiot (at least great writers come by this elitist portrayal of mankind honestly), I feel that Morton does her best to present Michal less as an idiot than as a damaged adolescent genius. Michal is intelligent, angry, and most importantly, an adult.

In New York, mankind is portrayed from the ultimate parental elitist perspective: as a child. Recalling the stereotypical cultural elitism of New York's cultural and intellectual congonscenti, we might not find this all that surprising. Chicago's portrayal of man's contention in life is a dignified one, and one for which Morton should be proud. It cannot be emphasized clearly enough—portraying Michal as an adult was a masterstroke.

Soon after Michal's confession, we learn that the third, undiscovered, child was the victim of a reenactment of Katurian's story “The Little Jesus.” We can only imagine, in horror what that entails. Katurian reacts furiously at the idea of the reenactment of such a gruesome story. Actually, his reaction here was far more interesting than Billy Crudup's on Broadway. Crudup reacted instantaneously to Michal's revelation. In True-Frost, we actually see the information land and be processed.

Michal reassures Katurian that everything will be okay—and that they will “hang out in heaven.” When Katurian points out that child killers go to hell, and that it is most certainly a hell in which their parents' abuse is revisited on them, Michal loses control, flopping on the floor, at a frenzied pace, in an act of physical play that bespeaks Morton's mastery as a director of physically free acting. In the post-show discussion True-Frost mentioned that much of the physical acting was improvisational. In this moment of the production it was also moving.

All Michal has, he says, are Katurian's stories. We can imagine that he wants better stories. His beef is critical. But he has already accomplished what he set out to accomplish. It's all over but the shouting. He settles down for a nap—which, as he points out, is sensible, considering the torture that he may about to endure. Katurian points out that the torture may be unbearable, and in crystal-clear moment of Michal's resentment, Michal reminds Katurian that Katurian has no idea of the pain that Michal knows how to endure.

Then Michal demands to hear the story that he enjoys. This moment was timed perfeclty. It seemed that the tension in the piece became unbearable just before Michal made this demand. Another masterstroke from Morton—as the audience is getting uncomfortable, and might think to walk out to hear another story themselves (i.e. leave the theater at the impending intermission), Michal expresses the same sentiment.

Before Michal nods off, he begs to hear his favorite story, The Little Green Pig, which is as follows: The Little Green Pig liked being green—even though he was different, and ostracized by the other pigs. The farmer, noticing the difference, snatches the pig, and dips him in special pink paint that can never be painted over and never washed off. The little green pig is unhappy—his only claim to dignity has been painted over. Subsequently, a special green rain falls, making the other pigs green, and making the little green pig special again.

I believe that this is Michal's piece for a very good reason: it is the only one written exclusively from his own point of view. The pig starts out exceptional, but suffering. He is important even in pariahdom. He is then removed, and forcibly made to conform to the other pigs.

It is a story about someone exceptional in pariahdom who is then removed, from without, from that pariahdom and then made to conform. The pig's suffering is alleviated, but his sense of dignity is diminished. Then, as the rain falls, he realizes a new dignity. To me, this is the perfect meditation on Michal's experience from Michal's own perspective as the direct recipient of suffering, and not from Katurian's perspective as the witness to suffering. We can imagine a fourteen year old Michal hearing his brother's stories and making sense of the outside world (the other pigs) through them. Through his brother's stories, Michal's understanding of the world assumes that every child experiences suffering akin to Michal's prior to his salvation by his brother (i.e. is green just like the little green pig used to be).

Thus, Michal's understanding of the world is that his dignity (recognized retroactively, through the story) as a child, was a false dignity, because he was not truly exceptional in his suffering (i.e. his greenness). His new dignity, as one who has been saved from suffering, is true—the other pigs experience the biblical cycle of innocence corrupted and subsequent suffering (to be followed by repentance and redemption). Michal's dignity is as one whose torture ends as he enters maturity and whose redemption follows directly. Michal's experience is the direct inversion of the biblical narrative.

As he socialized following his grisly experience, the sense of alienation must have been profound. He sees Katurian as supremely powerful, and wonders why, given their equal innate intellectual faculties (they both come from the same sick genius parents), he was not given the power and the pleasure. He heard sounds of enjoyment behind that wall every bit as surely as Katurian heard suffering. In this production Michal both loves and hates his brother, and we understand the reasons. His love stems from the direct relief of his suffering initiated by his brother—his brother is the savior. His hate stems from his resentment at being the freak brother and from his critical distatste for his brother's portrayal (or lack thereof) of his life. He hates that the stories are arranged incorrectly or portray things inaccurately. And most horribly both to Michal (and we discover, Ariel) they incite people to violence—and this incitement may have led to his personal suffering. Michal hates the fact that violence in stories causes violence and he hates Katurian for perpetuating violence, through him and through others, like their parents. When Michal accuses Katurian of being “like them” (the parents) he equates Katurian's words depicting the tortures of hell with their parents' enactment of those tortures, setting the matter before the audience clearly. Words are deeds. They inspire others to violence and they inspired Michal, with his own critical permission, to it.

Inasmuch as Michal's experience is the inversion of Katurian's, it is appropriate that his actions lead to the destruction of the stories. Michal's act of destruction is the ultimate active inversion of his brother's act of creation, yet, interestingly, he rationalizes it as the means by which Katurian will become famous and through which the stories will survive.

Michal falls to sleep, and then, as Katurian did their parents, he smothers Michal with his pillow. As he does it, and Michal struggles and dies (at uncomfortable length), Katurian whispers, repeatedly, that “it's not your [Michal's] fault.”

This key moment, in New York, was portrayed as a mercy killing—of the smart brother sparing his idiot brother more torture. The idiot accidentally came across the wrong stories and now has to die for having acted them out. Better that his brother should do it. In this production, of course, the disagreement between the brothers is a critical one, and much darker. Katurian's murder, Cain slaughtering Abel, is all at once mercy, yes, but also revenge. Michal resented his brother and has destroyed him. Further, Katurian belives, his stories have been destroyed. And the stories call out “from the ground” for justice.

Katurian finishes the murder and goes to the door to announce his confession to six murders. He has only one condition—it concerns his stories. At those words, the lights go black and we head to intermission trying to make sense of 90 minutes of the most dense literary theater we have ever seen.

When intermission ended, approximately 20% of the Saturday night audience had defected—electing to hear other stories for the rest of the evening. As we enter, the chandelier is low and the vaudeville stage is out. We transition gradually into story time.

There once was a little girl who was convinced that she was Jesus. She had good parents and she went around acting Christ-like. Following one of her shenanigans, her parents are tragically beheaded in an auto accident (hilariously portrayed in shadow by Morton, and a bit of self-parody from Katurian and McDonagh). She is then transferred to horrible foster-parents who lied about their horribleness “on the form” (more comic relief). They abuse her horribly and goad her with her belief in her own divinity. They test her by putting her through Christ's trials and by crucifying her and burying her alive. The story ends to the sound of her scratching the top of the coffin.

As I recall, this story was also told, on Broadway, on the same balcony as Michal and Katurian's story. And it was told from behind a scrim, giving the audience comfort and safety in the distance and concealment of the acts. Again, in this presentation, the action is put right before us: we see the little girl lowered into the coffin, and we see her scratching at its top.

Of course, this is paralyzingly unpleasant, but the larger issue is not of how unpleasant we feel, but why Katurian wrote this story. I believe that this story is Katurian's allegorized personal history, every bit as much as The Little Green Pig is Michal's. As a gifted young writer, he was loved and encouraged, just as the little Jesus. After his discovery that his parents are monsters (i.e. the old, kind parents were killed and replaced by the evil foster parents), they test his resolve to be an author by confronting him with the ultimate horror and torture. The sounds of the girl's scratching are Katurian's stories, written in the darkness, heard only by a passing stranger.

At one point in the story, the little girl's foster parents goad her: “You still want to be Jesus?!” The little girl replies: “I don't want to be Jesus, I fucking am Jesus.” The Little Jesus was distinguished in this production by the interpretation of the line: “I fucking AM Jesus!” In In New York, in keeping with the picture of humanity as children, this line was uttered innocently, and our laughter stemmed from the absurdity of such a thing coming from the mouth of a child. In Chicago, the laughter stems from the little girl's grown-up wrath. She IS Jesus, damn it, and she is furious that you would question it!

The Mosaic narrative structure of the idyllic beginning corrupted is in place here. That Katurian, egoistically, sees himself as a Christ figure when he has only been the witness to his brother's suffering (of course suffering in a different way, subsequently) is rather ludicrous, but here McDonagh is having fun with the writer's sense of self-importance. It is also ironic that later in the play Katurian specifically disavows biographical fiction. His stories, while allegorical, are almost exclusively autobiographical. Perhaps McDonagh is portraying the author's unawareness of the nature of his own creation. Perhaps Katurian is having a joke on us all—disclaiming all autobiographical storytelling, but secretly loving it.

It is appropriate that Michal's coup de grace of resentment/destruction/promotion of the stories lies in the performance of The Little Jesus. It is also interesting that Michal's story should be The Little Green Pig, while Katurian gets to be The Little Jesus. If anyone has a claim to sinless suffering, it is Michal, not Katurian. We can imagine him reading this story and seething—yet feeling a sense of dignity that his suffering has resulted in some meaningful representation. Katurian reacts severely to the revelation that his brother has acted out The Little Jesus. We can imagine (from this production) that this is just what Michal intended.

Following the portrayal of The Little Jesus, we are taken back to the office. Katurian has offered to confess to an active role in his parents' murders, the murder of his brother, and the murder of all the children, in exchange for the preservation of his stories. Ariel, recounting the story of The Little Jesus, shreiks primally: “Why does there have to be people like you!” Morton casts the two detectives as “everyman” types as opposed to clever “detective-genius” types (typically in the crime genre, as dueling good and evil, cop and criminal reveal each other most interestingly as geniuses). On Broadway Jeff Goldblum and Zelko Ivancek played the duo, and while both are physically powerful, they can be rather brainy and nebbishy in their affect. Not so at Steppenwolf. Rather, Peyankov and Letts are men whose hearts drive their desires, even as their minds facilitate those desires. They are, deep down, boyish in their energy. Ariel hates Katurian, because he supposes that Katurian is a child abuser. But even more deeply, he hates Katurian for writing about it and thus promoting others to it. But something happens that makes Ariel face with the realization that he is himself an admixture of Katurian and Michal.

Ariel exits to “get some sweets,” (a wonderfully childish impulse). He reenters, bent on showing Katurian no sympathy—preparing to torture him. As Ariel prepares to perform his own idea of justice, Katurian astutely notices Ariel's response to Katurian's having murdered his parents to relieve his suffering. We learn that Ariel was abused by his father and murdered his father in response. As an admixture of the two brothers he is a fully realized human being, while remaining a symbol character in the dualistic structure of the play. He sympathizes with Katurian. He hates Katurian. He finds himself largely in the position that Michal finds himself: he blames Katurian for his suffering and wants to destroy him; yet, the stories represent Katurian's attempt to give meaning to his suffering.

In New York, Ivancek's intellectual portrayal of Ariel rendered his passion at this point (the point of his inner conflict) somewhat dishonest. In Morton's production I implicitly understood the nature of Ariel's sympathy and hate for Katurian.

After Tupolski humorously confirms Ariel's secret, Ariel stalks off painfully. He reenters. Tupolski sips tea elegantly, acting like a detective-genius. Ariel retorts, resentfully, to Tupolski, that the Commissioner likes him better, and that he should be made the number one on the case and run it. Tupolski retorts by deducing, in humorously short order, that Katurian cannot confirm that the little girl used in the reenactment of The Little Jesus was dead or alive at the time of her live burial. Tupolski then informs the squad cars rushing to the scene where Katurian described the little girl's burial (Michal told Katurian and Katurian, in his fictitious confession, told the detectives) to move more quickly.

Ariel storms off again. Tupolski, preparing to execute Katurian, discourses with him at a leisurely pace about a story he himself wrote—the title of which contains far to many words and punctuation marks to be recalled accurately here. It is the story of a deaf little Chinese boy walking alone a long set of railroad tracks along a long plain. Tupolski addresses the audience as he informs us that a train is coming and that the little boy will not hear it—and thus will be killed. An old Chinese man (Letts, as Tupolski, employs some hilariously insensitive and savage racial humor here) sees, from afar, the boy strolling innocently on the tracks and correctly concludes that the boy will be killed. We can assume that this is why the story is set in China, Tupolski, like Katurian, has license to assign himself whatever role that he in his vain self-image likes. For Tupolski, the archetype of wisdom and intellectual fortitude is the Old Chinese Man.

The old man calculates the speed of the train and the point at which the deaf boy would be struck (Katurian correctly points out the hole in the story: how can the old man know that the boy is deaf? Tupolski brushes this detail aside—the symbolism is most important to our detective-author). The old man then, nonchalantly, folds the paper with which he made the calculation into a paper airplane, in just the right spot to distract the boy and pull him away from the tracks.

Tupolski, at the beginning of story time with Katurian, gives him license to speak. When Katurian criticizes Tupolski's title, he revokes the freedom of speech (illuminating some of the resentment Katurian felt for his brother/critic, and delightfully unravelling his assumed air of rational detective-genius). Katurian flatters Tupolski that he loves the story. And, as an allegory for the protector-detective, the character of the nonchalant Old Chinese Man is very expressive of Tupolski's own character, and illuminative of how McDonagh conceives of the act of storytelling. Each character in this play has stories that give his life expression and meaning, except Ariel. But Ariel's stories take a different form, as we will see.

Following story time, Tupolski describes the process by which Katurian will be executed. Ariel enters—they found the little girl, only not dead. She is painted green, like the pig. In this production Michal's final creative/destructive act was darkly humorous. He killed as little as possible in order to make his point. He lied about it, knowing that his lie would be exposed, and that this exposure would reveal his cunning and possible mental equality to his brother. Ariel exposes Katurian's plot to deceive the detectives. We see Tupolski's intellectual self-image deflate, and we see Ariel (who we previously think of as childish muscle) assume an intellectual role. Peyankov here does a fantastic golf swing after putting it together in front of Tupolski's wondering eyes.

Tupolski starts a fire in the tall trash can in the office (in New York it was a tiny paper basket; here a full aluminum alley can). The deal was that Katurian would be honest in his confession, and that his honest confession would earn him the preservation of the stories. Tupolski's vanity as a wise detective has been wounded. His pride as an author has been wounded by Katurian's criticism. He wants to hurt Katurian in the only way he knows how, and “as an honorable man” (as he constantly refers to himself, and as Katurian constantly refers to him) he is within his rights, within the context of the bargain, to burn the stories.

Ariel pleads on Katurian's behalf to save the stories. Tupolski then initiates the execution by placing a black hood on Katurian (Abu-Graib-esque). Stanislavski, in My Life in Art recalls, as a demonstration of tempo/rhythm (internal/external action), a portrayal of Mary Stuart going to a beheading. Her internal rhythm is frenetic. But, to maintain royal bearing, her external rhythm is easy. I was reminded of this when I saw True-Frost's portrayal of Katurian's final moments—as he says “I was a good writer.” Tupolski, after explaining that Katurian would be shot following a countdown from ten, shoots him on four. Tupolski excuses himself to go “warn the parents”, but we can imagine that this is to save face. Ariel has pleaded on behalf of Katurian's stories and Tupolski is leaving them in Ariel's hands.

Before the play ends, two things happen. First, in the seconds prior to his execution, Katurian imagines a story for his brother. It is one in which Katurian, as the Pillowman, tells his brother, as a child, of the future that is about to transpire, in hopes that his brother will destroy himself as a child. His brother, citing the stories that will survive as the result of their mutual suffering, refuses to un-wish his life.

That Michal's place in Katurian's story is as a living, suffering instrument of story production highlights the justice in Michal's sense of grievance. Every story except The Little Green Pig is a direct meditation of Katurian's experience as the witness to suffering, as opposed to a consideration of Michal's experience. While Michal's torture is germane to the stories, he is not, except, abstractly, in The Little Green Pig, the subject of the stories. Herein lies Katurian's, and the artist's, failure: preoccupation with the self as a witness to the action of humanity, rather than with humanity itself.

The other thing that happens is that Ariel proves himself to be the real good cop: he saves the stories, and they become his stories. Where he was the only character without any meaningful narrative interpretation of his life as detective/chronicler/sufferer/actor, he will find, in Katurian's stories, his own story. And in the preservation of the stories he will find some measure of hope. Bizarrely, in the world of The Pillowman, this constitutes a happy ending.

Steppenwolf wisely holds post-show discussions following every production of The Pillowman—helping an audience process, together, the disturbing material they have just shared. One criticism of the show was that the evil in the world of the play was unexplained, and that this was somehow a cop-out. I disagreed. The parents who initiate the suffering in the play never betray their motives, and as such, as gods, they give us no theodicy. But mankind and mankind's artists are portrayed as responsible for the creation of their own God in this production. McDonagh charges mankind with responsibility for deciding how to read and understand art, and he charges artists with responsibility for creating relevant, truthful art. He also indirectly accuses the authors of the bible of self-centeredness as narrators. But in The Pillowman, mankind constructs his own sense of the meaning of his suffering and perhaps a way to save himself.

In Martha Lavey's (the Steppenwolf artistic director) introductory notes, she addresses the issue of dualism in the play: “two rooms, two brothers, two detectives”. What is so fascinating about The Pillowman (and this production specifically) is how deeply opposite those dualisms run within the context of brotherhood (not just between Katurian and Michal, but between Tupolski and Ariel, as brothers in police). It is also fascinating how the intimacy between the doubles illuminates them and their shared dialectics of obsession. Katurian experiences the exact opposite of Michal—an idyllic childhood interrupted by the discovery of suffering, and thus, ensuing suffering. Michal experiences suffering until he is discovered and relieved of it. Katurian and Michal, by being portrayed both as adults (and rather similar looking, in shape and face, at that), are contemporaries. The same is true for Tupolski and Ariel, who, as mentioned previously, are played in this production as ruddy, rugged, and strong. Tupolski is the one obsessed with reason and structure, and Ariel is the one obsessed with acting out justice (i.e. torture). And yet, each of these brother/others comes to embody the core identity of his other. Katurian passionately kills. Michal intellectually chooses. Tupolski kills. Ariel solves the case. Ariel saves the stories.

The two sets of men are themselves doubles, as Katurian (a good cop like Tupolski) is obsessed with giving the world's experiences order through story, and Michal (a bad cop like Ariel) is obsessed with acting impulsively. And yet, Michal's intellectually chosen (if evil) action, the murder of the children, is ultimately what gives, us, through the action of the play, a sense of the true meaning of his experience. Ariel's ability to reason leads to the preservation of the stories. Even their names, Katurian and Tupolski (cold sounding last names) and Ariel and Michal (gentle sounding first names) suggest this dualism of duals. The brothers are criminals and the detectives are cops. But, as Nietzsche does in The Birth of Tragedy (with the orderly Apollo and the drunken Dionysis), The Pillowman, beautifully, outlines the boundaries of McDonagh's view of the world, through the living relief of its opposites—cop and criminal, artist and humanity, and others. Each character, remarkably, is endowed with the essential qualities of every other character in the piece, even within the context of a sybolic dualistic structure. This miracle of characterization contains within it McDonagh's vision of man's holistic nature.. Man is all at once a sufferer, artist, critic, and as a spiritual being, capable of acting comprehensively on his own behalf.

Humanity makes a critical choice in this production that is the key to McDonagh's view of good and evil: people (especially Michal) justify evil actions by choosing to believe, critically, that narrative causes violence and that they are helpless to stop it. They use this critical resentment to deny the idea of free will. How can we blame them? The stories themselves seem to concede the point. The little girl knows or is willfully ignorant of the fact that her apple men will kill her father. The Pillowman knows that his stories will destroy his subjects. Michal's parents were prompted by a bizarre literary fascination to torture Michal, and Katurian's stories prompt Michal to violence. Ariel may believe that his father's abuse (and all abuse) is rooted in representations of that abuse in media, and Ariel's narratized self-representation of that abuse (along with, we can imagine, media representations of vigilanteism) inspires the violence that he undertakes. Humanity is both a sufferer and a critic in this production, and humanity's critical beliefs inform its performance of evil.

But this critical choice is just that, critical, and therefore normative. The hope in this production lies in the possibility that the artist can fixate more clearly on his subjects, and that his subjects can learn a critical lesson, namely, that stories of abuse don't necessarily lead to real abuse. And that hope is underscored in Michal's (possibly rosy) ending as imagined by Katurian, and Ariel's choice to preserve Katurian's stories. Michal, mankind as sufferer and reader, can choose not to destroy himself, and have faith in the redemptive power of art, even in the midst of the artist's self-preoccupation. Ariel can overcome his belief that art causes violence, can feel art's redemptive power, and can act on this belief by preserving the stories. He and Katurian's imagined Michal affirm the possibility that representations of evil may have a function beyond an incitement to more evil—indeed that art itself may, at some point, offer the redemption that the Pillowman believes will never come.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan's Grand Inquisitor indicts Christ for having denied Satan's three temptations in the desert, thus denying man both certainty in faith and food as incentive for that faith. The basis for this indictment is that mankind is too weak to withstand the suffering inherent to such spiritual freedom (i.e., man's faith should not be bought). McDonagh demands a truthful artistic freedom over a false, socially balmy constriction. He wonders at the spiritual freedom inherent to artistic freedom, and hopes that man need not continue to suffer.

1-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky (London: Vintage, 1992), 245.
2-Jacob Neusner, An Introduction to Judaism (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) 131-155.