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Two Women Writing Time Travel


I haven’t written about theater here for a long time.  Let me rectify that, especially since one of the shows I recently saw was obscure enough that you probably won’t read about it elsewhere.

The oratorio Hail Oblivion: A Pirate Fantasia concerned three interwoven stories, far separated in time.  As I consistently feel whenever I read or see any literature, theater, or movie that has storylines in distinct time periods, it’s the earliest one that I found the most developed and deeply felt.   (Come to think of it, there is exactly one exception I can name:Cloud Atlas.  I thought the chapter bracketing the very middle, set in the future, was the best one.)  In the earliest, best storyline, Major Stede Bonnet, following the death of his son, takes up life as an incompetent pirate.  Two hundred years later, Errol Flynn is on trial for statutory rape.  And finally, in the roughly present day, a young advertising executive is fired when a cruise line he promoted as a pirate fantasy is attacked by Somali pirates, and he goes on a joyride in his boss’s BMW.   This is all communicated in a sung-through score that borrows from sea shanties (of course), 1940’s-style jazz ballads, and rock and roll, performed by the three male leads, a chorus, and a five-piece band.
The plot sounds a bit absurd typing them out, and it is, but it’s also very moving, which is maybe the best combination: the artist could sit with what is ridiculous about the characters and love them at the same time. In one lyric the show acknowledges this tension about romantic anti-heroes: Stede Bonnet is just an idiot with “a death wish,” but when we are inside them we see what’s compelling and seductive in their vision. This piece of music has a beautiful sense of what’s big in people and small about them at the same time.  Rick Burkhardt was at times a little too soft-sung for the space and the volume of music from the chorus and band, but at the same time, he also brought the emotional heart to the concert in his open, sweet, beatific expression.  It was necessary, given that “pirate commits suicide by English Navy” could be a pretty bombastic role, and he found the purity called for in refrains like “Whenever I dream/I dream of the ocean.”  His storyline had the highest stakes, the clearest emotional motivation, and the most resolution in his decision to reject a pardon — the other two main characters do not get a chance for the same kind of pivotal choice.   Bonnet’s final aria and the toast all three male leads share: “Hail oblivion!” was particularly cutting: the music captures something very tender in his longing for death, it puts you inside the most self-destructive, anti-social impulses and gives you musical key to their quiet room. I found it connected me both to compassion for people who are looking for escape from distress and to my own at times similar feelings.

And not incidentally, it was thoroughly exciting to watch young, female Stephanie Johnstone, the composer, conduct in her bare feet, bringing to life something she’d made that was big and ambitious and true.  It is inspiring to see creators who look like you.  I wish I could tell the New Yorkers among you to see it, but it was only staged for a single night, and its future is unclear.  But all of you will be able to buy the album — a recording of the performance I saw, when it’s released in January of 2016.

Speaking of theater written by women that interleaves stories from disparate time periods, you can still see Atlantic Theater Company’s Cloud Nine for a few more days.  It follows the rule I observe about my own tastes: I liked the first act, which was set in English outpost in an unnamed African colony, a little better than the second, a fantastically discontinuous continuation of some of the same characters’ stories in 1970’s London.  The first act struck me as what a lot of Shakespeare comedies reach for, at least in my imaginings: a farce about the constant threat of violent enforcement of gender and sexual norms that’s actually seamlessly funny.  Much Ado About Nothing just gets weird and uncomfortable in the middle, Cloud Nine knows how to be funny and scary and sad all at once.* The second act is not quite as funny and also lower stakes, more about identity confusion and ennui, but it’s still moving to see the characters from the first act experience the counterfactual world that changes a little faster than it did in the real twentieth century, and allows them more expansive possibilities than they could have had in continuous time.  (Theory: perhaps I like stories set in the past better because, when writing these kind of interwoven narratives, writers tend to think of the past as time when our internal dramas had more serious, irrevocable social consequences, sometimes including death, and the dramas of the present more about fulfillment versus boredom, or loneliness versus connection. When you put those two kinds of stories next to each other, the past stories always seem graver and more important.  This would explain the Cloud Atlas exception, as well.)

Every single performer is great, and many of them switch ages and genders dramatically and mostly effortlessly.  Perhaps most effectively, mother and son switch actors between the two time periods. Chris Perfetti is Betty in the first act, an isolated, bored housewife, alienated from everyone around her. Brooke Bloom is Betty’s son Edward, around 9 years old, gay and failing to conform to his father’s expectations for masculinity. They are each united in trying, with little success, to control their own behavior, exerting power whenever they can in their frustration, and each performer is perfect at switching between vulnerability, fear, and hauteur. Then in the second act, Brooke Bloom is Betty, now a middle-aged in the 1970’s, divorcing her husband, getting her first job, bemused by her children, and experimenting with newfound sexual freedom. Bloom brings warmth, depth, and knowing humor to Betty that she couldn’t quite find when she was young. Chris Perfetti is the grown-up Edward, who today a playwright might more explicitly write as trans, not firmly aligned with one particular gender to identify with, or one to be attracted to.  Bloom’s transition from first to second act is one of contrast: from being young and trapped and very petulant to being old, and still a little petulant, but with something like wisdom: age, time, and sometimes bitter experience can bring freedom from the prisons you were in when you were young. Perfetti’s characters, young Betty and older Edward, are more aligned, and he he brings similar energy to both of them, big-eyed, hurt, neurotic, full of unexpressed love that could only emerge in a setting that allowed honesty and equality; families and histories are cyclical, trauma is repeated, and liberation is only ever partial.

*Anyone who actually know something about the historical context of Shakespeare’s comedies and how we are supposed to read the men who are constantly threatening to kill women is welcome to chime in; I’m only talking about my subjective reactions.
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  • altofront

    Anyone who actually know something about the historical context of Shakespeare’s comedies and how we are supposed to read the men who are constantly threatening to kill women is welcome to chime in

    I think “constantly” overstates the case considerably; outside of Much Ado I can’t think of a Shakespeare comedy in which there’s an actual death threat against a woman. (Unless you think Cymbeline is a comedy.) And even in Much Ado it’s more a rhetorical intensifier than a serious threat: Leonato says to his daughter (paraphrasing), if I didn’t think you would die of shame I would strike at your life myself, and everyone around him is horrified at his words. (Which is not to excuse it; I find the Hero/Claudio plot loathsome.)

    In terms of the historical context, well, extreme violence against women is commonplace, women have very few rights, and all women are expected to be obedient to the men (fathers, husbands) who control them. There’s little in any Shakespeare comedy in this context that would have seemed untoward to a contemporary audience. I like to think, though, that the plays are working to make us uncomfortable with the misogyny they present–that it’s not just a modern response. (It’s certainly true that Shakespeare’s comedies are less virulently misogynistic than those of most of his contemporaries.)

    As for Cloud Nine, I think it’s just dated. Churchill is amazing at connecting with the historical moment, but the flipside of that is that the plays don’t always age well. My experience teaching Top Girls (a better play than C9, in my opinion) followed that pattern: students loved the historical banquet, but couldn’t connect to the specifically Thatcherite second half.

    • Katie Surrence

      Twelfth Night has the hero threatening to kill the heroine, till they’re happily united minutes later, right? I ask “right?” ingenuously: I mix up the plots of the comedies even though I see them over and over again.

      (I actually deleted a paragraph about how dated the treatment of the ambiguious incest plot in Cloud Nine felt, just because the post was getting long. But I said it was a likely phenomenon of 40 years doing some of the same work 400 was doing for Shakespeare. It’s uncomfortable as a 2015 viewer to see that kind of relationship treated by the playwright with what felt like amused tolerance. We’re more uptight and judgmental about that kind of thing these days.)

      • altofront

        Twelfth Night has the hero threatening to kill the heroine, till they’re happily united minutes later, right?

        Jesus, you’re right–I totally blocked that. It’s much worse than Much Ado, actually: Orsino says he will kill his servant “Cesario” (really Viola) rather than let Olivia have him: “Him will I tear out of that cruel eye, / Where he sits crowned in his master’s spite. / Come, boy, with me; my thoughts are ripe in mischief: / I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love, / To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.” Of course, Orsino doesn’t think he’s threatening a woman; the threat is all wrapped up in the erotic intensities of the master-servant relationship.

  • I really like these theater posts.

    On Cloud Atlas, do you mean the movie or the book? It took me a long time to start really liking the book, by which time it was well into present and future times.

    • Katie Surrence

      oh, sorry, I meant the book. That was ambiguous.

      • Oops! I needed one more cup of coffee at least. You did say which it was. Sorry.

    • altofront

      I barely made it through the opening journal, which I found incredibly tedious; luckily, the letters of the ne’er-do-well composer captivated me right away, and his comments on the first story made me go back and read it more carefully, with more pleasure.

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