Letter to D., 25 Nov 2008

Dear D--

I just saw an extraordinary piece of theatre last night. Mary Zimmerman's "Arabian Nights" is running at Berkeley Repertory Theatre until 4 January, and belive me when I say it's worth its own trip to the Bay Area.

I used to read Hadawy's translation of the Arabian Nights back in high school. It's an intricate, fantastical, obsessive and chaotic compilation of endless stories, brought together by the framing motif of Scheherazade, a newlywed queen whose tyrannical husband kills his brides on their wedding nights after sleeping with them. But because he can only kill at night, Scheherazade contrives to tell him stories so compelling that every night, the king delays the killing until the next night, until the story properly ends. But Scheherazade nests stories within stories, weaving characters and ideas from one into the next, so deftly that the king loses track of the passage of time, loses himself in the endless stories, and gradually--howsoever improbably--the two genuinely fall in love with each other, over the course of 1,001 nights.

The performance I saw had an enormous cast, an ensemble of fifteen, with everyone playing at least three characters. Most were accomplished singers, Chicago actors from Zimmerman's Lookingglass Company who easily handle rhythm and movement and intelligence and voice, all as a matter of course. They literally tumbled through their stories and characters, catapulting each other into costumes, desires, sorrows, carpets. 22 different lamps and lanterns flew through the air (I counted at intermission). Pillows became turbans, prayerbeads became cowbells, a shabby rug and a low coffee table--hoisted on four shoulders--became a magical flying carpet. It was erotic, hilarious, cruel, cacophonous, and breathtakingly simple.

Seeing that show gave me hope--much needed--in theatre performance. It reset my default intake mode as a theatre-goer--a default that had repeatedly been compromised, bypassed and patched together since the last truly compelling work I saw; a default diminished by having been made to allow for budget constraints or lack of training or poor craftsmanship--in short, by having experienced so much bad theatre.

It's given me a new reason to continue in theatre: I now overwhelmingly desire to work in the same tradition as Zimmerman's company, if perhaps a bit less pretty, more juicy.

Thank you for holding down the fort back in PDX, and for keeping me in the Forgery loop. Strange to say, but having the Forgery simmering alongside this show I'm running has been really, really valuable to the process. The mechanics of "Wind in the Willows" lend themselves quite easily to a broad-minded, meta-conceptual exploration of ideas, images, and even the practical nuts-and-bolts of effective performance design.

The vantage point from within the very depths and fulness of 'Willows' is quite apt and far-reaching: it's like working on the construction site of a skyscraper, and being able to see all the way across the city, to that other (bigger! lovelier! more ambitious!) skyscraper we're working on.

The things I like about 'Willows' are not coincidentally the same things, or many of the same thigns I liked about 'Arabian Nights,' albeit with substantially less acumen. In 'Willows,' I'm enchanted by the little, simple, graceful gestures that effectively signify much more profound things: dyed silks that are held to be rivers and snowscapes; characters found in puppets, objects, thin air. The passage of time conveyed by the bare minimum of movements and beats (and some excellent light work).

It has also been useful to realize how all of this works only when in concert with some kind of destination, a cause or mission that drives these 'effortless' things--for the truth is that it is effortless only because you don't have time, or indeed anything at all to spare dwelling at a single moment. In that sense, all the great epics are essentially road movies: Odyssey, Don Quixote, the Divine Comedy, Grapes of Wrath, Batman Begins. All of these narratives have at their core a compulsion to arrive in some vision of a place, person, or state of being, and in each case the compulsion will ride roughshod (quite literally) across any obstacle in their path.

All of which is yet another facet of my ongoing preoccupation with the deeper nature of violence...

Of our three major sources, I'm not quite sure what that compulsion is in "Harold...," and "Rabbit..."'s is also murky, though no less evident in effort.

Aside from the thoroughly magical world of 'Willows,' I spend my time here in Santa Cruz reading, biking about, indulging insomnia at a 24-hr. diner, and eavesdropping, as it were, on the college existence all around. Grateful as I am, and fortunate, to be here, I much miss all things Portland. The wanderlust grabs hold of me from time to time, and I find myself looking for an excuse to drop into gear and drive, as when you were a mere six hours away. More and more I look to the sea.

Know that your lovely presence and friendship are much missed. More soon,



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