On Words, A Play

I have received more than a little encouragement from friends when it comes to seeing plays. It turns out, they really want me to see plays I don’t like because it leads to wonderful blogs. I hate to disappoint, but the play I saw last night isn’t going to fit into that.

Now, if I were to go to most of my friends and family and say “I saw a play last night, lasted about 2 hours and 45 minutes, and, despite the fact that it contained horrible domestic violence and rape, it was actually a comedy that ends in a passionate realization of the destruction of the self in order to create a sense of purpose” they would all say to me, “Yeah, isn’t that the play you produced in 2000?’

It turns out, it isn’t. But the similarities are striking. Sakharim Binder is a play by an Indian playwright, set in basically modern day India (although, who can tell, it could have been India from the 1600s except for the language) in a small house owned by the eponymous subject. Women in this culture are thrown out by their husbands and left to wander the streets, untouchable, until predators like Binder can collect them and make them servants, slaves and whores in exchange for a roof and some food.

I know, it doesn’t sound funny, but it is actually. The sheer charm of the main character, as played by Bernard White , is the engine behind the show, and the entire evening would be worthwhile if only to get a chance to see this wonderful actor work. But he is not the only reason to see this show.

It is written in three acts but presented in two, which is a small problem only because, in terms of the drama, it reads in three acts. Binder brings home one woman, abuses the hell out of her and then kicks her out. I laughed the whole time. He then brings home a second woman, a “sexy” woman, and Binder can’t quite make his abuses stick. He starts missing work, doing the chores, forgetting his place, just to please this woman. The third act, the first woman shows up and manages to stay, and the whole thing becomes a mess.

******(There are three theatrical conventions that drive me mad that I will throw in as asides. In almost every play or movie where one woman is presented as meek and homely and the other is presented as a sexual dynamo I, *WITHOUT FAIL*, find the homely one more attractive in every way. It’s like they find the most beautiful woman in the world, and then fit her with a pair of glasses or a baggy sweatshirt and I’m supposed to be convinced. The first woman in the play, Sanjiv Jhaveri is certainly less famous than Sarita Choudhury but she’s actually more attractive and, to me, a better actress.)

The play is long, but I’m not sure that’s bad. It’s so long that you forget you are in a play for most of it, you find yourself transported to the world being presented. Within the first 45 minutes, I had completely accepted Binder’s worldview, and I found myself annoyed at the many people who were fighting against it by acting like human beings. I was frustrated with the second woman for being independent and not putting up with Binder’s abuse. By the end of the play, when the real dramatic push happens, I remembered I was in a theater just in time to start applauding.

That being said, it felt like, at times, the writer was including a lot of stuff in the play that could have been left out. There are several scenes with extra characters that certainly flesh out the rest of the play, but by the end, I had wished the play was maybe shorter and had focused on our main three characters a little more. I’m always glad when a professional company includes more actors, particularly ethnic actors who can’t always find good roles, but at nearly three hours it did end up being a price to pay. If you keep your audience in the theater for an hour longer than they expect, you kinda have to justify it.

*******( Theatrical Convention Annoyance #2- Blackouts. I don’t know if Mac has convinced me of this, or if we both thought it was true and it became a rallying point for working together, but I really hate it when the stage goes dark and the actors move stuff around while we pretend we aren’t in the theater for a minute. It’s the weirdest ten to thirty seconds of my life. Okay, the lights are out, the actors are stumbling around, I can *hear* them, but I’m really not supposed to be paying attention to them… but I’m also not supposed to make any noise myself.

It’s like all the people involved in the play are saying “Okay, this little bit here? This isn’t the play. Don’t pay any attention for the next few seconds… wait, except pay *close* attention because you never know when the lights might come back up and we’ll start the play again. Pay attention, but pretend that you aren’t here… You know what it is, it’s like we’re *hiding*. Pretend that we are small children playing hide and seek, and you know *exactly* where we are, but you aren’t going to catch us *quite yet*. In fact we can make as much noise as we want… up to a point. We can make noise, but we have to sound like we’re trying *not* to make noise. So, when we leave through the functioning door on stage, it will make a noise when it closes, but it will make the quietest possible noise and then *BOOM* the lights come on and NOW THIS IS THE PLAY! WE’RE BACK! MORE PLAY!”

Even worse are the black box plays where they do “dark, dark grey-outs”. Not blackouts, mind you. The actors on stage have almost enough light to change the set, which is, of course, just enough light for the audience to see every single thing you are doing, but is also little enough light to ensure that an actor will break his foot moving a desk.

What’s a director supposed to do? I don’t blame the director, I blame the writer. If you are writing stuff where scenes change instantly, you are writing a TV show or movie. Plays happen in one or two total spaces. And a director can always “Children Of A Lesser God” the whole thing and bring out a bench that indicates every single playing space. My friend Dan Kois did every single play with four chairs.)

Full disclosure, I know the guy who runs the company and if I had *hated* this show, I would still try to write something nice. But you can tell when I’m bullshitting, the truth is, this is a magical amazing piece of theater, powerful and rhapsodic.

And I wouldn’t say it was good just because of my friend. The truth is, the play company has been producing the most consistently good theater of any company I’ve regularly seen in the past three years. Sure, when you go see one of their shows, you can be sure you are seeing a great internationally themed script with great actors. And that alone is enough to separate them from most other companies.

But more than that, the world of the play is perfectly created by their team of designers. The set, lighting and sound design are so *articulate* so focused and exact in this production, as they have been for all of the past productions as well. Names like “Antje Ellerman” (who’s set design for this show is fantastic) and “Nicole Pearce” (who’s understanding and understated light design propelled the show) and “Bart Fasbender” (who showed, in his brilliant work both in this show and in “Trust” that sound design is the most overlooked and undervalued aspect of theater) are names that won’t mean much to most of you, but without them this play would not have been the incredible evening it was.

*******(Yeah, you knew I wasn’t gonna leave it at that. #3- Stage combat. I’ve seen shows where people actually hauled off and hit each other, and believe me, it’s worse than the staged combat. When people hit each other, you just get worried all to hell that the *actor* is hurt. But stage combat is just terrible. There are many ways that television and movies have ruined theater, the jump cuts, the “natural” dialogue covering up brilliant “stage” dialogue, the fact that every moderately talented actor goes straight to method acting without ever learning how to articulate or speak loudly, etc… But stage combat is the one area where these glaring problems are met head on with the flaw of using film sensibilities on stage.

See, back in the day, we always knew we were watching people pretend. Aristophanes didn’t pray that he would find the perfect actors to embody his characters, no-one was watching a play and thought “Hey, that’s *actually* one of the neighboring lords that we are sworn to kill!” When people got killed, the characters lay on the ground dead and, yes, breathing. The combat was in bold strokes, obviously theatrical.

But now, we have “naps”, the small noises that accompany the crappy looking balletic fighting that happens in plays. Every time someone is slapped, someone else claps his or her hands together. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when the actors have spent an hour *embodying* the characters, then they take a swing at a spot some five inches away from the other person’s face, and someone frickin’ *claps* at the same time, it just looks ridiculous.

I have never, in the history of my play going and my play, um, being-in, I have never felt like stage combat looked good. Wrestling is fine. Choking someone to death is fine. But anything that has to have an accompanying sound is *ridiculous*. I saw a woman slap a man at a 1400 seat auditorium and I had bad seats, I distinctly *SAW* the man clap his hands together as he brought his hand up to his face.

In summation: If you have a part for an ugly girl, cast an ugly girl, if you have to have combat, make it wrestling, and avoid black outs at all costs. I have spoken.)