Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
Playing with Plays

Watch out for 2012.  Evidently that's when the current "temporal season" of our planet will end and our planet will re-align with other dimensional realms, allowing trans-temporal beings to fully communicate with us.  You probably didn't know this, but when people had lunch with angels or had interactions with "gods" in ancient times, those creatures were trans-temporal beings.  Things have been out of whack for a while.  But in 2012, it'll all be good again.

Late night radio teaches me more than a lot of our media today.  You hear about a perspective on life that rarely makes into a cable gab-fest in which gasbags bloviate about the ups and downs of this and that political figure.  Do people like the president?  Not like the president?  That woman? This celebrity?  What stupid thing did they say?

The curious thing about the cable world is that it shows that what passes for serious-minded folks can have disagreements about important issues. Should the USA have a public option for health care?  Here are two folks with opposite views.  Watch them argue.

Throw in the trans-temporals after 2012, and I can imagine the "debate" is going to be just that much more chaotic.

What led me to listening to late night radio was a return trip from seeing a production of Twelfth Night directed by a friend of mine.  It was a good, solid production of the play.  But there were times I wanted them to bat the ball farther out of the park. There were doubles and triples, but few homeruns in the show.  And I started to think about why that was and why we play with plays.

The actual word "play" possesses interesting sideways echoes.  I mean, what is "play" to begin with?  When I was a wee lad, play was running around until exhaustion set in and it was time to go home.  Now playing can mean trying to beat my computer at cards, or simply poking around the internet when I should be working.  Play isn't work, or it shouldn't be.  And sometimes one thinks of play with toys.

So people play with plays.  For some folks this tendency leads to madness.  "Why can't they just do the play as it was written???"  Look, we can find folks who think it's fine to engage in "enhanced interrogation techniques" to keep the nation safe – so don't think that we can't find people who can come up on every said of precisely what  any play is.  That is, when someone says we should just do a play "as written" or "as the playwright" intended, we have a sense of what that might mean.  But like every the trans-temporals, they fade when you get too close.

The purpose of a play is to be worked on by a group of folks.  Each person, we find with little surprise, engages the play from a distinct perspective.  Working on the play brings those perspectives together.  In the process of the work each perspective affects the perspectives of the others.  Some things are agreed upon.  Other things are left to the distinct, individual perspectives of each person.   

Having recently directed a new play with the playwright in attendance for final rehearsals and opening performances, I can say that there were times that I didn't see things in the play that the playwright saw. Conversely, the cast and crew showed the playwright things he hadn't seen before.

All of this seems very obvious and boilerplate.  "So we each have different points of view.  So what ?!?"

The point comes to the fore when we look at how we play with plays. For some reason we can play with some plays more than with others.  We find it fairly easy to play with Shakespeare, for instance.  We find it much harder to play with Ibsen of Chekhov.   

We've all seen or heard about Shakespeare shows that seem to go far afield from the everyday – King Lear played by a woman, Hamlet played by three people simultaneously, Romeo and Juliet from Appalachian families (so much for "fair Verona"), and Comedy of Errors set in the 19th century American West – including an opening stroll across the stage by a prospector and his burro.

On the other hand, I had a spat with a costumer a few years ago about the costume for Treplev in a production of Seagull by Chekhov.  We were going for temporal authenticity, so I argued against Kostya wearing a Russian peasant shirt.  At the time a guy like Kostya would have been Europeanized and worn a regular button-shirt.   And another time, I proposed a Symbolist version of Doll's House in which the set was rubbish heap which Nora doesn't really notice until her eyes are opened during the course of the play. There was shock from some folks. How could I play with such a play?

And so it was with Twelfth Night the other night.  The decision was made to set the play in the 1960s – 1963 to be precise.  It had the patina of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy. The costumes were perfect.  The concept worked.   

But the production raised an issue.  Can you re-create a past era?  And how do you re-create the past era with what we know now.  For example, we know now that Mr. Hudson was gay and Tony Randall was heterosexual.  Who knew? It seemed like a time of innocence and Camelot.  But the young "King Arthur" from Massachusetts took pain medication on the edge of addiction and had sex with a variety of women in a world that had seen the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And, in a play that centers on romance and sexual ambiguity, 1963 led swiftly to both the Stonewall protest/riot and the Summer of Love.

So when Twelfth Night is done as a 1960s comedy, should there be recognition of the reality that the Hudson-Day movie covered over?  Or can the surface exist solely as a lovely surface?

To a degree these questions are unanswerable.  Obviously the company made the choices they made.  And those were often positive, beneficial choices.

And regardless of any decision made by the company, the play remains present for any other company to come along and play with in new ways or old ways or no ways.

The core issue for me though is the realization yet again that everything on stage communicates something.  Everything on stage has consequences.  And what separates the quality of one performance with another is the depth to which the company deals with the consequences of their choices. That is to say, the company can't ask the audience to briefly ignore some bit of the performance.  The whole performance is laid before the whole audience. And the attentive audience will look at the whole.   

The company can't say, "We didn't have enough money for this prop, so don't pay attention to how tatty it looks."  The company can't say, "We didn't have that extra rehearsal, so don't pay attention to how this moment doesn't work."  The company can't say, "Well, we're playing the surface of 1963 in this moment, but you need to squint and wink at this moment because we couldn't figure out how this works within this scheme."

That's a tough standard to follow.  But that's how an audience watches a play.  The audience only knows what it sees and hears.  And what the audience sees and hears is what the company provides them.

Of course, after 2012 the trans-temporals will change all that.



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©2009 Nathan Thomas
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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