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In one of the essays included in William Gibson‘s book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, he refers to the “personal micro-culture” that every artist creates around herself. “We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction.”

That notion of a micro-culture extends beyond formative creativity and primal concepts like “anxiety of influence,” Harold Bloom‘s provocative theory about the poet’s need to break free of those who were most influential. It is a description that applies to so many aspects of our lives. We get pocketed into a particular strata with demographic, economic and social dimensions. We are taught and we are imbued—as if by osmosis—with ideas and beliefs that may or may not be well suited for us. But moving in and out of those micro-cultures isn’t a given.

Class consciousness—the English version—is a familiar and prevalent theme. The Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies), is full of the problematic dynamics of a blacksmith’s son becoming the powerul confidante to a king. As Downton Abbey’s run in the U.S. came to an end last week, the show’s upstairs/downstairs setting in the mid-1920s offered premonitions of changes coming to the old order. But as we all know, class consciousness is still very deeply in tact in the English culture.

A recent production of H.M.S. Pinafore performed by Chicago’s high energy theater company The Hypocrites (at the American Repertory’s Oberon Theater through March 20), is yet another story based on a theme of class. In typical Hypocrite deconstructionist style, the cast and audience are blended together, gender roles are switched, and the set is a pajama party with lots of pillows and a slide. Fun abounds in this production, but the us/them, high brow/low brow themes still echo from the play’s 19th century roots. The revelation of two babies switched at birth, one high-born and the other a commoner, puts everything back in its proper place. Tip top.

Of course it isn’t just the English who have a long tradition of exclusion and class consciousness. August Wilson‘s brilliant How I Learned What I Learned, a memoir in monologue, (at the Huntington Theater in Boston through April 3) is a piercing view into the striated society of Wilson’s childhood in the disadvantaged Hill District of Pittsburgh. Wilson goes beyond the personal to the larger arcs that impact our lives:

My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job. But since 1863, it’s been hell. It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.

During a jarringly ugly political campaign season in the U.S., I keep asking what it will take to shift old patterns, to move away from the us/them dichotomy that underlies so much of the hate and rhetoric. Admittedly that is a question some would call naive. But it is larger than social systems, religion, race, economics. It speaks to what it will take to dismantle the crippling notion of separateness, from each other and from our planet. So that’s a question I will keep asking.

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Full Brow

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Jim Lichtscheidl, Louis Jenkins, Mark Rylance, and Kayli Carter in Nice Fish. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The term highbrow was first used in the late 19th century, a reference to the arcane practice of phrenology. In this head measuring methodology, people of intelligence were believed to have a higher brow line. While phrenology was eventually discarded as pseudoscience, “brow-ness” continued as shorthand for measuring artistic and cultural sophistication.

That stratification began being actively dismantled 30 years ago (with books by Lawrence Levine, Peter Swirski, John Seabrook, among others) and those distinctions have melted away. Art making, music, theater, writing have all increasingly pulled in resources from every end of the creative spectrum.

From his New York Times piece, Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow — Do These Kinds of Cultural Categories Mean Anything Anymore?, Thomas Mallon put it this way:

The sheer availability of so much art, its ubiquity in the wide, wireless world of the present, assures that more and more blends and mash-ups and integrations are bound to occur. To some extent, people used to settle on a brow for themselves and then pattern their reading and viewing and listening accordingly. Increasingly, art at all levels now comes to us, seizes our attention for a few digital moments before being elbowed aside by something else. More catholic tastes seem bound to result from more catholic exposure, our brows raising and lowering themselves like a spreadable iPhone photo. (Of course, Shakespeare’s audience never had trouble doing that in the course of a single evening, laughing at rustic horseplay and thrilling to lyrical declamations in the same production.)

Two theatrical events in Boston this past week speak to that browlessness. One is a playful and inventive “adaptation” of Twelfth Night performed by London’s Filter Theatre at ArtsEmerson. This muscular and well-honed ensemble takes a Shakespeare favorite and turns its underbelly to the upside. The set looks like a disordered recording studio, and the staging appears casual, disengaged and haphazard. Inspired by Virginia Woolf‘s claim that the play “seems to tremble perpetually on the brink of music,” sound becomes the essential through line. I’ll never see Twelfth Night the same again.

The other is Nice Fish, at American Rep. A collaboration between actor/director Mark Rylance and Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins, Nice Fish has just one stage set: out on the ice. Rylance and co-star Jim Lichtscheidl play two ice fishing friends who, as they tend to their fishing rods, talk about their lives. Their words are primarily prose poems by Jenkins. Buried in the commonplace of Jenkins’ everyday speech are larger questions. But the transcendent sense of things is subtle and mostly stays below the surface, much the way the life teeming under the ice is implied and only occasionally exposed.

Nice Fish feels like a blend of a whole bunch of memes most of us recognize—the existentialist stupor of Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot, the wacky but endearing quirkiness of the Coen BrothersFargo (both the movie and spin off television series), the simple truths in the everyday of Thorton Wilder‘s Our Town, the Midwestern self-parody of Garrison Keillor‘s A Prairie Home Companion, the All-American réalité of Cowboy Poetry and poetry slams.

But Nice Fish is more than an assemblage of contemporary cultural reference points. Having been trimmed down and tightened up after its earlier run at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the play achieves a memorable balance between the light and the heavy, the silly and the serious, the mundane and the poetic. A tangible air of affection for the material permeates the production. Rylance and Jenkins both have connections to the Midwest—in spite of Rylance’s “veddy English” reputation—and they have become good friends during the process of working on the play (Rylance has famously recited Jenkins prose poems as his acceptance speeches at several award ceremonies). Even Jenkins himself comes on stage to play a role. What’s more, the play is directed by Claire Van Kampen, Rylance’s wife. Nice Fish is unpretentious, made by hand (a high compliment in the art making world) and sticks to the ribs.

Rather than the popular brow-busting term nobrow, I prefer thinking of Nice Fish—and other artistic efforts that draw from a wide range of influences—as full brow: something for everyone.

Here’s a sampling of Jenkins’ sensibilities:

The Afterlife
by Louis Jenkins

Older people are exiting this life as if it were a movie…”I didn’t get it,”
they are saying.
He says, “It didn’t seem to have any plot.”
“No.” she says, “it seemed like things just kept coming at me. Most of the time I was confused…and there was way too much sex and violence.”
“Violence anyway,” he says.
“It was not much for character development either; most of the time
people were either shouting or mumbling. Then just when someone started to make sense and I got interested, they died. Then a whole lot of new characters came along and I couldn’t tell who was who.”
“The whole thing lacked subtlety.”
“Some of the scenery was nice.”
“Yes.”
They walk on in silence for a while. It is a summer night and they walk
slowly, stopping now and then, as if they had no particular place to go.
They walk past a streetlamp where some insects are hurling themselves at the light, and then on down the block, fading into the darkness.
She says, “I was never happy with the way I looked.”
“The lighting was bad and I was no good at dialogue,” he says.
“I would have liked to have been a little taller,” she says.

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Note to potential theater goers: This isn’t a fast-moving, laugh-a-minute kind of play. One friend saw it when she was jet lagged and had a hard time staying engaged. It is best seen when you are rested and relaxed so the pleasures can be found in this slower paced, pared-down production.

Twelfth Night is at the Paramount Theater in Boston until January 30. Nice Fish is at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge through February 7.

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Riding the Comet

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“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of the A.R.T.)

Diane Paulus‘ theatrical vision and aspirations are the driving force behind some of the most successful “immersive” theater events in Boston since she took over as artistic director of the A.R.T. at Harvard*. While previous productions have offered the audience an invitation to participate in these dramatic excursions, the latest Loeb Theater offering isn’t asking politely. From the minute you arrive at the theater, your sovereignty of audience detachment is snatched from you: The entrance and lobby are now a war zone, lost in stanchions of plywood, plastic sheeting and haphazardly affixed Russian posters. Once inside, the theater has become a 19th century Russian drawing room with red velvet curtains and paintings hung salon style, floor to ceiling. The audience is sitting everywhere, alongside musicians and sets, embedded between arabesques of thrust stages and platforms. But this isn’t a pure period-themed creation. It is a rhapsodic and random mashup from Russia’s volatile history over the last 200 years.

Because this time round, it is all about Russia. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, billed as an “electro-pop” opera, is based loosely on Leo Tolstoy‘s masterpiece, War and Peace. And like Tolstoy’s massive novels, Great Comet wants to take you over, body and soul. Once this show begins, you are irrevocably on a wild theatrical jalopy ride that can’t help but be funky, full-bodied and fun.

Great Comet brings Dave Malloy‘s work back to Boston once again. Most recently he did Ghost Quartet, Beowulf and Three Pianos (about Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle). As a composer and writer, Malloy speaks to his own proclivities:

I can’t help but notice that almost all of [my work] is adaptions of classic works…there is such rich opportunity for humor and illumination through anachronism, colliding time periods to both highlight the similarities and revel in the bizarre and subtle differences between then and now…too often for my tastes, adaption can rely too heavily on trite ironic distance and parody; for me, the more rewarding choice is always to take these tales at face value, and work to unlock their secrets for contemporary audiences in ways that are joyful, surprising, and ultimately cathartic.

Colliding time periods, humor and anachronism are Malloy’s steady tools. The language, costuming and staging move between early 19th century Tolstoy-esque to present day. Lyrics often speak to our cooly detached, postmodern mind sets:

this is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
And it’s a complicated Russian novel
Everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
Everything will be clear

The singing, dancing, music-making and audience involvement (be ready for Russian potato and cheese concoctions delivered right to your seat) make Great Comet irresistibly fun. How lucky we are to have these theatrical options in Boston. But like attending one more party where the extrovert takes over and entertains us endlessly, the more introverted, subtle, introspective theater experiences are also needed in a city’s theatrical offering mix. As is my perpetual plea on this blog, the both/and, please!

Great Comet runs through January 3 at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge Massachusetts.

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*In addition to the perennially running The Donkey Show at Oberon Theater in Cambridge, other immersive theater offerings from Paulus’ years at the A.R.T. have been reviewed on Slow Muse:

Sleep No More My all time favorite in this category. (A version of this production is currently running in New York)

The Light Princess

Witness Uganda

The Heart of Robin Hood

Pippin

Three Pianos

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Michael Rau and Matthew Yates Crowley (Photo: American Repertory Theater)

The window is a small one, so you will need to move quickly. If you are in the Boston area and are interested in idea-driven theater that captures the mind and the imagination both, here’s one for you: Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (In the Lydian Mode), written by Michael Yates Crowley and directed by Michael Rau. This is an unforgettable performance, but it is only running through October 23 at the Oberon Theater (American Repertory Theater’s second stage.)

The character “elements” of this adventure in theater—calling it a play would feel inaccurate—range from Beethoven (and his late quartet that inspired the name), migraines, the nature of pain, the demands of art, Ayn Rand, her acolyte Alan Greenspan and the Cato Institute to a drag queen at a strip club in Peoria. The evening begins with Crowley’s migraine “diaries”—he has suffered from painful headaches for most of his life—but quickly moves into an exquisitely languaged and imagined journey through the landscape that is our lives. Crowley interweaves disparate ideas but does not force them into service of one theme. There are many, and they are vibrant and provocative. The mastery of this work at every level is subtle but absolute.

A review in The Last Magazine references Crowley’s chance encounter years ago with the midnight garbage barge at Disneyland. “It was Disney’s nightly disposal run, weaving a way amongst its larger, more convivial kin on its way towards the dump. There it was, floating right in the middle of all the fun, and everyone was pretending it wasn’t there.”

That metaphor of the garbage barge is apropos for so much of the underbelly that is hidden below the radar screen—like pain, or like the role Ayn Rand’s pernicious legacy has had in our economic and political malaises.

From the review:

In their most recent piece, Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (In the Lydian Mode), that pitchy bark stealing stealthily through our lives is pain. Sometimes hidden, sometimes violently pronounced, it provides the red thread that holds together a series of twenty-four scenelets presenting variations on their chosen theme…Taking as its starting point the vivid descriptions of agony found in Crowley’s high-school migraine diaries, the show is an enthralling and often bizarre excursion that sees commerce with Beethoven (speaking exclusively in German), a small-town drag performer singing lyrics from Emily Dickinson, an Objectivist scholar struggling with a crisis of faith, and even the Great Mind herself (Ayn Rand, for the happy uninitiated).

It’s a combination that in other hands could come off as an artificial muddle, but here there is a direct simplicity, an ease in telling, and a honesty in the presentation that allows these disparate elements to seem not only natural, but essential bedfellows. Rational egotism not your bag? It’s not Crowley’s and Rau’s either, but like it or not it’s a doctrine that continues to inform our society’s most fundamental beliefs. And the particular genius of these theatermakers is their ability to be incisive without forfeiting understanding—a sort of empathy with jagged edges that comprehends the humanity of its villains at the same time as it lays waste to their ideals. There is a sort of wisdom in their work that hums beneath every tossed-off joke and under the strains of the melodica that a long-dead Ayn Rand takes up towards the end (and plays with as much passion and verve, one imagines, as the melodica has ever been played). This, and a startling sense of fun, are what make Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand such a rare theatrical beast—rarely heard of, less often seen, but fascinating to watch when it is.

At the Oberon Theater, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, through October 23.

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Imagined map of the word, Japanese

I am reading a book recommended by my daughter Kellin Nelson: The Art of Thinking Clearly, by Rolf Dobelli. It’s designed with the 21st century reader in mind—succinct, straight talking advice on rampantly human cognitive errors in 99 chapters, each only a few pages long.

Dobelli nails all of us right from the start by detailing those pesky proclivities that flaw our thinking and perceiving. The chapter heads capture much of the spirit of the book: If Fifty Million People Say Something Foolish, It Is Still Foolish; Why We Prefer a Wrong Map to None at All; Why You Systematically Overestimate Your Knowledge and Abilities; Never Judge a Decision By Its Outcome. You get the drift.

In talking about the “confirmation bias,” Dobelli writes:

If the word “exception” crops up, prick up your ears. Often it hides the presence of discomfirming evidence. It pays to listen to Charles Darwin: Since his youth, he set out to fight the confirmation bias systematically. Whenever observations contradicted his theory, he took them very seriously and noted them down immediately. He know that the brain actively “forgets” disconfirming evidence after a short time. The more correct he judged his theory to be, the more actively he looked for contradictions…

Literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch had a memorable motto: “Murder your darlings.” This was his advice to writers who struggled with cutting cherished but redundant sentences. Quiller-Couch’s appeal is not just for hesitant hacks but for all of us who suffer from the deafening silence of assent. To fight against the confirmation bias, try writing down your beliefs—whether in terms of worldview, investments, marriage, health care, diet, career strategies—and set out to find disconfirming evidence. Axing beliefs that feel like old friends is hard work but imperative.

After several hours of Dobelli’s direct imperative to dismantle the cozy comfort zones we make with our ideas and beliefs, it is hard to not step back a bit and look more closely at your cherished beliefs, proclivities and tastes. We give ourselves permission to set standards and issue judgments, and we do it all day long. Reading Dobelli has reminded me that we each pave a road through the landscape, and all we see is what is on either side of that narrow travel lane.

So “murdering my darlings” plays out in so many aspects of my life. I know what I like after all, be it in art, literature, music, poetry, food. Dismantling those habitual proclivities takes some doing, but the exercise is not without its rewards.

A recent theatrical outing is a good example. American Rep has staged another production by the high energy, high octane theater company from Chicago, Hypocrites. Last year they brought their very popular production of the Pirates of Penzance (reviewed on Slow Muse here) to A.R.T., and this year they have brought another Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Mikado.

They state their intentions openly:

Our mission – which is ever-evolving to adapt to the growth of our organization – is to make a Theater of Honesty. We define a Theater of Honesty chiefly through two elements of our work: performance and presentation…Through this balance of an unyielding emotional honesty and accepting a concept of “play,” we seek to strengthen the connection between artist and audience, enriching our audience’s imaginative experience…

We will make theater.
We will respect the audience.
We will create a unique theater experience for every production.
We will push our own limits in order to push the limits of theater.
We will honor the playwright’s intentions.
We will hold interest in entertainment and art.
We will change these rules.

Like Pirates, The Mikado is just plain fun. The “all singing and all dancing” cast carries out this wacky G&S storyline amid the audience members and engages everyone in the high jinks effortlessly. Yes, I do happen to love the deep dives into dramatic profundity and the magic of a parallel reality that great theater can create. But by making a concerted decision (thank you Dobelli) to just let all those proclivities go and enjoy a night of being entertained and delighted, I was. Wonderfully.

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The Mikado (Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

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Still Watching

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Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (Production Photos: A.R.T.)

Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright, Pulitzer prize winner, MacArthur genius fellow, talks about her writing in a manner that resonates deeply with me. She openly speaks about how she lets the spirit inspire her. (A Sanskrit tattoo on her arm reminds her to “follow god.”) “I have a daily practice of writing, yoga and parenting” she proclaimed in a recent interview.

That centeredness spills over into an undeniable sense of self confidence. Parks possesses an artistic sovereignty that enables her to function as her own creative nation state. That is what every imagination-rich artist works for.

From a recent article about Parks by Patrick Healy in New York Times:

But here’s the thing about Ms. Parks: When she thinks she’s right, she’s certain of it. No doubts, no fretting about self-sabotage. While some have knocked her work as self-indulgent or annoying at times, she has an exceptionally vivid sense of herself as a writer who exists on another plane from dramaturgical nit-pickers.

That passage couples nicely with this Parks quote about process from a remarkable interview/conversation with playwright Han Ong in Bomb magazine:

Well, that’s it. It takes a suspension of ego. In the old days, it was, “willingly suspend your disbelief” But now it’s, for me, “get out of the way.” It’s Zen. Suspend your ego long enough to ask the question, who am I, really? I write for me.

These twin concepts—artistic sovereignty and the Zen-like trusting of the process—are extremely well developed in Parks and so admirable. But Parks also commands my respect with her passion for writing stories about and for African Americans. Parks shares her raison d’être quite succinctly in her conversation with Ong: “I write plays because I love black people. I just figured it out fairly recently. Not that I had any other reason before that, but I realized why I want black people on stage—because I love them. And it probably sounds very vague, but it’s true.”

Taking that concept further, John Heilpern quotes Parks in his piece Voices from the Edge:

“Because of a shameful past,” she points out, “there’s an equation from both whites and blacks that automatically goes: Black people are oppressed. There are some wonderful plays about the black struggle—but is that all we get to write about? There’s another equation, I think. And that’s what I’m interested in. How about black people, period? What if you remove the racial tension for a moment? What, then, is the drama and what kind of theater does it make? Maybe really weird theater! But I’m trying to remove the straitjacket.”

Aligning with Parks’ intentions and approach doesn’t necessarily guarantee a connection with her work however. Parks’ recent play, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), is on a run at A.R.T. in Cambridge after its premiere at the Public Theater in New York City last fall. (In his review in the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood heralded these first three plays as Parks’ best work so far.) As much as I wanted to connect deeply with this latest work, I found it difficult.

Taking place in the Civil War, these three one-hour plays offer a fresh deconstruction of Homer’s Odyssey. The protagonist is a slave named Hero (later called Ulysses,) his wife Penny, a dog named “Odd-See,” fellow slave Homer and a small “chorus” of other slaves. Part 1 is the set up for Hero’s decision to go to war on the Confederate side with his “boss-master.” Part 2 takes place during the war, and Part 3 is Hero/Ulysses’s return home after the Emancipation Proclamation.

As a story line, this is rich with possibility. But that sense of possibility was thwarted early on for me. Perhaps it was pacing. Parks often talks about how language is music (“There are aspects of music that I borrow and use in my work: repetition and revision. A big part of jazz is repeat and revise, and repeat and revise,” she told Ong.) The rhythm of the whole evening was colored by a tedious beginning. The cadence of the dialogue felt slow and labored, more irritating than enchanting. There were individual moments when language and character did come together—the fierce monologue by the white Colonel/boss-master about how grateful he is that he is white, Hero’s meditation on his worth (as a slave or as a free man), the oddly out of place but engaging soliloquy by the talking dog Odd-See. But I struggled to find the thread that could hold all these pieces together in a meaningful arc, and it escaped me.

It could just be a quirk in me, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about why these plays missed the mark. It may be that I just happened to see them on one of those nights when that mystical theatrical magic—the alchemy that transforms words, actors, music, sets into another reality—just wasn’t happening. I did speak with three other people who also saw the play, two of them on a different night. They also had issues although their list was different than my own. It wasn’t stitching together as a whole for any of us, but each of us had our own explanations for why that is. I would love to have someone who adored this play tell me why they did.

Parks has announced that there are nine parts to this work, a long term project that ambitiously takes on the 100 years subsequent to the Civil War. The remaining six parts will follow the progeny of these characters as they navigate an America that we all know too well as crippled by a legacy of race discrimination. Parks is so formidable an artist that my dissatisfaction with this first installment does not preclude me from telling people to see the play and to sign up to sail with Parks on this ambitious voyage. I am, in spite of my reservations, very curious to see where she will take this narrative in its larger arc.

Yes, I’m still watching.

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The Golden Ruhl

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Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl, award winning playwright and member of the genius grant class (it’s a badge you can wear for life), has been the theme of my week. Her recently released book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, is like trailing after a very verbal and intelligent friend who is, at the same time, juggling her three hyperactive small children.

That is the truth of Ruhl’s life right now, and her book has been written with that reality evident. But at no point does her dual citizenship come off as self-conscious, manipulative or fey. The two black holes of her life—those spheres where demand for attention is limitless and never satiated—are art making and parenting. And in the face of those great sucking sounds, she comes to a position I wish I had found when I was struggling with those issues years ago: Quit trying to win and just surrender.

From Rachel Cusk‘s review in the New York Times:

In these short (and sometimes very short — one of them consists of a single word) essays, Ruhl anatomizes the central drama of creativity, whereby the self and the business of living are found to contain the moral structure of everything that lies outside it. The question of gender quickly becomes germane: How can a woman writer, a mother of three children and embroiled in the domesticity that comes with them, be expected to believe that her condition of life, far from marginalizing her, is in fact bringing her closer to ultimate forms of knowledge? It is a question not just of interruptions but of that other Woolfian theme, cultural notions of importance. “There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me,” Ruhl writes in her first essay, “On Interruptions.” “And finally I came to the thought, all right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow.” The “other self” was Ruhl’s identity as a writer, which she had been trying to cosset and protect from invasion; yet this moment of surrender, crucially, gives her back her artistic authority. “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.”

What follows is a set of observations whose most noticeable characteristic is the freedom of association. Having been left with no choice but to interrogate culture from an autobiographical position, Ruhl discovers there a far greater intellectual liberty. The 100 essays represent 100 different links between art and reality, as Ruhl’s meditations on writing and staging plays find reflection in her experience of family life, friendship, illness and ordinariness.

Ruhl is smart and she is funny. Her insights into theater, writing and what matters are worthy but not overwrought. One essay, “An essay in praise of smallness,” is simply one sentence: “I admire minimalism.” In an essay entitled “Is there an objective standard of taste?” she answers, “No.”

In keeping with this Ruhl-themed week, I also saw a production of Dear Elizabeth, Ruhl’s play about Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Culling through the 400 letters written between these two extraordinary poets over their 30 year friendship, Ruhl portrays a connection that was deeply sustaining to both writers through their trouble-fraught, complex, often lonely lives.

Ruhl has described her approach to theater: “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life. Everyone has a great horrible opera in them.” Ruhl’s gift is being able to reach into the “great horrible operas” that were the lives of these two poets and pull out the story of a friendship that was so elemental and life sustaining for them both. The sincerity of their affection, the depth of their artistic connection, the innocence and vulnerability they were able to share with each other—this is a rare and extraordinary storyline, one that Ruhl has carefully crafted from their own words.

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Doing Neverland

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J. M. Barrie

How does it happen, that a something—an image, a story, a meme—secures a spot in the cultural collective, that shared image/idea database full of entities everyone in our cultural milieu recognizes? Some are ancient, like the stories from the Greeks (Aphrodite, Apollo, Zeus) and the Bible (Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham), and some are contemporary, often cinematically sourced (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Star Wars.) Once apotheotized, those entities take on a quality of ambience, accessible to all of us without having to be languaged or explained.

The story of Peter Pan took up residence in our Western collective unconscious soon after it was written by the Scottish writer J. M. Barrie in the early years of the 20th century. It emerged from his books and plays, and immediately it was embraced, adored and immortalized. The world of children. A charismatic boy who refuses to grow up and what’s more, can fly. Fairies. Adventures without adults. The enchanted world of Neverland. The boundarylessness of imagination.

This storyline so full of playfulness and hope has its own tragic sourcing. The youngest of ten children, Barrie lost his brother David from a skating accident. To comfort his devastated mother, young James dressed up like his brother and even mimicked his speech. This charade born of grief became a pattern, and when James turned 13—the age that David was when he died—James literally stopped growing. For the rest of his life he remained five feet tall, had a high pitched voice and felt more at home with children than he did with his peers. When Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies family of boys in Kensington Park, the bond was immediate and deep. (After the boys’ parents both died, Barrie became their guardian.)

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The Llewelyn Davies boys

Finding Neverland is the latest musical theater production by Diane Paulus at American Rep Theater in Cambridge. There is however no flying Peter Pan or a crocodile with a ticking clock below the plank in this production. The story of Peter Pan is the given that we all already know, and Finding Neverland steps out beyond that shared storyline to expand the context. This is a production about Barrie himself and his beloved Llewelyn Davies boys, brought to life in song, dance and theatrical magic.

And these days no one is doing the “brought to life in song, dance and theatrical magic” better than Diane Paulus. (Her four recent Tony awards are now ensconced in the Loeb Theater lobby.) The professionalism of this production is breathtaking. Paulus has repeatedly demonstrated her genius at assembling All Star rosters for these Broadway-bound productions, and in this one she has brought together a world class team of playwright James Graham, musicians/lyricists Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, choreographer Mia Michaels, and performers who are, to the person, spectacular. What’s more, this time she has the added imprimatur of celebrity producer Harvey Weinstein of Miramax.

The show is nearly sold out and a big hit with audiences. It is already slated to open on Broadway in March of next year. And even for musical theater curmudgeons like me who are more partial to serious drama, the spell cast by such flawless execution made the evening a memorable one. My daughter Kellin did not inherit my musical theater disaffection, and she was utterly enchanted by this production. Neither of us will ever forget the breathtaking artistry of Sylvia’s exit. (I won’t say more in case you are planning to see the play.)

Finding Neverland runs through September 28 at the Loeb Theater. Ticket information here.

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The American Rep Theater production of “Finding Neverland” (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

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The Tempest, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge MA (Photo: A.R.T.)

Ah Prospero. You are my favorite character in all of Shakespeare! The masterful conjurings, the lonely exile, the fierce revenge still raging after twelve years away from the lost Dukedom of Milan, the Other embodied in ethereality and earthiness, the willingness in the end to forgive and forego—there are so many parts of his story that have resonance for me. Many have described Prospero as a primal symbol for the solitary (and often solipsistic) artist, and others see him as a particularly personal stand in for Shakespeare himself (it was the last play he wrote before returning to Stratford upon Avon, and he died just two years later). It is a poetic fantasy, and one that asks for us to step out of the world that we know and to enter into a phantasm of sprites, monsters, magic and manipulated nature.

A.R.T.’s new production of Prospero’s world, The Tempest, makes stepping out of our world and into another domain quite effortless. Aided by the skillful blending of what may seem like disparate themes—old time dustbowl carney shows, classical magic tricks (even cards!), the rough and tumble earthiness of Tom Waits’ music played by rough and tumble musicians, physical performers and Pilobolus-inspired acrobatism, staging in and off the proscenium—Prospero’s island laboratory of extraordinary powers invites us in and we are all his, ready to be enchanted.

Co-directors Aaron Posner and Teller (the quiet one from the Penn & Teller magic duo), have also blended their quite disparate visions of the play in a way that gives it a richly layered texture. For Posner The Tempest is a family play, with the island inhabitants of Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Caliban making up an odd but not unfamiliar version of the dysfunctional family. For Teller it is the magic, the thing he loves most in life. “How different Prospero is from typical fairy tale wizards,” Teller writes. “He doesn’t use spells and potions to affect the physical world. He creates shows, and those shows—‘that insubstantial pagaent’—are his weapons. That makes him less like a warlock than like a stage magician.” But as Teller points out, Prospero gives it all up, the very thing that is so essential to his very being. And why? For the love for his daughter, Miranda. Which brings all the theatrics right back to Posner’s view of the play as a story about family.

Yes, the editing of the play has been generous, but I do not take issue with that. Purists are often offended by any prunings of the Bard’s original material. But many of us know this play well, and the well-placed nips and tucks hold this production together in a way that does not feel inadequate or abusive of its intent. And what performances! Nate Dendy‘s Ariel is the best I have ever seen—every move he makes is light as air, and in the end he disappears from the stage as if by magic(!)—plus a Caliban cobbled from two sets of bodies is unforgettable.

We all agreed we would love to see it again. But we would need some serious conjuring skills of our own to make that happen since every show is sold out for the rest of the run through June 15. Standing room, anyone?

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Moe Angelos as young Susan Sontag (and as an older Sontag on a scrim above) in the Builders Association’s “Sontag: Reborn.” (Photo: James Gibbs)

Susan Sontag, author of many books that are now classics—Against Interpretation, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, Where the Stress Falls, Regarding the Pain of Others—has been gone for 10 years. But her trenchant writing, brilliant insights and fearless expressiveness have kept her very much alive, here in the present. She comes up in conversation frequently in my life, and her books are some of my favorites. Now that her journals are available—she began writing them when she was a precocious and voraciously curious 14 year old—the evolution of her mind’s development has been laid open.

It is a tempting idea to capture Sontag’s quickfire thinking in a theatrical setting, and I can think of a thousand ways it would not work. But when your team is actor and adapter Moe Angelos, director Marianne Weems and the rest of Builders Association team, that rarefied Sontagian world is recreated with a multidimensional richness that is mystifying. In Sontag: Reborn, the many textures are captured—how the mind thinks, how reality is constantly being parsed, how a writer arduously creates (and invents) a self.

“We tried to stage her mind at work, her mental process, in a small way,” says Angelos who plays Sontag both as a young woman and later in her life. Part of that mental process involves the vulnerability that was so evident in the young Sontag, a quality that really struck Angelos when she poured over Sontag’s unedited journals in the Sontag archives at UCLA. Experiencing the awkwardness and discomfort of a young brilliant woman gives a new dimension to the hard edged, combative woman that Sontag was known to be in her later life.

While there is only one actor on stage throughout, this is nothing like the genre of the one woman show. Angelos sits at a desk and begins as a teenaged Sontag. Projected nearby is a larger-than-life image of Angelos playing an older Sontag with that signatory white mane. As the young Sontag shares her insights, the older Sontag interacts and comments. (How appropriate given Sontag’s predilection to review her own early journal entires and allow her older self to annotate them.) Words appear on the screen behind Angelos as she writes, and phrases periodically unravel out towards the audience. The dreamy specter of an older self, the stacks of books that were so beloved, the agonizing struggle to make sense of the self and of life–it all comes together to open up a theatrical window into the private and evolving mind of a writer.

I have heard about Builders Association and their singular mastery of multimedia, but this is the first production by them that I have seen. Their own description is a good one: “The company uses the richness of new and old tools to extend the boundaries of theatre. Based on innovative collaborations, they blend stage performance, text, video, sound and architecture to tell stories about human experience in the 21st century.” I won’t be missing any of their future productions.

If you are in Boston, if you love words, if you are fascinated by Sontag, if you are engaged in the life of the mind, this is for you. The performance is at the Paramount Center and runs through May 18. For more information, see ArtsEmerson.

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