Thursday, March 8, 2012

Who's your Daddy? NATIVE EARTH redoes O'Neill as a race card

Friends or colleagues do a show:  you go to see it, and the show doesn't work.  Is the diplomatic thing to say nothing? Certainly the politic thing is to say nothing.  Is it helpful to try and give a reasoned analysis of what worked, or didn't work, and why?  Are they going to hate you for it? Or, does stuff  only get better if the audience and the artists really discuss the work?

I started this blog, in part, because I thought we needed a more open dialogue about work onstage, and working in the theatre. I write about film for the joy, as my niece would say. I don't expect everybody to agree with me.  I welcome debate and dialogue.

Last Sunday, I went to see FREE AS INJUNS,   Native Earth Performing Arts' production of Tara Beagan's new script.  Freely adapting Eugene O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, Beagan and her crew use O'Neill's play as a jumping off point to talk about land, ownership, property and race.

In theory, if you put a talented, award winning, young writer (Beagan) and a talented, award-winning director (Madoc-Jones) together, and you do a play about race and sex, you should get a great show.

I can see why Beagan was drawn to this material.   The plot (which O'Neill lifted from PHEDRE, the great French tragedy by Racine, and Sarah Bernhardt's signature role) is sexually charged and seditious.  A domineering father with three sons (and three dead wives, making him a sort of Bluebeard) brings home a nubile wife, young enough to be his daughter.  She falls in love with the youngest son, they begin an affair, and plot to take over the family farm, wresting it from the two other brothers and the old man. The son, in this version of the story, does this to avenge his dead Aboriginal mother, whose land the white father ostensibly stole.

It's a premise that churns out sex, conflict and danger. It's "the mirror held up to Nature",  both sides of Nature: as a life-giving force that grows good and nurtures (the mommy) and, as a brutal and pitiless weapon of wanton destruction (the daddy). There's an creative set, some interesting directorial choices and a game cast.  It should have worked, but it doesn't.

This is in large measure due to a script that has two fundamental problems.

Problem #1:  who is the protagonist?

Problem #2:  what happens at the beginning, what happens in the middle, and what happens in the end? In short, what is the clear line of action taken, or not taken, by the protagonist to achieve, or not achieve his or her objective?

These are the two most basic things you have to accomplish in telling any story.  I drill this into my writing students, and I make them rewrite until they get it straight.  Any time a script doesn't work, it's usually because one of those two basic things falls apart.

O'Neill is all about Daddies.  Freud would have had a field day with with him. Phedre is all about Mommy.  Beagan wants to make this all about the kids, and what they inherit, or don't inherit from their parents.

So in this version, the protagonist is Even Cabot, the youngest son.  In theory, it's not a bad choice.  He's the one torn between avenging his mother, and being held in the terrifying thrall of his father. James Cade is a good, well-trained actor.  It's not his fault we lose his character two-thirds of the way through the story.  That fault lies squarely with the writer. 

If Even is going to be the lynch pin of the action, then he has to drive the story all the way through. He needs to be the engine of the action start to finish.  He isn't and this is problem #1 and #2 with this show.

As it is, there's no clear protagonist so no clear through-line of action in the play.

The script also has other problems.

There's the whole race/time period thing.  What century are we in?  In the 21st century, I have no problem believing a guy has had three different non-white wives. I'm from a generation where some men with power trade in wives like cars: a new one every 5 years.  In this play, which seems to take place in the late 19th or early 20th century, I'm just not buying the whole three kids, three different races of baby mommas thing. I get it: we're talking about white male oppression.  I'm a half-breed myself.

Here's the thing, assuming this is a period piece:  in the late 19th and early 20th century women couldn't own or inherit property. We weren't people until the Persons Act. Women went from their father's house to their husband's.  Land went from fathers to sons, eldest sons, usually. As to an Aboriginal woman's right to live on Aboriginal land, if she married a white man:  Bill C-54 was a fairly recent piece of legislation.  Aboriginal men were quite happy to embrace that particular aspect of white patriarchy. Was the whole country 1st Nations Land at one time?  You betcha. That is not the argument being made here, or if it is, it is not being made very clearly.

I understand the mixed race sons as a metaphor, an idea:  it just doesn't work as drama in this play as it is presently constructed.  This is either a historical drama: in which case it needs to demonstrate some basic knowledge of history, of the law as it pertained to women, and property rights, or it is contemporary. If it's a fairy tale, it would need to be a whole lot less foul mouthed and prosaic.

I have no idea why the two brothers, when handed a bag of money, didn't just run off.  It made no sense, and their continued presence did nothing to further the plot or advance the story.  The two brothers aren't germane to moving the action of the play forward.

There's a lot of repetition of the same line for dramatic effect, but in most cases, it didn't work and just dragged down the pace of the show. 

Then there's the problems of casting and direction.  In a three way, there has to be credible sexual chemistry in both couples in the love triangle, not just one of the relationships. I buy the young lovers here, but the play is directed to make this a  marriage with no sexual charge, and it can't be. 

Jerry Franken is a fine actor but he is totally physically wrong for this, and the wrong age.  In their sex scenes, he and Prudat just look embarrassed.  In order to believe you have three grown men in the thrall of their father, he has to be a powerful and terrifying patriarchal figure:  nature personified as a dark force.  He's killed three wives with work or child-bearing.  He's a brute and he has to dominate the stage when he's on it.  He is the rapacious white 'civilizer" personified. Franken does his best in  a role to which he is woefully unsuited.

Finally there's the lovely young actress at the centre of this mess, PJ Prudat.  She is completely untrained:  not seated in her voice, doesn't build a credible emotional character arch, and badly miscast.  She plays the young love stuff fine, but both husband and lover need to be held in her sexual thrall. She needs to be equally seductive with both of them.  Moreover, she needs to be older for the whole Oedipal thing to really work.  A woman with sexual and emotional power needed to anchor this show, and this young lady is just playing a pretty girl with the hots for the wrong boy. Her come-on to Cade reads like a girl in a nightclub, not  like a woman seducing a boy. We needed a 35ish actress, a 50 something year old dad, and a 20-25 year old son.

Not one person I spoke to was sure what happened at the end of the play.  The director made some nice stage pictures, but did nothing to clarify the story, or escalate conflict, or lead us to a satisfying, or even a clear denouement.  Leaving the actress half naked for as long as she did was just weird: distracting, and, unnecessary.

There are a lot of good ideas in this draft, and I think Beagan has a better version of this play in her. It needs a page one rewrite that clarifies story, picks one protagonist, sticks with that choice, and escalates conflict to a bloody conclusion. Right now, it ends up feels like a badly conceived (all puns intended) kitchen sink melodrama. 

Finally, I want to say this:  it is pretty hard to take over the helm of a major theatre and mount two plays you've written in the same year, which is what Beagan has attempted to do this year.  I suspect Beagan needed more time to focus on writing a script of this scope than she got.  Hopefully her duties at the helm on Native Earth will be less onerous, and her next outing as a writer will get more of her time and talent.


  1. Celeste

    You speak to the rules of writing plays as though they are finite. Personally, I don't like formulaic plays or movies. We are inundated with them on a continual basis, be it Law and Order, or The Odd Couple. I admire artists that work outside of the normative drivel that feels and sounds like a hundred other different Neil Simon plays. My experience with plays within the Indigenous diaspora is a lack of a protagonist. You speak in very colonial terms when it comes to writing plays. As to free as injuns, I disagree that Jerry Franken was the wrong person for the role. The uncomfortable truth of an older man taking a much younger wife was written and cast on purpose. The uncomfortable feelings were intentional me thinks. I fully understood why those two boys didn't take that money and run. To me, Ash Knight's character knew they had little or no power outside of that plot of land. Your assessment sends mixed messages. You say you don't blame the actors but then you rake them over the coals. You call this play a "mess" but then go on to praise Ms. Beagan for her talent, when clearly you don't feel like this piece exemplifies any of her talents as a writer. I am confused. Since you are an artist like myself, you know how hard this business is. It is always difficult for me to see artists tear down other artists' work like you have done. I know you are entitled to your opinion, but there will come a time when someone will judge your work, and I hope they are kinder than you are to Ms. Beagan and the other talented artists attached to this piece. I don't know if you will post this, since this is your forum not mine. But if you really are open to dialogue, I'd love to continue this conversation.

  2. Keef,

    Arguments, like plays are generally constructed so a series of premises lead to a conclusion. Call me colonial if you must but I think the Greeks aren't a bad place to start to learn about how to construct either a play or an argument.

    This is not the case with the comments you've offered here but I will try to address your randomly made points in the order you've made them.

    LAW AND ORDER is written according to a fairly standard television plot model: ensemble cast and an A story and a B story and sometimes a C story. I wasn't arguing that plays should be written like episodic television. I was arguing this was a play with no clear ending.

    Neil Simon mostly writes comedies. Ms. Beagan wasn't adapting a comedy: she was adapting a naturalistic American drama based on a classic French drama based on a Greek myth. If she wanted to throw out the structure, she could have done that but the structure went out the window 2/3 of the way through the show, which I found problematic. Judging by the other reviews I read online and in the press, I wasn't alone in this.

    WHERE THE BLOOD MIXES, written by a member of said diaspora, has a clear start, middle and ending and a protagonist and is one of the best plays I've seen in the last five years. If you're referring to ensemble shows like THE REZ SISTERS by Tompson Highway, all the characters at the centre of the piece are working towards one, clear objective. The great Quebec playwright Michel Trembley uses a similar device in LES BELLE SOEURS. Paul Thompson did quite a lot of that kind of collective creation back in the 70's when he made work like THE FARM SHOW. I've seen all of those plays and I didn't walk out of the theatre not knowing what happened to the main characters by the end of the show.

    If you liked Franken for the part, you are entitled to your opinion. There was no sexual chemistry between him and the woman he was ostensibly having sex with and that, not the age difference between the two of them was a problem for me. I also needed to believe he was physically capable of beating the crap out of every other man on the stage and that certainly wasn't the case. If you didn't need to believe either of those things, maybe we weren't watching the same play.

    As to why Ash Knight's character didn't run off with the bag of money: I can't agree with you. Life Keef, is a shit sandwich: the more bread you've got, the less shit you have to eat. If you don't believe me, live for a week with no money and then live for a week with a bag of money. I think most humans, if handed a bag of money, would leave a crap situation, which those boys were certainly in, take the money and run.

    Some of the actors were good, some less so. There again, you don't have to agree with me.

    Beagan has written better plays and I expected a better play from her than this. I really think she need more time to work on the show than she got. I meant it when I said I hope she rewrites it and remounts it a some point.

    Yes I am an actor and a writer and I have taken beat-downs and accolades from the press and from my peers. I have had everything from 1 1/2 to 5 star reviews for plays I've written and/or acted in as well as for stuff I've co-created and/or produced. I find both successes and failures instructive. Yes, it's nicer when people love the show and you know it rocked. However, I can say I have had some great conversations with friends and colleagues about why my work or theirs didn't turn out as it should. I appreciate those conversations and I try to learn from them. I try not to get a fat head from praise or permanent bruises from drubbing. If you can't take criticism, this is the wrong business to be in, in fact, I'm not sure you can be in any business if you aren't prepared to try and learn from your mistakes.