In the well of understanding

In the well of understanding

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Boxed: A Poem

describe, detail, define
the line which separates
you from me, idea from actuality;
characterize, construe, convey
the intersection dissecting
inner from outer, nature from artifice;
depict, delineate, differentiate
the borders circumvolving
one country from another, brother from brother;
construct, chronicle, communicate
the cubicle abscinding intimacy
singularity divorced from plurality
heart from the soul, spirit from body
creating distinction in some dark corner,
some inchoate cell apportioned from the collective

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Position: Hope Meets Despair

You are invited to submit an application for a heady but mysterious position with the cryptic corporation known as the Concern. Against a backdrop of economic and societal collapse, the very underpinning pillars of country and kin obliterated in the Great Downturn, the Concern offers a sirenic sinecure to a select individual from amongst the hordes of multitudinous candidates. If chosen as a finalist you will be conveyed to the Compound where the irrevocable evaluation will ensue with unknowable nuances, and you may be elect enough to ascend the pinnacle, master the tasks and be saved from the ravages of an uncertain future in the chaos from which you have emerged. Such begins the play The Position currently running at the Off-Market Theatre in San Francisco.

The next layer is the shedding of singularity and identity, a stripping of the epidermis which the applicants have borne for the totality of their existence to this point. Exuvation of clothing initiates, followed closely thereafter by the imposition of an alphabetical assignment displacing given names. This reduction to bare essentials, decoction of former selfness, is reflected in the minimalism of the stage sets and heightens the emotional intensity of all subsequent action; and the scantiness has the opposite effect of making something which appears at first blush to be insubstantial - inconsequential props, threadbare dress, the controlled tension of the players - in reality immeasurably significant, transforming nugatory elements to quintessential portions of the play’s bodily composition. There is profound depth beneath the skin and it rapidly reveals itself.

The panoply of personages fuels the furnace of the transpiring events. A Faustian HR Consultant is the puppet-mistress (Lady MacBeth, did you say?) who dangles the fatalistic carrot before starving supplicants who have come to prostrate themselves in hope of the saving grace of the Concern. She advises them to make no assumptions and invites them to engage in whatever behaviors they deem fit, to give vent to passions and emotions as if on a stranded, paradisiacal island. One cannot help but summon up the ghost of Lord of the Flies in an updated adult version. All the applicants are aware of is that they are being surveilled. Will their commitment be questioned, their worthiness judged and found wanting? Hope is inglorious, not the thing which “perches in the soul” but the awl used to rip out your eyes and steal vision: hope wielded as a sword of despair over the benighted and benumbed reeling from the abandonment of government and left to the manipulative intrigues of corporations. This vacuum creates the perfect tableau for the welling up of all the baseness of human nature, and these newly minted children of the alphabet meld into their milieu with rage and savagery which ever lurks in the heart of our darkness.

The Position provides an excellent exposition on what happens when the boat is only big enough for a few. The actors are crisp, polished and focused; the direction is unrelenting and the story so compelling that you are inexorably drawn in and almost forget to breathe as the contestants vie, each in their own way, for the shining medallion. As with London’s People of the Abyss and The Iron Heel, the characters possess a freshness which means any of them could be your neighbors, your friends or family, and are equally crushed under the weight of their devastation and ambition. Yet surprise remains in play. Even the Concern cannot anticipate everything which may occur; and where there is frailty in human nature there is also adamantine strength. In the end, one comes to know that the meat factory is constantly in motion, the gears always ready to grind fresh meat and make ubiquitous burgers which we readily consume as we ourselves are being consumed.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Oedipus: Master of his fate

Greek tragedy, universally and almost by definition, centered around the disquieted lives of the wealthy and nobly engendered. When one considers the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides all of the protagonists (and antagonists) are either in the direct descent of royal lineage or closely approximating some familial relation to such status. This was a central concern for Arthur Miller when he was penning Death of a Salesman: that tragedy, like all other occurrences influencing the human condition, extends its province to the affairs of conventional men and women. In Luis Alfaro’s Oedius El Rey, he “millerizes” – yes I am engaging in that pastime of making a verb of a proper noun - Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and reweaves the panorama of this ancient drama, retaining and distilling its essence; casting it with renewed vigor in the midst of Latino culture and thereby making it a staged version of a fanfare for the common man.

With minimal props and inventive directing at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason, Oedipus El Rey debuts with flourishes which invoke the classical elements - a chorus echoing the Grecian tradition of strophe, epode and antistrophe, the hubris of mankind, the oracular vision – but add a new system of poetry steeped in the Chicano tradition – the Sphinx becomes a bruja, the elders of the community curanderos. It is a transfiguration which embodies the age old question of kismet and destiny. Whereas this is answered unerringly in the original (Oedipus is fated to his doom from birth), Alfaro revivifies it for his audience. This Oedipus may or may not come to his doom through freedom of will. Much less shrift is given to the avoidance of predestination and much more imbued in the arrogance of men drunk on power. And there is multiplicity in that also: all of the inmates of the prison from which Alfaro’s Oedipus emerges have self-styled themselves gods and demigods, and this blustering audacity – the acts they commit from its wellspring – is their undoing. Certainly fatalism is part and parcel of the tragedy but the striking note in Alfaro’s symphony is solipsism and the isolation this indulgence visits upon those who partake of its libations.

Above all, Alfaro makes it approachable. Even if one is not acquainted with Sophocles and has never heard or read the tale of his Oedipus, this El Rey is knowable. Creative touches in direction further amplify and balance out the amazing voice of the writing with significant attention to details; from the synchronicity of the chorus and the oracles to the light-hearted wedding ceremony to the confrontation between Creon and Oedipus to the passionate love-making between Jocasta and Oedipus, the play breathes and pulses. (An aside – The singing of “Always and Forever” brought me back to those halcyon high-school days and I found myself singing along).

Critically, there is one other theme which surfaces and is tied like a flower in bouquet to the whole of the production. Respect for one’s elders, and their life experiences is found wanting in the soi-disant god El Rey. Because he will not listen, he will not hear, he is the author of his own fate and the captain who takes his ship into stormy waters to circle endlessly without berth or port, literally and figuratively blind. Alfaro reinforces for us what we know, even when we choose to forget: Destiny is what we make through our actions and choices.