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Howard Shalwitz on CIVILIZATION: Creating a Theatrical Event

As a director, I love plays that don’t just tell a story, but that give me a chance to create a truly original theatrical event. Jason Grote’s CIVILIZATION (all you can eat)—with its interweaving narratives, bizarre dance episodes, and talking pig—is a veritable director’s playground! For me, it comes along at the perfect moment.

Over the past two years, I’ve had four visits to see theatre in Eastern Europe, where directors dominate the scene with their aggressive and highly conceptual approaches to both classics and new work. After soaking in this inspiration, I was looking for a script that was open-ended enough to let me and my collaborators really invent!

CIVILIZATION is especially timely in relation to the election season that’s now heating up. The play looks back at our previous Presidential election cycle: the summer of 2008, just as the financial crisis was unraveling and Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain’s running mate in the race against Barack Obama. In a series of vivid character portraits, playwright Jason Grote captures the nation’s mounting anxiety about questions of race, about “making it” in a hostile economic environment, and about the sustainability of American capitalism.

Lurking in the background is that talking pig I mentioned above—named Big Hog and played in inimitable fashion by Sarah Marshall. Trapped on a mechanized pig farm with slaughter fast approaching, Big Hog opens the play by threatening the audience with his plan for escape and revenge. When I first read his fiery speech nearly two years ago, I knew that Woolly couldn’t resist producing this play. As the story moves along, Big Hog’s intensity is matched by the emotional desperation of all the characters, including an aspiring filmmaker and two actors, an inspirational business consultant, and a struggling waitress and her 21-year-old daughter. I love them all for their naked longing and raw striving for a better life than the ones they have.

Jason Grote invokes filmmaker Robert Altman when describing the structure of CIVILIZATION. Like Nashville, Short Cuts, or Gosford Park, the play begins with a series of apparently disconnected scenes, and only gradually reveals the web that binds its characters together. Our production will accentuate this structure by presenting a series of “parades” that move from scene to scene. Some of the parades will expand into abstract dance episodes called for by the playwright that provide a thematic lens on the main action—or at least I think that’s what happens, depending on what we learn in rehearsals. Our process so far on CIVILIZATION has been the fullest in Woolly’s history, involving workshops in New York and Washington, and a whole course based on the play with Masters students at Towson University. But once rehearsals begin and our brilliant cast gets to work, anything could change.

That’s why I love open-ended plays like CIVILIZATION. They’re a bit scary, but ultimately exhilarating. I look forward to sharing the results of our investigation with you, and hearing your reactions to Jason Grote’s provocative parade of humans, beasts, and the ongoing project we call America.

~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director

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Not Your Mother’s OEDIPUS: From Howard Shalwitz

The notion of “the Oedipus complex”—a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex—was introduced by Sigmund Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. It has been studied, debated, applied, and misapplied in a myriad of contexts ever since. In many ways, this makes Oedipus el Rey the defining work in Woolly’s 2010/11 season of plays entitled “A Striptease of Your Subconscious” (a season that began with Sarah Ruhl’s The Vibrator Play and Greg Moss’s House of Gold). If you want to deal with the mental landscape of human sexuality, ‘ya gotta come face to face with Oedipus!    

In Sophocles’ version of the story, the relationship between King Oedipus and his wife (and, unknown to him, mother), Jocasta, has been going on for many years, and they are, in fact, the parents of two children, Antigone and Ismene. But in Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro imagines the beginning of the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta—so he really makes us wallow in the sexual implications.  Over a third of the play is devoted to their meeting, steamy courtship, and decision to get married. 

Luis depicts both Oedipus and Jocasta as remarkably feisty characters who find an unexpected bond (despite their different in age) around the psychic wounds they share. Jocasta was forced to give up a child (whom we know to be Oedipus) many years ago, and has been angry and childless ever since. Just before meeting Oedipus, her gang lord husband, Laius, was killed in an automobile incident with an unknown stranger (Oedipus again, of course!). For his part, Oedipus has just been released after several years in prison, where he was taken care of by his father, another prisoner named Tiresias (though we know that Oedipus’s real father is Laius). In and out of juvenile detention centers and prisons his whole life, Oedipus is now burning to make something of himself, to become a king in the complex gang culture of the LA barrio. Jocasta is his first lover, and also his entree into the power-structure of the barrio. But Jocasta’s brother, Creon, is not too happy about their their relationship, to say the least, and builds up a deep resentment toward Oedipus for muscling into his own turf.      

I don’t want to give away too much, but I hope you’re starting to get the picture of how thoroughly playwright Luis Alfaro has re-imagined the story of Oedipus. The time structure is completely different, along with the setting, the language, and many of the relationships. Above all, he transforms a somewhat intellectual Greek tragedy about fate and the hubris of a king, into a visceral, very present, and very hot tragedy about the burning ambition of someone who is working his way up from the bottom of the economic ladder with no resources but his personality, his wit, and his fists. 

As Alli Houseworth’s marketing materials for the show have announced:  “This isn’t your mother’s Oedipus!”   

~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director

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Howard Shalwitz on OEDIPUS EL REY

In a few hours, rehearsals begin for Oedipus el Rey. Our playwright, Luis Alfaro, and our director, Michael John Garcés, have just arrived from Los Angeles, and our cast has arrived from New York, Baltimore, and DC. They will all gather in the rehearsal hall, along with the designers, staff, and sponsors, to read the latest draft of the play—which also just arrived! This draft represents a response by Luis to the conversation we all had the last time we gathered and heard the play—during a workshop at the Lark Play Development Center in New York just two months ago. And that draft, in turn, was an evolution from two earlier drafts of the play that were produced simultaneously at The Magic Theatre in San Francisco and the Theatre @ Boston Court in Los Angeles exactly one year ago. 

If this all sounds complicated, it’s actually par for the course. Many playwrights continue to develop and hone their scripts through several productions. In this case, the process was planned from the beginning. As part of a “Continued Life Fund” grant from the National New Play Network, three theatres including Woolly committed to a “rolling world premiere” of Oedipus el Rey, with Luis Alfaro in residence for each one. As the third theatre in line, Woolly has the advantage of building on the progress from the earlier two productions, and also knowing the play was a big success in its earlier outings. 

Oedipus el Rey attempts something quite bold—to transplant one of our oldest and most iconic Western plays from ancient Thebes, where Sophocles’ version of the story is set, to a prison and Chicano barrio in contemporary Los Angeles. Luis Alfaro’s stroke of genius is to take this classic tale about the impossibility of escaping our fate and apply it to a young inmate who is just getting out of prison. Is it possible for Oedipus to forge a new life, or is he fated to land back in prison again, as so many former convicts do?

A little recap for those of you who don’t remember back to your college humanities course:  Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex begins with King Oedipus at the height of his powers, and yet a plague has overtaken the city and the people come to him seeking a solution. Just then, Oedipus’s brother-in-law Creon returns from visiting the Oracle at Delphi where he learned that the plague stems from the fact that the murderer of the former King, Laius, has never been caught. Oedipus vows to find the murderer and seeks the help of the blind prophet Tiresias. Tiresias tell Oedipus that he himself is the murderer, which throws Oedipus into a rage. He accuses Creon of paying Tiresias to undermine him. Oedipus’s wife Jocasta enters to comfort him, saying he should take no notice of the ravings of prophets. Many years ago, she explains, she and her then-husband Laius received an oracle that wasn’t true. It said that Laius would be killed by his own son, but as everyone know, Lauis was killed by bandits at a crossroads on the way to Delphi. 

With Jocasta’s mentioning of the crossroads, a tragic back story starts to unfold step by step, with Oedipus boldly investigating and madly denying at the same time. Oedipus recalls for Jocasta a prophecy he received that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. This led him to abandon his home town of Corinth. But on his way out of town, he killed some travelers who were attempting to drive him off the road—at the very crossroads where it is said Laius was killed! A messenger arrives saying that Oedipus’s father has died. Suprisingly, this makes Oedipus ecstatic, for it proves he didn’t kill his father. But his joy is short-lived, for with the arrival of a shepherd, the whole truth starts to reveal itself. Many years ago Jocasta and Laius had a baby, but because of a prophecy that the baby would kill its father, Jocasta gave the baby away to be killed by a shepherd. But the shepherd gave the baby to another shepherd who gave it to a childless man and his wife who raised him in Corinth. That baby was Oedipus, who now realizes that, in attempting to outrun his fate, he has in fact run straight into it by killing his real father, Laius, and marrying his real mother, Jocasta.  As the truth dawns, Jocasta runs into the house and hangs herself. Oedipus discovers her and famously gouges out his eyes so he can no longer see the filth of his own destiny. 

I vividly remember the thrill I experienced when I read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex for the first time, with its unfolding sense of inevitable horror. And Luis Alfaro recaptured that thrill for me in Oedipus el Rey—but in a totally different way. Instead of compressing the narrative into a continuous two hours, with Oedipus gradually piecing together things that happened in the past, he pulls it apart in a modern way so we can witness each step along the way. And he injects great fun into the spicy language, freely mixes in Spanish phrases, livens up the settings by moving from a prison to various locations in the barrio, invests deeply in the sexuality and love between Oedipus and Jocasta, and finds his own unique sense of stage ritual to substitute for the Greek pattern of choral interludes.   

We’ll tell you more after rehearsals get going, especially about the centrality of Oedipus el Rey within our season entitled “A striptease of Your Subconscious” (though perhaps that already obvious—think “Oedipus complex,” one of the core tenets of Freudian psychology!)  For now, gotta run!  

~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director

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Understanding HOUSE OF GOLD…some advice from Howard Shalwitz

So many people have come up to me during the previews of House of Gold to discuss the show, and it’s no surprise. Greg Moss’ devilish script, combined with Sarah Benson’s eye-popping multi-media production, yields a rich but complex theatre going experience. Knowing this in advance, Woolly has made a special offer which you may have seen in our tabloid-style playbill–you can come back to see House of Gold a second time for free, with promotional code 1036. I invite you to take advantage of this rare opportunity.  Woolly Mammoth’s mission is to produce plays that explore “the edges of theatrical style and the human experience.”  House of Gold allows us to partner with our patrons to explore just where those edges lie.

As compared with, let’s say, Sara Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play, House of Gold is not trying to create a real world for us to lose ourselves in as audience members. By subverting our expectations for a linear narrative, and by constantly reminding us that we are in a theatrical environment, the play keeps making room for us to supply meanings of our own.  I keep thinking about our season’s theme, “a striptease of your subconscious,” and the way House of Gold functions like a Rorschach test for what’s inside our own brains.  During the play, we don’t see anything really horrible happen to JonBenet.  But because we know she was murdered, we see every character as a suspect, and our minds fill in all sorts of perversions at every turn.  The innocence of JonBenet’s relationship with Jasper serves as a sweet counterpoint to the grotesque adult characters, each of whom attempts to make her into an embodiment of his or her own unfulfilled desires.

I am enormously proud of this production, and once again amazed by how our Woolly audiences are rising to the challenge presented by one of American’s boldest and most ambitious young playwrights.  There will be many opportunities for dialogue around House of Gold, including post-show conversations after every remaining performance through November 28.  Please visit Woolly’s website for more details, and make your voice heard by e-mailing discussions@woollymammoth.net.  You can read more of my personal reflections about the show on Woolly’s blog: www.woollymammothblog.com.  I keep learning more and more about the play with every chance to talk about it, and look forward to your insights as part of our collective inquiry about House of Gold.

~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director

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Do you think HOUSE OF GOLD an example of postmodern theatre? Let Howard know!

I think—and I hope—that House of Gold will be a very new kind of theatre experience for many in Woolly’s growing audience. Watching the show take shape over the past few weeks, and talking with energized and quizzical audience members after the first preview on Monday, I found myself searching for new language to describe the show. In many ways it reminds me of some of the productions I’ve seen in Poland and Bulgaria over the past year—incorporating live video in the action, presenting characters in multiple time-frames, creating a complex layered experience rather than a simple linear narrative, etc.

Last week I came across a rather nifty overview of Postmodern Theatre on—ya gotta love it—Wikipedia. We’ve become accustomed to hearing the word “postmodern” in connection with art and architecture, but not so much in theatre:

“Postmodern theatre is a recent phenomenon in world theatre, coming as it does out of the postmodern philosophy that originated in Europe in the 1960s. Postmodern theatre emerged as a reaction against modernist theatre. Most postmodern productions are centered around highlighting the fallibility of definite truth, instead encouraging the audience to reach their own individual understanding. Essentially, thus, postmodern theatre raises questions rather than attempting to supply answers.”

I think this applies to House of Gold fairly well. Playwright Greg Moss is mining the brief life and the larger cultural phenomenon of JonBenet Ramsey to reflect on the way we relate to children in our society. He’s not telling us what to think, but raising a set of provocative questions in a way that is dazzlingly theatrical and somewhat open-ended.

Wikepedia goes on to list a set of “Postmodern Techniques” in theatre. I’ve had a good time analyzing how these techniques match up (or not) with Woolly’s production of House of Gold:

  1. The accepted norms of seeing and representing the world are challenged and disregarded, while experimental theatrical perceptions and representations are created.
  2. A diverse pastiche of different textualities and media forms are used, including the simultaneous use of multiple art or media forms, and there is the ‘theft’ of a heterogeneous group of artistic forms.
  3. Narrative need not be complete but can be broken, paradoxical and imagistic. There is a movement away from linearity to multiplicity (to inter-related ‘webs’ of storying), where acts and scenes give way to a series of peripatetic dramatic moments.
  4. Characters are fragmented, forming a collection of contrasting and parallel shards stemming from a central idea, theme or traditional character.
  5. Each new performance of a theatrical pieces is a new Gestalt, a unique spectacle, with no intent on methodically repeating a play.
  6. The audience is integral to the shared meaning making of the performance process and are included in the dialogue of the play.
  7. There is a rejection of the precepts of “High” and “Low” art. The production exists only in the viewers mind as what the viewer interprets, nothing more and nothing less.
  8. The rehearsal process in a theatrical production is driven more by shared meaning-making and improvisation, rather than the scripted text.
  9. The play steps back from reality to create its own self conscious atmosphere. This is sometimes referred to as meta-theatre.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about how these techniques relate to your personal experience of House of Gold.  While “postmodern theatre” may not be a perfect description of the play, you may find that it provides an illuminating lens. It certainly helped me to articulate some of the ways in which Greg Moss and director Sarah Benson are quite intentionally positioning themselves at the leading edge of American theatre.

~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director

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Howard Shalwitz on HOUSE OF GOLD

Rehearsals begin today for House of Gold, a macabre comic fantasy inspired by the bizarre life and mysterious death of the famous child beauty queen and tabloid phenomenon, JonBenét Ramsey. Yikes! This is incendiary subject matter, to be sure—a play that gets my blood flowing with both wild expectation and pure terror.

Wild expectation for many reasons: playwright Gregory S. Moss is a precociously talented newcomer with bold ideas, an idiosyncratic sense of language, and an intuitive sense for both drama and comedy. He will be paired at Woolly with one of the most brilliant directors to emerge in recent seasons, Sarah Benson, Artistic Director of New York’s downtown hotbed of theatrical invention, Soho Rep. (Sunday night I saw another new Greg Moss play directed by Sarah Benson—Orange, Hat & Grace-—and found it absolutely riveting. For the full immersion in this powerhouse collaboration, you can catch it until October 15 at Soho Rep.) We have an amazing cast for House of Gold, including Mitchell Hebért, Michael Russotto, and Emily Townley. And the subject matter is fascinating, inspired by one of the most notorious unsolved murders of our time.

Pure terror? Well, once in a while a new play comes along that I feel Woolly absolutely must produce because it carves out a genuinely original path we haven’t imagined before. Stunning by David Adjmi was one of those plays—about a Syrian Jewish girl who falls in love with her African American housekeeper. Maria/Stuart by Jason Grote was one of those plays—about a German-spewing ghost who inhabits the bodies of her children and grandchildren to get them to see the truth about their lives. House of Gold is such a play. Like the others, it pushes against boundaries of both subject matter and aesthetics, revolving around protagonists we haven’t seen on the stage before, immersing them in dangerous situations that are sometimes squirm-inducing to watch, and exploring new language and structures to tell their stories. The pure terror comes from a couple of questions that such plays always pose for me:  Will it work? And what will it unleash in our audience?

House of Gold unfolds like a strange nightmare with a logic of its own, though the basic outline is fairly simple. The ghost of six-year old JonBenét Ramsey returns to her earthly home and re-lives scenes remembered or refracted from her doomed life. She is not investigating her murder, so any expectations of a whodunit should be set aside. Instead she is puzzling over the larger question of how adults and children saw her, what expectations they placed on her as a beautiful young girl, and whether her brief life was ultimately worth living. At the center of the story lies an unlikely romance between JonBenét and a fat boy from her neighborhood who seems to be her opposite in every way. Their childhood attraction is the bright spot in a suburban landscape that presents itself as a minefield of inappropriate psychological projection. Underneath it all lies a desperate longing for love and safety.

Sounds like America, right? I can’t wait to see how all the elements of House of Gold come together, but I can promise you there will be much to talk about. And if the past is any guide, Woolly’s audience will rise to the challenge. (I’ve often said I’d love to shock our audience but it seems to be impossible!) Playwright Greg Moss never tells us exactly what to think. He juxtaposes achingly poetic language, vaudevillian comedy, and disturbing behavior to examine the underpinnings of suburban America’s culture and values. Often taking the form of a funhouse ghost ride, the House of Gold begins previews the day after Halloween—so you can think of it as Woolly’s contribution to the season of ghouls and goblins, with a little extra prick to your subconscious.

~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director

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