Thursday, December 10, 2015

Into the Wilderness

I lost a favorite scarf tonight - grey and purple herringbone, perfect with my red-lined charcoal peacoat - but I find I don't mind. It seems like a price worth having paid for being able to see the two Thornton Wilder one-acts on the way to which the scarf must have slipped from my shoulders. The plays were "The Long Christmas Dinner" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha" (both published in 1931), and Peccadillo Theater's evening at the Theater at St. Clement's was called "A Wilder Christmas."

The first does indeed take place on Christmas Day - indeed, on Christmas Day over ninety years: we see several generations of a family appear and pass on, the ritualized informalities of the family meal continuing through time, through joy and loss. As characters pass away the actors rise from the table and move through a portal at back stage left, usually wordlessly, as activity continues at the table. It's hard not to weep at the fatal inevitability of it, at the loneliness of the departing characters.

The second is less obviously Chistmassy but more, well, Christian. Among the things it's about is a soul's ascent into heaven, reluctant to leave the earth and protesting that it's "unfair" that she not have to be punished for her failings in this life. But it's also about this world of ourse in all its unremarked complexity and splendor: at one point the actors playing passengers in a train's sleeping car - their characters are almost all asleep - sit up and turn to look at the audience, which is put to work giving voice to the land being traversed. Audience members are given brief texts to read, as towns, as the weather, as a field full of hibernating gophers and fieldmice. A ghost of a workman killed in the building of a rail bridge being crossed appears and speaks (in German). The Stage Manager, the master of ceremonies readying for prime time in "Our Town" (1938), has everyone read their scripts at once, including the actors on the stage - this is the sound of the earth! Then it's joined by the sound of other planets, audience members given Tibetan singing bells to chime, and three young women dressed like something from Vaudeville representing the hours of the night, and philosophy. We were sitting in the front row, so surrounded. All were invited to sound together, a cosmic din.
And then, coup de théâtre on top of coup de théâtre, the black curtain behind the stylized train car opens to reveal a big open sky and an angel (actually an archangel, and the actor who plays the Pullman porter) atop some stairs, who comes slowly down (to music by Arvo Pärt) into the car full of sleeping passengers, for the woman who has died...

Describing it seems like doing it a disservice: it was so theatrical, so much the power, the magic, of live performance. (Why didn't we include this in "Religion & Theater"?) So I'll say no more - see it if you can, and I hope my staging spoilers won't spoil it. It's all very knowing, very "theatrical" - one is very aware of letting oneself be party to its telling artifice - so it might not.

I have a long history with Thornton Wilder - I sensed an affinity of sensibility long before I knew he was gay - and I vaguely recall reading the first of tonight's plays once upon a long time ago. Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey was the starting point for my "Problem of Evil" lecture course at Princeton, and something which has stayed with many students who took it. I directed a Wilder play at UWC long before that, "The Matchmaker," being already by that time a fan from his novels The Eighth Day and The Ides of March. I came late to his most famous works, "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth" (only the first of which I've even seen, in that splendid David Cromer production at Barrow Street in 2009). These last are most like the plays I just saw (it's impossible not to see tonight's one-acts as stepping stones toward them)... the magic is there already. So glad I got to see them. And in some strangely cheerful way resigned to the passing of my scarf. All things pass, but art, and love, remain. (The pictures are of the stage before the start of the first play, and after the end of the second.)

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