Unruled Paper: Plays Well with Others Edition

by Steve Mitchell

Arguably, playwrights use words in a different way than other kinds of writers. For the most part, dialogue is all they have to place us within the minds and feelings of their characters. Some late 20th Century theatre, taking its lead from Beckett, pared down the word to almost minimalist levels. It’s a kind of dialogue less expository than Shakespeare, O’Neill, etc., yet still musical in its own way. The action becomes smaller, more focused, but no less deep.Below, we find five late 20th, early 21st, Century playwrights working with limited words, limited sets, and limited action, to create a sense of how we live today and how we speak.

Sarah Ruhl – The Clean House and Other PlaysRuhl’s plays at first seem deceptively simple, but unfold as they proceed in so many directions of thought and feeling that they can be hard to keep up with. Known for Dead Man’s Cell Phone and The Vibrator Play, this books collects some of her earlier work, which is just as funny and incisive. Magic can happen any time in a Ruhl play, a song can erupt, an apparition might visit, always with a sense of wonder arising from the everyday.

Annie Baker – The Vermont PlaysAnnie Baker’s plays are more often than not about pauses, which may seem like a contradiction but in Baker’s case is more of a Zen koan. Baker takes for granted that her characters more often than not cannot say what they’re thinking or feeling, so her dialogue is always sidling up to a thought or emotion then drifting away. It’s an audacious approach and one that requires some patience on the part of the audience, but the returns lie in crystal insights and an illumination of the kinds of exchanges we might see many times a day in our normal lives.

Sarah Kane – Complete PlaysSarah Kane is brutal theatre, so be prepared. Her plays contain any number of violent acts and situations in which humans are acting horribly, yet their sheer power and elusive empathy can leave you gutted by the end. Kane was a young and promising playwright when she died by suicide at the age of 28, leaving behind six plays which were intially panned in her lifetime as ‘horrific and disgusting’, yet have since come to be seen as important works of late 20th Century theatre. 4:48 Psychosis is the most harrowing description of depression I’ve ever seen in the theatre.

Jon Fosse – Plays SixJon Fosse is ‘the most produced contemporary playwright in the world’, and yet you’ve probably never heard of him, as his plays are staged more in Europe and other parts of the world than here. Fosse’s plays have the clearest ties to Beckett, with their dreamy interiority, their use of minimal language in distinct rhythms with repetitions, their pall of existential loneliness. These can be beautiful, almost surreal dramas unfolding sometimes around simple tasks, like putting up a Christmas tree in Christmas Tree Song, and sometimes in strangely quiet states of being, as in Rambuku. This volume collects six of Fosse’s latest plays.

Wallace Shawn – The Designated MournerWallace Shawn’s weapon of choice is the confessional monologue, often spoken directly to the audience, forcing them into complicity with the confessor. There are only three characters in The Designated Mourner and each addresses the audience. In an unnamed country after an unclear political upheaval, Jack details his love for Judy, his loathing for her father Howard, and his eventual betrayal of both. The betrayal is so matter-of-fact as to be shocking as the play explores the guilt of all three.EventsWFDD Book ClubSaturday, February 6 at 2pm & 4pmScuppernong Books, GreensboroTa-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and me will be the focus of this quarterly book club, with two sessions. Sign up at the WFDD website. FreeCasa Azul celebrates 400 years of Don QuixoteFriday, February 19 at 7pmScuppernong books, GreensboroThe evening will showcase traditional Spanish music and songs celebrating Don Quixote as well as theme related original artwork by local artists. In addition, members of the community will read their favorite parts from Don Quixote and join the audience in a conversation about the legacy of Don Quixote. In honor of AN EVENING WITH DON QUIXOTE – UNA VELADA CON DON QUIJOTE, Scuppernong Books will be serving Spanish wine. The event is free and open to the public. Drinks and food will be available for sale.Michelle Alexander at the Carolina Theatre: A Conversation About Policing and Race: What Needs to ChangeWednesday, February 24 at 7pmA highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander will speak about policing and race. This event is free.And,here’s the late Alan Rickman and Kristin Scott-Thomas performing Samuel Beckett’s Play, directed by Anthony Minghella.

Beckett on Film: PLAY (Dir. Anthony Minghella, 2001) from CAJ on Vimeo.

Please send any announcements of writerly or bookish events in the Triad area or beyond to: neuralarts@triad.rr.comSteve Mitchell’s short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC.