Written by Lee Horvitz
Monday, 08 June 2009 18:48
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show
me the glint of light on broken glass.”
After the flood Southern Repertory Theater commissioned author John Biguenet to write a storm cycle of plays. Called “Rising Water,” it began with a work of the same name. Rising Water showed little understanding of dramatic writing. Consider, for example, its impotent climax. Ascending water traps a late-middle-aged couple in their attic. The husband finally makes a hole in the roof. The wife shimmies out, but he cannot squeeze through. So she stands on the roof, freed, as his head pokes out. Now that is a strong dramatic image promising a powerful climax. But the action “builds” to the sights and sounds of rescue. Biguenet claims this play’s writing was motivated by rage at the senseless deaths from inadequate levees. Yet no one dies! I don’t get it and it didn’t get me. The stage should be lousy with corpses!
The second installment, Shotgun, running through June 14 at Southern Rep, does show improvement. It fields a provocative set of characters, for example. The play revolves around two, atypical couples: A 60-ish African-American father (Dex) and his grown daughter (Mattie); a Southern white, working class father (Beau, Mattie’s age) and his teenage son (Eugene). After losing their house to the flood, Beau and Eugene rent one half of Mattie’s double in Algiers. The displaced, Lower-Ninth-Ward Dex lives with her on the other side. Black father and grandfather, mixed-race adult duo, white son— an unlikely blended family blown by wind and water under one roof. Clarence, a.k.a. Willie, a hustler who squandered his chances with Mattie and is the father of her long-dead daughter, rounds out the well-constructed ensemble with the makings of a volatile night at the theater. Particularly after the distraught Beau and lonely Mattie hook up.
Biguenet also learned some dramatic technique. In one scene, Dex and Beau discuss repairing a shed but really are talking about mending the lives of their children. The exchange has sub-text. And in this scene Biguenet gives Dex not only something to do, but planting flowers in a window box—something dramatically and visually symbolic of Shotgun’s world. Now that there is theater writing. (No more than five percent of the show was written with this scene’s art, however.)
No doubt Biguenet can be a hell of a writer. But beset by all the fatal weaknesses of a prose stylist taking a turn on the boards, Rising Water was delivered stillborn and Shotgun on life support. This hell of a writer is not yet a dramatist.
Let me count the nays.
1) Biguenet writes plays narratively, not dramatically. The grammar of narrative is telling, the grammar of drama is action; dramatic characters do, Biguenet’s characters do not. Whether in conflict with their circumstances or their emotions, Biguenet’s characters tell about and talk about. They share, comment, analyze, confess, explain—anything but act. Thus without any action of being deeply concerned, Beau tells Mattie he is “worried sick” about Eugene being late and explains why. In rough terms the distinction between dramatic and narrative writing captures theater’s First Commandment: “Thou shalt show, not say.” Since they tell, his characters do not speak dramatic dialogue. Rather they announce what they think and feel. Announcing dialogue, one of drama’s cardinal sins, has no sub-text, a vital element of real dramatic dialogue.
2) More’s the pity Shotgun has the makings of a good story because Biguenet does not know what to make of it. The anemic dramatization lacks foreshadowing, questions, surprise or suspense, and the play’s climax fares no better than Rising Water’s. Torn between his new bedmate Mattie and his angry son’s desire to get back over the river to the family’s gutted house, Beau turns in the apartment keys to Mattie, occasioning from each an explanation of feelings and positions, and she returns his deposit. A strong dramatic dilemma is squandered.
3) What the trade calls “restaurant scenes” fill Shotgun. Characters come together to talk rather than for dramatic reasons. They tend, therefore, to eat and drink in such scenes. Hence the term. Countless scenes begin with the characters meeting and greeting, perhaps as one sits on the porch and the other returns from work. Then—talk about with maybe a little walkabout. Not surprisingly, then, many of Shotgun’s scenes have no or little value change, yet dramatic writing dictates they should.
4) Although Biguenet masterfully captures and differentiates his characters’ speech, neither Beau nor Mattie, the play’s protagonists, change. At times characters are devastatingly inconsistent: Dex does not want the white folks moving in, yet by only the next scene he shares with Beau his deepest thoughts on faith, love and loss. Finally, Biguenet’s characters hardly feel the few choices they do make. Emotion does not rule the stage.
5) In Dramatic Writing 101 everyone learns Chekhov’s iconic observation that a gun introduced in Act One must go off in Act Two. Biguenet introduces a knife early in the show only to maddeningly mishandle its dramatic possibilities. Eugene flashes it and says he is going to carry it at his new, Algiers, all-black high school. Fine so far. But this first knife scene ends with the son giving up the weapon after an argument with Dad. That hardly set up tension or suspense.
The knife appears next when Eugene steals it from Beau’s toolbox. Yet the boy acts alone on stage at no risk of being caught. That was not a close one! Finally, just before the show’s “climax,” he enters whittling. Forget that there’s no reason for Eugene to be whittling. Forget that whittling does not pack metaphor mojo. When we should be steaming into the big finish, Eugene whittles! Unfortunately, the knife is only one of the scores of dramatic possibilities Biguenet neglects to actualize.
But wait a minute, what about Rising Water’s record audiences, the local raves, Biguenet’s Theater Person of the Year award, Shotgun’s extended run? Rage at the death of critical sense all this gushing assumes motivated writing this piece, along with the fear that these “plays” are being positioned as Katrina’s leading theatrical voice. In fact, a mass spell of post-Katrina boosterism, enforced positive thinking and critical cowardice has locals singing public paeans to Biguenet’s comfortable portraits of our catastrophe. But never believe your Aunt Tillie when she raves about your performance, as my former acting teacher counseled me. Maybe Rising Water and Shotgun have merit I missed, but I expect the praise is much more socially required than aesthetically defensible.
He does have a third play to complete the Katrina cycle, however. Biguenet may deliver this one yawping. Given the growth between Rising Water and Shotgun, and Biguenet’s accomplishments in academia and fiction, I see reason for hope. But for God’s sake, stop giving the local hero intentional walks. People accept them as real. Given the catastrophe and New Orleans’ literary history, we deserve better—that magic made of method and madness, living theater.
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