Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Gruesome Playground Injuries, Animals Out of Paper, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph

This book is actually a collection of three plays, but I'm going to treat them as one text and do mini-reviews of each from my least to most favorite.

I'd See It, But It's Not On My Play Bucket List: Animals Out of Paper
(Joseph's fourth play, but the earliest play in this collection)
This play follows a newly divorced origami master, the science teacher who is enamored with her, and the origami prodigy teenager he's discovered at his school (who is also just a regular prodigy) who he wants to be an apprentice to the master. 

This play has a few funny moments, like when Andy (teacher) goes to Ilana (origami master)'s studio: 

He points to a Chinese take-out box.
ANDY: Hey did you do that? That's great.
ILANA: Those are take-out boxes.
ILANA: Yeah, that's Szechuan beef.
ANDY: It's just that there's so many. I thought it was conceptual. 

It's WORKS, but it's also a cheaper laugh because it's a joke that's been made with a lot of conceptual artist's work - it just works better because of the origami/Chinese take out box connection. It's too bad that it's one we've heard before. 

It's also a little heartbreaking, like when Andy accidentally leaves his book of blessings (yes, he counts and writes them down) behind at Ilana's apartment and she reads them all, discovering many things about him including his uncomfortably huge crush on her (uncomfortable because he idolizes her and they've had very few interactions).

ANDY: I really like you. I mean, I have a really big crush on you.
ILANA: I know, it was in the book.
ANDY: Oh man!
ILANA: Andy, listen . . . 
ANDY: People have two sides, okay? They have their inside and their outside, and I don't really need for everyone to be reading my book!
ILANA: People have more than two sides.
ANDY: Some people. But not me. There's this. And then there's this. 

He feels like she already knows all the little stories, moments, and anecdotes that a person would normally have the opportunity to share while getting to know someone. The motif of sides, paper, and folds is repeated throughout the play at different intervals, often beautifully (I am a little geeky about origami and have had dreams about folding and teaching and usually make at least one origami piece with my students every year, so I am very much biased - I think most things having to do with origami are beautiful). 

ILANA: Look at this paper. It has no memory, it's just flat. But fold it, even once, and suddenly it remembers something. And then with each fold, another memory, another experience...It probably can't remember it's still in one piece. Probably feels like too many things have happened to it. It's all twisted into something so far from what it used to be. 

The idea is great, the writing is beautiful, but I wasn't satisfied with the arc of the plot and where Joseph decided to end it. Because it is such a new and (at least in my circle of readers) relatively unknown text, I don't want to give anything away, but it made me want to origami, and I think I'll indulge for my Valentine's Day cards. 

I Want to See This So Badly and Was Ecstatic to See an Ad for It in San Francisco Only to Have My Soul Crushed When I Found Out it Was Put on Five Months Ago: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

This play is THE Joseph play. It was a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 2010 under drama, but lost to "Next to Normal" by Tom Kitt which I cannot speak to as I've never read/seen it. 

This play showcases the Iraq war in a really interesting and brilliant way. The title character, the Tiger, is played straight as a person who watches the horrifying events unfold before him (although he IS a tiger and doesn't necessarily find killing problematic). We also get the perspective of two American soldiers as well as an Iraqi translator, his murdered sister, a handful of civilians, and Uday Hussein. Living characters interact with dead ones, and time and space are sometimes blended. 

Including Uday Hussein is a really interesting choice. I did a little research to see if he's portrayed accurately, and it turns out he was in fact a really awful person (you are surprised, I know). TIME Magazine did a profile of the Hussein brothers and it begins with an anecdote about Uday seeing a 14-year-old girl, kidnapping her, and keeping her for three days while he raped her. The girl's father was an ex-governer and reported the rape. Uday told him to drop the charges and send the girl back to him with her 12-year-old sister, which (according to the article) the ex-governer did. So. There's that, and that part of his personality is included in the play. 

UDAY: (truly aggrieved) But people don't like me. They say I am a bad man. Evil. A torturer. I tortured people. (beat) Of course I fucking tortured people. When you have people who have wronged you . . . you would torture them. . . And then once they have [tired of the torture], you bring in their women. And you have your way with them. Because to watch your wife get fucked by a man who is about to kill you, well, that is a piece-of-shit day you are having, my friend. 

The American soldiers are struggling to keep it together psychologically and morally while still upholding their masculine military values. Kev is a compulsive liar who has to make himself seem braver, more impressive, more important than he is. 

KEV: (near tears) Jesus! Everything I see every day is just one crazy thing after another. 

The play does have funny moments - one of my favorite is when Musa, the translator, addresses one of the soldiers as Johnny (after being repeatedly called Habib by the Americans). In the way that "Animals Out of Paper" uses origami as a metaphor, this play uses topiary as a metaphor, and again - I might have a bias because my mom is into topiary and I grew up with it - it's a really lovely metaphor. 

This is one of those texts where I feel like there is so much happening below the surface, and I think I really will need to see it in order to start to have an idea of what I've missed. One thing I am very excited for in production is the use of Arabic. In the script, we the reader get the phonetic, the Arabic, and the translation, but stage directions specify that the audience only hears Arabic. 

I Saw This Play Twice In One Week and Will Never Turn Down a Chance to See It: Gruesome Playground Injuries 

My favorite Las Vegas local theater company, Cockroach Theatre, included this in their last season and I was immediately blown away and saw it twice. After reading it, I am still in love with this play. Joseph is really into these metaphors that take over the whole play (see: origami, topiary) and in this play it is injuries. The play features two people: Kayleen and Doug, and shows them from age 8 to age 38. Every scene jumps forward fifteen years or backwards 10 years, thus in the first scene they are 8, in the second they are 23, in the third they are 13, etc. They have a will-they or won't-they friendship that is showcased mostly in the nurse's office and hospital rooms, but sometimes in other places. 

The most interesting aspect of this play is that the costume changes and makeup changes are done on stage in front of the audience, so they get to see the actor cover themselves with mud or blacken a tooth or put on an eye patch. This play has to be one of the most difficult for actors to do because they are playing this huge range of ages and experiences, but Joseph's writing so wonderfully captures their ages. 

KAYLEEN (age 8): The rest of the castle is loud and has bright lights and flags and hot oil because of wars. But the dungeon is where people can go to languish and get some peace and quiet. 

After having sex for the first two times, she describes the second time with: 

KAYLEEN: It wasn't fun. It was . . . It was just like, you know. Like you have to pretend you're not even doing anything, like you're just playing around. . . wrestling around and everything and then suddenly we're not, suddenly, he's like. . . you know . . .
DOUG: He's like what?
KAYLEEN: Nothing.
DOUG: You didn't want to?
KAYLEEN: I mean . . . not at that exact moment . . . 
        Doug stands up, stares at her. 
DOUG: Kayleen . . .
KAYLEEN: Don't get all crazy. You're always so dramatic.
DOUG: I'm going to fucking kill him. 

Oh, this moment. This moment where a girl doesn't feel comfortable calling her experience rape or inappropriate or anything, and the person who loves her is ready to fucking kill that person. I feel like this is *such* a woman moment, teenage moment, human moment, and way too common, and perfectly captured. 

I don't know if I would have loved this play so much if I hadn't seen it done SO well in an intimate black box theater with really amazing actors who were perfect for the parts (and really excellent decisions in sound choices - the stage directions just say to play music in between acts while they're changing, and the director had era-appropriate music that made it feel very much like these characters were on MY timeline, although I am a wee bit younger). However, I do think that the writing is THAT strong in order for two people to carry the entire weight of a play on their shoulders. I would recommend this to everyone, but especially to women and men in their teens, twenties, and thirties who spent part of their youth and maybe part of their present being broken and damaged. 

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

These all three sound pretty amazing. I've never heard of this guy before but I'm going to seek him out.

Also, that Hussein thing is just... wow.