Last Friday I was invited to watch a rehearsal of BARBARA BUSH NEVER SLEPT HERE, a play written by David DeWitt, directed by Jim Bracchitta. The reason for the invitation was that Paul Knox, who directed the reading of my play The Mating Game Show at Salaam the previous week, is producing the show.
It was a fascinating and very rewarding experience, of which I will only be able to reproduce the least flavour because I'm a bit sleepy and as always, I'm writing this at dead of night. It felt almost better than seeing the staged play – which I'm going to miss, as it will open on the 7th of October and I'm leaving NYC in two days.
Part of what made it so thrilling was that before the rehearsal began in earnest, small groups of actors worked on isolated scenes. I don't know how much work had already been done on those scenes, but for me, watching them completely ignorant of their place in the larger narrative and unaware of the how's and wherefore's it seemed to me that they were being shaped right in front of my eyes – from collections of words and meanings into bright, taut, tight images, like turning the focusing ring on a camera until every line of a picture is sharp. Two women, one mature but still young (I think her name was Shiela) and the other middle-aged (Patsy), discuss an incident involving a man whom they both know, while also discussing Patsy's passion for politics.
I had no idea as I watched this scene rehearsal, what the context of the scene was, or who Patsy was – because of the play's title, I assumed (wrongly) that she was meant to be Barbara Bush – except there seemed nothing in the dialogue to support that idea, so after a very short while, I dropped it. The actresses, Pamela Dunlap and Alice King, performed their duet of thrusts and counter-thrusts almost like a piece of music. It was a very short scene and yet within the space of four runs, they had brought it out of the flat page into three dimensional space, just by varying their intonation and patterns of stress.
A couple more scenes were rehearsed on their own and then it was time to start the run-through. Here I must pause to describe the location of this rehearsal. It was in the basement beneath a room which was being used as a gallery. The show on the walls of the gallery was called The War Room, and featured three wall-sized canvases painted in shades of gray about the conflict in Iraq. In the display window were four life-sized manniquins dressed in identical (well I didn't look at them very carefully) black burqas. The basement looked very much like basements tend to look, i.e., like a bunker that has not yet recovered from World War II, but this one was also strewn with various oddments of domestic life – bits of furniture, kitchen equipment and the like. It was not immediately obvious to me whether these items belonged to the basement or were props for the play – most, it turned out, certainly were.
Aside from me, the audience for the rehearsal included the playwright, a photographer (alas I don't remember his name), Paul, and Jim the director, a rather beautiful young woman (Dyanne Court) with a glorious mane of auburn curls hanging down her back who was the stage manager and another young woman (Makiko Suzuki) neat and precise as an origami crane, the set designer. Also present were the lighting designer (Brian Aldiss) and the sound designer (Bart Fasbender).
The play is, at one level, about the events surrounding the return of a middle-aged man to the small town of his youth, after a career in politics. At another level, it is about the sparks that human beings give off, whether they want to or not, as they brush against one another in their various passages through life. At another level, it is about the lives of politicians and how the crucible of a healthy democracy must always – surely! – be its small towns and dusty by-lanes. At another level it is about the difference in the strengths of men and women, the different ways in which their ambitions shape their lives, their relationships, their moods. It is a thoughtful play, drawing on character-vignettes which were recognizable but didn't feel tired or clichéd. I think what I liked best about the script was its under-stated artistry – a cool normalcy, without bright lights and loud drama, yet eloquent, smooth and provocative.
It was also, in a sly and appealing way, a bit like a crochet-hook poked into the substance of daily affairs on the eve of what seems likely to be a fateful Presidential election – fateful not just for the US, but for the whole planet – digging up sharp, spiky, spicy comments about the current political situation without engaging in direct attacks or praise.
Having heard the smaller scenes, it was an especial delight to see them now patted into place like the final pieces of a jigsaw – suddenly understanding the meanings of those colours and shapes that just a half hour ago seemed to belong to some very different picture. Each of the characters – there was a young couple too, on the verge of marriage – created a precise reality of his/her own just by the way they moved their bodies or inflected their voices.
It seemed to me that what they brought to their performance was not merely their interpretations of these particular roles but also a life-times' worth of observations of others around them and of themselves. When the director asked them to look for a slight variation of one mood, they were able to look within themselves, like an embroiderer seeking in her basket for yet another version of almond green, then spoke the same lines with the altered emphasis. The point is, they had a palette of experiences rich enough that when asked to look for variations of expressions, they could comply. It was just so satisfying (and for me, also envy-inspiring!) to see that process of bringing completion to a text so that it was no longer merely words but became a shared - though fictional - memory of something vivid and memorable.
The play will be performed at Baruch's BERNIE WEST THEATRE, produced by Circle East Theatre Company, during the month of October this year. If anyone wants more in the way of contact information, they can post comments here and I may be able to rustle up some answers.