Friday, May 25, 2012

The Rise and Fall of a Supermarket Reunion (A Story In Five Parts)

Chapter One
Browsing through the fruit and vegetable isle you’re lost in squeezing tomatoes and trying to figure out what to get for dinner when you hear a long, exaggerated “Ohhhh myyy Gaaawd!”  You look up and see a face you haven’t seen since high school: Annie Jacobs.  The hair is highlighted and chopped short in a wave and there are crows feet and an unnatural orangey glow to the skin but it’s definitely her.  There is a heartfelt if awkward hug and you almost tear up when sharing brief stories about your lives over the past twenty years.  Of course she got married, and remarried now and her husband is a doctor and boy was it great catching up and before you can even think you’re parting ways.  You find yourself roaming the aisles aimlessly, having forgotten your shopping list in a flood of memories.

Chapter Two
You see her in the soda aisle loading a case of some fancy sparkling water into the bottom of her cart and can’t help but break out in a smile.  “Fancy meeting you here” you quip before launching into a nearly hysterical retelling of the ruined performance of Grease sophomore year that birthed a thousand different inside jokes between the two of you and lead to impromptu choruses of adulterated song lyrics in a variety of inappropriate contexts.  You spend far longer than you mean to recalling embarrassing moments and rebellious pranks and you laugh harder than you have in a while and ask for her phone number when she says that you should seriously catch up.  You wander off happily thumbing the torn paper and marveling on how surprisingly great this shopping trip has been.

Chapter Three
Reaching for a pound of chicken cutlets you see her again; she’s standing in front of the display and half- blocking it with her cart.  “I guess that’s the joy of supermarkets,” she laughs, “you reunite again and again.”  You laugh politely but the fun stories have sort-of exhausted themselves already and you really do have to get home and make dinner.  You smile warmly, saying how it really was so good to see her but you purposely skip the frozen food aisle in hopes of concluding the visit while you’re still genuinely happy to have run into her.

Chapter Four
Turning down the paper good aisle to retrieve toilet paper you spot her looking through paper towels.  You nearly back track but then mentally kick yourself for being so petty.  But in all honesty, it’s really just getting ridiculous.  As you near her you see that she’s parked her cart directly in front of the TP and you start to remember why you haven’t seen her for twenty years.  Because wasn’t she always getting in the way, one way or another?  Didn’t she steal the role of Sandy in Grease while you were stuck as stupid Patty?  And didn’t she always get the solos in chorus while you were forever harmonizing with the rest of the altos?  And didn’t she go to the prom with Mark Cooper even though she knew you were totally in love with him for, like, the entirety of junior year?  That bitch.  It’s not enough that she stole all your big moments in high school, now you can’t even wipe your ass because of her!  You give her a weak smile as you reach over her cart and grab a four pack, then beat a hasty retreat back down the aisle.

Chapter Five
You make your way to the check-out stands, nearly holding your breath as you wait for her to emerge at the end of a line and once again block you from getting your damned groceries.  All the pleasant memories have faded and now you want nothing more than to get out.  How silly for you to forget that the tall, beautiful Ann was the bane of your high school existence; effortlessly taking everything you worked so hard for.  You scan the horizon for her high-heeled figure to emerge and curse the pimpled checkout boy for not going faster.  Completely forgetting all the coupons you’d cut you swipe your card and violently shove your bags into your cart, nearly running for the door.  Safely in the parking lot you rush to get everything into the trunk of your car while your brain recalls a thousand horrific failures that perfect Ann succeeded at.  The dances, the boyfriends, the compliments and praises from teachers all directed at her while you followed her around like a dog begging for the scraps of her popularity.  You see her coming out of the store as you turn on your car and look in the other direction, backing out as fast as you can and cursing her for ruining everything.  When you get home, you throw her number away with your receipt.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My Read For May

Many years ago someone gave me a very surprising and wonderful gift for my birthday.  It was a copy of Steve Martin's Pure Drivel; a collection of humorous essays and super short stories by one of the funniest men on the planet.  Having never been exposed to Steve Martin off-screen before I was happily shocked to learn that he writes just as well as he acts.  Every page of that short little book had me laughing my ass off and I counted it as my favorite collection of funny essays ever after that (blew Dave Barry away, in my opinion.)

Since then I have amassed a small collection of Mr. Martin's works (the novellas, the plays, etc) and like so many other books they've been sitting on my shelf, waiting patiently to be read.  I hate to admit that the main reason I'm picking up this volume now is that it's really, really short.  Having spent the first half of the month reading Wicked I've cut back on the amount of time I have to finish anything and a super short collection like this one is just what the doctor ordered.  Furthermore, after the grave and saddening Wicked I could seriously use a little laughter.

So throughout the remainder of the month I will be reading Cruel Shoes, Steve's very first book which was written and released before I was born.  Based on how hard his second collection hit me my expectations for the first are even higher.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review: Wicked

My first experience of the Wizard of Oz was the singing, dancing, brightly colored fantasy from the movie which brought nothing but happy memories and fond imitations.  When I played the cowardly Lion in a production of the play it brought my love of the happy, joyful version of the story to a new level.  That put me in a somewhat precarious position for reading Wicked because it turns not only the characters but the themes from the original story on their heads.

It's not just that the witch is the heroine and Dorothy is sort-of a bad guy; it's that the joyful, happy version of the original story has been reversed.  This Oz is a dark, dangerous place where singing and dancing is done at the risk of rather terrifying consequences.  This is a place where everyone has a motive other than the one you see on the surface and navigating the complexities of the path set out is a fuck of a lot more complicated than following a brightly colored brick road.  This is a place where every assumption is going to be questioned, analyzed and found to be false or corrupted.  And all of those beloved characters?  Well they're almost as messed up as the ones in that Chuck Palahniuk novel I just read.

So it was strange for me to find myself getting exciting when familiar characters or events or props popped up in this version of the tale.  It was strange to see Maguire's take on the origin of all these people and places and things.  It was strange to connect the dots from the long, strange back story to the original plot of the movie.  And most of all it was strange to find myself liking all of it.

Because the biggest difference between the Wizard of Oz from my youth and the one from this book is that one was happy and the other was definitively sad.  There's no happy ending, there's resolution of the terrible events which took place, there's no reassurance that it all meant something.  No, Maguire refuses to succumb to any of the cliches one would find in the fairy tales from one's youth.  In fact, Maguire addresses that directly: "In the life of a Witch, there is no after, in the ever after of a Witch, there is no happily".

It's sort of like finding out that the fat, jolly Santa Claus from your youth is actually your alcoholic, abusive uncle in a red suit.  Or that the tooth fairy is actually your mom bribing you out of a combination of guilt and some false sense of obligation to an outdated story.  Or that your favorite childhood blanket is the reason you kept getting the flu every winter.

But it's not the jaded, cynical adult version- it's the mature adult version.  It's going further into the tragic story of why your uncle is alcoholic and abusive.  Or why your mom tried so hard to keep that fantasy alive for so long.  Or why the symbolism of that blanket made it worth every sniffle in the end.  It's going past blame to empathy; past superficial explanations to nuanced examinations.

It's like everything else in my experience: the search for answers to all these complicated questions only leads to more questions.  So perhaps saying that this was the sad version of the original is far too simple.  Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the biggest difference is that one is surface level and the other is bottomless.  Because that's the thing about digging for clues- you never really get to the bottom of it.

And I don't mean to make it sound like it's not an enjoyable experience here.  Maguire somehow manages to examine endlessly complex issues like family ties, politics, religion, sexuality and intimacy, societal norms, coming of age and re-examining childhood with the air of grace one would expect from a far more serious piece of literature.  A lot of the discussions reminded me of things I've seen in incredibly well-done political dramas or award winning autobiographies.  But it's done with the whimsical characters of the original story which are so familiar from childhood.

Honestly, there were so many passages that truly blew my mind with their beauty and complexity.  Looking at the scars from youth, how they formed, and what they mean to our identity as adults.  Wanting to blame our faults on the mistakes of our parents or those who taught us and finding that we would have done the same in their shoes.  Asking the difficult questions about the nature of good and evil and why people do what they do and finding that there are no easy answers but only a maze of different viewpoints.  And what's really amazing- and possibly Maguire's greatest strength- is that he uses the same language one would find in the sources one would examine for these answers: parables, allegories, apothegms and rhetoric.  So many passages are introduced as if from the bible or an archaic fable or an ancient myth and the same controversy about the truth or validity of these is argued by the characters discussing them.

The way that he breaks down the societal norms, geographical boundaries, politics and religions of all these different peoples makes Oz look like something featured in national geographic.  He balances lyrical verse with factual observations about the characters, how they look, where they live and their culture.  He looks at love and anger and prejudice and reverence and everything in between with confounding complexity.  And he doesn't give you any answers.  Seriously, if I were pursuing a PHD in literature studies I could do a dissertation on this thing and still not cover it all.

Even the structure of the book raises questions rather than concluding story arcs.  Every time a huge life-changing event happens he ends the section of the book and moves to a different time several years later where you're left wondering what the hell happened all those years ago.  And the main character whose eyes we're seeing all this through is as perplexing and multilayered as one of Miller's antiheroes.   She doesn't understand herself and is constantly seeking to understand her own complexity.  And the more she learns, the harder it becomes to conclude anything.

In the end I think what strikes me most about this is just how fascinating and unsettling all those questions are.  It's impossible for me to draw any tidy conclusions about it because of that.  There's no good or bad because there's no black or white in this book.  Everything is gray.  But I will say this: the man has way with words.  His descriptions are heartbreaking and beautiful and although I feel sort of disquieted I'm still compelled enough to want to try out Son of Witch.  Because there's way too many unanswered questions to simply move on.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Heiress

Wikipedia states that community theatre is “theatre made by, with, and for a community.”  In general, this is taken to mean the locale in which the theatre is located and in which the participants and audience live.  But there’s a different definition of community that applies to my experience here.  That definition which focuses on the shared “character; agreement; identity” of the people involved in a joint activity.  Because when I try to sum up what this experience has meant to me, it is that definition of community that most accurately describes it.

I felt like part of a community- a group of people whose shared passion for the art leads them to not only endure but to enjoy all the details of a production.  All these late nights, juggling schedules, reciting lines, examining characters and motives and events, cramming into costumes and enduring less-than-comfortable false eyelashes, joking about how weird the audience is or how crazy it was when that mini-catastrophe happened.  All of it.  It is this shared experience that defines this feeling of community- this sense of belonging.

When I think of “the acting bug” I think about that ever-elusive high that one gets from walking off stage and feeling that you have, within that moment, ‘nailed’ the performance.  I had that with this production a couple of times and it feels pretty damned groovy.  And it is that which I will be seeking out when I audition again for the next production.  I’ve got the acting bug in this regard and it had been dormant for a long while before this.

But those singular moments are only a tiny piece of the overall tapestry of emotions I got from this.  What means more, strangely enough, is all of the side effects.  The joking and talking and laughing down in the green room while getting on makeup and putting on costumes and waiting for your scene.  The energy circle before each performance during which we wished ourselves luck and reminded each other to have fun while squeezing hands for vigor.  The awkward moments when you stepped on someone else’s line or skirt or your scene went drastically differently than you anticipated just because of the audience or a technical hic-up or just messing up.  The celebratory cakes and gifts and thanks-yous.  The fact that we all make ourselves more than a little crazy with all of it and we all love it.

In community theatre- because theatre in college was just a drastically different experience- I haven’t really had a bad time of it.  I haven’t encountered challenging personalities or over-demanding directors or anything else that might make the experience less enjoyable.  But I’ve also never felt this strong of a sense of community before and I have to believe that what my other more seasoned co-stars were saying was true: that this was just a really great group of people.  Despite my one little scene I felt just as much a part of the cast as everyone else.  I was no less valuable, no less appreciated, no less important to the play.  I was a part of and I value that feeling more than anything else in the world.

My co-stars were not only great actors (and I honestly think that everyone did a pretty incredible job) but great people.  They were kind, caring, funny, passionate, laid back, enjoyable people and all of those nights joking around in the green room or changing costumes back stage meant even more to me than those miracle moments when I nailed my scene.  And the crew- the producer, director, stage manger, costume designer, set designers and even the people running the ticket booth and baking cookies for intermission- were no less incredible and overwhelmingly kind.  And my family and friends who hooted and hollered for me when I got cast, came out to see me with excitement, and showered me with praise afterwards reminded me of how incredibly lucky I am to have such an amazing support network.  I have so many fond memories of this production it’s hard for me to wrap my head around it all.

And although I’m trying to be nothing but grateful for all of it I can’t help but be more than a little sad that it’s over.  Leaving the theatre that last night was nothing short of heart breaking and I’ve had to console myself that if I’m lucky enough to get cast again I may run into these incredible people in the future.  But in the end, it's the fact that I had this experience- not that it’s over- which matters. 

The memories and the pictures and the gifts will stay with me.  I will audition again for another show in the not too-distant future.  And if I’m very lucky, I will be a part of another community- perhaps comprised of some of these same wonderful people.  And in the mean time, I will be grateful with every story I tell about my time in the Heiress.