Posts Tagged ‘Blackbird’


Why So Bleak, Buddy?

December 19, 2008

41ma4tuqp7lIn the wake of yesterday’s post about Blackbird, a play reflecting on a relationship between a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl, a thought came up: Why is it that we’re attracted to dark, desperate stories? And how broad is that “we” anyway? Are Tara and I, for example, among a minority seeking out darker, complex, challenging stories while others look toward entertainment just for that: entertainment? Or is that “we” societal? I recall, for example, wanting to read William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness back in 1990, and when my mother got it for me for Christmas, Dad asked what it was about. “Styron’s depression,” I told him, and he looked puzzled: “Why would anyone want to read about that?” he asked.

Why indeed?

no_country_for_old_men_coenA similar conversation came up last year with my parents, who each year try to watch all of the contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in advance of the Academy Awards. Last year’s slate was, of course, an uphill battle, including No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, Atonement… well, you get the picture, and even the fifth film, Juno, had an underlying seriousness. Many critics commented that it was the bleakest (that was the word) bunch of contenders ever and that it must represent something larger about our world. That question came up again just a few weeks ago in a Washington Post article entitled “No Country for Upbeat Films.” Since last year’s Oscar race, we’ve had more dark films that have attracted both critical acclaim and big bucks at the box office: The Dark Knight anyone? Quantum of Solace, the bleakest Bond film yet? And the road ahead doesn’t look much cheerier — literally: the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes out next year. The Post article says that “bleak is chic. Hopeless is hot.” And then proceeds to ask why, offering at one point the idea that bleakness “gives us a strong hit of humanity. It strips away the banal. It raises our pedestrian struggles to grandiose heights.” 

annakareninaSo is it that goodness can’t show us humanity? that comedy or even happiness can’t reflect human nature because it’s inherently banal? Tolstoy himself hinted toward something similar in that oft-repeated opening line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”


As Tara and I talked about it yesterday, we came up with something a little different. It’s not that darkness shows us something more real about humanity or even that extreme emotional states of any kind capture something truer about who we are. A bad man doing bad things is ultimately boring; a good man doing good things is even more boring; but either a good man doing a bad thing or a bad man doing a good one…? Well, that’s got potential.

At least in our case, it’s the idea of complexity and of a layering of emotions that seems to draw us toward thinking of a novel or a film as more important or successful or interesting. Juno, as one of my students pointed out last semester, succeeded in her mind as a great work of art because at one minute she was laughing and at the next she was crying. Blackbird, to our minds, succeeded the other night because it wasn’t relentlessly bleak but instead because it tempered that bleakness with heart — even if it then broke that heart. 51bh1mkn2elTragedy isn’t necessarily a higher art form than comedy — any survey of Woody Allen’s films will turn that idea on its head pretty quickly — and it’s not entirely the dexterity with which an artist navigates between those two poles either. Instead, it’s that artist’s ambition and ability to earn something deeper than simple laughs or simple tears or simple fears, slapstick or sheer sentimentality or that punch in the gut.

At least that’s roughly what we came up with. Thoughts?

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Blackbird: Beyond Law & Order

December 18, 2008

blackbirdLast night, Tara and I had the fine privilege of seeing the Studio Theatre’s production of David Harrower’s Blackbird, catching it just in time before it closes this weekend. My only wish is that the show was continuing longer, simply so we could recommend it to more people.

While some articles and reviews have remained coy about the play’s central premise, I don’t think it’s giving away too much to describe it. (In fact, I think it might be unfair for people to attend without such knowledge; even knowing in advance a little about the plot, we found it tough to watch, so I can’t imagine the experience of audience members going in unawares or expecting, say, a Beatles musical.) Blackbird charts, in excruciatingly real time, a conversation between Ray and Una, a man and woman who’d had a sexual relationship fifteen years before — when he was 40 and she was 12. 

Yeah: 12.


Their conversation is (as you might imagine) not a happy one, and yet it’s also one that’s full of surprises, both for the audience and for each of the participants, who’ve had parts of their respective stories hidden from the other over the years. As a playwright, Harrower is top-notch — in the individual exchanges of dialogue, in the sometimes lengthy monologues, and most importantly in the overall movement of the play, whose emotional shifts and nuances seem perfectly orchestrated. Even the scenes of silence and inaction — one in particular stands out, Una alone in the room — have a sense of momentum building, of changes afoot. 

Both of the leads were terrific as well: heart-breakingly so. At one point, in the midst of one of Una’s monologues, Ray sits on a chair, silent, looking away from her. Tara and I had somehow been given front-row seats, and Jerry Whiddon, the actor playing Ray, was sitting so close I could have touched him, and was staring at times directly at me — and yet not staring at me, of course, staring somewhere beyond me or, more accurately still, somewhere inward. So completely in character was he that I felt I was intruding somehow on one man’s private pain. As Una, Lisa Joyce also amazed — capturing, as Tara said, a pitch-perfect blend of defiance and vulnerability. She has the last word — or rather last sound — in the play, and the rawness of her emotion there and throughout was devastating.

both_sq_webI couldn’t help but be intrigued by a couple of Joyce’s credits in the playbill — particularly her TV appearances in Law & Order and Law & Order: SUV and the fact that she originated the role of Christina in Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter. Throughout last night’s play, I kept thinking of how differently a show like Law & Order would treat this storyline; even as that show tries to explore (and perhaps sometimes exploit) provocative and sometimes disturbing subject matter, there’s generally a moralistic center to those storylines — a simple, traditional, and pervasive sense of judgement, of right and wrong and the line in between. In Blackbird, easy judgements and simple morality are, frankly, shot to hell. And as for Joyce’s other credit mentioned above: Despite all its potential “heat” (on-stage nudity, simulated sex), Red Light Winter was at its core a cold piece of work, but Blackbird — in addition to the white-hot intensity of the confrontation — is also warm and emotional, across a broad range of emotions. At its core lies a love story, which is, of course, what’s so truly provocative and disturbing about the play. And so unexpectedly rewarding too. 

Halfway through the performance, I looked over at Tara and saw that she wasn’t looking at either of the actors on stage, wasn’t quite looking at the stage at all, as if what was happening up there was too troubling to watch directly. We were, as I mentioned, in the front row, and I worried for a moment that Tara felt trapped there, that she didn’t want to be there, that she might simply stand up and leave. After it was over we talked about stopping for a drink, but the play’s emotional aftereffect was ultimately too much and we headed instead for the car and the ride home. But despite that intensity during and after the show, both of us agreed that Blackbird was the best piece of theater either of us has seen in D.C.

In short, it’s not an easy play, but it’s definitely one not to be missed. And the Studio — with this production as well as its own recent productions of Red Light Winter and of Neil LaBute’s This Is How It Goes and of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen — continues to prove itself the most daring, most confident and most relentlessly interesting theater in the D.C. area.

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