Posts Tagged ‘sherman alexie’

In this week’s New Yorker

June 3, 2017

It’s the annual Fiction Issue with the theme of “American Jobs,” and there are two short stories that I liked very much. I’m a big fan of Sherman Alexie, and “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest” doesn’t disappoint. (In an online-only feature, Alexie talks about how he knows about a motel maid’s experience partly because his sister had that job but also from his own observation: “I have spent hundreds of nights in motels and hotels of widely varying quality, and I pay attention to the lives of people around me, especially the folks who are working in service. I am the guy who will clean and organize his room—towels piled in the tub, garbage in the bins, stray hairs gathered—before checking out so that the maid has it a bit easier. She will spend less time in my room, so she’ll have more time for the messes left behind by the inconsiderate guests. I also tip ten bucks for each night I have been in the room.”)

I started out annoyed with Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Show Don’t Tell” because it seemed to be another insufferably insular tale about writers, set in what I’m guessing is a thinly disguised version of the Iowa Writers Workshop (correct me if I’m wrong), but the author (a woman named Curtis!) takes it in some surprising directions and won me over.

The centerpiece of the issue, though, is one of those classic New Yorker pieces that every caring person should read: Margaret Talbot’s “The Addicts Next Door.” It’s long and deeply depressing article about the opioid epidemic playing itself out in West Virginia. Here are just a few passages reflecting the gravity and hopelessness of the situation.

Talbot spent a lot of time in Berkeley County, WV, following around emergency paramedics Michael Barrett and Jenna Mulligan. “Barrett sometimes had to return several times in one day to the same house—once, a father, a mother, and a teen-age daughter overdosed on heroin in succession. Such stories seemed like twisted variations on the small-town generational solidarity he admired; as Barrett put it, even if one family member wanted to get clean, it would be next to impossible unless the others did, too. He was used to O.D. calls by now, except for the ones in which kids were around. He once arrived at a home to find a seven-year-old and a five-year-old following the instructions of a 911 operator and performing C.P.R. on their parents. (They survived.)”

At another house, the paramedic rescued a man who’d overdosed by treating him with Narcan. “The next week, Barrett’s crew was called back to the same house repeatedly. The man overdosed three times; his girlfriend, once.”

“According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, between 2007 and 2012 drug wholesalers shipped to West Virginia seven hundred and eighty million pills of hydrocodone (the generic name for Vicodin) and oxycodone (the generic name for OxyContin). That was enough to give each resident four hundred and thirty-three pills. The state has a disproportionate number of people who have jobs that cause physical pain, such as coal mining. It also has high levels of poverty and joblessness, which cause psychic pain. Mental-health services, meanwhile, are scant. Chess Yellott, a retired family practitioner in Martinsburg, told me that many West Virginians self-medicate to mute depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress from sexual assault or childhood abuse. ”

“‘The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States,’ a 2014 study led by Theodore Cicero, of Washington University in St. Louis, looked at some three thousand heroin addicts in substance-abuse programs. Half of those who began using heroin before 1980 were white; nearly ninety per cent of those who began using in the past decade were white. This demographic shift may be connected to prescribing patterns. A 2012 study by a University of Pennsylvania researcher found that black patients were thirty-four per cent less likely than white patients to be prescribed opioids for such chronic conditions as back pain and migraines, and fourteen per cent less likely to receive such prescriptions after surgery or traumatic injury.

“But a larger factor, it seems, was the despair of white people in struggling small towns. Judith Feinberg, a professor at West Virginia University who studies drug addiction, described opioids as ‘the ultimate escape drugs.’ She told me, “Boredom and a sense of uselessness and inadequacy—these are human failings that lead you to just want to withdraw. On heroin, you curl up in a corner and blank out the world. It’s an extremely seductive drug for dead-end towns, because it makes the world’s problems go away. Much more so than coke or meth, where you want to run around and do things—you get aggressive, razzed and jazzed.’”

” In 2012, Macy’s opened a distribution center in the Martinsburg area, but, Knowles said, the company has found it difficult to hire longtime residents, because so many fail the required drug test.”

It’s not all gloom and doom. Talbot also meets three women who started the Hope Dealer Project, their volunteer effort to drive people to detox facilities all over the state, and a doctor who gives free public classes to anybody who wants to learn how to reverse overdoses with Narcan. Selfless service, so strong and honorable and moving.

Does it go without saying that, like every other county in West Virginia, Berkeley County voted for Donald Trump?

 

Performance diary: the Wooster Group’s CRY, TROJANS!

January 31, 2014

This is my 1000th blog post on Another Eye Opens, and to celebrate the occasion I couldn’t imagine a better subject than ruminating about the Wooster Group, my favorite theatermakers in the world, whom I’ve written about for the Village Voice, the New York Times, 7 Days, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

I don’t envy daily newspaper reviewers faced with the task of writing a review of the Wooster Group’s Cry, Trojans! at short notice after one viewing. The production is so dense, crazy, complicated, and chaotic that even I had a hard time grasping what I was looking at, and I’ve been watching their work for more than 30 years. (I’ve gotten so accustomed to text-speak that I had to fight the urge to add “smiley-face” after that sentence.)

Cry, Trojans! is the Woosters’ adaptation of Troilus and Cressida, the epitome of what scholars talk about when they talk about Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” A literary mash-up of episodes from The Iliad with a more obscure legendary romance, T&C wanders between the two sides of the Trojan War, loosely tracking three violated love relationships – the Greek queen Helen, the lover of Paris stolen from her husband Menelaus; Cressida, the lover of Troilus traded away by her father Calchas in a prisoner exchange to Diomedes; and Patroclus, the lover of Achilles slain in battle by Hector. War is messy, love is messy, and boy, do Liz LeCompte and the Wooster Group love nothing more than a big mess.

In one of the nuttier schemes in recent theater production, the Royal Shakespeare Company was commissioned to mount a production of Troilus and Cressida for the World Shakespeare Festival, which was part of the London 2012 Olympic Arts Festival. The RSC’s Rupert Goold had the insane/inspired idea to invite the Wooster Group to collaborate with the RSC on a production in which the Woosters would play the Trojans, the Brits would play the Greeks, and they would rehearse separately until two weeks before opening. What could possibly go wrong?

Early on, Goold bowed out as director of the Brits. His replacement, Mark Ravenhill, was better known as a playwright, actor, and Guardian columnist than as a director. One of England’s prominent contemporary gay playwrights and writer-in-residence at the RSC, Ravenhill will probably forever be best-known for having the balls to name a play Shopping and Fucking. (If only the script had more to remember it by than the title.) His conception for the Greeks in Troilus and Cressida was to accent the gayness; his Achilles and Patroclus lounged around in spa towels, and their slave Thersites was a drag queen in a wheelchair, while Ajax was played by an actor in a muscle-suit looking like a WWF head-banger.

T and C i T&C london 2

Meanwhile, LeCompte and the Americans went Native, dressing the Trojans in Hollywood- Injun attire, complete with teepees and jet-black wigs, with costumes and props provided by Dutch designer Folkert de Jong, whose specialty is postmodern tribalism that looks like handmade designer-grunge replicas of dumpster-diving treasures. (You can see a feature story on the costumes in the New York Times T Magazine online here.)

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The title characters were played by Wooster superstar Scott Shepherd and guest artist Marin Ireland (above, ubiquitous Off-Broadway actress and, not incidentally, Shepherd’s girlfriend), and other group members and associates rounded out the cast (including Ari Fliakos, Greg Mehrten, and Gary Wilmes, phenomenally skilled and brave performers all). Of course, the Woosters also showed up with their full armamentarium of media technology: the radio mikes, the in-ear devices, the live mixing decks, and the multiple video monitors screening scenes from two feature films about Native Americans (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and Smoke Signals) and Splendor in the Grass (because…young love).

When the show opened at Stratford-on-Avon, the critical consensus was: WTF!?!?! A subsequent run in London fanned the flames of controversy, while cultivating a cadre of viewers willing to look at what was actually going on onstage.

That’s just the British chapter. A year and change later, the Woosters set to work adapting the show for presentation at their New York home base, the Performing Garage in Soho, sans the British cast. Kate Valk, the group’s other resident superstar, replaced Ireland, Suzzy Roche (who’s appeared in two previous WG productions) took over the role of Cassandra, and the guys in the group started playing the Greeks, in weird little black leather masks (below), as well as the Trojans. The production is in previews through February 15; after that it travels to Los Angeles for a week. Ultimately, the plan is to open the show officially sometime next season at one of the bigger venues the Wooster Group plays in NYC (St. Ann’s, Baryshnikov Arts Center, or the Public Theater).

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I saw the show Saturday January 11 for the first time; when I went back two weeks later, Sunday January 26, I was surprised how substantially it had changed – I shouldn’t have been, because the group works meticulously over long periods of time. I somehow thought because they’d performed the show in London it was pretty much done, but really this is a complete reconception that LeCompte said, in an after-show talk, is still only two-thirds finished.

I won’t say a lot about the performance because it’s so clearly in flux. I will say that the notion of having the Wooster Group actors play the Trojan characters in Troilus and Cressida as Native Americans is a quintessential Liz LeCompte move. On the surface it seems corny, crude, outrageous, provocative, silly to the point of ridiculous – and then it reveals itself to be both conceptually sophisticated and rooted in a deep and astute textual analysis. After all, Shakespeare’s bizarre mishmash of a play was written for British actors to speak Elizabethan poetry while playing characters from The Iliad, an elaborate recollection of scenes from Greek history that may or may not have happened by a poet who may or may not have existed (some speculate that “Homer” refers to a consortium of ancient storytellers). The Woosters, who are obsessed with production concepts that have to do with re-enactments, landed on the idea of being as American as possible in their encounter with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and what’s more American than the indigenous people?

fast runner
For years, part of the Wooster Group’s method has been for the actors to be watching scenes from movies on video monitors throughout the performance and meticulously imitating the gestures and movements they see, rather than blocking a play according to the script’s directions. Usually the audience isn’t privy to what the actors are watching, but in this production – since it’s performed on a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides – the screens are more prominent and visible to everyone. A big part of watching Cry, Trojans! is puzzling out the connection between what we’re seeing onstage and these film excerpts on the video monitors. It helps to recognize what the movies are. The Fast Runner (above) made a splash among cinephiles when it came out in 2001 as “the Inuit film,” the first movie made by an Inuit director and actors speaking their native tongue. It is itself an adaptation of an ancient epic, a corollary to The Iliad. And Smoke Signals was a 1998 indie film based on the beautiful quirky short fiction of Native American writer Sherman Alexie.

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This is why I love the Wooster Group more than any other theater company in the world: their ability to mash up culture (the Bard meets Sherman Alexie meets cutting-edge Dutch designer meets Suzzy Roche) in a way that’s smart, funny, and deep and that forms a vibrant picture of the world I live in.

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