You don’t like theatre.
And I don’t blame you.
Unfortunately, the modern trend in (American, at least) theatre is rehashing of decades if not centuries-old plays that may have blown audiences’ hair back in the day, but nowadays they fizzle like a soggy sparkler. Theatre is usually thought of as a boring, laborious, and dinosaur artform, and, sadly, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
But for as much as I love being a pop-culturist, I have just as big a piece of heart for the stage. I was born and raised in it, and have yet to take my final curtain call. But even with my admiration, I see the frayed edges of the curtain. Theatre used to be the dominant artform, as satirical as it was stylish, as dynamic as it was daring. There was a reason literally entire cities would shut down when the theatre was in town.
Nowadays entertainment is everywhere and why bother blowing fifty bucks to watch people sit and talk in a room when you can get Angry Birds Star Wars II (obviously, the best in the series) for a buck while listening to your favorite podcast as the latest episode of Rupaul’s Drag Race downloads off of iTunes?
Well, Unrealtors, I’m here to change your mind. Don’t let a ho-hum Hamlet or an oblivious Oklahoma production turn you away from the stage. There are adventures to be had once the house lights dim, and here are some of the very best. And while you may not find a production coming to you anytime soon, all of these scripts are readily available to read. One way or another, they’re worth your time, and, if you’re lucky, your ticket money….
MR. MARMALADE – By Noah Haidle
Ever wonder what kids are up to these days in our celebrity-culture dominated, reality-television heavy American Dream? Look no further. Mr. Marmalade shows how the power of a child’s imagination roughly warped by TMI from TMZ can make playtime poisonous.
The story starts off as sweet as pumpkin pie. Lucy, a precious little four-year old, is having a bit of a tough day as her imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade seems to be ever-so busy and unable to enjoy their usual tea time. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that what occupies Mr. Marmalade’s time is a rampant drug addiction, a penchant for violence against his personal assistant (another imaginary friend), a heavy duty pornography fondness, and a briefcase full of sex toys.
The story grows more complicated as Lucy befriends Larry, a shy, timid five-year old who may or may not be the youngest suicide attempt in New Jersey history. With Mr. Marmalade growing more and more distracted with his “grown-up” problems, Lucy becomes that much more desperate to please her pretend friend, and everything gets bloody.
I remember the first time I saw this play. Tricky, though, as I spent the majority of the time peeking through my fingers, in utter shock at what I was watching. Mr. Marmalade is a savage, brutal play. Its ferocity matched only by its utter hilarity. So often things are classified as black comedies when really they’re just vulgar. Well, while there’s certainly plenty of vulgarity here, utilizing the prism of all of it being created in the mind of a four-year old makes everything all the more twisted, and ten times more hysterical.
This is no play for the faint of heart. The ending alone…well…I won’t ruin things. Let’s just say not everyone in the play survives, and that kids really do say and do the darndest things.
But don’t think this play is simply shock. There’s depth and a stunning amount of heart. For all my fellow latchkey kids out there, you know what it was like to come home to an empty house and have to make due with whatever your brain could cook up. The poignancy of a lonely childhood matched with a bloody sharp critical eye towards modern American society crash into each other to create a not-for-amateurs coke line of a play that’ll make you gasp, laugh, and maybe tug just a tiny bit at those old, battered heart strings.
If you survive, that is.
THE UNDERPANTS – By Steve Martin
If you need to get used to the water a bit more before diving into the theatrical deep end, this one’s for you. While most of us know Steve Martin as a jerky, wild, and crazy guy, he’s actually an incredibly celebrated playwright as well, and The Underpants is one of his very best. The play is an actually an adaptation of a turn-of-the-century German play Die Hose, and the plot? Well…
In early 1900s Germany, a (pre-Janet) wardrobe malfunction causes an entire town to fall madly in love with one woman…and all because of her underpants. What follows is an innuendo laden, slyly satirical look at love, perception, and what exactly drives people to…well…underpants.
The Underpants is an ideal example of how the evolution of theatre should go. Theatre carries with a heavy history and it’s hard to not want to honor what’s come before. However, since so many of the best pieces were written for their time, it becomes difficult to make them work in the contemporary context.
That’s where The Underpants shines. Martin takes the central storyline, and a heaping helping of the elbow jabs at society, and ushers them into the modern age without a smidge of shoe-horning. The time period and place stays the same, but the heart and brain of the play grow with Martin’s masterpiece. But don’t worry, it never compromises its funny bone for its thinking…um…femur. The play is funny funny funny from curtains up to curtain call, but not cheaply so. You’ll laugh, you’ll think, you’ll love.
Imagine if the Marx Brothers and Brian Regan teamed up to write a play together, with Oscar Wilde acting as mentor. You, my soon to be theatre-bound friend, have got The Underpants.
THE PILLOWMAN – By Martin McDonagh
Oh. This play.
For those of you out there who may have indulged in certain psychedelic substances, you know there’s always that part of the trip where UTTER PANIC takes over and you are CERTAIN that you took WAY TOO MUCH and that THIS WILL NEVER BE OVER. Those moments last for a few minutes at worst.
Imagine a play that is composed ENTIRELY of those moments.
Some of you may be familiar with playwright Martin McDonagh’s films In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, or maybe even his Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter. The man is one of the most impressive modern theatre artists out there, and an incredibly accomplished filmmaker as well.
Oh, and he’s batshit insane. Or at least his work is.
The Pillowman takes place in a fictional totalitarian police state where a subversive writer is being detained and questioned by two uncompromising police officers after a series of child murders take place that mimic events that take place within the writer’s stories. What follows is a pulse-pounding three-act play that seems to go by in seconds, as fire, bullets, and children’s toes rain down.
To say that this play is gripping is to say the Atlantic Ocean is damp. You cannot turn away from the action on stage. You’ll feel your eyes go dry as you fight to not blink, so desperate will you be to see how the hell this on-fire roller coaster spirals further and further beyond control. You’ll forget to breathe. And you’ll leave the theatre feeling thoroughly beaten up, but happy for every bruise.
The Pillowman is the best example out of all these plays of the true power of live theatre. While this would be an interesting and exciting enough film, to witness it in person is another experience altogether. There’s something to be said for the power of people in front of you. It’s easy to create an aesthetic distance when viewing drama on the screen, but when it’s right in front of you? When you can smell the person screaming? There’s something visceral and primal about it all that connects you to the action and story and shrieking soul of the play in front of you in a way that IMAX and 3D glasses only wish.
Every performance, good or bad, of every play is entirely unique. You can watch Alec Baldwin’s monologue in Glengarry a million times on YouTube, but with theatre it all lives and dies in front of you every night. Every show is a fly’s lifetime, and those moments you have will never happen again. And with this play, that experience is choking the life out of you. And you’ll ask for more.
Read the other two plays on this list first if you’d like, but hop on Google and try your best to see if there’s a production of The Pillowman within driving distance.
This play will change your mind about theatre. Forever. I guarantee it.
And that’s curtains for now, folks. Any of you Unrealtors out there drama-kids like me? Let’s hear it! As for me, I’m late for rehearsal.
Adam Esquenazi Douglas is a playwright who was born in Texas, grew up in Arkansas, was raised by a Jewish man and a Cuban woman, and, somehow, he doesn’t have an accent. His plays have been produced across the United States, as well as in Canada and Japan.
He is co-host of two podcasts, The JimmyJew Podcast Extravaganza and Schmame Over, which can be found at http://jimmyjew.libsyn.com/ and http://schmameover.libsyn.com/ respectively, as well as on iTunes. He is a contributing writer to www.GamersSchmamers.com.
He currently lives in Brooklyn where he drinks far too much coffee.