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The Beauty Queen of Leenane

We went to see The Beauty Queen of Leenane last weekend. Things Unseen Theatre put it on at The Church in the Middle of the Block, and will perform it again next weekend. Several of my theatre friends are involved at Things Unseen. I lost my program, but Russell Stiles directed, Tom Liszka probably built the set, and Valerie Stratton played Mag Folan – a tiresome old woman. I don’t know the rest of the cast personally, but Alyssa Baker played Mag’s spinster daughter Maureen, Bill Benson played Maureen’s love interest Pato Dooley, and Luke Archey played Pato’s younger brother Ray.

I found out afterwards that Martin McDonagh released this play in 1996. During the play it was hard to place Leenane in time. We didn’t pick up on clues about Australian soap operas and popular songs that would have meant something to Irish audiences. The kitchen appliances in the dingy rural cottage could have dated from the seventies, but the single lever faucet and compact telly seemed much more recent.

I was tempted to interpret Mag as a symbol of the old Ireland (A Terrible Beauty) and Maureen a symbol of some newer, but still flawed Republic. Expat Pato was visiting from England on his way to taking a job in the US. He had to work elsewhere, so the setting was likely before the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger years (1995 – 2000). The pre-Tiger Ireland would have discarded old traditions and mores (like Maureen), and would have been struggling to modernize (like Maureen), but would have still been hoping for something better to happen (like Maureen).

I toured Ireland in 1983, and a local bragged, “We have poor in Ireland, but we have no poverty.” He meant that a lot of people without steady jobs nevertheless had nice houses thanks to government assistance. From the vantage of the early nineties it may well have seemed that the current Ireland was just as bleak and confused as the older rural one had been, and certain parallels between Mag and Maureen are made very clear by the end of the play.

We watched a youtube clip of a few scenes from an Irish production afterwards, and could hardly understand a word of dialogue. At Things Unseen, the cast sounded Irish enough that I had to listen carefully and my non-Irish wife was flummoxed at first. Valerie’s Mag veered between needy and despicable. Ms Baker’s Maureen was very attractive, much younger than forty, and wasn’t aged by makeup, but she managed to be the frustrated spinster anyway. Mr Benson’s Pato was the well-meaning, lonely guy and you could believe him wanting Maureen despite her history. Mr Archey’s Ray was responsible for making us notice several key props and kept us in suspense with the second one admirably.

This is no convoluted mystery. The writing of the play usually makes it Waterford clear what is going to happen next and who is going to do it. We just watch aghast while the characters actually do those things to each other … and themselves. There is one big twist, though. So go see it if you get a chance. And bring your mother.

Missed-Show Nightmare

You may have heard of the Actor’s Nightmare. You dream that you’re about to go onstage, but there is a problem. Perhaps you don’t know your lines, or have on the wrong costume, or no costume at all. Maybe you don’t know what part you’re to play or even what play is being put on. Everyone else is calm, and you’re terrified.

Christopher Durang even wrote a short play called The Actor’s Nightmare.

I’ve only been in a few dozen shows, but every so often I have that nightmare. I’ve even had the nightmare years after doing a show. Last night I had a new wrinkle.

My old theatre company, Altoona Community Theatre, staged a short version of Elephant’s Graveyard as a performance entry for the Pennsylvania Association of Community Theatre (PACT) Festival last month. They won seven of twelve awards in Philadelphia and are taking the show to the Eastern States Theatre Association’s regional competition ESTAFest2013 (Rome, NY, April 19 to 21). I hadn’t been able to see it, but last weekend, when I was to be in town to see my daughter, they were performing it with two other shorts as part of Things Unseen’s season at the Church in the Middle of the Block.

Some people I knew in ACT are also in Things Unseen, whose mandate is to present challenging plays. I had already taken my daughter to see Oleanna, about sexual harassment, and Stop Kiss, about a lesbian romance marred by an assault, so I planned to bring her. When I got to town, though, no one else thought that was a good idea. I was told that she had read about the true story behind the play, in which the appalling decision is made to hang an elephant, and probably couldn’t handle seeing it on stage. She keeps a lot of pets, and has a great deal of empathy for animals. I thought the play would be worthwhile, but I wasn’t sure what sort of emotional buttons the play might be pushing, so we stayed home.

Last night, back in the city, I had this dream where I was somehow dropped off in downtown Altoona, walking around with all this baggage hanging off of me. Suddenly a door opens and the cast of the play spills out, carrying the set and props along with them. My friends from the show are shaking my hand, smiling broadly and thanking me for coming, and waiting for me to say how much I enjoyed the show. And I’m trying to decide if I should lie and get myself in deeper, or admit the awful truth and watch their faces fall.

Why can’t I dream about monsters like ordinary people?

Hella for Congress

Wrapping up their Loretta Young month, TCM showed The Farmer’s Daughter last night. I dimly remember the TV series of the same name, but had never seen the 1947 film. Ben Mankiewicz noted that Ingrid Bergman turned down the part because she didn’t think playing a Swedish-American girl would be much of a challenge. In a big surprise, Loretta Young won Best Actress (haha).

As written, Katie Holstrom was a very hard-working, capable and charming young woman, who seemed bound to succeed. Her budding romance with the Congressman was handled well by Young and Joseph Cotten, but her sudden elevation to congressional candidate (Katie for Congress!) beggared belief, and the straightforward story started to resemble a gender-reversed Mr Smith Goes to Washington, assuming that if only an average, honest person took office, government would actually work as intended. Events got out of hand even before her opponent turned out to be a Klansman – but that’s Hollywood.

I liked the basic plot, so I wondered if there was a theatrical version without all the malarkey. There is, … the film is an adaptation of a Finnish play, Juurakon Hulda, which was also a 1928 film:

Poor but ambitious country girl Hulda arrives in the country’s capital and gets a job as a maid for a bachelor Member of Parliament, Judge Soratie. She works hard, never loses her common sense, and starts taking evening classes. Keeping her studies secret from her employer for years, she eventually graduates from the university and becomes candidate in the parliamentary election, stressing women’s and working people’s rights. Romance with Judge Soratie finally ensues.

The play shows up in the anthology, Modern Drama by Women 1880s-1930s, the hardcover of which is $140 new on Amazon, but a lot more reasonable in used paperbacks. According to The History of Nordic Women’s Literature, Hella Wuolijoki is even more interesting than her character:

Helle Wuolijoki was born into an Estonian farming community as Ella Murrik, moved to Finland in 1904, and was the first Estonian woman to do a master’s degree. She was married from 1908 to 1929 and had a daughter. When she took up business and became the proprietor of a forest, sawmill, and estate, she hosted political salons and accommodated Bertolt Brecht at her home for a period of time. Due to her Soviet contacts, she was initially sentenced to death, the sentence later being commuted to life in 1943-1944; however, she was released when a new government came to power. From 1945 to 1949, she was head of Radio Finland.

Her debut work was in Estonian, the play Talu lapsed, 1912, which was banned as a nationalist work in Estonia and Finland after its premiere. In 1932 she started writing in Finnish, but her manuscripts were rejected for political reasons. She first became successful when she wrote the drama Kvinnorna på Niskavuori under the pseudonym Juhani Tervapää in 1936, the first in a series of five that was translated into fourteen languages. A characteristic feature of her dramas is witty dialogue and a strikingly female perspective. She also collaborated with Bertolt Brecht, whose play Mr Puntila is based on an original work by Hella Wuolijoki.

Other sites note that her husband, Sulo Vuolijoki, was a close friend of VI Lenin. She changed the V to W later in life. Hella hosted a salon where she discussed her humanist and Marxist views, but never joined the Communist Party. During the Winter War (1939-1940) she used her connections to broker for peace with the Soviet Union, but those same connections led to her later imprisonment. She eventually served in Parliament and led the Finnish People’s Democratic League. Because of the Niskavuori stories, she is very highly regarded in Finland. There’s a biopic, Hella W:

In the beginning of the 1920s she had already made millions, wrote several politically hazardous plays and was under careful observation of, among others, British Intelligence, the Soviet Union and the Finnish secret service.

Soon, as the events of the Second World War started to unfold, Hella W finds herself in a situation in which she seems to have no right choices. She faces the same task as the Finnish agent put on her tail: finding out who she really is, and what hides behind the multi-faceted mask of Hella W, the celebrated writer, millionaire, rejected politician – and a mother.



I’m off to Oleana, I’m turning from my doorway,
No chains for me, I’ll say good-by to slavery in Norway.
Ole—Ole—Ole—oh! Oleana!
Ole—Ole—Ole—oh! Oleana!


They give you land for nothing in jolly Oleana,
And grain comes leaping from the ground in floods of golden manna. …

What we call Norway was jointly ruled with Denmark, Sweden or both from the 14th century until 1905. In the 19th century, virtuoso violinist Ole Bull tried to found New Norway, a utopian colony for fellow Norwegian emigrants. He bought a great deal of heavily-wooded land in Northern Pennsylvania near Coudersport, though not as much as he thought. He named one of four new towns, Oleana, or Oleanna, after his mother. Bull soon found that he had been cheated in the land deal, and after only a year, sold his remaining interests and returned to performing. Most of the 150 settlers also moved on, though three families remained. New Norway’s failure led to a long, satirical ballad (1st and 2nd verses above) which was later shortened and sung by Pete Seeger.

Much later, David Mamet named his two-person play, Oleanna. The name was not used within the play, so it has been assumed that Mamet believed that something about the failed colony tells us something about the play.

I rented the film version of Oleanna in the late 1990s. Mamet himself directed William H Macy and Debra Eisenstadt, and it was a blitzkrieg of dialogue. John and Carol kept interrupting each other or finishing each other’s sentences, but the timing was just a bit off. The “naturalistic” style of dialogue didn’t seem natural because you could tell he was stopping for her and she was stopping for him. Otherwise the words would have been jumbled. Nevertheless I was drawn in, if only to see if anyone could finish a thought before the phone rang again. I was shocked at the changes in the second act, and even more so in the third act. I kept thinking there would be if not a happy ending, at least a cessation of hostilities, or some sort of understanding.

I’ve read that Macy and Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, had been much better on stage. Over the years I’ve often daydreamed about performing the role of John. For Carol I’ve imagined any of a dozen young actresses I’ve known, but John wouldn’t care who played the student. Not at first.

Things Unseen, a local theater group, performed Oleanna last weekend at The Church in the Middle of the Block (Chitmob) in Altoona PA. They offer two more shows next weekend, Oct 19th and 20th. If you’re going, please read the rest of this afterwards.

Half my wife’s family volunteers at Chitmob, and I’ve worked more than a few shows with director Valerie Stratton, so I was curious to see what the show was like on stage. I brought my wife and 18 yo daughter, each of whom have spent some time on stage themselves. My goal was to see where John goes wrong, because even though I had a great deal of sympathy for him, he clearly did screw up. I recalled having very little sympathy for Carol.

The set was minimal, which was fine. John now had a notebook on his desk. Carol wasn’t glued to a PDA, but I do believe she was wearing headphones while John was on the phone. I had completely forgotten the house purchase subplot. Again there was rapid fire dialogue, but it seemed less stilted than I recalled. Carol seemed pretty vacant, but John wasn’t helping much because he wouldn’t let her start to speak without saying, “Go On!” In short he treated her like a puppy. I hadn’t caught that the first time, either.

I was reminded of an anecdote. When I was in college in the late 1970s, an older man lectured my class of architectural students in Structural Engineering. He was old school, in that he would lecture with his arms out wide, as if he was offering a benediction, or beseeching us. We would write our names on the attendance list and he would lecture for a while, then ask questions. He didn’t know us, so he referred to the list. After one lecture some of the five or six women in the class complained that he was mostly calling on women. The male students hadn’t noticed, of course. We were just glad he wasn’t asking us about the reading.

We all decided to sign the attendance sheet with our first initials and last name. After the next lecture when the prof picked up the attendance sheet, a look of consternation clearly flashed across his face. He pointed at one of the women, and said, “You — what determines the bending moment?” Sometimes the blinders do fall off.

At the intermission, I wondered how my daughter would react to the Prof’s unhelpful helpfulness because she’s dealt with a stream of psychologists and TSS aides. I was a bit surprised that she fully considered John’s behavior to be sexually inappropriate. My wife agreed.

In the second act, as the worm turned, I started to think about what group Carol might have consulted. These days it could be anything from a women’s support group to the campus chapter of Occupy. And I started thinking about Dmitry Orlov’s articles, In Praise of Anarchy.

Anarchy is tough sell. Anarchy has always sounded like chaos and disorder — something that couldn’t possibly work. Though I respected many of the folk I spoke to at Occupy Baltimore, whenever I visited it seemed clear that there were grim-faced anarchists running the show from inside the tents and behind the megaphones, actually making decisions despite the general assemblies. John Michael Greer is convinced that Occupy fizzled out once the young unemployed middle-class folk became as disenchanted with the anarchist apparatchiks as they were with Wall Street banksters.

Orlov, however, describes anarchy as cooperation rather than hierarchy. Kropotkin, he says, claimed that, “Anarchy represents an attempt to apply results achieved using the scientific method within the natural sciences to the evaluation of human institutions.” Anarchy leads to innovation and creativity instead of following stupid orders, and instead of taking classes from self-absorbed professors like John.

The term “anarchy” is commonly used as a slur against things that are thought to be disorganized because it is incorrectly thought to imply a lack of organization. Anarchists are also confused with communist revolutionaries, and the typical anarchist is imagined to be an antisocial and violent terrorist who wishes for the violent overthrow of the established order. Anarchy is also incorrectly conceived to represent the embodiment of a coherent ideology of Anarchism, making the argument against anarchy a straw man argument based on a false choice between an implied yet manifestly nonexistent system and a very real oppressively huge hierarchically organized régime. The only grain of truth visible in all of this is that Anarchism as a political ideology or a political movement is, and has been for centuries now, rather beside the point.

Had Mamet meant for Carol to be seeking anarchic cooperation, there might have been that better ending that I had hoped for on my first viewing. Instead he had her grasping for power, or dominance, which made her and her group ultimately no better than John and the college hierarchy, just a different choice. By the end of the show, my wife and daughter were very angry with Carol — just as I had been. But just as I would have preferred to see Occupy follow the ideals of their general assemblies, I wish that John had turned off the phone and listened to Carol.