Monday, October 13, 2008

"An artist, a man, a faliure, MUST PROCEED." - E.E. Cummings, HIM

After sitting around a table in a conference room of the New York Workshop Theater with Director Meghan Finn, some of her production team, and a decent sized group of actors to read through the entirety of E E Cummings' HIM, I left absorbed and amazed at the beauty of the lyricism and complexity of the characters, inspired to discuss with Kaitlyn the whole way home the importance of this work both in the time of its inauguration and now. But five months later I found myself leaving the Soho Rep. Walker Space silently wondering what happened.

At the E:Bar of 59E59 Theaters after the opening night of Disco Pigs, I wound up in a discussion about some problems in our contemporary Theater. And when I made a comment regarding Legally Blonde as baseless entertainment – purely in the sense of its perfect commercial “formula” and its movie-turned-Broadway Musical status, which it “is better at replicating its model than most”, as Mr. Ben Brantley boasts – that has its small place in the vast world of Theater, but does not embody the possibilities and ideas I feel so strongly should be more present in out Theater World, my conversational partner retorted:

“Mmm… be careful.”

I do not believe in being
careful, I believe in being responsible; if we have reason behind our passion, we need to act on it. As Shakespeare explores in one of his most celebrated plays, Hamlet, and as American history illustrates time and again, it is important to stand up for what we believe in – Hamlet’s inability to act results in the death of nigh almost everyone, and America did not become an independent country, slavery was not abolished, women did not get the right to vote through calm, civil, obedient discussions. I bring up this comment in conjunction with a discussion of HIM
because I feel the production, in its entirety, conveys both great examples of not being careful and not being responsible.

“When [Henry Alsberg] suggested that the Provincetown produce [
HIM]” in 1928, they were taking a great risk, as “most of the staff was horrified.” What with all the problems of practicality – 105 characters and 21 scenes – there was also “the fact that few of them could discover what the play was about.” But Cummings, director James Light, and designer Eugene Fitsch embarked then, in their downtown space, what many people and theaters today are either too afraid to try, or try far too hard to do: they explored “the most fundamental type of theatrical experiment – experiment in dramatic form.” The three of them did all they could to quickly resolve the problems of practicality strictly so this play could be done, acting out of pure passion for the story they needed to tell without concern of “moving them uptown” but finding “what they could not find elsewhere.” [1] And as Genevieve Taggard of the N.Y. Herald Tribune wrote: “That the reader has difficulties is true. But the reader’s difficulties come not from a lack of objectivity in Mr. Cummings’ work, but because this is not vague feeling or vague thought, but very precise in its intensity, and therefore very new and strange.” [2] But in spite of comments such as this, as well as a sold out run, the 1928 production suffered stifling criticism, which I would like to think, though can only rightfuly wonder if this meant the Provincetown Playhouse had no interest in being sensitive, or careful
, of their contemporary critics, but were strictly concerned with creating a compelling human drama.

Eighty years later, in a world rife with
skyrocketing divorce rates, unexpected pregnancy, and adolescent parents, HIM, a tale of the harsh consequences of irresponsibility, is just as important as ever. However, very little of Meghan Finn's production was compelling because it was deficient in the humanity or the complexity of the "Human Condition" that makes this play relevant and important. I have the sneaking suspicion it has to do with stamina, and all the fervor in Finns voice back in April at the NYTW wore sore by September at the Walker Space because a time-crunch-style rehearsal period of only five weeks – where every minute counted and everyone had to be on their game at all times – stressed out both Performers and Director: it caused the Artists to stretch themselves too thin over a project much bigger than merely a month, challenging far too much the vigor of Finn as an innovative Director. (And it was that strain on this production, though not necessarily Meghan or Cast specifically, that strangley reminded me of our responsibility, as Artists, to be in constant awareness of the discovery of who we are and why we choose to devote our lives to this practice – if we lack reason, we continue to degrade the immense power Theater can command, and if we lack an understanding of ourselves, we will forever flounder in inability of making a point.) For a first major directorial outing, I applaud the ambition, but Finn seemed to desire a quick discovery of her unique Artistic Voice here, where a vulnerable exploration would have far better suited both the occasion - a Thesis production for an MFA - and the play itself.

However, the texture of Cummings' luminous and emotionally wrought poetry was being chipped away at with a rather dull instrument: Dan Cozzens.

Him is E E Cummings' autobiographical character, and Dan Cozzens' portrayal reminded me of everything my high school English 3 classmates hated and could not understand about E E Cummings. Cozzens was not grounded or present as Him, lacking depth or personality, and unable to ever connect to Elan O'Conner's Me. There was no love or joy in his character or their relationship, and therefore no journey, sadly causing this beautiful story to be told without a point. I fear Cozzens' failed in his responsibility of doing the amount of work necessary to this character, instead just memorizing lines and, rather than living and breathing in Him's "childlike sensitivity and fragility," [3] forcing on character traits like some awkwardly shrunken articles of clothing, such as the irritatingly bad habit of… pausing mid sentence for some sort of emphasis. I assume that was an attempt to attach the visual style of Cummings poems to the rhythm of his character's speech, which would be poor judgment being as it is an actors job is to discover the rhythm of the text rather than imprint their own upon it. But even still, HIM is not a poem but a play, an art form inherently rich in the visual stimulus Cozzens must have mistakenly thought a good idea to bring to the foreground of his character work. I can only wonder how he won the title role at his audition, and maybe recommend a bit more pre-casting acuity in researching
those of whom one is considering casting.

Not everything about this production was worn-out or lacking depth. In opposition to Cozzens' weak work here was Corinne Donly's incredible performance as the Doctor. Opening night, she appeared slightly exhausted, but I could not expect anyone attacking this role with as much commitment as Donly to appear refreshed - besides, it allowed her to live so seamlessly in this dark world Cummings has created. As he wrote it, the Doctor appears in the majority of the show, including all the scenes of Him's play within the play, often taking on the major characters, and has countless monologues rife with dense subtext. All that, add Finn's thought that this character should ominously embody Him and Me's Daughter throughout the play, combined with Donly's aggressively grounded performance, and you have a character that might cause insomnia in any actor.

During the last ten-or-so seconds of the Doctor-as-the-Barker's final speech of the show, directed at Him, I saw a spark, a change in Corinne Donly's eyes - she suddenly morphed into an all-out Ball-of-Rage that I, sadly, saw as Donly stepping out of her character ever-so-subtly to yell at Dan Cozzens for not being present on-stage with her. Kaitlyn corrected me: "What you saw was Meghan's direction." Finn's and Donly's brilliant slight-of-hand glimpse of the Daughter behind the many masks of the Doctor was sadly obscured - for me, anyway - by Him.

Also, the design elements were incredibly successful. Justine Lacy found solid worlds of both history and fantasy in her costumes of the countless visually distinctive characters, Michael Hochman seamlessly found the darker underbellies of the story being told in his lighting design, Michael Cassidy, with his sound design, created the fear and impending viciousness of the blob scene, and Kaitlyn Mulligan’s set found both the grit of vaudeville and the circus which Cummings was so obsessed, as well as visually sucking the audience into incredible depths I never noticed at the SoHo Rep. Walker Space. These successes are due to the fact these artists were all working fervently those five months previous to the actors five weeks, as well as that their vehement work ethic never ended until the play opened – I know, I was there the morning of opening night after an all-nighter of painting the set while Lacy was tweaking costumes downstairs.

The play is long, the language dense, the plot difficult to follow, but the story is there – one of responsibility itself. And Cummings explores this, for all the flair and style of his poems, in the only way that seems to make any sense: he has written a history of himself through the perspective of an anesthetic-induced dream of his former wife, mother of his daughter – and more than that, he wrote it theatrically: living, breathing, naked, and honest. To tell this story fully, it not only required Cummings to write it, but it needs people to relive it; we can learn all the facts we want from everything our history professors lecture on about, but it is the parts of history we live through,
our history, which we will carry with us forever and deem of most importance – it is why we feel so passionately about the coming Presidential Election or think Post-Modernism will be the death of the Art World as we know it. I am not interested in Theater exploring our world as it should be, but as it is or could be, for while “the beautiful… is form considered in its simplest aspect… the ugly… is one detail of a great whole” which “constantly presents itself in new, but incomplete shapes” [4] – an admittedly Romantic view of Theater Cummings’ play explores so skillfully. So while HIM may instruct and it may delight, which many critics since Aristotle argue to be the intention of Theater, this play's purpose is much simpler: "it simply is;" [5] Cummings is offering his play to an audience "as a glass through which to examine the sublime" and make their own judgments, a play where "the grotesque… is the richest source of inspiration that nature can throw open to art." [4] But I found no grotesquely beautiful breath of life here, due to Cozzen's strange approach to such an immense character, as well as the stretch Finn’s Direction had to endure.

And this play can be done, this story can be told. I could not imagine, due to my biased opinion generated from the uncontrollable fact that I am a young adult in 2008, a more necessary time to do this play. But if we heed the calm advice to be careful of voicing our own thoughts and opinions – the tools of progress – we lose the significance of HIM by not demanding we do better in learning from our failures, thus forfeiting the Theater's power to every unconsidered, uncriticized play and production as mere acceptability (consenting it to be the best we can do) and lack the hope and ability to move forward.

1. Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau,
The Provincetown, 1931
2. Gilbert Seldes,
, 1928
Linda Wagner-Martin, Cumming’s HIM – and Me, 1992
Victor Hugo, Preface to Cromwell, 1827
5. E E Cummings,
HIM playbill, 1928


Anonymous said...

It’s not often that I enjoy sitting through a show that’s over three hours long, and a bit hot in the house at that. But I have to say, when I went to see HIM I was thoroughly engaged and thought Meghan’s staging and direction were a huge part of what brought the complicated show to life for me. Yeah, yeah, that blond guy wasn’t the sharpest actor in the box, but every moment of Corinne Donly’s performance more than it up for that. I think Finn should double her ambition next time and tackle a show with 210 actors and 42 scenes. Bottom line, I found her production tight, sprawling and really pretty funny. I hope she blew the dust off this rarely done play and someone else is inspired by her accomplishment and really gives HIM yet another chance to entertain us.

Trish Harnetiaux

Collin said...


Thank you for your passionately inspired comment! That is the exact response we here hope to illicit (not necessarily the disagreement, but the passion); if you love something, stand up for it!

That being said, I do not think we should so easily brush aside Dan Cozzens’ performance. He was, after all, the title character, and bore very little of the great weight necessary to this show – if any at all. And as much as my friends and I love to joke about back pain due to “carrying a show,” there is just no such thing. Yes Corinne Donly was beyond superb as the Doctor, but that did not change the fact that the real meat of this story – the great conflict of Him and Me – was lacking in substance due to Dan Cozzens’ inability to ground himself and make strong, informed choices.

And I hope my piece here did not sound entirely negative. Meghan most certainly has her strengths, and I really think they showed here. What harmed this play, and Meghan’s direction, was a small amount of time to do an immense amount of work. This contemporary pop-culture phenomenal need of instant gratification is harming our theater: our rehearsal periods need to not simply be a means to an end, but an exploration and discovery that enlivens the story we want to tell. And that means not every show can be done in three to five weeks.

Of course, the way I saw this play also influenced how I wrote about it. I was there opening night (where the audience was tough and unresponsive), and I imagine the production only got better and tighter as the run went on. Also, I may have had a whole different perspective had I seen the production on closing night, when Him understudy Jared Mezzochi went on – I heard nothing but wonderful things about him. Theater truly is a living thing, and changes moment-to-moment, or night-to-night, or production-to-production.

I am glad you enjoyed the production, and I agree with you in a hope that others will be inspired by this production and this play will see yet another life after this one. Thank you so much for your comments, and we hope you will continue to read the Monthly Manifesto and contribute.


Anonymous said...

hey collin. just want to make a quick correction ... i didn't work on my lighting design for nearly as long as kaitlyn and justine worked on scenic and costumes. I came in rather late in the project. Although, I'm glad you think my design was effective, it would have been nothing without kaitlyn and justine's work being so detailed and thought out.

-Michael Hochman

Kaitlyn said...

I would rather not comment too much on HIM, because I worked on the production, but I would like to add a small thought:

What I loved about Meghan's direction is that she picked out the element of the play that was the most important to her and used it as a way to tether the rest of the script down. We've already agreed that HIM is a bottomless sea of words that is so easy to drown in when one dives in to analyze it. There are a million routes to take with it and a million ideas that E.E. Cummings addresses. Using the doctor to communicate the underlying purpose of the entire play was nothing short of brilliant, and it helped to tightly bind together a production that had the potential to be out of control. Early, early on in the process, Meghan joked that it was the job of the production team to help the audience into the production. We all put our best efforts forth, but I think Corinne's constant presence as Cumming's daughter underneath her facade of ever-changing characters was the most successful tactic for helping the audience in and reminding us what the play was truly about underneath it all.