— I am attending Ebertfest next week in Champaign, Illinois. Last year was my first year attending. I had just been hired as a Rogerebert.com contributor (by Roger himself – such an honor), and he had passed away only a couple of weeks before. It was an intense and emotional experience. Chock-full of films, panels, and, one glorious morning, a dance break led by Tilda Swinton. I was dancing along with everyone else. She basically wouldn’t allow non-participation.
No one who was in that theatre will ever forget that moment. It felt like Roger was actually present again, in the joy and celebration of that dance. It was amazing. So I am very excited, and the lineup of films is AMAZING. Spike Lee is going to be there. Oliver Stone. Patton Oswalt. Ramin Bahrani. I’ll be working hard, as a contributor, I have a couple of assignments, and I am looking forward to seeing friends, and seeing movies. Thrillingly, Museum Hours is going to be screened. I saw it recently, at home (wrote about it here), and mentioned how it seems to be made for the big screen. The images are so astonishingly beautiful. So I am so excited to see it on that gigantic screen at the Virginia Theatre!
— I’ve been reading Anjelica Huston’s memoir, A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York. It is absolutely lovely. Her childhood in Ireland is fascinating, and the glimpses we get of her famous father are awesome and sometimes disturbing. He could be a very hard man.
But she writes with specificity and tenderness, trying to understand her complicated parents. It’s wonderful. Apparently a second volume is coming out this fall. My sister Siobhan gave me the book for Christmas and I am loving it.
The Two-Character Play
I have been obsessed with Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play for … I don’t know … almost my whole life at this point. I was captivated by it when I first discovered it. It scared me, beckoned me. It’s so rarely done. In fact, people don’t even know what it IS. It’s late Tennessee Williams, when he had lost the critical acclaim that swarmed around him as a younger man, and he was pushing the boundaries of his art, moving into truly abstract almost Brechtian areas. Everyone just wanted him to write another Streetcar or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He basically refused. This is MY art, not YOURS. Bob Dylan going electric, and turning his back (literally) on his own boo-ing heckling audience. I’ve worked on it in every acting class I’ve ever taken, most memorably with John Strasberg (son of Lee). I feel protective of the play. Last year, a production of it actually happened in New York, starring Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif. I went with my friend Dan. I was ready for my dream of the play to be RUINED. It wasn’t, although I don’t think Amanda Plummer was right for the role. This is a character who supposedly once played Cleopatra. You need someone grander. Faded grandeur, perhaps, but who has a memory of that type of Leading Lady attention. I was pleasantly surprised, though, by the production. It certainly had some lovely moments, and seemed to realize how FUNNY the play was.
HOWEVER. Two nights ago, my friend Ted (who ALSO is obsessed with this play, and we used to get together in Chicago and work on it, just for our own satisfaction) and I went to go see a production of Two-Character Play down in the East Village. Regina Bartkoff is an actress, and has been a longtime reader and commenter on my site. The first time I wrote about Two-Character Play, she commented, with a passion and fire and heat that I recognized. She was obsessed with the play, too! I love the Internet. The Internet can keep us separated, for sure, but it can also help us find one another. Regina first responded to a Two-Character Play reference on my site YEARS ago. And a couple of months ago, she sent me an email, saying that she and her partner, Charles Schick, had finally received the rights to the play. And even though it came so quickly on the heels of that Amanda Plummer production, they decided to put it up. It was a years-long dream come true for the both of them. I was so excited for them! I hadn’t even MET them.
So Ted and I went to see it at their performance space, at 292 Theatre.
It was an absolutely captivating experience. Regina Bartkoff played Claire and Charles Schick played Felice. Claire and Felice are brother and sister, with a traumatic event in their past, which they are trying to work through by performing a play written by Felice. A play called The Two-Character Play. As they try to get through the production, with a dwindling audience out there in the dark, they start to mess with the structure of the play, making cuts, and improvising, fighting over the narrative of their own childhood, basically. It’s a great play about theatre, and the art of acting: what it means to face the void.
Bartkoff and Schick had great rapport with one another, and it was such a delight to see how much humor and tenderness they found in this often very strange piece of work. Their increasing panic was palpable, as they realized they were locked in the theatre, no way out. One of the things I loved so much about both of them in these roles is that they were truly wrestling with the underlying subtext and drive of Williams’ play: “The play is the thing.” When an actor is lost, how does he find himself? He usually finds himself by “going back to the text”. Once you go “off text,” you are thrust into outer space, flailing for a handhold, and we see that go down in the Two-Character Play, as Felice and Claire force one another to face the unknown. The unknown territory of what lies BEYOND the script.
But when they did decide to “go back into the play,” near the end, they did so with an unbelievable tenderness. They were gentle with one another, helping one another get back into the mood so that they could re-enter the play. In the Amanda Plummer production, that moment was played with panic, which made them both seem totally nuts. Like fantasists who didn’t want to deal with reality. It seems to me that that was missing the point, to a degree that is almost insulting. It is so easy to make a choice to “judge” characters, to play them as “crazy”, to distance yourself from their reality. But what happened to Felice and Claire at the end of Schick and Bartkoff’s production was that they looked at one another, and a glance passed between them, and they knew that even though the doors and windows of the theatre were locked, there was actually a “way out”. And that was through “going back into the play.” Once inside the play, they would FIND their “way out.”
Seen in that context, and played in the way it was played by Schick and Bartkoff, the ending of the play did not seem tragic or creepy at all. It seemed redemptive. Hopeful. It is almost (not quite, but almost) triumphant. Artists are weird people. Let’s take that as a given. The majority of the people in the world do not spend the majority of their time playing make-believe. But artists do. And “make believe” is often truer than reality. Transformation can occur there. TRUE transformation.
The way Schick helped Bartkoff off with her coat, in order to get back into the summery world of the play, was gentle. And she submitted to his help gently. She was ready. He was ready. They were going to find a way out. Together. It was not only refreshing to see that moment played that way, it was so moving that I was in tears.
It was a beautiful, haunting, playful, and funny production. Ted and I couldn’t stop talking about it as we walked crosstown for our subway. We hung out afterwards and got to meet Regina and Charles, and we stood around talking for quite a while, and it was a beautiful time of connection. I feel like I “know” Regina, just from her comments here, but it was so awesome to see her in real-time, to talk with her, to see what she can do as an actress. She’s wonderful.
Nice nice people, and good artists, artists who have really cracked open the tender and hopeful heart of Tennessee Williams’ little-known play.
The production is running until April 26th. New Yorkers, if you’re looking for an intense and interesting night of theatre, highlighting a late play by one of our greatest playwrights, you should definitely check it out. Information here.