The Play’s the Thing- Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon

Regency Christmas

(image taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: Sometimes, we here at The Play’s the Thing (i.e. me) wants to read important works of drama that have an effect on the theatrical world.  Sometimes, it’s just good to read something light and fun.  I like Lauren Gunderson.  I like Pride and Prejudice.  I’ve played Mary Bennet in a community theatre production of Pride and Prejudice and she’s my favorite Bennet sister.  I like Christmas.  What else is there to say?  Other than, yes, I know it’s close to Halloween, but I wanted to read this, dammit. 

Summary:  Set two years after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, this play follows Mary Bennet’s own personal journey.  After being invited to her sister Elizabeth’s home, the large Pemberley estate, for Christmas, Mary doesn’t expect much.  Being the bookish middle sister, she and her family have resigned Mary to a life of spinisterhood.  Enter Arthur deBourgh- Mr. Darcy’s smart, awkward, and single cousin.  The two share an immediate connection, but will unforeseen circumstances get in the way of their happiness?

Thoughts and Analysis: First of all, I appreciate the authors’ note that they encourage diverse casting.  That is awesome.

This was a cute play.  It goes extremely quick; I read it in under two hours.  Like any Lauren Gunderson play, it’s very funny, which is important in a Jane Austen pastiche.  I feel it was a fair interpretation of where the characters of Pride and Prejudice would be in two years.  It was also contained consistent characterization from the original novel.  I did wonder where Georgiana Darcy was, though.  I liked they acknowledged the lack of Kitty and made a joke out of it.

The only original character was Arthur deBourgh, who is Darcy’s cousin.  Due to Lady Catherine’s death, he has inherited Rosings.  He’s a much more awkward Mr. Darcy, but he’s still likeable.  Like Mary, he’s an intellectual and they make a good match.

What I really appreciated was the characterization of the sisters.  I feel like in many Pride and Prejudice sequels and adaptations, most authors tend to ignore the Bennet sisters’ relationships beyond Jane and Lizzy and sometimes Lydia.  Or at the very least, there often isn’t the full shade of emotions that sisterhood entails between all the sisters.  There is a lot of annoyance, but not a lot of caring.  This play was different.  I really got the sense of sisterhood between the Bennet girls because there was a balance of emotions.  There was snippy-ness, but there was also concern and meddling.

Favorite Character: Please, it was Mary.  She’s funny.  She’s nerdy.  She strives to know her place in the world.  I totally related to her. 

Should You Read This?: If you like Jane Austen, it’s worth a shot. 

Final Thoughts: Miss Bennet is a cute, fun romantic comedy that makes a light read.

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The Play’s The Thing- M. Butterfly

M Butterfly

(Image taken from Google)

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang

Why I Decided To Read It: One of the things I have been doing with this project is read plays that are not by white cis-hetero men.  Because so much of canonical theatre (and most forms of art and media) is done by these men, I think it’s important to find other people’s point of view.  As a society, we need to make an effort to understand everyone’s point of view for a multitude of reasons.  I remembered David Henry Hwang mentioned when discussing modern theatre in one of my college classes, but we ultimately didn’t read one of his plays.  However, I put him and specifically M. Butterfly in the back of my mind because I enjoy modern retellings or deconstructions of popular myths or pieces of media.  I eventually fond the play at my local Half-Price Books (incidentally the same trip I found and bought Intimate Apparel) and decided to get it.

Summary:  Stuckin a jail cell in 1988, French diplomat to China Rene Gallimard begins reliving his actions leading him to his current situation.  Beginning in 1960, Gallimard vividly retells the tale of meeting his “ideal woman”, Chinese opera singer Song Liling.  Gallimard considers Song his own Madame Butterfly- beautiful, submissive, and conservative yet sexual.  They embark on a twenty year relationship where Gallimard passes his lover government secrets.  But Song is not all that “she” seems.  Song is actually a male Chinese spy feeding Gallimard’s sexist and racist desires to get information.  So caught up in his fantasy, Gallimard has problems acknowledging the truth went it comes out.  This psychologically deep play discusses what is love and examines the power fantasies that is so ingrained in Western culture.

Thoughts and Analysis: There is just so much to unpack for this play. There is of course the discussions of sexism and racism that is the main crux of the play.  There is also its place in the theatrical canon, its relevancy today, and how companies choose to market the play.  I would personally loved to have the opportunity to talk about this in a class because there is a lot to discuss.

It’s kind of amazing- in the horrifying way- how relevant this play still is today.  Until I looked it up, I had no idea the play is being revived on Broadway right now, which seems fitting.  It was written 30 years ago, but it still seems fresh because the racism and sexism still applies.  Hwang masterfully dismantles how problematic many people in the West view Asian women: that they’re submissive and modest but sexy.  It’s very much a power fantasy.  You still see it today with white guys fetishizing Asian women through anime and other forms of media.  It’s sexist because it’s denying women’s equality to men and it’s racist because it enforces ugly stereotypes that Asian people are weak and easy to dominate.  This play calls that behavior out by deconstructing the opera Madame Butterfly.  Gallimard is obsessed with the opera and Song uses that information to inform his actions.  At times, I found myself rolling my eyes at some of what Gallimard was saying, but I think that’s the point.

I think M. Butterfly deserves a place in the larger theatrical canon for a number of reasons.  First of all, it’s just a brilliant play.   It’s well-written and thought out.  As it is written by an Asian-American, it’s not a point-of-view we often get in theatre.  It also marks a point in a change in American theatre.  At this point in the 80s and into the 90s, we see a definite shift from realism or the avant-garde to a blend of the two.  There’s a bit of realism, Brechtian techniques, and a sort of magical realism in here.  This trend continues into the modern day.

There’s so much more worth discussing in this play, but I don’t have the space here to cover it all.  What I do want to discuss is the marketing some companies do in promoting this play.  I probably wouldn’t discuss this if I hadn’t watched some of the Broadway commercials.  They don’t advertise who is playing Song and they emphasize the love story aspect of the play.  I watched the trailer for the film version and it’s similar.  I think it’s fascinating that the advertise on the stereotype and then subvert it in the play itself.  I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s interesting.  I guess it depends if it’s intentional.

Favorite Character: Song is such an interesting character because there are so many motivations that we don’t know.  They have to be decided by the actor and director.

Should You Read This?: Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  It’s fascinating and covers issues that do not get enough discussion.

Final Thoughts: M. Butterfly is a modern classic that is worth the read.

 

The Play’s the Thing- Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel

(image taken from Goodreads.com)

Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage

Why I Decided To Read It: I have been wanting to read this play for a while.  In one of my college classes, we had to pitch plays to read as a class and one of my classmates suggested this play.  I thought we should have read it then to have some diversity in our class’s canon.  Besides, I knew Lynn Nottage was a fairly popular name in modern theatre and this is probably her most well-known piece.  And I like historical fashion.  But it lost.  This play got put on my Amazon Wish List with about seventy other plays I have yet to put the money down to order.  However, I recently found it at my local Half Price Books and decided it was fate, so I bought it.

Summary: It’s 1905 and Esther Mills is just going through the daily motions.  As an African-American seamstress, Esther spends her days sewing corsets and other lingerie for clients of all backgrounds in New York City while dreaming of owning her own beauty parlor.  The only interactions she has are with her fellow boarding house dwellers, her clients, and the man that sells her fabric (with who she shares an undeniable attraction).  When letters start arriving from a Panama Canal builder, Esther gets her first real shot of a romantic relationship, but things are not all that they seem.  Will she find love?  Or will she find herself? Or both?


Thoughts and Analysis: I enjoyed this play.  (Surprise, I liked a feminist piece of media) It reminded me a bit of the plays In the Next Room and The Heiress and the novel Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset for different reasons.  It shares discussion of women’s issues in the turn of the century with In the Next Room, struggles with spinsterhood and suitors with The Heiress, and being an African-American woman living in NYC with Plum Bun.  These pieces of media themselves are not connected in any way with exception that they are written by (or in the case of The Heiress, co-written) women and all heavily feature the theme of loneliness.  Intimate Apparel also heavily discusses loneliness.

The title of the play is very accurate.  Not only is the main seamstress of women’s undergarments, but each character has a different way they handle intimacy.  Everyone has his or own emotional apparel.  Thanks to early 20th Century society being what it is, certain characters cannot be as close as what they want to be.  If they act on that desire, there is a definite cost.  It is a very honest view of the struggles in 20th Century America that we as an audience do not usually get to see- mainly because we see it in a white heterosexual male lens.  It discusses interracial relationships, women’s sexuality, and immigration.

A facet I really enjoyed about this play is the use of language.  Each character has her or his distinct voice thanks to his or her class, race, and place of origin.  Esther, an African-American woman originally from the South, sounds different from Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant.  There is even a difference between how George’s letters sound and how George actually speaks once he moves to New York (and for good reason).

I think my main complaint is that act two goes a little fast.  Maybe it seems like that because act one contains a fair amount of exposition awhile act two is mainly moving plot.  Overall, it isn’t too much of a problem.

Favorite Character: While all the characters are great, Esther is probably my favorite.  She’s shy, but she’s stubborn.  She wants independence but also wants romance.  She’s extremely multidimensional and she’s great. 

Should You Read This?: If you have an interest in turn-of-the-20th Century history, feminism, historical fashion, discussion of race in America, or romance, you should read this. 

Final Thoughts: I think this should be added to the theatrical canon.  It is a great example of modern theatre. 

Also, if anyone has any suggestions for plays, especially comedic plays, I would love to hear them.

The Play’s The Thing- Silent Sky

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson

Harvard Computers

(Photo taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: I read Lauren Gunderson’s play I and You a few years ago and I loved it.  I’ve been trying to read more of her works, but they haven’t always been easily available.  I was able to get a hand on this play- which is probably her most known work after I and You– so I decided to get it. 

Summary:  It’s the early 1900s and Henrietta Leavitt is bored of her small Wisconsin town.  When she is given the opportunity to work at Harvard’s astronomy department, she jumps at the chance.  But everything is not as she imagined.  Instead of looking through telescopes and exploring her own ideas, Henrietta is shoved into a small office with other women called “computers” and told to chart the stars.  Despite being left to do the hard work for men who don’t respect them, these women are resilient in the face of professional difficulties.  Personal life is much harder.  Being a woman in the turn of the century isn’t easy.  Either career or love has to come first.  As her obsession with her work grows, Henrietta contact with her family lessens until tragedy strikes.  Based on a true story, Silent Sky is all about one woman finding her place- and ours- in the universe.


Thoughts and Analysis: So this might have become one of my favorite plays. First of all, I just love Lauren Gunderson’s style.  It is very youthful and humorous.  I feel like it meshes with my own style.  It kind of has everything I love: good roles for women, history, romance, humor, and feminism.

Admittedly, I am not a science person.  I took astronomy in college and I did fine.  Although I didn’t entirely understand some of the concepts explained in the show, it didn’t lower my enjoyment of the play.  If the science explained wasn’t correct, I have no idea.

What I really appreciate about this play is the feminist aspects of the play.  First of all, it is very pro-women in science.  Women have done a lot of the hard work with very little credit.  This play is telling their story.  Because this play is set during the early 20th century, things like the right to vote and career women are also discussed.  Henrietta struggles between having a professional life or having a home life.  Will also discusses her personal struggles being an immigrant abandoned by her husband.  The play is also great in terms of casting.  It’s rare to see a play where most of the characters are arguably female character roles.  They’re all multi-dimensional too!  As someone who usually plays female character roles when she acts, it’s amazing.

The major themes of this play are passion and finding your place in the universe.  Henrietta, Annie, and Will are so passionate about what they do.  It’s their passion for astronomy that leads them to do great work.  Being women and astronomers, they talk about how that affects their places not only in society but also in the universe.  There is the micro: Who are we in this department, in society, in history?  There is also the macro: Where are we in the universe?  Are we the only universe?  With these two questions together, there’s also the question of: Do we matter?  Why?  It creates an interesting conversation.

Favorite Character: It’s a hard choice between the three “computers”: Henrietta, Annie, and Will.  I love all three of them.  I’d love to play all three of them.  They all bring something different to the table.  Will is just a hoot.  Henrietta is passionate.  Annie is the no-nonsense but will fight for you.  More character roles for women!  More complex roles for women!

Should You Read This?: Yes, especially if you like feminism, science, and women in science.  Or if you don’t like these things, you should read it anyway and learn something.

Final Thoughts: Silent Sky is a heartwarming, funny play with great characters about underappreciated women in science.  It is totally worth a read.

The Play’s The Thing: Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley by Helen Edmundson

Mary Shelley Cover

(image taken from Amazon.com)

Why I Decided To Read It: I first read Frankenstein in high school.  We covered the gist of Mary Shelley: father was William Godwin, mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, ran off with Percy Shelley, Frankenstein was started on a trip to Geneva when Lord Byron suggested they all come up with a scary story.  I found the book interesting, but didn’t necessarily appreciate some of the deeper philosophical issues until later in my academic career. I discovered this play while randomly searching Amazon.  I wanted to learn more about Mary Shelley, so I decided to get it.  Also the playwright is a woman and I’m all for more women playwrights.

Summary:  Before she was author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was Mary Godwin- daughter of political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.  Raised on her father’s radical ideas with her half-sister Fanny and step-sister Jane, Mary Godwin is an unconventional teenager for her time.  She’s educated, opinionated, and fearless.  After coming home from a stay in Scotland, she meets one of her father’s proteges, Percy Shelley.  Sparks immediately fly.  As Mary and Shelley rush into a wild romance, Mary’s relationship with her father becomes strained and society begins to turn on the Godwin family.  As her relationships crumble, Mary begins to question the beliefs she was raised on and begins to write.

Thoughts and Analysis: First things first- and I guess that this is somewhat a spoiler- this play doesn’t show the scary story bet in Geneva that starts Frankenstein.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  While we don’t see the very specific event itself, we do see a lot of what inspired Frankenstein.  Mary Shelley’s book is very much about parenting.  While the Monster does horrible things, Victor Frankenstein’s failed “parenting” is partially at fault.  Mary Shelley has a very difficult relationship with her father in this play.  Part of their problems stem from their different philosophical views.  William Godwin believes that humanity can be perfected, but Mary sees the danger of trying too hard to perfect humanity.  I feel it is very helpful to already understand the story behind Frankenstein and the philosophical views behind the characters.  It isn’t 100% necessary, but it helps.  The views of the Enlightenment period is kind of complicated. 

Speaking of complicated, the Godwin family situation is extremely complicated.  I had no idea prior to this play.  Mary Godwin has two sisters, but they aren’t fully related by blood.  Jane is her step-sister and Fanny is her half-sister.  It took a few minutes to figure out who was a blood relation to who.  Maybe if I saw it I might be able to figure it out faster.  Keeping track of the timeline could also be a little complicated.  There wasn’t many “six months later” in the stage directions except in a few cases, so I had to follow the script itself closely.  The play doesn’t cover her entire life.  It’s essentially from when she meets Percy Shelley to when she finally marries him.

A part of the play I really like was Mary’s dreams.  They were small pieces, but I could see some of the origins of Frankenstein in them.  They also give great indications of Mary’s mental state.  She clearly has issues with depression and regret.

Favorite Character: I don’t know if it’s because she’s similar to characters I’ve played before, but I really liked Fanny.  She’s the only sensible person in the entire family. 

Should You Read This?: If you’ve read Frankenstein and want to know more about the author’s past, it’s an interesting read.  I don’t think it’s for everybody, but people interested in English literature, women in literature, and philosophy should like it.  It would be a great pairing for theaters doing a play version of Frankenstein.

Final Thoughts: Although some parts could be complicated, I liked it overall and found Mary Shelley’s early life fascinating.