Sunday, July 9, 2017

UCF Production of Seminar




I enjoyed the performance of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, a story about four aspiring novelists who sign up for a weekly writing seminar with a well-known literary figure, Leonard (played by Earl Weaver.) The four authors are Kate, Izzy, Douglas, and Martin. Kate, a feminist who reads Kerouac in the tub, but lambasts his work, is played by Alexandra Pica. Eranthis Rose Quigley plays Izzy, the nymphomaniac whose praised work is discredited by the others because of her affinity for blurring the teacher-student relationship with sexual grease. Martin, who so fears rejection that he doesn’t present anything until the end of the story and then rejects Leonard’s praise, is played by Logan Ayala. Finally, Sebastian Gonzalez plays Douglas, the only writer that has any semblance of success. Although I was most impressed by Mr. Weaver (especially the soliloquy in response to Martin’s attack), all the actors did a tremendous job.

So, to appreciate this story, you must understand how hard it is for writers to feel confident in their work. We lay out our hearts on the page, hoping that it will make some difference, some emotional connection to someone, anyone, and watch as their hope wilts into despair. If you do it right, your story is written in blood and tears, your soul left raw, and you never get callouses. I remember a story that Stephen King tells about how he gave a manuscript for his novelist wife Tabitha to read while they were on a trip, how he watched for her reaction to his humor and how his anticipation made her ask him, “Why are you so damn needful?” It’s a deep vein. So, Seminar focuses on this vulnerability and hits some canny points, though it exaggerates and is a bit clumsy, sometimes sewing whole cloth with railroad spikes. Douglas’s rant about exteriority and interiority and so forth is a funny lampooning of literary criticism, but in truth, such analysis is essential in organizing our discourse for investigation of our art, a discourse essential for discerning deeper meaning (if that is our goal.) 

On the other hand, is there any writer who doesn’t tremble when a reader they respect reads the first sentence of their work worrying that it isn’t up to snuff? How long does that take? LOL. When Kate says, “That’s not even the whole sentence!” after Leonard can’t get past her semi-colon, her frustration is the echo of thousands. But then later Leonard says, “If you’re defending yourself, you’re not listening,” and dammit that’s true too. I think I mostly identified with Kate in the story, but a younger version of me that cared even more about acceptance. When she says, “If I want somebody to tell me I’m wasting my time, I can just call my mother,” I felt so bad for her, but authors want truth more than anything else. Truth is the commodity that is most useful.

I guess this is a good time to say that Alexandra Pica became Kate; it was a brilliant performance. Kate’s part is complicated: The fact that Leonard’s criticism of Kate’s 6-year-old short story forces her to another topic reveals a growth path to her career is insightful. Leonard criticizes her work as something so overworked that it has lost its soul is a common fear I have, especially about my old stories. We always want to make the work better, but sometimes you can never duplicate that white hot tongs in the inferno effort that brought you to the story in the first place. Sometimes maybe we can rewrite it into a “desiccated corpse.” That really hit me. Still, not all of it was harrowing, Kate’s argument that Leonard attacked her work from a male chauvinist perspective was on target, but I cannot imagine how Jane Austen’s work can be held up as a feminist expression either, except in tongue-in-cheek humor. 

Martin, the character that is paired with everyone, passes through the social experiment unruffled except for financial woes partially caused by the cost of the seminar. Mr. Ayala brings power into the liquid role, well positioned against the other men and rotating between the women for sex (Izzy) and lodging (Kate.) It’s Machiavellian and clever. 

His relationship with Leonard is frightful because Martin fears rejection and Leonard is rejection incarnate. Martin has a couple thousand pages of work that he is afraid to present (“a regular Emily Dickinson without the charm” is Leonard’s gruff retort.) To be frank, I had some trouble correlating his role with his actions, because his outward personality is not self-reflective like I would expect it to be if he felt so vulnerable. Instead, Martin attacks Douglas’s literary chops and fortunate son status, enjoys a love affair with Izzy, and takes Kate for granted, assuming she is as needful as he. When he has his best chance to be a good friend (when Kate destroys their illusion of Leonard by inventing her Cubano transvestite gang-member who offers to take her place in the group, ironically proving Leonard right while she tries to dismiss him) instead of being supportive, Martin condemns Kate too. Odd.

Feminism is a common topic, especially between Kate and Izzy (who paint it differently) and Kate and Leonard, who are opposite poles. The men in the play, incidentally, are male chauvinists, while the women are too happy to assume traditional sexual roles for gain. The only queer reference in the story was when Leonard tells Martin that he doesn’t need to worry about being sexually dominated because he isn’t his type. 

I have to say that I was distracted by the excessive cursing, not because I think it is foul—I don’t—but because it loses its effectiveness (to me at any rate) in excess. Language, being a key topic of the story, I thought it odd that the most dramatic words faded into the background, their power sucked away by their distressing frequency.

Now I want to discuss Izzy and sex. One second while I compose myself. That's better. ;-) 

Her part demonstrates how sex both opens doors to success and makes any such achievement questionable. Izzy illustrates a fundamental truth: Professional women—even in modern times—cannot express their sexual selves with power and still expect to be respected in their profession. Men can. We’re expected to, but women must foreswear their sexual selves and beautiful women have it the worst. Izzy, who radiates seductive enticement, gives a casual twist of that knife of truth. And there’s the rub. You see, Izzy's sex appeal doesn't reduce her. She is its master and this freedom gained allows her to achieve her objectives. In fact, if we subtract the assumption that her work is without merit (why should we presume the other writers are right? Because of society's preconceived notions?), then perhaps Leonard is being sincere in his praise of her talent with the Shanghai story.

Izzy is the group's glue. She tells Martin, “Stop making a big deal about language,” meaning for him to stop using it as a wedge against Douglas. She pleads with them all to cooperate, that they’re all in it together. Plus, her instincts are right about Martin’s feelings for Kate (revealed later when she rejects him.)

She is no fool, nor does she have time for illusions. Her biological clock is ticking and her intention is to succeed. She is the most feral of Leonard’s cats. When she states that her goal is to write drug menace books and pose for the cover with her shirt off—this said as she dances topless around the sofa—she is undiminished. Rather she emotes territorial presence, feline prowess, and sets a consistent tone for the rest of her story, where sex is a game of low consequence where she always wins. When the confident Izzy says, “I just hate all those women who are hung up about sex,” it divides her from Kate, a good Samaritan who longs for deeper expression than physical intimacy, someone who exudes discomfort. Izzy is played by Eranthis Rose Quigley (her site - GREAT job on your site, Mademoiselle who can run in heels and do headstands) who brought the right amount of daring and self-awareness to her part. Bravo! 

And that brings us to Douglas, the anointed one, whose uncle is famous and has a lever over Leonard, because of a past accusation of plagiarism. His submission to the New Yorker is given to Leonard and he waits for praise but instead is called a whore. Let’s get this right: “Capable, graceful in places, a detached tone of perplexed intelligence, you have a relatively famous last name, in literary circles, not too famous but famous enough. It’s not a home run but it’s a standing double.” Ouch. 

Then Leonard advises for him to write for Hollywood, because “you’re talented, like I said, but you’re never going to be great. And there are a lot of people who are never going to be great, most fiction writers just evaporate, really, but that’s going to be a problem for you because of your kind of whorish attitude to the whole thing, the name dropping, and of course the name.” Most fiction writers just evaporate. Ouch. Ouch. Whimpering sound. 

Gonzalez plays his role to perfection, crafting the image of the lucky guy whose success you might resent, but whose talent you must admit. When his fate is illustrated by Leonard, though, your heart is stone if you don’t feel pity for him. And he still looks whorish. I loved his performance. Fantastic. 

The tour-de-force performance, though, belongs Weaver, who slew. His Leonard articulated the wall of rejection that author's face and he made it all too human. When his students object, he replies (I think to Kate, but maybe Martin), “The fucking critics will say worse. To all of you. If it gets in. If it gets in, at all, you’re doomed.” Sigh. And then in his own story, where he responds to the perjury charges, he tells his story of literary success. At one point, around the second or third novel, he says, “You’ll feel like you’re in the 9th Circle of Hell, where the betrayers of Christ are frozen in eternal cannibalistic silence, only it’s not flesh you’ll be consuming, it’s your mind.” 

And maybe then it's important to reflect on the quality of the class:

Student 1: Kate. Moves on from a story vacuum sucking away her life. Now moving forward in her career.

Student 2: Izzy. Gets to meet Salman Rushdie, one of my favorite authors.

Student 3: Doug. Gets a meeting with the Weinstein brothers who run studios like Miramax.

Student 4: Martin. Decides to work with him and fuck him up like Mephistopheles in his pocket.

A good deal overall, in my opinion, though getting there was probably painful.

Anyway, the miracle of Rebeck’s story is that all of this horror becomes pretty damn funny. Great direction, lighting, and audio too. 


You made me proud, Knights! Charge on!

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