News & Articles
2009-2010, Volume 5
Unfreezing the Play
by Polly Carl, Director of Artistic Development
Theater is a series of ongoing interpretations. The playwright, director, dramaturg, designers and actors come together in a collaborative process seeking a multitude of possibilities for the presentation of a play. At some point, in order to bring in the audience, the play freezes - the script is finalized, the set is built, the sound and lights are programmed and the actors find their rhythm. But the possible meanings of the play go on in post-show discussions, drinks after the play and late night pillow talk. My hope is to provide some heat to your conversations when you leave the theater: to thaw what we’ve temporarily frozen and invite you to collaborate in making meaning and theater with us.
"If someone could tell you in advance exactly what was going to happen in your life, and how everything was going to turn out, and if you knew you couldn’t do anything to change it, would you still want to go on with your life?" - Bee, A Parallelogram
Embedded in this central question in Bruce Norris’ A Parallelogram is a consideration of the most fundamental of American values - a stalwart belief in self-determination - a version of the self in which we make life happen, it doesn’t just happen to us. In an America made up of self-made individuals, Bee’s question challenges an American understanding of freedom that presupposes we have an innate ability to change our circumstances.
Consider NPR’s This American Life episode entitled My Brilliant Plan. The program consists of three episodes, each a story of an individual plan to overcome/control what are seemingly impossible situations: to cheat the possibility that fate has the final word. Of the three stories in the episode, the plan that most resonates with my revengeful Italian heritage is one where a man goes to buy a tombstone for his two sons. He has their pictures and dates of birth and death - they died on the same day. The funeral home director offers his condolences and wonders as to what terrible tragedy befell these young men. The man says, “Oh they’re both still alive, but they cheated me, so they’re dead to me.”
The story, however, that connects so beautifully to the ideas of A Parallelogram is a story about a man, Ron, who since age 11 has been trying to build a time machine. The father he idolized drops dead from a heart attack when he is a young boy and, through the cartoon version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Ron begins to imagine a scenario upon which he travels back in time to warn his father of his oncoming heart attack. He wants to tell his father that he has to quit smoking, change his diet and take better care of himself. Ron’s interest in time travel becomes an obsession when, in college, he reads Einstein and learns time can be changed by motion; that time can be changed. Ron will make it his life’s work to try to change time.
A Parallelogram is also a story of time travel, a continual rewind, play, forward, rewind that asks us to question our impulse to make brilliant plans. The play is framed by impending and realized disasters - natural disasters being the best proof of the fragility of the self-determination narrative. Jay references George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, where a brother and sister die in a flood. Bee asks, “If there was an earthquake tomorrow in Bangladesh and a million people died, would you really care?” Bee and Jay go on a vacation marred by the drowning of a local fisherman. Finally, we know a tropical bird virus looms. Although these disasters mostly live in subtext, the various versions of Bee are defined by an uncontrollable sense of fate: the things that will happen to us despite our best efforts. A Parallelogram offers up an excellent meditation on self-determination. If time itself is an uncertainty, then the very idea that we can rely on ourselves to drive life forward, make change and have an impact is a precarious philosophy at best.
In This American Life’s My Brilliant Plan episode, we are left to wonder about the outcome of “the best laid plans...” Will building a grave marker for his sons allow this father to move on with his life? We do know that Ron never made it back in time to warn his father, but we also know that Ron earned a Ph.D, became a physicist and ultimately his ideas about time travel have become respected by many great scientific minds. Bryce Dewitt, one of Einstein’s contemporaries, commented to Ron after he presented his plans for time travel, “You may never see your father again, but I’m certain he would be proud of you.” For Ron, this sentiment ultimately made his brilliant plan worth it.