Monday, April 24, 2017

The soul of Wit

"Wit" by Margaret Edson (Kindle edition)
It will strike different chords with different folks. With someone who majored in Literature and whose reflexes include poetry, Margaret Edson’s Wit is a chaffing reminder that command of language is in the slightest degree command of life; and mastery of the highest form of literature does not save one from leading a corny life.

50-year-old Vivian Bearing, PhD is a professor of seventeenth-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. She’s ready to die. Resigned, at least, to a future contained in a ‘two-hour glass’. Enough time for her to muse about mortality in front of an obliging audience.

Professors (the better ones) are precisely that: performers. Dr Bearing makes the theater her lecture hall. The subject, we’re not sure. Stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer? Metaphysical wit? Punctuations turning worlds upside-down? Kindness, meaning? Until her very last minutes, she needs to parse everything:

I am not in isolation because I have cancer… I am in isolation because I am being treated for cancer. My treatment imperils my health.

Herein lies the paradox. John Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it, if he wrote a poem about it. My students would flounder in it, because paradox is too difficult to understand.

. . .

If they were here, if I were lecturing: How I would perplex them! I could work my students into a frenzy. Every ambiguity, every shifting awareness. I could draw so much from the poems.

I could be so powerful.

Herein lies the beauty of Wit. It invites you to revel in the ambiguity of the smallest of words, of a comma; in the mental, if moral puzzles. It asks that you be witness to an agile, uncompromising mind at work before and as it succumbs to the frailties of the body.

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Twin Bill Theater stages the Pulitzer prize-winning play in cooperation with Trinity University of Asia, and Tami Monsod is Vivian Bearing in this Asian premiere. The production, directed by Steven Conde, runs until May 3 at the Mandel Hall Auditorium.

Tami Monsod (rightmost) is Vivian Bearing in Twin Bill Theater's "Wit".


Brevity is the soul of wit. Edson’s script is fired up by snappy dialogues, occasionally tempered with poetic lines (“You cannot imagine how time … can be … so still. // It hangs. It weighs. And yet there is so little of it. // It goes so slowly, and yet it is so scarce). Conde’s pacing and seamless scene-changes capture the briskness of the narrative (understand that chairs, tables, beds, drawers have to be constantly rolled in and out of the stage, as the play is like a full-on monologue that keeps dipping into the past).

Somewhere towards the end, Edson shows her hand and lays down her own lesson or two. Professor Bearing is attended by the young doctor, Jason Posner, MD (Bibo Reyes), incidentally her former student as well. Because they represent contrasting ideas (youth and midlife, art and science, teaching and studying), Bearing and Posner share some of the most stimulating scenes — a few of which marred by the former stating the obvious (eg, seeking kindness from someone you were once unkind to). It's uncharacteristic of the scholar who abhors giving away easy answers, not to mention a detour from the play’s overall tone.

The sound design further robs the audience of the chance to involve themselves in the drama. It calls attention to itself: okay, here’s a really touching part coming. As if borrowed from a soap opera, the sentimental music go against the elegance of Wit. Besides, Monsod’s cry of pain is all it takes for you to start shedding a tear.

“I can’t imagine anybody else playing Vivian Bearing,” says Conde. He’s right. Monsod clearly is the heart and soul of this production. She nails the toughness and vulnerability of an intellectual learning to suffer, all the while bringing out the humor from this otherwise grave story. Her promising co-actors should take note. Reyes, though entertaining, still appears to be acting rather than becoming a character. Mikkie Bradshaw as Susie Monahan, RN, BSN, is effective as the sweet, rather naive nurse; though her range also seems limited to those qualities.

Staging Wit inside a school isn’t without its downsides. There’s a lot to be desired in terms of stage design and lighting. Furthermore, Conde, avoiding controversy, alters the symbolic final scene, where Bearing strips naked as she moves towards the light in silence — as if no longer hiding behind wit or any form of artifice. Yet if Twin Bill’s aim is to reach more students, then it’s a decision worthy of support.

Because the students will see themselves here, and maybe it will influence them to be kinder — to others and to their future selves — even as they get caught in the sometimes beautiful, sometimes cold complexities of their chosen discipline.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Not my life's background music

I'm not worthy of Jai Wolf's music.

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My EDM Northern Star and dear friend (LOL), Matthew Koma, announced that he's releasing a track with one Jai Wolf this April 21. So therefore I Spotified Jai.

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I fell asleep to this playlist — which has been on loop the entire day today — and will probably put me to sleep again tonight.



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Heavenly but also dark synths, flirtations with RnB, depth. That's it. There's depth to his music, and I'm not talking about lyrics, but the entire soundscape — the creative decision-making behind it. (Thank you for putting this note after that note...)

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My life is so banal to have him playing in the background.

His music feels like something you play in a pristine penthouse, on a cool night and your heart is cold. Something you play after a disaster you haven't recognized yet.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Electric shock

"In the next room or the vibrator play"
by Sarah Ruhl (Kindle edition)
1.

I don’t have it in me to laugh at a woman who, for the first time in her life, learns how to pleasure herself. Nor at a woman who begs to be touched by a man, by her husband no less.

When I saw a preview of In the next room or the vibrator play, I was wary of cheap laughs drawn upon people’s ignorance over their bodies and objects being inserted where they can somehow fit. But the play is far from callow. The latter half of the title is a nasty trick, though, to incite curiosity; for the crux of the story is marital disconnection. Playwright Sarah Ruhl has written a clever drama, which humor is only incidental, never its driving force as what the adverts would have you believe.

2.

“That is how he fell in love with me, he said he was determined to keep up with me — he only saw the back of my head before we married because I was always one step ahead. He said he had to marry me to see my face,” Catherine Givings talks about her passion for walking and her husband Dr. Givings, a gynecological and hysterical disorders specialist.

Throughout their marriage, however, Catherine has been the one running towards him and him, away. Dr. Givings is always “in the next room” (a private operating theater beside their living room), where he cures men and women suffering from hysteria with the help of an electric vibrator. Catherine’s isolation, compounded by her inability to produce enough milk for their baby, and her heightened interest in what happens in the next room, compels her to demand for the same treatment given by the good doctor to his patients.

Catherine asks for what she wants — that Dr. Givings makes loving her as his job — which is admirable. The strength is borne out of recognizing her loneliness (“I understand solitude, I am very lonely”).

Aside: A recent Boston Globe article reports on loneliness as a huge health threat. The studies cited may be specific to middle-aged men with collapsing friendships, but a relevant takeaway is that while psychiatry has done a great job in de-stigmatizing depression (we now casually throw “I’m depressed” in conversations), it has a long way to go with loneliness. Not many dare admit to being lonely.

3.

The French call it “little deaths,” yes? Orgasms. Loads of these in the show.

In her stage directions, Ruhl advises, “These are the days before digital pornography. There is no cliché of how women are supposed to orgasm, no idea in their heads of how they are supposed to sound when they climax.”

In his director’s notes, Chris Millado — who's directing the Repertory Philippines production of the play — addresses the question floating in our heads: How do you stage an orgasm? “You can’t,” according to him. “It finds you.”

Following a story until it reaches its climax, and in the process watch the main characters reach theirs, is the distinct joy of In the next room or the vibrator play. Caisa Borromeo and Jef Flores, who play patients Sabrina Daldry and Leo Irving, respectively, share nine orgasm scenes between them (if my math and memory were to be trusted). Each of their little deaths lead to their own little tales of discovery.

In a gripping scene, Giannina Ocampo as Mrs. Givings has the tough job of conveying pleasure mixed with physical and emotional pain while using a vibrator — her release is no comic relief — and she delivers. Ocampo’s Catherine is both delicate and resolute. You sense in her a desperation beneath the veneer of dignity.

4.

Set during the dawn of electricity, the play presents the excitement, but mostly the anxiety brought about by this forthcoming age of technology (“Do you think our children’s children will be less solemn? A flick of the finger — and all is lit! A flick of the finger, and all is dark! On, off, on off! We could change our minds a dozen times a second!”).

Man of science Dr. Givings argues that electricity isn’t entirely new and mustn’t be feared: “It is harnessed from nature… when I was a child, I was stroking the cat’s back one day and was startled to see sparks rising up out of her fur. My father said, this is nothing but electricity, the same thing you see on the trees in a storm.”

Maybe he is right. If not for the electric vibrator, his wife and patients would not have reached self-discovery. Maybe you have to reconcile the seemingly good with the presumedly bad.

Even Catherine unwittingly acknowledges this in a paradox: electricity is that which “can put a man to death and also bring him back to life again.” It is that which weakens the legs and thereafter awakens the spirit. It is the spark that rises when bodies meet. That which collects above the skin, causing the wildest shock with the lightest touch.

—Originally published on GIST