Monday, February 8, 2010

Pullins: The sound, the fury, the war

Yeah, yeah. We all know theater is a collaborative venture, that productions change because outsiders can see something in the work that the playwright cannot because he is too close to it, that actors and directors can clarify the work by fumbling over it in rehearsal — and that, more often than not, the work is better because of the process. But, still, whether they will admit it or not, some playwrights, a sensitive breed, get the jitters as they pass off their "babies" to "outsiders." Not that Ron Pullins is admitting to any of this. The Newburyport playwright is a big believer in the process. But he did confess to a little separation anxiety about "Red Star," a short piece staged last month at the Playwright's Platform in Cambridge. Actually, the playwright said he was "curious" about how they would approach the piece, and that amounts to the same thing. Specifically, he was curious about how they would approach one of the characters because he drew it loosely, allowing the production team plenty of freedom to fiddle about — and because the character (or characters, depending on how you play it) is so unconventional.

Noises of War has the look and feel of a human prop, but is written as a character. It's a one-man war-time noise machine, but it can be played by two, three or more actors who provide special effects — bicycle wheels that sound like machine guns, a drum or tin that sounds like bombs exploding and so on. But the role can also be "played" with a light and soundboard on stage or a multimedia show. "There's no pretense that this is real," he writes in the stage direction. "It is a human imitation of war. The more animated and crazier, the better." But NOW, as the character's pals know him (and as Freudian a slip of an acronym as possible), is meant to be taken seriously. During the reading at the Playwrights Platform, a Boston-based developmental theater for new plays, kind of like the North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative, they played him for laughs. Which is one way of looking at it/him. The character, at first blush, does sound a little like a one-man band — fascinating to watch, but difficult to take seriously, at least at first. The problem is, "Red Star" is not about laughs. It's about people in the trenches, about people ill prepared for war being thrown into the middle of it — and being slaughtered.

"It didn't quite work," says Pullins. "They were really into it, and that was good, but they played it like war-gamers. It played against text. I think they misinterpreted it. But I liked their enthusiasm. It's a delicate line, separating the energy from comedy. It felt like it needed a human voice, not being a monster in the machine."

The play — and the character of NOW — gets a second spin on Feb. 20, when it is staged during the New England Russian Theater Festival. The four-day festival, which boasts 25 Russian-themed one-acts, will also include two full-length productions. Interestingly, the two full-lengths, which dig, TMZ-style, deep into the love lives of the Russian literati, were staged in Newburyport over the past two years — Ludmila Anselm's full-length "Chekhov's Last Love," which was produced last year at the North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative, and Wendy Lement and Firouzeh Mostashari's "The Woman With the Red Kerchief," which Theater in the Open put on two years ago in Maudslay State Park.

The work was prompted by a Pullins family discussion about whether war is ever justified, with the idealistic "no-never" position being confronted, perhaps overwhelmed, with the grim reality of jackboots on mankind's collective throats, when it's a matter of survival, but it is informed by the work of Kazimiera Cottam, who has written and served as editor of several collections of essays and biographies about the role of Soviet women — as soldiers, partisans and leaders of urban resistance — during World War II, including "Women in War and Resistance: Selected Biographies" and "Defending Leningrad: Women Behind Enemy Lines," a collection of stories detailing the activities of Russian women soldiers in World War II. Focus Publishing, which Pullins owns and operates, brought out four titles by Cottam during the 1990s.

The play takes no overt position on the moral question, focusing, instead, on a bunker-eye view of the issue: As total war grinds the qualities we understand as human into dust, as the world shrinks to surviving the next few minutes, an ordinary shlump in the ditches is elevated into a hero — an ascension caught up in historic fact (and necessity) and, of course, political reality. NOW churns through it all. "The rest," Pullins says, "is just mud and dying.”

Pullins' next production will be "The Dollartorium," which will be get a staged reading May 5 at Whistler in the Dark, at The Factory Theatre in Boston. The play is a loose reinterpretation of Aristophanes' "Clouds," a Greek comedy that took aim at philosophers in general and Socrates in particular, only this time it's our hi-finance corporate cockroaches in the sights — a necessary adjustment, the author says, because "there's no compelling reason to make fun of philosophers any more since they have no impact on American society."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The New England Russian Theatre Festival runs Feb. 18 to 21 at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. The festival boasts 25 Russian-themed one-act plays and two full-length productions. It will also include interactive educational workshops in Russian-based acting techniques and playwriting. More than 100 international artists will be participating. Ron Pullin's "Red Star Rising" will be staged Feb. 20 and 21, during the short play series. Tickets for a half-day are $15 for adults, $12 seniors and students. All-day tickets are $25. A portion of the festival’s proceeds will be given to Wide Horizons For Children. For the complete schedule and ticket information, click here.

MORE, MORE, MORE: Check out a video for the Boston Russian Playwright Festival here.

1 comment:

  1. You are always a delight to read, J.C. Thanks for all you do for the arts in our community.