All Over the Map
Joyce Carol Oates on The Tattooed Girl in D.C. Plus: Forbidden Vegas in Las Vegas and The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen in Chicago
I called Oates at her hotel in Washington D.C., just a few days before the January 15 opening of Theatre J's world premiere production of her play The Tattooed Girl. Though the play has the same title as a recent novel by Oates, the author insists that it can't really be called an adaptation. "When I was writing the novel, I wrote a play simultaneously," she explains. The Tattoed Girl concerns a disease-ridden writer, the son of Holocaust survivors, who unwittingly takes an anti-Semitic assistant into his home. "He has a kind of liberal blindness toward the possibility of evil," says Oates.
It may sound odd that a character whose parents witnessed extraordinary evil would have such myopia, but many argue that the lessons of the Shoah are being forgotten in the wake of September 11, 2001. Indeed, Oates has said in numerous interviews that she wrote the play as a response to the events of 9/11. While it doesn't specifically address terrorism, The Tattooed Girl takes on the resurgence of Jew hatred and Holocaust denial that certain journalists have termed "The New Anti-Semitism." She rejects that designation, however: "The 'new' anti-Semitism is more of the 'old' anti-Semitism," says Oates. "It's just based upon misunderstandings and distortions and ignorance."
About 10 years ago, Oates, who was raised a Catholic, discovered that her paternal grandmother was a German-Jewish immigrant. She has previously expressed that this revelation had a profound impact on her and she describes the main character of The Tattoed Girl, Joshua Seigl, as "a writer who's like myself in many ways. Writing a novel is like looking at a large river and the many tributaries that go into it," she says, "so to single out any [inspiration] is difficult."
Oates says that she has a simple method for adaptation: "Most any novel -- even ones that are dense, like Henry James's -- you would find that, if you distilled it, it would probably be a little dramatic scene of people talking." It also helps to work with talented theater artists: "I've been collaborating very closely with my director, John Vreeke. He's very imaginative, and he does all of the things that I can't do," Oates gushes. "Most playwrights don't have a clue about how their work can become three-dimensional, so this director has been just wonderful."
For years, Gerard Alessandrini has been skewering Broadway and theater celebrities in his popular satirical revue Forbidden Broadway. He's also parodied movies and the movie business in Forbidden Hollywood. Now, he takes his irrepressible wit to Las Vegas with Forbidden Vegas, an all-new revue that takes aim at famous headliners and productions to be found on the strip. "We do a couple of spoofs of Cirque du Soleil, we do Céline Dion and Steve & Eydie," says Alessandrini. "They're so spoofable because they're overhyped. I think the joke of Forbidden Broadway, or Forbidden anything, is that we're spoofing the hype of a show or an entertainer."
Elvis impersonators, the Blue Man Group, and Wayne Newton are other targets on Alessandrini's hit list. "We also do Mamma Mia! in a sketch about Broadway shows coming to Las Vegas," he states. While there's some overlap in subject matter between Forbidden Vegas and Forbidden Broadway, the different circumstances and points of view in Vegas have made it necessary for him to come up with wholly different parodies of some shows. "We have a sketch about Steve Wynn as The Phantom of Las Vegas," he says by way of example. "Wynn's the builder who has overdeveloped the city and is also building a theater here to produce a new version of The Phantom of the Opera."
The show does not include a Siegfried & Roy parody dealing with the infamous tiger mauling incident. "I don't think people want to laugh at that," says Alessandrini. "It's not that it's in bad taste or anything; you can mention it on a news show. But it's important with comedy to identify what people are willing to laugh at." He does have a Siegfried & Roy bit that he may try out at some point, but it's more about the duo's demeanor and their hairdos. As with Forbidden Broadway, Alessandrini intends to update the show periodically to reflect what's playing or who's making headlines. "I just heard that Barry Manilow has made a $16 million deal with the Hilton Hotel, so we're planning on putting a Manilow number in," he mentions.
The premiere of Forbidden Vegas on January 18 comes hard on the heels of the New York opening of the latest edition of Forbidden Broadway, subtitled Special Victims Unit. "It just happened that way," Alessandrini exclaims. "I would have liked it if they weren't so close together, but I've been working on both shows for about nine months, maybe a year." Asked what special opportunities for parody are offered by Vegas entertainment, Alessandrini replies: "I think Broadway understands that the age of self-important show like Les Misérables or Phantom may be waning, but here, every show and star is still enormously self-important."
The titles of productions by the Chicago-based troupe the Neofuturists range from ridiculously long-winded (The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett As Found In An Envelope (partially burned) In A Dustbin In Paris Labeled "Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!") to short and pithy (K, a Kafka adaptation). One of the company's plays, 1000 Boats Sinking Except for One, came from the writer's daughter's reaction to seeing a surrealistic painting. Above all, Neofuturist titles are memorable -- and the company's latest work, The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen, is no exception.
"By hook or by crook, we have to do all 26 plays -- the last two minutes of each of them -- and find some way of adapting them into a Neofuturist world," vows writer and founding director Greg Allen, "or just make them entertaining." The joke behind the premise is that most of the endings of the master's plays are higjly dramatic bordering on apocalyptic; expect to find assassinations, suicides, two avalanches, and people hurtling to their deaths. Though the murky histories of Ibsen's more obscure plays make it impossible to say for certain, excerpts from these works -- which include lightweight comedies about mistaken identity and a screed about local politics -- may be having their world premieres thanks to the Neofuturists. If so, it wouldn't be the first time that Ibsen's words were first heard on stage in Chicago: Allen says that Norwegian émigrés debuted one of the playwright's most celebrated works, Ghosts, in a public building in the Windy City because this play about syphilis proved to be too shocking for production in Norway.
Even if The Feast of Solhaug has been previously performed in whole or in part, it almost certainly hasn't been staged with puppets representing ketchup and mustard bottles in place of live actors, as the Neofuturists intend to. Asked about the company's style, Allen noted the Italian futurists' impulse to counteract the expectations of the audience. "Of course, they were also sexist jerks, and some of them wound up becoming fascists," admits Allen. "I don't go there; I'm a peace-loving fellow."
In any event, the company may be on the verge of fame: The New York Times recently had a feature story on its production of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind; The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen will tour in Atlanta and Michigan following the Chicago run; and Greg Allen is working on a collaborative piece called Uncle Sam's Satiric Spectacular: On Democracy and Other Fictions Featuring Patriotism Acts and Blue Songs from a Red State with fellow playwrights Richard Dresser, Sheila Callaghan, Bridget Carpenter, Eric Coble, and Hilly Hicks. "Neo-futurism is spreading all over the world and will one day conquer," says Allen. We can only hope that it will be a nonviolent coup.