Kumru Toktamis: Old Questions to New Beginnings; FunHome, Good Person of Szechwan, Julius Caesar forever [Review]

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Kumru Toktamis
Old Questions to New Beginnings:
FunHome, Good Person of Szechwan, Julius Caesar forever

Of all the plays I have seen in 2013, three of them seem to have left lasting impact on me. While everyone prefers to talk about new beginnings, of all the inspiring productions I had the opportunity to witness, I want to retain what I experienced as I watched FunHome at Public Theater, Julius Caesar at St Ann’s Warehouse and Good Person of Szechwan, again at Public Theater for as long as possible. These plays do not have much in common except maybe the universal quality of the questions they pose regarding human existence and experience.


FunHome (based on the graphic novel by talented and wise Allison Bechdel, rewritten as play by Lisa Kron) is the everlasting battle every individual seems to have to go through as we try to achieve adulthood and maturity; who am I in relation to my parents? Good Person of Szechwan (one of the master pieces of great Bertolt Brecht, the ajit-prop genius) explores the chances of becoming a good, moral and just person as we survive amidst corruption, discrimination and inequality; can I indeed survive and flourish if I insist to keep my moral compass intact? Julius Caesar (of who else but the Bard) is obviously the perennial question of what becomes of us as we engage in power struggles; is there a way out from the corrupting nature of power?

Of course the ways in which these masters (yes I do not mind naming Bechdel alongside Brecht and Shakespeare) tackled with the particularities of these universal questions is the inspirational craftsmanship that help us through with our own lives. Therefore what Lisa Kron, Lear deBessonet –director of Good Person- and Phyllida Lloyd, -director of Julius Caesar- managed to create are almost equally instrumental in engaging the viewer into these questions. And hey, I have already read FunHome as a book, and seen Good Person and Julius Caesar stagings in three continents almost a dozen times, but it may be the contributions of these re-interpreters that have moved me so much so that I want to retain the memories of these plays forever.

Funhome, is not about fun, it is a FUNeral home run by a closeted gay father, distressed and voiceless mother as told by a now proudly gay daughter. The big question of who am I with respect to my father has often been presented as a father son battle, but this time we are witnessing it as the daughter is coming to terms with adulthood tries to connect with her father’s secrets and shame. She is the healthy one (aren’t we all), it is the parent who was supposed to be all mighty and all loving that is deeply damaged (aren’t they all?) He is angry, he is a brute, he is bossy but in the end Bechdel (and Kron) invites us to empathize with him. After all that is the only chance for the daughter to achieve an effective and meaningful adulthood. Understanding the father is not only a morally meaningful affection; it is also instrumental, i.e. useful. By witnessing her father going through an oppressively irate life not knowing any better, the daughter discovers herself, gains her integrity and grows. See, we are not talking about a particular sexual identity here. We are talking about every Body.

Yes, for many political reasons we like to hear about particular troubles of gay individuals. But at the same time such narrative has the danger of ghettoizing, compartmentalizing these life experiences, let alone the voyeurisms that may be involved in gawking into the lives of the marginal, the weird, the oh-so-different. With the help of Bechdel and Kron, we notice the lack of such difference; no one is weird, no one is queer, we all share such wounds of humanness. How similar we all are; we all have to come to terms with our parents, the damages they bring upon themselves and thus open us, and most importantly we can all only grow if we manage to transcend these wounds by acknowledging them as who they are and realize how they actually helped us. It is painful but it is so much fun. See, FunHome is not a gay-coming to age story. It is the story of all humanity and becoming an effective human being, particulars notwithstanding.

Once we manage to grow-up, can we become a good and moral individual? Is it really possible, or is such a quest all together meaningless given the harsh inequalities and injustices we have to struggle through in life. Bertolt Brecht invites us (literally, his plays demands active audience participation) to think together with his main character and three gods (who were goddesses in their most recent Public Theater re-incarnations) if goodness is maintainable. Given the fact that he wrote most of his play while he was living in exile in NYC during the years of Nazi regime in Germany, it still is a relevant question, for us here and now, under the shadows of the lower Manhattan skyscrapers. How far we can continue being moral and just individuals as we try to survive, find shelter and feed ourselves.

Frankly, coming from the 20th century struggles of the old world, I was (and still am) pretty doubtful about contemporary American interpretations of Brecht. He wrote for working-class whereas in general “Americans” do not like to think of themselves as working class, they are, as Steinbeck says, millionaires in temporary distress! ("I guess the trouble was that we didn't have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist. Esquire, June, 1960) He wanted powerless people to express themselves in and through his plays, whereas this is not the age of suppressed-self anymore, for better and worse “americans” express themselves plenty via all kinds of modern outlets. And finally, he believed the educational quality of art whereas many “americans” go to theater for entertainment. As an evidence of this maybe-biased impression of mine, I can talk about the last Brecht play I saw many years ago in Broadway; the disastrous Three Penny Opera where even the glorious Alan Cumming could not save the day. So I had sworn not to see one more contemporary US production of Brecht and I am glad that I changed my mind for Good Person of Szechwan at Public Theater.

The play, as in many other works of Brecht, has so many opportunities for re-interpretation. And this production made a great point by re-creating the main character, the prostitute Shan-Te, as a drag queen, who, as the play dictates, had to re-identify herself as her evil cousin, Shui-Ta in order to survive. And it is the evil cousin who becomes the winner, the survivor as the kind and good Shan-Te has to go through life as the loser. Then, at the end of the play, one actor (again talented Lisa Kron-I’ve just noticed that she left her mark in both of my best plays!) breaks out of character and with a very powerful statement asks the audience what the solution is. I don’t know if the actors ever got any response from the audience in other times, but that night as a well-trained Brecht spectator, I wanted to yell out “Mike Check!” In my mind, there was an opportunity for a solution right there in the “mike check!”… Brecht would be proud of me, he would be proud of this dialog and dialectics between his style performance and the repertoire of activism of the Occupy movement… and we ought to find ways to maintain and appropriate the symbolism of “mike check”…

But I could not. There and then I turned into a bad Brecht audience. I don’t know if it was the stiffness of the crowd that night, or maybe the actors did not make the audience comfortable enough to participate (I doubt that) but I could not bring myself to yell out, as Brecht would have wanted me to, “mike check.” So, I contributed turning Brecht into an entertainment, spectacle, rather than an experience of active engagement. It was not so much the embarrassment of possible awkwardness that might have followed, but mostly, I was not sure about the possible connections we had as audience and actors. We are now people of virtual connections, such as facebook and twitter. Do we really know how to act in concert in real time and space? We are now so used to act upon illusionary connections, is it really possible to elicit substantive reactions from an actual crowd of human beings? Brecht expects us to think together and act in unison; are we still capable of doing that? We did it at Zuccotti Park and we cannot even symbolically re-enact it at a Brecht play? As 21st century denizens of internet and global connections, we were just sitting there with that bourgeois stiffness of 19th century Brecht so much despised and tried to overcome. I was not proud of myself, as powerlessness crept up on me. Are we doomed to be silenced, now that we live under the illusion that we continuously express our free will online?

Speaking of power, freedom and fate, many speeches in Julius Caesar have always been in the forefront of my mind, as a student of political sociology. “Men at sometimes were masters of their fates. / The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” As many folks go back to their sacred books, I often go back to Shakespeare to help me understand workings of power. I have seen very talented, world famous actors playing these men of power, uttering words of freedom, but none of them, now, compares to the soulful production of an all-female casting of this play by Donmar company at the St.Ann’s warehouse. (sidenote: I myself had a tiny role in another all-female staging of the same play when I was in middle-school; it was a private british colonial girls’ school in Istanbul, we were pretending to be men, we hated Shakespeare, I hated Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism, it was a disaster!)

No other Shakespeare, no other play had ever had such a forceful impact on me. At the end of the play when Harriet Walter, who played Brutus and who should have died a few minutes ago declaring that what Caesar represented was still alive, turned around and looked at the audience with her mournful eyes, I was paralyzed, in tears, unable to clap and soon discovered not even able to stand-up and walk.
They were, as the play was re-interpreted by Phyllida Lloyd, a bunch of unruly, unsophisticated inmates of a female jail house (the director made sure that we, as audience had a firsthand experience of the walls of a prison) who happened to be staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. As they were acting, they grew as individuals; as individuals, they questioned absolute power, demanded freedom, expressed their free-will, tried to change destiny, displayed certainty, compromised wilfully and failed disastrously, even when the most innocent of them all, Octavius, played by a pregnant inmate,- started showing signs of absolute grasp of power, denying all forms of limitations to her/his reign, as much as, her precedent did and died for. After all that bloodshed (war scenes were carried out by a trash metal band, music composed by the musicians themselves), guardians marched in and ordered the inmates to go back to their cells. And guess what, Caesar, who was supposed to be dead very early in the play and who was obviously hanging around throughout the performance, was not even an inmate. She was one of the guardians reminding us the difficulty to answer the time-honored question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodies, who is going to guard us from our guardians?

What becomes of us when we try to take our destiny into our own hands and fight against power? Can we really get rid of power from our lives? Isn’t she omnipresent? Isn’t she all mighty? Those of us who band together to fight power, how long can we maintain our acting in concert before we turn our swords to each other in the name of freedom? Is it possible to keep up just and ethical fight against power without falling into the cracks of power struggles? And after all, at the end of the day, aren’t we all supposed to go back to our own cells, with the mournful eyes of great warrior sealed in our minds?
Yet, growing is still possible…quest for moral self is still valid and yes, power can be limited and controlled by mature ethical individuals… That is why I want to keep these three plays with me in 2014 and in many years to come. Whatever new beginnings new years may bring these questions and quests will stay with us.


Kumru Toktamis
December 31, 2013
Brooklyn, NY
 
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