Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Frank Note on Fairy Tales

by Marcella Kearns

Heinrich Lefler illustration, 1905
When I first started studying up on FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, I found a remark by playwright Terrence McNally labeling this piece “a romantic fairy tale.”


Romantic fairy tales and I have a fraught relationship. I love some. I hate some.

The ones I hate have that button on the end. You know it: “And everything was pretty spectacular always after that.” You’ve heard the famous three-word phrase. I won’t write it here. Nope. On a similar note, most romantic movies and plays? Romance novels, romantic comedies? Same thing for me. Yawn.

The stories I don’t mind—okay, the ones I love—take into account that life knocks us about pretty well, but sometimes there are concessions, sometimes pleasures, sometimes a little redemption, and maybe, sometimes, a bit of real happiness. Take “Rapunzel.” Rapunzel gets pregnant by that prince who visits her in her tower, and the fairy who’s raised her there gives her the boot, and she ends up birthing twins and living in misery in a hovel. Then that prince goes to visit her again but winds up meeting the fairy instead and throws himself from the tower in despair.

He loses his eyesight and wanders homeless, until years later when he stumbles upon the hovel where Rapunzel and the kids are.  She recognizes him and cries over him, and he gets his eyesight back. That’s the end (I kid you not—that’s from the Grimms’ earliest collected version of that tale). A little fun followed by a lot of misery, and I’ll grant, a tiny miracle, perhaps—but no indication in the story that all the suffering up until the reunion was just erased. In fact, I like to think those characters’ separate trials are given some acknowledgment and dignity by that simple ending.

Walter Crane illustration, 1874
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve witnessed Disney-level real life romances unfold. I’ve fallen in love at first sight myself.  I appreciate that depth of experience. But that doesn’t mean everything’s a snap then, or ever after for those characters or real people. I'm much more inclined to turn my eye towards a story that has some evidence of a relationship still at work after its inception.

“Romantic fairy tale” notwithstanding, McNally has drawn portraits of people who would in no way end up a theme park couple, and I appreciate that. First, I see this play as an anthem of sorts to the anonymous masses or the rarely celebrated—the ones who fail, who don’t get asked to prom, who aren’t spectacularly beautiful, who make mistakes and end up with battle scars, the ones whom we pass on the street or sit near on the bus or tip at the restaurant without remembering their names.

Second, this play never forgets the fact that there’s work at being together after coming together. It’s not just (okay, I’ll say it now) Happily Ever After. What happens when you run people with a lot of mileage up against a chance they might not have thought they had?

Mary MacDonald Kerr, who’s directing FRANKIE AND JOHNNY at MCT, phrased it best. At first rehearsal, in front of an intimate collective of production team, staff, board, and MCT friends, she offered up the question: “Fairy tales and romantic comedies bring us to sex. So then what? What is choosing, what comes after?”

We only see Frankie and Johnny for a short while, but this play’s infused with the work of after. Of choice. Of mileage and what to do with it. That’s the kind of fairy tale I can get behind.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, by Terrence McNally, runs Sept. 20 to Oct. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at 414.291.7800, in person at 158 N. Broadway or our online box office. Visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com for more details.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Notes from FRANKIE AND JOHNNY'S "First Day of School"

by Marcella Kearns

Happy back-to-school season, friends! We’ve recently had our own “first day of school,” so to speak, at MCT: first rehearsal for FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE on August 28. In this bittersweet comic romance, I'll be performing the role of Frankie alongside Todd Denning (Johnny), with Mary MacDonald Kerr directing.

I’m a perpetual student, so I took some notes for you in the hall. Enjoy these assorted thoughts:

*First thing that strikes me is the intimacy of the room. There’s a cozy gathering of friends and fans of MCT whose tradition it is to listen to the first reading of the play aloud. Several of them vanish after the first act. They want to let the second half come as a surprise or, if they know the play, they might like to wait until they get to see the final product onstage in the theatre. The second half of the read-through feels even more intimate. Intimate’s a big word on this one.

*Some of those friends brought snacks. Snacks and coffee: welcome comforts on the first day.

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City. 1983. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006, 15 1/2 × 23 3/16" (39.4 × 58.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jon L. Stryker. © 2016 Nan Goldin
"Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City," an example
of Nan Goldin's work in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
*Amy Horst’s costume inspiration pierces me: Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. She showed me pictures before today, and I’ve seen some floating around the MCT office. It’s been driving me crazy why they looked so familiar. Of course it’s during her design presentation to everyone gathered that it clicks. I caught Goldin’s work at the Milwaukee Art Museum a few years ago when it was on exhibition with other photography. I remember what I felt watching it. Discomfort. Openness. Nakedness. Weariness. Loneliness. Nah—desolation. Intimacy. There’s that word again.

*This is such a song for the rarely celebrated.

*Brandon Kirkham, our scenic designer, says Frankie’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen is “gritty.” My most recent contact with Hell’s Kitchen was a date with a Manhattan (the drink, to be clear) and back-to-back episodes of Daredevil on Netflix. Same setting, a particular pocket of New York City. Just some decades apart, at least as the Marvel juggernaut has framed it now on film and television. What does the script say about the population of New York City again? I grin to think of a few superheroes running around out there somewhere. Most everybody else is slogging along. Frankie? A slogger.

*Johnny keeps a dictionary in his locker at work. I suddenly want to look up the word “intimacy” for how the dictionary frames that word we use all the time. How do you know when you feel true intimacy? How can one ever know?—all you can do is assure another you feel it. But do they? What’s true assurance? All we really have is our own construct of another based on collected evidence. All we really have is their word that our construct of ourselves is somehow discernible and pleasing to them. Gosh, that’s a rabbit hole. I’m remembering that photography.

*On a break, I find myself trying to remember the productions on which Todd and I have worked together as actors before. Turns out three out of the four were Shakespeare. The first? THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. I laugh out loud: MERRY WIVES is actually mentioned in FRANKIE AND JOHNNY.

*Our assistant stage manager’s name is Jena. Jena’s got a giant job ahead of her. I don’t envy her, and I am grateful already for the help I know she’s going to give along with Judy, our stage manager. Funny. I instinctively trust her in part because her name’s Jena, not just because of the position she holds—because my college roommate’s name was Jenna, and she was fantastic. Associations, connections, coincidences bubbling up… Johnny’s big into that kind of thing. I’ve got a few of my own happening here.

More notes to come, friends. In the meantime, a lovely September to you. I have to head to the rehearsal hall.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, by Terrence McNally, runs Sept. 20 to Oct. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at 414.291.7800, in person at 158 N. Broadway or our online box office. Visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com for more details.