Author Archives: Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.

The TEAM: Mission Drift

The TEAM: Mission Drift

The TEAM: Mission Drift

Viva Las Vegas! The fastest growing American city at the turn of the millennium, now at the epicentre of the US financial collapse and housing crisis… But never mind that, the show must go on! Cue Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. Cue Elvis singing ‘Suspicious Minds’ in a white jumpsuit. Cue showgirl dancers in Red Indian headdresses. Cue lady crooners in leopardskin. Cue a guitar solo. A drum solo. Palm trees with glitter leaves. And neon. And devil horns. And let’s crack open another beer, why don’t we? Let’s get lucky!

Young Americans The TEAM (the acronym stands for ‘theatre of the American moment’) made their mark at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008 with Architecting, a Total Theatre Award winning show that deconstructed Gone With the Wind, and meshed the response to Hurricane Katrina in with a reflection on racial conflict, social housing deficits, and capitalist enterprise in New Orleans. Now the TEAM return with another scorching investigation of American history and cultural mores – and what they call ‘the character of American capitalism’ – in a mesmeric music-theatre homage to the city that is the heart of America’s entertainment industry.

Using their trademark method of ensemble playwriting, built around extensive research (a month in Vegas) and ‘physical and verbal improvisation, battering, and argument’ the company have dug and delved into the many layers of Vegas life, and found a musical frame to deliver that story in a way that is beautifully appropriate and cleverly staged: no make-do pastiches here; we get the best across-the musical-board musicians, and a female jazz-rock-cabaret singer and pianist with the voice of an angel and a lovely stage presence – Miss Atomic (Heather Christian), a beauty pageant winner whose title is inspired by the 1950s nuclear tests held just 60 miles north of the city, and a kind of Puck-like character who is a catalyst to the action.

Mission Drift uses as its throughline the allegorical story of two WASPish youngsters, Catalina and Joris Rapalje, who, aged just 14, set off ‘in the Tigernot the Mayflower’ from Amsterdam to New Amsterdam (or New York as it is now known), then journey westwards till they settle in what is now called Las Vegas, a desert ‘meadow’ sitting between California and Salt Lake. Their 14-year-old selves grow up and come of age, but in mythic rather than real time – as the centuries roll by (and they take on slightly different names and forms – Cat, Jack, Lina, Josh), we see them reach maturity, but they remain essentially young and full of the bravado of the archetypal young pioneers who built – and continue to build – America. Here, they are the entrepreneurs who, once they reach what will become Vegas, set up the Little House in the Woods bar (‘What do people here need? They need a beer!’), which eventually, in present day time, grows into a massive entertainment complex and casino.

Set as foils to their story are Joan, a young black woman who has just lost her job at the casino, and a seemingly itinerant North American Indian man called Chris. The ‘house’ also features as a character – ‘I am the house, as in the house in the woods, as in the house always wins!’ – and this personification of places is picked up on by Chris when describing the man from the Vegas Water Authority who bought out his property: ‘He talked about Las Vegas like he was a person with rights… ’

What I love so dearly about the TEAM’s work is the complex relationship with America explored and displayed. Here is justifiable anger and criticism – Chris relates stories of white traders who, when trade isn’t forthcoming, just steal. And there is plenty about the greed and exploitation of the casino owners and the city authorities. But there is also a love of Americana and a refusal to opt-out expressed: when Chris tries to persuade Joan to join him away in Montana, away from all this, off the grid, she replies, ‘I like the grid!’, and later in the piece we get a beautiful eulogy to neon lighting delivered by Joan from a neon boneyard: ‘Leave the signs alone, they’re special… See there: the Genie with the Teapot, the Moulin Rouge!’ There is also ambivalence, and plenty of it: our teenage hero and heroine are, at one and the same time, wonderful examples of strength and self-reliance and the put-up-with-hardships pioneering spirit that made America, the ‘acceptable face of capitalism’; but we also see, through the eyes of Joan and Chris, the negative consequences of many of the white entrepreneurs’ actions.

Yet it is never cut and dried, there is always a question, and there is always love; it is all told in a spirit of love, and with a belief in redemption. ‘If you believe in God, you believe in Vegas!’ is broadcast to us as an ironic statement, yet the lingering thought remains that the TEAM do, in some very deep and real way, believe this to be true.

Mission Drift is a beautiful, complex, multi-layered piece of theatre that manages to appeal to head, heart and soul in equal measure. Fantastic performances from all the cast and musicians, displaying a combination of extraordinarily high levels of musical and acting skills. And living proof that contemporary collaborative ‘playwriting’, though often a complex and tiring process of negotiation, can reap magnificent rewards in the right hands. Another fantastic TEAM effort!

Told by an Idiot: The Dark Philosophers ¦ Photo: Toby Farrow

Told by an Idiot: The Dark Philosophers

Told by an Idiot: The Dark Philosophers ¦ Photo: Toby Farrow

Meet Gwyn Thomas, who is dead. He won’t lie down but he does occasionally slump on a sofa clutching the urn that holds his ashes, and often he’s to be found perched on a staircase, listening in on his father and his younger self, or eavesdropping on his neighbours. ‘Tell him to…’ he says, planting ideas in people’s heads. And who are these people he manipulates like puppets? Why, the people of the Rhondda Valley, of course, where Gwyn was born and bred, and the place that is the setting for his novels, short stories, plays, and autobiographical writings. Before seeing The Dark Philosophers, I knew nothing about the life and work of this renowned Welsh writer, but now he feels like a friend.

So here we are in the Valley, sometime in the 1930s, a place where people live ‘operatically, in shouts’. The crowded Terraces are represented by a clutter of junk-shop furniture – closets and wardrobes and chests. Wardrobe doors burst open and out come the villagers. An ensemble of seven (four men and three women) play around 30 colourful characters – and that’s not including Michael Parkinson, the goats, and the Oxford University students. They are as sharp and sparky an ensemble as you are likely to find anywhere, drawing us from one terrible – and often terribly funny – tale to another with breakneck speed and razor-sharp observation.

Told By An Idiot are masters of physical and visual modes of storytelling, and Paul Hunter’s direction brings out the best of everyone (and everything) on stage. A wardrobe door pops open, and we’re instantly in a Valley pub, witnessing a game of darts. Two people crawl painfully slowly across the floor in almost-darkness and we’re on the coal face too. A watering can is emptied over a man tugging his raincoat up to his ears, and we’re caught in the downpour with him. A broom, a jacket, and a wig are pulled together and there, looming over us menacingly, is Oscar the mountain-owner, the embodiment of capitalist greed, a tyrant who is willing to kill a poor man scavenging for coal just for the hell of it.

Some of the stories get pretty hairy: the coal-scavenging murderous-capitalist story is nasty in all sorts of ways; and one about a goat-keeper whose daughters take desperate measures to save their youngest sister from the abuse that they’ve experienced is horrible, yet told with a terrible black humour: ‘Could you love a goat?’ the goat-keeper asks the young lad who has come to work for him…

Every element of the production is beautifully realised: the characterisations (flirty barmaids, tired miners, and a shy lad ‘so thin he’s liable to fall through the cracks in the pavement’); the feisty physical action (a rip-roaring Commedia-style fight scene, a kitchen-table murder, a dodgy cabaret singer’s worst moment, seen through the eyes of her audience of male admirers); the sound (great booming crashes from the pits, gently tinkling pianos, and the odd tune on a ukelele); the design, which conjures up a sepia-tinged, earthy world – the nutty wood brown ‘architecture’ lit with street-lamp ambers. The text, crafted by Carl Grose, is both poetic and cheerily colloquial: ‘You could boil a bloody egg to those blasts, eh… Every three minutes, aren’t they?’

All this and scene-shifting too! As two actors who’ve been playing goats stop their bleating and leap up to move a large table aside, our Gwyn chimes in with: ‘You don’t see that every day, do you? Goats moving furniture’. You don’t indeed. But I’m very glad I did.

Grid Iron: What Remains

Grid Iron: What Remains

Grid Iron: What Remains

What remains after death? Rags, bones, memories, melodies… Ah yes, melodies! Long after the piano lid has been slammed shut for the last time, the notes live on, echoing forever around the great soundbox that is this earthly world.

Grid Iron, the kings and queens of Scottish site-responsive theatre, have created a brand-new promenade piece set in the imposingly sombre antique halls, studies, and stairways of the University’s anatomy department. What Remains is performed by one live performer, David Paul Jones, with a supporting cast of a thousand ghosts and sighs. It could be described as a live horror film – or more precisely, of what might remain of a horror film if you took away the actual film. Remains encountered include the set (or site), the props, the research materials, the instruments that created the score, and of course the music itself. This is presented to us through demented live piano performances by DPJ, playing Gilbert K Prendergast, a concert pianist driven insane by the demands made upon him, and the demands he has made upon himself in his quest for perfection; disembodied fragments of sound that haunt the corridors and stairwells; and spooky moments of musical autonomy, as instruments seem to play themselves. The audience are left to construct their own narrative from the traces they encounter: the recitals, the snatches of music they hear, the letters they read, the rooms furnished or bare, the masks and the mirrors, the bones and the scalpels… And always there is sound, as sound is the heartbeat of the story.

Inspired as it is by the horror genre, with particular reference to films that use Gothic or Romantic music as the emotional driver or to push forward the narrative, it is hardly surprising that there are references galore to pick up on, from Hammer House of Horror’s Fall of the House of Usher, to Vincent Price as Dr Phibes, to Phantom of the Opera. And for anyone of a certain age, the disembodied voice of the piano pushing students further than they can handle has an instant association with the 1950s children’s recording, ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’. What Remains is also inspired, in part, by the life and works of Scriabin, and by other late 19th / early 20th century composers such as Ravel and Mahler. A love of classical music from this era is at the heart of the work, and much of the dramaturgy/scenography of the piece is led by the music.

We start all together in a grand entrance hall, seeing Gilbert give the recital of his life, then are led off in groups (our ‘team’ denoted by musical notes – I was an A Minor). As is usual with Grid Iron, the audience are very tightly managed (no Punchdrunk-style wandering alone here!), and we are carefully guided throughout. Fine for the most part, although I did feel a little hurried occasionally ,and was particularly reluctant to leave a room filled with display cases full of bones, and featuring a pianola playing itself with wild abandon.

Our one performer is often absent – or, at least, not physically present, although his extraordinary and beautiful musical compositions stay with us throughout the journey. Along the way we are drawn into participating in a piano lesson led by a disembodied voice, scared by ominously human-sized bundles crashing from cupboards, put to bed in white satin sleeping bags (a scene I wasn’t entirely convinced by), and enticed up stairwells lit with ghostly blue light, where we are serenaded most wonderfully by Gilbert in nightdress and bloodied mask, giving a heartbreakingly beautiful (whilst simultaneously darkly funny) rendition of an Antony and the Johnsons song, ‘Her Eyes Are Beneath The Ground’.

I’ve been watching, and listening to, David Paul Jones admiringly for many years, ever since his appearance in Grid Iron’s Those Eyes, That Mouth (2003). Since that wonderful debut with the company, he has continued his work as composer, musician, and performer on numerous projects, including the award-winning Devil’s Larder and 2010 Fringe success Barflies. Programme notes tell us that DPJ and Grid Iron’s director Ben Harrison have been conspiring to create this present work ever since they met, and after many false starts and changes of direction, the piece has finally seen the light of day (or the dark of the night, it would perhaps be more appropriate to say). It may have been a long time coming, but it’s great that it’s finally happened. What Remains is very much a showcase of DPJ’s talents and obsessions, drawing on autobiographical material (such as memories of piano lessons on the path to his first career as a concert pianist, and reliving the burning desire to be ever-better), with the physical, visual, musical score lovingly guided and directed by Ben Harrison.

It’s a melee of marvellous sounds and – yes – haunting images; a wonderful marriage of sight and sound – and indeed of site and sound! There’s beauty in the darkness, and humour too. It’s a show that will remain with me a long time, I’m sure.

Theatre Ad Infinitum: Translunar Paradise ¦ Photo: Alex Brenner

Theatre Ad Infinitum: Translunar Paradise

Theatre Ad Infinitum: Translunar Paradise ¦ Photo: Alex Brenner

Oh heart, oh troubled heart!

An old man, recently bereaved, sits and sits, the minutes ticking by with painful slowness. He makes tea, and out of habit pours two cups, one for him and one for his dead wife. And still he sits. Watching him in anguish is the spirit of his wife, desperate to help, to tell him that it is OK to let her go. She tries to move ‘her’ cup away; she flutters round him in the house they have shared together for so many years. He makes a desolate attempt to sort through her belongings. A small case contains all her most treasured possessions – her favourite necklace, a bundle of letters – and these he lingers over sorrowfully. Each object becomes a conduit for a milestone memory from their shared life: their courtship and marriage; a baby that doesn’t survive infancy; the relived trauma of wartime injury after he is demobilised; the difficult patch in their marriage when she is given the opportunity to study or to forge her own career path. And eventually the inevitable as one partner (she) dies after a long illness and the other (he) is left to grieve.

It is a simple, universal story. Interview anyone over the age of seventy, speak to your parents (or grandparents, depending on your age!), and some version of the story above will emerge. That, for me, is a positive not a negative. At the heart of the success of this piece is the universality of the story, and the beauty with which it is executed.

There is not a second of Translunar Paradise that hasn’t been plotted with infinite care, nor performed with immaculate craft and precision. George Mann as the widower and Deborah Pugh as the spirit wife are a perfect match, their wordless storytelling exhibiting the expertise in mime and physical performance that a Lecoq training gives you, yet going way beyond the technical into a really gifted subtlety and expressiveness. Handheld masks are used beautifully to represent the characters in old age, the masks flying away as memories unfold and the characters become their younger selves. Each moment of transformation is seamless, and there are some particularly lovely sections where a removed mask takes on a puppetesque quality, the older character observing a younger self or partner. Objects are manipulated with tender care: a cup fought over between the real and spirit worlds; a necklace that dances with exquisite joy; the little suitcase that has its own narrative in the play, representing the one thing that she (when younger) has to hang on to, and that he (when older) has to let go of.

The physical action is supported by an onstage, visible accordionist (Kim Heron) who provides the perfectly-pitched soundtrack – playing or whistling snatches of songs that have accompanied the couple’s life journey, from ‘We’ll Meet Again’ to ‘Girl From Ipanema’; tapping out the interminable ticking of a clock with the accordion buttons; providing the labouring breath of a dying woman with the instrument’s bellows.

A word also about the audience. I don’t think I have ever seen a more attentive audience, at the Edinburgh Fringe or elsewhere. From the opening image of the widower sat at his kitchen table to a closing ‘life flashes by’ whirlwind of reprised memories as the ghost departs, the whole audience is almost holding its collective breath, and as the lights come up to rapturous applause, it is clear that there is hardly a dry eye in the house.

A near-perfect example of contemporary wordless theatre – and proof (should anyone need it) that theatre without words can engage the head, touch the heart, and nourish the soul just as effectively as any other form. A little taste of paradise on earth!

Paper Doll Militia: This Twisted Tale

Paper Doll Militia: This Twisted Tale

Paper Doll Militia: This Twisted Tale

This Twisted Tale is a modern fairytale, a coming-of-age story played out with vim and vigour by two female performers using a whole toolbox of theatrical tricks that includes circus (aerial and pole), puppetry, projection, shadow theatre, verbal storytelling, and dialogue – with feisty physical performances binding it all together.

First we meet Chloe – platinum pigtails, white bloomers, and an innocent air – the type of girl who floats through the world, teased by her peers for being childish and dreamy. Chloe’s mother, we learn, is ‘too tired’ to play with her, so she tells herself stories using her precious puppets (Wayang Kulit style flat figures on sticks). So there are numerous little plays within the play as Chloe tells the tale of Mary who ‘dove into the sea to see how mermaids pee’.

Chloe doesn’t really have any friends, other than her puppets, and spends a lot of time alone in the playground – which is represented very beautifully onstage by a an oversized swing, a set of monkey bars, and a lampost that doubles as a ‘Chinese pole’, all ready for the climbing…

Enter the ‘tumbling and whirling’ Luce (short for Lucifer, we suspect) – all punk posturing and petulance, a glorious mess of red curls, Cleopatra eyeliner, and black leather boots. She’s the devil incarnate: the new girl in town, or Chloe’s imaginary friend, or her alter-ego – choose your interpretation – a Peter Pan character who stays just where she is whilst Chloe grows and changes, yet is catalyst to those changes through her provocations.

The relationship between the two characters (or perhaps we should call them archetypes) is played out on the playground-cum-circus equipment in a series of acrobatic and aerial duets, and in the spoken text that is sometimes delivered a little breathlessly with rather too many crackles and clicks as the radio mics respond grumpily to the shaking about afforded them by the aerial work. This all augmented by the simple but sweet shadow puppet vignettes, played on a little portable booth, and supported by a very lovely soundscape of distorted music-box melodies and toy piano arpeggios composed by Grid Iron associate artist David Paul Jones. Talking of Grid Iron, their director Ben Harrison has also had a hand in this as a co-director/dramaturg.

It is a charming and poignant piece that tackles the marriage between circus skills and theatrical storytelling with great gusto. It doesn’t always succeed: the text needs a lot of work, both in the editing and in the delivery, but This Twisted Tale is adventurous in its aims and can thus be forgiven a few glitches.

My one major criticism is that although it is good to have the story pulled into Chloe’s future (with a very lovely girl-to-woman transformation scene that is done with great clarity and elegance), the inclusion of strictly adult content in such lines as ‘maybe if you were that passionate with your husband he’d fuck you more’ means that the show cannot be marketed at the audience that would be an ideal target – young people in the 11-15 year-old age group, just hitting puberty and really interested in the subject of self-discovery and self-determination. I’d advise the company to rethink some of the script decisions – a story about the development and empowerment of young women is just what the world needs, and although the dark elements are key to the narrative,it is possible to represent this theatrically in a way that could bring the show to its widest audience.