Eric Samuelsen, Playwright
Sunday, April 4, 2010
So, this was my week last week: Monday: a rehearsal of Ibsen’s A DOLL HOUSE at UVU. Tuesday: a rehearsal for THE MYSTERIES OF MONSTER GROVE at BYU. Wednesday: a rehearsal for AMERIGO at Plan-B. Thursday, MYSTERIES again, Friday, A DOLL HOUSE again. And all of it, just about a year after I almost died.
Couple of years ago, I finally figured out how to write the Columbus play I’d had in the back of my mind ever since 1992, when everyone wanted to write about Columbus. Columbus got all politicized back then: heroic mariner v. contemptible genocidist, neither of which interested me. I loved the Columbus of the libro de los profecias, the Columbus who wanted to be one of the two prophets dying in the streets of Jerusalem as Jesus returned. But to write about him meant the play didn’t want to be about Columbus by himself. It also wanted to be about Amerigo Vespucci, and also Machiavelli, and also this amazing Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.
Now the play is done, and published, and in rehearsal, and everyone in the cast is astoundingly right and good and wonderful. Matt Bennett is Amerigo, and he sort of intimidates me – such a brilliant writer and actor and twenty years younger that I am. Kirt Bateman is Machiavelli, wonderful Kirt, so relaxed and charismatic on stage. When you read Octavio Paz on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, it’s clear Paz sort of fell in love with her. Reading her poetry, so did I. Now I can see her, meet her, in Deena Marie, who I think is sort of in love with her too. And finally, my friend Mark, bringing his own passion and commitment to Columbus. One thing is very obvious to me – if the play doesn’t end up working, it’ll be my fault.
And there’s nothing I can do about it. The play’s done – my attendance at rehearsal not exactly superfluous, but somewhat less than essential.
And then the rehearsal is over, and my son is driving me home, since at that point I still couldn’t drive. How did I feel? Apprehensive, melancholy, optimistic, exuberant and quite terrified. And above all, grateful. I was, after all, alive.
That actually got a little hit-or-miss. A year ago, I was fresh from the hospital, where I’d landed with my kidneys failing, congestive heart failure, and a complete inability to get out of a chair. That, it turns out, was the symptom that gave away my disease: polymyositis, a condition that mostly afflicts African-American women, a muscular degenerative auto-immune horror show in which your immune system thinks your muscles are enemies who need to be attacked. For a year I couldn’t drive a car, couldn’t walk fifty meters, couldn’t type more than an hour at a time, and could only teach my classes sitting in a chair, which I then couldn’t get out of. It sucked. It was also as hot a year as I’ve had as a playwright.
Which is why I’m rehearsing three shows simultaneously. A month after getting home from the hospital, my friend James Arrington called and asked if I would be interested in translating Ibsen’s A DOLL HOUSE. I said ‘Sure.’ thinking it might cheer me up, which it did. Yes, gloomy old Ibsen: cranky, humorless, preachy, yeah, he’s gonna cheer me up. Thing is, I don’t think Ibsen’s like that at all. If you could read him in Norwegian, you’d be shocked at the wit, the keen sense of irony. And how sexy his plays are. There’s this great moment in A DOLL HOUSE (the more accurate translation of ET DUKKEHJEM) where Torvald says to Nora, ‘Hey, instead of you leaving, how about we just decide to live here as brother and sister.’ Nora’s response: “Yeah. We both know how long that would last.” Get real, Torvald. We’ve been married 8 years, we’ve had sex, what, 2000 times maybe? And we’re suddenly gonna go all celibate. Nice try.
James knows my translation approach, which is find an American idiom for the plays, instead of the British English into which the plays are usually translated. It works, because his approach is to set the play in America, in a ’50′s sitcom. Nora as Lucille Ball. It works better than it has any right to, not because A DOLL HOUSE is a comedy, but because “I Love Lucy” was essentially a tragedy. I mean, what was the plot of every episode? Lucy wants to get a job, Ricky forbids it, she does anyway, she fails, he condescendingly forgives her. Lucille Ball was one of the greatest physical comedians to ever live on this planet, but that plot’s not remotely comedic. And James has a great Nora; a young actress named Penny Pendleton. Gotta say, I don’t much care for the very ending of this production, but the rest of it works well.
Meanwhile, another friend, Rick Walton, has been working with me and a great cast to turn some unpublished short stories of his into a children’s play, THE MYSTERIES OF MONSTER GROVE. So it’s sort of Rick’s play – his name’s on it, appropriately – but the cast and I have helped create it, and I’m proud to say the big plot twist involving Frankenstein is my idea. Yes, the piece has Frankenstein, plus 7 other assorted monsters, facing an intrepid 11-year-old (the actress playing her is actually 27, but she’s very short, so it works), whose trying to find her accountant father, who has gone missing.
So that goes up in May. And I’ve got the play BUMPS I wrote for Colleen Lewis and her Theatre Arts Conservatory. And I’ve got two other small theaters in Provo who are doing new plays of mine over the next few months. And I’ve got BORDERLANDS, which Plan-B is doing this time next year. So this almost dying thing has worked out pretty well for me. It has been a good year for me. And also for Glenn Beck, so, you know, I should probably keep it in perspective.
So where’s my head: in Norway, in Purgatory, in Monster Grove? I’m mentally sort of in all three places, really, though often inappropriately, in Norway when I should be in Monster Grove, for example. But I only translated A DOLL HOUSE and I only sort of helped develop MONSTER GROVE. AMERIGO’s where my heart is. I’m really glad I didn’t die so I can see it. After all, if I had died, I’m plenty sinful enough to need a good millennium in Purgatory. And who knows what Amerigo and Columbus would have to say to me.
For Plan-B, Eric Samuelsen has written five short plays for SLAM and MIASMA in 2006. His AMERIGO opens April 8, 2010 and his BORDERLANDS will be part of the 2010/11 season.