Romancing the Firearm: Mike Daisey premieres THE STORY OF THE GUN at PRC2

In his latest one-man show, a rare commissioned work for PlayMakers Repertory Company’s PRC2 series, monologist Mike Daisey runs his prismatic riffs on the gun in America. The gun: a gun, any gun, all guns, guns in particular and in general; gun as totem, power object, killing machine and manly appendage. He berates us and himself for being idiotic enough to attempt to converse on the subject (any conversation there may be comes after Daisey holds forth alone for 90 minutes); he plies us with facts, anecdotes and questionable syntax. And one perfect, amazing story, nestled within his wordy web. When he tells this story, his personal story of first handling guns, his voice loses its shrill haranguing note and become velvety and engrossing.

Joe Haj, PRC’s producing artistic director, commissioned The Story of the Gun from Daisey after the Newtown, CT, massacre. Its premiere performances began Jan. 8 in the Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, and continue through Jan. 12. In the work, Daisey never mentions Newtown, nor the name of any place where something particularly terrible to do with guns has occurred—times when surely now, now, we as a nation would rise up and stop the madness. Instead, he unravels some of the knotted reasons why we never do, or at least ascribes some particular psychologies to Americans. I found it difficult to apply some of these across the board in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society made up of women as well as men, but his larger point holds.

We love guns. Not every single one of us, but quite a lot of us. We love their power, and we like the ways guns have made us strong in our own fantasies, histories and myths, even as we rage and weep over murders, massacres, rampages with automatic weapons. I was crying at breakfast over Gabrielle Giffords, but I’d be happy anytime to tell you about when my great-grandmother ran off the bad guys with a baby on one hip and a shotgun on the other. Or I could detail a few stories from the life of my girlhood heroine Annie Oakley, who found food, fortune and fame as a sharpshooter.

Daisey didn’t bring up any new ideas—certainly no “solutions”—but he did make a listener hypersensitive to the omnipresence of guns and images of guns in our culture. Just before hearing him, I’d been finishing Sena Jeter Naslund’s The Fountain of St. James Court, in which the climatic scene involves a 70 year old woman shooting at the feet of a threatening man with a pistol given her by a 90-something woman as a helpful tool for living alone. The next night I watched the first episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, the heroine of which is a smart sexy glamorous 1920s modern woman. Her aging aunt asks her why she thinks she can just freely go out at night by herself, and she replies: “Because I carry a gun,” whipping a gold-plated revolver out of her garter.

If you need to ascribe a value to Daisey’s monologue (something he brings up early on), it could be that when he says we are all in this together, you can see yourself in the imaginary mirror behind him, behind the stalwart table and microphone that separate the storyteller from the listener. We are all in this story together. That’s a high value piece of knowledge. If we didn’t need to acquire it again and again, theatrical art might never have flourished among humans.

THE STORY OF THE GUN continues at PRC2 throughSun. Jan. 12. Shows at 7:30, with an additional 2:00 Sunday show. Talk back with Daisey after each performance.

Surviving with Loudon and other news as PlayMakers Opens 13/14 Season

Loudon Wainwright III and image of Loudon Wainwright Jr., in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere production of SURVIVING TWIN, written & performed by Loudon Wainwright III, and directed by PlayMakers Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj. Sept. 4-8, 2013. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Loudon Wainwright III and image of Loudon Wainwright Jr., in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere production of SURVIVING TWIN, written & performed by Loudon Wainwright III, and directed by PlayMakers Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj. Playing in the Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art  Sept. 4-8, 2013. Photo: Andrea Akin.

“Storytelling lies at the heart of both theatre and song, and this basic human need fuels our appreciation for both art forms and their forms of artifice. PlayMakers Repertory Company  has opened its 2013/14 season with a PRC2 production of an interesting experiment including sung stories by singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright, III. In Surviving Twin, which is directed by Joseph Haj, Wainwright examines the relationship between fathers and sons, or, more precisely, his relationship with his father and, to a lesser degree, with his own son. The family lines branch to other generations, but this remains a very personal story. The audience must do its own work to raise its content to the universal plane. Some may find it heavy lifting.”


Life with and without father: Loudon Wainwright III in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere production of his show SURVIVING TWIN. Sept. 4-8, 2013. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Life with and without father: Loudon Wainwright III in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere production of his show SURVIVING TWIN. Sept. 4-8, 2013. Photo: Andrea Akin.

Like all of the PRC2 productions, SURVIVING TWIN runs for only a few days. But coming up soon after on the main stage in the Paul Green Theater is one not to miss if you can help it. September 18 PlayMakers will open THE MOUNTAINTOP, by Katori Hall (b. Memphis, TN, 1981). Set in Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968, Hall’s play examines Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night on earth. The play premiered in London in 2009, and won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. It had successful run on Broadway, and is now being produced around the country. For PlayMakers, it will be directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, who gave us such a beautiful production of RAISIN IN THE SUN last season. Whether you can remember the stunning blow of April 4, 1968, or like Hall were not yet born, this is a play to help you, me and us with our own history. It will run in the Paul Green Theater through October 6.

To double its impact and share its costs, PlayMakers is co-producing THE MOUNTAINTOP with Triad Stage. The Greensboro performances will take place October 20-November 10 in The Pyrle Theater, 232 S. Elm Street–very near the site of the early lunch-counter sit-ins against segregation. This kind of artistic cooperation will allow more arts organizations to live long and prosper. Viva PRC! (and RIP North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, which bit the dust mid-season this summer, all alone in High Point).

If you need any more evidence that PlayMakers is our theatrical powerhouse, take a look at these new grants. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has just awarded PRC a cool quarter-million dollars to continue its incubation program, in which theatre ensembles from elsewhere develop works during annual residencies at UNC. Win-win-win.

The National Endowment for the Arts is chipping in $45,000 to support PRC’s season finale in April, 2014. The company will perform Stephen Sondheim’s musical ASSASSINS. You just gotta love the nerve of these folks, starting the season just before one assassination and wrapping it up–in this day and age!–with one with the tagline: “When You’ve Got a Gun Everybody Pays Attention.” All hats off for Joe Haj, please.

The NEA has also awarded PlayMakers yet another grant ($25,000) from its “Shakespeare for a New Generation” program, to support this season’s production of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, which will run in rotating repertory with Mary Zimmerman’s modern version of the classical METAMORPHOSES by Ovid, November 2-December 8. Both will have water on the stage…but will this TEMPEST drown out memories of the extraordinary 2004  swan-song version by Shakespeare & Originals that featured powerful performances by Tom Marriott as Prospero and Jordan Smith as Caliban, along with beautiful work by Jay O’Berski, Cheryl Chamblee and a host of others? Only one way to find out.

SPRING TRAINING through April 28, and no, it is not baseball

PlayMakers Repertory Company is wrapping up an intense year with a fascinating PRCpresentation by the theatrical troupe Universes, in the Kenan Theatre. April 24 saw the world premiere of Spring Training, co-commissioned by PRC and Carolina Performing Arts as part of The Rite of Spring at One Hundred project. Since Universes is neither a dance company, a traditional theater company nor a traditional music ensemble, but a group that uses theatricality to fuse poetry and politics with mouth and body music, the result of their investigation of The Rite of Spring is quite different from any we’ve seen or heard during this extended Spring season. Chay Yew, artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, guided and directed this production.

The troupe Universes, at PRC2 through April 28, with the commissioned work SPRING TRAINING. Photo courtesy PRC.

The troupe Universes, at PRC2 through April 28, with the commissioned work SPRING TRAINING. Photo courtesy PRC.

Spring Training opens with the well-known notes played by the bassoon–but here sung by Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, as her cohorts commence creating a layered set of rhythms. The music they make with vocalizations and body-beats is fantastic, and the complex rhythms and counter-rhythms are quite Stravinsky-esque. For a few moments, it seems that this will be a musical performance. But soon the stories begin, and four characters appear from the words. They do not initially seem connected, except by the tissue of rhythm and chorus in which they nestle, but commonalities emerge. They are stories of people struggling in the the spring of their lives, and reflecting on that “spring training” in their latter days. In each story, there is something about community, and something about wisdom from the elders. And in each story, there is death.

One notable thing among the many that set this Rite apart is the absence of the idea of sacrifice. In the original Stravinsky/Nijinsky/Roerich music/ballet/visualization, and in most of the subsequent dance versions, the Chosen One is sacrificed by the community for its ongoing good, and she acquiesces in that, as it is her community, too. In Spring Training, death is not so methodical or purposeful. A random drive-by shooting has no renewing effect. In one story, a man tries to get his family to safety when a riot breaks out in his own neighborhood. His car is stopped by the mob; he proves his solidarity by shouting out “let the motherfucker BURN” and they let him pass. This soundeth not like springtime, pagan or otherwise.

Shifting the focus toward the individuals within the community–to each of us dancing to the death–and the painful acquisition of wisdom while surviving life really flips The Rite around. I’ve lost track of how many versions I’ve seen and heard since the inception of CPA’s project last September, but none of them has made me so completely reconsider the whole matter. Now that’s art.

Spring Training continues in the Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, Chapel Hill, only through April 28 (two shows on Sunday). This is the small theatre–reservations recommended.

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