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An admittedly lesser-known playwright pens a tribute to the dramatist he envies most
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There are playwrights I respect. There are playwrights I revere. But there's only one playwright whom I have ever wished I could be, and that is Caryl Churchill. Having seen many of her plays and read plenty more, I can hereby say, without reservation, that she's the type of writer I aspire to be: fearlessly imaginative, unflaggingly experimental, inhumanly prolific, constantly surprising, oft-times political, and never the slightest bit boring. Is it any wonder that in a 2011 Village Voice article, fellow dramatists Adam Bock, Julia Cho, and Paula Vogel all touted her as the greatest living playwright? And yes, Edward Albee was still alive at the time.
Looking back, I can see that I fell under her spell immediately. As an assistant stage manager for a college production of Top Girls, I shamelessly set about penning my own gay version of that 1982 drama outside our nightly rehearsals. Her ingenious script's opening scene in particular -- a feminist fantasy in which historic, iconic women toast each other at a celebratory dinner for one ruthless businesswoman on the rise -- basically blew my mind. Sadly, though not surprisingly, my imitation was neither as sly in its social criticism nor as fun in its choices of characters. I did have an amusing rip-off title (Bottom Boys) but not much else in my favor. Truth be told, I soon recognized that I was destined to create the Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold to her Raiders of the Lost Ark…if I were lucky. The writing on the wall, simply put, was not in my handwriting. Thou shalt not covet a playwright's output. And yet, oh God, how Churchill made me sin!
To look at her rich bibliography is to be thoroughly humbled. Who else would concoct a play structured like an Escher drawing (Traps), or mine the theatrical potential of that heady French philosopher Michel Foucault (Softcops), or bend time by having her characters jump a century between two acts while only aging 25 years (Cloud 9)? (The latter's examination of race, sex, genes, and gender proved its timeless relevancy in the Atlantic Theater Company's engrossing 2015 revival.) Love and Information, her theatrical mosaic of 50-plus super-short scenes about contemporary life that premiered stateside at New York Theatre Workshop in 2014, stands out as one of the most thrilling evenings of theatre I've experienced in the last ten years.
As you may have gathered, her topic choices are eclectic: witchcraft trials (Vinegar Tom), capitalism (Owners), ecological disasters (Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen). She's even adapted Strindberg's A Dream Play and Seneca's Thyestes. Is there nothing outside her reach and talent?
Well, her two shows to make it to Broadway weren't hits. Manhattan Theatre Club's limited-run Top Girls revival left many audience members dumbfounded, and the Public Theater's uptown transfer of Serious Money, her savage satire of Wall Street starring a young Alec Baldwin, lasted less than two weeks in 1988. But so what? I saw that Top Girls production and loved it. And even if her shows aren't commercial blockbusters, she's able to attract top-notch talent. She even managed to get Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard to star in her clone drama A Number for its 2004 NYC premiere -- and he was sensational. If I had to pick, I'd always take Shepard over sales.
That said, as the years have passed, I've realized I no longer yearn to be Churchill's male double (despite surgical advancements). I now have a much more attainable goal: to never miss one of her shows (at least not in NYC). Next up, Escaped Alone, her latest British import directed by her longtime collaborator James Macdonald, which plays at BAM for two weeks this month. If it's even half as good as her double bill of Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle that I saw there nearly two decades ago, then I'll be talking about this one for years to come.
Drew Pisarra's theatre experiences range from ventriloquist (Singularly Grotesque) to librettist (The World Is Round), choreographer (Ladies' Voices) to master of ceremonies (White Wines). Follow him on Twitter at @mistermysterio. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Top Girls on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus.