It’s that time of year, when for the fourth summer in succession, The Woodstock Players present a World Première of my most recently completed stage play, with costumes and set by Claire Lambe. This year’s play, Hedgerow Specimen, will be the fifth consecutive première of one of my new plays (we did two the first year) at the Byrdcliffe Theater, that sweet historic venue that inspired me to revisit my roots as a stage dramatist.
‘Hedgerow’ came about in a curious way, one not unlike the genesis of last year’s play, Midget In a Catsuit Reciting Spinoza. While we were performing ‘Midget,’ Violet Snow — one of the ‘Midget’ cast — dreamt that she was in a play of mine, whose title was Hedgrow Specimen. This was an invitation from the beyond, one no writer could refuse. I wrote a play by that title, for Violet, and right now we’re halfway through rehearsals.
‘Midget,’ had come about as a result of an offhand comment in a email written to me by Henry Akona, who directed the first two plays of mine to reach the Byrdcliffe Theater, in 2009. When I sent him the second of these two plays, he emailed me that he wasn’t sure how to direct it, since it was a love story and he’d never — he claimed– directed a love story before. If, he wrote, I’d written him a play featuring a midget in catsuit reciting Spinoza, he’d know just how to approach it. I couldn’t resist this idea, and promptly wrote him a play by that title. He was delighted by the result, but unable to make time to stage it, and this led to the formation of The Woodstock Players, in order to perform both ‘Midget’ and Magus, another play I’d written for Henry.
At this point in my writing life, with 40 stage plays under my belt, a similar number of radio plays, and twice as many TV and film scripts, it’s far more appealing to write a play for someone than simply to offer it up to the void. I’ve just finished a play called Rex And Rex — about my father, the celebrated actor and romancer of beautiful women – for a great actor, Michael O’Brien, whom local audiences saw at Byrdcliffe in three plays of mine, first as Carl Jung in Scenes From A Misunderstanding and most recently, in ‘Midget,’ as Salvador Dali and Hitler - both of them known by their mustache alone. I’m in the process of writing another one, tentatively called I Won’t Bite You: an Interview with the Infamous Monster, Dorothea Farber, for a British actress, Tara Dominick, who first appeared in my plays 25 years ago, in London.
Happily, Violet Snow – who in Hedgerow Specimen plays Violet Thorn, a homeless person who crosses America on foot from the West Coast to the East, over a period of 27 years – seems to be enjoying the part I wrote for her, in which she is already giving a remarkable performance. Her character has connections to botany, which I knew to be an interest of Violet’s. And it also echoes a brief period in Violet’s offstage life, spent as a wandering pilgrim, a sadhu, in India. Violet’s newly published memoir, Afternoon Of A Sadhu, is a beautifully written, graphic account of the joys and trials of a life on the road.
The cast of ‘Hedgerow’ is completed by three wonderful actors, Holly Graff – recently seen in Woodstock as a superb Nora in A Doll’s House – and Richard Bennett – Goering in last year’s Midget’ and Cervantes in our production of Magus at the Rhinebeck Center For Performing Arts – and Joseph Bongiorno, a fine, ubiquitous actor alongside whom I’ve participated in staged readings of plays by Carole Bugge and Terence Rattigan.
They play the members of Violet Thorn’s family, who accompany her, as recurring but different characters, on Violet’s 27-year-long journey from Oregon to Maine. Violet’s husband Harry, who in Violet’s mind is trying to find her, pursuing her all across the United States, also turns up as a monk, a judge, and a corpse. Her daughter Amber arrives as a murderess, with whom Violet sets up house, in Maine. And Violet’s journey across America is attended by her son Joe, who accompanies her in the form of a talking snail. (He later turns up as a defense attorney.)
Theatergoers who have sampled my recent plays will recognize these transformations as my current signature, as a playwright (it does seem to me that the theater is the house of transformation), but this year there are no famous figures from the past, blending mysteriously into each other, and turning up in the wrong century, as Kafka did in Magus and Spinoza in ‘Midget.’ This is the story of a modern mystic, whom some will see as merely a disturbed person, who flees her well-meaning family when they seek to drug her into ‘normality.’ She goes for a walk and simply keeps on walking, for 27 years, until she witnesses a murder, and her mystical life finds a new mission.
Unlike any production I’ve directed before, a great deal of ambient outdoor sound is used, almost like a film score. The set consists almost entirely of the three big screens, which feature a series of images, photographed over a twelvemonth period by Claire Lambe, blending into one another and taking us on Violet’s journey. In this sense we appear – we, The Woodstock Players – to be embarking on some cutting-edge multi-media work, but to me this is no more than the bare truth of theater itself. One body, or more, in light: this is theater. The body presents humanity, stripped as spiritually naked as the playwright can achieve. But as for conventional décor, real tables and chairs, they might as well be sketched on a backdrop for all the reality they bring to bear on theater. The Athenian tragedians spoke through masks; Shakespeare put giant battles on scene with a few swift strokes, and he jumps us happily from Rome to Egypt and back in a trice, simply by announcing where we are; Bert Brecht takes us to China by proclaiming it on a placard. Beckett, above all, brings us back to basics: bodies in light. Words. Meditations on the human condition in an intimate, insistent physicality no other art-form matches, except dance itself. Dance begins where words give up the struggle. But so long as theater brings to its story-telling the fluidity of the real, it too dances, without need of more than one or two objects to prompt our witnesses. A tree, a rock. Lights up. Bodies. Lips, ready to speak.
Hedgerow Specimen, by Carey Harrison. With Violet Snow, Holly Graff, Richard Bennett, and Joseph Bongiorno. Directed by the author. Set and costume design by Claire Lambe. At the Byrdcliffe Theater, 8 pm Friday June 15 2012, 8 pm Saturday June 16, and 5pm Sunday June 17. 8 pm Friday June 22rd, 8pm Saturday 23rd, and 5 pm Sunday June 24th.
Tickets $20 general admission. $18 seniors (65+) / students / unwaged. Sunday matinees special: $10 unwaged / under 22s with ID. Cash or checks only at the door.
For more on The Woodstock Players, and for reservations, visit www.thewoodstockplayers.com, or call 845 901 2893
For a map to the Theater from the center of Woodstock, click HERE