Every time I think of joy, I think of the post-punk band Joy Division: That its members named the band after a concentration camp brothel where Jewish prisoners serviced SS officers is just the first of a series of tragic gestures that ended with lead singer Ian Curtis swinging from the rafters of his Manchester flat, a suicide at the age of twenty-three. It all makes for one grotesque, ironic joke. And yet the band's music -- somber, jagged, haunted -- is full of joy. It suggests that joy isn’t a state unto itself, something pure and cut off from the world, but rather the remains of fear, hatred, and our own savage sense of survival. It is an after effect, what we wish for after the violence of the world has had its way.
Nowhere is this savagery better expressed than in Dave Malloy’s brilliant and terrifying song cycle, Ghost Quartet. You couldn’t ask for a more suitable setting than the empty Curran Theatre, presently undergoing a full-scale renovation. With the vast auditorium—silent and stately—looming in the background, it’s as if the performers and the audience, relegated to the tiny bit of land of the stage, are floating in space.
By necessity, musical theater often relies on simple stories simply told. But Malloy is a master of complex narrative techniques. The composer effortlessly takes four stories, spanning the 14th to the 21st centuries, and twists them until they seamlessly blend into each other. He achieves this without explaining them out. Instead, he relies on the emotion of the moment and our ability to piece together converging patterns, very much like how an astronomer might explain the order of the stars to a child.
So we get two sets of sisters, a Rose and Pearl seven centuries apart, who are connected by a 19th century Roxie whose dead sister is also a Rose. That they are all connected by murder is just the beginning of their nightmares. How Malloy and his talented performer-musicians shepherd these tragic stories towards a communal and joyful end is a wonder that is as simple as it is majestic.
Ghost Quartet isn’t alone, though. Throughout the Bay Area, theater companies large and small have been taking a torturous path to joy. Perhaps in anticipation of the coming season, we should take these as warning signs of the difficult times to come.
Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! offers one of the savviest, saddest scenes of joy in the American theater. The set up is sentimental; the result is not. On the fourth of July, Sid, played by Dan Hiatt in ACT's new production, is looking forward to a date with Lily (Margo Hall). But to get it, he can’t get drunk at the afternoon picnic. Sid’s sister, Essie (Rachel Ticotin), is married to Lily’s brother, Nate (Anthony Fusco). One could say that Nate and Essie are the ideal that Sid and Lily just miss.
When Sid and Nate come back slightly drunk and then some, the family sits down to dinner (including three of the children) and Sid starts to entertain them. Sid is entertaining, and he is clearly better at it drunk, and Lily is having a great time, and so are we, and that’s the problem. The more joy he brings, the less joyful his life becomes -- and Lily’s -- and finally all those who love him. Hiatt, Hall, Fusco and Ticotin bring this all off without seeming to even wind up. It just happens. It’s the high point of a fine production, but even better, it haunts every joyful moment after it with real fear.
Shotgun Players' production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover
Real fear also courses through the Shotgun Players' production of Aphra Behn’s Restoration comedy, The Rover. Set in Naples during carnival season, it’s a fast, sharp farce with a nasty, vicious edge, dexterously directed by M. Graham Smith with a brilliant sound design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker. At times it’s hard to tell what brings the characters more pleasure: love or inflicting pain. It’s a toss up for the audience, too.
Well, come on, not really.
We might root for the central couple, good Florinda and her steadfast Captain Belvile. But it’s the rover, Captain Wilmore, who intrigues. And not just us, but also Florinda’s sister, Hellena, scrapping life in the convent for a different kind of God. That this God’s a sick dick -- that he mistakenly tries to rape his good friend’s fiancée, seduces a wily and experienced courtesan to the point of despair, and whose only redeeming feature is an animal’s ability to survive -- well, that’s the type of joy you get in Restoration Comedy. But what a pleasure Wilmore the rover is, and Jeremy Kahn’s performance catches this demi-god in all his sleazy wonder.
In its season of women playwrights, Shotgun seems concerned with selling Behn’s feminist credentials, and she was a woman ahead of her time. But she was also an artist of her time and the Restoration playwrights (Behn, Congreve, Sheridan, Farquhar) understood that most people are corrupt. And so she comes to a disturbing conclusion about joy: In Behn's world, you must learn to forget every kind of injustice if you want any kind of happiness. That’s joy with an undertow, which is where it belongs, submerged and gasping for air.
Ghost Quartet runs through October 31, 2015 at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.sfcurran.com.
Ah, Wilderness! runs through November 8, 2015 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit http://www.act-sf.org.
The Rover runs through November 15, 2015 at the Ashby Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit www.shotgunplayers.org.