Who is the Quarterback in Your Family?
Imagine a football game without sportscasters. Who would tell you where to look or how to judge the play? Kate Benson’s A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes provides a family’s Thanksgiving preparations with two newscasters whose quippy rhythmic dialogue uses the turkey as the football (more or less). Despite their guidance, I still found myself searching for meaning in this collision of text, choreography, and composition.
Frowning on national holidays is not a new American past time, but I’ve never seen it done before in such brilliant color and orchestrated detail (kudos to Lee Sunday Evan’s polished directing). The lovely Brooke Ishibashi as Cheescake wears chunky black heels and paces the black box theater sized basketball court with intensity and spring. Never have I seen so many great glasses on the same stage (costumes by Kathleen Doyle). The costumes make them a family. Kristine Haruna Lee as the punky and recently divorced daughter (last minute addition to the meal) is wearing an urban outfitters print shirt that I literally owned in high school. She is broken/ breaks everything. We take to her.
The success of the highly stylized choreography throughout was unsurprising to me. A solid combination of formal physicality and the banal content (turkey carving, etc) combusts to be something more interesting. This something grew and shifted like the inside of a kalidoscope, and had the same tranquilizing effect on me. I found myself tiring of the language (verbal + physical) in the same way I tired of my family over the course of a long holiday. I felt relief when it was time to turn the bird.
Kate Benson’s football Thanksgiving play deals with codes. The holiday code. The family code. The sibling code. The helping in the kitchen code. There are so many underlying messages: “Sure, we can squeeze one more in,” carries unacknowledged weight to the highly prepared, extremely anxious, hostess. These high levels of resentment and loaded histories magically evaporate the moment the doorbell rings.
I envy the granddad who waltzes from kitchen to bathroom, only appearing when needed. He is useful. He is calm. He is erect. The women are losing their minds, worried and scrambling, bent over, laboring, faces contorting….Oh, to be a man for the holidays.
The ending departs from place and concept, ever so slightly, as if to say ‘it makes no difference.’ We create these frenzied rituals in our homes once a year that don’t actually mean anything. Not totally satisfied with this analysis, I asked Kate Benson for her thoughts:
MG: When did you think of the idea for this play?
KB: When I started thinking about Thanksgiving, I thought this is a really fucked up holiday but really quite accurate in terms of how this country approaches itself and its history. A small keyhole to a much bigger room.
MG: ..in that we come together to consume copious amounts of really specific foods and then don’t see each other for a year after that?
KB: Yeah, enormous, intense anxiety ridden preparation for essentially a situation where we are just going to consume, and bond with our families, and then watch people knock each other down. There’s this emphasis on tradition and a complete obscuring of the actual fact story that brought this country into being. It’s myth making in its most perfect and most articulate form. We’re just picking and choosing which parts we decide to carry forward and make that the entire story. And there are plenty of people in our country who are well aware of how crazy that is, and yet it continues in this way that around the middle of November the cranberries and the chestnuts start showing up in the grocery store. There’s an assumption that everyone is going to do this one particular way.
MG: What was your impetus for writing the play?
KB: I wanted to write a play with no stage directions, other than on the first page. I thought: if its true that people ignore stage directions, I’m going to try to write one without one. I thought that would be an interesting puzzle for [a director] to really make something. I thought I should write about something I knew really well if I am going to try this thing without stage directions, so I am not also going to try to invent up a story. I wanted to collide a stranger structure with a familiar event.
MG: What are trends that you notice in theater right now?
KB: I’d be really happy if I didn’t have to see a couch on stage for about five years. Unless it was going to be set on fire. And then I would like to see that. And it’s just because I think the world is an exciting and mysterious place and I have encountered plays to be not mysterious and not strange, and one place I know really well is my own living room and the couch. And the moment I see a couch on stage, a representational living room, I just feel like oh no. Here comes the disillusionment and the betrayal and interpersonal strife.
Someone in some class was talking about the “I want” song in a musical. Most of modern theater- a lot of plays that I love- the wanting is mysterious. And a lot of the problem that the actor has to solve is, “what do I want here?” A consequence of that obscurity, thinking about Beckett or Albee, has led to plays in which it is a foregone conclusion that no one is going to get what he wants. And that seems like a terrible message to pursue in any kind of art form. So, I feel like there is a piece of [Great Lakes] is like a musical in the full embrace of “I want something.” A really simple desire thwarted and then at the same time achieved.