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Bringing Merchant home

This week Elements begins preparations to hit the boards again with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

To come back to this play is like meeting a dear friend again after a long absence. We have shared history. We know each other’s stories to some extent. But there is that element of the unknown, the as-yet-undiscovered gem, the still hidden secret, that draws us deeper.

Our first encounter with Merchant has left us unsatisfied. In no way did we shy away from Shakespeare’s demands that we face squarely the issues raised in Merchant: our response to “the other” in ourselves and those around us, the pain of unrequited relationship, the question of true faith and conversion, the power of money, racism, bigotry, the overwhelming desire to label people and things as good or bad, hero or villain, and the blurred lines that result instead. But the questions still press us to take up the story and these characters again here at home, and to delve further.

What will it be like to perform Merchant – by and large one of Shakespeare’s more controversial and blatantly offensive plays—here, on the grounds of a monastic, Christian community? No one comes off very well at the end of the story after all—least of all the so-called Christians. Our experiences on tour however taught us that shying away from the baser natures of Shakespeare’s characters would only rob us and our audiences of what is perhaps his most precious gift to humanity: his ability to show us ourselves in the most unexpected places. In that regard, what better place to take up Shylock and Antonio, Portia and Bassanio, and all the rest, to plumb the depths to their foulest demons, and open up to their greatest vulnerabilities, and find all of them echoed in us, than in this place, dedicated to the life-long conversion of souls.

For all our efforts, we don’t expect to close the curtain on Merchant this time either, even after the final performance is over. There is a reason, after all, that Shakespeare’s plays and characters still speak so soundly to us hundreds of years after his passing. But we hope that we will learn a bit more of what they have to teach us, and to pass that on to our audiences. We hope you will join us for the conversation.

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Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle 1934-2015

A dear and generous friend moved on to the Paradise chapter of her life yesterday. Phyllis lived her life fully to the end, and as her strength waned, her spirit was still encouraging and inviting larger thoughts and hopes about the world, the church, and the possibilities within ourselves.

A great friend and advocate of Elements Theatre Company, we will miss her here in our daily pursuit of beauty and truth. She was especially passionate about this pursuit and eager to have others join with her in shoring up the church and look to the light of its future. There are two things that stand out about Phyllis and her involvement with us: her humility and her fierce love of the bible stories that wed the will of man to the will of the divine.

Phyllis was no doormat, no self-effacing religious, but a fiery, articulate, and strongly convinced woman. Her humility was that much more significant because she would listen to and invite another point of view. There were several times where we would differ about her playwrighting, each of us strong in our feelings, and she was willing to change her work at our request. Her art was not just hers, and so she would allow the work she birthed to live through other people, and in doing so gave her artistic children the freedom to run and play without limit. These artistic children were often offspring of the bible stories she was so in love with. Figs and Fury tells the story of the prophet Jeremiah and his scribe, Baruch; The Doorway (a play written by her specifically for the tenth anniversary of our church’s dedication) tied together the struggle of an artist and her muse with the lives of Moses, Elijah, Peter, and John – beloved characters that were never far from her consciousness.

So, while we are sad not to laugh and haggle with her over the theatre or language again anytime soon, we send our love and prayers on as she reunites with the Creator who gave her the gifts she shared so generously with us, and we say to her, Deo volente!

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Hamlet V, ii Tickle

      Doorway Chorus

 

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Dear Miss Ruddock

Talking Heads IreneAt first glance, Irene is a responsible and contributing member of society. She has a few complaints about things, but who doesn’t? As she tells her story it becomes more clear that writing endless letters of complaint is practically her only social interaction.

As Irene tells her story with the unmitigated belief that she is right, the audience begins to see her concern for the behavior of others is evolving quickly into something less benign.

Alan Bennett has described his characters as “artless narrators” who, like Irene, are blinded by their own perspective, and unable to see their story veering off course.

Meet Graham Whittaker

Graham Whittaker, whom Alan Bennett himself portrayed Talking Heads Graham 2in the BBC TV original production in 1987, takes serious offense at A Chip in the Sugar, a literal metaphor for an unwanted intruder in his life. Life has been just fine for Graham and his mother, who he lives with, cares for and relies on. His world is shaken by the sudden appearance of Frank Turnbull, an old flame of Graham’s mother.

Mr. Turnbull’s influence is keenly felt by Graham, and as he loses his grip on his mother, Vera, he fights to maintain the status quo. Although he doesn’t see it, his struggle to “get back to normal” may destroy his mother’s chance at happiness.

In many ways, by letting his characters tell their own stories, Alan Bennett gives us a window into why they are the way that they are. Many of his characters have made choices to let the world pass them by, or as one reviewer described Graham as “being smothered by his comfort blanket.”