Performance #22: Well Kettle my Blue

This certain performance response is extremely delayed, but this time there is a reason besides my own lethargy! On Monday I led the discussion in my Intro. to Theatre History class about the performance of Blue Heart that we saw on November 14th, I believe. The questions and discussions helped keep the performance buzzing in my mind, so hopefully there won’t be too much that I forget or overlook. Blue Heart, by Caryl Churchill, is two one-act plays performed together. The first was Heart’s Desire, which was about a family waiting for their daughter to arrive from the airport. The second was Blue Kettle, which was about a man who scams elderly woman out of their money by pretending to be their sons that they gave up for adoption many decades ago. We were in the Orange Tree theatre, which is an extremely intimate black box theatre setting. Throughout the performance there was never any planned audience interaction, which seemed strange to me in such an intimate space like the one we were in. But if there had been audience interaction during these shows it would’ve made them way too campy and given it an air of falsehood that would not suit these plays well.

If I were to open Heart’s Desire and read it without any images of how it might be staged, I would most likely toss it as a boring play, but this performance brought to life this seemingly banal script. The show started normally, but soon the scene stopped, rewound, and started from the beginning, like you were watching a VHS tape in person. This happened many many times throughout the one-act. There was no formula to when the scene would stop, or how often we would return to the same spot to begin from. After a few times of “running the scene” or segments of it, new endings or lines began to pop up right before the scene would reset. Do you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books? Seeing these multiple “endings” reminded me of those books. But ultimately the best way to imagine this is by imagining that you are watching a writer as she is in the process of editing and writing. The scene would sometimes be sped up, as if the writer were quickly reading over the scenes until she’s reached the point where content needs to be added. There was a stampede of chaotic school children who came in and knocked over everything, there was a group of armed gun-men who shot down the characters, the lesbian partner of the daughter, and even an emu puppet that came around the edges of the audiences, poking and prodding at some people. Some endings were more “realistic,” like the confession of a character rather than the introduction of a completely random character or group of people. Alice, Brian, and Aunt Maisie each had “endings” where they revealed secrets or unsaid truths that were never brought up again in the show. So this brought up the theory that maybe these endings are from the minds of the characters rather than the writer herself.

Although at first read the plot seems somewhat meaningless and boring, there are several little scenes that make this play much deeper and darker than you first imagine. There is a small plot line between the parents and their drunkard son, Lewis, who occasionally enters into the dining room, only to yell at his family and be berated by his father. In one scene his father even says “Lewis, I wish you’d died at birth. If I’d known what you’d grow up like I’d have killed either you or myself the day you were born.” uh, YIKES! This plot line does not offer much to the play overall, but it helps make the parents more multi-dimensional because it shows their apparent preference of their daughter, who they are waiting for. Another false ending was Alice revealing her fifteen year affair with someone else, and she was finally fed up with Brian and was announcing her leaving him. Sometimes these false endings were repeated, but never fully followed in the long run. The strangest false ending, in my opinion, was Brian’s reveal of his desire of Autophagia, which is the medical term for eating one’s self. Believe me, searching self-cannibalism and seeing some of the results is quite an eye-opener to some of the darker corners of humanity. It’s hilarious how easily Alice and Maisie take the news, saying things like “Yes you always have bitten your fingernails.” Which is a great example of British humor, with the witty retort to an incredibly odd revelation.

Heart's Desire.jpg

 left to right: Brian (father), Alice (mother), Lewis (son), and Aunt Maisie.

One of the many things that was unique about this performance was the average age of these actors. Although there are few shows without at least one character over the age of forty, the majority of this cast was definitely over the age of (at least) fifty. It was a great reminder to me that actors do not have an expiration date. I know that our memorization skills begin to decline, and usually stage fright (aka nerves) become worse as we grow older, but that does not mean that you cannot continue to pursue your passion. I thought all of the actors did a really great job, and there was some really nice character work put into some of the…stranger characters. For example, Aunt Maisie in Heart’s Desire is the kooky older aunt who seems to have dementia, because of her fantastical yet distracted monologues and child like youthfulness. Her joyfulness was intoxicating, and it was such fun to watch her float around the space. I never pitied or looked down on her in a “awh, bless her heart” kind of way, because she never seemed that weak or helpless, just very fairy-like.

To discuss the title: There is a very small and strange moment that is only played twice in this play. The daughter finally enters, and the first thing out of the father’s mouth is “You are my heart’s desire.” Each time this line was said the scene stops, and it’s how the show ended, practically. It’s such a horrible tease from the playwright, because of course we want to know more about this possible plot line! I could not figure out any sub textual meaning to these lines, but it adds a great deal of fun for the actor playing Brian. What a secret to keep throughout the whole show.

Other than the obvious scene resets, there were also little moments in Heart’s Desire that were supposed to catch your attention to make sure that you were paying attention. The biggest one was the intentional mispronunciation of a line by Alice. She says “you pleam seased,  I mean, you seem pleased.” Audiences are like vultures, and we love finding mistakes in performances, so when this happens the entire audiences perks up in hopes that we’ve just witnessed the actor messing up. However it is the intentional hiccup of the playwright, so back off, ya’ nasty. This small audience reset reminded me of the much more violent resets in 1984, when the bright lights and loud sounds would jerk you out of the previous scene and into a state of numbness. Although I much preferred the smaller, more comical reset in Heart’s Desire. There is always more I could discuss about this play, but as I glance down at my word count I realize that I should probably move on to the second one-act, Blue Kettle.

**before I begin Blue Kettle let me just say that I was harassed and bullied by a gang of elderly women who kicked me out of my seat just so they could sit and eat. Uh, do you not see my cheap ploy to loiter by looking at the coffee cup on my table? I am now convinced that all elderly women are capable of ruthless actions and should never be doubted due to their sweet and fragile facade.**

Blue Kettle, at its base, is a story about a man who cons old women out of their money by pretending to be their sons who they gave to adoption many decades ago. I wonder how “normal” this play would’ve been without one key ingredient. During the writing process of these plays, Caryl Churchill’s computer got a virus and completely changed some sections of her writing. So Blue Kettle is basically a well edited version of a play written by a computer virus. On the fourth page of the show is the line “You don’t have to blue anything up.” This was the first substitution of a word with either Blue or Kettle. From this line on, words become regularly substituted and by the end of the play over 90% of the sentences are made up of Blue or Kettle. Even the words Blue and Kettle evolve during the show, becoming shorter and shorter, and by the end of the show they are down to “K k no relation. K name k John k k? K k k Tommy k k John. K k k dead k k k believe a word, K k Derek.” This show really relies on the audiences effort to listen and figure out what these substitutions are supposed to mean. However, the expressions and intonations from the actors help greatly in understanding. Apparently Churchill will give a “decoded” script to the production team so that they actually understand what message they are trying to convey to each other. From the mistakes of computer virus comes a play about the limitations of language and conversation. As the language disintegrates, the truth about these characters becomes more and more apparent. Language is seen as a barrier for true emotions in Blue Kettle, and as an easy way to keep others at bay from learning our own truths. Language, or deceit, is Derek’s (main character) biggest tactic and weapon against others. Without his talents in manipulation and persuasion, he would not be able to trick these women.

It was so sad to see these mothers’, who were mostly beyond excited to meet their child, and to watch Derek’s mask of tenderness was so painful. There were five mothers in total, one of them being named “Derek’s mother.” Derek was actually adopted, so he’s not making up that much, he’s just deciding to insert himself into other people’s lives. This was not written into the script, but the use of colors in the set design was really awesome. Most of the set was different shades of blue except for three pieces of furniture: a red chair, a white lamp, and a brown chair. Only one person each sat in one of these chairs, and the white lamp was only turned on once. The woman who remembers the least, “Derek’s mother,” sat in the red chair, and the woman who remembers the most, Miss Clarence, sits in the brown chair. Other than this information I do not know how to further analyze the set, but I really loved how the designers or director put these chairs opposite of each other on stage. This somewhat relates to the the importance  of inaccuracy/ accuracy of memory in this play.Each mother tries to remember the details of their son as an attempt to confirm their own doubts that this might not be him. Derek loosely improvises with each mother, impressively side-stepping deeper questions that could give away his trick.

Blue Kettle.jpg

Enid, Derek’s girlfriend, knows of his deceptions and highly disapproves. She eventually spills the secret when they’re at a dinner with one of Derek’s mothers. As the play progresses, Derek’s decisions became more and more sloppy. For example, in a later scene Derek invites two of his false mothers’ to meet each other under the pretense that one of them is the biological mother, and one of them is the adopted mother. Of course the mothers’ find out that neither are his biological or adopted mother, and one storms out. Why does Derek pull such a stupidly masochistic move when he’s been so careful about keeping their lives separate? I personally think that he subconsciously wanted this disaster so that he wouldn’t have to tell them, which is a pretty cowardly move. The only person that Derek willingly talks to about this situation is “Derek’s mother,” who is suffering from dementia. We never find out if this is his biological or adopted mother, but I really loved this scene. I think that there’s a certain safety that comes with talking to those with high level dementia, because you know that they will never remember your conversation. However, it also seemed like Derek was hoping for some connection with his mother, because I think he felt guilty for betraying his mother by acting like he didn’t have one. Blue Kettle definitely had more character driven choices, rather than writer driven choices, like in Heart’s Desire.

I really loved Blue Heart, and would love to have a chance to direct it someday.They were both extremely fun, and it looked like everyone involved was having a really great time too. It’s hard to believe that it hasn’t been performed since its debut in 1997, so I’m doubly glad that I got to see this production!

 

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