Monday, August 8, 2011

Peak Performances and their Awkward Sexual Moments: The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath-March 2011-Alexander Kasser Theater

The Grapes of Wrath, based on the classic novel of the same name by John Steinbeck, had a lot of epic moments involving the Joad family’s journey to California and it was very well done, one of the best shows I’ve seen at MSU so far. What’s interesting about Grapes is that it brings up elements of theater that I wish to discuss more in-depth.

*Beware of Spoilers*

Al and Al’s Girl: Al Joad is a young teenage male who loves the ladies. Oftentimes we hear him speak about his sexual escapades, but we never actual see him with any girl, until we meet Al’s Girl. Al’s Girl has no name, mainly because she has no specific purpose but to help show just how much of a player Al is. Their scene together takes up a whopping five minutes, during which she discusses with him their future “marriage.” Ha! She obviously doesn’t know him like we do. Al dismisses this idea by hesitantly agreeing just to shut her up and make out with her. It’s awkward but it’s understandable because we know the character of Al. But then something else happens later on that is really odd. AL GETS ENGAGED! What? All of a sudden now Al is mature and is committing himself to one woman? When did this happen? Not much time passes between the Al’s Girl scenes and the final scene when we discover he is engaged, so where did this transition take place? What makes it even weirder is that Al’s Girl isn’t the girl he is engaged to. It’s a totally different woman we haven’t met before until now. Who is she? When did he meet her? Where did she come from? What the heck is her name? (*Checks program.) Apparently her name is Aggie Wainwright. Her name is appropriately placed at the end of the list, for the cast list is listed “in order of appearance.” In this scene with “Aggie,” Al takes on this totally different persona than what he had throughout the show. It would have been nice if we saw his progression because I don’t think we do. All of a sudden his personality switches with no clear transition. 

Nudity: Now here’s an element on which I want to place a majority of my focus. During the length of the play, we see two characters get naked. One is Al (Surprised? I didn’t think so.) and Rose of Sharon, the eldest and pregnant daughter. With Al, the nudity is very unexpected in the context of the scene. The family finds a watering hole where they all decide to bathe and suddenly Al strips down to his birthday suit. Yes, there are moments when you see his penis and buttock crack in full light. For me, the scene wasn’t too bad because I consider the human body as nothing to be ashamed of and I thought it was an interesting theatrical addition to the play. The human body is art in itself. However, there could have been people in the audience who were greatly uncomfortable that this occurred.

Then there is the final scene between Rose of Sharon and the Man in Barn. In the scene prior, Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn child. Seeking refuge from the rain, the Joad family escapes into a barn where they find a man dying of starvation, at which point Rose of Sharon decides to breastfeed him. Now this scene is not what I would call sexual, but it is very beautiful, one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen on a stage. We see Rose of Sharon’s breast, but very briefly. She and the man then form this nurturing embrace, which closes the play. I found myself in a trance, not even realizing that the play had ended because I expected more after that. It truly had a “wow” factor. People were quiet in the audience. It took them a moment to start clapping because the scene was so mesmerizing.

What I would like to know is what people think about scenes like these. Is nudity an theatrical element that you feel that theater should use more? I would especially like an actor’s point of view for he or she is the one who would be enacting the task.

*Now you are in for a special treat. I am going to do something a little bit different in this blog post. In addition to these awkward sexual moments, I’ve also noticed some other random moments in Grapes that bothered me that I need to get off my chest. I may develop these into a whole other series, but for now I will keep them in here and call them “Bonus Random Moments That I Really Need to Talk About.” (Yeah, I think I should work on a better title than that too.) 

The Girl with the Blanket: At one point the Joad family assembles onto the stage along with other extra characters to show how they all are gathered together at this one camp to make it seem more realistic. One of the characters that shows up is this little woman who folds the same blanket over and over again in a different way than how people normally fold blankets. She stands in place, bouncing as she stands, while also giving these odd facial expressions. Her actions are peculiar, suggesting that maybe she is a danger for the Joad family. She stands towards the front of the stage while everybody else remains in the background, thus suggesting that she is a significant character for this scene and that we will hear from her very soon. So then we wait. Tom Joad, the lead man and eldest Joad son, walks towards the front of the stage with another male lead character (I can’t remember who) and the two stroll back and forth onstage in the midst of a lengthy discussion. Every time they were to walk towards the direction of the girl with the blanket, she would run the other way. So here we have some brief interaction, suggesting that they are building up her big moment to start some trouble. Tom and the other guy continue their conversation, and then we see Tom actually look at the girl suspiciously. Now we know that Tom definitely notices her like the rest of us and that he will soon start talking to her. Right? 

Wrong! He NEVER speaks to her! She never even gets her own lines. The extent of her dangerous qualities is that she briefly touches Rose of Sharon (God forbid), at which point the whole family rushes to her rescue. That could’ve happened in background like the other random actions that took place throughout the play. Why was she front and center? This odd placement of her totally deceived me and made me think that she was more important than what she was and it totally did not deliver.

Living on Fishing: There’s this one son in the Joad family and it is suggested that he is not all mentally stable. In the bathing scene, he confides in Tom that he is not going to continue the journey with the rest of the family but is rather going to live on the river and fish for survival. Tom tries to stop him, but to no avail. The family catches wind of this news, and though at first they are all concerned, they then continue without him after Pa Joad says “He’ll catch up.” Really? You mean to tell me that Ma Joad agrees to continue to California without her son, her mentally unstable son at that? If that were any other family they wouldn’t go anywhere until they found their lost child. Other characters leave too, including Connie, Rose of Sharon’s husband, which annoys me considering his wife is almost due, but yet they move on without him and say that he’ll catch up. What is it with these people thinking that their lost family members will catch up with them on foot when they are travelling in this gigantic truck? Also, I know this play takes place during the Depression and that they need jobs, food, and shelter, but is it really that imperative that they go without the rest of their clan? We never hear from these characters again nor do the other characters mention them. Was the absence of these characters not of a big deal to them?

The Narrators: Long story short, the addition of these narrators made the play seem like a musical when in reality it wasn’t. Basically, they show up out of nowhere and sing about what is currently happening in the play. Now, this isn’t a bad thing. It is actually a theatrical tactic that was unexpected but an interesting addition. The only problem I have with it is that these narrators would sing very joyfully at the most morbid times. For example, Tom and Pa could be having a very serious conversation, the lights go down, and then all of a sudden the narrators would brighten the mood with a happy song and dance. There is a time and place for happy singing and dancing, and for certain scenes in Grapes, it is just not appropriate.

Previously: Sweet Charity
Next: dis connect :)

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