Liz Diamond

Eye in the Sky

Review of Grounded, Westport Country Playhouse

Technology determines the quality of our lives. That truism may seem rather obvious, but the question is: what are its implications? We may not want to imagine, or remember, a life before cellphones, or before television, or before telephones, or cars, or refrigeration. We may believe the world is better with those things in it. How about drones?

Grounded, by George Brant, directed as a slow-burn tour de force by Liz Diamond at Westport Country Playhouse, makes us not only imagine, but also confront, the increasing prevalence in our world of drones—or unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft—and what their presence entails. In sum: we’re all sitting ducks.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann, in a smashing Connecticut debut as a professional after a fine run as a student actor at the Yale School of Drama) is our confidante. She tells us intimate details about her life, her loves, her hopes. She makes us exult with her as she professes her undying love of “the blue”—the endless stretches of sky she regards as her natural habitat when seated at the commands of her “Tiger,” or beloved fighter-plane. She has run missions in combat, gleefully bombing those minarets sticking up from the sand back into sand.

She also makes us feel how a smug “lone wolf” sensibility can be cracked by the right guy. A guy turned on by her manliness, and by the flight suit she wears as a badge of honor and which becomes at times a rhetorical device and an aphrodisiac. The guy seems to weep often, but that might just be how it seems to her (or it’s Brant’s way of making sure we don’t miss his efforts to circumvent gender “norms”).

Grounded is told entirely from the pilot’s point of view. We neither see nor hear any other characters, and, unlike some one-person narrative shows, the pilot doesn’t try to imitate or take on the manner of others. It’s the kind of one-sided world that one might conjure in a confession. Others are always somehow external to the speaker’s plight.

Not that the couple, soon joined by a baby girl called Sam, don’t have a real shared affection. But when, after giving birth, the pilot tries to resume her former chariot in the blue, she finds that, in the interim, technology has intervened. Manned flights to destroy what she likes to call “the guilty” (as opposed to “the enemy”) are passé. Warfare is now safer for our side and more lethal for the other side. The drones only risk their $11 million price-tag, not U.S. casualties.

The pilot wonders, rightfully, if assignment to the “chair-force” is her punishment for being so unmanly as to give birth to a child. Not so, she’s assured. This is the assignment that will show her to be upper echelon. And she tries to take it in that spirit, though not for a moment believing it to be true.

The vicissitudes of her, at first, useful acclimation to the reality of conducting armed combat in a safe trailer a short drive from her home, near Las Vegas, and then the alarming disconnect between those two spheres of her life, is the drama of the story. A drama that the pilot lives for us in a forthright, can-do, oh my god not this, manner.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

To work, the play needs a sympathetic and earnest teller for the tale. Director Liz Diamond is working with a godsend. Elizabeth Stahlmann, trim, angular, pretty but also what used to be called “boyish,” is the perfect type for the role. And her command of Brant’s language is mostly flawless. What’s more, she’s able to communicate with great presence the non-verbal “ah ha” moments, those moments when—whether posing for a photo with pregnant belly in an open flightsuit, or reacting to something she can see but we can’t, or turning on a dime from mom-face to air force major-face—the pilot becomes personality, not simply function.

And her performance makes manifest the real drama here: The human cost of our technological advances. Brant wants us to consider how the drone technology of surveillance impacts our collective lives (can anyone watch—projected as screens behind Stahlmann—the maneuvers of the car containing her target, the Prophet, and not think of all that footage of the white Bronco on the LA freeways, from way back in the 1990s?), and, in the strong if somewhat stagey climax, to see that “the enemy is us,” but what really comes across is how service to the machine makes us “drones” in the old sense: the expendable worker bee that has no life other than its task in the hive.

Against that unprepossessing life, and her nagging sense that this isn’t what she signed on for, the pilot has only a child and husband whose lives seem remote from her if only because not summed-up by military protocol. At least she has, maybe, the glory of a confirmed kill, until even that becomes personal to a fraught degree. There’s a deep reversal here of the once radical call to “bring the war back home” that Brant didn’t invent and doesn’t belabor. It’s simply there in the material and asks us to think about modern warfare as closer to our day-to-day lives than ever. It must make us uneasy.

The human story here will no doubt disappear in time: robots will drive drones. The other theme—that death from above is available at any moment—reminds me of an epitaph Thomas Pynchon engraves on a nineteenth-century tombstone in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973): "Mark, reader, my cry / Keep thy thoughts on the sky / And in the midst of prosperity / Know’st thou may die."

We need no drone come from afar to tell us this.

 

Grounded
By George Brant
Directed by Liz Diamond

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Yana Birÿkova; Props Master: Karin White; Voice Coach: Ron Carlos; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA

Westport Country Playhouse
July 11-29, 2017

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

The strangeness of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, now playing at The Yale Repertory Theatre in a sumptuous and stylish version directed by Liz Diamond, is ultimately its strength.  The plot yokes together elements that seem impossibly disparate, almost a test, from start to finish, of the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief.  The play is generally called “a romance,” not only to differentiate it from comedy and tragedy, but also to indicate its novelistic elements.  The narrative arc of the play is rather complex, and also surprisingly and amusingly cavalier with audience expectations.

Early in the play, Mamillius (Remsen Welsh), the young son of King Leontes and Queen Hermione of Sicilia, says he will tell his very pregnant mother “a sad tale” because that’s “best for winter.”  He’s ripped away from his mother—object of her husband’s insane jealousy regarding his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Hoon Lee)—before he can tell it.  We never see the boy again as he dies offstage of health complications that follow his mother’s imprisonment for adultery and treason, but in some ways the story of the play is a tale a child might conceive of, with insane rage, exciting escapes, a man-eating bear, a colorful pickpocket, rousing rustic antics, true love, and magical reconciliations, to say nothing of a leap of about sixteen years in the middle.  It’s fun to trash Aristotle’s unities!

Though he’s offstage for the long middle section of the play, Leontes is key to the play’s success.  Here, Rob Campbell manages superbly to humanize a man suddenly driven to autocratic excess.  Driven by a restless jealousy, he destroys his family, losing a child, imprisoning his wife, and sending his newborn daughter to almost certain death in a remote locality.  In almost constant movement about the stage like a man in search of a comfort he once knew, Campbell’s Leontes is a victim of his own sick fancies to an extent that almost amuses him in a rueful, despondent way.  It’s a powerful performance matched by the noble suffering of his wife Hermione as played by Susannah Schulman.  Her trial scene enacts a dramatic staging of the worst sort of spousal dysfunction, an overt display of male tyranny that draws a passionate outburst from Hermione’s staunch friend Paulina (Felicity Jones) in a great confrontation scene where the outraged meets the outrageous.

Sicilia, in Michael Yeargan’s Scenic Design, consists of high walls that move to form corridors, or withdraw to provide open spaces, against brooding darks and raking light and the effective use of silhouettes in Matt Frey’s Lighting Design.  Together they make the University Theater stage a fascinating space, intimate and forbidding as needed.

The crowd-pleasing second half—after that infamous bear scene gets a notable enactment, together with Thomas Kopache’s soliloquy, as Time, delivered with an audacious flair for absurd necessity—takes place mostly in the kingdom of Bohemia.  Presented here as a rustic land of splendid, multi-colored clothes (Jennifer Moeller, Costumes), music (composer Matthew Suttor’s gypsy-like tunes), dancing (even with buffalo heads in Randy Duncan’s light-hearted choreography), and the love in idleness of Polixenes’ son Florizel (Tim Brown) and a stunning maiden called Perdita (Lupita Nyong’o) who seems to be more regal than her station as a lowly Shepherd’s daughter would suggest.  Both actors do a fine job of conveying both the idyllic nature of the lovers’ wooing and the tensions of their status, especially when Polixenes and his courtier Camillo (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, excellent in an under-appreciated role) spy on their nuptials in disguise.

The comic turns of Autolycus (Luke Robertson) should be the fun of this section of the play, but his scenes are a bit too broad and blustery, not quite up to the nimble clowning Rep audiences have become used to in Christopher Baye’s riotous productions.  That spirit is more in evidence in the scene where two gentlemen (Francis Jue and Adam O’Byrne) report on the reconciliations in the court of Sicilia with “you had to be there” hilarity.

After such comedy, what conclusion?  The final scene is all it should be: a chastened Leontes finds himself rich beyond his imagining, with nearly all his relations renewed.  The theme of winter, as a time of life, is impressed upon us by the aging royal couple exiting as silhouettes.  Their daughter has become a woman in their absence, and now, beyond the rages and the suffering they have endured, they have only their twilight together.  It’s a bittersweet triumph Shakespeare gives us, the lost time hovering over the happy conclusion like a certain little boy’s absence.

The Winter’s Tale, in this impressive production, receives an almost definitive treatment thanks to Diamond’s ability to render the true colors of the play’s varied palette.

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale Directed by Liz Diamond

The Yale Repertory Theatre March 16-April 7, 2012