This is an article that once was meant to be my “Director’s Notes” for the up-coming production this week of William Mastrosimone’s EXTREMITIES, which is being staged at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, 23 November to 26 November, as part of the United Nations ‘WHITE RIBBON” Week – drawing attention and universal condemnation for violence against women.
After the success of producing and directing Harold Pinter’s OLD TIMES in April this year my business partner and colleague Rachael Wagener and I were initially in a bit of a lost world as to what to do next. Typically, I wanted to do a great classic – like John Webster’s THE DUCHESS OF MALFI or Jean Racine’s BRITANNICUS – and I still want to do them – but not this time. My turn next time. I had long known and been fascinated with William Mastrosimone’s 1982 off-Broadway hit EXTREMITIES, and clearly remember seeing it in a Sydney Theatre Company production with the magnificent Sandy Gore as the main female protagonist, Marjorie, and the equally wonderful (and old pal) Nicholas Eddie as her nemesis and would-be rapist, Raul. I think it was directed by Wayne Harrison – possibly his first as newly appointed Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company. It was a big success, and toured nationally (I think).
EXTREMITIES was amongst a group of plays that I gave Rachael to read, who was also on the lookout for a play and character that she really wanted to play. Initially we wanted to do David Hare’s PLENTY (1978) and were very keen and excited, only to be told by the respective agent ‘No’, because Rachael Weisz was doing it in New York in 2016 – and it may tour internationally. It isn’t; but is still unavailable, Such a shame as I don;t think this brilliant play has been professionally produced at all in Australia. I did a successful production of it at NIDA with Anna Torv as Susan Trahern, acknowledged as on of the
greatest dramatic creations and dynamic female character in 20th Century theatre.I had seen Kate Nellligen in the original National Theatre production, taken to see it as treat by my cousin Australian playwright, Alex Buzo; and later in 1999I saw one of my ex-NIDA students, Cate Blanchett triumphantly play it on the West End. The NIDA production I did with Anna, as well the wonderful Jason Chan (amongst others) was relatively radical in its racial casting that David Hare, who was in Sydney at the time was aware of, and very complimentary. I will do this play again – one day.
So we searched on, and on, and on – the list included – Jean Genet’s THE MAIDS (1947), I was also keen on Durrenmatt’s THE VISIT (1956) or Giraudoux’s THE MADWOMAN OF CHALLIOT (1943) having recently re-read these mid-2oth Century challenging, brilliant and still relevant European masterworks. Also on my ‘bucket-list’ on my ‘bucket-list’ was another recently discovered little gem in the murder-thriller genre – LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1940) by Reginald Denham and Edward Percy. It sits with Arnold Ridley’s THE GHOST TRAIN (1923), Emlyn Williams’ NIGHT MUST FALL (1935), the Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard 1939 version of John Willard’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1922), Patrick Hamilton’s ROPE (1929), Joseph Kramm’s THE SHRIKE (1952), Maxwell Anderson’s THE BAD SEED (1954), and my #1 favourite Joseph Kesselring’s ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1939). I will probably never get a chance to direct any of these plays as they are now very much out of fashion, and I can’t quite see any of our very modern ‘bright young things’ who are current Artistic Directors even contemplating such shows. They are still terrific!
Rachael wasn’t convinced on any of these – and we went on to Mary Beth Henley’s beautiful tragic-comedic take on Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS, CRIMES OF THE HEART (1981),Masha Norman’s extraordinary ‘NIGHT, MOTHER (1983) about a young woman who wants to kill herself, and the mother frantically trying to stop it, and also from 1983 British playwright Sarah Daniels undeservedly neglected MASTERPIECES (1983) about pornography and how a young woman’s obsession with it eventuates in her murdering an innocent man, and more recent works David Auburn’s brilliant PROOF (2000), and Lynn Nottage’s extraordinary RUINED (2009), a truly unique and devastatingplay involving women in civil war torn African Congo. Amazing!
However, it was William Mastrosimone’s EXTREMITIES (1982) and the character of Marjorie that was the one that fired Rachael’s passion and interest, and that it complemented the 2016 UNITED NATIONS “WHITE RIBBON’ Week was an extra incentive. I was initially very reluctant to do this play. I was concerned by the seeming racist aspect re the only make character being Hispanic (so, of course he was a rapist), I was also worried about the violence and how it appealed to Rachael – and others in a blood-lusty revengeful ‘anti-men’ way. Also, I didn’t think she was right for the role of Marjorie who is basically a kind of nymphet prick-teaser, drawing the question as to whether or not she is partly responsible for provoking the rape. Having also just really starting to recover from the savage bullying in the workplace by women I had received – twice – over the past five years at different places, I was wary of anything that provoked a female madness to destroy. Gradually, however, Rachael wore my resistance down; we had a reading with actors from my Adelaide Acting class, which was great, and an old NIDA student and dear friend, Adam Tumonien became available to play Raul. Adam and I had been plotting to do something together ever since my arrival in Adelaide June 2015. Rachel secured us the rights from New York; so with with Rachael as a different kind of Marjorie, and Adam as a different kind of Raul from other productions, I then cast Nikki Souverjitis as Terri and Stefani Rossi as Patricia, two very talented young actresses who had done my Acting classes, and would also bring something relatively new and different to their respective roles, we locked it all in – and then the drama really began.
I knew from the start that I needed to do something radically different from previous productions, which was something that moved away from conventional staging and ‘naturalism’. I then commenced doing, as I always do, a massive amount of research – not just into the performance history of the play , but also into the ‘heart of darkness’ of human rape and torture. What follows is essentially based on my research, as well as a kind of literary an imaginative fantasia that I offer as a kind of ‘Introduction’ to this production of William Mastrosimone’s EXTREMITIES.
THE ORIGINAL PRODUCTIONS
EXTREMITIES has been successfully performed through-out the world ever since its first off-Broadway season, opening 22 December 1982 at the Cheryl Crawford Theatre, Westside Arts Centre. It had previously been staged in July 1980 by the Rutgers Theatre Company with Ellen Barber as Marjorie, and was directed by John Bettenbender. Whilst I do not know the full extent of this first outing, nonetheless, that Mastrosimone in the respective published editions dedicates the play To Jack Bettenbender suggests that Bettenbender played a major collaborative role in bringing the play together.
It was next produced in March 1981 as part of the 5th Annual Festival of New American Plays by the illustrious and justly celebrated Actors Theatre of Louisville under the then Artistic Direction of the legendary American theatre-artist Jon Jory. The production was again directed John Bettenbender with Ellen Barber as Marjorie, but for this production the role of Patricia was played by Kathy Bates. Later that year, in June 1981, this production represented the USA in the Baltimore International Festival; Gordana Rashovitch played Marjorie.
[Digression: but an interesting one] – This annual Festival of New American work established by Jon Jory.is now called the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Its annual presentation and subsequent publication of these new works is eagerly anticipated each year not only throughout the Americas but also world-wide (including by little old me here in Adelaide). Past ‘hits’ and ‘finds’ have included not only EXTREMITIES, but also Donald L. Coburn’s THE GIN GAME (1978), Mary Beth Henley’s CRIMES OF THE HEARTS (1981), and Donald Margulies DINNER WITH FRIENDS (1998) – all subsequent Pulitzer Prize winners for Drama for their respective years. Furthermore, it is widely suspected that the highly respected, popular, successful, but unknown ‘Jane Martin’ is actually a pseudonym of Jon Jory; perhaps the most well-known plays by ‘Jane Martin’ are Anton in Show Business, Cementville, the on-going collection of monologues for women Talking With…, Clear Glass Marbles, Coup, Criminal Hearts, Cul-De-Sac, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, Good Boys, Jack and Jill, and Keely and Du. Intriguingly, Criminal Hearts and Cul-de-Sac have strong resonances with EXTREMITIES in terms of themes, characters, and Given Circumstances.
As previously stated the New York opened 22 December, 1982. It featured a young Susan Sarandon as Marjorie, Ellen Barkin as Terry, James Russos as Raul, Deborah Hedwall as Patricia, and was directed by Robert Allen Ackerman.
It was, however, Farah Fawcett who scored biggest with the role of Marjorie, taking over the role in 1983 and subsequently making the successful film version in 1986, which featured James Russos as Raul, Alfre Woodard as Patricia, and Diana Scarwid as Terri.
One of the original CHARLIE’S ANGELS, wife of American TV hunk (and SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) Lee Majors, and later ‘companion’ to another 70s hunk Ryan O’Neal, Farrah Fawcett was one of the great P.B’s (Professional Beauties) of the 1970s and 1980s, with her 1976 red swim-suit poster being the most popular and successful pin-up poster of all-time – even more than WW2’s Betty Grable. Furthermore, as she proved time and time again, Farah Fawcett was an actress of considerable power, depth and integrity, nominated for numerous awards and highly respected and regarded within the American theatre, film and television performing arts.
Arguably, her success and acclaim as Marjorie in EXTREMITIES was the actual artistic high-point of her career. Her performance defined the role, particularly in a number of areas. It did not, however, make her performance definitive of the role, as many other leading different American actresses have subsequently successfully played Marjorie, including Ellen Barkin, Karen Allen, and Lauren Hutton. Nonetheless, the overt sexual persona and feminine beauty, allure and desirability of Farrah Fawcett highlights a very important aspect of Marjorie, one that has to do with notions and concepts of an idealized American feminine sexuality in the early 1980s, which she most certainly represented. Part of the initial success of the play rested in the box-office drawcard and power of seeing ‘live’ the beautiful Farrah Fawcett in a state of undress on-stage, as well as the voyueristic pleasure associated with seeing her being molested and sexually assaulted. Following subsequent theories about American schlock horror films, such as Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street film series, and others, there is a somewhat perverse delight is watching the beautiful people, these representatives of a rich American middle class and ‘celebrity’ get attacked and destroyed – we want to see it – a cathartic release for pent up feelings of envy and guilt and desire. Nonetheless, it is to Farah Fawcett’s great integrity as an actress that she delivers an truly wonderful performance in what could be simply dismissed as a ‘bimbo role.
As previously stated, despite Farah Fawcett’s excellence in the role of Marjorie, the character, as well as the other characters, have been interpreted in many different ways, and in many different countries, including different parts of the USA, the UK, Europe, Australia, as well as Russia, South America, Turkey and India where the notion of women and ownership of body is considerably different than so-called post-modern ‘Western’ feminist influenced society. The following is just a hint at the various ways the play and the characters have been interpreted throughout the world.
THIS PRODUCTION: EXTREMITIES – ADELAIDE 23-26 NOVEMBER, 2016
William Mastrosimone’s EXTREMITIES can be read and performed (and has been) in a number of ways – part ‘psychological thriller’, part ‘American Gothic’, part ‘Black Satiric Comedy’, part ‘Court Drama’, part ‘Feminist Drama’. It is unique – and continuing appeal evident in the fact that it has never totally dropped out of performance since the original productions.
It is not difficult to see why the play has retained its high worldwide performance ranking – the issues that it raises are still as pertinent and as challenging as ever. One particular ‘feminist’ debate that the play continues to reflect is the controversial bombshell that American ‘feminist’ writer Camille Paglia exploded in the 1990s on the issue of ‘date rape’ and a woman’s responsibility when it comes to rape. The raging war between Paglia and other noted feminists at the time, including Naomi Woolf as well as Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin, and Katha Pollitt, finds it ‘mirror up to nature’ in Extremities. It is a debate that continues. At the risk of enflaming the dragon, I will bravely attempt to encapsulate Paglia’s position, one that is supported by some contemporary medical and psychological experts, that rape is primarily sexually motivated, and Paglia’s concern has been to remove the seeming misleading false romanticism of certain influential ‘feminists’; she called Gloria Steinem ‘the Stalin of Feminism’, criticized Naomi Woolf for blaming anorexia on the media; Katha Pollitt accused Paglia of ‘celebrity seeking’ by ‘portraying feminism and not sexism as the problem’; the slagging matches between Paglai and Dworkin re pornography are amazing – no quarter given in this battle of ‘women-beware-women’, and makes the battle in the play seemingly tame in comparison. Back away guys, let the women have this one – it’s best. On this matter, however, Paglia, is taking a rather orthodox lead, derived in part from Emerson’s 19th Century American philosophical life-style essay, “Self-Reliance”, in that she desires women not to simply take the conservative ‘feminist line’; ‘I am Woman Hear me Roar’ – but what kind of roar are your making? ‘No’ does mean ‘No’, but prior to that moment women should be better informed about ‘risk factors’, and to use this knowledge to lower the risk of rape. Fine to dress up sexually and flaunt with sexual pride, but if you then go up to a man’s bedroom alone (where drugs and booze are the extra ‘party elements’ incentives) you are knowingly entering a primary risk factor in regard to rape. It is an argument for common sense over hedonistic pleasure. I have not done the argument full justice, and am fully aware of the heated passions this can create – I will let the play speak for itself – but the argument is in there. You make up your own mind. What I will add, however, is a comment by George Steiner – “We walk into our problems wide-eyed’.
Here are some juicy ‘feminist’ quotes to get the tempers and temperaments going:
- CAMILLE PAGLIA
2. ANDREA DWORKIN
3. NAOMI WOOLF
4. GLORIA STEINEM
5. GERMAINE GREER
6. AND OTHERS
7. AND SOME GUYS – JUST FOR THE SHEER HELL OF IT…..
COULD YOU KILL? WOULD YOU?
A woman’s responsibility when it comes to rape is just one of the issues that the play raises; another is – and of primary concern – what would it take for you to deliberately commit an act of murder? Would you do it? Could you actually do it? Could you ‘play God’? Would you? What would drive you to this extreme action?
This is a confronting physically and psychologically violent play – about violence. It is a look into Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, into the reality of ‘the beast’ and ‘the horror’ that lurks inside all of us. However, it takes an even bolder step into the particular form and nature of female violence. Subsequently, it taps into themes of female violence in drama as ancient as 5th Century BCE Athens, exemplified by Sophocles’ Electra and Medea, and Euripides’ The Bacchae, and in the early modern drama of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891).
It has been a particular theme within 20th Century US and UK drama, exemplified by Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928), Joseph Kramm’s The Shrike (1952), Sarah Daniels’ Masterpieces (1983), as well as popular musical theatre pieces such as Kander and Ebb’s Chicago (1975) and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd (1979), and Quentin Tarrantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) and Kill Bill 2 (2006), and – for good measure – Nurse Ratchet (as played by Louise Fletcher Milos Forman’s film of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), as well as Bette Davis in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) – two brilliant portrayals of female violence, madness, and revenge. It is also a primary aspect of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1991), which has also recently been successfully re-produced in Adelaide. As with all these characters and plays the message is tragically similar – violence breeds violence and the blood flowing only stops when one or both parties decide to stop or dies.
I have mentioned a couple of times the issue of ‘women-beware-women’. This is in reference to Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean ‘revenge’ drama Women Beware Women (c. 1612), and relates to the particular way women fight amongst themselves. Shakespeare doesn’t pull any punches here – look how Rosalind launches into Phoebe with personal vitriolic insults in As You Like It (c. 1599), and Viola isn’t too complimentary about Olivia either in Twelfth Night (1601). One of the best ‘bitch scenes’ in theatre is in Moliere’s The Misanthrope (1666). This too has very much been a feature of 20th and 21st Century drama in theatre and film, exemplified by Clare Booth Luce’s bitingly funny all female play, The Women (1936), and the ‘black black’ school-girl film comedies Michael Lehman’s Heathers (1988) and Mark Waters’ and Tina Fey’s Mean Girls (2004).
What are you saying, Tony? That Extremities is funny! Well – yes – sort of.
Perhaps the most startling realization that this company has faced in producing Extremities is that it is often very funny. This has been as surprising as it is also alarming, particularly as it is the would-be rapist, Raul, who is the prime generator of the laughs. It is here that I was astounded at the sheer cleverness and brilliance of Mastrosimone’s writing. Like a modern day Shakespeare’s Richard III the character of Raul charms all with his naïve wit. Then there are the numerous wise-cracks, of which American drama excels, as the respective female characters tear into each other in true ‘women-beware-women’ sarcasm and ‘mean-girls’ bitchiness – completely manipulated by the tiger (Raul) they have, for the moment, by the tail. It has the same shocking ‘black humour’ of another late 20th Century seminal work on violence – Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). There is a heightened theatrical, almost satirical edge to the four characters, which is why I have not gone for a straight conventional ‘naturalistic’ production.
As Mastrosimone very kindly wrote to this company, these woman are ‘friends’ by circumstances and not choice. Patricia took the lease/ownership of an old farmhouse, advertised for housemates and what she got was Marjorie and Terri. They don’t really know each other as they are still renovating the house. Mastrosimone’s ‘backstory’ to the characters is important – it is a warning not to sentimentalize these female characters. They can be seen as a type of cross-section of particular archetypes of American women from the early 1980s. They do not represent all women. There is a masculine satiric eye here; which is why I have kept the play firmly grounded as a piece of ‘theatre’ rather than ‘naturalism’. It should never be forgotten that this brilliant play on violence, and female violence in particular, was written by a man. This is by no means a criticism of Mastrosimone; rather a compliment – in that he is so cleverly able to capture an audiences imagination, passions and beliefs and take them on this roller-coaster entertainment; but he is the omnipresent presence, the elephant in the room so to speak, who is quite rightly and justly protective of his internationally successful play. I would be too, and I just hope that I am fully honouring his every intentions and words. Another reason why I have kept this production rooted in the theatre is because I want the audience to remain focused on the intellectual debate that is raging within the room. I also want them to be aware of the theatrical heritage that the play taps into, as listed above, by making the ‘fireplace’ central and more like a sacrificial altar than a ‘naturalistic’ ‘Americana’ fireplace. I want the audience to think as well as feel. So please – don’t be on the lookout as to whether or not we are being 1980s American ‘naturalsitic’; I can tell you now we are not. We are certainly aiming for an impression, but not an imitation. Mastrosimone is not specific about where or when the play is actually set; we have made a rough decision for our own sakes – Demarest, New Jersey if you want to know – but we make no attempt to be specific, honouring the authors intentions in that this scenario could actually happen anywhere – its theme and subject is universal.
As this play demonstrates there is nothing appealing about violence; to seek the destruction of another human being is abnormal – and yet? Can it be justified? Agatha Christie convincingly presented a justification with her Murder on the Orient Express (1934) – perhaps the only killers that Hercule Poirot let off!
But could you actually do it? I don’t know how many times I have watched young actresses eyes light up with murderous glee when performing Lady Macbeth’s speeches, or when doing ‘The Cell Block Tango’ from the musical Chicago. Whilst there is certainly a heightened theatrical appeal, nonetheless, there is very real horror in the impassioned vehemence behind ‘He had it comin’!’. What I love about Extremities is the debate that it creates, and one that I hope will continue after the performance. I was initially very nervous about doing this play, knowing full well the heated responses past productions have generated. What it also does, however, is remind one that real evil exists in one’s own community for which there is a need to be ever on one’s guard – a fact that Adelaideans in particular are all too aware of when reminded of certain crimes and unsolved mysteries such as ‘The Somerton Man’, ‘The Beaumont Children’, and in more recent times ‘The Snowtown Murders’. Faced with real evil – could you kill? Would you? In this age when there is a real danger of complacency, de-sensitization towards violence (we all just watched the complete destruction of Syria – on TV!), and the alarming off-handed braggadocio way our youth comment and communicate re violence (i.e. ‘cyber-bullying’), the current dilemma that far too many teachers daily face – the crippling fear of offending youthful sensibilities and subsequent punitive action sanctioned and endorsed by parents and HR authorities – then yes – this is very much a play for NOW.
I am reminded of two further things relevant to this play. Alfred Hitchcock was somewhat shocked by the off-hand attitude to violence that his films, such as Psycho (1960) seemed to generate. In a subsequent film, Torn Curtain (1966) Hitchcock wanted to show how extremely difficult it is to actually kill a person. This is evident in the rather lengthy and torturous scene in which US spy Paul Newman and a farmer’s wife have to kill an East German agent in a deserted farmhouse without a gun – deliberately agonizing to watch. On the other hand, I am also reminded of Brecht’s famous warning about Hitler that is now often placed at the end of his The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) ‘Don’t yet rejoice, O world, at his departing / The bitch that bore him is on heat again’. I’m from that group that euphemistically can be called ‘the last of the “Baby Boomers”, coming from a generation whose parents actually to war defending democratic principles and human rights. Do I have it within me to actually kill in defense of these hard won rights and privileges – I don’t know. I empathize with the crippling uncertainty that the ‘modern day’ characters in Extremities face. Nonetheless, as a teacher I recently draw a group of young acting students’ attention to the French Revolution’s National Assembly 1792 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, one of the most important and influential declarations of human rights in the course of human history. Combined with President Roosevelt’s 1941 Four Freedoms, which I recently found emblazoned in a wonderful piece of Adelaide Street Art off Sturt Street near West Terrace, is the real reason behind why I am directing and producing this vitally important play, for this vitally important event – WHITE RIBBON!
If I can change one person’s notion, to stand against real and/or insidious violence and complacency then I have succeeded. It is a battle, with uncertain results, but the journey is worth it. It is part of what MYSTIQUE PRODUCTIONS and TONY KNIGHT – ACTING are determined to achieve as an artistic principle – to provide challenging, topical, relevant theatre to the good citizens of Adelaide. One final quote – and perhaps a sobering solace as you leave the theatre – from W. H. Auden’s poem 1 September 1939, written on the outbreak of WW2 – ‘We must love one another or die’. Can you?