A Self Serving Blog Post by an Obsessed Director
By all accounts, Paula Vogel is an unassuming person. She is a stout woman with short grey hair and glasses. But, behind this relatively plain appearance is a mind that has left a deep and profound influence on American Theater. Her plays serve universal themes while delving into topics that make you slightly (read: extremely) uncomfortable. To read a Paula Vogel play once is to do it a disservice. You probably have to read the piece twice, three times or more. (In the case of How I Learned to Drive, I lost count around August of 2011, by which time I had lived in my room for a period of three weeks, leaving only to use the restroom or microwave a Celeste Pizza for One.) But, on top of just reading her work, there is a lot to appreciate about this woman.
Her plays are fast paced, vivid and exciting.
They are also absolutely insane and follow the dictionary definition of ‘mindf**k.’
Picture this: a sweet elementary school teacher acquires a deadly communicable disease and travels, with her brother, to Europe to visit a doctor specializing in the disease. While traipsing through Europe she sleeps with a number of European men, including a fifty year old Dutch man still dressed in children’s lederhosen. When she finally get to the doctor, a senile Belgian man in a fright wig, she finds out that the doctor specializes in “urinalysis” (read: he drinks peoples’ pee and analyzes the taste for medical purposes). After he drinks the pee, he pulls his wig off and screams to the woman that (SPOILER ALERT!) her brother is dead. Suddenly, the scene flashes to a hospital where the teacher is standing with a different doctor, who explains how her brother actually had just died of complications from AIDS. It is then explained that the entire trip to Europe and the rest of the story (which includes a sub-plot involving smuggling stuffed rabbits across international lines) were just a dream that flashed through her head IN THE TWO SECONDS after she learns of her brother’s death.
That is basically the short version of The Baltimore Waltz, a play she wrote in 1992. Its only eighty minutes long and is played by only three actors. (Fun story: the man who originated the role of the pee drinking doctor was Joe Mantello, the same Joe Mantello who directed Wicked and recently starred in The Normal Heart in its Broadway revival.)
No matter what the topic is, Paula adds a ridiculously weird sense of humor and humanity to all of her work. Here is a short list of some of her other work:
1. The Oldest Profession
Five eighty year old women sit on a park bench and ruminate on their careers and lives.
The Twist: They are all hookers, working a beat together off a park bench in Manhattan. And then, at the end of each scene, there is a blackout and ONE OF THEM DIES! Also, around the sixty minute mark, the play slowly turns into a parable for the pitfalls of Reganomics. This play is widely considered to be Vogel’s most “straightforward” play.
2. The Long Christmas Ride Home
A family of five take a road trip to their Grandparents’ house, while revealing the emotional turmoil that the average family undergoes.
The twist: the three children are played by traditional Japanese puppets.
3. And Baby Makes Seven
A family prepares for the arrival of their newborn children.
The Twist: The family is a gay man and two lesbians, who already have three children together, all of whom are imaginary.
4. Hot N’ Throbbing
A divorced man returns to his former home, despite a restraining order from his wife, and attempts to make amends.
The twist: The wife is a “feminist porn” writer. When her ex-husband returns to the house, she shoots him in the butt, tends to his wound, and then gets strangled with a belt. All of this is interspersed with voice overs, reading the script of her latest “adult” screenplay, while the descriptions are acted out by her TWO CHILDREN!
Mind you, these plays are not just odd and ridiculous for the sake of being so (Christopher Durang has that market cornered). Every piece that Vogel writes has another element that pulls the plays away from being absolutely f**king bonkers: heart.
Her plays, while wild in description, are filled with realistic emotions, clever dialogue and a story that is both universal and unambiguous at the same time. The themes she brings to her work are a testament to what American playwrights look to achieve in their work today.
Actually, its more than a testament. As an educator, Paula has taught such playwrights as Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Bridget Carpenter and Adam Bock.
When I selected How I Learned to Drive as the play I wanted to direct, I did not pick it because of its subject matter or its twisted method of storytelling (I’ll spare the details, because if you have read this far without going on Facebook, you are probably (read: definitely) going to see it this weekend and I don’t want to spoil anything), but because the story she told me in that little yellow acting edition script that I bought for seven dollars spoke to me, with its universal themes of maturing, learning and the power of manipulation.
Also, it has boobs.
Paula’s work is amazing and I sincerely hope you grab a copy of one of her plays. I promise you, you will finish reading it, shut the book, grab a drink of water and a snack, and then promptly reopen it and start again from the beginning.
See How I Learned To Drive by Paula Vogel this weekend at Cabaret Theatre! Performances on Friday at 8 pm and Saturday at 3 pm & 8 pm! E-mail reservations to firstname.lastname@example.org!
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