SEVEN THINGS I LEARNED FROM FOURTEEN SHOWS
Technically thirteen. I skipped one show. But I really enjoyed hanging out with the cast and crew and seeing them get their well-deserved applause. As it turns out, it proved fairly educational, too.
One of the goals of the Two Gentlemen project was to allow people to see the source material in a new way. Certainly I wanted people to come away with some extra understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare. But this is also a work of film criticism. I'm not in the camp that thinks you can over-analyze a movie. Not a good movie, anyway. I consider The Big Lebowski a modern classic, and as such it bears new fruit the more you think about it.
What I didn't realize was that seeing the play performed in New York, under the direction of Frank Cwiklik, would add new layers of understanding. The play on stage, distanced from my script, stood as a work of scholarship on its own.
As such, here are, in no particular order, seven big things I learned about the movie that I hadn't realized just by seeing the movie or by doing the translation.
Frank emphasized that the Dude and Walter are very much like parents to Donnie. Neither man has any children of their own, and the narrator all-but-explicitly reinforces the notion that the Dude's coming offspring is a sort of cosmic replacement for Donnie. (We can safely assume that Donnie's own parents are gone at the time of the film.)
Sometimes Walter is the protective mother bear, reassuring Donnie it'll be okay, and sometimes he's the harsh father; either way, he is more interested in a relationship with his 'child', seeking to replace the element of family he lost in the divorce. The Dude takes less interest in Donnie, much as he seems pleased to be spared involvement with his own impending physical child.
Parents who lose a child are often surprised at the stress the situation places on the marriage; instead of being able to be strong for each other or see each other through it, the pain actually tears them apart, and divorce often results. This is of course reflected in the film's Dude-Walter confrontation, and in the play, we emphasized the anger here.
In the film, the age spread between the Dude, Walter and Donnie isn't huge, but the images reinforce it in subtle ways: Dude and Walter are bearded and a little stockier (sometimes a lot stockier), Donnie is beardless, dressed a little younger, brighter colors. In the New York run, our Knave and Sir Walter were in their thirties and forties, with Donald only out of college a couple of years.
Those of us who sat in the first few rows smelled the baby powder used as Donald's ashes, emphasizing his childlike status.
Lots of people in the movie seem to have sidekicks. Lebowski has Brandt. Uli has his nihilists (who might as well be one person). Jesus has Liam. Maude has Knox. Everyone knows their place in the social order, who is boss and who is lackey.
Frank emphasized this on stage, making the unnamed nihilists a little dumber than Oliver, making Blanche a dimmer bulb than the more active Woo, turning Knox into a strange little pet more than a houseguest.
What's interesting about this repeating social dynamic is how it fails between the Dude/Knave and Walter. They are always jockeying for position, arguing over whose plan to follow and what to do next; both of them want to be boss, each challenges the other, each believes himself in the right. If only their relationship were as clear as Lebowski and Brandt's, for instance, there'd be a lot fewer arguments.
It's no great observation that the Dude is a character lost in the 60s/70s haze of liberalism-cum-disappointment. What is more interesting is how the film carries the trend of being lost in time down to several other characters.
Walter is clearly stuck in Vietnam. Donnie is completely out of the temporal element to the point that he cannot follow a conversation. Lebowski's Algeresque bombast stems from an earlier and more fiery brand of conservatism than the more soft-spoken Reagan/Bush years of the film. Jesus' problem is not his era but his age within that era; the time is fine, but his life would be simpler if he were eight years old. The Stranger need hardly be commented upon. And so on, and so forth.
Two Gentlemen is set, more or less, in a fictionalized cod-Elizabethan era, but our brilliant costume designer Steph Cathro used the wardrobe choices to shatter time like a glass ball and fling it around the room. We start with the Chorus as Shakespeare himself, pinning us to one time, and then bounce around history: the Knave's period outfit is twinned with sunglasses, Walter's Crusader uniform suggests a time centuries before Shakespeare was even born, Lebowski is done up as a 19th-century robber baron, Knox a Bauhaus-y hipster. And so on, and so forth. Because the Knave's costume combined old times and new, he was most able to move between different characters of different eras, and always fit in to the time.
Special thanks to Brianna Tyson, our Maude, for pointing this out.
In the film, we learn early on that Donnie is out of his element.
At the end of the film, he becomes of all four classical elements: cremated (fire), reduced to ashes (earth), scattered on the wind (air) to the ocean (water).
This was of course made very clear on stage, with Frank's inclusion of a beautiful funeral for Donald to depict the fire, not to mention the lengthy 'elements' speech I wrote for Sir Walter.
(5) Parenting Rejected.
Even as the Dude and Walter are dealing with their own term as 'parents' to Donnie, there's an undercurrent of throwing off one's own parental mantle running through the movie.
Early on it is said that the Dude doesn't have much use for the name his parents gave him. The next time the topic is breached, we find that Lebowski's children are not in fact his children, and his eventual treatment of them (stealing from the foundation) certainly implies a severance of relationship. Maude has detached from her father and has already made plans to detach from her future child's father; Bunny has run away from home.
Some of the lines in the Shakespearean translation make this more explicit; Brother Seamus' lament at the loss of Bonnie to Karl Hungus, for instance, or the Knave's arrival at thoughts of Maude's father. But I think the Shakespearean context, not content, is what got me thinking of the idea, given the Bard's penchant for sons finishing their father's work (Hamlet, Macbeth, perhaps the odd historical bit).
Befriending the cast of a project makes you see things a little differently.
Ever notice how in the movie, characters just disappear, often never to be heard from again? Sometimes forever, sometimes for bizarrely long stretches? It's not terribly subtle in the movie, to be certain, but seeing it on stage performed by people I knew... this isn't the most eloquent way of putting it, but it makes the point clearly: "When Tara Reid disappears, I don't give a shit. When Becky disappears, I'm, like, hey, where's Becky."
Most characters don't get a decent exit from the flick. Maude gets sort of left in the bedroom, as I recall. Treehorn, who everyone keeps talking about, ultimately gets lost in a haze. Da Fino gets all the buildup in the world and for nothing. Even Donnie (in Steve Buscemi form) doesn't get a proper sendoff scene, until out come the ashes.
Something special happens to Donnie, though; he manages to regularly disappear during scenes he's actually in. They say that acting is reacting, and playing passive is difficult. Donnie's exclusion is exacerbated in Two Gentlemen; I stood in for the actor at a rehearsal once, and was kind of shocked at how much time I had to spend just looking blank, trying to follow along. I don't think I could have played that role.
This may not have much to do with anything, but one thing I really giggled about in watching Two Gentlemen was how, in addition to everything else, it was also a really polite version of the movie.
I think you could do an entire series of movie spoofs just by making everyone exceptionally courteous to one another. Oh, I know, there's plenty of Shakespearean insults in Two Gentlemen, but all the sex has to be dealt with in circumlocutions, the profanity is unsatisfying and everyone's on their best British behavior in the churchgoing way.
The thing is, most people in the movie aren't terribly polite. And those that are aren't exactly in the catbird seat: Brandt is the perpetual second banana, apologetic mensch Da Fino gets ignored and poor meek Donnie winds up dead.
The big Lebowski, the proper gent the square community respects, proves a goldbricker, and if anyone comes out on top in the end, it's the Dude, who doesn't go in for traditional good manners, even when the Stranger makes a request for same.
Like I said, the joy of a classic is that you'll always find something new. I hope the lucky few who got to see this production learned something new about the movie. I sure did.