A touch of theatrical déjà vu

January 17, 2012

Someone much wise and more perceptive than me (I know it’s difficult to imagine such a thing) observed that in all of literature, including drama, there only are nine or a dozen basic storylines. I forget the precise number, but it’s remarkably low. I was reminded of this in compiling my master list of theater productions opening in the next several months, during which task déjà vu jumped up and socked me in the jaw a couple of times.

For example, this past weekend saw the Vitalist Theatre offer The Ghost is Here, a 1957 play by acclaimed Japanese author Kobo Abe, running through Feb. 19 at the DCA Storefront Theater. Set in post-World War II Japan, it’s the tale of a preposterous con-artist promoting a grim scam of selling the dead or, rather, buying photos of the war dead cheap and selling them back dear to grieving relatives, claiming that an agent for the ghosts of the dead demands a cut.

Instantly, I thought of Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel, Dead Souls, in which a schemer buys up the souls of deceased serfs (this was before the 1861 Emancipation of Russian serfs) whose names remain listed as taxable property of landowners. I don’t know if Abe ever had access to Gogol’s writings, either in Russian or Japanese, but both authors are famously noted for the absurdist, almost surreal worlds they create. Dead Soul was adapted for the stage at least twice, famously by Mikhail Bulgakov in 1932 for the Moscow Art Theatre, directed by Stanislavsky, and in 1980 by Russian-fluent American playwright Tom Cole for the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

Then, this Thursday (Jan. 19), MadKap (sic) Productions offer a world premiere by Mark Salztman, Clutter, running at the Greenhouse through March 11. It’s based on the lives of the Collyer Brothers, New York City eccentrics and hoarders found dead in their garbage-packed Upper Fifth Avenue townhouse in 1947. Their fascinatingly grotesque story has been turned into plays at least twice previously, Richard Greenberg’s 2002 The Dazzle (seen locally at Steppenwolf) and last July’s Stuff, by Michael McKeever, produced at the Caldwell Theatre in Florida. The brothers also were the subject of a 2009 E. L. Doctorow work of historical fiction (as is his wont), Homer and Langley.

Obviously, plays based on historical fact aren’t necessarily works which can be sorted into a particular plot slot, although each of them must have some sort of plot structure. Greenberg’s The Dazzle, for example, featured the Collyer Brothers as competitors in a romantic triangle much like, oh, say, The Phantom of the Opera in which Christine is lured by The Phantom and Raoul. There are few other similarities except the basic plot structure; see Paragraph One above.

The attraction of history and real people is, perhaps, the fact that they are in the public domain and, therefore, can be utilized as subjects with minimal legal encumberments. Often, too, such subjects or characters already are widely known, making them somehow more attractive to potential audiences. Thus, for example, we currently have Christopher Durang’s Titanic on stage at the Athenaeum Theatre, presented by Cock and Bull Theatre (through Jan. 29). It’s a very long way from the first or only stage and film treatment of the subject, although surely it’s the most outrageous with its drag sensibilities.

Also, Lookingglass Theatre now is presenting Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, through Feb. 9, which recounts Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey’s decision to integrate major league baseball with the 1947 call-up of Jackie Robinson. This seminal moment in American sporting history has been documented onstage and in film and even in a 1981 Broadway musical, The First, produced locally some years ago by the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Literature IS déjà vu, at least to a degree. I guess that some story ideas, some plotlines and some character types never stale in their infinite variety. Or, to use even more French, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

P.S. If you think you’re reading my blog post from last week, you are wrong. This one is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT AND ORIGINAL!