The Plays of Jon Lipsky, Volume One

“Yesterday’s Voices Today”

Review by Joey Madia

I still remember the day, seven years ago, returning to my secluded three acres in West Virginia from a meeting with my theatre company in New Jersey, to find a package from Larson Publications. Inside was a note, and a copy of Jon Lipsky’s Dreaming Together: Explore Your Dreams by Acting Them Out, which I promptly read and reviewed. It has never remained on the shelf for any appreciable length of time. I go to it time and time again.

Jon Lipsky passed away some months later, before we could talk. It was not until many years later, in speaking with the publisher, that I found out that Professor Lipsky had specifically requested that I receive a copy of his book for review.
Perhaps it was the name of my theatre company at the time, New Mystics, or my work with a few theatre companies that used dreams to create plays, that led to my name being placed on the potential reviewers list. Like dreams themselves, how it came to be will, in some aspects, forever remain a mystery.

It was half a year ago that I received word that Jon’s son was co-editing a two-volume collection of his father’s plays. I promptly contacted him, including a copy of my review of Dreaming Together and waited in anticipation for the collection to be released.

This review covers Volume One. I Intend to read and review Volume Two this Winter.

It is clear that the editors have assembled this collection as both a labor of love and with a clear mission to promote Jon Lipsky’s work outside of the relatively small world in which he lived and created for most of his life—Boston and Martha’s Vineyard. Through the Preface and Acknowledgments, the Biography section, and the introductions that preface each of the four plays in the first volume, one can learn a great deal about Professor Lipsky’s life, training, his highly collaborative way of creating theatre, and why he wrote the plays he did. This is essential reading to fully appreciate all that went into these works. Each play is also prefaced by a production history.

The first play in the collection, Living in Exile: A Retelling of the Iliad (1981, revised 2011), includes an Author’s Preface, wherein Lipsky tells us that the “purpose [of this adaptation] is not to modernize Homer’s text, but to tell a war story.” Lipsky succeeds so well that every young man or woman thinking of enlisting in the Armed Forces should be required to experience this play right before sitting down with the recruiter. In several of my own books and plays I present the truths of war that lay beyond the myths of pageantry and stories of heroism that invite the unaware through the prism of Spectacle into a world of all too much Reality. Living in Exile denies Spectacle, and does so in a presentational way that calls to mind the tenets of Brecht, although without so much Alienation effect.

In fact, Living in Exile was designed to be performed intimately, in living rooms. The cast, like the other plays in this volume, play numerous parts and use props, costumes, sound, and music to produce a great deal of theatricality by marrying these familiar devices with the artistry of voice, tableau, and the powerful words of the playwright.

War is war. This becomes shockingly clear if one were to overlay the change in mindset of the soldiers from the Iliad to, say, the Vietnam War, or the very war in the Middle East that the world grapples with today (indeed, the play being written in 1981 and revised 10 years after the events of September 11, 2001, indicates that this is precisely Lipsky’s process). As the narrator tells us, by the eighth year of the war, “Fragging became a rite of passage. Self-mutilation became a source of glory. Suicide, though despised, was commonplace.”

Are you aware of The 22 Project? It is named for the fact that 22 American veterans commit suicide EVERY DAY. I recently helped with an event they co-hosted, in conjunction with the VFW at which my father is Senior Vice Commander. Reading Living in Exile was often hard for me after that experience and I cannot help but think that productions of the play in conjunction with such events would open a dialogue too many Americans are unwilling to have.

Lipsky navigates honoring the classic with inserting the modern with a considerable amount of skill. He uses the universal ageless gem of sex to his advantage, and when he drops in a word like “dude” it does not feel out of place. He also dances rhythmically, flawlessly, between the macro of War and the micro of the deep personal wounds and self-reflections of those who wage it. History often sacrifices the second for the first, making plays like this essential.

In the end, it is the micro that prevails. The narrator reminds us that “This is the way the Iliad ends. Begun in anger, completed in compassion,” referring to Achilles giving King Priam the time he needs to properly bury his son Hector.

In the midst of the devastating terror attacks in France and in San Bernardino, CA and the mounting hatred of Muslims, regardless of their individual beliefs, I wonder if any such compassion will be at play when this long war finally ends.

The next play in the collection is called Walking the Volcano: A Short Play Progression (1991–2009). From the note on the script: “The eight ‘inventions’ … are variations on a theme. … we are looking in on a kind of relationship endemic to the generation that came of age in the sixties … from the moment of falling in love to the last goodbye” (p. 124). In an age where 10-minute plays are all the rage, Walking the Volcano serves as both a starter piece for theatre companies wanting to explore this aspect of theatre and a model for more deeply linking 10-minute pieces in more innovative ways than the broadly thematic one typically seen. The pieces that make up Walking the Volcano are edgy and hard-hitting—perfect for classroom use for advanced actors and directors.

My favorite play in the collection is Beginner’s Luck: A play based on the story of King Saul in the Bible (1977). As indicated by the title of this review, Lipsky had the ability to take the classical stories of antiquity and bring them to contemporary audiences with the lava of their core themes bubbling with intensity. Although not staged specifically for a living room, intimacy is as key here as in Living in Exile; the Act One opening notes suggest: “The audience should feel that a group of people have sat down with them on a hill to tell them a story.” Here we have the fundamental origins, purpose, and power of theatre, divorced from the spectacle that Peter Brook called the Deadly Theatre, which has all but destroyed the modern mainstream theatre experience. Beginner’s Luck uses its poetics and music to full effect, taking this biblical story of Saul, Samuel, Ruth, and David and situating it in the clanking machine of political intrigue and ever-shifting alliances. Beginner’s Luck at times has a Pippin-esque feel, with witty exchanges and an underlying current of the power–sexuality dyad. It is a play that requires actors who have trained their bodies, voices, and storytelling ability with equal dedication, for they truly are the fuel that makes this articulate, high-energy engine go.

The last play in the collection is Maggie’s Riff: A Bebop Turn on Jack Kerouac’s True Life Hometown Teenage Romance Maggie Cassidy (1994). Those who love the nexus of fact and legend that is Kerouac and his Beat comrades will enjoy Lipsky’s take on this dreamlike space. Bringing to mind other interpretative pieces that operate between myth and biography, such as Oliver Stone’s film The Doors, Maggie’s Riff gives us layers of interpretation: Kerouac’s, the playwright’s, and, ultimately, the reader/watcher’s. Benefiting from Lipsky’s masterful incorporation of sound and music, and the assigning of multiple roles to a single actor, Maggie’s Riff shows the heartache and darkness behind the sexy legends of the Duluoz/Lowell and big city years that all fans of this group of tortured geniuses ultimately arrive at sometime after their initial all-out love of drunken anarchy in On the Road.

The Plays of Jon Lipsky, Volume One is a master’s class in not only playwriting, but of making the classic contemporary and working with actors and directors and audiences to bring storytelling back to its central place in human communication and community. I look forward to reading and reviewing Volume Two.

TITLE: The Plays of Jon Lipsky, Volume One
EDITORS: Bill Barclay and Jonah Lipsky
PUBLISHER: Smith and Kraus
ISBN: 978-1-57525-892-8

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