by John Angell Grant
Daily Planet Correspondent
Word for Word opened a theatrical staging of novelist Annie Proulx’s short story “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” on Thursday at the Magic Theater in San Francisco.
Proulx is probably best known for her wonderful 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Shipping News.”
Word for Word is an unusual and interesting theater company. The group’s mandate is to present on stage works of fiction, not drama, and to stick rigidly to the writer’s exact text.
Thus, in Word for Word productions, the actors speak not only the story's dialogue, but also its narration, exposition and description. When the group is on target, these stagings are very powerful.
The current production, however, struggles to find an appropriate performance framework for Proulx’s story, and doesn’t solve that problem until more than half-way through the show.
“The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” is a quirky and episodic story of three generations of a dysfunctional Wyoming ranching family.
Humorous and poignant, Proulx’s saga is similar in flavor and tone to other contemporary American novelists of the west, such as Jim Harrison, Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. Running about 90 minutes without an intermission, “Bunchgrass” tells a rambling family story of poverty and wealth, hard-nosed patriarchs, incest, prodigal children, alcohol and drugs, and other family conflicts.
Performed by seven actors, several of them playing multiple roles, much of the show appears to be an ensemble story in which all the family members have moments of story importance.
The play’s final third, however, focuses on lonely and obese daughter Ottoline, and makes it her story. Ottoline’s startling conversations with an abandoned tractor eventually verge on the sexual. A sudden positive turn of events in Ottoline's life gives “Bunchgrass” a wistfully happy ending.
Director Sandra Langsner Crew’s staging has several problems. For one, Proulx’s story narrative is broken into tiny fragments that are divided among the seven performers. The series of quick cues that this requires distracts from the content of Proulx’s text.
In addition, the foot noise of the actors, who move on and off the stage quickly again and again through their many short narrative scenes, also distracts from the lyricism of Proulx’s prose.
Third, the fast pacing of the show’s early scenes lends itself to a satirical, and at times buffoonish interpretation of the quirky characters by the actors–but this does not reflect the compassion Proulx feels for her troubled family members.
Word for Word’s production doesn’t settle down until its final third, when Ottoline (Amy Kossow) begins to have encounters with a talking tractor (Brian Keith Russell). This part of Crews’ staging proves to be quite clever and powerful.
B. Chico Purdiman's cattle dealer Flyby, appearing also in this final segment, is one of the evening's stronger performances.
The play’s final third is strong for one reason – the actors get away from satirical performance and play the characters for real.
Novelist and short story writer Proulx did not come to fiction writing until she was in her 50s. In a 1997 interview she wisely advised aspiring writers, “Spend some time living before you start writing.”
Proulx then went on to skewer a platitude found in creative writing programs far and wide, by adding, “What I find to be very bad advice is the snappy little sentence, ‘Write what you know.’ It is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given. If we write about what we know we never grow.”
“The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” presented by Word for Word at the Magic Theater, Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco, through Sept. 17. For tickets and information, call (415) 437-6775.
For information about Word for Word's school and library tours of classic and contemporary fiction, call (415) 364-1616, or visit the website (www.zspace.org).