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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Ethan Coen returns to the theater with 'A Play is a Poem'

“It’s a different medium,” says Ethan Coen, stating the obvious—but not so much.

He’s speaking of A Play is a Poem, his collection of five short one-act plays now running together at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Coen, of course, is with brother Joel, the Academy Award-winning director/producer/screenwriter of such landmark movies as No Country for Old Men, Fargo and The Big Lebowski.

But Ethan Coen has also written books of poetry and other plays, including three other evenings of one-acts likewise directed by A Play is a Poem director Neil Pepe. Presented by the Center Theatre Group, the new one, according to artistic director Michael Ritchie, offers no thematic thread other than writer Coen’s always evident “human element and antic sensibility.” Strung together, they also evoke a journey “through a century of America [with] some of the most colorful characters you’ll ever meet.”

In other words, A Play is a Poem, which hysterically conjures everything from hard-boiled film noir to bungling murderous brothers to the unnerving process of writing and submitting and rewriting movie scripts, is not at all unlike the Coen Brothers’ movies, though again, it’s a different medium.

“I can’t even conceive of the one-acts as a movie,” says Coen. “They’re totally different, and the exercise of writing them was totally different: In movies, you have editing. But in plays you have a couple actors on stage. I understand that Aristotle figured all this stuff out 2,000 years ago so I don’t have to think about it, but I still can’t explain it!”

Coen’s reference to Aristotle is fitting, in that he earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Princeton. And like the so-called Father of Western Philosophy, he has pursued so many other avenues of creative expression.

“I like to read stories, go to plays and movies, and find something interesting--and then try to do it myself,” he says. “Most people are consumers of culture, but I like to go naively and enjoy it--and then think it would be fun to replicate it.”

The five one-acts in Coen’s latest attempt were written over a period of a few years—not as long as it took to write the six separate Western stories that made up last year’s Coen Brothers’ movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

“It just happens that way, because we’re always doing other things at the same time,” says Coen of the wide timespan.

“We’d always written short movies--even before Buster. But we didn’t make any because there isn’t a market for them. Similarly, I’ve written a lot of short plays—and one full-length. Long or short, I’m interested in doing them.”

As for the one-acts in A Play is a Poem—the title for which Coen is unable to decipher even to his own satisfaction—he agrees with Ritchie.

“It’s not random, but I also can’t tell you what the unifying theme is!” he says. “I feel like they belong together—that one goes with the next, you know, like a record album, where hopefully the tracks go together, but the people who made it can’t give you an interesting answer because they don’t know, either: You ask them about the track order and get the same lack-of-enlightening answer. You just do it all by feel, if you know what I’m saying.”

Contrasting A Play is a Poem with Buster Scruggs, then, the Scruggs stories are at least “literally connected” in that they’re all Westerns.

“This doesn’t even have that,” Coen notes of A Play is a Poem, “but it still feels right. Why, I can’t tell you. Somebody else might.”

But Coen can speak about the interstitial music links between the plays, supplied by the singular singer-songwriter/actress-playwright Nellie McKay.

Variously playing piano, ukulele and xylophone, McKay ties the plays together with songs written for the show, but not of the show.

“Why do they work? It’s a different version of the same question!” says Coen. “I have no idea, but I feel strongly that they do: They’re not out of nowhere…but they are. Whatever makes her work seem coherent hopefully somehow makes mine seem the same. But the two parts work together really well, mainly, I think, because we’re basically the same. I’m basically Nellie!”

As for McKay’s original songs (she also performs the standards “In My Solitude” and “The Sunny Side of the Street,” as well as “G.E.S.,” from her 2006 album Pretty Little Head), Coen gave her “no guidance in the least.”

“I said to her something she probably assumed anyway, that there was no literal connection to the five narratives. We weren’t doing Cat Ballou—though she could have been Stubby Kaye!”

Cat Ballou, Coen fondly remembers, is the 1965 western comedy starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, with Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye providing commentary via novel musical sidebars.

“You never know where in the theater she’ll pop up, or what she’ll do,” Coen adds of McKay’s appearances in A Play is a Poem, which always surprise. “We actually made this rack for a xylophone so she could play it while walking, but it was way too heavy. It also made her look a little like Robocop, which I thought was fantastic, but she couldn’t quite handle it physically.”

A Play is a Poem continues at The Mark Heller Forum through October 13, with an off-Broadway New York run scheduled in late May and June, 2020, at the much smaller Atlantic Theater Company’s 99-seat Atlantic Stage 2.

“In a theater that size, you always feel pretty close to the stage,” says Coen. “It’s also more my speed.”

Meanwhile, Coen continues taking a break from film (brother Joel is working on a version of Macbeth, starring Frances McDormand) and is working on another play.

“I’m free to do whatever I want—which is great,” he says, noting that he’s also “free to not know what I’m doing.”

“Actors hate not knowing what comes next, but I haven’t got to the panic stage yet where I think I’ll never work again. I’m just enjoying the freedom of the stage.”



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