What Do Writers Owe Their Characters?

11/02/2012 9:00 AM |

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  • Jim Baldassare

In movies like Funny Games and Cabin in the Woods, the writers grapple with their obligations to their characters—like, is it immoral to hurt them? Maybe if you spend your days writing fiction this can become a pressing concern. But to me it seems insane. Who cares about fictional characters? They’re fictional! Yet the same theme preoccupies Alicegraceanon, a new play by Kara Lee Corthron (developed with and directed by Kara-Lynn Vaeni) in which three semi-related literary and historical figures grapple with their characterhood: Alice, of Wonderland fame; Grace Slick, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane; and Anonymous, the hero of Go Ask Alice, the faux diary chronicling a teenager’s descent into drug-addicted ruin. (Was anyone ever so naive as to believe it was really real?)

For this production, the Irondale in Fort Greene has been remade for a happening: up in the balcony, the audience is offered free pieces of cinnamon toast and has to pass a papier mâché Cheshire Cat and band before it makes its way downstairs, past the actors dressed up as hippies who offer groovy encouragement, to the seats and stage, where a dude in shades played acoustic guitar and sang Beirut and Fleet Foxes songs. The first 20 or 30 minutes of the show are designed as a be-in, with a live band performing songs from Surrealistic Pillow as we’re introduced to the characters. Then, for some reason, everybody left the stage, and a Dolly Parton coverband played a few songs while one actor sold beers from a cooler. It went on a long time.

Then the Pirandello-esque play properly begins: Alice, Grace and Anonymous awake in an empty room, unsure of how they got there or who each other are, slowly figuring it out. Alice learns she has been immortalized in literature and resents her friend Lewis Carroll for it; Grace resents band-founder Paul Kantner for the way he controls her; and Anonymous resents the Mormon woman writing her story. The three feel abused, disrespected, unfairly recreated in their authors’ images—denied their individuality, their personhood. (All three are also infamous for their drug use, which serves as an interesting parallel for having an author, as in both instances they’re beyond their own control.) They each have a literary antecedent: Anonymous is a Pinocchio-type, Grace a Galatea, and Alice, well, an Alice? And each works through her issues; in the end, they come together as friends and as women to support each other. But will they stay condemned to their fates: will Anonymous die? Grace join Jefferson Starship? Alice become the child-bride of Lewis Carroll? Nah. “Fuck destiny,” Grace says. It’s the least the playwright could do for her characters.

Alicegraceanon continues through November 9. More info here.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart