Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Mask of Satori

It began, as so many wonderful things do, as a mistake.
I was racking my brain- (an invariably fruitless torture, my brain being usually occupied with so many digressive musings and idle flippancies it has little chance of even recognizing it is being racked, let alone yielding some sustainable ideas under such self imposed scrutiny) -for a worthy theme for a grant I was writing under the auspices of the Theatre Communications Group. With the vague notion that the Neutral Mask work that I had dabbled in with Theatre du Soliel alum Georges Bigot might be an interesting well to dip into, I did what any modern seeker of the truth suffering from Delusions of Grandeur- (and can you really call it suffering? I mean its fantastic!) -would do: I googled it.

And among the fifty thousand results that came up in .005 seconds was a listing that immediately grabbed my usually addled cerebrum by the throat and throttled it into a delicious and buzzing submission. There it was in black and white about twelve search pages in: The Mask of Satori.
Being a huge Japanophile may have had a hand in my misreading the listing or it was actually a misprint- I'm not sure. Its too late now anyway- not only am I committed to the notion of the possibility that there is indeed a Mask of Satori out there- (Satori being the Japanese word for enlightenment or epiphany) -but I got the grant, a coveted Fox Fellowship.

Of course I now know it was a mistake. Either the listing was misspelled or I saw what I wanted to see- (a penchant of mine) -but the listing referred to The Mask of Sartori, Sartori being the famed Italian mask maker who developed what is known as The Noble Mask, the genderless, ageless and therefore haunting mask reportedly carved under theatre lights- (since that is where it would live its lifetime, devoid of nationality) for Jacques LeCoq as a kind of “truth serum” for training actors.

The Truth

I was interested in this kind of truth. Blessed with what has been called a “rubbery” face- I take it as a compliment- I have tried throughout my career to explore my opposite; to seek my personal doppleganger. To find a silent and solemn Yin to the malleable and sometimes clownish Yang of my expressive face. My study of Iaido, the Japanese art of drawing the sword, where any facial expression is deemed unsuitable, bears that out. In Iaido the facial cast is simply a solemn look that says “most regrettable” to your doomed opponent. I was interested in exploring that idea with mask. I am exploring it in earnest now, thanks to this grant and the bold souls at the California Shakespeare Theatre who suggested I apply.

Journey With Intent

There is something about going on a journey with intent.
This is to be a quixotic journey. Quixotic; fittingly coming from Don Quixote, who inspired me so many years ago when manifested by Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. But the intent, the impossible dream in this case involves the human face. The universal mask. And as I walked the history drenched cobblestones of Dublin and now the whitewashed alleyways and bustling waterfronts of the Greek islands of Poros and Aegina prior to my arrival on Hydra where I will be training, I have begun to see every face, from the grizzled ferryboat worker I befriended to the harried waitress at the Electra Taverna as a mask.

There are two distinct looks I've begun to notice in the people of Greece. Just like the comic and tragic masks that were born here, the men and women seem to me to (through the forces of gravity or hardship or just the salt tinged air) settle into distinct categories. For the men there are two avenues: either they follow the Appian way into what can only be described as a kind of Zero Mostelish jowleyness, thick lipped and liquid eyed, perfect for arguing and debating, or they fold in on themselves in a Spencer Tracy-like gern, a perpetuall squint and squeeze around glinty eyes that sparkle with mischief.

For the women, two different options await them with the onset of maturity, before which they are simply goddesses; sylphs and sirens with eyebrows as sculpted as a Donatello and skin the color of pistachios warmed in the blistering Hellenic sun. Either they age softly, rounding and becoming bulbous in all directions, underarm dewlaps perfect for grandmotherly protection, widows' peaks encroaching on the mask of their prominent brows like ravens at a cemetery or they go all Melina Mercouri, lips curdled down in a crimson parody of the tragic mask, poised to go Medea on your ass should you inadvertently step in front of them in line at the super market.

As you can tell, I've been looking at faces. After a veritable lifetime of focusing on the human animal from the chin down- I even have my students put bags on their heads- telling them I'm only interested in what goes on below my favorite body part: the chin- I am now seeing faces as tools; archetypes of expression waiting to be exploited, categorized, used.

It seems to me that here on this volcanic rock that pokes out of an Aegean that seems to stick like clear blue glue to this craggy Minoan moonscape, the Gods are still here in every grin and grimace, every comic and tragic visage.

I wonder: when we start to see faces as tools for our art, do we cheapen them? Or do we turn them into Gods?
I guess that's part of why I'm here.
Journey with intent.
Thank you Aphrodite.

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