This issue, I shine a light on two immensely talented dramatists whose theatrical adaptations were seen last year on the stages of Central Works, Ubuntu Theater Project (now Oakland Theater Project), TheatreFIRST, and Shotgun Players: CRISTINA GARCÍA and GEETHA REDDY.
Cristina García has adapted three of her own well-loved novels into plays: King of Cuba and The Lady Matador’s Hotel were seen recently at Central Works (http://centralworks.org), where she is Resident Playwright, and Dreaming in Cuban is in development. I asked Cristina: what’s hardest about adapting your own work? “By far the toughest part is paring back the overwhelming cascade of characters and incidents that took me years (literally) to develop, write, and polish,” she says. “I feel a little like a carpetbagger going back to pluck out the best, most dramatic parts, then carry them off, kicking and screaming, far from home. But once the kidnapping trauma is over, everything settles down a bit. ‘Oh, I like this new locale,’ says one character. ‘You mean, I don’t have to die in the play?’ asks another. And there’s an overall sense of rebirth and possibilities, of paths not taken, of compression and reconsideration that give the novels new life.” The Lady Matador’s Hotel was described as a “well-written, winning, and sensual theatrical adaptation” (Berkeleyside).
Geetha Reddy’s Far, Far Better Things, which premiered onstage as a TheatreFIRST (https://theatrefirst.com) and Shotgun Players (https://shotgunplayers.org) co-production in 2019, is a very loosely adapted, feminist take on A Tale of Two Cities. Geetha says of Dickens’s work: “I often felt buried and overwhelmed by the volume of the text. I wrestled with ‘collaborating’ with Dickens’s language, and I was never able to walk in step with his writing. So, I took full ownership over the work and pulled the whole story into the present day. Setting the play in the present allowed me to imagine a better future for Dickens’s characters who are in opposition in the book, but to me were clearly natural allies. I wanted to find a way for these women to come together in a way that was unexpected and transformative.”
She goes on, “It seems obvious now, but of course I couldn’t use much of the original novel because I wanted to give voice to characters Dickens didn’t give much language to in the first place! I have always been struck by the fact that A Tale of Two Cities has at its focal point two women who are, relatively, chalk outlines compared to the rest of the characters in the novel. Ultimately, instead, I relied on the essential plot details and themes, like revolution, immigration, sacrifice and, of course, knitting.”
Cristina is currently adapting Chekhov’s Three Sisters into The Palacios Sisters, a play with music. Cristina notes, “I wanted to create a theatrical world that captured the inherent nostalgia of Chekhov’s Three Sisters with a similar nostalgia among the Cuban exile community for an idealized past. I set the play in 1980s Miami, a period fraught with social upheaval and drug violence, further complicating my characters’ dislocation. My conversations with Chekhov have been going on for decades. Every time I return to him, either in prose or theater, I’m richly rewarded by his intimacy, his empathy, and his exquisitely distilled ruminations on what it means to be human—whether we feel we belong to our place and time, or not.”
Geetha’s adaptation of the epic, 5,000-year-old Indian poem Mahãbhãrata into a solo show for J Jha at Ubuntu Theater Project (now Oakland Theater Project: https://oaklandtheaterproject.org), premiered in 2019. It was lauded as a “fierce foray” that showcases “the true heart of the oral tradition” (KQED). Geetha says, “Mahãbhãrata presented a real challenge. Every Indian family has their own idea of Mahãbhãrata and often will contradict and interrupt with different tellings. How could I honor that fluid oral tradition with a fixed text? Ultimately, I wove that tension into the text of the play. My focus was to tell the more transgressive parts of the Mahãbhãrata: the ones we weren’t told when we were kids.”
She adds, “Artists across the ages are in a constant cycle of creation and renewal. When you are adapting something, that atemporal conversation is surfaced. So, I try to engage with the work that came before me with the same dedication and rigor I would any collaborator.”
“Ultimately,” says Geetha, “You have to enjoy and respect the work you adapt. As frustrated as I got with the length and digressive quality of both A Tale of Two Cities and Mahãbhãrata, I always found a way back to an essential kernel of what drew me to the material in the first place.”
Cristina describes her adaptation of her novel, King of Cuba, (World Premiere, Central Works, 2018), as “more extreme than the novel, embracing the farcical, and is a fun, dramatic alternative to the book. It explicitly illuminates how these stubborn old men (and the generations and politics they represent) are flip sides of the same coin: that they literally can’t exist without the other. I spent my childhood downwind from my parents’ deracination, their political conservatism, and the turbulence of an extended family deeply divided over the Cuban Revolution. No matter that I was navigating the streets of Brooklyn by day, the moment I set foot in my house every night, I was back in 1950s Havana. I’ve come to appreciate how privileged a perch that was—culturally, linguistically, and politically. And it’s offered me an infinite amount of material to mine artistically.”
The range of adapted theatrical work created by these two skilled artists is thrilling and inspiring. Learn more about Cristina García at cristinagarcianovelist.com, and Geetha Reddy at geereddy.com.