"Ghost-Writer" at Florida Stage: Where Hyphens Really Mean Something
Was the new play Ghost-Writer really written by Michael Hollinger, as its credit states, or was it penned by Strunk and White? A grammarian's play if there ever was one, Ghost-Writer announces itself by subverting conventional punctuation with its title. It is not the standard, hyphenless Ghostwriter, nor is there a space inserted in this compound word — as in Roman Polanski's movie The Ghost Writer.
Instead, there is something scandalous about the rogue hyphen that both separates and connects ghost and writer. It is meant to be noticed. A good copyeditor would nix it immediately, disposing it in the cluttered dustbin (or "dust-bin," in ye olden times) of rejected hyphens (in 2007, for the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, hyphens from 16,000 entries were removed).
This breach of punctuational etiquette is by no means incidental to the story at hand, a story best appreciated by the kind of people who buy Eats, Shoots & Leaves page-a-day calendars. (Guilty!) An attentive audience will insert mental hyphens while watching the narrative unfold — hyphens suggesting dualities of life and death, thought and action, sanity and insanity. According to the play's logic, the results are not as cut and dried as you might think.
In real life, Henry James' typist, Theodora Bosanquet, claimed in the book The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting that she continued to receive dictation from James after his death. Inspired by this, Hollinger gives us a protagonist, Myra Babbage (Kate Eastwood Norris), who offers a similarly incredulous assertion. Addressing an unseen observer in 1919 New York City, Myra describes her earliest meeting with exacting author Franklin Woolsey (J. Fred Shiffman), the intense working relationship they developed, and how she is continuing his latest book long after his untimely demise. Though she types the content on her Remington, she says, the words are most definitely Franklin's. The play alternates between flashbacks of Myra and Franklin's relationship and Myra's present-day defense of what many, including Franklin's wife, Vivian (Lourelene Snedeker), see as an avaricious ruse from a talented charlatan hoping to cash in on her late husband's name.
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In a canny bit of stagecraft, Franklin remains onstage the entire time, silently darkening the room's periphery even in his postmortem state. This effect is threefold: It constantly reminds us of his power, even from beyond the grave; it suggests that Myra's dubious assertion may have some validity; and it helps form an unorthodox love triangle among the three characters. At one point, the way the characters are staged in the play's mise en scène, Franklin (or his ghost?) literally comes between the two women in his life.
Ghost-Writer, handled as it is with such erudite lightness, won't shake you to your foundation. It is, however, superbly acted by a cast of mostly out-of-town talent, and E. Tonry Lathroum's exceptional lighting design has subtle touches that tend to be unnoticed against more ostentatious displays (such as in Cane, earlier this season at Florida Stage).
But what really elevates this story beyond the ranks of a disposable paranormal-romance paperback is Hollinger's passionate commitment to the written word. The consonance, wit, and intelligence of his diction have the complexity of a Victorian novel. Most plays don't contain such advanced-placement vocabulary words as surreptitious, enervate, and somnolent, but this one has the audacity to challenge its audience. The scenes that most crackle with English-language love are the working moments between Myra and Franklin, and not only because their sexual tension is as thick as cement. Between the rat-a-tat-tat clatter of the typewriter and Franklin's oral dictations and debates over syntax and punctuation there lies a deep understanding of the workings of an author's mind — the cerebral nuts and bolts that coalesce into what we call writing, ghostly or otherwise.
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