Olive Kitteridge

I loved reading Olive Kitteridge, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book is a masterful anthology of short stories, linked together so that they become a novel. Characters from one story reappear in another at a different time of life, and as we learn more about Olive, her husband Henry, their son Christopher, and other people who weave through their lives, we piece together a patchwork of lives, dreams, pivotal moments, and regrets. The book is deeply engrossing, insightful, and often disturbing.

I’m always looking for literary fiction with strong older characters for whom sexuality is an accepted part of their emotional lives. Their sexual feelings or activities don’t have to be blatent, just acknowledged (by the author if not by the character) as normal and expected. Olive Kitteridge delivers, especially in the final story, “River,” where Strout narrates the feelings of the now widowed, 74-year-old Olive who is about to go to bed with a new man:

Oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones… [I]f love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it… But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese presssed together, such holes they brought to this union–what pieces life took out of you. Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude–and regret.

I loved Olive Kitteridge so much that as soon as I’d finished, I wanted to start reading it again, now that I knew more about the characters. I also wrote a fan email to the author, Elizabeth Strout, which she graciously answered. (As an author, I know what a solitary endeavor it is to write books, and I always appreciate hearing from readers, so I hoped Ms. Strout felt the same.)

I was thrilled to learn that two of the stories from this book would be performed at Z Space in San Francisco as part of the Word for Word series, and I rushed to see it on opening night. The script was not an adaptation but a staged, dramatic performance of the stories verbatim (hence the name, “Word for Word”). 
The actors were strong, especially Patricia Silver as Olive, and the staging innovative. I applaud Word for Word for choosing stories that portrayed Olive and Henry (and then Olive and Jack) in the later parts of their lives, rather than the younger characters earlier in the book. I especially applaud W4W for choosing “River,” the story I quoted above.

If you’re in the San Francisco area, I hope you’ll catch this play, now playing through September 26, 2010, then read the book.

Sex Tapes for Seniors: The Musical

It’s no joke that we need sex education courses for seniors–we’re inhabiting different bodies, different minds, and trying to make sense of relationships, new and/or ongoing. We’re dating, relating, retreating, all of the above.

So let’s put some humor in the whole situation, which playwright Mario Cossa does with Sex Tapes for Seniors. Approaching 60 himself, Cossa decided to write a musical comedy for older performers who sing, dance, and talk about sex and relationships. That’s a good thing, in my view.

The plot: a group of retirees, played by actors age 52 to 73, decide to produce educational sex videos for seniors. I loved the diversity of the seniors portrayed. They’re gay, lesbian, straight, widowed, single, coupled — you name it. How refreshing that all these older folks are shown dealing with relationships in their complexity, including but not solely sexual, and they don’t fit any stereotypes. Hallelujah.

The issues we really deal with are addressed here — and we laugh at the memory lapses, the need for new positions that don’t stress our aging bodies, the need for sex toys with instructions we can read. We nod in recognition when Dottie talks to the photo of her deceased husband, a lesbian couple bickers over a daughter not accepting their relationship, a husband doesn’t want to see a doctor about his unreliable erections despite the prodding of his sexually charged wife.

The whole cast is good, but I have to say that the wildly talented Phillipe Coquet stole the show for me playing Matthew, a wiry, tap dancing, rapping, sexy gay guy whose dream is to be on Oprah. Coquet, age 52, has been acting since the age of eight and I could have watched him for hours more. (Okay, so he was also my personal heart throb in the cast.)

I was surprised that the audience remained remarkably subdued through the first act, but started loosening up as the jokes and songs got a little raunchier. e.g. suggesting that “false teeth and fellatio” pair superbly.

The sex tapes story is a minor part of the plot, a way for the characters to reveal their issues, emotions, and back stories. It works, it’s fun, and it’s about time.

If you’re lucky enough to live in or near San Francisco, please see it at the Victoria Theatre. Tickets are affordable–$25-$40–and the show runs through August 22, 2010. I hope you’ll add your comments to mine.