Monday, October 10, 2005

REV: How does this equate . . .

i can't wait to see the movie because this one just doesn't quite compute. something's not clicking for me here, and i'm not sure what or why . . .

Memorizing Her Lines Is Out of the Question
By DAVID CARR, The New York Times, October 9, 2005

THE first time I met Caris Corfman after her one-woman show at the Flea Theater, she looked - almost stared - into the very backs of my eyes as I told her how I enjoyed her performance. She was flattered and incredibly gracious.

The second time I met Ms. Corfman, she again stared and responded graciously. But she had no idea who I was. It was exactly five minutes later.

She can't remember. Ten years ago doctors detected a benign tumor in her brain. A series of four operations removed the tumor but damaged the part of the brain that regulates short-term memory. As a result, she not only forgets who she met five minutes ago, but she also can't remember if she took her medicine, if she ate, if she should go right or left or just stay put. The long-term memory remains, which is both a sad and a wonderful thing.

Ms. Corfman, 50, remembers that she burst out as an actor while still at the Yale School of Drama, appearing Off Broadway in Arthur Kopit's "Wings," part of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. She remembers creating the role of Katherina Cavalieri in the original Broadway production of "Amadeus" and all the lines she spoke. She remembers playing Lulu in "Mi Vida Loca," and Susan and Anne in "Filthy Rich." In case she forgets, Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times that as Emma in the Yale Rep's 1980 production of "Curse of the Starving Class," she had "an assertive manner that impales our attention," projecting "a fevered intensity and an animal cunning."

But while she can remember roles before her surgeries, she can no longer memorize new lines. So it is all the more extraordinary that she is standing (with index cards) in front of an audience in a show directed and co-written by Brad Watkins, producing director at the Olney Theater Center in Maryland. Her performance is about why she can no longer perform.

It could all be very sad-cute, a "Memento" meets "Groundhog Day," with those in attendance serving as theatrical Nascar fans, mostly waiting for the wheels to go flying off.

But then she lists the drugs she takes to stay alive, turning it into a bebop riff, composing a pharmaceutical poem out of brand names like Lipitor and Wellbutrin. Her fingers snap, her backside begins to shake and she takes over a room for the first time in 10 years. Here's hoping she remembers the feeling, if not the specifics.

A few times, her stage movements - which are quite something to behold - lead her in front of the lectern, away from the notes, away from what now serves as a memory. She finds it scary, says so and scurries back to the lectern.

Life, she explained, "hits you over the head with a mallet."

Her one-woman show, "Caris' Peace," is remarkable, and not just because of its back story. It was acting in an oddly pure state: the pauses, the facial cues, the long gaze that give a script theatrical power were all in ample evidence. At a question-and-answer session afterward, many actors - some old friends she recognized, or didn't - talked about what they had learned during her 45-minute performance.

Ms. Corfman was surprised to be there. The day before, she had gone through a rehearsal with Mr. Watkins at the Flea in Lower Manhattan. It went well. Gaylen Ross, a documentary maker who has spent several years filming Ms. Corfman, told her immediately after the rehearsal that the actual performance would be great. "I just did it," she responded, "didn't I?"

"I always tell Caris that she never has to endure stage fright," said Ms. Ross, who hopes to have the film out by early next year, "because she doesn't remember she has to perform."

Ms. Corfman spent much of the last decade railing against her infirmity and her loss. "Self-pity, yes, I've wallowed in it," she said midperformance, "but I had a damn good reason": the condescension from those around her. "It was not what was asked, but how it was asked," she said during the show. "I am not a misbehaving child. I am a confused adult." When she told people that she needed to perform again, it was all they could do not to pat her hand, or worse, her head, and remind her that someone who has trouble remembering where her own bathroom is might have trouble hitting her marks.

But Mr. Watkins and Mark Berman, a playwright and actor, who both share creative credit for the show along with Ms. Corfman, found something extraordinary in the daily journal she keeps of her life so, as she puts it, "I can remember that I have one." That voice, edited and distilled onto index cards and set to music and lighting, became theater. She opened the show by walking up to the people in the front row, asking their names, and apologizing that she would not remember them after the show. Never mind the fourth wall - for Ms. Corfman the other three are enough to keep track of as she oscillates between clear befuddlement and absolute mastery.

The play weaves Ms. Corfman's history - a medical manual of brain injury, rehab, setbacks and triumph - and theatrical works she performed before she fell ill. "One of the first things that Caris remembered is that she deserved to be a creative being," Mr. Watkins said before the show. "In the journal it became apparent that a big part of her wanted to be back on stage."

He continued: "Caris is a thoroughbred who has all the breeding of a magnificent racehorse, but she lacks some tools. We decided to work with what she had and see what we could come up with."

She is direct about the loss: "No memory, no life; no memory, no career; no memory. No, it's not that tragic; I do have a life and at times it's quite a wondrous one, but damn it, it would be such a treat to remember it!"

In a smaller form, the show debuted a year ago at the Olney, but the turn at the Flea was Ms. Corfman's declaration that she is more than a patient and a scientific oddity. It created some dissonance. Here was a woman who required caregivers to tell her when she had eaten and when she had not, tearing into the soliloquy of Joan la Pucelle in "Henry VI, Part 1" - her reading of which got her into Yale - without once glancing at the notes.

After the show people swarmed the stage, as her father, a doctor, happily looked on. She smiled as they approached, knowing she had done something special, but not sure exactly what.


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