Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Preview: Titus Andronicus

I'm going to see a puppet adaptation of Titus Andronicus this evening. The company, Puppet Shakespeare, has shorn Shakespeare's gory drama to 90 minutes, and I'm v. curious to see what the puppeteers make of it. Titus is so focused on the physical body; it's the play that opens with a human sacrifice, stages a rape and several losses of limbs (and a tongue), and climaxes, infamously, with cannibalism. Part of the play's theatrical strength is its assault on the human corpus, even when the stage violence is stylized. I wonder if subbing the actor's body for an animated object would eliminate something essential to the play's success. (update: Puppet Shak plays Titus for laughs.)

And it's hard to stage well anyway. Titus is often cited as among Shakespeare's worst plays, and not just for its offenses against taste (hope you like puns about hands!). Its form is strange and misshapen, even considering the playwright's ad hoc approach to structure. The first act is one 500-line coil of murder and intrigue that includes a coronation, that execution/sacrifice, and the title character killing his own son. The characters seem drawn in deliberately broad strokes, with no internality. That's partly due to the verse, which is expository even when it's high rhetoric—and there's a lot of rhetoric.

The only contemporary illustration of Shakespeare's play
is this drawing of Titus Andronicus' ungainly opening scene
Early audiences loved Titus, but the critics and scholars have always hated it ("a heap of rubbish" – Ravenscroft, 1678). The smartest attitude in this camp belongs to John Dover Wilson, who figured it's only lasted because Shakespeare's name is attached. But then Wilson argued that Shak revised a draft by a hack named Peele, and that he was parodying the excesses of his artistic inferiors. It's an iffy argument meant to keep his idol on the pedestal.

Personally, I'm more compelled by Jonathan Bate's position (in the Arden series) that Shakespeare aimed to write an inventive drama that pushed the envelope of Elizabethan theater. I agree that Titus is almost experimental, given the confines of that era's dramaturgy. And it's got an artistic unity, albeit one of excess. But I don't think the experiment results in a successful script, at least not as we define it in the Anglo-American tradition.

However, it does prefigure King Lear, in the same way that Richard 3 prefigures Macbeth. Patterns of plot and character arc match fairly well. More interestingly, both plays find tragedy in horror, in the recoil at a spectacle of gibbering madness, both internal to the psyche and in the externals of human behavior. Experiencing Titus and Lear, I get the sensation of a playwright of straining at and sometimes exceeding the limits of his stage. In both cases, the resulting play is monstrous on nearly every level, and in Lear, the monster comes to life.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
The Public Theater at Shakespeare in the Park
director: Jack O'Brien

FYI, an edited version of this piece appeared on NY Theater Review. I wanted a more complete record of the show, so I've decided to let everyone read the longer account! This version includes the effect of rain on the show the evening I saw it.

Lily Rabe & Hamish Linklater make as perfect a Beatrice & Benedick as you'll see,
despite (or because of?) their unorthodox choices
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The chemistry of Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, in their third collaboration onstage, makes a success out of a moody Much Ado About Nothing. Their Beatrice and Benedick are too clever, and have skin too thin, to let their guard down around each other. Linklater’s Benedick is an angry, edgy guy who craves attention; Rabe’s Beatrice half-regrets her own lack of interest in love. And when she overhears a list of her faults as reasons for Benedick to steer clear, this Beatrice sobs with self-reproach and emotional confusion. Rabe and Linklater imbue the air of the Delacorte with melancholy—even when one of them is dangling from a fruit tree—and add an emotional richness to Shakespeare’s comedy.

Building on these ironic performances of merry sadness, Jack O’Brien’s Much Ado shows his mastery of stagecraft and focus of vision. The few flaws detract a little, but are easily overlooked—especially given the perfection inherent in the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park. John Lee Beatty’s long stage offers several playing areas for O’Brien, primarily the terrace of a Sicilian villa, c. 1900, but also a balcony for Beatrice in her first volley with Benedick (a typically clever nod to another pair of Shakespearean lovers), a set of vegetable gardens, and a rather overused fountain. It’s both public and private, bustling with servants, ripe for eavesdropping and rumor. O’Brien also emphasizes the atmosphere of celebration, with masks and music imparting a ready friskiness to the household’s daily affairs.
For me, Mitchell singing "Hey Nonny Nonny" was the show's high point.
(photo: Joan Marcus)
But given its solidly realistic sensibility, the show’s few moments of enchantment seem incongruous (albeit lovely). Brian Stokes Mitchell harmonizes least with the show’s prevalent mode of playing. He plays Don Pedro with a hearty gusto and a sailor’s laugh, and with none of the psychology of Rabe and Linklater. Yet his participation in a round of “Hey Nonny Nonny” makes that misfit moot, and his skill at the verse and bass voice suggests great potential as a Shakespearean actor (as far as I can tell, the closest he's come has been his Tony-winning perf in Kiss Me Kate). His lusty 2D approach is complemented by his stage-brother, Pedro Pascal as Don John. Nearer to Linklater & Rabe's method is John Glover, an experienced Shakespearean, who makes a great role out of Leonato, especially in his grief at his daughter’s supposed infidelity. As for the sentimental lovers, Ismenia Mendes and Jack Cutmore-Scott fill their roles generically. More interesting is Zoë Winters, who brings a sexy vivacity to the small role of Margaret, the duped accomplice in Don John's intrigues.

But this review comes with a caveat: the night I attended Much Ado, it drizzled all through the show. The weather’s effect on the show’s energy is hard to gauge, but it probably dampened the audience’s spirit at least. The actors never lost their focus but some adapted to the circumstances better than others. John Pankow, as Dogberry, effortlessly upped the tempo to his schtick, as if he were ready to skip the curtain call and meet us at the alehouse. Scenes like Claudio’s ceremony of remorse for wronging Hero, on the other hand, probably would’ve been stolid even on a lovely night.

Best of all, however, was Linklater’s casual “whoop, that’s wet” as he sat on a chair, mid-soliloquy—the biggest laugh of the night, until Rabe entered and perched herself onstage to chat with him. She winced too, and only then noticed Linklater’s warning gesture. The tart, ironic charm of her invitation to sit with her, and his disgruntled acceptance, epitomized their interpretations of the characters. It was a perfect you-had-to-be-there moment of spontaneous theater.
I'm not a fan of realistic sets in Shakespeare—they tend to muddle the location
rather than clarify it—but Beatty's design is lovely
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Shakespeare's Sisters

"As a contemporary woman in New York City, it's hard to empathize with a girl who is as compliant, dainty and well-behaved as Hero. I've had this issue when watching other actors perform her as well—here you a have a modern woman, Beatrice, essentially behaving as a man in a man's world—and there's Hero next to her: she's quiet, obedient, and for most women today, absolutely infuriating."

Hero (Ismenia Mendes, center) is always chaperoned when she's near a window
(photo: Joan Marcus)
That’s Ismenia Mendes, who I interviewed for New York Theater Review. Mendes plays Hero to Lily Rabe’s Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing this month in Central Park. Shakespeare’s other show in the Park is yet another King Lear, to star John Lithgow. But I’m more curious to see Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht as his bad daughters, Goneril and Regan.

Shakespeare wrote several plays with great sister dynamics. In tragedy, the sorority is usually a triad: Lear’s three daughters, the trio of Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca, and (of course) those Weird Sisters. In comedy, the relationship is a binary one, and it’s one of his earliest relationships, starting with Kate the Shrew and her devious sister, and continuing through to Rosalind and her faithful Celia. You could even look at Twelfth Night’s relationship between Viola and her mistress as Shakespeare’s final, kinky word on the subject.

The girls are usually sisters or cousins, both lacking a mother (in Love’s Labor’s, they’re a courtly quartet, a real sorority). Early in Shakespeare’s career, the girls are sometimes inadvertent rivals (Two Gentlemen, Midsummer), a complication that tests their love for each other. In other variations, one girl is modest and the other is saucy (Taming, Love’s Labor’s), a conflict of personalities that allows Shakespeare to contrast methods of wooing. Much Ado drops the first conflict to focus on the second, and I think it’s the acme of this sister dynamic.

Like Mendes points out, Hero can come across as bland on her own. She’s a medieval figure, the Virtuous Maiden, passive and obedient, a girl who exists solely as a unit in marital brokerage. She’s idealized by the men, who describe her as as “gentle,” “modest”, and (repeatedly) “fair”—a generic set of epithets. Even in 1597, Beatrice was more modern and more interesting. But Hero isn’t merely a docile foil for her tart cousin.
Hero (Ismenia Mendes) finds her main defender in Beatrice (Lily Rabe).
Are you going to argue with her?
(photo: Joan Marcus)
What’s great about Hero and Beatrice is that they have such different personalities yet they’re so deeply fond of each other. Beatrice teases Hero about marriage, and Hero, maybe acting out of sentiment or maybe in retaliation, gulls Beatrice into a romance. And no matter how roughly an actress plays Beatrice, it’s tempered by her love for Hero. In one of Shakespeare’s best scenes ever, her sisterly love inspires Benedick to challenge his best friend to a duel of honor. Hero may lack Beatrice’s vivacity but she has Beatrice’s trust. There’s even a bit of Beatrice in Hero, when she flirts nimbly with Don Pedro at the masque. We might wish she was more like her cousin, but I think she’s more vivid a character than she’s given credit for.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shakespeare's politics in Arin Arbus' King Lear

It's the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth and the 398th anniversary of his death. At least, it's when we celebrate it. Putting foolish questions of authorship aside, William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, traditionally performed three days after birth. And Elizabethans used the Julian calendar; under the Gregorian one, the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth/death is May 3. Coincidentally, that's Lady Hotspur's birthday too!

Still, I come here to praise Shakespeare, not to bury him. But as much as I love his plays, the problems I have with them are many, deep, and they do keep me up at night. Shakespeare is big on a rural aristocracy, while the urban multitudes disgust him; I’m pretty much the opposite. And we disagree about authority—state, domestic, religious, you name it. Some of his worldviews I can appreciate intellectually, like the redemption of Christ—until he relates it to Jews. He writes strong female roles but often to nasty purposes.

Shakespeare’s social assumptions are deeply embedded in his plays, such that you can’t extricate the pros from the cons. Yet many politically-minded productions try to modernize the plays in just that fashion. Orson Welles famously turned Julius Caesar into an anti-fascist play in 1938, but most directors can't match that audacity and talent. It’s difficult to pull off a political take on Shakespeare that doesn’t violate the play itselfusually the solution is to consciously subvert it. So I appreciate how well Arin Arbus and her company (at Theater for a New Audience) fit an impulse to social engagement into their King Lear.
photo: Carol Rosegg
Arbus and dramaturg Jonathan Kalb don’t shoehorn new material into the already titanic script. Instead, they retain a few beats that usually get cut. The speech that perked my ears was during the tempest of Act 3. Lear (Michael Pennington) is left alone onstage while Kent and the Fool look for shelter. The king, at the brink of madness, says to himself:

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

It’s the play’s second mention of a destitute underclass (earlier, Edgar imitates a beggar; he enters in that disguise immediately after this speech), and implies a population of indigents haunting Lear’s kingdom. Pennington’s delivery of “I have ta’en too little care of this!” suggests that Lear momentarily gains a social conscience as part of his harrowing.

The last 3½ lines are hard to parse, but Pennington clarifies them admirably. His Lear aligns himself with the poor naked wretches, and urges other aristos (“pomp”) to join him, so they too may help (“shake the superflux”, or excess riches). He reads “just” to mean “justice”, which implies that charity will shame the heavens into better treatment of the hungry, poor, and homeless.

photo: Carol Rosegg
Pennington and Arbus use the soliloquy’s format, a form of audience address, to put the viewers in the position of Lear’s apostrophized aristos. Houseless heads and unfed sides have increased in New York City, against national trends. It’s a rare Shakespearean production that can remind its audience of that, and a successful one that can do so without imposing a modern interpretation over a play built upon very different social and economic assumptions. But the opportunity is there. By foregrounding it, Arbus, Pennington, and Kalb make Shakespeare matter.

I’ll just mention another beat that counters the feudal rigidity that’s so alien to the modern viewer. Later in act 3, a servant stabs his own lord to prevent the blinding of Gloucester. Most productions frame his motivation as a reaction to horror: fair enough. But in the context of Arbus’ Lear it’s a moment of populist revolution, as a man chooses ethics over fealty. A few moments later at the scene’s end, Kalb and Arbus salvage another beat from the cuts: one of the servant’s fellows resolves to help Gloucester to first aid and a guide:

Second servantLet’s follow the old Earl and get the bedlamTo lead him where he would. His roguish madnessAllows itself to anything. Third servantGo thou. I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggsTo apply to his bleeding face. Now heaven help him!

This beat, in a rough quarto but not the Folio, is one of the few altruistic actions in a very dark play. By retaining it, Arbus and Kalb illuminate Lear’s nihilism. In these subtle ways, Arbus and her company make Shakespeare matter. The result is a profound piece of social conscience as well as a work of great tragedy.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Ides of March

Frances Barber's particularly brutish Caesar
in the Donmar/St. Ann's '13 production
Today’s the Ides of March, famous as the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. Shakespeare dramatized the event, of course, but it may be the only story in his collection that’s greater than his telling of it. His major contribution is to spread the myth that Caesar’s last words were “Et tu, Brute?”, but he lifted that from Suetonius, who claimed the famous last words were “Kai su, teknon?”, Greek for “You too, child?”

Caesar is Shakespeare’s most powerful character, from a political and social point-of-view. So it’s ironic that, from various standpoints, he’s not one of the writer’s strongest. Instead of the complex yet characterized verse of the other Romans, he speaks in what Shakespeare, through Rosalind, called a “thrasonical brag” (after Thraso, a braggart soldier in a play by Terence).

In fact, Shakespeare seems to play subversively with the ultimate monarch. He’s not the protagonist of the play named for him. And while he’s alive, in the first half of the play, his humanity (and thus his mortality) is underscored:

    He had a fever when he was in Spain,
    And when the fit was on him, I did mark
    How he did shake. 'Tis true, this god did shake:
    His coward lips did from their color fly,
    And that same eye, whose bend doth awe the world,
    Did lose his luster: I did hear him groan:
    Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans
    Mark Him, and write his speeches in their books,
    'Alas,' it cried, 'give me some drink, Titinius',
    As a sick girl. Ye gods, it doth amaze me
    A man of such a feeble temper should
    So get the start of the majestic world
    And bear the palm alone.

That’s Cassius in Act 1, so read it with a touch of skepticism, but at times the anecdote gets borne out. While he’s alive, Caesar’s greatness isn’t inherent, it’s in his wife’s prophetic nightmare and the soothsayer’s warning to “Beware the Ides of March.” His arc towards apotheosis is only activated by the assassination. As Brutus considers the event beforehand, he says:

    Let us be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius
    Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods

Then Brutus goes further, staging the assassination as a sacrificial ritual.

                                    Stoop, Romans, stoop,
    And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
    Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
    Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
    And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
    Let’s all cry, ‘Peace, freedom, and liberty!’

After his death Caesar is more than a man (a little like Obi Wan Kenobi). His spirit haunts the playnot just literally, as a Shakespearean specter appearing to Brutus, but in the verse and behind the events. As Cassius says in his Roman suicide,

    Caesar, thou art revenged
    Even with the sword that killed thee.

And when the army of Brutus is unexpectedly defeated by Octavius,

    Oh Julius Cesar, thou art mighty yet!
    Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
    In our own proper entrails.

My favorite aspect of Julius Caesar is this tension between the man and the myth. Shakespeare’s approach is pretty Christian (Platonic?), suggesting that Caesar's true soul is only seen once the body is discarded, and he becomes history. In fact, we still live in Julius Caesar’s world: we have a month named for him, after all, and we remember the date in the soothsayer’s warning.