Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One Hundred Nights of Bardolotry

In 1990, fired up by an AP Lit class, I attended the Guthrie Theater's day-long bill of history plays: Richard 2, Henry 4, & Henry 5. The day literally changed my life by making me into a regular theatergoer and voracious consumer of Shakespeare. A few weeks ago, I saw Theatre for a New Audience's Hamlet, the hundredth production of Shakespeare that I've attended.

Yes, I've kept count.

Some highlights have been Peter Brook's Hamlet, Propeller's all-male Taming of the Shrew, the Globe's Measure for Measure, the Aquila Theatre's Much Ado, and the Red Bull's Pericles. The lowlight is probably the Central Park Twelfth Night in 2002, starring a dumbstruck Julia Stiles.

I've watched Lear in Japanese and Macbeth in Polish. A college girlfriend & I trekked through a subzero winter night to see As You Like It. I traveled to London just to see Michael Gambon play Falstaff. I've seen Hamlet deconstructed, reconstructed, cut to 90 minutes & played by a chubby 40-year-old.

Why do I love Shakespeare? What's he doing that I can't get enough of? And where does Shakespeare's dramaturgy end & mine begin? These are some of the questions rattling around my brain, & I'll try to answer in my next few posts.

In the meantime, you can read my review of Hamlet, and also check out a photo spread I produced & wrote for the Off-B'way production of The Toxic Avenger. Happy Passover!

Top pic: Richard 2, Guthrie Theater, 1990
Bottom pic: Hamlet, TFANA, 2009

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review: The Unseen

Metromix, my steady writing gig, has been laggard about posting my work. But here's my review of Guys & Dolls, a pretty good round-up of Broadway this spring, & an article on Off-B'way's spring that my editor cut so deeply, she took credit for the writing too! MIA: my review of Our Town & several weeks-in-review pieces.

I'm assured that those'll go up soon. But the following won't, cuz it's closing this weekend. So I offer it to you here instead: a review of Craig Wright's The Unseen, playing thru Saturday at the Cherry Lane Theater.

Update: my abashed editor fixed the writing credit here. It's still heavily edited though ("The theater nexus need not stay focus in Manhattan."?). Also, they've posted my review of an incredible Our Town.


The aptest description of The Unseen, a three-hander written by Craig Wright, is “stock characters in a familiar scenario.” Over ninety minutes, two prisoners converse through the walls of their cells, playing memory games to maintain their sanity and elaborating on metaphors that the world as a prison. One holds tight to his rationalism; the other places his faith in intuition.

But every time an insight, phrase, or plot grabs your interest, it's drowned out by the echo of a prior artist. One character descibes the torture prison as “a machine that runs on human agony”, evoking Kafka's “In the Penal Colony”. Borges lurks in the descriptions of endless architecture and millennia-old conspiracies. The duo -- the tightly-wound Steven Pounders and the fussy, flighty Stan Denman -- even come to resemble Gary Sinese and John Malkovich.

There's little that's actively bad about the show (I'd quibble that the climax feels just a bit underwhelming). Pounders and Denman (husband to director Lisa) play their roles with conviction, and manage to deliver long rambling monologues as if their words were occurring to them at that moment. A third role uses gruesome imagery to show how torture harms the perpetrator as well as the victim (that is, psychologically). But The Unseen isn't much more than a series of influences, a shadow play.


That's what I wrote for Metromix. But I want to think a little more about dead metaphors. In this case, Wright uses the theatrical idioms of mid-20th century existential surrealists, AKA the Theater of the Absurd. He strips away exposition; he focuses on two characters trapped by their situation; he alternates gallows humor with outright dread and horror. In fact, there's nothing in his dramaturgy that you couldn't have seen in 1960.

Wright's also grappling with some of the same subjects as absurd playwrights (like Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Pinter), notably injustices like torture and an absence of habeus corpus. But the context has changed: Mutually Assured Destruction, the Nazi Holocaust, and Stalinism have given way to Terrorism, Zealotry, and an umbrella of Bush's policies (domestic surveillance, enhanced interrogation, etc.).

Actually, let me amend that: the context hasn't just changed. Wright explores contemporary themes, but he completely strips them of an urgent context. All that's left us a noble-minded play that, upon reflection, has little in particular to tell us. Instead, it merely apes a fifty-year-old style. That's why I say The Unseen simulates a drama rather than actually being one.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Shakespeare's portrait, Shakespeare's thoughts

Oh boy, a new pic of my boy Bill! Count me among the skeptics (maybe it's a painting of the Earl of Essex?). Time Out's Helen Shaw has some smart thoughts on the subject.

Anyhow, it dovetails with my most recent reading material: Shakespeare: The Thinker, AD Nuttall's 2007 study. It's fairly accessible, despite being aimed at scholars & dramaturgs rather than audiences, directors, & actors. Nuttall was an Oxford don: erudite, dry even in when witty, fascinated by how Shak uses language for its own sake, and fond of terms for poetic devices. But he avoids academic jargon, & while he's very smart, he's also welcoming.

Nuttall's gist is that Shak's began his dramaturgic journey by exploring the conflict betw. male camaraderie & hetero love.* Soliloquies in Richard 3 and Richard 2 see the protags internalize the fraternal bond to reflect on themselves. So Shak's revolutionary development is when Richard 2 asks for a mirror, which provides a concrete device & onstage metaphor for the doubled self.

However, Nuttall gives short shrift to Shak's women. Billy-boy established his dramatic rep with forceful femmes: Jeanne la Pucelle & Margaret in the Henry 6 plays, Kate in Shrew, Tamara in Titus, & esp. Juliet are the most vital original characters of his early career.** Nuttall could plausibly argue that the crossdressing of Breech Roles (Rosaline, Viola et al) create a dramaturgic mirror for female self-reflection, but he fails to do so.

Still, he pays close attention to the fraternal bond, a theme I'm fond of. Since Freud, it's been hard to read that theme as anything but homoerotic (& that's frequently justified in Shak's work). But male camaraderie can exist apart from sexuality, & Nuttall makes that a key to Shak's dramaturgy: the conflict in a man's movement from fraternal to romantic love.

This shift, I now see, is essential to The Winter's Tale. In the first half, Leontes becomes doubly jealous of his wife's bond with his comrade. In the second half, the rage of the King of Bohemia stems, at least partly, from being replaced by his son's beloved. And Nuttall's mirror is there too: Leontes notes that the young couple resemble his wife & his (former) friend.*** I wish Mendes & co. had played with these relationships, as well as delivering Beale & Hawke's perfs, which were great in themselves but stood out from the rest of the pretty good production.

* Nuttall actually digs how the fraternal bond withstands the attempt of one gentleman of Verona to rape his buddy's girlfriend!

** Richard Crookback & Aaron the Moor are Marlovian, not Shakespearean chars. Nuttall's focus is the playwright's sheer originality, so in this sense that pair is secondary: Bill could synthesize damned well, but it's his innovations we're focusing on. And I'm just plain ignoring Henry 6 & Mercutio.

*** “I lost a couple, that ’twixt heaven and earth | Might thus have stood begetting wonder as | You, gracious couple, do.” (5.1.164-6)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Race, stereotypes & archetypes

I've got a few posts up on Metromix this week: a round-up of this week's new shows, & my review (finally!) of The Winter's Tale at BAM. It's one of my favorite plays, & a pretty good production. The "I have eaten and seen the spider" bit sent shivers right through me.

Did anyone else read Patricia Cumper's broadside on the Guardian's Theatre blog this week?
Young black people are growing up in a society where they are frequently stereotyped and alienated. They respond in many dynamic and creative ways – but we don't hear much about that. What makes it into the newspapers and on to the stage is dysfunction, criminality and violence. And if programmers can't find enough of these things in the work of Roy Williams, Kwame Kwei-Armah or Debbie Tucker Green, they may import plays such as The Brothers Size and The Emperor Jones to keep the stereotypes going.
I don't deny that the range of black experiences depicted onstage is limited. And we can mistake stereotypes for archetypes just as easily in NYC as they do in London. This week, the Signature Theatre, in a season of work by the Negro Ensemble Company, started showing Zooman & the Sign, which is arguably another play "that assumes that black men are violent, profligate & oversexed" (as Cumper generalizes). Possibly the 1980 play helped establish the stereotype; possibly it transcends it. I'll be curious to see it in the light of this piece.

But there's a bit of slippage in Cumper's article. She speaks as an artistic director frustrated by audience's expectations & writers' shortcomings. So (as above) she critiques other companies for programming choices. But she refers only broadly to "programmers, artistic directors, marketeers & such", whereas she singles out objectionable playwrights by name, claiming that they do not represent the black experience.

I hope she doesn't see simple blaxploitation in Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen -- or several of August Wilson's plays like Seven Guitars & King Hedley II, for that matter. These are morally complex tales in a realist style with substantial characters. I also hope she doesn't see them as somehow insufficiently black when she asks, "how do black theatre practitioners put their own stories on the mainstage of those big theatres?"

I'm all for more provocative shows about race in theater, but also for more racial diversity generally in theater. I was happy to note black performers in Guys & Dolls. And that's one reason that, while I recognize the argument against casting Phylicia Rashad as the matriarch in August: Osage County, I think the benefit (a great performer in a juicy role) outweighs that. (And, parenthetically, I find the play's addressing of race half-assed & tacked on.) At any rate, she'll be playing against the hoary stereotype of the black earth mother (Cumper's phrase). I'm glad that the producers are thinking outside the box: proper casting be damned, let's see what Rashad does with the role!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

NYC wildlife

A strange, wonderful thing just happened to me. Sitting at my desk, I was surprised by a falcon landing outside my window on my AC unit. It was large, powerful, and calm. It stayed just long enough for me to edge towards it with my camera & snap a pic.

I wonder what it augers?