Tuesday, December 2, 2014

American Racism: "Othello was a white man!"

I spent this Thanksgiving weekend with Lady Hotspur and the Tiny Tiger instead of reviewing the two Shakespearean productions I saw in November. When I did sit at my computer, I could only think about one thing and that was Ferguson. I tried to approach the two shows—Pericles at the Public and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine at TFANA—by noting that the casts are racially diverse. Those two companies are the top Shakespearean troupes in town, and their commitment to race-blind casting is worth celebrating.

But commending American Shakespeare—or American anything—on its approach to race felt like bad faith this Thanksgiving. The mechanisms of justice are beyond broken; for a subset of Americans, they never existed in the first place.

I considered examining Shakespeare’s tricky but ultimately racist dramaturgy, teasing out the differences in eras. Shakespeare’s London didn’t have the framework of Social Darwinism that implies blacks invite and deserve their second-class status, or the pseudo-genetic notion of race that claims that people of African descent can’t be fully civilized. On the other hand, in 21C New York the biblical Curse of Ham no longer obtains.

Ira Aldridge, c. 1854, as Othello. Aldridge emigrated from the US
to Europe, whose audiences were less bigoted about black actors
Then, as I paged through books for inspiration, I found a shocking excerpt in Shakespeare in America, a collection published in 2014 by the Library of Congress. The piece is Mary Preston on Othello, one of 14 essays on Shak that she wrote in the 1860s—the Civil War era. She’s a Romantic, roughly contemporary with Emily Dickinson, and she reads Othello as an allegory of Nobility corrupted by Envy. This gives her a huge problem when she deals with Othello’s race (all italics are hers):

“In conclusion, let me add a word of explanation to my reader. In studying the play of Othello, I have always imagined its hero a white man. It is true the dramatist paints him black, but this shade does not suit the man. It is a stage decoration, which my taste discards,—a fault of color, from an artistic point of view. I have, therefore, as I before state in my readings of this play, dispensed with it. Shakespeare was too correct a delineator of human nature to have colored Othello black, if he had personally acquainted himself with the idiosyncrasies of the African race.
“We may regard, then, the daub of black upon Othello’s portrait as an ebullition of fancy, a freak of imagination,—the visionary conception of an ideal figure,—one of the few erroneous strokes of the great master’s brush, the single blemish on a faultless work. 
“Othello was a white man!”

That’s nuts! It’s a different sort of Shakespeare-crazy than Knight’s kabbalistic chart, which at least is rooted in a close reading of the plays. On a superficial level, it’s like saying the ghost in Hamlet is actually Claudius in disguise (he would’ve gotten away with it, except for those meddling kids!). It makes nonsense of the play.

I suppose we could admire Preston’s chutzpah. She’s bold enough to say that Shak overreached, and that he failed in his artistic intention. But in her misreading, the flaw that undermines Othello is that a black man cannot be a tragic hero. Put another way, Preston is saying the death of a black man is never tragic. That's still insane, but it’s also a view shared by the 21C Americans who dismiss Michael Brown’s murder (and Trayvon Martin’s, and innumerable others) as anything but a crime.

Race in Shakespeare is a Gordian knot, which I’ll revisit at the (sadly inevitable) next conflict. In the meantime, the Public’s Pericles and TFANA’s Tamburlaine coming up!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shedding blood on St. Crispin's Day

It’s St. Crispin’s Day, October 25, the anniversary of the 1854 Battle of Balaclava—that’s the English cavalry fiasco memorialized by Tennyson in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” But of course, we really remember it because of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Or more accurately, we know it because of Shakespeare’s epic speech at the climax of Henry V. As if you need a reason to watch Sir Laurence:

So who was St. Crispin to get a day of his own? Actually, he shares October 25 with his brother, St. Crispian. Their story’s pretty standard for martyrs of pre-Christian Rome. Back in 285 or 286, the boys were making a living in Belgic Gaul as shoemakers, while they proselytized the illegal faith. They got hauled before the prefect of Gaul, Rictiovarus. And this brings us to the good part of any martyrology: the torture. Here’s the story from a Victorian collection about saints:

The judge, then, ordered the two brothers first to have spills of wood thrust between their nails and the quick. Then S. Crispin and S. Crispian prayed, and instantly the spills started out of their fingers, and turning in the air, rushed at their tormentors and stabbed them, so that several fell dead on the spot and others died soon after of their wounds.

Then Rictiovarus commanded a couple of millstones to be hung round the necks of the martyrs, and that they should be cast into the river Aisne. S. Crispin and his brother swam across without feeling the slightest inconvenience from the mill-stones.

He then had boiling lead poured over them, but that refreshed rather than injured the indomitable shoemaker martyrs. Then pitch, oil, and fat were stewed together, and they were plunged in the bubbling caldron. This failed to injure them, therefore Rictiovarus, disgusted at his want of success, pitched himself headforemost into the fire under the caldron, and stifled his dissatisfaction in the flames.

Seeing their chief persecutor thus disposed of, the martyrs placidly devoted their necks to the sword, and their heads were struck off without difficulty by the executioner.

One may be quite sure, when in the Acts of the Martyrs a series of tortures and miraculous cures leads up to a decapitation, that all but the decapitation is a pure invention of the writer.

The saints lived and died in Soissons, where a nice cult grew up around them for a millennium and change. One day, in the middle of the Hundred Years War, French soldiers staged a massacre of English bowmen garrisoned in Soissons—then kept going, and killed and raped the citizenry. When the English forces faced the French at Agincourt, King Henry claimed to be avenging the saints and city on this, their day.

Shakespeare sources turned that bit of royal PR and the astonishing military victory into a legendary episode in English history. But ironically it’s Shakespeare's speech about remembering the battle, and not the battle itself, that keeps alive the observance of St. Crispin’s Day and the legend of Agincourt.


quote from The Lives of Saints, Rev. S. Baring-Gould, vol. 12, p. 628-630 (1870-1877)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: Tempest at La MaMa


director  Karin Coonrod

La MaMa is one of the last theaters in town to present radical politics and social idealism as a matter-of-course. That’s the context for Karin Coonrod’s Tempest, and especially a moment I’d often seen but never really heard before. In a lovely set-piece, a shipwrecked courtier imagines a utopian state. Gonzalo conjures a vision (maybe Shakespeare’s, but he’s tricky with the dramatic irony) of a commonwealth based on natural equality, an absence of laws and of class. Costumed in white period finery, ruffs and breeches, and, incongruously, modern heels, actress Ching Valdes-Aran recites the speech as a chant-like song, underscored by a mandolin. Her rhythm turns the piece into an incantation or spell meant to transmute the apex capitalist’s utopia of modern Manhattan into an anarchist paradise. I wish.

Coonrod’s production has plenty of these set-pieces. That one moment is brilliant, several others are interesting, and a few are dull. All are underscored by a soundscape of vocal noises and archaic instruments in a dense composition by the inestimable Elizabeth Swados. Her music heightens the show’s strangeness, and evokes Prospero’s island far more strongly than anything else in the design or playing. Even when it’s weird or discordant, this aural component is always interesting.

That can’t be said for a lot of this uneven production. By shaping her show around set-pieces and sonic moments, Coonrod runs into the trickiest facet of Shakespeare’s script: its static quality. Prospero spends most of the play watching, guiding, and manipulating the other characters indirectly. He shuts down two conspiracies, preventing action rather than causing it. The Tempest is sort of an anti-play, radical in its way for Shakespeare. But Coonrod leaves the connective tissue, the drama between the set-pieces, to the performers, who must add dynamism themselves. She seems more interested the in set-pieces, masques, and other formal devices than in plot.

The players take a presentational approach, which works when Valdes-Aran has her speech, or when Tony Torn’s clown does an earthy, barrel-hall double-act with Liz Wisan’s jerky hipster. But the courtiers, the lovers, and even Ariel and Caliban rarely give us a compelling reason to watch them. They don’t resort to bits of business, which is good, and they don’t find inner motivations for their actions, which is fine. In Shakespearean theater, these conventions can be replaced with complex poetic thought, but they don’t convey that either. Instead, the cast offers the emotional content in broad strokes, or nothing at all.

Reg E. Cathey’s Prospero is especially disappointing. The actor is best known for his role in The Wire (as Mayor Carcetti’s political operator), and last year he got an Emmy nomination for House of Cards. He’s also got a long and sturdy stage bio; I last saw him play Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Public Lab in ’11 (also under Coonrod’s direction). Cathey has a deep, smoky voice, a powerful presence, and a sly, ironic delivery that should be perfect for Shakespeare—I’d love to see him in a History. But in this Tempest, he lifts his voice to its higher registers, pinching the verse and limiting his range of expression. He gives hints of the character’s cunning, but he’s focused on the role’s emotional burden. His Prospero is always troubled, always angry, yet his tempest of expression lacks an object.

In the epilogue—another set-piece—finally, his passion seems specific to the moment. Prospero says, “Now I want | Spirits to enforce, art to enchant | And my ending is despair …” The moment, and the actor’s conviction, catalyzes Coonrod’s themes by linking Prospero to Caliban and Ariel: all three express a desire for freedom from bondage. In the other subplots, characters attempt to grab power to escape servitude; they’re foiled by Prospero, maybe because power over another is only an illusion of freedom. True liberty is found in equality—in Gonzalo’s commonwealth.

A few extra observations:

  • Coonrod and set designer Riccardo Hernandez use a very deep thrust stage, almost a tennis-court transverse. This configuration has weird sight lines, which adds to Tempest’s dream-like quality. The stage is open and bare and black, except for a pair of metal poles that function as masts & trees, and a perforated chrome globe with a lamp inside for a planetarium effect, and some sort of Faustian sigil. They stick the band behind a proscenium at the open end, and Prospero watches the whole show from there. He’s controlling events from beyond the fourth wall, which is cool. But he doesn’t actually do much back there except emote.
  • I kvetch about Cathey’s performance, but he does a lovely and riveting rendition of the “Such stuff as dreams are made on” speech. It’s another v.g. set-piece in a production built around those.
  • Aside from Valdes-Aran, the cast is mostly forgettable. The lovers were cute but had no chemistry, while the courtiers just glowered. I enjoyed the clowns, although they didn’t do anything new or surprising.
  • Ariel is Joseph Harrington, the last kid to play Billy Elliot on B’way. When he’s speaking, he’s kind of stiff, but his balletic skills are impressive—he performs this role in combat boots, a symbol of his bondage & removed at the finale. But he’s the least well-served by Coonrod’s approach.
  • Caliban, by contrast, just ignores the show’s style and relies on his own technique. Slate Holmgren does have a simian physicality that fits with the clowns’ slapstick & watersports. Otherwise he plays in mainstream Shak style, finding a psychological journey for the character. He learns his lesson and so earns Prospero’s respect.
  • Runtime was about two hours, no intermission. So the play has been cut heavily but well (by dramaturg Sharon Scruggs, presumably). The various plots are clear and the structure streamlined. But why'd they cut The from the title?
  • Another nice touch: the shoes in this Tempest, which are keys to characterization. I mentioned that the courtiers wear white heals, and that Ariel is held down by his boots. Oana Botez put good thought into this facet of her design.
  • Tempest is part of a La MaMa Shakespeare project on Hurricane Sandy and climate change. That subject didn't intersect with Koonrod's production in any obvious way. Maybe La MaMa's two other Tempests—one by a South Korean troupe, the other by Italians—will.


Vanessa Shoenwald

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How Not to Stage Shakespeare

Writing about deBessonet’s Winter’s Tale last week, I barely touched on Todd Almond’s massive contribution. Their Tale is a musical, less of a departure than Kiss Me Kate but still a radical revision. They retain whole scenes of Shakespeare, but they also supplement the speech with songs in a modern idiom as well as new dialogue. They recast Almond’s Antigonus as a second chorus, an MC whose post-mortum perspective (he’s the character who “exits, pursued by a bear” in Act 3) enhances the play’s melancholy. The device also links the polyphonic tones and styles of the original play with its musical, comedic, and choreographic additions. It’s the keystone to this Tale’s success.

I believe that polyphony is a fundamental element of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. Not incidentally, I think it’s also the aspect that’s most often ignored, to the detriment of mainstream productions (& audiences!). There’s a lot of Shakespearean theater in NYC these days, but it’s pretty homogenous. The direction has narrow range of tone, a steady pace, and most importantly, a conceptual framework to give unity to the production. These approaches fall into a few conventional categories:

1. Modern Shakespeare: to underscore Shakespeare’s relevance, the director puts the characters in modern business attire (for a tragedy or history) or contemporary fashion (comedy, romance)

Romeo and Juliet
David Leveaux, 2013

2. Retro Shakespeare: to keep faith with the plays’ cultural contexts, the production pulls out the doublets and hose

Twelfth Night
Tim Carroll, 2013

3. Quantum Leap Shakespeare: characters get teleported into another period altogether; Beatrice & Benedick execute their romance like they’re cursed to replicate their actions no matter where or when they are

Much Ado About Nothing
Jack O'Brien, 2014

4. Heavy Metal Shakespeare: rather than pinning down a drama to a specific era, the staging defines a generic medieval setting with fur ruffs, leather straps studded with metal, heavy percussion, and high dudgeon

Jack O'Brien, 2013

5. Picturesque Shakespeare: an expressionistic approach that aims at an artistic effect through visual spectacle and show-stopping moments; in shows following this method, actors tend to get absorbed into the backdrop

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Julie Taymor, 2013

These five* approaches work just fine for very casual theatergoers since they present some variation on what Shakespeare “should” look like. But I know plenty of folks who have given up on Shak, having no desire to see another J. Caesar with cell phones. I don’t blame them, & I know I’m nuts for going anyway—undiscerning gluttony is a hallmark of fandom.

But beneath the superficial styles, these approaches are even more similar. The verse is normalized to sound like speech rather than recited as poetry; the playing is driven by psychological motivation, normal behavior, and bits of stage business. The stagings steer away from outright artifice, erecting a fourth wall (except during subtlely formal moments involving clowns). They also get discomfited by the dramatic devices that don’t fit into a realistic, modern mold—the devices of bed tricks & rituals of recognition, the ceremonies and masques of court, the intrusions of fantastical and otherworldly beings. The dominant format for Shak is literal-minded mimesis, the conventions of American movies applied to Elizabethan dramaturgy. Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

The fundamental problem is that Shakespeare’s plays aren’t smooth. They switch styles within scenes (look at how the gears shift in the first scene of Lear, from casual aristo chit-chat to a formal court scene) and between scenes (Macbeth’s famous segue from Duncan’s murder to the Porter’s routine). Nor are they realistic. That should be obvious, since the characters speak in verse, but it doesn’t stop directors from trying to pretend the opposite.

So the moment that an actor opens his mouth to speak (or her, in Macbeth & All’s Well), he’s dispelled the illusion of realism. The tonal and structural shifts, the formal devices and plot tricks, the outdated codes and obsolete social structures all fight against its re-establishment. I believe the best way to blend the polyphony of Shakespeare’s style is to admit its artificiality and go from there.

* Before my time, a sixth approach had a minimalist style and its actors in everyday clothes. It had countercultural aims, & it’s nearly extinct.


R&J, Midsummer: Sara Krulwich
12N, Much Ado: Joan Marcus
Macbeth: T. Charles Erickson

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Radical Shakespeare of Lear deBessonet

This summer ended with Lear deBessonet’s second annual weekend run at the Delacorte—The Winter’s Tale. I’d say her extravaganzas are the best Shakespeare in NYC. She doesn’t follow any of the modern approaches to staging the plays: no suits 'n' cellphones or pretty stage pictures. In fact, she seems to start from a different set of first principles about theater—who belongs onstage, what makes a performance good, and how to organize a company—and that makes her shows stand far apart from the mainstream.
Cookie and the gang crash the Delacorte
for The Winter's Tale
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The Winter’s Tale is a late romance with a lot of space for theatricality—it’s one of my favorites, and the one with the stage direction “Exit pursued by a Beare.” deBessonet uses the play as a narrative scaffold for dance interludes and musical numbers performed by a diverse set of NYC arts groups. With composer Todd Almond, choreographer Chase Brock, and the Public Works Project, she finds room in The Winter’s Tale for kids from the Children’s Aid Society and seniors from the Brownsville Recreation Center. A chamber ballet and children’s choir set the wintery mood at the top of the show; a Dixieland jazz band, stilt-walkers, and Chinese parade dragons fill out the pastoral festival in Act 4; NYC park rangers chase the infamous bear offstage; and in a show-stealing moment, local celebs Grover, Elmo, and Cookie Monster stop by to sing about their favorite playwright.

deBessonet casts only a few professional actors and opening the stage to amateur actors, whose delivery may be unpolished but whose pride at performing at the Delacorte is visible and infectious. So co-creator Almond may get the greater share of choral narration as the late Antigonus (recounting the tale that left him mauled by a bear), but he graciously cedes the Act 3 prologue by Time Personified to an 8-year-old girl wearing a clock-face. The kid, Jennifer Levine, nails her speech. The most talented performance, Christopher Fitzgerald as Autolycus, shares the stage with the least talented one, Senator Schumer (as himself), in a bit of Shakespearean comic repartee.

The upshot of this socially-radical, polyphonic adaption is a phenomenal Winter’s Tale that probably dissatisfies purists and gatekeepers of the arts. The NYT sniffed that it “falls firmly into what might be called the ‘Shakespeare for Beginners’ tradition” then qualified that trad as “perfectly respectable”. But its accessibility isn’t limited to the untutored—this is Shakespeare that everyone except a killjoy would love. At its core, deBessonet’s method of staging Shakespeare transforms the play from an aesthetic artifact into a civic celebration, like stone into flesh. To enjoy this show, to be in this show, you only need to be a citizen.

Jennifer Levine as Time in The Winter's Tale
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Oskar Eustis and his Public Theater know they’ve got a civic treasure, and they invited Mayor de Blasio to introduce the performance on Saturday Sep 6. de Blasio gave a roll call for the local arts organizations appearing in the show, then thanked the backers (Domestic Workers United received much applause; Bank of America got a boo or two). He quoted Lincoln rather than Shakespeare (“building a more perfect union”) and generally gave good oratory but mediocre rhetoric (“we’re breaking down barriers”). Eustis, introducing the Mayor, was more on-point: at his theater, “you don’t just get to watch it, you get to do it.” This is theater whose convictions are backed up by the work on a fundamental level. By hiring deBessonet to stage her civic parades, he backs up his words with her alternative way of producing theater, and an inclusive vision.

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.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Interview: Ismene Mendes as Hero

For some people, summer only begins when the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park starts its run. That's definitely the case for Ismenia Mendes, who makes her Delacorte debut on Tuesday as the innocent Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. This recent Juilliard grad has already worked Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, the Flea, and Clubbed Thumb. NYTR editor Aaron Grunfeld spoke with Ismenia about her views on Shakespeare, acting, and her rehearsal process.

Ismene Mendes (r) with Jack Cuttmore-Scott
rehearsing Much Ado About Nothing

Have you seen or performed in Much Ado before?

Much Ado was actually the first Shakespeare play I ever performed in—I played one of the watchmen when I was in high school! I recall having given the character a horrendous cold.

Could you tell us something about Hero? What’s the most difficult facet of the role? How do you handle your character’s reconciliation with her fiancé?

The trickiest thing about playing Hero is actually understanding her and loving her. 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. I'm finding that the trick is not to fight against what Shakespeare has written but to really inhabit it. I can't be concerned with an audience's (or my own) prejudices toward her.

As to how I handle the reconciliation with Claudio at the end—I don't know yet. I'm starting to think Hero doesn't know either.

What’s your background in Shakespearean acting? Do you believe training is necessary to play Shakespeare? Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform?

I was recently a student at Juilliard and was fortunate enough to receive a pretty spectacular education—but no, I don't think formal training is "necessary" to perform Shakespeare. That being said, however you acquire it, I do believe that knowledge of the text, verse, pentameter, etc is paramount—Shakespeare pretty much gives you a map, if you know how to read it.

Are there any particular roles in Shakespeare you’d love to do?

I would love to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Perdita in The Winter's Tale. Those are definitely at the top of my "in the next 5 years" list.

You’re working with Jack O’Brien, who has a long and successful record with Shakespeare. Did his approach to Much Ado introduce you to new methods of performing the work?

Yes! Jack is incredibly curious—he's not interested in preconceived notions, planned work or character choices made in the first week. I walked in the first day thinking I knew exactly who Hero was, but as of right now she is unrecognizable from who I first thought her to be. It can be really quite intimidating (and frustrating) to keep yourself in a state of 'not knowing'—but ultimately, it makes for a far more specific and truthful character.

Much Ado offers roles for a remarkable range of ages, with Hero being one of the youngest. What tips have you picked up from actors like Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, or from John Glover and Brian Stokes Mitchell, with their varying degrees of experience?

I'm pretty shy—and I find that I learn the most when I sit quietly and watch them at work. It's hard to put into words actually… It's pretty overwhelming, in a deep and humbling way. One thing that immediately struck me in the first week is how individual and unique they each are in their process. There really is no one, "best" way of getting to the heart of a character and play—each of them is so extremely different and brilliant in their own process.

Let’s talk a little about Shakespeare in the Park. What shows have you seen at the Delacorte over the years?

I've been coming to The Public’s Delacorte Theater since high school, but some of my recent favorites were The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. People line up all night for a reason—I've seen some incredibly inspiring work up on that stage. Working here for the first time is a dream come true.

Have you done any outdoor theater before? What are you looking forward to or apprehensive about?

I haven't, and I think I'm most terrified of dancing in a corset in 90 degree weather while mosquitoes attack me.

Along the same lines, the Delacorte is a huge house. How do you prepare for such a large audience? How do you expect the size to alter your approach to performance?

Well, there's the size—but there's also the thrust stage. It forces you to be a smarter, more aware actor…. Warming up helps too.

Ismene Mendes (l) with Jack Cuttmore-Scott
rehearsing Much Ado About Nothing
Off-Broadway, Ismenia Mendes has played Bernie in Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra at Playwrights Horizons and Peggy in A.R. Gurney's Family Furniture Miracle with Clubbed Thumb at the Flea. Since training at Juilliard, she has also played Katharine and Boy in Henry V at Two River Theater.
The Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing will run June 3 through July 6 with an opening on Monday, June 16.
This interview originally ran on New York Theatre Review
photos  Tammy Shell