Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: Sir Patient Fancy (The Queens Company)

Sir Patient Fancy
playwright  Aphra Behn
company  Queens Company
theater  The Wild Project

Tiffany Abercrombie, Virginia Baeta, Karen Berthel, Julia Campanelli, Amy Driesler, Sarah Hankins, Sarah Joyce, Natalie Lebert, Elisabeth Preston, & Antoinette Robinson

director  Rebecca Patterson
fight director  Judi Lewis Ockler
set/lights  Matthew J. Fick
costumes  Kristina Makowski
sound  Amy Altadona

Elisabeth Preston & Tiffany Abercrombie
in Sir Patient Fancy
Because each show by the Queens Company is better than the last one, it's no surprise that Sir Patient Fancy is remarkably fun. This all-female troupe revives English comedies from Shakespeare’s era and after, and they have a knack for comic drama. Last season they produced a playful, love-drunk take on As You Like It; this season sees the company reunite for a less familiar play.

Sir Patient Fancy is by Aphra Behn, England’s first professional female writer and an adventurer who dabbled in sex and espionage. Her plays and novels disclose a robust spirit, proving her to be a skilled dramatist of sturdy sexcapades that are still worth watching. Behn embraces decadence and dissembling, and her characters are motivated by desire—a surprise pleasure for audiences used to Shakespearean morality.

In Sir Patient Fancy, Behn links together a series of sex triangles: a trio of gallants compete with fops, fathers, and each other for the favors of pert, marriageable daughters and lusty wives. Although the scene is London, Behn depicts it as a generic urban playground with few concrete references to place or time. Queens’ designers follow those cues by emptying the stage of everything but a block for sitting and some damask for eavesdropping. The lighting plot is usually a bright wash of light, though it should do the work of making each scene’s setting and atmosphere more specific. The design’s lone baroque element is a company trademark: staging dumbshows to modern pop-rock anthems. Sir Patient’s curtain-raiser sets the tone by displaying the triangles of desire to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl”.

The minimalist design demands director Rebecca Patterson keep her actors moving and the comic tone bubbling. Behn’s dialogue lacks the subtext of Shakespeare, but the company turns her deficit to their advantage. They suggest quicksilver thinking by delivering flights of simile with wit and by expressing desire with ribald pleasure. The women-as-women look especially glad to play parts that match the male roles for substance and motivation. Sarah Joyce, as the witty ingĂ©nue (think Beatrice inMuch Ado), tempers her character’s sensuality with a saucy skepticism. Tiffany Abercrombie, as an old hypochondriac’s second wife, delivers the evening’s best performance, her range of comedic expressions and vocal registers recalling Madeline Kahn. The women-as-men enjoy themselves too, of course, with the hypochondriac (Natalie Lebert) and the fop (Virginia Baeta) providing the most hilarious moments.

Actually, there’s not a bad performance among the company. Ascribe that fact mostly to the tightness of the troupe. Actors return to the Queens Company for show after show, forming a true company with the chemistry and esprit de corps that entails. They establish a continuity of style and an approach to playing that acts as a signature. All-male shows often get described as ‘testosterone-heavy’, shorthand for roughhousing and crotch-grabbing. The Queens Company does its share of suggestive leg-spreading in turn, but otherwise its common gender doesn't produce an analogous "estrogen-driven" approach. Add the race-blind casting, and its productions seem emancipated. The company knows that love and lust don't come from manhood or femininity, they come from human nature. This liberated spirit and humanist passion puffs Sir Patient Fancy into a giddy pleasure.
Natalie Lebert & Virginia Baeta
in Sir Patient Fancy
The Queens Company's Sir Patient Fancy runs March 15 thru April 5 at the Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street
This piece originally ran on the NY Theater Review

photos  Bob Pileggi

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.