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.