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