Friday, June 14, 2019

Cleopatra's Monument

Last night, I saw Hudson Warehouse's production of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra outside at the Solders' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park.

In the past, productions by Hudson Warehouse have been a mixed bag, but this one is definitely worth seeing. Benjamin Farmer is a strong Antony, trapped in his dual allegiances to Rome and Egypt, and Emily Sarah Cohn provides a mercurial Cleopatra, always surprising us with the "infinite variety" of her character.

Director George K. Wells rearranges the script a bit, so we begin with a voiceover of Antony's famous funeral oration from Julius Caesar, and the memorable description of Cleopatra's barge is moved from Act II to almost the end of the play. There's some gender switching as well. Octavius Caesar is played by Linda Elizabeth as a cool and calculating political woman, while Cleopatra's maid Charmian is played by James Foster Jr. as the queen's go-to man for tasks that require trust and competence.

The site-specific performance makes reference to the Monument behind the audience when the play's plot turns to Cleopatra taking refuge in her own monument. Unfortunately, the actors can't use the actual Monument, which has been fenced off and under restoration for quite some time. Instead, the audience sits on steps on the north side of the Monument (using seating pads supplied by the company) and watches the action with the treetops of Riverside Park as a backdrop.

Outdoors theatre in the parks is always contingent on the weather, but it can pay to be optimistic. Yesterday, the threat of rain kept many people away, but the clouds never opened and instead provided a nice cover from the glare of the sun. It even got chilly for a June day, and I had to break out the scarf I brought.

Performances begin at 6:30 pm, so there's enough day to light the entire performance, though the park lamps did flicker on toward the end of the performance. The show's only running until the end of the month, so see it now!

Monday, June 10, 2019

Nicolas Levasseur

I frequently write about nineteenth-century British actors on this blog, but today I'm going to write about a bygone performer from France, instead.

His name was Nicolas Levasseur, and for a while now, I've kept a postcard of him on my bookshelf. You can see him below in the role of Bertram in Giacomo Meyerbeer's 1831 opera Robert le Diable.


The postcard comes from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and was given to me on the basis of a bit of a misunderstanding, since I am quite interested in the play Bertram by Charles Robert Maturin. Whoops! Wrong Bertram.

No matter. He's still a striking figure. But if I'm going to display his postcard on by bookshelf, I probably should know a bit about him. I mean, other than his living from 1791 to 1871 and making his debut at the Paris Opera in 1813 and that sort of a thing, since anyone can find that out from Wikipedia. Like I did.

No. What's really interesting to me is his performance in Robert le Diable. The Meyerbeer opera had a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne. It told the story of Robert, Duke of Normandy, a notorious party boy who drank, gambled, and womanized to his heat's delight. In the first act, however, his foster sister Alice warns him against a mysterious companion. That companion was Bertram, originally played by Levasseur.

And who is Bertram? Well the title of the opera should give you a clue. He's Robert's long-lost father who is in league with demonic forces. His plan is to get Robert to sign away his soul to the devil so he can be with his son forever. (See? Family values!) Alice overhears the plot, though, and ends up saving the day.

Levasseur played plenty of other roles, too. The V&A has images of him in the role of Marcel in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots and Bazu in Fromental Halévy's Le Drapier. Neither role is quite as diabolical as Bertram, though.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Importance of Being in the Park

This year, The Public Theater is producing three big-budget plays at the Delacorte in Central Park: Much Ado About Nothing, Coriolanus, and a stage adaptation of the Disney movie Hercules, the last of the three done as part of the theater's Public Works program. However, there are plenty of other great shows to see in the parks this summer, including New York Classical Theatre's delightful new production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Last night, I saw the classic Oscar Wilde comedy at the north end of in Central Park. Ushers greet you at the entrance at 103rd Street and Central Park West. Bring a blanket or a low folding chair, but make sure it's easy to carry, as you'll be moving from place to place. Each act is performed at a different location around the pond.

And be prepared for a potential surprise. I saw the show with the manly Ademide Akintilo playing Algernon while the charmingly feminine Connie Castanzo played Cecily. However, every other performance, they switch roles, so he plays Cecily, and she plays Algernon. All the other cast members switch roles as well, so every other performance is gender-swapped, which must be rather interesting, to say the least.

The Importance to Being Earnest is only playing until June 16th in Central Park. From June 18th to 23rd, the production will move to Brooklyn Bridge Park at Pier 1. Then, from June 25th through 30th, they'll be at Carl Schurz Park at East 86th Street in Manhattan. You can get more information and sign up for rain cancellation notices here.

Wherever you see it, and whether with a traditional cast or with the roles reversed, do make sure you get to the show. The cast, which includes Jed Peterson and Kristen Calgaro as Jack and Gwendolen, and Tina Stafford and Clay Storseth as Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, is excellent. I saw Kate Goehring as a wonderful Lady Bracknell and John Michalski as a deadpan Merriman, but they might be just as good when they switch roles!

William Shakespeare is a perennial favorite for outdoor productions, and tomorrow night Hudson Warehouse is opening a new production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park at 89th Street. As is the case with New York Classical Theatre, they pass a basket, and it's pay-what-you-can. Starting July 4th in the same location, Hudson Warehouse will be putting on a stage adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel The Man in the Iron Mask, and in August they'll be back to Shakespeare with The Merry Wives of Windsor.

If Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor aren't your cup of tea, and you're looking for more familiar Shakespeare territory, Black Henna Productions is doing Hamlet, Viking Prince of Denmark in parks throughout Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn this month. Also, Smith Street Stage will be doing Romeo and Juliet in Carroll Park, and starting in July Hip to Hip Theatre Company will be doing traveling productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Richard III.

For those who are tired of work by that upstart crow Shakespeare, The Classical Theatre of Harlem is doing a real classic, The Bacchae by Euripides this July in Marcus Garvey Park. Last summer, they did a great job with Sophocles's Antigone, so it should be worth seeing, and once again, donations are appreciated, but there is no admission charged. For those who complain that theatre is too expensive in New York, this summer offers an appropriate response.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Balaam's Ass

It has become fashionable to discount the connections between liturgical dramas of the middle ages and the outdoor mystery plays that developed somewhat later. However, the mystery plays showing Balaam, Balaack, and the prophets retain clear echos of plays performed inside churches during earlier eras.

A 13th-century Latin liturgical drama, Ordo Prophetarum, shows a procession of prophets, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Moses, David, and Habakkuk, all foretelling the coming of Christ. They are followed by the Gospel figures Elizabeth and John the Baptist, as well as pagan authorities thought to have foretold the life of Jesus, including Virgil, Nebuchadnezzar, and the Sibyl of Cumae. After Simeon (another figure from the New Testament) speaks, the play moves to the story of Balaam.

You'll find the story of Balaam and his ass in chapter 22 of The Book of Numbers. He was a pagan prophet who King Balaack hired to curse the Israelites, but God sent an angel to stop him before he could curse the chosen people. Though Balaam couldn't see the angel, his donkey could and refused to go any further. Ordo Prophetarum tells the story this way:

Here let an angel come with a sword. Balaam beats his ass, and when it fails to go forward, he says in anger:

          Why do you stand still, ass?
          Obstinate beast!
          Now the spurs shall tear
          Your ribs and entrails.

A boy underneath the ass answers:

          An angel with a sword
          Whom I see standing in the way
          Keeps me from going on;
          I fear lest I be killed.

Variations of this play appear in manuscripts from Rouen and Limoges, so it appears to have been somewhat popular throughout Europe. A 15th-century mystery play from the Chester Cycle is quite similar. In it, Balaam calls out:

          Goe forth, Burnell! Goe forth, goe!
          What the dyvell! my asse will not goe!
          Served me she never soe.
               What sorrow so her dose nye?

After he beats her, the ass speaks, saying:

          Maister, thou dost evell, witterly,
          So good an ass as me to nye!
          Now hast thou beaten me thry,
               That beare the thus aboute.

In the Chester play, the procession of prophets occurs after the ass scene. Again, it starts with Isaiah, followed this time by Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jonah, David, Joel, and Micah. It certainly has differences from the older liturgical dramas, but there seems to be a connection, nonetheless.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Meow Wolf

Today I visited Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you are not familiar with it, Meow Wolf provides both a massive art installation and a colossal piece of immersive theatre.

Known as The House of Eternal Return, the installation was launched with support from George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, so there is definitely a storytelling aspect to it. However, some visitors prefer to simply walk around and take in the aesthetics.

As you enter, you see a two-story house, but an anomaly in space and time his fractured it. A refrigerator opens into another world, you can crawl right through the fireplace like it's a Magritte painting, and if you slide down a shoot in the back of a dryer, you might find out where all those lost socks ended up.

Unlike other works of immersive theatre, such as Sleep No More, there are no performers. There are, however, staff members in white lab coats to ensure people's safety, and they can aid you if you need to get out of the installation and back to normalcy. I overheard one person asking about the audience, and the man in the lab coat clarified that there was no audience here, only participants.

Each participant ultimately makes his or her own experience, but there is a story behind the house, if you want to look for it. My sister told me to look in the mailbox, but when I did, there was nothing in it. When I went to the living room, however, I found a brown envelope with some documents inside. "Do those help?" a woman asked.

I said I didn't know if they helped, but they were interesting, as they did seem to shed some light on the anomaly that had disrupted a seemingly normal house.

Meow Wolf provides worlds to explore, but it also provides a story. You might encounter that story's beginning, middle, and end, though not necessarily in that order. In addition to the documents in the envelope, there are notes left throughout the house, journals you can flip through, even appointment books you can examine. There are also video screens with headphones that supply an interesting narration of at least one version of the events leading to the fracturing of the house.

Children are welcome, and although there are dark aspects to the story, the kids won't necessarily pick up on them. Older people and folks with limited mobility might find it more difficult to navigate the rooms, though. Some spaces are small, but when you squeeze through, there's usually something fascinating waiting for you on the other side.

If you start getting sensory overload, you can always take a break in the café outside the installation, and if you want to go back in later, you can. That means even if you're not sure Meow Wolf is going to be your thing, there is little risk in giving it a try.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Battle of the Juliets


In 1750, the patent theatres at Drury Lane and Covent Garden went head-to-head, producing rival productions of Romeo and Juliet in what came to be known as the Battle of the Romeos. According to Chelsea Phillips' article in the latest issue of Theatre Survey, however, perhaps the incident should be known as the Battle of the Juliets instead.

David Garrick had adapted Shakespeare's play for performances at Drury Lane with Spranger Barry playing Romeo and Susannah Cibber as Juliet. Cibber left the company in 1749, however, giving birth to her last child. When she returned to the stage the next year, it was not to Drury Lane, but to the rival company at Covent Garden, and joining her was none other than Barry.

What made Cibber switch houses? We can't be sure, but Phillips points out that in the spring of 1749 Cibber became ill, possibly as a result of her pregnancy or possibly due to a persistent stomach problem that plagued her until her death in 1766. The playwright Aaron Hill wanted Cibber to play the lead in his new play Merope, and she was a natural choice, since Cibber had launched her career as a tragic actress with Hill's previous play Zara in 1736. Cibber said she wanted the role, but didn't want to perform it until the following season. Garrick, however, scoffed at the idea of a delay, and Hannah Pritchard went on in the title role instead.

Cibber's move to Covent Garden led Garrick to poach another tragic actress from that theatre to join his own company at Drury Lane. George Ann Bellamy had been the leading tragic actress at Covent Garden. In 1749, Bellamy gained notoriety when she left in the middle of a performance to run off to Yorkshire with her lover, George Montgomery Metham. The reason for the flight north might have been Bellamy's own pregnancy, for after her child was born, she returned to Covent Garden, where she played many of the same roles Cibber was known for, including the heroines in Thomas Otway's tragedies Venice Preserved and The Orphan.

With Cibber now at Covent Garden, Bellamy was looking at the prospect of losing some of her choicest roles. She had also recently expanded her repertoire, taking on the role of Juliet at Covent Garden opposite Henry Lee. She had previously played the role in Dublin, but this was the first time the Covent Garden company had mounted Romeo and Juliet, and Bellamy had shined in the play. Now she was facing losing that role to Cibber, too. By July of 1750, both Cibber and Barry were contracted to appear at Covent Garden and Garrick had managed to snag Bellamy for Drury Lane. The two leading ladies had effectively swapped companies, and Cibber had taken her Romeo with her.

Garrick himself took on the role of Romeo opposite Bellamy's Juliet. Though he was considered too short to play such a romantic leading role, he was determined to go head-to-head against the new Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden, which Garrick saw as for all intents and purposes his play. It was his adaptation of Shakespeare's text that they used, and he had personally coached both Cibber and Barry in their roles. Garrick made further revisions to the play, including adding an elaborate funeral procession for Juliet that became a staple well into the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most important addition to Drury Lane's new Romeo and Juliet, though, was Bellamy, who like Juliet had herself precipitously forsaken everything for her lover, as audiences well knew.

After twelve nights of both patent theatres producing rival productions of the same play, Cibber announced she was ill and would not be able to continue as Juliet. Most audiences had already concluded that Drury Lane had the better production, anyway. History has recorded the event as a victory for Garrick, but Phillips hints that the credit might belong more to Bellamy.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Mary Anning Turns 220

If Mary Anning--the tartan-clad paleontologist who scoured the cliffs of Lyme-Regis for fossils in the nineteenth century--were alive today, she would be turning 220 years old.

Of course, all that lives must die, a fact she was all-too-familiar with given her line of work. My play, Bones of the Sea, uses Anning's life to explore how human beings grapple not only with their own mortality, but with the transience of all life in a world where far more species are extinct than have survived.

As I wrote earlier this monthBones of the Sea had a staged reading at Pasadena Playhouse as one of three winners of the Mach 33 Festival of science-driven plays. Satya Bhabha directed the reading, which featured Josette Eales, Richard Short, Todd Brun, and Georgia Dolenz. The other plays in the festival were Sizzle, Sizzle, Fly by Susan Bernfield and The Surest Poison by Kristin Idaszak.

Mach 33 is a joint project between Caltech and Pasadena Playhouse, and the three writers were put up at a lovely hotel on the Caltech campus. I was also able to get over to the Huntington Library while I was there and take a look at some of the early-nineteenth-century plays in their collection.

Now I'm back, and I've been able to incorporate a number of the comments I received from the reading into a new draft of the play. So if you're interested in a new drama about one of the unsung heroes of modern science, contact me!